Hi every one or should I write my very very few readers. I just got back from a seven day sesshin and even after all these years (40+) I believe meditation is deepening and changing for me. Here is part 2 on my Heart Sutra blogs.
O Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness. Emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness. that which is emptiness, form. The same is true of feelings,perceptions, impulses and consciousness.
All of a sudden Avalokiteshvara comes out of meditation and addresses Shariputra. Unlike Avalokiteshvara we know Shariputra to be a real member of the Shakyamuni Buddha's community. Shariputra was famed for his scholarship and wisdom. It is interesting that Avalo addresses Shariputra and not the Buddha or the whole group sitting that day. This points to an unusual interpretation that this whole sutra might be about not Avalo's enlightenment but about Shariputra's enlightenment and that this is all happening inside the mind of Shariputra. I say this because Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva is a Universal Bodhisattva representing the wisdom of non-discrimination. We might say that Avalo manifests every time the wisdom of non-discrimination manifests. In this case this wisdom is manifesting for Shariputra. Any individual who is experiencing the wisdom of non-discrimination is meeting Avalokitesvara and experiencing the heart of the Prajna Paramita. Whether you accept this unusual interpretation it doesn't matter, this Sutra is about the experience and wisdom thereby gained from non-discrimination.
To at all understand the Heart Sutra we have to have some idea of what is the experience of non-discrimination. Maybe we can have some inkling of understanding if we understand how meditation with a mantra works. In meditation with a mantra we recite the mantra to ourselves attending to the sound of the mantra with concentrated awareness with our inner ear, usually synchronizing the repetition with our breath. This is a practice in mindfulness and concentration. We use the mantra to crowd out and cut off our inner dialogue and imagination This simple practice if maintained continuously over long periods of time, not just hours but weeks and years, will so reduce the energy and habits of our constant inner dialogue and imagination that we will find ourselves without inner dialogue and imagination. not permanently but for periods of time. One might think that this practice will put one in a sort of a dull hypnotic state but this is not true. Actually if a person can take the practice that far he/she will find their mind clear, alert, and energized. This is not very different from the state of mind of the artist or artisan who has spent endless hours practicing, mastering their craft. Now imagine that after a long period of mantra practice we have entered a state of mind where there is nothing happening in the mind but that mantra repetition All self consciousness is gone. We have lost awareness of our body. All extraneous thoughts are stopped. Now we open our eyes and look out at the world. We see forms but all the normal habits of thinking about these forms are gone. We don't categorize the form as this thing or that thing. We don't recognize the form as being "out there" or "here in the mind. We don't add any emotion or thought to what is seen. We don't even divide the forms into this and that. This is the state of complete non-discrimination. And if upon returning to discursive thought we try to describe this experience of non-discrimination then the word empty might seem like an excellent description. The normally constant process of conscious and unconscious discrimination that gives the forms observed a sense of reality and solidity is not present. Now when we observe form we can only ascribe a quality of emptiness to form which is to say no quality. And this no quality is so intimately fused with observed form that we have to say; "That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form."
There is another translation of the Heart Sutra by the Zen Studies Society of New York City which replaces "emptiness" with "Mu" a common Zen mantra which translates as "no" in Chinese. Shodo Harada Roshi is constantly telling his students to see things as "just phenomena." The Heart Sutra is not talking about some subtle and difficult to understand intellectual concept of emptiness but the experience of emptiness which is non-discrimination.
The same is true of feelings perceptions, impulses,and consciousness.
This next line seems to be a shift in perspective from looking outward to looking back upon one's self. Form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness are the five skandas (trans: aggregates) which form the classical Buddhist idea of what constitutes a human being. At a sesshin (7 day meditation retreat) I always encounter a lot of pain during the long hours of meditation. Some times the pain seems almost unbearable I have thoughts that I am doing permanent damage to my body and I need to move. But then if meditation is deep with few thoughts I observe the same sensation with little trouble. The sensation is no longer painful it is simply sensation, phenomena. The sensation has become empty of the usual attending thoughts that make the sensation painful. In deep meditation each of the skandas has that same quality of emptiness as form. Even consciousness becomes empty when in very deep meditation we enter a mirror like state where sensations reflect on the mirror of consciousness but there is no self conscious awareness. Each skanda is just phenomena.
If each of the five skandas is just phenomena then we humans are just phenomena, then I am just phenomena. Not my form, not my feelings, not my perceptions, not my impulses, not my consciousness has any special quality that I can attach to as "I". This is just a reformulation of the non-atman doctrine of Shakyamuni. This is such an unsettling idea that to our normal way of thinking it is scary, and fear is often experienced by meditators as they approach this insight. It takes a deep experience of personal emptiness for it to truly be accepted. But once accepted there will be profound changes in the individual.
One might think that the acceptance of our own individual emptiness would lead one into feelings of nihilism and despair but just the opposite happens. We read that this insight saved Avalokiteshvara from all suffering. Why? This insight of emptiness cuts the roots of the illusion of an individual self and though we seem to loose what is most dear, our selves, we gain the Universe. Or maybe I should say we become the Universe. Our personal boundaries are gone and we experience an amazing connection to everything. Zen teachers often tell their students to become "one" with something, the mountains, the sound of a stream, the pain in the knees, etc. They are simply asking the students to experience that same amazing connection that happens when there are no personal boundaries.
I am not sure this completely explains why this insight saves us from suffering it doesn't actually end the pain in the knees during sesshin. And it certainly doesn't end emotions of empathy for the suffering of others. These emotions are just intensified by a deepening connections to others. Nor does it actually end any other emotion though I would hope it lessens greed, anger, and fear. .But, what it does do is end our attachment to our emotions and any idea of how things should be, and it is that attachment which is the actual suffering.
I heard a wonderful interview with an astrophysicist the other day. The astrophysicist talked about how some people upon learning about the huge immensity of the cosmos will feel insignificant and depressed, but that they have a deluded view of their self importance. He on the other hand feels aw and joy that he gets to take part in this amazing Universe. He called it a cosmic perspective This is very much like the perspective of the Heart Sutra, by understanding our own emptiness and the emptiness of all sensations there is a complete change in perspective. It doesn't change us from being human but it does give us a sort of cosmic perspective in which we also find aw and joy as well as love and compassion