The Color of Sky

The Heart Sutra says, “Form is not different from emptiness; emptiness is not different from form.” It is one of the most famous phrases in Buddhism, and for many one of the most confusing.

Occasionally, when I run across an English version of the sutra by an Asian translator, I will find the word “color” instead of “form”. This is because they understand that in addition to “form”, the Sanskrit term rupa also means “color.” If we dig a little into the meanings of sunyata, commonly translated as “emptiness”, we find that it also has the meaning of “sky.”

It is possible, then, to render the famous phrase in this manner:

Color is not different from sky; sky is not different from color.”

MP14063When we look up, we see the sky. Its color is blue. Therefore, we know the sky is there. Or, so we think. Actually, the sky has no color. The blue is an illusion caused by the scattering of sunlight through the prism of tiny molecules of air in the Earth’s atmosphere. Blue is scattered more than other colors, and this is why the sky appears to be blue. In reality, the sky is empty. It is just space.

Space (akasa) is not really anything, other than a concept, because it has no substance, no form, no color. Sky is merely a conventional designation for space, which lacking any substance, represents emptiness, meaning the lack of an intrinsic essence or self-ness within existing things. Yet, even while we can say that space has no intrinsic essence, no substance, we cannot say that space does not exist.

Color, or form, is just the appearance of color, of form. For instance, the form of a human being is merely the appearance of a human form, for the human being’s mass is mostly water, H20, and carbon. However, when we look at another person, we do not see those things; rather, what we appear to see is form. Likewise, when we look up, we do not see space, we see blue sky.

Form is one of the five skandhas or aggregates, along with sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness. According to Buddhist philosophy, these five aggregates make up the entity of the human being. When the sutra says that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, it next mentions that the other four aggregates also share this relationship.

In Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way, we find a sentence remarkably similar in structure to the one in the Heart Sutra:

The self is not the aggregates (na atma skandhah); the self is not different from the aggregates (na atma skandebhyo ‘nyah).”

Self is like color. Actually, we do not deny the existence of self; we only deny the existence of a self that is eternal, unchanging, and independent. That kind of self is an illusion. Because we have a personality, a body, a mind, we grasp at the appearance of the eternal, unchanging, independent self. We come to believe it is as real as the sky is blue.

The aggregates, owing to their lack of absoluteness and their relativity, are like space. Form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness, none of these has any substance, and yet, as with space, we cannot say they do not exist.

Nagarjuna mentions that to say anything about the differences or sameness of color and sky, form and emptiness, self and aggregates, is to hold an exclusive view, either of eternalism or nihilism. It was for that reason, he said, the Buddha taught the Middle Way, the path between extremes, the path of interdependency.

Good luck and believe me, dearest Doc – it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.”

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Beyond the edge of the world there’s a space where emptiness and substance neatly overlap, where past and future form a continuous, endless loop. And, hovering about, there are signs no one has ever read, chords no one has ever heard.”

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore


SBNR: Spiritual But Not Religious

MP2391“Spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has become a popular expression. According to Wikipedia, it’s “used to self-identify a life stance of spirituality that rejects traditional organized religion as the sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth.”

Not everyone is taken with the idea. Some time back, I was encouraged to read Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish, and unhappy by David Webster. Here are his opening words: “When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.”

When someone starts a book off with something like that; I want to throw the book down. Hard. Which is not easy to do when you’re reading an excerpt online. Suffice to say, I didn’t purchase it.

The book description on Amazon says, “Dave Webster’s book is a counter-blast against the culturally accepted norm that spirituality is a vital and important factor in human life. Rejecting the idea of human wellbeing as predicated on the spiritual, the book seeks to identify the toxic impact of spiritual discourses on our lives. Spirituality makes us confused, apolitical and miserable . . . “ Regardless of what kind of spirituality it may be, I gather. Evidently, the author suggests we replace “spirituality” with “atheistic existentialism, Theravada Buddhism and political engagement.” That sounds fine, but I have reservations about his overall premise.

Now, according to a recent study done in the United Kingdom, SBNR people are not necessarily stupid, selfish, and unhappy but they are likely to develop a “mental disorder,” “be dependent on drugs” or “have abnormal eating attitudes,” like bulimia and anorexia. So says a paper published in the January edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King, a professor at University College London and the head researcher on the project says, “People who have spiritual beliefs outside of the context of any organized religion are more likely to suffer from these maladies.”

I’m not buying this guy’s line either. All SBNR really amounts to is a rejection of organized religion as the “sole or most valuable means of furthering spiritual growth,” as we read above. What’s the problem with that? Additionally, the study separates the “spiritual” from the agnostic or atheist, but as we all know, not every person who is agnostic or atheist belongs to an organized group. Few do, as a matter of fact.

I think what is happening here is a subtle change in the meaning of a word. Words are often the name for several different referents, and consequently, have different meanings. In some cases, over a period of time, there is a change in the words used to represent a referent, and conversely, a change in the meaning of a word and its referents. I think “spiritual, but not religious” simply represents a change in the meaning of the word “spirituality”. The problem is we don’t have new words for the referents to go with it.

That, however, is a secondary problem, the real crux of the matter is that we are hung up on self and group identity and designations. I’m spiritual. I’m religious. I’m Zen. I’m not. Who cares?

Haggling over the meaning of words and clinging to designations are two activities that are considered impediments to the Buddhist path, because words and designations are ultimately sunya, empty. The preferred method of action would be to open our minds and enlarge our understanding of these things.

With that in mind, here is an interesting take on the word “spititual” by the great teacher, Hsuan-Hua, a Chinese Ch’an monk and founder of the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association. It’s from his explanation of the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. The Chinese character shen means “God, unusual, mysterious, soul, spirit, divine essence, lively, spiritual being.” Interesting, a word like this does not appear in the Sanskrit version of the sutra. The phrase in question simply reads “maha-mantra” or great mantra. The Chinese character miao or a Sanskrit equivalent is not found in either version.

Heart Sutra in Siddham script with the seed syllable “dhih” in the center.

What is the meaning of spiritual? “Spiritual” is inconceivable. The meaning is just about the same as “wonderful;” nonetheless, “wonderful” (miao) has the meaning of “unmoving,” while “spiritual” (shen) has the meaning of “moving;” there is a kind of movement. The wonderful is unmoving, yet moves everything totally and comprehends everything totally. It doesn’t function through movement. However, if the spiritual doesn’t move, then it is not the spiritual. The spiritual must move. The same word appears in the compound shen tong, which means psychic power; the Chinese literally is “spiritual penetration.” The “penetration” means a going through; there is movement. But in the wonderful there is knowledge without movement.

The Buddha teaches and transforms living beings in other Buddha-countries to realize the Way and to enter nirvana. He knows everything. The wonderful is right here; without using movement, he knows. But with the spiritual you must go to the place to know about it. The spiritual gets to wherever it is going like a rocket going to the moon. When you arrive on the moon, you know what the moon is made of and you know what the creation of the moon was about.”


Top 5 Searches 2012

People find The Endless Further in a variety of ways. For instance, from Facebook, or from seeing it listed on another blog’s blogroll. Quite a few folks find me through online searches. As my fellow bloggers know, every blog and website has access to statistical reports on “traffic,” i.e. how many visitors you have each day, how many subscribe to your feed, etc. These stats also give you information about the keyword searches used to find your blog.

Most of the keywords and phrases are about what you’d expect: “buddha,” “samsara is nirvana,” “shantideva,” and so on. Some folks have found The Endless Further by searching for such things as “was bruce lee a Buddhist” (not a practicing Buddhist, but Buddha-dharma had a significant influence), and since I am a rather eclectic blogger, with searches like “who was known as the poet laureate of harlem” (Langston Hughes). I’ve blogged about Bruce Lee and Langston Hughes several times. Some searches are a bit off the wall, like “cape wrath deckhouse,” which results in a post I did about Hurricane Irene that contained the three words but not in succession. And a few are downright bizarre. Someone was searching for “naga sex scene.” Naga is the Indian word for serpent or dragon, and while I’ve mentioned nagas on occasion, I don’t recall anything about them having sex. Another strange one: “cortical gyrification meditation.” I don’t even know what that is, and frankly, I’m not sure I want to find out.

I thought it would be interesting (at least to me) to post the Top Five Keyword Searches that brought visitors to The Endless Further in 2012. Here they are:

No-self? Nah, Invisible Man.
No-self? Nah, Invisible Man.

A tie for Fifth Place with “taiji” and “invisible man.” Taiji or Tai Chi is an internal Chinese martial art and a form of exercise. I wrote about the Eights Truths of Tai Chi in 2011. When I Googled “invisible man,” I did not see The Endless Further come up in any results, not in the first 20 pages at any rate. There are a few posts where I have the word “invisible” contained in the text, but I suspect that most people landed on the blog from Google images, finding a post from Nov. 29, 2012 titled “No-self.”

Number 4 is “Lao tzu leadership.” When I searched this on Google, The Endless Further was the third listing with Dictators and Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership.

“Po chu-i” comes in at Number 3. Po Chu-i was one of the great classical Chinese poets. I blogged about him in The Chan Poetry of Po Chu-i.

Weighing in at Number 2 is “heart sutra chant.” Again, The Endless Further came up as the third result when I Googled this phrase. The short video in Chanting the Heart Sutra in English that I originally posted on YouTube has been viewed at least 4,067 times. I’ve seen it embedded on other blogs and websites, and I’ve gotten some good comments about it. It is gratifying to know that many people have enjoyed it and found it beneficial. The video appears at the end of this post.

And now, the Number 1 keyword search that brought folks to The Endless Further in 2012 is (drum roll) . . . “charlie chaplin”!

Charlies as "The Little Tramp."
Charlies as “The Little Tramp.”

I’ve mentioned Charlie Chaplin quite a few times, as he is a historical figure I greatly admire. Chaplin first appeared on film nearly 100 years ago, in Mack Sennet’s 1914 short Making A Living, and the Little Tramp character he created soon thereafter lives on today, a universal icon. His films have endured as well, the best of which were silent, and because they were silent they spoke a universal language. In a post about The Religious Sect That Worships Charlie Chaplin, I wrote,

From the late teens of the last century and into the 1920’s, he was arguably the most beloved man in the world. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. When he kicked a cop, tricked a bullying boss, or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he was doing what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually  left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Chaplin’s silent films were loved the world over because the title cards, which he used sparingly, could be easily translated into another language. Walt Disney based his most famous character, Mickey Mouse, a bit on Charlie. He once said, “I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could.” Film critic Leonard Maltin has said, “Shakespeare wrote great plays that we’re still watching all these years later. Charlie Chaplin made great comedies and they are still as funny today as they ever were.” I couldn’t agree more.

Here is my video of the Heart Sutra chanted in English:

May you have a joyful, peaceful, and productive 2013!


The Heart Sutra and Kuan Yin

As I mentioned the other day, compassion is just as important theme in the Heart Sutra as emptiness (sunyata), the focus of most of the attention. This might be difficult to see because there is no specific reference to compassion. However, there is hardly a word in the sutra that is not representative of some Buddhist concept. Therefore, simply the word “Bodhisattva” stands for the Bodhisattva path, the practice of compassion.

Now, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra: the original longer one, and a shorter one for chanting. The longer version contains a prologue and epilogue, each about a paragraph in length. The prologue sets the scene, on Vulture Peak where the Buddha is sitting in meditation surrounded by an assembly of monks and Bodhisattvas, and Shariputra asks Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva how to practice Prajna-paramita (Transcendent Wisdom). In the epilogue, the Buddha emerges from his meditation, praises Avalokitesvara for his good words, and everyone rejoices. In the short version of the sutra, the epilogue is reduced to a single sentence and the epilogue is redacted entirely.

The Heart Sutra is supposed to be a condensed version of the much, much longer Maha-Prajna-paramita Sutra. But Avalokitesvara does not appear anywhere in that work, rather he is borrowed from the Lotus Sutra. And, of course, Avalokitesvara is “the Bodhisattva of compassion.”

Why does Shariputra pose his question to Avalokitesvara and not to the Buddha? It’s unusual since the Buddha is teacher, the center of so many sutras, and the key figure in Buddhism. The traditional explanation for this is that the compliers of the Heart Sutra, by having Shariputra, a Hinayana disciple, ask for guidance from a Mahayana Bodhisattva, were making a point about the “small vehicle” versus the “large vehicle.” Using rhetorical allegory, they were making a case for the validity and superiority of Mahayana.

But who really cares about that? Today, there is no Hinayana, except for the Theravada school, which rejects the term, considering it an insult. Yet, there is a way to interpret the scene that is very relevant to us today.

In China, Avalokitesvara is known as Kuan Yin (or Guan Yin); in Japan, Kannon; in Korea, Kwan Um; and often, the bodhisattva is a female icon (Avalokitesvara, you know, is androgynous). The Chinese Kuan Yin, the “Goddess of Compassion,” was a figure that transcended religious sectarianism. Taoists, Confucianists, and Buddhists alike worshipped Kuan Yin. However, that was among the lay people, who worshipped Kuan Yin in their homes (it was very unusual for Chinese families to have a statue of Buddha on their home altar), but not in the temples, which were run by men, and where Kuan Yin was nearly always male.

Vestiges of Buddhism’s patriarch institutions remain today, especially in the on-going controversy over ordaining women as nuns, which could be resolved in the blink of an eye if the monks would come to their senses and decide to join the rest of us in the 21st Century. Moreover, in today’s world, women are still struggling for equal rights. The recent controversy over the “War on Women” is ample evidence that women’s rights remains a vital issue. Because of this, I think it’s important to try and find positive images of women in Buddhist literature considering that much of it seems sexist, if not downright misogynistic.

The Heart Sutra affords us an opportunity for this, if we transform Avalokitesvara from a male figure to that of the female Kuan Yin. Now, one could say this in unnecessary, that Avalokitesvara’s androgynous nature represents the unconditioned where there is no division between male and female. But somehow the symbolism of having one of the Buddha’s male disciples seeking wisdom from a woman makes a more powerful statement, one that should be inspiring to women, and as well, meaningful to men.

In the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Volume 2 by David Adams, et al, there is a very interesting entry on Kuan Yin which poses the question, “Does Guan Yin offer a psychologically tame balance for the ancient traditional role of women as subservient . . . Or does Guan Yin function as more bold, compassionate, saving contrast to that repression, even a feminist opponent to that?” I say, the latter. Even for me, as a man, regarding Kuan Yin in the female persona causes the Heart Sutra to come alive with unexpected meaning, relevant to our times. Having Shariputra seek guidance from a woman is symbolic of women’s dignity, which must be respected.

This I think coincides with what Rita M. Gross (dharma teacher and former Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies in Religion, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire), in Buddhism After Patriarchy, calls “reconstruction of the symbol system.” She argues that Buddhism is reconstuctible “because the fundamental teachings and symbols of Buddhism are essentially egalitarian and liberating for all, equally relevant and applicable to all beings.”

Kuan Yin is not the only feminine ideal in Buddhism. It should not be forgotten that Prajna-paramita is also female, “the mother of all Buddhas,” nor that an important aspect of Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism has always the presence of powerful, even sexually active, female archetypes. But there is something about Kuan Yin that makes her, as Sandy Boucher says, “a towering female figure.”

In Chinese philosophy, yin (a different character from the Yin in the bodhisattva’s name) is identified with the female principle – passive energy that resonates with love and wisdom. It was a kind of energy inherent in all people, regardless of gender, but may be more or less dominant according to the person. This is another way that Kuan Yin as the female principle reinforces the sutra’s theme of compassion.

There are many other aspects of Kuan Yin, the feminine ideal, to be discussed, but this will have to suffice for now. For those interested in this subject, I recommend Boucher’s book, Discovering Kuan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, which explores Kuan Yin’s history, legends and is filled with many poignant personal stories, along with Kuan Yin meditations, songs, and practices.

On the more scholarly side, there is Chun-fang Yu’s Kuan-yin: the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesìvara, an in-depth and lengthy (688 pages) study of the “dramatic transformation of the (male) Indian bodhisattva Avalokitesvara into the (female) Chinese Kuan-yin.”

We see images of this great Bodhisattva throughout the Far East in the lovely figure of Kwan-yin looking down in mercy on the world. That principle of mercy engages us in the world, addressing ourselves to others with sympathy, with compassion for their sense of sorrow. We feel the world is sorrowful. We see people feeling that they are in sorrow and yet they are actually in delight. The truth is that since this is nirvana, we are all motivated by delight, and so we are. So life is.

Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light


Joseph Campbell, Ferryboats, and The Heart Sutra

In my recent reading of the new Joseph Campbell book, “Myths of Light,” (reviewed here), I was intrigued with his all too brief discussion of the Prajna-paramita (Heart) Sutra, which I excerpted almost in its entirety in the review. It left me hungry for more. The Heart Sutra [text and video here] is a cryptic work, an essential Buddhist text. Nearly every word is a symbol, a metaphor for a deeper concept, or some deeper experience. It would be wonderful if Campbell, that great interpreter of spiritual literature, had written or spoken at length on the Heart Sutra. But I don’t think he did, or at least, nothing substantial has yet been published.

The Heart Sutra: A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering

Campbell’s remarks about Prajna-paramita appear in the chapter “Vessels to the Farther Shore,” in a section titled “Ferryboats.” The analogy of the ferryboat or raft is symbolic of one of the sutra’s themes: the way of the Bodhisattva. Campbell discusses “ferryboats” in terms of Buddhist yanas (vessels or vehicles), the “different Buddhist paths to enlightenment,” such as Hinayana, the so-called “small vessel” (of which Theravada is the only remaining school), and Mahayana, “the great vessel.” He makes the point that “Little ferryboat Buddhism is the Buddhism of monks, the Buddhism of people who make a distinction between this shore [the world] and [the shore of Nirvana] and are striving to get there,” while the great ferryboat of Mahayana “is meant to be the boat on which we all can ride – it takes us to the yonder shore and then ferries us back to this world.”

Campbell is expressing the Mahayana view here about “small vessel” and “great vessel,” to which some in the Theravada tradition might disagree. Nonetheless, he is exactly right that the prime point of Mahayana Buddhism is, metaphorically speaking, about a ferryboat large enough to carry all people across the sea of suffering to the yonder shore that, in actually, is not a yonder shore at all, but right here. 

Prajna-paramita or “wisdom that goes beyond” is said to be the ship that ferries us to the realization of “the world of suffering is Nirvana.” But then, but when you reach the shore of Nirvana you do not stop, you have to keep going. You may no longer need the vessel that ferried you, but a vessel is only a tool for travel, it’s not the journey. The journey is “the endless further,” going beyond, going far beyond.

Many people tend to focus only on the theme of emptiness in the Heart Sutra. However emptiness in one sense is just a tool. The purpose of understanding emptiness is to develop non-dual wisdom, so that we can practice compassion to the fullest extent. Prajna-paramita is a Bodhisattva vessel and Bodhisattva’s cannot rest until all living beings have been liberated.

That’s a big job, and an impossible one. Yet this is allegory, and the deeper meaning is about trying to capture the spirit behind the idea of liberating all livings beings.

In “There Is No Suffering,” Ch’an master Sheng-yen writes,

Paramita literally means ‘from here to there,’ but it also has the connotations of ‘leaving behind’ or ‘transcending.’ In particular, it means leaving behind and transcending suffering and its causes: the root afflictions (kelsas), propensities (vasanas), and deluded thoughts, words, and actions (karma). Another nuance of paramita is ‘liberation’  . . . the journey across the ocean of suffering, and its causes, to the other shore, liberation.”

That’s why in many of the English translations of the Heart Sutra you see the phrase “Avalokitesvara while practicing deep prajna-paramita crossed over all suffering” or words to that effect. ‘Crossed over all suffering’ does not appear in the original Indian and Chinese versions of the sutra. It’s there to reinforce the idea of transcendence, of going beyond, making the journey. It’s not a solitary trip. One’s motivation to go on the journey should be for the sake of all beings.

And since Prajna-paramita is the way of the Bodhisattva, it’s also why a Bodhisattva is front and center in the Heart Sutra and not the Buddha. I truly believe that the Mahayana Buddhists who put this sutra together were trying to send a subtle message that it’s more important to be a Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha. Why? Because in Mahayana, Buddhahood or enlightenment is not a destination, it’s just a stage in the journey. While the practice of compassion, is something for right now, in the present moment, for every step along the way.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the Heart Sutra, “The Heart of Understanding,”  he writes,

In Buddhist meditation we do not struggle for the kind of enlightenment that will happen five or ten years from now. We practice so that each moment of our life becomes real life.”

Whether you call it enlightenment, liberation, Nirvana, or just plain happiness, looking for it outside of your life, somewhere beyond this world, or at some future time, is a not a real journey, but rather, a dead end. That kind of ferryboat just gets tossed upon the sea and eventually sinks.

In “Myths of Light,” Joseph Campbell says,

Illumination comes from having something happening inside . . . The main sin is inadvertence, not being attentive to life, to the moment you are in, to its mystery, to what is happening right here now. When this is there, and you realize that the whole mystery and void is shining through at you, you are there.”

So here you are, standing on the shore, and the ferryboat is loading, and it’s not leaving a few minutes, or in an hour, or tomorrow, it’s leaving right now, in present moment. Climb on board.

In my next an upcoming post, more on the Heart Sutra, a bit more of Joseph Campbell, and about how Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when viewed in the female persona of Kuan Yin, represents the feminine element within all beings.