Heart Sutra 3: Vacuum Cleaner

Notes from a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity on July 13, 2012 on day 5 of a 12-day intensive.

It’s so easy to sit on the cushion and waste time. “Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost, Do not squander your life.” Every moment is precious. Work hard in the time you have here. Please try to show up and undo the knots that keep you in the momentum of your narratives. And please remember: you are practicing not just for yourself but also for the people around you. It can be hard to love your loved ones sometimes. You can be hard to love sometimes, especially when we’re caught up in our stories. How often we prefer the versioned portions of our lives to the lived experience of it. Can we open up to what is happening now?

In sitting meditation can you let go of language and look for what’s underneath that? What’s underneath is self acceptance, the acceptance of this moment as it is. Of the way you are, in this moment. In the Christian/Judaic culture forgiveness arrives from God. It is the province of God. You’ve sinned, and then God forgives you. Or not. And that’s similar to what happens in meditation practice. When you get underneath the place of clinging you touch the place where you’re allowing yourself to be right here. You’re not projecting hopes onto siblings or frustrations onto the vacuum cleaner. Then you can take care of yourself from this place. Underneath the part of you that is trying to figure out your life, there is a deeper place of acceptance, of forgiveness.

When you sit on a cushion, all movement or wandering thoughts is a way of not accepting yourself. The place you are sitting is the middle of the universe (what better reason to adjust your cushion carefully), you are not the centre of all things, but your stillness is being placed in the middle of all phenomena. When you sit there the universe moves through you, and if you can accept that, you can accept yourself. If there’s something you can’t accept, then you’ll probably find it hard to accept in others. If there’s some people that particularly annoy you, it might be because you yourself have those same traits, and find them annoying. And similarly if there are wounds in yourself that you’ve worked hard to heal, when you see them in others, you might be able to extend compassion to them. Oh, look at that angry person, he’s really suffering. Oh, look at that jealousy arising, that must be so painful for them

When we’re sitting, we’re not trying to get somewhere, we’re just following the breath, becoming the breath. The body settles, the heart slows and what arrives is a feeling for sitting in the middle of your life. It’s an expression of appreciation for being alive. Some people didn’t wake up this morning. My best friend Steve is a carpenter, he’s my closest friend so he doesn’t practice here – and his best friend just died, he’s nearing 50, just a little older than me, and he went to bed not feeling so well and he never got up. Sometimes you go into savasana and then you don’t get up. But if you do, perhaps you could find some appreciation for that, even in the midst of difficulties. We’re still here. And perhaps this appreciation can ease the clinging a little bit.

Reading the Heart Sutra one can jump in at any line and that becomes the beginning. It’s like doing yoga asana. You open with one pose, with downward dog say, and it already contains the seed of upward facing dog, the seeds of the whole practice are right there, wherever you begin. Just like the seed of the way you’re going to die is being planted in the way you live. Yoga is often talked about with these two sides: strength and flexibility, and the intersection is your attitude. It’s in your tongue actually.

Compassion and Intellect
The Heart Sutra is an anti-philosophy text. It is a dialogue between Avalokiteshvara, the paragon of compassion and Shariputra, the master of Buddhist psychology, the learned student. Both these figures are also inside you. You have the capacity for deep responsiveness and creativity that is compassion. And you have the capacity for intellect and analysis. But you can analyze the actions and reactions of your friends and lovers forever – determine where these behaviours have come from, what parents have handed down what bad patterns – but this acuity is nothing without compassion. You need both sides: intellect and compassion.

There may be certain tendencies you won’t be able to heal. According to a recent article in the science section of the NY Times temperament is 99 percent genetic. Some grooves are so deep.

The Heart Sutra is a magical teaching because it’s teaching us not to fall completely on the oceanic compassion side: oh, I love everyone. Or on the analysis side: picking everyone apart. Have you ever done this? Or had this done to you? You’ve done something unskillful and then your partner recounts every instance you’ve ever done it. Do you remember back in June of 1999… Wait, wait, have you been keeping a list? An inventory of hurts? Well, actually I have…

Don’t let your pain be private. Use your pain as a compass to guide you. Try to suspend the content. Perhaps it’s possible to use the feeling of being with pain to connect with others, to deepen compassion.

No Self
Psychologically you have a self and that’s healthy. But ontologically, at a deeper level, you don’t exist except as a psychological construct. The result of that realization is more tenderness. You’re not such a problem. You think you have so many problems – maybe when you have the realization of no-self, it’s easier to have problems. Often these problems are a product of our times.

Take my nuclear family. Please. Two people are supposed to live together. There is work and relationship. You’re supposed to have sex. Make money. Clean the house. Vacuum. Even when you don’t feel like vacuuming, you have to vacuum the apartment. Pick up kids, have friends, contribute to your community, stay up on local politics, global issues. Make sure your lifestyle doesn’t leave too large an ecological footprint. All of us suffer from some anxiety following these models of being in a family, and this is the suffering of our times. These struggles are not “my fault.” Though they are my responsibility. But they’re also part of the cultural samskaras, the inherited grooves that tell us how we are supposed to live.

I live in a neighbourhood that by postal code, has the most kids anywhere in Canada. You move into this neighbourhood and you become pregnant, instantly, even if you’re a man. It’s the strangest thing. Maybe it’s the water? Or the books they have in the library?

Avalokiteshvara says to Shariputra: form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is nothing other than form. Form is full of everything, everything is not separate from form. They depend on each other. Form needs emptiness, emptiness needs form. This is typical Buddhist logic: when you start thinking in binary opposites – when you go deeper you find there’s no duality. And then when you go deeper still, you find there’s duality again. And when you go deeper than that you find there’s no duality. And of course there is no deeper, that’s just an idea too. That’s why I’m a proponent of neo-non-dualism. When you’re in the one you can love dualism, for me this is healthy non-dualism. Because you can’t live a non-dual life. You can’t live outside language.

Waves and Water
Form and emptiness are traditionally likened to waves and water. A wave is not exactly ocean – it has its own characteristics, but it is not separate from ocean. Suzuki says: waves are the practice of water. Waves (form) depend on the ocean (emptiness). The wave is an expression of emptiness.

The glass is full of water. Then I take a drink. You might think: the glass is empty. But the glass is always empty. The water comes in and takes the shape of the glass

When the water is in the river we call it river. When it falls from the sky we call is rain. These are views of emptiness. No need to take emptiness to be a God though.

Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are likewise like this. These are the five skandhas, right?

All dharmas are forms of emptiness. Dharma means particles or the law. It means the smallest thing you can observe. In Theravada Buddhism they counted up the dharmas – there are 75 in total. And 3 of the 75 are not conditioned. The first is space. When you walk into a room you see a form, and in the form is space – an unobstructed room has space, leading to an unobstructed walk. Space is an unconditioned dharma. 2. Nirvana with remainder (a little left). Eg. The Buddha was enlightened under a tree, but then he continued to live and teach in the world. He suffered so much. He had an ulcer. He had some of his closest students leave him (You put so much work into your students and then they open up a yoga space right across the road and you don’t talk for ten years.) The Buddha had the problem of having to look after thousands of students, they would come into a village – thousands of them – all needing something to eat. A place to rest. He was constantly talking with kings, mayors, city elders to find a place for his sangha.

After the Buddha died he achieved 3. Nirvana without remainder – pure freedom. No chores. No siblings. No vacuuming.

But then Mahayana Buddhism comes along with its bodhisattva ideal – a life dedicated to service. Avalokiteshvara announces this new paradigm to Shariputra: all dharmas are empty! There are two problems with dharma. The first is that if dharma is a thing then you can cling to it. And secondly you can use it to create a self. If dharma exists, then who does it exist in, or who is following it, leading it, letting it flow through them? Whenever you set up this kind of vocabulary you get own-being. In other words, if you look at time in terms of this understanding of dharma, you can get too self focused. As if this beautiful dharma thing must be in the thing that is me.

Avalokiteshvara says the most important thing is to love others. Everything you do makes a difference. You have to love all the mundane stuff. Even the vacuuming. All the ancient texts say that prana (breathing patterns) equals citta (consciousness). In other words, the breath can hold so many thoughts and sensations without grasping and then you know how to respond creatively. I’m going to do this vacuuming like I’m doing a handstand. This is not a dustball under the stove, this is a corner of the universe showing up as a dustball – how lucky I am to be living in a house like this one. When you practice, appreciation shows up by itself. Who’s that at the door?

Case 7: Joshu Washes the Bowl
A monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him.
Zhaozhou asked, “Have you eaten your meal?”
The monk replied, “Yes, I have.”
“Then go wash your bowl”, said Zhaozhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

After sitting meditation in Japan, my job was to restore the moss. At night birds would come into the garden and lift up pieces of the moss looking for worms. I thought of my job like restoring the toupees of the earth. One day the teacher asked me: Do you understand the bodhisattva vow? (I vow to serve all sentient beings) The truth of this practice is just to take care of things. Behind the teacher was an ancient cherry tree, blooming. There was an old branch being held up by crutches, one after another, over the years. That’s how the Japanese look after each other. At four pm we would go to the bath house, and you would kneel under these low faucets, and scrub soap onto a towel and soap your body. I would watch amazed as the men around me did it with such care and dedication, I would be finished washing and they would still be soaping up a knee joint. They weren’t just washing themselves, they were looking after themselves. You can go to the shower to get clean, or you can go to look after yourself. The reason we’re practicing downward facing dog is to appreciate our lives, not in order to get somewhere. It’s a joy to appreciate what you have. Then the ego comes in to see how it can use that to get somewhere.

One afternoon Wendy Donigan and her friend Annie Dillard and I are walking on the beach and Wendy is talking about her recent breast cancer. And then, as if on cue, a woman comes and sits near us and pulls her baby out of a blanket and starts to breast feed. Wendy says, “I’ll never be able to do that again,” but at the same time there is a realization that someone will be able to do it. Wendy won’t be able to do it, but someone else will be able, and that’s OK. Why do I have to feel like I have to be the one to do that?

That beautiful dress in the window: someone will wear it and they’ll look beautiful in it. That beautiful house: someone will live there, and they’ll be happy. Can you be happy for them?