Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Me and resolutions, we lose interest in each other fast

I was going to post my food for a week, but alas I haven't. Probably just as well as it's terribly dull reading. Well, it's kind of like a Greek tragedy. You know, where the protagonist's weakness is the cause of his own downfall. And you surely don't want to watch that happening.

So rather than focus on my tightening waistband, let's talk about something else.

I have rediscovered the Heart Sutra, also known as the Prajnaparamita Sutta. It is a sutra that is very dear to me. It is said to contain the essence of Buddhist teaching, and is recited daily in Mahayana temples and practice centres around the world. It is very short sutra and quite profound. In the sutra, Avolokiteshwara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, speaks to Shariputra, a disciple of the Buddha, about ultimate reality. The orginal version of the sutra is in Sanskrit, which I am in the process of learning to chant, but I also chant it in English, using my beloved Thich Nhat Hanh's translation:

The Bodhisattva Avalokita,
while moving in the deep course of Perfect Understanding,
shed light on the Five Skandhas and found them equally empty.
After this penetration, he overcame ill-being.

Listen, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

Listen, Shariputra,
all dharmas are marked with emptiness.
They are neither produced nor destroyed,
neither defiled nor immaculate,
neither increasing nor decreasing.
Therefore in emptiness there is neither form, nor feelings, nor perceptions,
nor mental formations, nor consciousness.
No eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind.
No form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind.
No realms of elements (from eyes to mind consciousness),
no interdependent origins and no extinction of them
(from ignorance to death and decay).
No ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path.
No understanding and no attainment.

Because there is no attainment,
the Bodhisattvas, grounded in Perfect Understanding,
find no obstacles for their minds.
Having no obstacles, they overcome fear,
liberating themselves forever from illusion, realizing perfect nirvana.
All Buddhas in the past, present, and future,
thanks to this Perfect Understanding,
arrive at full, right, and universal enlightenment.

Therefore one should know
that Perfect Understanding is the highest mantra, the unequaled mantra,
the destroyer of ill-being, the incorruptible truth.
A mantra of Praj├▒aparamita should therefore be proclaimed:

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha
To hear it chanted by members of the Plum Village sangha (Thich Nhat Hanh's home in France), click here.

Now, I would never profess to be a teacher of Buddhism. I am not posting this as instruction. I am also not asking for corrective input. I am merely sharing my thoughts on the sutra as I see it, based on how I have been taught by Thich Nhat Hanh (through reading his books and listening to his lectures online).

What The Heart Sutra is saying is that Avalokita observed life (the 5 skandhas are the 5 aggregates of life, the 5 aspects of existence: form, feeling, perception, mental formations, consciousness) and found that when you look into them deeply, you find that they are 'empty'. (This is the interesting thing about this sutra. It carefully goes through some of the most basic Buddhist teachings about reality and 'deconstructs' them, proclaiming that their teaching is not a teaching at all. This in itself is an important Buddhist teaching, in fact the most important Buddhist teaching.)

Okay, here we go, then. What are the 5 skandhas? Remember they cannot exist independently.

Form (rupa in Sanskrit)--material, physical factors, including our bodies and the material objects that surround us--the physical sense organs and the corresponding physical objects of the sense of organs--but also the mind and its constructs

Feeling (vedana in Sanskrit)--physical sensations and emotions experienced as a result of interacting with Form--'sensation' is the key word

Perceptions (samjna in Sanskrit)--attaching a name to an object or experience, conception of an idea about a particular object, conceptualising

Mental formations (samskara in Sanskrit)--conditioned response to the object of experience, volitional actions whether good or bad--biases, prejudices, interests and attractions

Consciousness (vijnana in Sanskrit)--the faculty that connects Form to Feeling--you cannot feel without consciousness

Now, Avalokita observed us all and considered the Buddha's teaching that each of us is merely a conglomeration of these 5 aggregates, and that nowhere in any of these 5 aggregates can we pinpoint the 'self', nor can we pinpoint it in any combination of them. Therefore, there is no self. We are empty of self. Think of it this way. Look at a chair. Why is it a chair? What part of it makes it a chair? It's wood. Does that make it a chair? It has legs. Is its chairness in its legs? When you're putting it together, at what point does it become a chair? Conversely, if you deconstruct it, at what point does it stop being a chair? What is a chair? You can deconstruct it down to its atoms, but you won't find where its 'chairness' is. It's the same with you. You can't find the part of 'you' that is you. The concept of self is as much of an illusion as the concept of chair, when you look at it that way. The chair is made up entirely of not-chair elements. You are made up entirely of not-you elements. In fact, if you look deeply into things, you will see that there is nothing that is not an element of everything. The only thing lacking is a 'separate self'. And that's what Avalokita meant when he found all skandhas 'equally empty'. Everything is equally empty of a separate self. And understanding this, 'penetrating' this truth, he overcame suffering, or 'ill-being.' There is no fear when there is no separation, no beginning and no end.

The rest of sutra goes on to say that there is nothing that is not empty of a separate self, which is a curious way of stating that everything is actually part of everything else:

'Neither produced nor destroyed.'-- Nothing can be destroyed and nothing can be created. (You can't make something out of nothing. Think about it. And you can't make something into nothing. You burn a piece of paper, it turns to smoke and ash. It doesn't become nothing. Nothing becomes nothing.)

'Neither defiled nor immaculate'--a rose becomes garbage eventually, and garbage is compost to the rose.

'Neither increasing nor decreasing'--everything that is, already is, and cannot be produced nor destroyed.

So when you relax into the knowledge of our oneness, our 'interbeing', suffering ceases. There is no attaining to this, nothing to strive for, no concept to master. It is merely a matter of seeing an 'incorruptible truth'--everything is part of everything else.

The 'mantra of Prajnaparamita' (which means 'perfect understanding') is 'Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi swaha'. This means, 'Gone, gone, all the way gone, everyone gone over to the other shore. Hurray!' Which is a funny way of celebrating that we're all one, and a sort of prayer that we'll all realise it.

Oh, here's a perfectly beautiful rendition of the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit, by a Malaysian recording artist named Imee Ooi. It's the one I'm learning: Heart Sutra Imee Ooi .

And finally, if you want to hear a dance version in English, check this out: Heart Sutra Club Mix. (It's not Thich Nhat Hanh's translation, but if you listen closely you can hear every word.)

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