In separating appearances, in our mind’s eye, into this thing, as opposed to that thing, we make the distinction of each thing as a “different” form.
What “identifies” each form, in common, is that it begins somewhere in space and ends somewhere in space; or begins and ends somewhere in time; or both.
For the sake of mutual referral in language, we give each of these forms a separate name. Such forms can be either tangible (an object) or intangible, such as can only be conceptualized.
We view these forms as “parts” of an overarching whole, similar to the way that we might say that our “separate” limbs comprise a body. The forms that we see (and don’t see) combine to embody a generalized reality, we would say.
But those appearances which we deem as different forms are designated arbitrarily (e.g., “mind” as a form, and its “thoughts” as a separate form); in other words, they are the product of distinctions made by mankind.
From the standpoint of a person’s practical experience in the day-to-day world, the segmenting of the overall reality into separate forms, with particular names, has useful value: you teach a child that this is a “lizard”, that is an “alligator”.
The fact is, however, that none of these forms exist independently of the other forms which collectively compose reality. What we call a “hill” and what we call a “valley” are not independent formations.
The point of this recognition, in the spiritual teachings, is that if we discard every separative name, what we have left is one nameless reality. Further, if we dissolve the formulations (which are really concepts) which we have created in our mind, what remains is a form-less actuality, or presence.
Another way in which this is said is that we perceive, by way of separative thoughts, a world of “things” (whether material or immaterial). But every thing is merely an appearance of an (invisible) reality which itself is not a conceivable thing. Therefore, the all-inclusive reality in which everything exists is said to be no-thing, or nothingness.
The spiritual teachings are telling us that the “true nature” of our reality is that it is actually absent of “names and forms”; in that way it is said, reality in the ultimate sense is totally “empty”—“There is nothing there.” Even such things we conceive as time or space, with their beginnings and endings, do not exist in a formless reality.
As Ramana Maharshi has said, “Only that which lies beyond name and form is Reality….It underlies limitations, being itself limitless….It transcends ‘existence’, ‘non-existence’, etc.”
The importance of such a precept is that we consider our self to be one of the impermanent forms which appear as a segment of reality. When we come to recognize the true, formless nature of reality, name and form—such as self, life—are understood to be un-real appearances in an unlimited reality.
Both of the forms which we conceive to be life and death are really arbitrarily man-made discernments, from the standpoint of transcending such separative designations as “existence” or “nonexistence”.
Recognition of the nothingness of ultimate reality, which extends beyond all limited forms, is the basic foundation of those who experience a truly “spiritual life”.