Friday, May 25, 2018

Don't Wait to Start a Spiritual Path

I think almost all of us are distracted by world events today - to a lot of us things seem to be out of control, spiraling down with no real end in sight. Its feels scary. It feels hopeless. Things happen that just seem unbelievable and then something else happens that seems even worse.

Basic human needs and rights are being taken away or so diluted that they are no longer helpful. Education is scoffed at, people think its a good idea to arm teachers with guns. Differences of any kind are suspect. Civil rights are fading. Money is more important than anything else. Let's build a big wall so we don't have to see our neighbors or try to help them.

These are just a few of the more obvious things going on. Its easy to spot, its all we hear about everywhere we go. The news cycle never ends. But I don't think these are the things we need to be focusing on. These are things that can be reversed and restored eventually when people remember who they really are and how they really want to be.

We need to restore our spirits.

What scares me the most is the lack of civility in our country today. Differences of any kind are suspect. A lot of people feel emboldened to be crass and hateful because the people in power are crass and hateful. Cowardly acts are respected. Men are treating women badly and think its okay. The weak are hated and threatened, stupidity is admired. Compassion and a spirit of cooperation and love have somehow become unpatriotic. Many people are convinced over and over to act against their own best interests and they are proud of it. Facts are no longer facts, truth is no longer truth, ignorance is encouraged, hate is revered, vulgarity and immorality are ignored. Human decency is on the decline.

People are losing their souls.

There are people who are already lost. They've vacated their lives, their minds and hearts and have allowed selfishness and fear to take over. Ugliness appeals. Loud and vulgar entertains. I didn't know it, a lot of us didn't know that this kind of thinking was simmering just below the surface - and we were taken by surprise. We didn't know that hatred and ignorance, intolerance and cold blooded racism and complete disregard for the value of others existed in such a big way.

If you pay attention and look around, you can see it everywhere. People are going through the motions of life without feeling or caring. Many people know what's happening and have chosen to ignore it, be oblivious to it, resigned to it, and in the process they are becoming hollow. It feels bad, it feels wrong, but inertia has set in and real life is getting farther away. Its time to start living a spiritual life - however that looks to you. 

There are a lot of ways to begin to get out of this lethargy and to find meaning and satisfaction. Get out of the city and into nature - or a go to a nearby park. If you can, go to a national park or monument - a lot of these places are in danger of ruin from the current administration. Being out in the fresh air with your feet feeling the grass or the earth will begin to have an impact on your spirit. Do the things you want to do but keep putting off for whatever reason. If you do it will feed your soul. Say the things you need to say.

Get really honest. Don't assume anything. Realize that there's no reason to take anything personally - give others a break. Do your best at everything you do. These simple things alone will revive your spirit and you'll begin to feel better and to see more clearly. From here you might expand and enlarge your spiritual life - find what appeals to you and dig deep. How will all this help in anyway? How will doing this affect the world around you? I think we can change the world one heart at a time.

The Ajanta Caves - Ancient Buddhist Art

Entirely Buddhist 
This is one of a series of caves excavated out of the volcanic rock that extends along a cliff overlooking the Wagora River at Ajanta, about two hours north of the present-day city of Aurangabad, in Maharastra state in western India. The Ajanta caves predate the caves equally famous at Ellora, but they are entirely Buddhist. There are early caves at Ajanta, from about the same time as the stupa at Sanchi (approx. 200–100 BCE), and later caves, dating from around 450 to 500 CE. This cave is numbered 26, and dates from the later period—around the 470s.

Why did Buddhists use caves?
Early Buddhists worshiped at stupas containing relics of the Buddha, as well as at other sites associated with his earthly existence. Buddhist monastics gained the support of some of India’s ancient rulers. These rulers offered tracks of land and financial support to Buddhist monks as a way to gain the loyalty of their subjects. Buddhism also appealed to merchants and laypersons. Buddhist monasteries began to appear along trade routes, usually within one day’s journey from each other. Merchants and travelers could rest or stay at the monasteries, in return for a financial offering. Caves offered practical shelter during the rainy (monsoon) season in India. They were cool during the dry, hot season, and they were durable.
What are the artistic developments represented by the cave?
The Buddhist and Hindu rock caves scattered throughout western India help us to chart artistic developments in ancient India, since most other buildings from that time were made of materials that have not survived. The caves at Ajanta also contain the earliest surviving group of paintings from ancient India (other than prehistoric evidence). We know from incomplete caves at Ajanta that masons and sculptors worked from top to bottom to excavate the caves and create architectural and sculptural forms.
There are two main types of cave structures at Ajanta. One is the square-shaped cave that contained cells where the monks resided. Over time, these became more elaborate and incorporated secondary shrines. The other main structure was the worship hall or shrine, called a chaitya. The early chaitya halls at Ajanta are carved into the rock in a bullet shape with a rounded end called an apse. The vaulted ribs at the top were carved to simulate wooden beams. At the centre of the apse was the stupa shape. The hall itself is lined with pillars, and behind the pillars and apse is an ambulatory passage, allowing the worshiper to walk around the stupas as a form of worship.
We know the chaitya represented here (cave 26) is a later development, because the rock-cut image of the seated Buddha appears, as if emerging out of the stupa (in the lower center part of the photograph). In contrast to the earlier caves, this cave is also much more elaborately decorated. This is important, because we know that Mahayana Buddhism was becoming more popular at this time, and with it, multiple images of the Buddha in human form, as well as images of supporting figures known as bodhisattvas, appear abundantly in Buddhist art. The Ajanta caves provide direct evidence of early Buddhist art, patronage, and architectural forms that would influence the spread of Buddhism and Buddhist imagery across Asia.
At the time this cave and others at Ajanta were excavated, India was ruled by the Gupta dynasty and in the western Deccan region by the Vakatakas, whose king Harishena (reigned 460–478 CE) was a follower of the Brahmanic (Hindu) traditions. Some of Harishena’s ministers, however were followers of Buddhism and it was principally these individuals who commissioned the later caves at Ajanta. Cave 26 in fact contains an inscription stating that the donor was a powerful monk by the name of Buddhabhadra, and it was dedicated to a former minister of a rival group who were about to overrun the Vakataka dynasty. Commissioning this cave, therefore, may have been both an act of merit as well as a political maneuver among ministers jostling for power. Part of the inscription reads, “A man continues to enjoy himself in paradise as long as his memory is green in this world. Why should one therefore not set up a memorial in the mountains that will endure as long as the moon and sun shine in the skies?”

The Mogao Caves - A Treasure of Buddhist Art

Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. It was first constructed in 366AD and represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. 492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. Cave 302 of the Sui dynasty contains one of the oldest and most vivid scenes of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road, depicting a camel pulling a cart typical of trade missions of that period. Caves 23 and 156 of the Tang dynasty show workers in the fields and a line of warriors respectively and in the Song dynasty Cave 61, the celebrated landscape of Mount Wutai is an early example of artistic Chinese cartography, where nothing has been left out – mountains, rivers, cities, temples, roads and caravans are all depicted.
As evidence of the evolution of Buddhist art in the northwest region of China, the Mogao Caves are of unmatched historical value. These works provide an abundance of vivid materials depicting various aspects of medieval politics, economics, culture, arts, religion, ethnic relations, and daily dress in western China. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art is not only the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian and Gandharan customs, but also an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. Many of these masterpieces are creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent.
The discovery of the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves in 1990, together with the tens of thousands of manuscripts and relics it contained, has been acclaimed as the world’s greatest discovery of ancient Oriental culture. This significant heritage provides invaluable reference for studying the complex history of ancient China and Central Asia.
The Mogao Caves were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1987. As a State Party, China has put all World Heritage sites under top-level protection. In 1961, the Mogao Caves was listed as one of the State Priority Protected Sites by the State Council and was put under the protection of national laws including the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Cultural Relics. The Regulations for the Conservation of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province (2002) has confirmed the boundaries of the conservation area, and the Master Plan for the Conservation of the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang (2006-2025), which has been reported to the Gansu Provincial Government and will be issued soon, adds the area for the control of construction, which overlaps with the buffer zone. The two directives are the most important measures taken for preserving the authenticity and integrity of the Mogao Caves. The Administrative Institution of the Mogao Caves has been cooperating with international counterparts to study conservation and site management and looks forward to continuing its work in preserving the heritage of the site.

The goal in the future is to implement the measures set out in the management plan by the scheduled time, to learn from advanced experiences in heritage site conservation and management at home and abroad, to ensure the authenticity and integrity of the heritage site and its setting, and to make its full historical information and value available to future generations.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Healing Trauma with Meditation

Many Buddhist practitioners who have experienced trauma seek relief, consciously or unconsciously, in their meditation practice. The range of traumatic experiences is broad and can include being the victim of or witness to violence, such as sexual or physical abuse, rape, assault, torture, or military combat. Trauma can also occur following a serious illness or accident. Victims of trauma may experience feelings of powerlessness, low self-esteem, and self-blame. Trauma can also affect the ability to trust, form intimate relationships, and find motivation and meaning in life.

According to clinical psychiatrist Paul J. Fink, one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys worldwide suffer significant trauma before the age of eighteen. The National Comorbidity Survey of 1992 found that 8 percent of all Americans will experience a traumatic incident at some point in their lives that will result in a condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by significant distress and psychological impairment.

At first, symptoms may arise as prolonged feelings of panic while meditating. One
practitioner recalls, “Initially, I felt an inexplicable terror. I

would sit in the meditation hall, and all the hair would stand

up on my body. I described it as ‘terror from another planet’

because there was no story, but it was still completely

debilitating.” Following this, the practitioner experienced a

series of kinesthetic flashbacks, including involuntary physical

contortions related to acts of sexual abuse. Later, visual

flashbacks surfaced. Family members eventually verified the

traumatic experience that had spurred these flashbacks, and

the meditator was able to heal significantly through therapy and meditation practice.

When flashbacks of memories arise, they tend to occur spontaneously during periods of concentration. They can be experienced through any sensation, and are commonly visual or kinesthetic. For some, a whole scene is played out moment by moment, while others experience only broken images. When a meditator experiences a flashback, often the intrusion of these painful memories into conscious awareness can be an indication that the meditator needs to stop practice and address the trauma through psychotherapy; a teacher is usually the best person to make this determination.

Survivors need to consider the potential effects the silence of a retreat environment might have on the resurfacing of traumatic experiences. On the one hand, it can reenact the feeling of being isolated and silenced by the perpetrator, the family, or society. But a retreat can also provide a stable and safe space in which they can begin to relax—often for the first time. There is a predictable schedule, no intrusions from the outside world, and a communal agreement to follow basic ethical rules. One practitioner noted that a retreat was “the first time in my life I felt without fear.”

In addition to the safety of the retreat environment, the practice of meditation offers a variety of effective tools for healing trauma. While the suggestions here are aimed at meditators with trauma histories, they can apply to any practitioner coping with difficult emotions. The following are five mindfulness tools that can help practitioners navigate traumatic experiences.

1. Awareness of Body and Breath
The body and breath are anchors for awareness that can be returned to again and again. Mindfulness of the breath is especially useful for trauma survivors, who tend to hold their breath as a way of not connecting with the present moment. Holding the breath is an unconscious response to anxiety, and may also be part of the process of dissociating from the experience. If, however, the trauma was related to the act of breathing (such as choking or oral sexual abuse), then the breath is obviously not the best meditation anchor. In these cases, during “sitting” periods, try listening meditation, body sweeping, mantras, or touch points (for example, notice the sitting bones touching the cushion, the hands touching the legs or each other, and the feet touching the mat, and rotate your attention among these points).

Body awareness needs to begin gradually. One way to start is by observing the body during times when it feels comfortable. One woman found that the only safe place in her body was her hands, and she would mindfully watch every sensation in each hand for hours at a time. Feeling comfort is a simple thing that trauma survivors often overlook—or sometimes aren’t even aware can notice the sensation of gravity. Feel the weight of your body on the bed. How does gravity feel?
”Scan your body for a place that feels relaxed and even a little bit comfortable. Perhaps it is a finger, a toe, or somewhere deep in your body. Focus on that place. Notice what “comfortable” feels like. See if you can describe it.
2. Reverse-Warrior Teachings
People with trauma histories often have a tendency to push themselves to extremes; they are more than willing to stay up all night, fast for days, or sit for many hours without moving. Unfortunately, practices that override the body’s natural signals of discomfort can end up creating further trauma. One therapist explains, “The way trauma folks survived was that they taught themselves to persevere and to be driven. It’s what they learned worked. They didn’t learn about kindness to themselves or their internal signals. There wasn’t the sense that internal signals could be a support or were worth trusting. It takes survivors a long time to come to listen to internal, intuitive messages and believe them.” One practitioner discovered, “The difficulty with trauma as it unfolded was how compelling the story was and how I was driven by the thought, “I’m going to work through this.’ I had to watch this combination of fascination and drivenness and remind myself to back off.”
As a result of this overzealousness, it can be helpful for survivors to practice in a way that seems contrary to the traditional Buddhist teachings. In the sutras, the Buddha advocated a warrior-style practice: “Let only my skin and sinews and bones remain and let the flesh and blood in my body dry up; I shall not permit the course of my effort to stop until the end is reached.” Instead, trauma survivors need to learn what one teacher calls the “reverse-warrior” practice:
Practice for shorter periods of time. Get plenty of sleep and eat regularly. Focus on balance and equanimity rather than effort and progress. Build in breaks, and remember that it’s not a weakness to be gradual. Working with trauma is like having two jobs: You’re doing the practice of meditation and

the practice of healing at the same time. In

this regard, the meditative focus needs to

be on simple, small steps. One therapist

notes: “Trauma survivors always feel they

are not working hard enough and that’s

why they are stuck. But this isn’t true. It’s

okay to relax and stop constantly trying to change.”

3. Experiencing Strong Emotions
The core practice in healing trauma is learning how to feel strong emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. During meditation practice, survivors often respond to overwhelming emotions by dissociating, a relic of the psychological defense they used to remove their awareness from the trauma while it was occurring. One meditator described dissociation this way: “My mind enters a state outside my body, captive in some dimension where it is at least safe and alive, yet also powerless and terrified. To settle on the breath is impossible. To get up or move in any way is impossible. After some time, my mind returns enough so that I am able to pull my blanket around me, draw my knees up, and just sit.”
How does a meditator learn to feel strong emotions and bodily sensations without dissociating from them?
”When a difficult emotion, sensation, or memory arises, learn to touch up against the pain in small increments. To do this, bring your attention to a place in your body that feels comfortable or neutral (see “Awareness of Body and Breath,” above). Feel this comfortable place for a few minutes. Then slowly move the attention to the difficult emotion. Feel that for a minute, then move back to the comfortable place again. Keep moving the attention patiently back and forth between these two areas. This gradual re-experiencing can modulate the intensity of the emotion and create a sense of mastery over the feeling.
”Train the mind to listen to the body with tenderness and intimacy. Throughout the day, when you are engaged in activities, check in with your body, asking yourself, “Does my body like this or not? What does my body want? Is it okay to keep going, or do I need to stop now?”

4. Awareness of Mind One of the characteristics of severe trauma is that past emotions and experiences invade the present and become overwhelming. A Vietnam veteran recalls, “When the memories hit, they literally knocked me off my cushion. Through meditation, I eventually found balance with them.” The practice of mindfulness develops the ability to observe these memories in a way that facilitates equanimity and balance by learning that all thoughts come and go.
”Notice “trauma mind,” the habit of always looking over one’s shoulder, expecting the worst to happen. When fearful memories arise, ask yourself: “Am I okay in this moment? And this moment?” Remember, you have resources and choices now. Try breathing in compassion and breathing out fear.
”Take a day to observe positive emotions as they occur. When did you feel joy today? Curiosity? Humor? Because healing from trauma can involve repeated focus on difficult emotions, it’s important to train the mind to notice the positive emotions that exist.
”Try microlabeling stressful thoughts and feelings: When they arise, meticulously note your reactions as “thinking,” “imagining,” “fear,” and so on.
”Question self-judgments and negative beliefs: “Can I absolutely know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?”
”It’s also useful to identify neutral moments. Were there moments today when you didn’t feel difficult emotions? When you were brushing your teeth? Drinking a glass of water? Reading? Sleeping?
”If you feel completely overwhelmed, try distraction. One meditator went to a 24-hour Wal-Mart and walked the aisles at 2 a.m. The noise, the lights, and the stimulation shifted his focus away from self-hatred.
5. Learning to Love Again
Metta (lovingkindness) and compassion practices offer essential ways to mend the heart after trauma. Trauma survivors are often plagued by a sense that they are unworthy or inherently flawed. They may have trouble doing the “normal” meditation practices or fear that they are not mindful, diligent, or concentrated enough, which can lead to self-hatred and shame.
Trauma victims have had their trust and sense of connection shattered, and often have a hard time feeling kindness toward themselves and others. Metta practice can slowly rebuild these connections.
”An image from Buddhist textst that one can use to generate metta is that of a mother cow looking at her newborn calf. Imagine a young animal or pet and try extending lovingkindness toward it.
”Feel your heart center and breathe from this. Gently offer metta phrases to yourself such as: “May I love myself just as I am,” or “May I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be safe, may I be free of suffering.” Some people find it useful to bring to mind an image of themselves as a young child when saying these phrases.
It’s important not to force the metta. At certain points, working with the metta can feel like silencing the pain. In this case, try the following compassion practices instead.
”When difficult emotions arise, try holding each one as you would a crying child.
”One trauma survivor uses a form of tonglen (the Tibetan practice of giving and receiving): “In tonglen I was taught to breathe in the heavy, dark air and breathe out the light, clear air. When I meditate, as the memories come I breathe in the silence and terror of the mute six-year-old. I breathe in her inability to speak and her terror. On the out-breaths I send the aspiration that one day she will be able to tell her story in her own words, and I send her a feeling of my holding her—safely, protectively. She is so little that it takes feelings, not words, to reach most of her, and this takes time.”
Through steady patience, facing trauma can become part of the awakening process itself, and difficult emotions can become workable. Healing trauma is a day-by-day journey requiring courage, persistence, and faith. Buddhist meditation practices offer positive ways to transform trauma. Although not a substitute for psychotherapy, meditation can be a crucial support in the journey from trauma to wholeness.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Heart Sutra

I read this article about the Heart Sutra and thought it was worth sharing. It discusses the meaning of emptiness in an interesting way...

This dharma talk is by Karl Brunnhölzl,
Lion's Roar

Penetrate the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, says Karl Brunnhölzl, and nothing will be the same again. The secret is to make it personal.

There is no doubt that the Heart Sutra is the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition, which still flourishes in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, China, parts of India and Nepal, and, more recently, also in the Americas and Europe. Many people have said many different things about what the Heart Sutra is and what it is not, such as being the heart of wisdom, a statement of how things truly are, the key teaching of the Mahayana, a condensation of all the Prajnaparamita Sutras (the Buddha’s second turning of the wheel of dharma), or an explanation of emptiness in a nutshell. In order to understand the actual words of the Heart Sutra, it’s helpful to first explore its background within the Buddhist tradition as well as the meanings of “prajnaparamita” and “emptiness.”

When we read the Heart Sutra, it sounds nuts, but that is actually where the wisdom part comes in.

One thing we cane  safely say about the Heart Sutra is that it is completely crazy. If we read it, it does not make any sense. Well, maybe the beginning and end make sense, but everything in the middle sounds like a sophisticated form of nonsense, which can be said to be the basic feature of the Prajnaparamita Sutras in general. If we like the word “no,” we might like the sutra because that is the main word it uses—no this, no that, no everything. We could also say that it is a sutra about wisdom, but it is a sutra about crazy wisdom. When we read it, it sounds nuts, but that is actually where the wisdom part comes in. What the Heart Sutra (like all Prajnaparamita Sutras) does is to cut through, deconstruct, and demolish all our usual conceptual frameworks, all our rigid ideas, all our belief systems, all our reference points, including any with regard to our spiritual path. 

It does so on a very fundamental level, not just in terms of thinking and concepts, but also in terms of our perception, how we see the world, how we hear, how we smell, taste, touch, how we regard and emotionally react to ourselves and others, and so on. This sutra pulls the rug out from underneath our feet and does not leave anything intact that we can think of, nor even a lot of things that we cannot think of. This is called “crazy wisdom.” I guess I should give you a warning here that this sutra is hazardous to your samsaric sanity. What Sangharakshita says about the Diamond Sutra equally applies to all Prajnaparamita Sutras, including the Heart Sutra:
…if we insist that the requirements of the logical mind be satisfied, we are missing the point. 

What the Diamond Sutra is actually delivering is not a systematic treatise, but a series of sledgehammer blows, attacking from this side and that, to try and break through our fundamental delusion. It is not going to make things easy for the logical mind by putting things in a logical form. This sutra is going to be confusing, irritating, annoying, and unsatisfying—and perhaps we cannot ask for it to be otherwise. If it were all set forth neatly and clearly, leaving no loose ends, we might be in danger of thinking we had grasped the Perfection of Wisdom.
—Sangharakshita, Wisdom Beyond Words

Another way to look at the Heart Sutra is that it represents a very condensed contemplation manual. It is not just something to be read or recited, but the intention is to contemplate its meaning in as detailed a way as possible. Since it is the Heart Sutra, it conveys the heart essence of what is called prajnaparamita, the “perfection of wisdom or insight.” In itself, it does not fuss around, or give us all the details. It is more like a brief memo for contemplating all the elements of our psychophysical existence from the point of view of what we are now, what we become as we progress on the Buddhist path, and what we attain (or do not attain) at the end of that path. If we want to read all the details, we have to go to the longer Prajnaparamita Sutras, which make up about twenty-one thousand pages in the Tibetan Buddhist canon—twenty-one thousand pages of “no.” 

The longest sutra alone, in one hundred thousand lines, consists of twelve large books. The Heart Sutra is on the lower end, so to speak, and the shortest sutra consists of just one letter, which is my personal favorite. It starts with the usual introduction, “Once the Buddha was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Flock Mountain” and so on, and then he said, “A.” It ends with all the gods and so on rejoicing, and that’s it. It is said that there are people who actually realize the meaning of the Prajnaparamita Sutras through just hearing or reading “A.”

Besides being a meditation manual, we could also say that the Heart Sutra is like a big koan. But it is not just one koan, it is like those Russian dolls: there is one big doll on the outside and then there is a smaller one inside that first one, and there are many more smaller ones in each following one. Likewise, all the “nos” in the big koan of the sutra are little koans. Every little phrase with a “no” is a different koan in terms of what the “no” relates to, such as “no eye,” “no ear,” and so on. It is an invitation to contemplate what that means. “No eye,” “no ear” sounds very simple and very straightforward, but if we go into the details, it is not that straightforward at all. In other words, all those different “no” phrases give us different angles or facets of the main theme of the sutra, which is emptiness. 

Emptiness means that things do not exist as they seem, but are like illusions and like dreams. They do not have a nature or a findable core of their own. Each one of those phrases makes us look at that very same message. The message or the looking are not really different, but we look at it in relation to different things. What does it mean that the eye is empty? What does it mean that visible form is empty? What does it mean that even wisdom, buddhahood, and nirvana are empty?

Besides being a meditation manual, we could also say that the Heart Sutra is like a big koan. But it is not just one koan, it is like those Russian dolls: there is one big doll on the outside and then there is a smaller one inside that first one, and there are many more smaller ones in each following one.

From an ordinary Buddhist point of view we could even say that the Heart Sutra is not only crazy, but it is iconoclastic or even heretical. Many people have complained about the Prajnaparamita Sutras because they also trash all the hallmarks of Buddhism itself, such as the four noble truths, the Buddhist path, and nirvana. These sutras not only say that our ordinary thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are invalid and that they do not really exist as they seem to, but that the same goes for all the concepts and frameworks of philosophical schools—non- Buddhist schools, Buddhist schools, and even the Mahayana, the tradition to which the Prajnaparamita Sutras belong. Is there any other spiritual tradition that says, “Everything that we teach, just forget about it”? It is somewhat similar to the boss of Microsoft recently having publicly recommended that PC users should not buy Windows Vista any more, but instead go straight from Windows XP to Windows 7. Basically, he was advertising against his own product. The Heart Sutra is similar to that, except that it tells us only what not to buy, but not what to buy instead.

In brief, if we have never seen the Heart Sutra and we read it, it sounds crazy because it just keeps saying “no, no, no.” If we are trained in Buddhism, it also sounds crazy (maybe even more so) because it negates everything that we have learned and try to cultivate.

How does our mind feel when we are not grasping at anything, when we are not trying to entertain ourselves, and when our mind is not going outside (or not going anywhere at all), when there is no place left to go?

The Heart Sutra and the other Prajnaparamita Sutras talk about a lot of things, but their most fundamental theme is the basic groundlessness of our experience. They say that no matter what we do, no matter what we say, and no matter what we feel, we need not believe any of it. There is nothing whatsoever to hold on to, and even that is not sure. So these sutras pull the rug out from under us all the time and take away all our favorite toys. Usually when someone takes away one of our mental toys we just find new toys. That is one of the reasons why many of the Prajnaparamita Sutras are so long—they list all the toys we can think of and even more, but our mind still keeps grasping at new ones. 

The basic point is to get to a place where we actually stop searching for and grasping at the next toy. Then we need to see how that state of mind feels. How does our mind feel when we are not grasping at anything, when we are not trying to entertain ourselves, and when our mind is not going outside (or not going anywhere at all), when there is no place left to go?

Usually we think that if a given phenomenon is not something, it must be nothing, and if it is not nothing, it must be something. But emptiness is just a word for pointing out the fact that no matter what we say or think about something, it does not really correctly characterize that something because our dualistic mind just gets stuck in one extreme or the other. Thus, we could say that emptiness is like thinking outside of the box, that is, the box of black-and-white thinking or dualistic thinking. As long as we stay within the ballpark of dualistic thinking, there is always existence, nonexistence, permanence, extinction, good, and bad.

 Within that frame of reference, we will never get beyond it, no matter if we are religious, a scientist, a Buddhist, an agnostic, or whatever. Emptiness tells us that we have to step out of that ballpark altogether. Emptiness points to the most radical transformation of our entire outlook with regard to ourselves and the world. Emptiness not only means the end of the world as we know it, but that this world never really existed in the first place.

Without developing a soft heart and compassion, which like water softens our mental rigidity, there is a danger that the teachings on emptiness can make our hearts even harder.

Why is it called the “Heart Sutra”? It has that name because it teaches the heart of the Mahayana, primarily in terms of the view. However, the basic motivation of the Mahayana is also implicitly contained in this sutra in the form of Avalokiteshvara, the great bodhisattva who is the embodiment of the loving-kindness and compassion of all buddhas. It is actually the only Prajnaparamita Sutra in which Avalokiteshvara appears at all, and in it he is even the main speaker. Thus, the Heart Sutra teaches emptiness through the epitome of compassion. It is often said that, in a sense, emptiness is the heart of the Mahayana, but the heart of emptiness is compassion.

 The scriptures even use the phrase “emptiness with a heart of compassion.” It is crucial to never forget that. The main reason for Avalokitesvara’s presence here is to symbolize the aspect of compassion and to emphasize that we should not miss out on it. If we just read all the “nos” and then get hooked on the “no path” of “no self” and “no attainment,” it gets a little dreary or depressing and we may wonder, “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are we not doing this?”

 In fact, the heart essence of the Prajnaparamita teachings and the Mahayana is the union of emptiness and compassion. If we look at the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras, we see that they teach both aspects extensively. In addition to teaching about emptiness, they also speak about the path in great detail, such as how to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, how to do certain meditations, and how to progress through the paths. They do not always say “no,” but also sometimes present things in a more positive light. Even the Heart Sutra, toward the end, comes up with a few phrases without “no.”

Without developing a soft heart and compassion, which like water softens our mental rigidity, there is a danger that the teachings on emptiness can make our hearts even harder. If we think we understand emptiness, but our compassion does not increase, or even lessens, we are on the wrong track. Therefore, for those of us who are Buddhists, it is good and necessary to give rise to compassion and bodhichitta before we study, recite, and contemplate this sutra. All others may connect with any spot of compassion that they can find in their hearts.

In yet another way, we could say that the Heart Sutra is an invitation to just let go and relax. We can replace all the words in this sutra that go with “no,” such as “no eye,” “no ear,” with all our problems, such as “no depression,” “no fear,” “no unemployment,” “no war,” and so on. That might sound simplistic, but if we do that and actually make it into a contemplation on what all those things such as depression, fear, war, and economic crisis actually are, it can become very powerful, maybe even more powerful than the original words in the sutra. Usually we are not that interested in, for example, our ears and whether they really exist or not, so with regard to contemplating what emptiness means, one of the basic principles of the Prajnaparamita Sutras is to make the examination as personal as possible.

 It is not about reciting some stereotypical formula or the Heart Sutra without ever getting to the core of our own clinging to real existence with regard to those phenomena to which we obviously do cling, or our own egoclinging. For example, the Heart Sutra does not say “no self,” “no home,” “no partner,” “no job,” “no money,” which are the things we usually care about. Therefore, in order to make it more relevant to our life, we have to fill those in. The Heart Sutra gives us a basic template of how to contemplate emptiness, but the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras fill in a lot of stuff, not only saying “no eye,” “no ear,” and so on. They go through endless lists of all kinds of phenomena, so we are welcome to come up with our own personal lists of phenomena that map out our personal universe and then apply the approach of the Heart Sutra to those lists.

There are accounts in several of the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras about people being present in the audience who had already attained certain advanced levels of spiritual development or insight that liberated them from samsaric existence and suffering. These people, who are called “arhats” in Buddhism, were listening to the Buddha speaking about emptiness and then had different reactions. Some thought, “This is crazy, let’s go” and left. Others stayed, but some of them had heart attacks, vomited blood, and died. 

It seems they didn’t leave in time. These arhats were so shocked by what they were hearing that they died on the spot. That’s why somebody suggested to me that we could call the Heart Sutra the Heart Attack Sutra. Another meaning of that could be that this sutra goes right for the heart of the matter, while mercilessly attacking all ego trips that prevent us from waking up to our true heart. In any case, so far nobody has had a heart attack here, which is good news. But the bad news is that probably nobody understood it either.

From “The Heart Attack Sutra, by Karl Brunnhölzl, published by Snow Lion, 2012.
Categories: Buddhadharma, Buddhism, Featured, middle-Home, Teachings & Practice, top-Home
Tags: Buddhadharma - Fall '12, Heart Sutra, Karl Brunnhölzl, Mahayana
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