Herb's Notes for Tuesday February 21 2012
"Back to the Present - Shunyata"
"The Sutra of Transcendent Knowledge", also called "The Heart Sutra" expresses the core mind of the Mahayana. It is commonly chanted in Zen practice, by Tibetans, maybe others as well. I think you could say that it is the mind set- the view- as well as an outline of the process one could go through to liberate mind from habitual tethers. In the end, the sutra is what makes being helpful possible, and that is the joy expressed at the end.
I realize the text is not reproduced in the book. We will try to make it available.I had not read this chapter in a long time. In the meantime, I have studied what it summarizes in many different ways, with many different teachers, books, and lots of classes, some of which I taught. This short chapter is an amazing outline of literally years of talking, thinking, chewing, stewing.
It follows the format of the earlier chapters in clarifying the sidetracks that await us. We will be drawn to spiritual materialism. It is wishful thinking to pretend we can avoid it. For example, sometimes we say, "The problem is words. We just shouldn't talk." But we already are. The Tibetan approach is to wear out conceptual mind. In some Tibetan shedras (which are like colleges), they debate, one on one, going through the common arguments about the nature of mind. After hammering away for a while, you switch sides and take the other viewpoint. That way you are bound to expose the bottom line view that we all hold, often protected by either saying we don't have one, or that it is impossible to talk about it. We might even denigrate our self and take the position that we are too stupid to deal with this stuff. Or that it is too intellectual, not our thing. We try to ignore the process. What the Tibetan teachings call "ignorance".
The earlier teaching and practice have loosened the grip of ignorance just enough to encourage flexibility in mind. We can hear "The Heart Sutra" and the experience sometimes has a heart quality to it. There can be a sense of relief , said to be like a mother seeing her long lost child, even as another part of mind is saying, "I don't get it." Sometimes it is helpful to hear that bodhi mind (which the sutra is letting bloom) has those seemingly different aspects of honesty, warmth, and freshness, which is shunyata.
Each one of us has to keep going back and back to seeing what is true now. We are getting used to change. One minute all of the teachings seem grand and beautiful. The next minute they are irritating and we go on to add pride, or jealousy, or anger, or desire, or dip into a kind of pool of ignorance. From the Mahayana point of view, that experience is good. Real. Juicy. And workable.
Meditation means becoming familiar with mind- our mind- as it goes through "its tricks and manners", to quote Dickens. By sitting, we can become good at piercing the busyness that distracts our attention and provides a barrier to seeing clearly. There is part of us that doesn't want to know. We allow that tendency to be without beating up on our self. From time to time we have to admit that, somehow or other, we are aware that we are hiding out.
The sense of allowing can feel like being disloyal to our principles. That could be. What protects against that going too far is our sitting practice. When I sit, I am sitting alone with my mind. It is my responsibility and I am in charge. As mind becomes more flexible, we try things out. The fancy word for that is contemplation. While it is possible to fool oneself and in the process, get caught in positions that are untrue, the practice tends to protect mind and encourage sanity. Part of the process is mind's inherent ability to protect itself, to be decent and wholesome. We can make that a conscious intention.
The chapter points to various stopping places. Rinpoche used to say that pretending that the stopping places are the destination is like curling up under a road sign that reads, "New York 20 miles" and pretending to be in New York. Hopefully we can have a humorous attitude toward that tendency. It is no more real or problematic than anything else.
The process is one of coming to one of those signposts, pausing, considering it, and going ahead. Each time we start to sit under the sign, we are reminded to open further: the watcher, one mind, the mystery, all are seen first as discoveries, which then become concepts. It is common for the teachings to arouse some realization, which is experienced. Then we need to study and practice. That process is sometimes called stabilization. Insight tends toward narration. "I found out this or that". We want to tell our friends about our experience. We need the mental process, a conscious determination, to keep the insight coming, as it were. We just need to keep coming back to the present. Just because we know that spiritual materialism is possible does not mean that we aren't going there.