All That Noise

I saw a commercial on TV the other day that said,

Financial noise is everywhere. Tune it out with intentional investing from Invesco. And separate knowledge from noise.”

noise1 I thought this is close to what we’re trying to do with meditation and dharma. Noise is everywhere. It’s spiritually deafening at times. The kind of noise I mean is desire, illusion, attachment, stress, worry, anticipation, disappointment, fun, sorrow – noise is all the stuff we deal with in daily life. But we can tune out all that noise, turn off the static.

The commercial mentions knowledge, but we’re not too interested in that. I saw something recently, and dash if I can find it now when I need it, but I think it was the Buddha who said that when some practitioners encounter obstacles, they revert to intellectual comprehension. He meant that empirical and theoretical knowledge is not the best path for wayfarers. We want to travel on the way of Transcendent Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita), which “goes beyond” knowledge. In the Diamond Sutra, Transcendent Wisdom is likened to a diamond blade that cuts through all the noise to reveal the true aspect of all phenomena.

And that’s why, in the sutra the Buddha says,

Subhuti, this teaching should be known as the Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom – this is how you should receive and hold it. And why? Because the diamond of transcendent wisdom has the capacity to cut through illusions and go beyond to the further shore. Yet, this teaching the Buddha has called the diamond of transcendent wisdom is not really the diamond of transcendent wisdom. ‘Diamond of transcendent wisdom’ is just the name given to it.”

We can receive and hold the teaching, but it will not help us to go beyond if we cling to it. Use it, but don’t grasp it. In the Zen tradition, which was significantly influenced by Taoism, this was known as “not-knowing.” In The Diamond Sutra Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Mu Soeng explains

Not-knowing is the intuitive wisdom where one understands information to be just that – mere information – and tries to penetrate to the heart of the mystery that language and information are trying to convey . . . The not-knowing approach is not a philosophical or intellectual entertainment; it is a doorway to liberation.” (p.64)

I didn’t have a clue to what intentional investing was so I Googled it. The company describes it this way: “At Invesco, all of our people and all of our resources are dedicated to helping investors achieve their financial objectives. It’s a philosophy we call Intentional Investing.”

At Buddha-dharma all our bodhisattvas and all of our teachings are dedicated to helping people achieve liberation through Transcendent Wisdom. It’s a philosophy we call bodhicitta or intentional cultivation.


Mind, be strong!

Shantideva in Chapter 6 of “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life” (Bodhicaryavatara) wrote,

There is no evil like hatred, and no fortitude like patience. Therefore, one should earnestly cultivate patience in various ways.”

This work by Shantideva work is perhaps the definitive text on the path of the Bodhisattva, and many consider Chapter 6, Kshanti-paramita (“The Perfection of Patience”)  the most important chapter of the book.

Kshanti is one of the Six Paramitas (Perfections), the crucial steps on the path.  Kshanti is derived from khamati, a Pali word that according to the A.P. Buddhadatta Mahathera’s Concise Pali-English and English-Pali Dictionary means “to be patient, to endure, to forgive; to forgive a fault.”

Our basic nature tends to view difficult people in our lives as “the enemy.”  However, Shantideva tells us that anger and hatred are the true enemies, and he urges us to understand their destructive effects.  He states that the perfection or practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger and hatred.  Anger has no real purpose.  Often the person we are angry with is also a victim, driven to their actions by the same poison of ignorance that inflicts us.  All the more reason, to practice patience.

Throughout the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva points out that patience, and indeed the path itself, requires great strength and endurance.  Later in Chapter 6 he says,

Happiness is obtained with great difficulty, whereas suffering occurs easily.  Only through suffering is there release . . . Therefore, mind, be strong!”

In Buddhism, when we talk about “happiness,” we are not talking about happiness sans suffering, but rather happiness in the midst of suffering.  This kind of happiness leads to wisdom or prajna.  The 9th chapter of the A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life is “The Perfection of Wisdom,” which begins with these words:

Wisdom is the only true final antidote to all suffering (the whole path aims at this).”

The perfection of wisdom (prajna-paramita) is said to be the vessel capable of ferrying all beings across the sea of suffering to the shore of Nirvana.  The Heart Sutra tells us that “Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Transcendent Wisdom  . . . crossed over all suffering.”  One cannot really leap from one shore to the other in a single bound.  The journey of the raft known as Transcendent Wisdom over the sea of suffering is a long, hard voyage.  Without weighing anchor and navigating the rough sea, without the experience of being tossed by great waves or being buffeted by strong winds, ravaged by storms – there is no meaningful happiness, let alone useful wisdom.

If, as Buddhism teaches, the mind determines everything, then achieving happiness, perfecting patience and wisdom, requires a single-minded determination to grind through the hard parts of life.

Therefore, as Shantideva says, mind, be strong!

– – – – – – – – – –

Quotes from A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life by Santideva, Vesna A. Wallace and B. Alan Wallace, Snow Lion Publications, 1997.


Human Nature

T’ai Hsu (1889-1947), who played a major role in the revival of the Fa-hsiang school, said,

We achieve Buddhahood through our human natures. This is the deepest truth of Buddhism.”

Human nature refers to the characteristics of being a sentient being, a human being. For me, the key word in the quote from T’ai Hsu is through. While there are various opinions as to whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad, hardly anyone would disagree that it is imperfect. Buddhism teaches that our human nature is also prone to experience the pangs of suffering, and that by going through our human nature, or transcending it, we can also transcend suffering and arrive at a state of being that we could called ‘perfected’ in the sense that it means completed or whole. We may even find that the nature we uncover by transcending human nature is more natural.

‘Transcendent’ is a word that is problematic for some because they associate it with the classical definition of transcendence, which refers to the power of God, higher or totally removed from our human world, or referring to a state that is divine, and again, independent or far above our lives in the world.

MC900As I use ‘transcendent’, it is in the sense of prajna-paramita or transcendent wisdom. Prajna means wisdom, and paramita means perfection or accomplished. The Six (or Ten) paramitas or perfections are qualities the bodhisattva must “complete” as he or she fares on the Bodhisattva Way. Also called ‘crossings’, they include generosity, virtue, patience, energy, contemplation, and wisdom.

Prajna-paramita is likened to the ship that ferries all beings across the sea of suffering,  wisdom that transcends suffering. All human experience is an insight into transcendent wisdom. In order to transcend suffering, we have to suffer. There is no escape from this truth. No easy way out. The experience of suffering can bring us nearer to insight into wisdom.

Our fundamental nature – what we term ‘the buddha nature’, the very nature of our mind, is inherently present within us as a natural attribute. This mind of ours, the subject at hand, has been going on throughout beginningless time, and so has the more subtle nature of that mind. On the basis of the continuity of that subtle nature of our mind rests the capacity we have to attain enlightenment. This potential is what we call ‘the seed of buddhahood’, ‘buddha nature’, ‘the fundamental nature’, or ‘tathagatagarbha’.”

Dalai Lama, Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection (2001)

One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.”

Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai (1947)


The Mother of All Buddhas

Sunday is Mother’s Day, so it seems only fitting to talk about Prajna-Paramita, the mother of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In Prajna-paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-paramita, Transcendent Wisdom.

In some forms of Buddhism, particularly Tantric ones, Prajna-paramita was worshipped as a goddess, sometimes regarded as a manifestation of Tara. Here is a ritualistic description of her in the later form, from the Ekallavira-Canda-Maharosana-Tantra:

I shall reveal the nature of Prajnaparamita who sits in the sattva-paryanka-sana . . . She is blue in color, full  of good fortune, and stamped with the figure of Aksobhya. Her right and left hands hold respectively a red and blue lotus on each of which rests a book on Kamasastra (a treatise on love and erotics). She has youthful and elevated breasts, large eyes, and pleasant speech.

“Sattva-paryanka-sana,” by the way, is a mode of sitting in which the legs are not locked, but placed one above the other with only one of the soles being visible.

In Prajna-paramita literature, her importance as a symbol is more philosophical than ritualistic, more nurturing and less erotic. I’ve shared this before, but it’s worth sharing once again – a wonderfully poetic description of the Mother of All Buddhas from the Prajna-Paramita Sutra:

The Compassionate Mother of Buddhas

Transcendent wisdom gives light, O Thus Gone One, She is worthy of homage; I pay homage to transcendent wisdom! She is unstained. She removes the darkness from everyone in the triple world. She does her utmost to bring about the forsaking of the blinding darkness caused by the defilements and by false views. She makes us seek the safety of all the dharmas which act as wings to enlightenment. She brings light, so that all fear, terror, and distress may be forsaken. She shows the path to beings, so that they may acquire the five organs of vision. To beings who have strayed on to the wrong road she brings about the knowledge of all modes through the avoidance of the two extremes, on account of the forsaking of all the defilements together with their residues.

Transcendent wisdom is the mother of the Bodhisattvas, the great beings, on account of her generations of the Buddhadharmas. She is neither produced nor stopped, on account of the emptiness of own-marks. She liberates from birth-and-death because she is not unmoved nor destroyed, she protects the unprotected, on account of her being the donor all dharmas. She brings about the ten powers (of a Buddha), because she cannot be crushed, she sets in motion the wheel of Dharma with its three revolutions and its twelve aspects on account of it being neither turned forward nor backward. The perfection of wisdom shows forth the own-being of all dharmas, on account of the emptiness of the nonexistence of own-being.”


Critiquing the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is a Buddhist text that explains how prajna-paramita (transcendent wisdom) goes beyond fundamental ignorance to penetrate ultimate truth or things as they really are. This wisdom is not intellectual knowledge, rather it is an intuitive wisdom that when uncovered leads to the transcendence of suffering and the flowering of compassion. The Heart Sutra is also a practice in that it teaches a method for training the mind.

The other day while browsing some Buddhist blogs, I ran across a blogger who had analyzed the Heart Sutra in terms of which parts are formulaic, advertising, meaningless filler, repetition, stuff that is wrong, stuff that is weird, and actual content. Even the term prajna-paramita was classified as just unimportant religious formula and therefore, unnecessary. In the end, everything judged to be of no value was removed and there was not much left. Well, this is nothing new. Indeed, the sutra was crafted from a process of reductionism.

It’s likely that the precise history of the Heart Sutra will never be known. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether it originated in India or China. Some maintain the sutra was composed in 1st century CE by a monk of one of the early Buddhist schools. Other scholars date it several centuries later. I think it was probably “composed” by a number of people, one or more of whom added elements that are not found in the Prajna-paramita sutras (Avalokitesvara/Kwan Yin from the Lotus Sutra) and there is a strong influence from esoteric or tantric Buddhism whose practitioners had a keen interest in distilling Buddhist teachings into short phrases (dharani and mantra) and eventually into single letters (bija or seed syllables).

The Heart Sutra is based on the collection of 40 Prajna-paramita Sutras. These were first redacted into the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra with 100,000 lines. Following this was a 25,000 line sutra, an 18,000 line version, a 10,000 line sutra, a 8,000 line version, and eventually a 40 line version which is the essence of the Heart Sutra as we know it today. Around 250 CE, we have the first mention of a Prajna-paramita dharani (Chih-ch’ien), and later, a mantra: Tadyatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, which was further trimmed down by hacking off Tadyatha and Om. Finally, they condensed the Heart Sutra into a single bija or seed syllable, dhihmma, and then shorted it to simply dhih.

This centuries long process was undertaken for specific reasons, and while one aim was to negate the most fundamental concepts of early Buddhism, it was not a complete negation. After the negations, the concepts are then reaffirmed, only now in a new light, in the transcendent light of going beyond. On one hand the authors offered up a critique and on the other they presented an valid alternative view.

As many of you know, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra, a long version and a short one. The longer one has a prologue where the Buddha enters into a samadhi called “perception of the profound” (observation of emptiness) and an epilogue where he praises Avalokitesvara. The short version is normally used for recitation. In my opinion, every word is important and necessary, especially in the shorter version. This is a cryptic text. Each word has meaning, is a symbol, represents a thought, a concept. The Heart Sutra, in one way or another, discusses every major concept in Buddhism, and I would go even a step further to say that it touches upon nearly every philosophical idea known to the world. How is that possible in such a short work? Well, that’s the genius behind the text. It’s like a form of shorthand.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Heart Sutra is so sacred that it can’t be altered or subjected to different interpretations. I’m just saying that this carefully crafted work shouldn’t be filtered through one’s personal preferences or gutted for the sake of post-modernism or secularism.

In the context of Prajna-paramita literature, the term prajna-paramita means transcendent wisdom. This concept is perhaps even more central to the sutra than the concept of emptiness. Paramita means “crossing over” or “going beyond.” When Avalokitesvara sees that the five aggregates are empty of self-being, the sutra says that he was able to “cross over all suffering.” [The sea of suffering, the raft, the other shore, nirvana.] This implies real transcendence: the wisdom that goes beyond not only the extremes of conceptual thinking but suffering as well.

The relevance of the mantra at the end (“gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond . . .”) to the rest of the sutra is that it serves as a coda, summing up the sutra. And yet it has further significance. The mantra is a call to action, it implores us to go beyond, go beyond our preferences, our preconceived notions, our attachments, the limitations we place on ourselves, the limits of our mind – go beyond everything, entering into a new realm of insight and wisdom, which in the end means seeing things differently than we did before, seeing things with a pragmatic and intuitive kind of wisdom.

By the way, the phrase “crossing over all suffering” is not found in either the Sanskrit or Chinese versions. It’s usually added to English translations for clarification, to further emphasize the point of transcendent wisdom. The text is altered in this way for the purpose of clarifying  and supporting the sutra’s message.

So then, before we start to critique of this little gem, I suggest we try to practice it, study it, develop a basic understanding of the meaning and how it uses words and meanings to describe prajna-paramita which goes beyond words and meanings.

There are some very good books on the Heart Sutra. One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the positive spirit of the sutra. Elaborations on Emptiness by Donald S. Lopez Jr. is excellent as well, although I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book as it’s a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Tibetan 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 are also fine. I found Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings to be somewhat light, but it’s not a waste of time.

Here I am reciting the Heart Sutra in English. The text of the sutra is below.

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and crossed over all suffering. Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness: Not beginning, not ending, not stained and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing. Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, and no thinking; no realms from sight to mind; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death; no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering, no path; no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana. All Buddhas from the past present and future practice in this way and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know that the Prajna-Paramita is the great bright mantra, the great transcendent mantra that relieves all suffering. Know this as truth and declare:

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond, Be Set Upon Awakening!