Philippians 2 and the Heart Sūtra

Form and Emptiness as Keys to Contemplative Practice

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One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is the hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Saint Paul begins by encouraging us to allow the same mind to be in us that is in Christ. I think the language is important here. “Let the same mind…” —it’s an attitude of allowing, of receiving. We do not choose the mind of Christ, we receive it. It is pure grace, it is given to us. Our posture of prayer must be one of receptivity.

What is “the mind of Christ”? I believe it is the gift of metanoia — the Greek word often translated as “repentance” in English, which is unfortunate since repentance has come to mean something like remorse or contrition in popular English usage. If you say “Christianity calls us to repentance” most people will think you mean “Christianity wants you to feel guilty for your sins.” Religion as guilt-trip.

But that’s not what true repentance — metanoia — means at all.

Metanoia literally means “beyond the mind.” Christianity calls us beyond the limitations of a strictly human consciousness, which is the consciousness that creates suffering and sin. So, yes, Christianity calls us out of sin. But that call is not a guilt-trip.

Christianity calls us to a new mind — beyond (“meta“) the normal limitations of human consciousness and rationality. This is why when atheists and agnostics tell me they think Christianity is irrational, I always say, “actually, it is trans-rational.”

 So the mind of Christ — the “noia” of metanoia — is shaped by love rather than fear, by mercy rather than condemnation, by compassion rather than indifference, generosity rather than parsimony.

It is a nondualistic mind, as hinted by Christ’s command to “do not judge” (Matthew 7:1). He is not saying we should abandon all discernment, for that would be foolish.

Rather, he is inviting us to a place where we see through the eyes of God, eyes that are in the business of loving everyone (Matthew 5:45). The nonduality of the mind of Christ is a mind untainted by prejudice or bigotry or us-vs.-them thinking.

Carrying on with Philippians 2, Saint Paul gives us insight into the mind of Christ by describing Christ’s own journey from form into emptiness: “though he was in the form of God,” he “emptied himself” — divesting himself of his divinity and “falling” (to use Julian of Norwich’s lovely image) into Mary’s womb, taking on human form. So we have a transition from the form of God, to emptiness to human form.

As I reflect on this, I am reminded of one of the Heart Sūtra, one of the greatest of Mahayana Buddhist sacred texts. Here is a snippet from the translation found in a book whimsically titled The Heart Attack Sūtra:

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.

 I make no claim to be able to interpret this or any other sūtra. But to my layman’s mind, “emptiness” and “form” refer to the basic impermanence of all things. Everything we see, we touch, we experience, even everything we know: it’s all impermanent, it will all change, and because of this the heart of all things — all “form” — is emptiness.

You might be thinking: isn’t God permanent? Sure — but God is not the same thing as our image of God, our thoughts about God, our concept of God. All of those are impermanent. So even the form of God (as we know it) is essentially empty.

This is not a negation of truth. Rather it is a recognition that the kenosis (emptiness) of Philippians 2 was not a one-off event. It is the way things eternally are.

It is the nature of Christ to empty himself of the form of God. Form is emptiness.

Out of that emptiness he takes human form. Emptiness is form.

And in doing so, he becomes obedient to death. Form is emptiness.

Through his death, he is exalted above all things. Emptiness is form.

This is the mind of Christ: the mind that eternally rejects the exploitation of form, and therefore is empty. And yet it is the same mind that not only lets go of form, it lets go of emptiness, and therefore is form-in-emptiness and emptiness-in-form.

I realize this is all rather heady, and some readers may be wondering, “Well, what does this have to do with me?” Here’s a thought: we are created in the image and likeness of God, and to the extent that we let the mind of Christ be in us, we remain non-attached to our very self. In doing this, our life is not about having or accumulating, but is about loving and relating. We become non-attached to all things — and that non-attachment enables us to relate to others through love, rather than through competition or grasping or hostility or defensiveness. Because I am empty, I have nothing to defend. Because I am undefended, I am available to receive, give, and literally be love. Because my life is a participation in love, I am in union with God.

Let the mind of Christ be in you. Let go of your small human mind, that grasps onto forms and things and then angrily or fearfully tries to defend what it is holding. Let go. Receive the mind of the One who embraces emptiness in form and form in emptiness. Be one with that One, for that means to be one with love. Let the mind of Love be in you. Be Love.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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12 thoughts on “Philippians 2 and the Heart Sūtra

  1. “to the extent that we let the mind of Christ be in us, we remain non-attached to our very self.”

    Carl, you sound so Buddhist here!

    Alan Wallace, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar as well as possessed of a doctorate in world religions, has written very similarly of the idea that it is our **ideas** of God that are not permanent (though of course, in place of God he wrote “Rigpa” or “pristine awareness” – in his book “Mind in the Balance, he notes the striking similarity between Buddhist notions of Rigpa and the writings of some of the greatest Christian mystics).

    Wallace is of course aware that many Buddhists might disagree with him, but I think he makes a good case for the profound commonality of the Buddhist and Christian understandings of “Ultimate Reality” – which is of course, empty of all conceptualization!

    But just to add one more thing – your expressed concern for your readers who might think this is all a bit too “heady.” Not being raised in any kind of Christian religious environment and struggling over the years to relate to Christian writings, I always find I have to make an effort (a rather “heady” effort) to understand how the Bible and other Christian writings relate to “experience” (not in the vulgar sense but in the sense that David Bentley Hart refers to as “The Experience of God”); whereas reading the Upanishads, the Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Surangama or Heart Sutras, the connection with contemplative experience is for me, so immediate it’s just effortless.

    So I was particularly impressed – and moved – by your reflections on the passage above. I’ve always loved – and very easily related to – the phrase “to put on the mind of Christ”, but the following lines always felt like a return to “religious” (i.e. exoteric; non-contemplative) imagery and concepts.

    The way that you connected the rest of the passage with the Heart Sutra gave me, for the first time, a strong sense of the deeply mystical aspect of it that I had never seen before – “This is the mind of Christ: the mind that eternally rejects the exploitation of form, and therefore is empty”

    As easy to relate to “experience” as the Upanishads or the Gita. The Bible as yogic text. Who would have thought?!

    Thank you.

  2. Hello Carl,
    Jesus was “distressed” as he came closer to His confrontation with the reality of death. As our sacrifice He conquered death and freed us from the fear of it forever. For this reason ” every knee shall bow…. “. That God will become our sacrifice, that when we lose our life in Christ we shall gain it, that the last shall be first, these are paradoxes that are resolved only when we have a relationship with Christ. The key to all the Bible paradoxes is the master paradox….” when we share in His death, we share in His resurrection”. God will finally destroy death and evil. He will destroy Satan. In these matters of life/death, good/evil, God/Satan, these are not subject to non dual contemplation. Kok Tho

    • I’m not sure what you mean by “these are not subject to non dual contemplation.” Without “non dual contemplation” the “master paradox” as you describe it simply makes no sense. Neither does any of the other paradoxes in Christian spirituality (in my book on mysticism I list 26 Christian paradoxes, and I’m sure there are more than that!). This is why so many so-called agnostics and atheists have difficulty with Christianity: they approach it dualistically, and it just makes no sense to them. They have not been initiated into trans-rational ways of seeing, and so they reject Christianity because it strikes them as just another hollow myth.

      I know many Christians may be uncomfortable with the idea that Christianity is a nondual wisdom tradition, because that language is associated with eastern philosophy and that might make some Christians uncomfortable. But this isn’t a matter of east versus west, it’s just a simple way of describing things as they are. The Sermon on the Mount is a profound nondual teaching. If you don’t like the language, don’t use it — but if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck; and the Sermon on the Mount certainly walks and quacks like nonduality.

  3. Dear Carl,

    Thank you for helping me to begin to clarify the transformation in understanding I’ve been groping toward for a few years, now. I’ve sensed that God has to be more to us, even in our current state, than a list of rules, that love in the Christian sense has to be more than good deeds, and especially that the schism between people is more often about fear of the “other” than anything else. I want to learn to love people God’s way and in the process to set aside harsh judging and become attractive in my faith rather than repulsive to those who don’t believe. How else will people who don’t know Him be drawn to Him? I have many friends and a new husband who can’t respond to Christianity as they have experienced it until now, and I don’t blame them a bit. I want to become a bridge for them to cross into new understanding, though I’ve got a long way to go. I will keep reading. Thank you so much.

  4. To begin with, there was no evil in Eden until….the Serpent tempted Eve. The Bible ends with God finally destroying evil, death and Satan in the earth made new. The perfect state existed in the beginning and at the end. In the future redeemed perfect state, after God’s destruction of evil, death and Satan, you must agree that what is left is only good, life eternal and God Himself (without Satan ). The perfect state is not non dual. It could not exist at the beginning and God will not let it exist at the end.

    Carl, is that not how the Bible “quacks” ? It does not quack non dual, surely not.

  5. Buddha was “liberated” from karma and the need for further “reincarnation” in his non dual awakening. Karma results from the polar opposites of good and evil which ceases in non dual. Consequently, karma ceases….hence, Buddha’s liberation. The same with reincarnation which is a result of life and death. When in non dual awakening, these polar opposites of ceases, reincarnation ceases. This is the mind of Buddha.
    The mind of Christ was “distressed” with the reality of death. Christ took on mortal flesh and confronted death’s reality as our Sacrifice. In His resurrection He destroyed death that in the reality of His resurrected life there is NO DEATH.
    The Bible identifies the original source of non dual as the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”. God said not to eat of it. There is no way that the Bible or Christ is non dual.

    • Once again, I think you and I have different understandings of nonduality. You seem to see it as a dogma embedded in a Buddhist concept of cosmology. I am not talking about nonduality in relation to karma or reincarnation, neither of which are part of how Christians understand the cosmos. I am saying that Christianity, as it is understood and taught in the west, has been filtered through a dualistic lens that comes from European philosophy. Christ was not a Greek or a Roman, he was a Jew with a way of seeing and teaching that gets “lost in translation” especially when filtered through a Platonic or Aristotelian or Manichean world-view. All of my arguments for Christianity as nondual wisdom come from scripture itself — not from Greek philosophy, nor from the Dharma. Kok Tho, I’m not sure where you are from but your name does not sound European; you seem to be very invested in differentiating Christianity from Buddhism, and I have a similar investment in differentiating Christianity from Greek philosophy. Perhaps because we come from different parts of the world, we’re having difficulty communicating here.

  6. Non-duality seems to be a topic that recurs with regularity on Christian blogs, tweets, and books. Rohr has made this a real focus of his ministry as have other contemplative Christian authors of late. I have a foot in two traditions; Zen and Christian. Zen teachers almost never (I’ll leave a possibility although in 10+ years of hearing Dharma talks, I’ve cannot recall hearing the words) speak of non-duality. Do you think this could be a case of the more you aim for it (and talk about it) the further you get from it. That being said, I enjoyed the reflection; I chant the heart sutra daily and you provided a unique perspective on the words and their congruence in Paul’s letter.

    • I certainly can’t comment on why Zen teachers may not speak about nonduality; perhaps it is simply because the language of nonduality comes primarily from Advaita Vedanta. I’m not sure that talking about it necessarily marks a retreat from it; I can only speak for myself, but I talk about it because I believe Christianity has become too enmeshed in dualistic thinking that has its roots in European philosophy (thank you, Aristotle) which is not helpful for truly receiving the wisdom of Christ.