Using the Heart Sutra

I once attended a class on the Heart Sutra at a Zen center and the teacher stated how she had been studying the sutra for forty years and was just then beginning to get a firm grasp on it. It’s amazing how a text that is so concise, employing so few words, can be as broad and complex as it is; a complete survey, negation and then affirmation of all Buddhist teachings.

Last week, I mentioned Donald S. Lopez and his book, The Heart Sutra Explained, which he published in 1988. Almost a decade later, in 1996, he expanded on the work in Elaborations of Emptiness Uses of the Heart Sutra. In the introduction he wrote,

Perhaps no other Buddhist text, in either speech or writing, has been more popular than the Heart Sutra. The Lotus and the Sukhavativyuha* have been more influential in East Asia in the inspiration of doctrine and art. But the presence of the Heart Sutra has been more pervasive. It is recited daily in Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean temples and monasteries, and we have evidence of its recitation in India.”

In Elaborations of Emptiness, Lopez examines different uses of the sutra; as a mantra, an exorcism text, a meditation guide, and as philosophical text, and he includes translations of eight extant Indian commentaries.

HeartSutra-WordCloud04bA very effective use of the Heart Sutra is simply to recite it daily and reflect on the sutra’s words. Reciting the sutra is easy. Reflecting on it’s words, not so simple, especially for those new to the sutra. When first encountering the Heart Sutra (Prajna-Paramita Hrdaya/Heart of Transcendent Wisdom), it may seem overwhelming, or so cryptic as to be dense.

Attending a class, like I did, on the Heart Sutra is always a good idea, and there are a number of good books on the sutra. (A list of those I recommend at the end of the post.)

One excellent place to begin is found within the sutra itself, with the mantra, gate gate paragate parasam gate bodhi svaha. It is an exhortation to expand our consciousness, and is the luminous gateway to the central teaching of the sutra. The Heart Sutra asks us to think differently, to open our minds and let our thoughts “go beyond.” In one of the commentaries that Lopez translates, Vajrapana noted,

Gate, gate: “gone, gone”; all mindfulness has gone [to be] like illusions. Paragate: “gone beyond”; beyond mindfulness, one goes beyond to emptiness. Parasamgate: “gone completely beyond”; beyond the illusion-like and emptiness, one goes beyond signlessness. Bodhi svaha: “become enlightened”; having purified the afflictions and all objects of knowledge, one transcends awareness.”

But this is not merely an exercise in obtaining knowledge and then tossing it aside in order to abide in some entranced, transmundane state. That’s not what Prajna-Paramita, or Transcendental Wisdom, signifies. Srisimha wrote, “Gate [gone] beyond . . . is gone for one’s own welfare. The [second] gate means gone also for the welfare of others . . .”, and so, as Lopez himself says, “The mantra thus seems to connote progression, movement toward a goal,” and that goal is not a realization of emptiness, as many suppose, for emptiness is but a step toward the ultimate goal of Bodhisattvahood.

The sutra is a road map for the bodhisattva path. Srisimha continues: “Parasamgate [means] that one has [gone] to the supreme state or perfected the welfare of others and the compassion observing [others] arises . . . Bodhi is uninterrupted compassion arising as the means of the perfection of wisdom [Prajna-Paramita] . . . Svaha means the self-liberation of the [mind] . . .”

The mind of the bodhisattva, who strives for both the welfare of self and others, should be a mind that sees things differently, thinks differently, outside the box, outside sensations, forms, and concepts. And the heart of the bodhisattva, the great loving heart, is the heart of the Heart Sutra.

Recommended Books: One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness from the side of quantum physics. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the more positive spirit of the sutra. Lopez’s Elaborations on Emptiness is a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Indian Buddhism. Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra and There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Master Sheng Yen and Chan Master Sheng-yen. Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings is somewhat light, but definitely not a waste of time.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Larger Sutra on Amida Buddha


Dead Men’s Dirt

Sunday, 11pm

I hadn’t intended to write about Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman, but tonight as I sit a block away from Hollywood Blvd, police helicopters are noisily hovering overhead less than a mile west of here as a crowd protesting the verdict makes its way east along the street. The case hit a nerve in America. You can’t escape it.

Earlier today, on the other side of town, in South Central L.A., the Los Angeles Coalition for Community Control Over the Police and Occupy L.A. held a demonstration at Crenshaw and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards. Protesters are still there. The LAPD is on tactical alert and they’ve blocked off the exits and entrances to the 10 Freeway leading to Crenshaw and the surrounding area.

So far, the protests have been peaceful.

Like many, I was disappointed with the verdict, however it seemed to me that the prosecution failed to make a strong enough case. Either that, or they were simply outclassed by the courtroom skills of the defense team.

It seems clear that at some point Trayvon Martin was on top of Zimmerman. If I was in that situation, I might be in fear of my life, too. But I wouldn’t be carrying a gun. George Zimmerman created the situation that led to young Martin’s death. Zimmerman profiled. He followed. Perhaps Martin confronted him. I don’t think that matters. Zimmerman started it and should take responsibility for his actions, or be held accountable for them.

I have mixed feelings about self-defense or “Stand Your Ground” laws. You should have a right to defend yourself when threatened. However, the weakness in these laws is that they indemnify those who provoke violent confrontations, and in a society where bullying remains on the rise, this lack of consideration for cause and effect is a very serious defect. Just because I can legally carry a gun, does that mean I should stalk someone I am suspicious of, and then when they don’t like it, shoot them dead and get away with it? I don’t think so.

It’s a good thing people are outraged. If it continues the debate over racial profiling, gun and self-defense laws then Trayvon Martin’s legacy will be a positive one.

I didn’t intend to write about the case . . .

Trayvon Martin didn’t intend to be another Emmett Till, who was 14 years old in 1955 when he was unjustly accused of suspicious activity (allegedly whistling at a white woman), rousted out of his great-uncle’s house, beat up with one of his eyes gouged out, shot in the head, and then dumped in a river.

Trayvon Martin didn’t intend to get into a confrontation with George Zimmerman when he stopped at the 7/11 and then began to walk home. He didn’t intend to get himself killed that night.

What George Zimmerman intended seems pretty obvious, and yet, he was found not guilty.

Fifty years ago, another Zimmerman wrote these words about Emmett Till:

If you can’t speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that’s so unjust
Your eyes are filled with dead men’s dirt, your mind is filled with dust
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood
it must refuse to flow
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!

–  Bob Dylan


Against the Stream, in a Leaky Raft

“My dharma is against the stream.”

– A real Buddha quote (I think)

I’m not a regular reader of the National Catholic Review, but I happened to notice they recently reviewed The Scientific Buddha by Daniel S. Lopez, Jr. The book has been out for almost a year now, so I don’t know why NCR is just now getting around to it, except that Buddhism is probably not a high priority for them, and then the title of the review is “Are Buddhism and science incompatible?” which is currently a hot topic.

The reviewer, Paul Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, writes,

Who is this scientific Buddha who, in Lopez’s view, is threatening, “bleaching,” “domesticating” the message of the original Buddha? It’s the Buddha “discovered” by critical, Enlightenment Europeans who thought they found a religion without God, based only on experience and reason. Nowadays, it’s the Buddha who is presented as not only compatible with, but a harbinger of, the discoveries of quantum physics and even biological evolution. Most recently, it’s the Buddha whose teachings on the benefits of meditation are being confirmed by neurological research and by movements such as “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” Lopez will have none of this . . .

Now, I like Lopez. His The Heart Sutra Explained contributed greatly to my understanding of that text. But I wonder why he is spending his time on this rather fruitless debate, which is not really about Buddhism vs. science, but religion vs. secularism.

First, the Enlightenment Europeans did find a religion without God, at least without a concept of God, as we in the West understand it. I’m not too sure they thought Buddhism was based only on experience and reason, after all, they were not blind to the mythological and supernatural elements woven into the dharma. Nor am I convinced they wanted a completely secular spiritual philosophy, because many of them, just like many Western Buddhists today, were reluctant to let go of their belief in some sort of all-powerful super-enlightened being controlling the universe.

I think it’s great that scientific research is confirming the benefits of meditation, but on the other hand, I don’t think too many people become Buddhists so that they can prove it is compatible with quantum physics. No, I think the debate is really about whether or not Buddhism is a religion.

My feeling is that Buddhism is more than a mere religion. It was many years ago and I don’t remember who said it, but someone in a documentary (about Jack Kerouac, perhaps) gave about the best description of Buddhism I’ve heard yet. It went something like this, “Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a discipline, a yoga, a way of life – it embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.”

Buddhism is a path, a Way. It’s not easily defined, and I think it is unique.

There are folks who will argue that if you say Buddhism is not a religion, it’s akin to asserting some sort of Buddhist exceptionalism. That seems rather silly to me. Just because you say that something is unique or different doesn’t mean you are claiming it is superior. Thank goodness all religions are not the same. That would be boring.

Most of the religion vs. secularism debate centers around the two concepts of karma and rebirth. I’d be the first to say that they do require a leap of faith, and are both unprovable. However, I don’t think its necessary to throw them out. If you cannot understand these concepts literally, it’s possible to understand them differently, as Jung did, as archetypes, or as metaphors.

I’m in favor of minimizing the religious aspects, and the mythological elements, but I am less interested in secularism than I am in non-sectarianism. And that’s what bothers me about the Secular Buddhist movement. It’s essentially just creating another sect of Buddhism, and don’t we have enough already? We should spend more time building bridges instead of creating more dividing lines.

I’ve always liked the idea of “home-grown” Buddhism, the cultivation of neighborhood sanghas, small groups practicing together in their communities made up of Buddhists from different stripes, crossing over the sectarian divide to practice with one another where they live. I think this would go a long way toward dispelling ignorance about different forms of Buddhism and their histories, and would bring people together.

People often ask which sect or school of Buddhism I belong to, and I have different answers depending on my mood at the time. Sometimes I say, “All of them.” At other times, I will say, “None,” which is the more accurate response.

I have been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, but didn’t begin to seriously practice until thirty years ago. Since then, I have practiced with different groups, studied with various teachers, taken refuge in a number of traditions, received empowerments and precepts in several, have been ordained as a Buddhist minister by two organizations, and yet, for some years now, I have been on my own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. Hmm, that sounds familiar . . .

I don’t believe that you have to belong to a particular tradition or group in order to be a Buddhist. At the same time, I think that it’s a good idea to find ways to practice with others since it is very difficult to maintain a daily practice all on your own. I used to think that I was an anomaly. However, I think these days there are quite a few, who like myself, are unaffiliated and yet consider themselves Buddhist.

Now, of course, another reason why I am unaffiliated with any Buddhist sect or organization is because I also follow the teachings of Marx, and as the great guru Groucho once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”



Quick, Easy, Cheap

SuckcessMeditation has certainly become trendy, and according to some of the articles I’ve seen lately, an indispensable tool for success. This week, I run across these at The Huffington Post: Meditation: The Secret Of The Super Successful and The Daily Habit Of These Outrageously Successful People, two short pieces with video by the same author, the first of which does mention there are benefits to be derived from meditation other than material ones. Huff Post also has Where To Meditate: 11 Surprising Places To Find Some Zen (“In search of simple, quick and cheap stress relief?”), and then In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career over at Wired, not to mention Zen Out Emma-Watson Style With This New Online Meditation Center at Refinery29. I’m not sure what Emma-Watson Style means, but I’ll let it ride.

I have also seen pieces on how mindfulness aids health, and a report on a new study that strongly shows meditation can lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. So, there is some balance.

As the subtitle of a recent Atlantic article notes, “Mindfulness meditation is having a moment in the West . . .” I only hope it is more than a moment but the faddishness of some of these articles does make me wonder. And I always find that the fads I like come and go quickly, while the ones I don’t, seem to last forever.

Perhaps those who try meditation because they want to become successful, or be like Emma Watson, or because they are looking for some quick and cheap cure-all, will come to realize the deeper benefits of meditation practice. But when I run across these things, my thoughts go back to when I attended a four-day teaching given by the Dalai Lama, and during a question and answer period, someone asked, “What is the quickest and easiest way to attain enlightenment?” The question caused the Dalai Lama to break down in tears. When he recovered his composure, he began to tell a story about the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who facing death, was giving his last instructions to a disciple and showed him the calluses on his behind, saying “Look at this, this is what I’ve endured, this is the mark of my practice.” Just as the translator was relaying this, the Dalai Lama interrupted and in one of the few times he spoke English during the four days, exclaimed, “Don’t think quickest, easiest, cheapest!”

In another recent article, this one at the NY Times, The Morality of Meditation, David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, comments on meditation’s trendy moment with these words,

This is all well and good, but if you stop to think about it, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the (perfectly commendable) pursuit of these benefits and the purpose for which meditation was originally intended. Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way, allowing them to break free from the categorizations (us/them, self/other) that commonly divide people from one another.”

None of this is new. People have been looking at Eastern philosophy for tips on how to succeed in business and achieve personal goals for quite a while now. Two classics books, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Miyamoto Mushashi’s The Book of Five Rings are perfect examples. Both are required reading in many Japanese companies, and they’ve become popular among Western business executives.

It’s quite possible, though, to miss the profound aspects of these teachings when you’re just looking for a tool to achieve a material goal. The Art of War is not about how to make a killing, literally or business-wise, it’s about how to surmount an obstacle without fighting, by using strategy and flexibility. Ostensibly, The Book of Five Rings is about sword fighting, but it’s underlying subject is how to win over your mind.

Miyamoto Musashi was the master swordsman, the incomparable strategist, and the ultimate loner, a ronin or masterless samurai, who roamed Japan, spending many of his years living off the land.

Through rigorous training he made his body as hard as the steel of his blade and his mind as sharp as its edge. Yet, he knew the value of soft words, and as an painter, he could wield a gentle brush.

I posted these “Nine Principles for Strategic Living” culled from Musashi’s Five Rings before, but it was a long time ago. Since they fit in with the theme of this post, I thought I’d share them once again:

Ink Painting by Miyamoto Musashi
Ink Painting by Miyamoto Musashi

1. Do not think dishonestly.
2. The Way is in training.
3. Become acquainted with every art.
4. Know the ways of all professions.
5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
6. Develop the ability to see the truth in all matters.
7. Learn to perceive those things which are not obvious.
8. Pay attention even to even small things.
9. Do nothing which is of no use.


Bards and Bombs

As regular readers of The Endless Further know, I dig poetry. And when poets I appreciate have birthdays, I like to mention it, because it gives me an opportunity to share their poetry with others and perhaps introduce them to new readers.

john-ashberyToday is John Ashbery’s birthday. He was born in 1927 and he is an important, yet somewhat controversial, poet on the American scene. “No figure looms so large in American poetry over the past 50 years as John Ashbery,” according to Langdon Hammer, chairman of the English Department at Yale University. Ashbery is the author of more than twenty books of poetry, and served as the poet laureate of New York State from 2001 to 2003.

According to the Poetry Foundation, Ashbery’s work is controversial mainly because some readers and critics “deplore his obscurantism and insist that his poems, made up of anything and everything, can mean anything and everything.” Yet, as Nicholas Jenkins once wrote in the New York Times Book Review, Ashbery’s work “appeals not because it offers wisdom in a packaged form, but because the elusiveness and mysterious promise of his lines remind us that we always have a future and a condition of meaningfulness to start out toward.”

I’m not sure what, if any, connection Ashbery has with Buddhism, but two of his poems are included in an 1979 anthology titled Zero: Contemporary Buddhist Life and Thought, Vol III that also featured works by John Cage, Leonard Cohen, Allen Ginsberg, and Joni Mitchell.

Here is a short poem I found on Ashbery’s homepage at SUNY Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center:

At North Farm

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.
But will he know where to find you,
Recognize you when he sees you,
Give you the thing he has for you?

Hardly anything grows here,
Yet the granaries are bursting with meal,
The sacks of meal piled to the rafters.
The streams run with sweetness, fattening fish;
Birds darken the sky. Is it enough
That the dish of milk is set out at night,
That we think of him sometimes,
Sometimes and always, with mixed feelings?

– – – – – – – – – –

That was the poetry, now the bombs:

Sunday, in a coordinated terror attack, nine bomb blasts rocked Bodh Gaya, the site where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. The explosions were set off inside the Mahabodhi temple complex.

In addition to housing a number of temples, Bodh Gaya also features the Bodhi Tree that Gautama sat under during his night of awakening. Actually, it’s not the original tree but a “direct descendant planted in 288 BC from the original specimen,” and is located next to the Mahabodhi Temple. I have a leaf from the tree that sits on my altar.

The entrance of a temple appears torn apart at the Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya after the serial bomb blasts. (PTI)
The entrance of a temple appears torn apart at the Mahabodhi temple complex in Bodh Gaya after the serial bomb blasts. (PTI)

The Mahabodhi temple itself did not have extensive damage, but Vilsagga, age 30, a student monk from Burma, and Tenzing Dorjee, 60, from the Ningma Tibetan monastery, who were both meditating near the Bodhi tree, suffered serious injuries.

According to CNN, “While no one took responsibility for the attack, suspicion fell on the home-grown Islamist group Indian Mujahideen . . . designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, is blamed for dozens of deadly bomb explosions throughout India since 2005.”