Heart Sutra 1: Seeing the Background

Notes from a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity on July 9, 2012 on day 1 of a 12-day intensive. www.centreofgravity.org

The Heart Sutra is the most chanted sutra in the Buddhist tradition. Somewhere in the world, no matter when you are reading this, someone is chanting the sutra.

For me, the HS is mixed up with a time in my life when I was unemployed and had a lot of time to practice. I memorized it, and would chant it over and over as I walked, and I walked all the time. Whenever I chant the HS I feel these waves I don’t understand. Some days you chant and the meaning is percolated through with some deep feelings that are hard to name, and other days it’s only mechanical.

Maha Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra
“Maha” is an esoteric term meaning unsurpassingly great. There’s nothing outside of it. It’s a greatness that covers everything, it’s not great in a comparative sense (ie. ‘greater’ than something else). It’s a synonym for emptiness. In other words, the most mysterious parts of ourselves and of others. I think of this when bowing. In North America when you greet someone you perform the saddest of all adult rituals. You shake hands. This began about 130 years ago to ensure you weren’t carrying a gun. In Asia, they’ve been bowing for centuries. When you bow you leave a space between two people, and this can create great intimacy. When I was in Kyoto in March I loved watching people bow – they threw their whole body into it. There was nothing left. This is the meaning of maha. They were completely going for it. Not holding anything back. Then you contact the most mysterious part of yourself. You bow from the place you can’t control. If you can control it, it’s not really a bow.

In yoga this practice has its roots in bhakti or devotion. The spirit of devotion to whatever is showing up in your life. You’re so in your life you can’t see it anymore. When you’re fully with another, there’s no other, there’s just what’s happening.

Maha means unsurpassable. It’s limitless. It means to go beyond. The place beyond dichotomy. Beyond I like/I don’t like.  In the dharma the only dichotomy is between ignorance and wisdom, seeing and not seeing. You’ll notice within two minutes you can see the two parts – the part of you that can’t see or listen, and the other part that is beginner’s mind. And beginner’s mind threatens the part of us that wants to control experience.

Pra means before, jna gives us the Greek word gnosis or knowledge, or wisdom. It means the knowledge before knowledge. It’s what you know before you know. And to trust that. I had a difficult situation a few weeks ago and I asked for advice, I emailed Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and she said: you don’t need any advice! This was very good advice. So often when we have difficulties we go to the experts, maybe it’s your brother, your mother, your teacher. But sometimes you need to stand there, pinned to the wall, and touch the knowing before knowing. It arises out of the conditions of that situation. It is exactly the same as the space we call creativity.

The goal of early Buddhism was to see life with wisdom. But in our way of practicing, it’s not just about seeing your life with wisdom, it’s about becoming wisdom.

Hakuin (1686 – 1768) wrote commentary on The Heart Sutra and insisted that wisdom is not separate from you. It’s like beads rolling on a tray: sudden, ready, uninhibited.  How can we meet our lives like beads on a tray.

Patanjali named wisdom as one of the five powers: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.

In the Buddha’s eightfold path, the first element is vipassana or right seeing, which leads to deep wisdom. In Mayahana Buddhism wisdom is the crown jewel of the six paramitas.

The problem is that you get so caught up in yourself. Everything is measured, rehearsed, comfortable. How do we find that place in us that we can respond without holding back?

We all want to be more comfortable, and slowly the comfort starts to kill you. You get the right apartment, you stock it with the right appliances and yet you’re haunted by this incompleteness. Sometimes comfort eats away at the part of us that needs to be more like beads on a tray. Or maybe you can’t forgive, or there’s part of you that you’re not allowed to feel, so you’re not at home in your life.

In traditional Buddhism the core of the teaching is impermanence. It’s a shock when impermanence shows up in our lives. You can have a philosophy about it, but when it shows up it’s something else. Oh, he’s dead. We’re trying to create a life that’s predictable and comfortable. How could we remake the core of our life so that impermanence is our ground. In Mahayana Buddhism impermanence is not the core, it’s emptiness. One way to look at a relationship is that it’s impermanent. Isn’t there an inevitable suffering in every relationship, because you’ll grow apart, or one of you will get sick and die. You have to leave them, or they will have to leave you. It’s impermanent. But behind this impermanence, you can see that the there’s emptiness. Like Lake Ontario reflecting all the colours of the sky.

Dogen says that impermanence and emptiness is Buddha nature. Your true nature.

Knowing means cutting away understanding. It’s a kind of renunciation.

With drug use you can plunge into suffering, or sometimes experience interdependence, but if you don’t have the frame to hold it, it simply defaults back into suffering. If you can’t see the background. God is the background. Sorry to use that word. I mean: big sky is the background. Suzuki said that things are more beautiful because they’re out of balance. But to see suffering up against its background is also to see beauty.

Paramita means highest, or most excellent. Para: beyond, a far bank, a shore. Mita: That which has arrived. “That which has gone beyond.” Or “Fully arriving.” When we say we’ve gone to the other shore it makes it seem like we’re trying to get somewhere. But the beyond is right here. Like in the old Sufi joke where one calls out to the other: “Come over here, to the other shore!” And the other answers, “I’m on the other shore!”

There are six practices of the bodhisattva. Six paramitas. Generosity, morality, energy, patience, concentration, wisdom.  Why are these called the paramitas? You take these qualities and you only make them into forms of wisdom by going beyond them. If you think “I’m giving so much to the centre today,” that’s not going beyond. Giving beyond giving is not something you can cultivate. Giving becomes a reflex of living. It’s right here, all the time.

Avalokiteshvara is the Buddhist deity of compassion, one who hears the sounds of the world. He’s dedicated to the deepest practice of compassion: listening. When we’re wrapped up in our own cravings we can’t hear others. Or the moments in our body, or our friends, who are calling out. Why can’t you hear me? Avalokiteshvara is swimming in these waters.

Over time as religious traditions become more efficient, and mature, they become more about compassion. Compassion and emptiness go hand in hand – if you’re moved to do something and act it comes out of an understanding of emptiness. If you gave the HS to a teenager it might be  a recipe for depression. If everything is empty, why should I clean my room? But everything is empty except relationship, there is only relationship left. And that’s what Avalokiteshvara is swimming in. Hakuin says: “It’s sleeping at night and moving around in the daytime. Urinating and passing excrement. Clouds moving and streams flowing. Leaves falling and flowers scattering.” In other words, beads falling on a tray. Why are you working so hard? Do you feel that prajna paramita is separate from you? You’re sitting on it. You’re breathing it in, breathing it out.