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The Absolute Reality in the World Religions and Mysticism

The following is from Professor Wilson's book on readings of compartive religion. This chapter shows how the concept of the Formless Absolute (or God in theistic religion) is found universally, both in monistic and monotheistic beliefs. I have interspersed a few comments, but otherwise the text is Prof. Wilson's

In addition, there are also the following links:

extrenal link the Upanishads
extrenal link the Tao-te-Ching of Lao-tzu
extrenal link the Hua Hu Ching of Lao-tzu
extrenal linkChuang-tzu
extrenal link the Bhagavad Gita
extrenal linkBodhidharma (5th Century)
extrenal linkAhmad Ibn `Ata'Allah (13th C.)
extrenal linkCloud of Unknowing
extrenal linkEckhart
extrenal linkRamakrishna

Formless, Emptiness, Mystery in the World Religions

Professor Andrew Wilson

Unification Theological Seminary
from Readings from World Scriptures
© all rights reserved

This section treats Ultimate Reality as a mystery, not a thing that can be defined by form or a concept of being. In the monotheistic religions, God is beyond any human concept, hidden, and inscrutable: 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.' The prohibition of images is a statement about the utter transcendence of God, for to make an idol to represent God is to reduce the infinite to finitude. Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism affirm the ineffability of Ultimate Reality in their assertions that no words or intellection can properly convey its nature. It is beyond all duality, e.g., all attempts to think of it as a "thing" separate from other things. Its nature is emptiness.

Emptiness in the eastern religions should never be misunderstood as a cognitive statement about Reality--such a statement or its referent is a "thing" and cannot itself be empty. Rather, as the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze writes,

"Emptiness is not a theory, but a ladder that reaches out into the infinite. A ladder is not there to be discussed, but to be climbed.... It is a practical concept, and it embodies an aspiration, not a view. Its only use is to help us to get rid of this world and of the ignorance which binds us to it. It has not only one meaning, but several, which can unfold themselves on the successive stages of the actual process of transcending the world through wisdom. Not everyone, of course, is meant to understand what emptiness means. In that case it is better to pass on to something else."

Edward Conze, Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom (Boulder: Prajna Press, 1978) 24.

The formless in native African religion
The formless in the monotheistic religions
Unification Church

The formless in the Indian religions and philosophies
The Upanishads
Mahayana Buddhism

The formless in Taoism

The Formless in African Traditional Religion

In the beginning was God, Today is God
Tomorrow will be God.
Who can make an image of God?
He has no body.
He is as a word which comes out of your mouth.
That word! It is no more, It is past, and still it lives!
So is God.

Pygmy Hymn (Zaire)

The formless in the monotheistic religions

Unification Church


Truly Thou art a God who hidest Thyself.

Isaiah 45.15

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55.8-9

Cf. 1 Corinthians 1.20-25

Can you find out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
It is higher than heaven--what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol--what can you know?
Its measure is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.

Job 11.7-9

Moses said, "I pray thee, show me thy glory." And [the Lord] said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name 'The Lord'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy."  "But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." And the Lord said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."

Exodus 33.18-23

Moses said to God, "Show me now thy ways" (Exodus 33.13). And He showed them to him, as it is said, "He made known His ways unto Moses" (Psalm 103.7). Then Moses said, "Show me now thy glory" (Exodus 33.18), that is, "the attributes wherewith thou governest the world." Then God said, "Thou canst not comprehend my attributes."

Midrash, Psalm 25.4

The true nature of God is beyond any of his attributes as humanly conceived; cf. The Kaddish, pp. 53f.


Invent not similitudes for God; for God knows, and you know not.

Qur'an 16.74

No vision can grasp Him, But His grasp is over all vision;
He is above all comprehension, Yet is acquainted with all things.

Qur'an 6.103

We raise to degrees of wisdom whom We please; but over all endued with knowledge is One, the All-knowing.

Qur'an 12.76

I asked the Messenger of God, "Did you see thy Lord?" He said, "He is a Light; how could I see Him?"


Verily, there exist seventy thousand veils of light and darkness before God. If He were to lift them, the light of the Majesty of His countenance would consume all of creation within sight.


On the notion that God is the transcendent and veiled center, see also Katha Upanishad 2.3.7-8, p. 93; 3.13,; Ezekiel 1.3-28, ; Zohar, p. 324.

note: the theme of veils seperating the soul from God is a common one in Sufism.  In Advaita Vedanta also there is the theme of koshas or sheaths that veil the light of the Self (Atman).

All praise and glory is due the Lord, whose worth cannot be described even by the greatest rhetoricians of all times... None can fully understand or explain His Being however hard he may try.  Reason and sagacity cannot visualize Him. Intelligence, understanding, and attainment cannot attain the depths of knowledge to study and scrutinize the Godhead. Human faculties of conception, perception and learning, and attributes of volition, intuition and apprehension cannot catch sight of His Person or fathom the extent of His might and glory. His attributes cannot be fixed, limited or defined. There do not exist words in any language to specify or define His qualities, peculiarities, characteristics or singularities.

Shiite Islam. Nahjul Balagha, Khutba 1

Cf. 1 Corinthians 1.20-25

Unification Church

God is formless. If you think He is big, He is infinite, and if you think He is small, He is infinitesimal.

Sun Myung Moon, 10-13-70

The Formless in the Indian Religions

The Upanishads
Mahayana Buddhism

The Upanishads

As long as there is duality, one sees "the other," one hears "the other," one smells "the other," one speaks to "the other," one thinks of "the other," one knows "the other"; but when for the illumined soul the all is dissolved in the Self, who is there to be seen by whom, who is there to be smelled by whom, who is there to be heard by whom, who is there to be spoken to by whom, who is there to be thought of by whom, who is there to be known by whom?  Ah, Maitreyi, my beloved, the Intelligence which reveals all--by what shall it be revealed? By whom shall the Knower be known? The Self is described as "not this, not that" (neti, neti). It is incomprehensible, for it cannot be comprehended; undecaying, for it never decays; unattached, for it never attaches itself; unbound, for it is never bound. By whom, O my beloved, shall the Knower be known?

Bhrihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.5.15

This is the classic statement of the via negativa, as the seeker gradually strips away all relative phenomena, descending ever deeper into darkness. Through such an emptying of the soul, perhaps the Absolute may be found. Cf. Chuang Tzu 2

The eye cannot see it; the mind cannot grasp it.
The deathless Self has neither caste nor race, Neither eyes nor ears nor hands nor feet.
Sages say this Self is infinite in the great
And in the small, everlasting and changeless, The source of life.

Mundaka Upanishad 1.1.6

If you think that you know well the truth of Brahman, know that you know little. What you think to be Brahman in your self, or what you think to be Brahman in the gods--that is not Brahman. What is indeed the truth of Brahman you must therefore learn.

I cannot say that I know Brahman fully. Nor can I say that I know Him not. He among us knows Him best who understands the spirit of the words, "Nor do I know that I know Him not."

He truly knows Brahman who knows Him as beyond knowledge; he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know Him to be beyond knowledge.

Kena Upanishad 2.1-3

 Cf. 1 Corinthians 8.1-3



All voices get reflected there in the Supreme Soul (Paramatman). There is no reason; the intellect fails to grasp him. He is one and alone, bodiless and the Knower. He is neither long nor short, nor a circle nor a triangle, nor a quadrilateral nor a sphere. He is neither black nor blue nor red nor yellow nor white. He is neither a pleasant smell nor an unpleasant smell. He is neither pungent nor bitter nor astringent nor sour nor sweet. He is neither hard nor soft, neither heavy nor light, neither cold nor hot, neither rough nor smooth. He is bodiless. He is not subject to birth. He is free from attachment. He is neither female nor male nor neuter. He is immaculate knowledge and intuition. There exists no simile to comprehend him. He is formless existence. He is what baffles all terminology. There is no word to comprehend him. He is neither sound nor form nor odor nor taste nor touch. Only so much I say.

Acarangasutra 5.123-40

This is the fundamental statement of Mahavira's enlightenment. In Jainism, the Supreme Soul is not God, but rather the condition of the liberated human soul, which in liberation becomes eternal, infinite, blissful, omniscient, and supreme in all the cosmos. Cf. Niyamasara 176-77, Pancastikaya 170, Sutra of Hui Neng 2: Cf. Mumonkan 33

Mahayana Buddhism

Here, O Shariputra, form is emptiness, and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

Buddhism. Heart Sutra

This famous and enigmatic statement declares that all material phenomena are relative existences. Even emptiness itself is, if considered as a separate thing, a relative existence. At the same time, all material phenomena in their relativity participate in emptiness. Cf. Katha Upanishad 2.1.10-11

Vimalakirti, "Manjusri, all worlds are empty."
Manjusri, "What makes them empty?"
"They are empty because [their ultimate reality is] emptiness."
"What is 'empty' about emptiness?"
"Constructions are empty, because of emptiness."
"Can emptiness be conceptually constructed?"
"Even that concept is itself empty, and emptiness cannot construct emptiness."

Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti 5

This is a conversation between Vimalakirti, who is a wealthy lay Buddhist well versed in Mahayana teachings, and Manjusri, one of the great Bodhisattvas.  The doctrine of emptiness (sunyata) is too profound for words; to describe it leads only to an infinite regress. This sutra is a favorite of lay Buddhists as Vimalakirti, the layman, excels all the monks and bodhisattvas in wisdom. Cf. Diamond Sutra 21, Lankavatara Sutra 61, Mumonkan 33


What is never cast off, seized, interrupted, constant, extinguished, and produced--this is called Nirvana.

Indeed, Nirvana is not strictly in the nature of ordinary existence for, if it were, there would wrongly follow the characteristics of old age and death. For, such an existence cannot be without those characteristics.

If Nirvana is strictly in the nature of ordinary existence, it would be of the created realm. For, no ordinary existence of the uncreated realm ever exists anywhere at all.

If Nirvana is strictly in the nature of ordinary existence, why is it non-appropriating? For, no ordinary existence that is non-appropriating ever exists.

If Nirvana is not strictly in the nature of ordinary existence, how could what is in the nature of non-existence be Nirvana? Where there is no existence, equally so, there can be no non-existence.

If Nirvana is in the nature of non-existence, why is it non-appropriating? For, indeed, a non-appropriating non-existence does not prevail.

The status of the birth-death cycle is due to existential grasping [of the skandhas] and relational condition [of the being]. That which is non-grasping and non-relational is taught as Nirvana.

The Teacher has taught the abandonment of the concepts of being and non-being. Therefore, Nirvana is properly neither [in the realm of] existence nor non-existence.

If Nirvana is [in the realm of] both existence and non-existence, then liberation will also be both. But that is not proper.

If Nirvana is [in the realm of] both existence and non-existence, it will not be non-appropriating. For, both realms are always in the process of appropriating.

How could Nirvana be [in the realm of] both existence and non-existence? Nirvana is of the uncreated realm while existence and non-existence are of the created realm.

How could Nirvana be [in the realm of] both existence and non-existence? Both cannot be together in one place just as the situation is with light and darkness.

The proposition that Nirvana is neither existence nor non-existence could only be valid if and when the realms of existence and non-existence are established.

If indeed Nirvana is asserted to be neither existence nor non-existence, then by what means are the assertions to be known?

It cannot be said that the Blessed One exists after nirodha (release from worldly desires). Nor can it be said that He does not exist after nirodha, or both, or neither.

It cannot be said that the Blessed One even exists in the present living process. Nor can it be said that He does not exist in the present living process, or both, or neither.

Samsara (the empirical life-death cycle) is nothing essentially different from Nirvana. Nirvana is nothing essentially different from Samsara.

The limits of Nirvana are the limits of Samsara. Between the two, also, there is not the slightest difference whatsoever.

The various views concerning the status of life after nirodha, the limits of the world, the concept of permanence, etc., are all based on [such concepts as] Nirvana, posterior and anterior states of existence.

Since all factors of existence are in the nature of Emptiness (sunya), why assert the finite, the infinite, both finite and Infinite, and neither finite nor infinite?

Why assert the identity, difference, permanence, impermanence, both permanence and impermanence, or neither permanence nor impermanence?

All acquisitions [i.e., grasping] as well as play of concepts [i.e., symbolic representation] are basically in the nature of cessation and quiescence. Any factor of experience with regards to anyone at any place was never taught by the Buddha.

Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamaka Karika 25

In this well-known passage, Nagarjuna sets forth a logical argument for the identity of Nirvana (unconditioned existence) and Samsara (the world of changing, relative and interdependent phenomena). Cf. Heart Sutra, p. 589f.; Lankavatara Sutra 78, p 182; Milarepa, p. 587.

At this time the World-honored One serenely arose from meditation and addressed Shariputra, "The wisdom of all the Buddhas is infinitely profound and immeasurable. The portal to this wisdom is difficult to understand and difficult to enter. Neither men of learning nor men of realization are able to comprehend it.

Lotus Sutra 2

 'men of learning' are shravakas who rightly understand the Four Noble Truths and who attain arhatship. 'men of realization' are pratyekabuddhas who rightly understand the twelve links of causation and who attain pratyekabuddhahood through solitary effort and meditation. This sutra was composed in a period of rivalry among the various schools of Buddhism. The Buddha goes on to say that the only way to enter the door is by faith.

The capacity of the mind is as great as that of space. It is infinite, neither round nor square, neither great nor small, neither green nor yellow, neither red nor white, neither above nor below, neither long nor short, neither angry nor happy, neither right nor wrong, neither good nor evil, neither first nor last. All universes are as void as space. Intrinsically our transcendental nature is void and not a single thing can be attained. It is the same with the Essence of Mind, which is a state of Absolute Void.

Sutra of Hui Neng 2

Mahayana Buddhism


The Formless is Attributed and Unattributed, And gone into absorption in the cosmic Void.
Himself has He made creation; Himself on it meditates.

In the cosmic Void is he absorbed, Where plays the unstruck mystic music--
Beyond expression is this miraculous wonder.

Adi Granth, Gauri Sukhmani 21; 23.1, M.5, pp. 290, 293

 On the music of the spheres, see Qur'an 71.15, p. 325.

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the eternal Way;
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal name.
The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;

The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.
Hence always rid yourself of desire in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.
These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery--
The gateway of the manifold secrets.

Tao Te Ching 1

The 'way,' that is, the Tao.

You look at it, but it is not to be seen;
Its name is Formless.
You listen to it, but it is not to be heard;
Its name is Soundless.
You grasp it, but it is not to be held;
Its name is Bodiless.
These three elude all scrutiny,
And hence they blend and become one.
Its upper side is not bright;
Its under side is not dimmed.
Continuous, unceasing, and unnameable,
It reverts to nothingness.
It is called formless form, thingless image;
It is called the elusive, the evasive.
Confronting it, you do not see its face;
Following it, you do not see its back.
Yet by holding fast to this Way of old,
You can harness the events of the present,
You can know the beginnings of the past--
Here is the essence of the Way.

Tao Te Ching 14

Reversion is the action of Tao.
Weakness is the function of Tao.
All things in the world came from being;
And being comes from non-being.

Tao Te Ching 40

Cf. Chuang Tzu 12

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text content from World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, Ed. Andrew Wilson
pages uploaded 20 December 1999, this page 10 July 2004