Heart Sutra 5: No Gain by Elaine Jackson

Elaine gave her excellent talk on July 15, 2012, day 7 of a 12 day intensive at the Centre of Gravity, Toronto. It is a reflection on a single line in the Heart Sutra.

No gain and thus the Bodhisattva lives Prajna Paramita

How do I get mind mind around practice with no idea of gaining? I can’t. Or I should say that  my intellectual, A-student, hand-up-in-class mind gets it perfectly, but the many other minds – who actually really hate that geek – have no time for the idea. I’m talking about my gut mind, my heart mind, my imaginative tail bone mind (well, it gets it a little bit, but it’s never really fit in, if you know what I mean).

From the earliest I can remember, I’ve been so socialized by my culture to weigh every activity I do in terms of its purposefulness and usefulness. In fact, I can hear my dad’s voice when I think of it, saying, “Make yourself useful.” Which isn’t a bad thing because he usually meant it in terms of service. But deciding what is useful is often measured in terms of gain. Gain is a value judgment. Activities with no gain fall into the category of diversions – time wasters, time passers.

So how can I square a practice of no gain with not squandering my time? Our culture (read “my friends, the people I know”) see meditation as a grand waste of time unless it can gain you some tranquility, anti-aging benefits, or weight loss. The same people who see no problem with watching American Idol night after night show absolute disdain for meditation. And some of my multiple heart-minds feel that keenly and struggle with it. The minds that feel they need to explain and defend.

Do not squander your life. Do not squander your time on the cushion. So if I’m having a bad day on the cushion am I wasting time? If I have a series of bad days then how can I argue for the value of my practice? How can I square the idea of not gaining and not seeking  with the discipline of taking the time to sit?

But maybe in part it’s because of what gain means. I think of gains as linear – as taking place in time. Maybe if I can say “no” to that part of gain – maybe if I could put the word “gain” in a sauce pan and boil off the progressive linear part and thus strain out “value.” If I could keep value and send “gain” back to the laundry commercials where hapless consumers are mesmerized by the smell of it. Maybe then I could let go of gaining ideas.

Can I embody compassion as a first principle after years of trying to learn better boundaries and trying not to be a proverbial doormat? To serve others without burn out – without resentment when my work is not appreciated – or when my needs are ignored. Whose needs? How can I serve others when there is no I? Who is doing the serving and who is being served? Have you been served? The bodhisattva, I suppose, does not deal in such distinctions.

I think perhaps the bodhisattva does not think so much. Does not make categories and subcategories. She simply goes about her day because she sees no separation. She serves by getting up in the morning and brushing her teeth and feeding the cats and doing the damned dishes. She has to live the Prajna Paramita. She expresses it in washing the vegetables and sending the birthday cards and buying the most environmentally responsible dish soap. Or not. She practices and practices and never expects to get anywhere. The bodhisattva has to let go of caring about respect and awards and merit badges. She has to let go of expectations of understanding from others (except for the sangha – that’s what it’s for). She must do things because they need to be done – selfless in the Buddhist sense and not the doormat sense. And the best way I think to do that is to stop trying to figure it out. And then suddenly, accidentally, you’re living Prajna Paramita. And you sit on your cushion without guilt.