In ancient India, sages of all traditions referred to the phenomenal world as "Nama-rupa", which translates as "name and form". Different schools espoused a wide variety of interpretations on the noumenal Reality behind "name and form", teaching everything from viewing the Formless as the "Great Soul (Paramatma)" to the Western equivalent of existentialism which suggested that there was no noumena to speak of, only endless "form" and phenomenological interpretation. While they differed in their philosophical interpretations of the true and real, as well as the various soteriological methods of realizing it, they all agreed that the world of form was to some degree illusory, relative to the perceiver and ultimately to be transcended. This theme is, in fact, universal throughout almost all of Eastern thought - influencing not only spirituality, philosophy and religion, but all aspects of cultural development.
Leaving aside any arguments about "illusions" or greater soteriological debates about transcendence of the "world" - so-called "enlightenment" or "liberation" - we can all agree, at least, that the perceptual world is at least in part relative to our psycho-somatic constitution, which the Western philosopher Kant called our "receptive apparatus".
Our perceptions are therefore "forms" in the sense that they are at least partially determined by the make-up of our senses and minds.
We see in a particular spectrum, for example. And through technological advances have found that the world as seen in other spectrums, like infrared for example, is a very different place. Without three-dimensional perspective, some animals might perceive that house they are approaching as actually moving towards them, and the one they are passing on the right as turning. Also, some animals see in a similar perspective, but without color, while even humans who are "color blind" replace certain colors and see them differently from others of the same species even. Similarly, our senses of smell and hearing are more developed than some species and much weaker than others, who then experience sound and scent in a very different way than we do.
In consequence, "forms" approach our "receptive apparatus" and in some strange way we don't yet fully understand are recorded by the senses, transmitted to the mind and reassembled there as percepts. Since at least half the process happens in the mind, its no wonder that even a group of human beings with very similar sensory apparatus still perceive forms in different ways. There are certain forms of blindness, for example, where the eyes cease working but the visual cortex and our minds. While there are many different ways of interpreting this observation and what we should then "do" with it, I tend to regard our experiential interaction with the world along the lines of the Zen teachers who didn't worry whether the original phenomenon that catalyzed a percept stems from a "real" noumenal truth or pure illusion, but rather focus on the recognition that we don't have to identify with the forms as they come and go - instead balancing ourselves between the form and formless, the content and container.
We are, in essence, then, not just the forms but the capacity to experience forms. Ancient Daoist teachers like Lao Tzu often used the analogy of space to convey that we are in part what the Buddhists call "emptiness". Modern physics in its own roundabout way has also come to find that the majority of all matter, including our bodies, is composed of what is mostly "space" Is this a reflection, then, of the greater universe which also is mostly empty space?
The universe requires space within which to exist and unfold, just as we require the capacity to perceive in order to have percepts at all, let alone these interpretations of them we are sharing here through the communication of words, ideas and thoughts. Perhaps that is what the wisemen meant when they said the world of form was illusion? Maybe they were just reminding us that we often get caught up in the content of our lives, ignoring that at least half of who we are is the space within which our lives manifest.
I love applying this old analogy to the teapot: The function of a teapot lies not only in its clay walls, but also in the inner space, which allows the tea to be steeped. We are very much like the teapot, and can therefore learn so much from our wise little friends. Though the experiences of our lives - content - comes and goes, we aren't just that tea, we are, in fact, also the container through which it flows.
Much of our suffering comes through the fact that we identify exclusively with the tea of our lives, without recognizing the importance of the pot within which it is contained. In truth, the larger part of who we are is in our capacity to see, not the sights we see; our ability to hear, not the individual sounds we contact; and perhaps most importantly, our faculty to think rather than any of the thoughts, ideas or beliefs we have. Put simply, are you the things you are seeing now or the seer? Are you your thoughts or the Awareness that has the ability to think? Are you the tea or the teapot?
Like teapots, we too have different degrees of porousness, absorbing traces of the experiences that flow through us to some extent. The greatest pots, though, are like the greatest masters: they improve whatever tea flows through them, remaining always and ever founded as much in the Formless space as they are in the content. For when we identify exclusively with the content of our lives, we're then poured out of ourselves - we lose our footing and the larger part of our true selves. The most skilled teapots don't mind what tea or water you put in them: no matter what, they'll mix it the best they can and then let it go freely and often even joyously.
So much for form; but what did the wise hermits mean when they said the universe as we experience it was both name and form? The name part is exclusively an aspect of our sentient consciousness, for we alone ticket-tag the world with words, Forms deal with the objects around us that we contact, our sensory doors and the part of the mind that deals with percepts. We share similar "receptive apparatus" to many other species on this planet, often differing only in degree; and since all eyes on this world evolved out of a common visual source - the "need","desire" or "tendency" towards seeing - we share some concordance with all species that see. But only we humans name and label things, and unfortunately for us our labels and the concepts that orbit them often get very, very involved in our interpretations of percepts, our perspectives and sometimes even more fundamentally our ideas can affect the way we actually perceive something, so that we see our own mental painting, or sometimes ignore (fail to see) an aspect of a phenomenon - other times even missing it entirely because we're focused on our names, words and concepts. We label everything, reducing our experience to ideas and concepts - categories of forms. And because of that we all too often ignore the living presence of a tree, blade of grass or person because we think we know them. Actually, reducing a human being—or a group of human beings - to an idea is already a form of violence, as it takes away their living, breathing existence and makes them a dead, two-dimensional idea.
The greatest dysfunction of having a sentient mind is that we have a great tendency to confuse the name for the thing, the ideas about something for that thing. But the explanation is not the explained; the description is not the described. Belief, opinions, ideas and words about a phenomenon are not that phenomenon itself. An idea of a salad won't fill your stomach, neither will a belief in one. But we create ideas of people and objects and then relate to those ideas, rather than the real person or thing itself. People walking through the forest are often so caught up in their minds they don't really see the trees, plants or animals. And what they see, they dismiss: "that's an oak. I know oaks..." In doing so, you miss the chance to be with this oak, here and before you now.
Of course, language and names all have a purpose. We are using words to communicate at this very moment, obviously. But our words, concepts and opinions should be our servants, rather than vice versa. Our ideas and thoughts work for us, not we for them. Unfortunately, most people serve their thoughts, many times even violently.
In Zen, we are taught to drop all opinions, beliefs and even names - using them when we communicate, but recognizing that they are just pointers, The word "lake" points at a lake, as does the concept or visual image in the mind, but should not be confused for the lake itself, A lake in itself, is complex - full of fish and plants, sand and all kinds of movements.
Which brings us to one of the biggest problems with language: the use of nouns, making it seem as if nature is full of "things". But actually, there is only processes in nature, not static things. The sprout that comes out of the mud is a lotus, as is the bud, the flower, etc. The word "lotus" describes a living, changing process from seed to flower and could be divided into infinite stages on the conceptual level. In reality, however, there are only processes. You are a process as well.
When we are born, we relate to everything. We are innocent and free of knowledge and labels, finding joy and beauty in the small things like pebbles and shells. Everything is fresh, alive and unique. Then the child begins to learn, to "know" - begins relating to his mind, rather than the world. Finally, then, Zen would have us drop the burden of living under our knowledge and return to the purity of communication with the world, rather than our thoughts and labels of the world. Only now, we approach that state knowingly, not ignorantly, and remain capable of great intelligence and thought at the same time. The Zen master Osho called these stages the "simple fool" whose ignorant of the fact that he doesn't know, the "complex fool" who thinks he knows and has degrees about knowing - all of which only hinder true, real knowing of anything - and finally the "blessed fool" who realizes the futility of knowledge when it comes to relating to life in all its presence; who, like Socrates, knows that he doesn't know a thing.
In tea, there is sometimes a place tor labeling and naming; in social environments where it can be fun to discuss your impressions of a tea. The problem is that this can become a habit and you find yourself labeling the aspects of the tea, and eventually relating to those labels rather than the tea itself. When you break apart the drink into a bunch of neatly defined categories like "taste", "aroma" or even "hui gan" you are making the process intellectual rather than sensual or spiritual.
While it may seem obvious that if tea is to become a doorway to inner peace, meditation and realization of Zen principles, your tea must be free of labels, it might not be as obvious that analyzing and scrutinizing actually hinder development in any form of tea. Tea preparation and enjoyment are arts. And the best artists always bring forth beauty and joy from the stillness beyond name or form. True creativity arises out of a space beyond the mind. Consequently, even the best tasting tea cannot be prepared out of an intellectual mind, and neither can it be enjoyed that way. You cannot fully enjoy a tea while you are busy recording all your words about the tea in a journal or for a blog. You may be having a good time, but what you are enjoying is the process of recording and thinking about your impressions of tea, not the tea itself. Perhaps you find the tea drinking as it is boring? But isn't that just the mind's need for more, hunger for experience/content that it has confused for itself?
Tea brewing has always been a central part of Zen and Daoist practice precisely because it naturally leads the drinker towards quiet observation of his or her body. And your body isn't busy running around in an illusory past or future; your body isn't confusing names and forms, concepts and percepts for itself. The more consciousness is in your body, the less it is dwelling in the mind you often confuse as yourself. In that way, you inhabit your body and your opinions, ideas and even percepts are more easily seen as the content of your life, rather than your life itself. You are the awareness that experiences, not the content that passes through that awareness, as I mentioned above.
Try really connecting to your tea, like the water you use to prepare it. You don't need any thoughts about tea in order to make tea. You don't need any labels of flavors in order to enjoy it, either. Do you enjoy drinking tea with tumbler or enjoy discussing labels about tea? Tea is an interaction, a communication between a liquor and a person. The person is half the meeting. And even a mountain of the most poetic metaphors and descriptions will never approximate the actual experience of drinking a tea, being with it as it warms you, changes you - affects all your senses and your mind.
Water is obviously there in the kettle before you. It is water...and yet it isn't pure water. There are solids dissolved in it. It has been affected by the elements and minerals that surrounded the spring or well from which you drew it. Now it is influenced by the material of the kettle and the heat source you're using. Water is there, and yet it is always and ever a part of that which it contacts, absorbing some of that energy into itself and giving out other aspects as it flows outwards as well. Aren't we like this too?
In and of themselves, philosophy and analogies like these offered here serve only as pointers towards growth, change and perspective. Consequently, if you focus on the communication itself, rather than what is being communicated, these words will become just another argument - something to agree or disagree with. Instead, set aside the conceptual perspective a moment. You have to be bigger than thought to recognize that you are also the Awareness experiencing the thoughts; just as you have to be bigger than your "receptive apparatus" to understand that the percepts you are experiencing aren't as important as the fact that you are alive to perceive them.
And the tea space itself is one of the greatest pointers to the balanced, living presence in recognition of the senses and the space within which they unfold. The world is changing, moving, combining and flowing together to make a tea liquor, which then moves from the "outer" to the "inner" you - meanwhile engaging all the senses along the way.
In the beginning, people are drawn to tea through the forms: exotic smells and flavors, artistic teaware and designs. Some of us then find the Formless through tea, while others have already approached the tea space intending to find inner peace, coming from a tradition of meditation like Zen or something similar. For such people, it is obvious that the tea itself seems to inspire quietude and peace: as it enters us it draws our attention inwards, towards the sensations in the mouth, throat and stomach; towards the mind and its reactions, and then deeper towards our inner life force - Qi - and connection to the Formless awareness that represents our deeper selves.
If you haven't already, try approaching your tea as a journey - each session as a guide from the outer to the inner world. Arrange all the teaware, leaves and water as you usually do. Pay close attention to each of the sensory perceptions - really touching the cup, holding it and feeling its warmth. Let the smells and tastes come into you deeply, leading you to the one who is smelling and tasting; for you are not the aromas and tastes, nor are you the mind thinking about the tastes and smells. You are the awareness, the living being within which these forms are manifesting. Do not label them. Don't get caught up in the description of the tea, which only distracts from the tea itself. Even your opinions can be saved for a later time, For now just recognize how wonderful it is to be alive, in this world, in this moment - with the ability to taste, smell, see and sense, this gongfu cup, this liquor, this mind...this awareness.