Notes from a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity on July 9, 2012 on day 3 of a 12-day intensive.
A couple of days ago we spoke about “maha” – unsurpassable, limitless, greatness and another way of saying this is emptiness. It’s equivalent to emptiness or shunyu. Emptiness stands on the side of the object, because every object is empty of self-being, of its own being. We know this from neuro-science and particle physics. Every object, and every sentient being, is empty of a substantial self. There is no there, there.
Emptiness is not a place to get to or realize. It’s a strategy of seeing. It’s a lens to see the world, realizing that things are not what you think they are. From the side of the object there is emptiness, and from the side of the subject there is prajna – the wisdom to see the inherent emptiness
Nagarjuna: mistaking emptiness is like catching a snake from the wrong end. In other words, instead of seeing the world through the lens of emptiness, emptiness becomes a thing. This can make people dish sentences like, “I really want to drop fully into emptiness.” There is a way to drop into emptiness – it’s called disassociation. But prajna is the wisdom of recognizing and expressing emptiness. The realization of emptiness is prajna, its expression is compassion.
Emptiness is not a thing and when the brain hears that it’s not a thing it says: then it must be a process! But it’s not a process either. It’s like a balloon that’s full and empty at the same time. Something that can look weighty can be light. What about your sadness? What about the walls you’ve put up so that you can bear the pain of one more day?
When you’re depressed you’re consumed by stories. In depression or anger we can be caught up in our theories about ourselves, and about others. In psychoanalysis the times when people move out of depression can look very much like the way people move out of anger. They are moving out of their stories in order to feel something. What are you feeling?
You have to see that anger is not a thing – it’s a mood that arises out of conditions. There’s no thing there that’s permanent. No one is angry all the time.
Why Other People Suck
Emptiness is a kind of fullness because it’s empty of a separate self, a self that is separate from the world. We cause so many problems because we tell ourselves, again and again, that we are separate. Engaging the practice of emptiness means working on an asana level, on a psychological level, on an interpersonal level – because other people can’t stand to be a character in your stories. That’s why relations suck. People don’t want to play their part, they’ll ruin your story. When my life is empty of separation and heaviness it’s full of fluidity and compassion. When I’m not so invested in outcomes and the future, fluidity and compassion arrives.
In the Heart Sutra, emptiness becomes a deeper way of speaking about impermanence. HS takes Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence and reworks it.
Psychologically, as a culture, there’s still a pervasive sense that the greatest fear is that things are changing and we’re going to die. The Heart Sutra says that the greatest fear is not that we’re going to die, but that you don’t actually exist. How to use this sutra as a lever to shift your life? For most people when they can make this shift out of their self-imposed difficulties, they just want to help others. I don’t know how to explain it. But you feel you just want to help. There’s less separation, there’s less a sense that you’re buried in your old, rotting stories. And then you want to go out and help someone.
You walk down a path and step on a thorn and your hand reaches down and pulls it out of your foot. There’s no hesitation, no deliberation, no wondering why. This is an expression of inter-connectedness.
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, doing deep Prajna Paramita
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.
What are the five conditions? The five skandhas. When the Buddha wanted to look at what a person is, what a self is, he went into deep meditation. What is it that makes me a self? How do I experience myself? The Buddha broke it down into five parts, he called them skandhas, or aggregates of clinging. It’s important to remember that these aggregates, these heaps, don’t exist “out there,” they exist because of clinging. No clinging, no heaps. OK? The self only exists because of grasping.
1. Materiality (Pali: rupa)
2. Feeling (Pali: vedana)
3. Perception (Pali: sanna)
4. Mental formations (Pali: sankhara)
5. Consciousness (Pali: vinnana)
Materiality: we live in a body, the eyes move around and engage the world, there’s materiality so we express and embody our subjectivity, we experience the world because of our materiality.
Buddhist Psych 101
When a sense organ meets a sense object it produces a sensation. This is called consciousness (vinnana). (6 kinds: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind)
After the sensation arrives we decide: I like it, I don’t like it, neutral. This is called feeling (vedana).
After the sensation has been labeled we strain it through our perceptions (sanna), in order to engage the I-maker, the endless proliferation of stories that all bolster the sense that “I” is at the centre of the world (these are mental formations or sankhara).
Our perceptions (sanna) are not neutral or objective, they’re made up out of our gender, our class and race, our particular conditions. You can’t escape your subjectivity. I can’t experience the colour of light in this room independently of my income bracket or my age. We can become more aware of our subjectivity, but we can’t escape it. When you practice listening you’re really looking at how it’s so hard to listen to viewpoints that don’t agree with your own. The self is created out of grasping and opposition. Saying “I don’t like that person, or that thing,” is a way to ground something that has no real ground, it is part of an attempt to create an I, instead of recognizing the emptiness that we really are. We create stories about other people – there’s part of that that’s healthy and partly it’s exhausting because no one can fit completely into our descriptions.
The old fashioned way of describing the self still holds onto the vestiges of a God. There is a self, that is like a God, that is actually there, something fixed and reliable. And it has consciousness. What the Buddhists are insisting on, much more radically, is that God does not exist, and the self does not exist. Instead, moment after moment, out of conditions arising, consciousness arrives, and passes away. Arrives and passes away.
When you swing a sparkler quickly it might look like there’s an O made in the air. But when you examine it moment by moment, you see that it is made up of instants, strung together. There is no real continuity. The documentary reality is moment to moment.
The Heart Sutra goes one further and says that the five aggregates are just another idea, another conceptualization. If you really understand emptiness, then there are no aggregates. Can you tell when the air in your nose stops and becomes you? It’s just an idea.
In 7th century China Ts’ao-tung had a hard childhood. When he was 17 he decided to ordain as a Buddhist monk. He studied for seven years. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted to go the source of the dharma which he imagined was in India. For thirty years he walked across the Gobi desert. He encountered a lot of ghosts that scared him, nowadays our ghosts come via skype and interwebbed encounters, but in those pre-Japanese electronic days they took other forms. He’s tortured, and one day he meets an old man who is sick. Sometimes we defend a little against the impact of seeing someone who is sick. The old man told him that if he continued to see ghosts, or had misfortune, just chant the last line of the Heart Sutra: Gate Gate Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi Svaha! Prajna Heart Sutra!
The Heart Sutra is addressed to Shariputra, its first reader. Who was Shariputra? He was the greatest student of the Abhidharma, he knows all the teachings inside-out, he knows so much about the traditions and the forms but he’s not awake. He’s gone to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is telling him no it’s not out there, it’s here, it’s this, right here and now.
In spiritual language, which we all suffer from, we are forever turning processes into states. It’s important to remember that Avalokiteshvara is practicing. That compassion or awakening for that matter, is not a place that one arrives at, like checking into a hotel. Gary Snyder wrote a beautiful poem about this. “Go ahead, you be the deity of compassion, and I’ll be the cab driver, driving you home.” Your practice expresses the fact of your enlightenment, and your enlightenment is expressed only in practice.
You go into psychoanalysis because you have this idea that if you find the origin of your distress in your childhood then you’ll heal the anxiety you feel in adult life. But what’s healing is not the archaeology, it’s having someone show up and meet you where you are.
There are two kinds of teachers. There are masterful teachers, and around them you want to be masterful. And then there are failures: and around them you can be yourself. I can’t practice for you. All I can do is encourage you. Maybe I can see some places where you shine but you can’t see them because you’re trying to get somewhere. Otherwise there’s only the loneliness that is the internalized oppression of dominant culture.
The practice is two fold. Firstly: whatever you’re doing is a yoga posture. And then in formal yoga practice, in formal postures, we drop into a realm of feeling sensations before the mind turns these sensations into something else, like stories about ourselves. These sensations become the foreground of something bigger, the vibration of the natural world. What keeps you outside this world is grasping the five aggregates.
Are you sure this isn’t leading somewhere? That you’re not trying to get somewhere?