Introduction and Background

Edited text of the lecture on this topic given by Dr John Crook to the Bristol Ch'an Group 4th, November 1992.

This is the first lecture of a series and will be continued in future issues.

When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

was coursing in the deep Prajnaparamita,

He perceived that all five skandas are empty,

thereby transcending all sufferings.

Sariputra, form is not other than emptiness

and emptiness not other than form.

Form is precisely emptiness

and emptiness precisely form.

The Heart Sutra is perhaps the most important scripture in Zen. It summarises and captures the root notions fundamental to the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. The original versions are in Sanskrit and there are ancient translations into Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese. It is not a scripture of the Theravadan Canon but belongs to the "second turning" of the wheel of the Dharma dating from the times when the Mahayana or Great Vehicle scriptures were being produced. In fact the Heart Sutra is a summary of an enormous body of literature known as the Prajnaparamita Sutras.

At one time in India there were a tremendous number of scriptures conveying the Great New Idea. This lay at the heart of the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, namely, the "emptyness" of absolutely everything. This emptyness was not just the absence of self in the person which the Buddha had proclaimed in his earliest sermons but a corresponding emptiness in all things that could be perceived in the entire Cosmos. Few monks were at first able to understand this widened conception of emptiness-which does not mean nothingness. Buddhism has never been nihilistic.

The Prajnaparamita scriptures of varying lengths all explore this pivotal idea. Its fundamental implication is that no apparent thing has a quality of permanent selfhood as an entity; everything is impermanent and dependent upon changing causal factors and conditions. Everything is a flux or flow, a cosmic process of changing states. Nothing in it is graspable but our most serious illusion is that this is so.

The scriptures were collected together by the monks into enormous tomes known as the Scripture of Great Wisdom. They were really a packaging together of numerous repetitions commonly used for chanting. It became progressively incomprehensible and few monks actually understood it. After all, emptiness is tricky idea!

Learned teachers decided that they had to capture the heart of this vast book and present it in a simple form everybody could understand. The Heart Sutra came to be formulated as a summary of the essential issue. Another summary of a similar kind is known as the Diamond Sutra which comes from a different text but is exploring the same issues.

This whole literature, the Prajnaparamita, eventually became the subject of extensive philosophical criticism. There was a school of logic which eventually gave rise to the next phase of philosophical analysis, namely the Madyamaka and Cittamatra schools. These both have their roots in the Prajnaparamita Sutra of which the Heart and Diamond Sutras are the brilliant crystallisations.

But what does the Sutra actually refer to? The versions that we have in Ch'an are very short ones, the Tibetan one is considerably longer. The Tibetan version provides the context of the discourse. The Buddha has gathered all his disciples together on the top of the Vulture Peak Mountain, which is still known as an archaeological site in India today. The gathering consisted not only of ordinary people, but brahmins, warriors, monks, Kings and important people of the time. Also strange spirit-like creatures and mysterious powerful protectors, mythical beings and dragons. They are described in the Tibetan Scriptures in loving detail. All were sitting on the mountain waiting for the Buddha to speak. But the Buddha was in deep, deep contemplation. Throughout the Sutra he says absolutely nothing. A monk called Sariputra, evidently unable to contain his impatience, calls out "Hey! Can anyone tell me how to practise? How can I practise the Great Wisdom Teachings?" (Of course, this is a literary device to produce a textual answer.) The Buddha, however, continues in his profound contemplation and it is left to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara to give reply.

We need here to pause a little bit and look in to the background of these writings. The character of this sutra is mythical. In the earlier stories of the Pali school of Southern Buddhism the events are remembered ones, they are historical and probably close to what actually happened. But the Prajnaparamita Sutras were written several hundred years after the death of the Buddha and are re-constructions. In the Heart Sutra, the idea of a great gathering is being used as a device to present the philosophy and the teaching. Furthermore, Avalokitesvara was not a person. He is a projection of a particular quality of Buddhahood, a personification of an aspect of mind.

One of the interesting things that happened over the years after the Buddha's death was the shift from historical remembrance to the personification of Buddha quality. For example, one of the Buddha's qualities is kindliness, so people began to think of a particular Buddha of kindliness. Many Buddhas begin to appear in the literature who are not historical Buddhas at all but represent ideals, such as the Shining One, Resplendent Beauty, Glorious Insight and Great Wisdom. Some of the scriptures of this period refer to gatherings of persons who are really just names referring to psychological qualities. The most important of these are the Bodhisattvas or the Buddha's sons, Wisdom Beings who provide the teachings.

Avalokitesvara is a condensation of the idea of compassion or kindliness. The function of the Bodhisattva is hidden in his name. Isvara is one of the titles of Shiva, it means Great Lord. Avalo is a Sanskrit word meaning the One Who Looks Down. This can be interpreted as the mother who looks down at her nursing child or as one who looks down from a high place and Sees the suffering of the world and the impossibility of saving everyone. Because he has vowed not to become a Buddha until everyone is saved it also means that Avalokitesvara has no hope of ever becoming a Buddha and a tear drops from his eye. In the Tibetan story this tear becomes the feminine Buddha Tara. Such poetic stories are full of a wonderfully rich tapestry of myth making in which deep teaching is embedded.

Up on the Vulture Mountain, Avalokitesvara is sitting in meditation but he hears Sariputra's question and feels compassion for him. Our text starts off with his reply. Even the question is not given in this version of the text. Sariputra had asked "How can we practice?"

Incidentally, this tradition of question and answer still happens today and it happened to me when I was in Hong Kong. On Lan Tao Island there is a Buddhist monastery which I visited about two years ago. At the end of the Retreat I went to see the master. He was a very attractive dynamic old man with a long wispy beard and wearing ancient Chinese robes with very long sleeves. I asked him about method, in other words the same question as Sariputra's.

"Ha!" he cried, "Method!" as if it was a dirty word. Then he pointed to a scripture hung on the wall and said, "That is method". The beautiful calligraphy was then translated to me as "Heart Sutra". I then asked "OK, well how does one do it?" He pointed to another scripture hanging on the opposite wall. This simply said "What is IT?"

The Heart Sutra is IT. How to practice? But, first of all, why, up on that mountain, didn't the Buddha answer? He just provides presence. It is almost as if at this stage in the development of Buddhism the notion is of the Buddha as a Cosmic Being rather than a human mind. By this date nobody actually remembered him as a person. His enlightened mind was felt to be universal.

It is most important to understand what Avalokitesvara was doing when he was asked the question. He was coursing in the deep Prajnaparamita. What is this coursing? This translation is by the scholar Conze and the word coursing suggests something dynamic, coursing like a greyhound, or flying. Roshi Kennet of Throssel Hole reads it with greater precision in translation from the Japanese version, "When one with deepest wisdom of the heart that is beyond discriminative thought, the Holy Lord Great Kanzeon Bosattva knew that the Skandhas five were, as they are in their self-nature, void, unstained and clean". To understand the Heart Sutra we have to understand that the answer we are given is coming from a person undergoing a very particular experience, that of "oneness with the deepest wisdom of the heart which is beyond all discriminative thought".

The word Prajnaparamita itself comes from the Sanskrit. It means "Perfection of Insight", the highest, clearest, most straightforward or most important insight. This word insight does not just refer to an intellectual insight like the solving of a mathematical equation. It is not to do with words. This is explicit in Roshi Kennet’s version which says "Deepest wisdom of the heart which is beyond discriminative thought". Prajna means no thought, yet something which is insight. The meaning is supremely important for us who endure endless wandering thoughts while sitting on our cushions.

Avalokitesvara was experiencing this insight. As practitioners we need to capture in ourselves what this implies and what it means. An insight which is beyond discriminative thought is like an "Ah Ha!" experience. One in which you suddenly see something - "Ah, it's SO!"

If you think about it, the moment when this something strikes has no content. If you capture the moment of "Ha!" in that moment there is wordless insight. Of course you then usually go on to think about it and put it into words. But what if you don’t? It's like someone saying to you "Do you see that bird over there?" You look and you look in the trees and can't find it. Then suddenly, you do - and it's "Ah! There it is after all". When you see through the camouflage, it is not discriminative thought, it is recognition.

This insight then has the quality of recognition. But what is being recognised? Well the scripture tells us. "When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was coursing in the deep Prajnaparamita, he perceived that all five skandhas are empty". What is meant by the skandhas? The skandhas have been talked about in Buddhism since the earliest Suttas. They were the Buddha's description of the nature of the mind. He said that the human mind is made up of five parts or collections; Forms, Sensations, Perceptions, Preconceptions (or prejudices) and Consciousness. Form is our awareness of being here as an apparent object, Sensation is like touch. Perception is knowing what you have been touched by. It is a clarification of what something is. For example you perceive that a noise is a cuckoo calling rather than a cuckoo clock. The Preconceptions (samskaras) are the predispositions which make all of us different, our complexes. They the karmic residues of our personal past and give rise to all sorts of wants and desires, positive and negative. Finally Consciousness is what makes us aware of all these processes. These five words are a total description of the nature of the mind, a model of the way the mind works and it was immensely elaborated in a literature called the Abhidharma.

In the early teachings contemplation of the mind was very important. It consisted in seeing that there is no self other than these processes in endless interaction. Avalokitesvara's practice originated the early writings but he has gone further. He sees that not only does he have no self as a contactible entity but that the skandhas too are empty.

Coursing in the deep insight means that in the period before he heard Sariputra's question Avalokitesvara was engaged in a profound meditation on the nature of the mind. He had pressed that meditation to such a point that he had complete insight into it and this had revealed total emptyness. We are talking about a meditational state. The answer comes straight from it without pause.

We now have to try to unfold for ourselves what it is like to be in a profound state of meditation pressed so far that you perceive that your mind is empty. We may try to do that with the aid of one or two simple exercises. In doing this we should not suppose that we can immediately discover what Prajnaparamita actually is, for that requires either exceptional insight or long practice, but we may be able to generate a simulacrum of it.

This approach is a traditional Tibetan teaching. You set up a psychological trick which gives you an insight and makes you think "Ah! I see". But then the Lamas say, "Steady on - you haven't actually seen it, because that takes another fifteen years of practice, but by doing this exercise you can see the direction in which you have to move. It is a signpost."

Here is an exercise which is derived from Douglas Harding's "Headless Way ".1

Let's look at something in front of us, here for example the Buddha statue. Just sit comfortably and look at the Buddha. Don't do anything else such as thinking "What is coming next". Just LOOK.

Now ask the question, 'Where is what I am looking at?"

If you ponder you will find that you are inclined to say "Well it's a few yards in front of me", or you may say "Well it must be in my head somewhere". Well - Is it out there? or - Is it in my head? or - Is it neither? Ask "What is my actual experience of where it is?" You will find that your experience of looking at the object is shaped by the constructs you impose upon it.

Stay looking at the Buddha. It appears that there is a something out there. It has got a certain shape and colour and size. You seem to be at the opposite end from what you are looking at. If you were the Buddha who was looking back at you, you would see a face. But when you examine this face, your face which the Buddha is seeing, in actual experience, you will find your face to be no more than a sort of vaguely perceived screen. You are not your face as such. You are looking out from behind your face. It is something behind your face which is looking at the Buddha.

Can you experience that which is behind your face? Go slowly into this. Take your time and then you can ask yourself the question, "That which is the other side of the room has shape, but does that which is behind my face have shape? (Look to see, don't discuss it in your head.) Place your awareness in the place from where you are looking out. Is there anything there which has shape? That which is on the other side of the room has a certain colour. That which is behind your face, does it have any colour?

That which is in front of you has a certain size. That which is behind your face, does it have any size? In fact is there any word at all that you can use to describe that which is behind your face at the locus out of which you are gazing? Indeed, has that locus even got any place at all in actual experience?

Now, if you continue to follow along, what do you find in that place? Are there words? Void? Silence? Spaciousness? Nothing at all-ness? Emptiness?

At this point we have to be very watchful or else we will turn on the language again and find sensation, perception, volition and consciousness. All these concepts do have a meaning within a realm of discourse but in themselves they are only names. Something very strange happens here when words are seen to be only names. When you look at the place where the names should be, you won't find them as such; you experience their suchness. So when you say the mind is empty you're not saying there is nothing there at all but merely that it is empty of what the names would seem to imply is there. Descriptions are not IT.

Avalokitesvara was sitting and had turned his gaze inward. If he applied his discriminative intellect he would say, "Ah yes, there is some sensation. Ah yes, there is perception too. Ah yes, and some volition. Ah yes, there is consciousness. And also, there is a certain predisposition there too. How interesting! But if I actually look at all this, at that place where all these things manifest, do I find them?

Avalokitesvara has taken up as his practice the method of directly looking into the mind, the Buddha's special method of Vipassana. It can be formulated as a Koan. What is the mind?" A skilled practitioner wouldn't be examining this question with the intellect, he would be looking directly into IT. He would find the suchness which is empty of the particularity the words implied. This is what is meant by "emptyness".

A sensation entered the ear of Avalokitesvara. "Can anyone tell me how to practice Great Wisdom?"

"Form is emptiness and emptiness is form". Instantly came the response.

To be continued...

1. ID. E. Harding. Head Off Stress. pub. Arkana ISBN 0 14 01.92026


Not Noticing: Death and the Sky      

This talk is dedicated to the memory of Georgina Marjorie Crook. It was delivered to the assembly of practitioners at the Two Day Retreat in Rickford, October 24th 1992.

Two things are omnipresent in our lives and yet day after day we fail to notice them - death and the sky. Every day people are dying: if they are our dear ones we know and feel it but the fact of everyday dying, next door, in the neighbouring street, all over town, we choose to ignore. I do not mean the accidents, murders and genocides that are the focus of our news bulletins, I mean ordinary everyday death which is as common as birth.

The sky? How often do we raise our eyes to the great blue dome? On a bright day we notice the sunlight, shining clouds and the shifting shadows moving with the clock. Yet we rarely look deliberately up into the azure haze, passing on and out into unimaginable spaces. Some of us never look. Yet there it is above us all the time. At night how often do you look out between the stars and wonder how far you can see? What is it, this endless space, this awesome void?

Death and Space; awesome, needing the reflective moment few of us give time for; they are outside the run of our concern. Big mind rarely comes from small mind. We usually need a shock.

When you sit at the bedside of a dying person or have the privilege of nursing someone whose life is moving to its close, there is a great opportunity. It is like going on a retreat knowing it could be your last. On the one hand there is the tragedy of passing time, the ending of a personal epoch, the severing of identity. On the other there is often a curious tranquillity as the mind accepts the inevitable. Tears and peace come to inform one another. It is vital not to avoid this experience by taking refuge in gossip or the repression of painful feeling. You have to be really there or you learn nothing.

The Tibetans have a meditation on death. In this process you envisage the slow dissolution of personal attributes. The earth element dissolves into water, water evaporates into air, air disappears in space. The dying self traverses each stage at differing speeds depending on circumstance. In these meditations the practitioner visualises these processes, partakes of them emptying the self of attachment and moving with the flow of dissolution. This is natural, the end game of a cycle which is eternal. In the presence of the dying the practitioner goes through this cycle mentally or verbally, assisting the passage of the other through the stages, passing through the intermediate ones to final peace. Sometimes these phases occur rapidly, all at the time of death, in other cases many of them are complete before the final breath is drawn.

When death has come it is good to sit with the dead far into the night with a candle burning, shadows moving on the beloved face. At first, overwhelmed by disbelief, it is as if the other will turn and speak, waking up once more as on so many mornings. But gradually the room resolves itself, the presence of the other slowly leaves, withdrawing into a deeper silence wherein the night sounds come, wind, leaves flying past the window, night bird's call. You say a prayer. You wish all well, God speed. And then you are alone. The room is empty. The other has gone on. Where? How? What is the meaning? What is it? In the silence the candle burns as you turn to your own rest.

Often the mind itself decays long before death. How can one help the one who is dying without awareness, grimly holding on, fighting every moment towards the end. The aim must be to facilitate tranquillity so that the natural dissolution can move peacefully on its way.

At such a time, remember the sky, letting the mind go beyond the visible into the eternity of space itself. Maybe this will be frightening and it reminds us of the need for profound meditation on the emptiness of all things including the great Universe itself. Cycles of life and death are surrounded by the awesome void of space. Yet here too there are constant arisings and fallings, comings to be and goings out of existence, the becoming and ending of stars, galaxies, worlds. We exist within great cycles like huge mandalas, realms within realms. The nature of being has many modes, not all of them conscious. The realms contain each other. At what level is the brain aware? The neuronal level differs from the mental yet the latter could not be without the former. What then are we?

A mind that probes beyond the relative sees the Universe as "perfect". Indeed whatever could it mean to say it was "imperfect"? The Universe is none other than it is and the only word for it must be perfection without an opposite. Since you and I are contained by, pervaded by, born into and of the Universe, we too partake of this perfection. We are quite simply what we are. To wish otherwise is a form of rejection, attachment to illusion, ignorance and assertion of self. And self we know is highly soluble.

Each one of us works out our karma as best we can. In relativity there is pain and distress. God, the fickle bastard, seems cruel, uncaring, rewarding the righteous with injustice. Yet in the transpersonal vision there is an opening space, the unchangeable root of change. Here is the Eternal of which we cannot speak, for to speak is relative. We can however gaze out between the stars letting go into free fall. Goodbye is present at the ending and in the beginning. And miraculously, without comprehension, love appears in a rising light.

How does the river flow? The stream descends as it must, moulding itself in flow around the rocks and boulders finding its natural way. "Going to where the water ends" means the ocean and the sun raised vapours forming again into great clouds, the never ending return. And the sharp rocks, the obstacles, gradually become softly shaped into round stones all fitting the watery bed in natural patterns. Obstacles and water all shape each other reciprocally. There is a lesson here.

How does the river of experience flow? It runs as it must, a never ending stream which, in the freedom of its own nature, shapes all obstacles as its bed. Broken stones become smooth surfaces, each one fitting the next in a pattern of karmic creation. How does the river flow? Interdependently, as it must within the eternal. When you feel this in your life and meditation you have learned to ride the Ox.