After gaining insight into the mutual dependent arising and the emptiness of essence, we are just consciousness; we perceive something. We now know that if something is formed, for instance a flower, we can’t distinguish or define it by merely observing its physical appearance. The flower also needs everything around the physical appearance of the flower to be the flower. This means that without the air, the soil, the sun, et cetera, the flower would not exist. Because of this, the flower can’t be truly distinguished or defined, as it needs everything to exist, therefore, its essence is empty.
Every thing that is distinguished through our six senses has been formed. So form does not limit itself to thoughts; when a flower is seen, it is formed, even without thoughts. However, because we can’t really distinguish or define something, nothing is truly formed. Though, we still experience something, so this something is without form.
An example to explain the above; a young woman and an old woman are both present in the image below. For the young or the old woman to form, our mind has to interpret the lines in the picture. If one forms, the other stays ‘formless,’ but is still there.
The formless women need the picture to exist. The only difference between form and the formless is whether we distinguish it or not. Both are from the same nature. Therefore, the formless women are also of dependent arising and also devoid of an essence. So the formless something is also really nothing, because it depends on everything, just like form objects.
The following example clarifies the scope of the formless. We know that a flower grows out of a seed. We can observe this when we plant a seed and wait for the flower to grow. This means that the flower is already present in the seed, but the conditions for the flower to manifest (form) have not met yet; the flower needs to grow first. We can say that the presence of the flower in the seed is formless. Before the flower has manifested we cannot say that the flower isn’t there. If the flower has grown and someone asks you where the flower came from, you will say; the flower came out of the seed.
Just like the seed comes from a flower, we could say that this flower is still formlessly present in the seed. Everything before the moment the seed was formed, made the seed into what it is. So the seed was never not there; it was just formless and had not manifested itself yet. Also, the flower and the seed will never go, as the remains of the flower and the seed will fertilize the soil.
Below is an example of how we identify ourselves with the formless, from which we subsequently identify ourselves. Imagine standing next to a busy street in a big city, where you hear a mixture of moving vehicles. Suddenly you distinguish a different sound between these sounds. In the moment before you distinguish the other sound, you identify the formless; although you have not yet been able to distinguish the other sound from the sound of the vehicles, it is present. If you then shift your attention to the direction where you seemed to hear something else, you distinguish this other sound from the rest. In the same way that you shift your attention on the lines in the image of the two women above, to see the other woman. Before you see the other woman, the woman is already present in the lines of the image, we just have not been able to distinguish her.
If we focus our attention on the other sound, this appears to be the chirping of a bird. Because you notice the chirp, you identify with this sound; your consciousness perceives it. However, now we know that the essence of the chirping is empty, because the chirping needs everything outside the sound to exist, we cannot identify with the sound, because there is nothing to identify with.
Before you distinguished the chirp, you already identified yourself with the sound that you did not consciously perceive. Although you did hear something, you were not yet aware of what this was. The same happens when identifying the two women. Before you see the other woman in its entirety, you see a part of this woman, and although you have not yet been able to distinguish the woman, you notice that there is something. You then identify yourself with this something, because form manifests from this something. Once you have let go of the identification with form, you are left with the identification of the formless. Although you no longer distinguish or define a form, you recognize that you experience something. However, this something is no different than the reality that we distinguish, and has therefore also emerged dependently.
So, there is a formless something, without us distinguishing, defining, or interpreting it via our six senses. Also through our intuition and instinct we experience the formless. If we realize that the formless is also essentially empty, since the formless has the same nature as form objects, we do not identify with the formless anymore, as there is nothing to identify with. The only identification which exists is our mental fabrication, an attempt to identify with something.
There is really no coming (birth), as the manifestation of form already existed in the formless. Just as there is no going (death), as form will continue to exist in the formless when the form dissolves. If we do not identify with something anymore, we attain Nirvana and liberate ourselves from Samsara. Samsara is the endless cycle of rebirth, which is described in Buddhist texts. This rebirth occurs whenever someone tries to define an experience in form and every time when someone tries to identify with an experience which did not appear in form (the formless).
We are merely a mental fabrication from the attempt to identify and define ourselves out of ignorance. The ignorance that there truly is nothing to identify with permanently. We attain Nirvana when we also have let go of the identification with the formless. We are conscious that nothing is truly formed, as the essence of form is empty. This emptiness means that something is without form. However, also the essence of the formless is empty, and is therefore nothing. So nothing is formed, and nothing is without form. Nothing does not come, and nothing does not go. Nothing is permanent; everything is impermanent. We are dissolved into nothingness, as we were nothing to begin with.