...perceives that all five skandhas are empty...
It is in this state of intuitive awareness that the bodhisattva perceives the five skandhas to be empty. Before we look at the term skandhas, it might be useful to deal first with the term "empty" since it is the central teaching, not only of the Heart Sutra but also of the entire Mahayana literature. A translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata into western languages has always been problematic. When translated as "void" or "emptiness," it has a nihilistic undertone, which is how the orientialists of the nineteenth century saw Buddhism and portrayed it accordingly. Fortunately our understanding of the term (and of Buddhism) has grown in recent decades and has outlasted the earlier malformed interpretations. Our current understanding of Buddhist meditative experiences has been greatly faciliated by the findings of quantum physics into the nature of ultimate reality; these findings have added a new dimension to our efforts to understand the meaning of the term sunyata and what it stands for.
For a very long time, the Newtonian/Cartesian scientific view of the world rested on the notion of solid, indestructible particles as the building blocks of matter and all life, moving in space and influencing each other by forces of gravitation and interacting according to fixed and unchangeable laws. This myth disintegrated under the impact of experimental and theoretical evidence produced by quantum physicists in the early decades of this century. The experiments of quantum physics showed that the atoms, the presumed fundamental building blocks of the universe, were, at their core, essentially empty. In experiments, subatomic particles showed the same paradoxical nature as light, manifesting either as particles or waves depending on how the experiment was set up. Quantum physicists, confronting the mysteries of the universe, were left facing Zen-like koans of their own: the sound of a quark, the shape of a resonance, the nature of strangeness!
Quantum physics has thus brought about a radical new understanding both of the particles and the void. In subatomic physics, mass is no longer seen as a material substance but is recognized as a form of energy. When a piece of seemingly solid matter--a rock or a human hand or the limb of a tree--is placed under a powerful electronic microscope:
the electron-scanning microscope, with the
to magnify severalt housand times, takes us down
into a realm that has the look of the sea about
it... In the kingdom of corpuscles, there is
transfiguration and there is samsara, the endless
round of birth and death. Every passing second,
some 2-1/2 million red cells are born; every
second, the same number die. The typical cell
lives about 110 days, then becomes tired and
decrepit. There are no lingering deaths here, for
when a cell loses its vital force, it somehow
attracts the attention of macrophage.
What are the molecules made of? As we move
closer, we see atoms, the tiny shadowy balls dancing
around their fixed locations in the molecules, sometimes
changing position with their partners in perfect rhythms.
And now we focus on one of the atoms; its interior is lightly
veiled by a cloud of electrons. We come closer, increasing
the magnification. The shell dissolves and we look on
the inside to find...nothing.
These days they (the scientists) are looking for
quarks, strange subatomic entities, having
qualities which they describe with such words as
upness, downness, charm, strangeness, truth,
beauty, color, and flavor. But no matter. If we
could get close enough to these wondrous quarks,
they too would melt away. They too would have to