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"...perceives that all five
skandhas are empty..."
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...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 power 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.

As the magnification increases, the flesh does begin to dissolve. Muscle fiber now takes on a fully crystaline aspect. We can see that it is made of long, spiral molecules in orderly array. And all of these molecules are swaying like wheat in the wind, connected with one another and held
in place by invisible waves that pulse many trillions of times a second.

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.

Somewhere within that emptiness, we know is a nucleus. We scan the space, and there it is, a tiny dot. At last, we have discovered something
hard and solid, a reference point. But no! as we move closer to the nucleus, it too begins to dissolve. It too is nothing more than an oscillating field, waves of rhythm. Inside the nucleus are other organized fields: protons, neutrons, even smaller "particles." Each of these, upon our approach, also dissolve into pure rhythm.

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
give up all pretense of solidity. Even their speed and relationship would be unclear, leaving them only relationship and pattern of vibration.

Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, at the heart of the world, there is no solidity. Once again, there is only the dance. (At) the unimaginable heart of the atom, the compact nucleus, we have found no solid object, but rather a dynamic pattern of tightly confined energy
vibrating perhaps 1022 times a second: a dance... The protons--the positively charged knots in the pattern of the nucleus—are not only powerful; they are very old. Along with the much lighter electrons that spin and vibrate around the outer regions of the atom, the protons constitute the most ancient entities of matter in the universe, going back to the first seconds after the birth of space and time. quote