The Heart Sutra and Koans


The Heart Sutra in the context of its relationship to koans and what koans are. I want to pursue that line a little bit.  And the first thing to say about – probably the first attitude people have to koans is that they are a sort of tool, a gadget of some kind, and you use them and you concentrate on them, and you use them – a can opener for the mind

And so, I would like to say a couple of things about the Heart Sutra in the context of its relationship to koans and what koans are, and pursue that line a little bit.  And the first thing to say about – probably the first attitude people have to koans is that they are a sort of tool, a gadget of some kind, and you use them and you concentrate on them, and you use them – a can opener for the mind. And they transform you in some way.  And like all attitudes, there’s nothing really wrong with it, except it’s just an attitude, towards koans.

I was thinking about a situation in my own life where the Heart Sutra kind of worked like that for me.  I had a friend who was very sick, and I had just flown back across the Pacific – I think I had been teaching in Australia, and I knew he was sick and I thought “I’m just going to crash out tonight and then I’ll go and visit him the next day.”  And then I didn’t the next day because, I don’t know, I was exhausted or something.  And then I was going to do it the next day, but that night he died.  I got a call super-early in the morning from his partner, who had been sitting with him in a  hospital room, kind of desolate, and then he died.  And so I went to the hospital about dawn, about an hour before dawn, and I agreed – when you die in hospital there’s a sort of inevitable bureaucratic course that things take in California.  We kind of delayed that as much as we could, so that I could spend some time and do some ceremonial kind of stuff.  One of my ideas, my bright ideas was that I would chant the Heart Sutra.  My friend, he was kind of a traditionalist, he trained in a traditional sort of Zen world, and he’d come to me to sort of loosen up, really, and we were very close, and out of respect for his tradition, I chanted in Sino-Japanese: [3:00] Kan ji zai bo satyu. Gyo jin han nya hara mita ji and there’s a lot of repetition in the Heart Sutra and it does have this sort of magical kind of quality, and the whole room started to get really still and deep.  And then, at the same time, because there’s a lot of repetition, I would start looping [laughs] and there’s a kind of known thing with the Heart Sutra, [3:40] it’s just the sort of thing I’d do with the wombat-Heart Sutra-wombat-rhinoceros scroll behind me, where I just sort of leapt from one Shariputra?  to another and missed.  I just kept going back; I got far into the Heart Sutra and I couldn’t get out of it, you know?  [laughs] And it seemed like I was chanting for half an hour – not successive Heart Sutras, but one Heart Sutra [laughter], and I kind of didn’t take it hard, because I was very close to him and it felt kind of intimate with him.  And so that was the Heart Sutra’s way of getting me to stay with my friend.  And there was this field effect where – sometimes when people die, you say, well, he just went, you know.  But, he liked me chanting the Heart Sutra, and he liked his love of being there, just kept hanging around, and more people came in, and there’s this Tibetan thing, which is, when somebody dies, don’t have family around; they’ll just hang around! [laughter] It’s kind of sweet.  Personally I’m of the opinion that that kind of problem resolves itself, and people kind of leave, but that was a time when the Heart Sutra functioned to create a field, and it’s funny how that thing was still with me when I was writing the scroll, and the hands then skipped a couple of lines and I thought of my friend and how intimate it was, chanting with him.  And I kind of got out of that, I didn’t want to stop in the middle of the Heart Sutra, and so I switched to the [5:30] Kannon gyo? which I could do in my sleep, you know, with Alzheimers  — kanzeon /na mu butsu  / yo butsu u en /butsu ho so en — which is actually the Crossing-Over Sutra, not the Heart Sutra, but the true crossing over, you need – but again it’s Kanzeon, the same person as Avalokiteshvara.  It’s the one who hears the cries of the world.  And so that’s my account of how there’s a way in which, when you give yourself to a great koan like the Heart Sutra, then it creates a field.  I was not really using the koan as a gadget, not intending to, but it had a particular effect.  And I notice every time when I do chant the Heart Sutra or sing it, it opens something up; it shifts things.  That’s just its – what it does.   Just like winter is cold, the Heart Sutra does this thing; it opens things up.   So I wanted to say that.  Somehow I added memory from my friend and the wonderful, impossible situation and how kind of warm it felt, being there with him, and then his family and friends came in.  And then somebody came and took his body away, because we couldn’t keep his body, because he died in hospital. So there’s that, about the Heart Sutra.

And the other thing to say about the Heart Sutra is that it’s – pretty much any place you glance at it or walk into it, it’s a koan.  [7:40] “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form” or “Form is no other than emptiness, and emptiness is no other than form….No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no heart.”  All those things. When it says, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form,” it really leans into the emptiness side of things.  It’s the “no” part that gets our attention.  It’s the word  in Chinese, “wu” or “mu”  in Japanese.  It’s a character that’s used as a first koan sometimes, and [referring to scroll behind him], it just repeats itself all the time all the way through the Heart Sutra.  It’s “no this, no that”  “Mu this and mu that.” And one of the very first koans – usually the very first koan in the Hakuin curriculum – we often use it that way, but we also use other koans, like Linji koans – one of the very first koans is “Does a dog have Buddha nature, or not?” “No.” Esoteric kind of question, in a way.  I don’t have a problem with my dog, Buddha nature.  But in a way, it’s asking, “Do I, in the moments when I feel like a furry animal, have Buddha nature?”  The comforting – and actually doctrinally correct – answer is “Yes.”  This famous old teacher, once somebody asked him, and he said, “Yes.”   And somebody else – another person asked him to explain about Buddha nature, and the next person who asked him, he said, “No.” [10:00].  And the “No” became a koan because it had the virtue of opening up emptiness.  And then you realized it wasn’t a philosophical question; it wasn’t about these objects in minds, it was about our own lives.  And koans always lead us there.  And that’s the same kind of emptiness that got opened up by me chanting it in the hospital with my friend who was technically dead but [10:25 you?  could still feel it? Him??  And so there’s that.  And you’ll  find that, with something like the Heart Sutra that, when you try to use it for something;  if I had tried to get a certain effect by chanting it in the hospital with my friend,  it wouldn’t have happened, because, in a way, my trying would be in the way. Like if you are doing an inquiry into reality, and you are trying to achieve a certain outcome, you feel like you’re really sort of salting the mind.  It’s like the idea of letting things go.  Things give me up; I don’t give them up – I don’t know.  There are ways to transform things that are stuck to us and we feel like it might be good to let go, but there’s a certain way in which we go into the place that the Heart Sutra is talking about, and then they’re not there anymore. We don’t have to have them, pick them up again later.  I think you know what I mean.  So that’s an operation.  

In terms of how to work with a koan, I think we might be at the stage in retreat where we can take that notion to a deeper level; there’s not a “you” and there’s not a koan anymore.  There’s not someone outside working to change someone – that is you.  And you’ll notice that as soon as you start trying to work with a meditation technique to improve yourself, you’ll find that that implies that you [12:30] don’t need improving and that you do need improving and things like that. And so it’s interfering– the universe is trying to help you, but you’re interfering with it.   And so what the koan does, if you just hang out with the koan in some way, it – and that might just be repeating it, you know “gate, gate, paragate,” is good enough.  Or if you want to repeat – whatever it is – the word “enlightenment” appears in the Heart Sutra, so just “light, light,” like that.  Or you could, you know, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” – you could repeat that. And you’ll have a sense that when you hear a long thing like the Heart Sutra, one part touches you, and you have to kind of trust that, because in a way, the universe did that, the koan did that, and you have to trust it.  You have to trust your own connection to the depths.  And you’ll find that, when you don’t, you’ll start dithering, “oh, this bit’s better; I stuck with that bit and it’s not working.”  Or, you know, My meditation wasn’t that good, so I’m going to try these other things.” And that’s fine, you know, [shrugs], but I think an easier way to go is – the bit that sticks to you and touches your heart, then stick with it, trust that.  And then, in a little while, you’re going to have these experiences with it, where there’s depth and beauty, and you hear things like the bells ringing, and I think, “Oh, hit that bell again.”  And I don’t even quite get there, I’m just lost in the bell.  There isn’t a me; there’s just the bell, and the whole universe is the bell.  And the same thing happens with other things. I see the flowers on the altar, and the whole universe – a galaxy is the flower and the flower is a galaxy. You can tell that something is starting to open up, and I’m not so locked in my little box of myself.

And that starts to happen, and the next thing that starts to happen is that you won’t be there anymore. [15:15] and you think you should be back there.  Or, even before you get there, you start to doubt, you begin thinking, “Oh, maybe a different part of the Heart Sutra? If we were working with a real koan, and not the Heart Sutra [laughter],” and “Have you thought of really trying Sufism?”  Anything will come; it doesn’t matter what the thought form is; it’s just showing you the way, it’s showing you your own kind of – it’s some sort of shadowy part of you is coming up and resists yourself.   And also, it offers you a chance to blame – either the practice or blame yourself.  And notice what you do – some people blame others and some people blame themselves, and some people just blame everybody. And you notice that.   And so one of the big tasks of the koan is – you don’t have to do that.  Something came up, and it was a different state of mind from the previous state of mind.  You are all in the vastness and the bells, and now I’m worried about lunch.  Or you are thinking “Why can’t I hold on to the vastness? Everything seemed so magic, and now it’s not; my knees hurt,” or whatever. And what the koan does – I think the emptiness, but that is empty too.  My problem has no foundation.  We make the problem something to rely on, and the Heart Sutra says, there’s nothing; there’s no foundation. Strangely enough, that means there’s no foundation! [laughter} There’s no fixed point you can rely on.  And the other way to say that is that you can rely on there not being a fixed point.  And you’ll notice that all your suffering is because you’re making a fixed point; you’re making a place to stand on that doesn’t really exist.  Like “This state of mind sucks,” for example.  How do you know? Try making a friend of it.  Koans always turn you into what is, you know?  We kind of know this, but immediately something good happens and we cling to it.  And that something that’s not it happens and we think that’s bad.  The only reason I’m saying this is that I hear this no more than 20 times a day, and so it’s likely that some people are experiencing it.  And also the mind does that, right; that’s what the mind does.  The self-improvement project is always going on.  I could have a better state of mind, or a better car, or a better whatever.  And you’ll notice that all the koan is doing is showing you that.  It’s not producing that.  Nobody produces that; it’s none of your business what the mind does.  It just appears, and this vast sense of beauty and peace, the universe – you didn’t do anything to deserve that, either.  It just appeared; it wasn’t you.  And there’s something kind of natural and true about that, and we can feel that.  And then, it’ll disappear until it doesn’t.  But it’ll disappear, and the thing is, and now this. And the koan is now, “What is this?”  — how to be with this, how is this empty?  How do I befriend this?  And so, over and over, the great teachers, informed by the Heart Sutra, said, “Now turn the light on what’s happening.”  Not what you think should be happening if you were doing it right, but what’s happening now, when you’re doing what you’re doing. So, pretty much, whatever you’re doing is not wrong; whatever you’re doing is it, is not going to be known.

But there’s a kind of part of us that sort of — when we identify with a small part of reality and call it ourselves.  And, in a way, we kind of like it because, that’s how you make a self, by having a problem.  You make a self out of your suffering, really, by “This is not it.” So every time you think, “This is not it” – it feels kind of good, in a way [laughter]. Yah, this is not it; this is really not it! And then the joy of like realizing that this is it, is profound.  The great koan teachers brought us back over and over to “Here it is; it’s here.”  Everything is in the here and the now. And we reach past, because we think. it’s like the dream thing.  No matter how successful we are in dodging the wave in the dream, or shoring up the walls that are falling down, evading the vampires or monsters in the dream,  you’re still in the dream, and when we wake up,  it’s different.  Actually, I enjoyed my dreams.  If you have a monster in a dream, don’t evade it; see if you can have a relationship with it.  And that’s the same as the monster during your meditation.  Don’t think that the monster shouldn’t be there; sometimes your monster might be something as simple as a mild dissatisfaction, or a disappointment.  The disappointment might be something like, “But I meditated so well, and now I don’t feel good.  It’s disappointing.” Or “I really wanted to get more enlightened, and I’m not.”

There’s a friend of our community who studied with us for awhile, and is an artist.  He was one of those people who would push himself every retreat and when he worked on the koan “No” he said, “there’ll be nothing but ‘no’ the whole retreat, no other thought.”  For years, he did this at retreats. And he didn’t feel like he was getting anywhere at all – and he kind of had a point! [laughter]  And then, one retreat, he started getting this Patsy Kline song.  It was right at the end of sesshin, and he was pre-disappointing himself – oh, it’s going to end, and there’s no enlightenment, oh it’s so bad, I’m so terrible at this. It’s the only thing I want.  There’s something charming about that part of the psyche.  Everybody has it but not me, you know.  And this Patsy Kline song “I fall to pieces” came into his head.  I knew something was going on, because he came in and sang it to me, and left. That was his interview.  He didn’t try to say that he didn’t understand the koan;  he didn’t try to win my approval, or anything. All the strategies he’d do in an interview, he didn’t do.  He just came in and sang the song **and left. he just said he was disappointed, “I’m SO disappointed; Oh God, it happened again.  And then, things were kind of winding up; it was the last day of retreat, and it was like the bar waiter is putting the chairs on the table, saying “It’s closing time.” [laughter] I’m  SOOO disappointed;  I’m SO DISAPPOINTED; I’m SOOO disapPOINTED !” [laughter] … and that was his awakening.     You can tell that any gate you enter is it.  It was so much fun; it was so delightful to go in that way.  You think that you’ve got problems!

So the old teachers were not lying when they said, “Knock on any door; knock on any door and someone will answer.”  I like that saying…  You’ll have your own personal disappointment [laughter]. And you start to see yourself that you’re doing fine, and something changes, and you’re still doing fine, but you think you’re not, because it’s not what was, because are trying to fix [25:30] have it be  fixed,  and you think some piece of form doesn’t have to be empty, and it’s not transformed, and you’ll murder people to keep that, particularly your own psyche and punish yourself, and confess to all sorts of crimes.  And then, in a sense, we [26:05]begin to see that the thing to see, the place,  is not “Oh, I shouldn’t be there,”  it’s “I think I should,” so it’s a kind of desire, a wistfulness, a poignancy of desire, a poignancy of loss, and then you just go in there, and it’s beautiful.  So, if you’re confused, that might be analogous to the disappointment, in that way;  or if you’re afraid, you know.  There’s a tremendous tendency to start bullying yourself and other people when you’re afraid.  You’ve probably noticed.  Fearful people are dangerous, right?  When you start doing that, if you turn the light on the fear, if you turn the light on the sorrow, and you have it, it’s kind of interesting; it’s kind of alive.  It’s alive, it’s alive.  And that’s the same guy who said the koan “No.”  [27:10] And somebody else said, “Do you want meditation?”  and he said, “Not meditation!”  and someone else said, “Well, what is it, then? Why wasn’t I informed,” and he said, “It’s alive, it’s alive!”  And you can tell that the teacher was illustrating the Heart Sutra.  You can’t make meditation.  Even meditation can’t fix meditation.   It’s alive, it’s alive.  Just like you.

And so, there’s more to say about koans and the Heart Sutra.  We probably do about – I don’t know how many koans we do, maybe about 1800 – all the koans of the curriculum, you can say that they are all pieces of the Heart Sutra.  And when the opening happens, where we’re not fixing things and making things, when we’re relying on the – there isn’t anything to rely on, when we’re relying on that. “Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” that’s what it is.  Not picking and choosing.  Any of those koans – the true person has no rank.  They’re all finding that emptiness is not something you have to give up to get to – it’s something you’re already relying on, because you can’t conceive of your life as it is; you can’t conceive of your arm, your hand, the music; it’s just here.  Maybe I’ll stop here and find out how you are doing, what are you relying on?  What is the first principle of the holy teaching, it’s a request, “give me a delusion.” The Emperor asked Bodhidharma, “What’s the first principle of the holy teaching?” He was saying,  “I would like you to give me a first principle.” And so Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.”  And it was the beginning of the end of his relationship with the Emperor [laughter].  And quite right, too!  You can’t sell snake oil when you’re asked for it? What’s your problem?