Formless, Emptiness, Mystery

Professor Andrew Wilson

Unification Theological Seminary
from Readings from World Scriptures
(c), all rights reserved

This section treats Ultimate Reality as a mystery, not a thing that can be defined by form or a concept of being. In the monotheistic religions, God is beyond any human concept, hidden, and inscrutable: 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.' The prohibition of images is a statement about the utter transcendence of God, for to make an idol to represent God is to reduce the infinite to finitude. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism affirm the ineffability of Ultimate Reality in their assertions that no words or intellection can properly convey its nature. It is beyond all duality, e.g., all attempts to think of it as a "thing" separate from other things. Its nature is emptiness.

Emptiness in the eastern religions should never be misunderstood as a cognitive statement about Reality--such a statement or its
referent is a "thing" and cannot itself be empty. Rather, as the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze writes,

"Emptiness is not a theory, but a ladder that reaches out into the infinite. A ladder is not there to be discussed, but to be climbed.... It is a practical concept, and it embodies an aspiration, not a view. Its only use is to help us to get rid of this world and of the ignorance which binds us to it. It has not only one meaning, but several, which can unfold themselves on the successive stages of the actual process of transcending the world through wisdom. Not everyone, of course, is meant to understand what emptiness means. In that case it is better to pass on to something else."
Edward Conze, Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom (Boulder: Prajna Press, 1978) 24.
The formless in native African religion
The formless in the monotheistic religions
The formless in the Indian religions and philosophies
The formless in Taoism

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Unmanifest Absolute Reality

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page uploaded 20 December 1999