On either side of the Buddha statue on our altar, near his folded knees, stand two symbolic skullcups (kapalas) made of yellow metal. One represents the essence element of the male principle and the other represents the essence element of the female principle. Essence (thigle) is the pure light creative principle of the universe. In quantum physics, light energy may be considered both particle and wave. When I see the kapalas on our altar, I experience the union of particle and wave, male and female, compassion and wisdom, form and emptiness.
The Heart Sutra states, “Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Form is none other than emptiness. Emptiness is none other that form”. Our original light-filled awareness recognizes this principle in every quivering moment. Nothing is apart. Nothing is not-apart. Everything arising momentarily is ungraspable, ineffable, and nonetheless appears. The whole point of an altar is to remind us of our original nature, like a mirror reflecting everything—and nothing.
As I walk the dry river far to the east of Bend, I come across a strange little plant called dwarf skullcap (Scutellaria nana). The hairy green leaves hug the ground, rising no more than an inch above the basaltic soil. The flowers look like little yellowish skulls with red tongues sticking out over red-speckled lips. They remind me of kapalas joyfully sticking their tongues out, chiding me for my silly assumptions about reality.
If nothing is apart, skullcaps and skullcups are the same. They emanate the same light. They offer the same message. The flowers reveal the creative principle of the universe with the same directness as kapalas on the altar.