How does space relate to understanding emptiness and the experience of those in the formless realm?

Oct 2, 2023



Dear Venerable Robina,


I hope you are doing well!


I have a question.


I have been thinking a lot about space lately, especially in relation to this verse from the Abhidharma:


“Uncontaminated phenomena are the truth of the path and the three unconditioned phenomena: space and the two cessations. Space does not obstruct.” (I:5)


Just like emptiness is the mere absence of a self, space is a mere absence of obstructive contact.


I would like to know more from you, maybe from your direct experience and your practice throughout the years rather than books and treatises, how you perceive space and how you can relate it to the direct realization of emptiness and to the formless realm.


Can you please explain how the mind of beings in the formless realm relate to space? Are they all-encompassing space? And if an advanced meditator directly realizes emptiness in the formless realms, if they uproot knowledge obscurations, how does their mind relate to space?


Thank you!






C, I don’t think that understanding space has anything to do with understanding emptiness.


It’s simply an example of the absence of something — which is an example of an unconditioned phenomenon — to enable us to get our head around the absence of inherent existence.


I have no idea what the quote means: “Uncontaminated phenomena are the truth of the path and the three unconditioned phenomena: space and the two cessations. Space does not obstruct.” (I:5)





Thank you, Venerable.


So you’re saying that space is merely an analogy for emptiness since it’s also an absence/unconditioned, right?


But you still haven’t told me what the connection is between space and the formless realm, or the highest concentrations.



C, I can’t think of any connection between space and the formless realm.


No one is trying to get a realization of space; it’s just an analogy. It’s not a big deal!





But the highest concentration, the peak of existence, is of the formless realm. In the formless realm there is no form, so there must be space, right? Also, space is extremely subtle, just a level below consciousness. It’s the subtlest element. Space is also all-encompassing, it is everywhere. It’s uncompounded and unconditioned. So there must be something more that you can tell me in relation to it. I mean, for instance, how do these minds in the formless concentration relate to space?



C: The space we see, the element, the space that is all-encompassing, is not the space defined as absence of obstructive contact.


As for what beings in the formless realm perceive, I have no idea.



I don’t understand.


Beginning with the lorig, space is defined as the absence of obstructive contact.


But it doesn’t specify that there are different types of space. Can you explain what you mean by saying “the space that is all-encompassing, is not the space defined as absence of obstructive contact”?


Which is the space that is defined as such then? Are there more types of space?



Dear C:


The space that is defined as the absence of obstructive contact, being an uncompounded, permanent phenomenon — which is why it’s used as an analogy for emptiness — is not an object of the senses, therefore is not the same as the space we see in between two objects, for example, or the space of the sky, or the fifth element. The latter space is impermanent, has causes, changes from moment to moment.


The uncompounded space, like emptiness, is, as Alex Berzin calls it, an abstract phenomenon, has no causes and doesn’t change from moment to moment.






Very interesting, thank you for this explanation. I was not aware of the difference. Can you please also explain why you say that understanding uncompounded space is irrelevant for emptiness or the different realms/levels of concentration? Is it basically just a metaphor for better understanding emptiness?



C, dear one.


1. As I mentioned, the use of the uncompounded space, that which is the absence of obstructive contact, is simply to help us get our heads around the absence of intrinsic nature. There’s nothing more to know about it. It’s just a boring example!


There are so many examples of absences that we can use. The key thing is to understand how there can be a phenomenon that is the absence of something, that’s all.


2. As you know, one way of meditating on space is called “space-like” emptiness, when we dissolve into emptiness and see ourselves as the dharmakaya: it’s a way to familiarize ourselves with the absence of conventional appearances.


This “space” is impermanent, not the same at all as the absence of obstructive contact.


3. As for the formless realm, their mind is very spacious, that’s all. Nothing fancy about it!


And this “space” is impermanent as well.





Okay. If I understand you correctly: space as an object of the senses (even mental sense consciousness for beings in the formless realm) is impermanent, and not the space defined as lack of obstructive contact, which is analogously used for emptiness. 


Anyway, this particular instance of it is just a metaphor and is completely unrelated to emptiness, and to its realization. Is this right?


I will ask one more question though: why is there no point in realizing this instance of space? Why is it useless?





I use examples like the absence of keys in a drawer or the absence of money in the bank.


The thing to be realized, understood, cognized from these examples has nothing to do with the object; it’s to help us understand how the absence of something is a phenomenon, an existent, an object of knowledge. Then we can grasp the idea of the absence of inherent existence.


Actually they talk about the absence of obstructive contact being an example of a negation — that’s effectively saying an absence, isn’t it? And, of course, even more precise: a non-affirming negation.


And with my examples the point I try to get across is also that these phenomena are only cognized by a person who assumes/expects that the keys exist in the drawer or the money exists in the bank. And that’s very much the case when it comes to the absence of an inherent I. The yogi finally realizes that the I they have thought since beginningless time has definitely existed has never, does not, and could never exist.


And I try to get across the understanding that cognizing the absence of something like the keys and the money is not the same as cognizing nothing in the drawer and nothing in the bank. The drawer and the bank account might well be empty — literally having nothing in them — but what appears to your mind when you expect the keys, when you expect the money, is not simply nothing; what appears is a very vivid thing called the absence of your precious keys that you totally believed were there, the absence of the precious money you believed was there.


Having searched for the independent I among the aggregates one will definitely not find it; but you don’t just cognize nothing. You cognize the shocking absence of the I you thought was there.


They are two very different phenomena. The nothing in the drawer/bank/among the aggregates, is of course nihilism.


I find these examples more useful than space. 


And remember, of course, that things called keys and money can exist; but a phenomenon called an independent I is an utter impossibility.





So, the notion of space is useless (to understand) because it is merely just an ordinary example of absence? And unrelated to emptiness?



Yes. Who cares if there is the absence of obstructive contact! But we need to care very much that there is the absence of an independent I!


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