PZI Teacher Archives

Heart Sutra Variations


The Heart Sutra, like any koan, contains the universe, and so you have to go in somewhere.  I want to go in through the “Mantra of Great Magic.”  Even the word “mantra” is, in a certain way, a reference to magic, a sort of portable access to reality that you can carry around with you. And the word “magic” is also used for the word “mantra,” so where we use “mantra” to produce magic, there’s a transformative quality about the mantra so that, when you repeat it, when you keep company with it, you end up in its world.

Tonight, I want to touch on a couple of things, because the Heart Sutra, like any koan, contains the universe, and so you have to go in somewhere.  I want to go in through the “Mantra of Great Magic.”  Even the word “mantra” is, in a certain way, a reference to magic, a sort of portable access to reality that you can carry around with you. And the word “magic” is also used for the word “mantra,” so where we use “mantra” to produce magic, there’s a transformative quality about the mantra so that, when you repeat it, when you keep company with it, you end up in its world. You leave the world that you’ve normally assembled and fabricated and spent so much time persuading yourself is real, and you end up somewhere else, in unknown territory. And the word we translate for magic is actually used a lot in association with female deities in the tradition.  In fact, this whole sutra has a lot to do with female deities, because Avalokiteshvara is the only bodhisattva I know that turns up in different gendered forms, and is often seen as a female and really the manifestation of the Goddess, and the word “deep”in the2:24 prajna paramita is mainly associated with vaginas, so there’s the sense that the Buddhas wake in the womb or the vagina  of the Goddess and the Heart Sutra itself is one of those “gestating womb” kind of things, so there’s a lot of mysterious, magical stuff in this apparently philosophical document.

The reason I want to go into through the thing  about magic is that the whole koan tradition is really deeply associated with transformation, and so magic is, I suppose, something that happens when you subject yourself to forces and energies that take you out of what you usually think of as expected.  And so that’s what meditation is.  If you’re expecting something, it isn’t going to be that.  And we all know that there’s something kind of marvelous about that; it will take us into territory we don’t know about.  We kind of know it exists, but we’ve never been there; we’ve never been to Senegal sort of thing.  It’s territory we don’t even know what universe it’s in, and koans are like that, because it takes us out of the universe we’ve assembled.  And so it’s the magic quality.  And you always begin magic by really simple operations, and meditation’s one of the simple operations,  where you subject yourself to the transforming powers of the Goddess, the transforming powers of the universe, really, and it’s the transforming powers of not assembling your usual universe.  And so I’ve been experimenting with the Heart Sutra, and I put this thing on the wall behind me [indicates]. Pretend you can’t see me; I’m just doing stage operations [laughter].  [5:00]If you look at this one over here [indicates], this is an incredibly beautiful version of the Heart Sutra in Chinese-Tibetan?.  And you can tell that this person has done this has done before before; it just goes on and on and on.   And it’s incredibly elegant and lovely – to me – and the whole thing about making words that come out of images, but there’s a kind of spaciousness inside them so in some ways; the characters themselves have the art of the Heart Sutra in them.  Where does this come from, Jon?  

Jon Joseph:  Korea  – the rest of Jon’s answer is inaudible; something about flags at the bottom.

John:  They were too cheap to do it a color; as you can see (indicates other scroll), we were not too cheap to do it in color [laughter]. So this one here is – there’s the same thing about doing repetition, like if you keep showing up, and keep doing meditation, it doesn’t matter how badly you do it, you’re actually doing it right. You might have noticed that that’s true of life.  You can’t really do it wrong, but you kind of have to show up for it.  I suppose not showing up is also showing up, but you know what I mean.  And so, one of the repetition things – I just decided I would write out the Heart Sutra, and started writing, and so I’d write out lots of Heart Sutras [6:50].  I was the kind of child in grade school that they said, “Looking at your handwriting, I think you should learn to type very soon.” [laughter] [7:00]

But when I began to do Chinese calligraphy, I learned that there’s a kind of rhythm that’s you that’s your handwriting, that’s in your being; the universe is coming through you when you handwrite, the way it comes through you when you sing, when you walk, when you laugh, when you look at somebody – the universe is doing all that. In the Heart Sutra, that’s what emptiness is, in a way; it’s not some small version of me that’s doing things.  And so I did lots and lots of – and I chose this one [indicating scroll behind him],  I’m not quite sure why, but I chose this one, of the ones that were more or less okay, and so I had it printed, 50 of them printed to send out as gifts to donors and people.  Then I gave one of the very first ones to Michelle Riddle – I got off a plane and turned on my phone, as you do when the plane touches down, in Albuquerque, and there’s a message from her: “I’m sure the missing lines are somewhere in the wombat’s pocket” [laughter], and I thought, “Oh my gosh, that must be the one I didn’t proofread!” [laughs] The only one I didn’t proofread I reproduced [more laughter].  Then I thought, “Well, there are no mistakes. This can’t be doing it wrong, so this is a request from the universe to keep doing it”  There’s a few people out there with the wild original copy, and then I just decided to draw a wombat with roses [pointing to scroll] and say, “Wombats abide in emptiness” and “Rhinos gallop over emptiness” and an umbrella and leaves:  “Out of original emptiness come leaves, umbrellas, and the cries of the wind.”

And there [pointing] is just “Heart Sutra” and that all seemed fine, — there’s a [9:10] ?? seed singable ?? in Sanskrit for the Heart Sutra – and that all seemed fine, but I had to do something else, and so we have another little wombat here [pointing] who is kind of half asleep, thinking, “I forgot some lines.” And then you have the forgotten lines up here [pointing], which they [?? About 9:25] ??fell into emptiness for a bit,  and then they came back and ??  And I suppose that the magic of it, is that everything gets churned in, so like, in a way, me forgetting the lines somehow seemed part of it, as part of the rhythm and the dance of copying the Heart Sutra.  And there are other things, like copying things. It’s an old practice to copy a sutra or a poem or something.  

I remember when, long ago – for  reasons now I can’t remember, but I thought it was a good idea then – was working in a mining town in Tasmania; I was working on a smelter.  There was an ancient environment where – there was electricity, but a lot of things were still done by hand. You carted these huge lumps of rock in these hand carts, and tipped them up, and there was this electric thing that came and pushed them into the blast furnace.  And the blast furnace was this huge sort of thing that was pouring fire and peacock-colored flames, and it was a very wonderful, underworld environment, so I felt like I was in Hades’ palace – and molten copper pouring out at certain times – and so I remember one of the things I did in that environment, I learned poems and I recited them over and over and over again and [11:10] the “The palm at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought, rises in the bronze distance. A gold-feathered bird sings in the palm, without human meaning, without human feeling – a foreign song.  You know then that it is not the reason you are happy or unhappy.  The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the end of space. The wind moves slowly in the branches.  The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.” [Minor differences not corrected vs https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57671/of-mere-being]  The fire  is still with us in life, in the koans, in meditation.  So there’s a certain sense of exposing myself to things, so that later I realized, oh, with koans – I  just did the koan “No” over and over again and I didn’t ask myself what it was, because I knew it was going to take me into unknown territory and so explaining what it was just a strategy for not being subjected to it.  And so, in meditation, in general, when you are explaining to yourself what you’re doing and what your goals are, you’re full of it [laughs].  Whatever it is, it’s not that, right?  And in a way, we kind of know that, because we want to go into that magical dream place that’s where we get help we weren’t looking for, that’s bigger than our plans and thoughts and schemes so the universe is going to help us in some way. 

So even the experience we think might be negative might be a help.  We don’t know.  We just have this positive-negative matrix we put on things, but the Heart Sutra says that there is no eye, no ear, no tongue, no mind, no form, no feeling.  Feeling is the judging. [13:05] The poet?? translates it as the sensation; and so it’s really assessing whether you like things or don’t like things, and so we end up putting “feeling” in there, but  no memory, no objects in the mind, basically.  So you’ll find if you just subject yourself to the transformative possibilities in meditation, something will shift in you.  You won’t actually be able to help it, and I’ve noticed that with people.  Suddenly you’ll find you might be weeping for no good reason in the meditation hall.  Right? I remember finding myself weeping and I think, “I don’t weep.”  Well, who would you like to believe, your tears or your mind?  [laughter]  Your lying tears or your mind?  And there is a beauty in the Way, an appreciation of the tenderness and the intimacy of the Way. When we step outside all the categories we’ve got – which is kind of what, in a way, the Heart Sutra is telling us all about – then it’s intimate and it’s incredibly tender and loving.  

I had a bunch of people this afternoon who were kind of in that place coming through.  One of them said, “well, I realize that there’s a universe of things out there if I make a ‘me.’  Or if there’s a “me” if I make a universe of things out there.  But if I don’t do that…” She said, “I’m enjoying being you!” I am you; you are me.  Like that.  There’s a quality that, I am the bird, or the sound of the bird is in my own heart.  So you’ll start to notice the  intimacy and tenderness of life, as I said, that runs through everything.  So there’s not – so that’s where “You can’t do it wrong” and “That’s not a wrong thing you’re experiencing” comes from.  

 Like – and this is the Heart Sutra experience on magic again – if you just look at now, what are you experiencing – like quick, what are you noticing?  Somebody say.

S: My body’s stiff.

J: Excellent.  What else?

S: A breeze.

S: Dryness.

S: A smile

John: So, is this wrong? Is any of these things wrong?  Smile, body’s stiff, dryness, breeze?  What else?  Doesn’t seem to be much range in here. What other things are going on? What else are you experiencing? What?  No loathing and hatred? No great joy?  What else?  No tears?

S:  Feeling vindicated. I told Michael we should put that wombat closer to you.  

John:  So I was right after all!

S:  Insidious longing, 

John:  Insidious longing, desire

S: Hope 

S: Wondering.

John:  So, if you just notice that, and what if you don’t think that’s the wrong thing to be experiencing?  The people who have like stiffness or dryness might actually be in an interesting place, because  — we know that we don’t have a problem with a fresh breeze, but stiffness or dryness – it’s pretty hard not to try to rush through them.  But what if we don’t? What if we don’t try to rush through them; what if they’re not at fault, and nothing that arises in the mind is the wrong thing to arise. You’re not having the wrong life.  So, if you start with “I’m not having the wrong life” at this time, in this meditation, you might – the path might open. So we spend so much of our life picking and choosing, and you know all what that’s about, right? This is good; this is bad.  I should be here; I shouldn’t be here.  I just did a piece recently that said, the whole of meditation’s just here.  It’s called “here.”  Living is called “here.” 

And you can see; it is, really.  Anything that will be or ever is, is now.  So, if you just feel that for a minute.  And, if you’re arguing – arguing with yourself, or arguing with the koan or the Sutra – that’s what’s here, and then you turn into that, instead of thinking, “I need to get rid of that, because it’s doubt” or something.  It’s one of the great Zen gifts.  You turn into what is, because what is is always more interesting than the other stuff we make up.  Like if I’m sad, I’m just sad, and I might as well enjoy it.  Like that. So that’s part of the magic is that, if you just let yourself have the moment, then there’s not a big distinction between sitting meditation and walking meditation.  There’s not a distinction between “I’m hungry,”  “I’m sad,” “I’m happy” — it’s  not like you lose your ability to differentiate, but they’re all perfect;  there’s no place perfection does not exist. Which [19:50]is all the story about the demons, right? 

In meditation, it all depends where you are, but you’ll get times when it’s pretty easy and you’re just carried along in the river.  It’s kind of nice, and you can hear the birds, and the colors are brighter – that’s part of the magicky stuff.  It’s not yet the wisdom of it, but that part of the magic is kind of nice; it’s cool.  And there’s a certain simplification, so when you’re doing the repetition of the mantra or copying sutras, or whatever you’re doing, a certain simplification happens and your mind’s not quite tumbling along endlessly in its usual comic threads, in its driven comic ways, cause and effect kind of things; and the mind’s not doing bad, you’ll find a certain kind of peace and depth in things and that’s a beginning of something.  But if you really stop making preferences between peace and depth and things like that, then you’ll find that you’re always here; it’s always here. And then even when your demons arise, it’s kind of interesting. 

The demon’s just something you’ve called a demon; it’s some part of you that you object to, like your anger, the thing held down, whatever it is, your fear.  And the meditation instruction is that you turn your light on that.  This is really the whole teaching of the Heart Sutra:  it’s here already.  Before you make categories, it was here.  Hakuin, the great Japanese master, said, “Turn your light on it.” Matsu said, everybody said, “Turn your light on it.”  And so that’s that thing where, the man says, “I’m reaching for the light; help me.” And the teacher is not interested in the light, he says, “Forget about the light; give me the reaching.”  And so you can tell that we do that; we reach for something.  And so, we’re in a dream, and you want something, and in the dream you know that it’s the most important thing to get this key.  The premise of the dream is, there’s a key you need to get, to get out of the place you’re in.  There are lots of dreams, but let’s have this one right now.  There’s a key you need a magical key you need to open this door and get into the garden.  And you are spending all this time figuring out how to get the key, to make the key, how to steal the key, but if you wake up, you don’t need the key.  

You notice in meditation that you always have a to-do list.  And you notice, oh, I’m not in the office; I don’t need my to-do list right now.  A to-do list is a noble  thing, but it’s not helpful at this moment.  Or you’ll find, “Oh, I needed (23:34) ?Karma, and that’s just part of your to-do list.  Or “I need to have a richer experience of meditation.”  Mainly you’re saying, “I need to be someone else, or somewhere else.” And no matter what you’re doing like that, it’s always about that.  And a friend sent me a text from his Chinese teacher.  And he’s 19, and he said to his teacher, “You know, you seem very – you’re a Zen master and all –Chan master – but sometimes I find myself at odds with things as they are.”  And the master sent him a text, “Sometimes you find yourself at odds with things as they are.  THAT is things as they are!”  [laughter] That’s “Give me the reaching.” 

So if you turn into being at odds with things as they are – sometimes we want to get the whole piece, the concordance, the accord with circumstances – you know, all that stuff – and you’ll find sometimes that’s not what you need.  You need accord with your non-accord.  You don’t even need that; if you just open your heart to whatever’s going on for you – your loneliness, your sorrow, your excitement — sometimes your excitement is so big you want to break something – whatever it is – the suffering around you that you feel you want to protect people from – if you just turn your heart and your light towards any resistance – form is emptiness; emptiness is form – the spaciousness will appear.  So, I guess – I guess that’s the magic, really.  When the spaciousness appears like that, then the intimacy is there, and the tenderness and the fact that sometimes you’ll hear a sound or a bird and you’ll realize, oh, that’s something to do with me;  I’m not separate from that.  I’m not a separate creature from that.  I’m not isolated out from that bird. Or you’ll see somebody you love, and you’ll realize, “I’m not isolated from them.”  And then, after a while, it gets more strange and 25:55?seditious and you’ll realize that everybody in the meditation hall is beautiful;  it’s not your business – they just are.  And then, you’ll realize, it must be you, too. It’s just there. The Heart Sutra calls it emptiness, but we can just also call it intimacy.  Form is intimate. 

The whole of it is the just one of the consequence of this discovery about emptiness.  If my opinions are a  empty – you notice how you’ve been thinking something is really, really bad? And then, when your friend says, oh, what’s wrong with that? – you think, well, actually, it’s okay.  It’s that simple; I was just having a fit.  And you’ll notice that over and over again.  We’re having fits about something and actually, we can show up for the life we have and it’s going to be okay.  Because we’re here, you know. And even if we thing we’re dying – if we have cancer or if we have some radical physical condition of the heart or something like that – we’re alive — while we’re alive, we’re alive.  And then the mystery – when we start to go through the mysterious gates, and we start thinking while we’re alive, we’re alive and we’re free.  And there’s absolutely no question about that.  And that’s a joy and a gift. 

So, okay.  Then one of the other implications – if form is emptiness and emptiness is form, then all these are things like – there’s the stuff that we think about that we’re pretty sure is outside us, and there’s the stuff that we think of that we’re pretty sure is inside us.  And from the point of the Heart Sutra, it’s all kind of dreamlike, because we’re making up opinions about objects and opinions about ourselves and opinions about – so it becomes really – in Western terms, it’s phenomenological.  The Heart Sutra discovery is not based on – really – working things out, although there’s some of there in the inquiry traditions – but it’s really based on when you go into the deep meditation places, where you feel that you go somewhere – you go into the vastness that is somehow intuitively available, but you can’t know what it’s like until you go there.  A meditation retreat is this great vessel that we can be in, that allows us to go there. And, if fact, as soon as you even hear about it, you start to go there, let alone start to meditate.  So it’s that. Right?  As soon as you even begin to hear about emptiness, the possibility of freedom emptiness, a thing starts to happen, it gets awakened in us and also somehow, some feeling that “I kind of know about this” in some way.  So that’s what’s going on too.