The final talk around the theme of The Heart of the Matter was given as the sesshin talk in our closing 3-day sesshin with me and Norman Fischer.
As seems to be usual for me lately I didn’t stick too close to the notes, looks like I started out “on script” so that’s below in case helpful.
“The Myth of Me”
Gaia creation myth as retold by Donna Jo Napoli (The Treasury of Greek Mythology) – my own additions in [brackets]
How do you get something from nothing? Not easily it would seem. From empty Chaos, somehow sea and earth and air appeared. They drifted around, pieces of each getting lost in the other. No water was swimmable, no land was walkable, no gas was breathable. Anything hot could quickly turn cold. Anything cold could burst into flames. Shapes shifted, textures shifted. Objects merged one into the other effortlessly, then suddenly-slam! One or both turned inexplicably hard. What was heavy became weightless. What was weightless crashed through earth and sea and air, shattering and splattering and scattering bits of everything and nothing. Rules of nature? They didn't operate. Indeed, there was no nature. There was nothing reliable in this turmoil expect lack of order. And lack is the essence of need. Out of that original need came the mother force, Gaia. All on her own. Need can do that. Gaia sucked up heat and stored it in her heart. She wrapped herself round and round with anything solid she could reach, growing firmer with each layering. She pulled together her glassy sands, lifting them, grain by grain - free of air, to form deserts; free of water, to form beaches. She pushed together gigantic plates of rock until her mountains rose high, so far from her scalding heart that snow settled on their peaks. As Gaia disentangled herself from the waters and the gases, the seas fell together in giant puddles, the heavens arches over it all. In this way the emergence of Gaia led to both the wholeness of the seas and the wholeness of the heavens. But Gaia was generous, as a mother should be. She opened her veins so water could rush through rivers and creeks, and pool together in large low lakes and small hidden ponds. She yielded here and there to the gases, allowing crevices to cradle them. One crevice in particular was huge and gaping: the waiting hole for the dead. But at this point she didn't know that. She knew things only as they happened, like a child encountering everything for the first time. She created the hole almost as though she understood instinctively all the gain and loss that would follow from her generosity. The seas learned from Gaia and welcomed islands. The skies learned from Gaia and welcomed stars. And then the seas and skies went further and worked together to cycle water from the salty seas to the skies, then fresh and sweet to the lands, who returned it once more to the seas. But Gaia was not the only child of the enormous original need that came from Chaos; there were two others. One was Tartarus, the Underworld. The other was Eros, Love. Then Chaos gave a giant yawn and out flowed the total darkness of night as well as Erebus. Erebus, like Gaia, was a place as well as a force, seeking to fill crannies. Erebus settled into the hole for the dead and became the upper part of the Underworld. Eros was beautiful, but not ordinary beautiful. Eros' beauty made the others quiver. It made them dream of being enveloped in warm caresses. Of getting drunk on thick creamy honey. Of swooning from ambrosia. Of whirling to tinkling music. Of being dazzled by sparkles in this lightless world. [ For it was still so dark.] So Night and Erebus fell in love, and Night gave birth to Day. And with light, in the lushness of fresh and salty water and in the expansiveness of air, life on Earth began. Grasses and vines wound their way around the globe. Bushes gently bloomed. [The Earth had become and everything to come, good and bad, was soon to follow.]
That’s a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of creation, beautifully retold by a children’s author named Donna Jo Napoli, that I found in a book of Walker’s the other day when I was casting around the house for something to read to him to help him wake up. He loves stories so much that reading him a story is the only reliable way to get him to wake up at 7am for school. He wants to wake up so he can hear the story. So this is a story of awakening in that way.
But it’s a tale for us too of how we create the world isn’t it? The world we perceive appears to be orderly but only because of the quick work of the mind to make sense of the jumble of perceptions and thoughts that emerge each moment, and each of us does this in our own way, and out of this wrapping of our arms around the drifting forms and the opening of our heart to the heat of life each of us creates our world. Each world unique. No two of us quite the same. And each of us in the center of the world we’ve created believing it to be the real world. With our heavens and our hole into the underworld. We our dark thoughts and pain and our poetry and joy and amazement at it all.
Sesshin is such a wonderful opportunity to watch it all happen. To watch our own mythology arising and expressing itself. Norman used to say “everyone’s a philosopher” and we could also say “everyone has a mythology” – everyone has a creation myth of their own life, a creation myth of their self. And we carry that myth forward constantly editing and adding and embellishing, and at times feeling really stuck with. It’s so heavy sometimes isn’t it to be stuck with yourself. Couldn’t I be someone else today?
Sesshin a real opportunity though to slow down the myth making and watch the myth arising and doing it’s thing.
Sometimes we misunderstand sesshin as a time to improve. As a time to get some understanding or some peace. We’re starting to understand that it’s not that – it’s not a process of manipulation and control in that way. The American Zen understanding of the word sesshin itself belies this- at first we were told by our dharma leaders that sesshin means to gather up the mind. To take all these pieces of chaos and gather them with the arms of Gaia into a new whole in accord with the teachings. Deep and subtle work but nonetheless a great work of improvement and refinement. But then someone looked up the world , I think it might have actually been Kate McCandless so this is a teaching local to our Pacific Northwest practice life, someone looked up the word “sesshin” and we learned that it means to “touch” the heart-mind. To touch, to hold, to experience. A very different thing than to gather.
We gather things with a closed hand. And we expect to pull the hand back to the body with something. To capture and hold something. To finally find some way of bringing the swirling chaos to a stop. At last to a stop.
But we touch things with open hand. And when we bring our hand back we expect to have only an impression – a feeling – a sense of the texture and nature of what we touched. And that which we touched is allowed it’s own function. The chaos is allowed to be chaos.
And so here this weekend to touch the heart, to touch the mind. Just to touch it. Gently. With care. With kindness. With so much patience. And to feel the warmth of our life through the palms of our hands.
This retreat is the closing of our Winter practice period this year and we’ve been exploring what we’ve been calling the Heart of the Matter using the Heart Sutra and the emptiness teachings of our school as a jumping off point.
The Heart Sutra is such an odd little text though, isn’t it? We usually say that it’s a summary of a broader set of literature about wisdom – the Prajna Paramita literature – but it’s not the kind of summary any of us would write really as it’s totally different in style from the longer sutras. Some scholars think that it might have been composed in China actually which was apparently quite a shocking notion to many. Maybe it’s more of a blast of enthusiasm and wonder about the practicing of Prajna Paramita. And as we’ve been studying it we’ve been realizing that it might not be the worlds of text itself that matter so much as the transmission of those words and the actual practice of reciting the Heart Sutra.
One of the things that’s come up in conversations about the Heart Sutra are people’s memories of where they first encountered it. I’ve heard some really interesting stories! For me it was at Santa Cruz Zen Center in about 1985 or so. It turned out later that this was in the middle of a several year transitional time for that center – the founding teacher and most of students gone, the new teacher not arrived. Just a few long time Zen students quietly minding the store. A couple named Jerry who was an aikido teacher and I can’t remember his partner’s name. It was usually just me and the two of them, sometimes this other younger man. One period of zazen maybe around 6am and then we chanted the Heart Sutra and said goodbye. I was a bit shy so I always resisted chatting or having tea or anything, I would hop back on my bike and continue up to campus getting there in the quiet of the morning with some time to study before my first class. I didn’t pull this off every day but for a while I was pretty regular.
Anyway one time Jerry and his sweetie were away on a trip and they left it to the other young man to take care of the zendo and I remember he didn’t want to chant the Heart Sutra. I was really surprised by how appalled I was – it just didn’t feel right at all. I don’t know now if it’s just the way we habituate to what we’re used to or something about the sutra itself. I remember that translation had a lot more Sanskrit in it. Especially I remember that it had annutara samyak sambodhi – complete perfect enlightenment. And I think some other phrases. It’s power is somehow beyond it’s words though isn’t it.
That it’s more a piece of a much bigger unfolding of something. That although it’s packed with meaning and references so deeply that in 5 lectures I’m sorry to say I only got a few lines into the text, maybe we should just continue on later in the year and see if we can finish it. Or maybe that doesn’t matter so much. But the deeper meaning might not be in the words. There’s a Zen poem that says “the meaning is not in the words, but it responds to the inquiring impulse.” Perhaps the way it is for us is this: from warm hands in the past we’ve been handed forward a feeling of that inquiring impulse and we chant the Heart Sutra in celebration and recognition of that. Another way to look at the Heart Sutra is that it’s not a short explanatory text ending with a mantra but actually the whole text is a mantra. A mantra of wisdom, of compassion, of connection. It seems to work that way.
And so it’s wonderful and strange for me to be sitting here in my 46th year, 28 years after I first set foot in a zendo, wearing a version of Tang Dynasty Chinese robes with the color coding of a lineage holder sitting across the altar from my own teacher who is more or less in the same position. Oddly sitting here through the courtesy of many karmic twists and turns as are each of us. I often reflect on how strange it is that all this could have happened. I really don’t take it for granted. And I really don’t think there’s anything extra special about me, or just that every one of us is extra special – each a jewel reflecting the other jewels of the universe. And those jewels end up in different roles somehow. And we honor that and work with it as best we can. But thank you. Thank you for your support all of these years. I know it isn’t always so easy.
So I want to read a few lines from the Perfection of Wisdom In Eight Thousand Lines which is one of several prajna paramita texts. I read these lines briefly the other night in seminar more as a kind of impressionistic example of the literature but let’s spend a little longer with them this morning. The bookmark I have here is a folded up piece of paper that’s been in this book a while – it’s a syllabus that Norman gave out in the Winter of 1988 at Green Gulch when he led a class on this text. It’s been sitting there all this time I guess, waiting for this moment.
It starts like all good myths do, by setting the stage. And it’s a big stage full of worthy beings. Listen…
[p. 82-84, emphasize the freedom from despair that the Bodhisattvas experience by completely letting go of being bodhisattvas.]
So my myth of the world involves a pretty rich material world. Well very rich really in all sense of the world. This talk written on a very powerful computer – although from my point of view it’s just my crummy old laptop, getting close to time to replace it. But because of our connections to Kenya I’m little by little broadening my sense of the material world. And I found out recently that one of the thing I very much take for granted is access to electric light. Without electric light you can’t work or study in the evening. And if you can’t study you can’t get a very good education especially because there are probably many important tasks to do during the day, even if you are child who is lucky enough to go to school. After school there is work to do to help your family survive and then if you live near the equator its getting dark around 6pm every day, year round. So you can’t really study and you can’t do well in your education and nothing much changes.
Janet’s family likes to give us little gifts for Christmas and they us this toy solar light. For us it’s a toy, it sits around mostly. Walker and his friend used it inside the fort they made of pillows and sheets last weekend.
But I read an article that reminded me that in another circumstance this light is the difference between poverty and not for some child somewhere, for some family somewhere living in a village or a shanty town in all kinds of places all over the world. A fifth of the world’s popular doesn’t have reliable access to electricity it turns out and so their houses are dark at night. Not only at night but many of these houses, or shelters really, don’t have windows either so they’re dark during the day too.
The technology is the easy part of solving problems. There are zillions of cool ideas. Plenty of college students have come up with a great new technology for the poor.
The bigger challenge comes from the questions around any new device: How do you build a market for a technology focused on people with no money? How do you physically get it to where it needs to be? How do poor people acquire it? How can it be adopted on a wide scale? How do you make it last?
If you look at the market for solar lighting in Africa, you’ll be excused for thinking that you’re looking at the mobile phone market some 15 years ago. Both are leapfrog technologies — neither land lines nor the electrical grid is going to reach much of the continent, so let’s just skip that generation of technology and move to the next one. Like cellphones, solar lamps are getting cheaper, smaller, better. Both are life-changing, indispensable. And the market is enormous. Today, about 1.5 million people in Africa use solar lamps. That’s a huge number — but it’s less than 1 percent of the potential market. A fifth of the world’s population lives without electricity. Another large group of people do have access to electricity, but need an alternative because it is too expensive and power outages are daily events.
People without electric light usually rely on kerosene, a terrible alternative. It gives poor light — really, not enough to study by — produces noxious fumes, and is a major hazard for burns and fires. Indoor air pollution kills 2 million people each year and kerosene is a major source. Kerosene itself is also expensive; the very poor typically spend 10 percent of their income or more on kerosene. Its users pay 600 times more per unit of light than people who use electrical-powered incandescent lamps.
The unsolved problem for lighting Africa isn’t designing a great lamp. Great lamps are out there. It’s designing a great business model.
The solar light business in Africa is enormous. Many companies make solar lights — d.light and Barefoot Power are two of the best-known. These companies are growing exponentially; Barefoot Power reached 1.5 million people by the end of last year, and is on target to reach 5 million this year. Stewart Craine of Barefoot believes the market will serve half of all unelectrified households in the world by 2020.
These commercial solar lamps vary from $10 desk lamps to five-lamp systems that sell for more than $100. The manufacturers say the lamps pay for themselves through savings on kerosene in two to six months. But this is still far too much money for many people.
“We currently don’t target the poorest people in the community, as we sell products for cash, and $25 is still hard to find at one time for many villagers,” Craine wrote in an e-mail.
Barefoot and d.light do try to reach poorer customers, both physically and financially. Joyce DeMucci of Barefoot said that the company often sells in bulk to nongovernmental groups that run camps for internally displaced people. These groups give away the lamps or subsidize their sale. The solar companies also work with local women’s groups or microfinance groups that can provide distribution and financing.
Sam Goldman, the co-founder of d.light, said that the major challenge for selling to villagers was supply chain and logistics — “how do we sustainably deliver products and provide after-sales and warranty services?” The company sometimes distributes lamps through businesses already designed to reach the rural poor — sellers of dried frozen fish, for example, or a kind of low-cost roofing, and d.light is starting to work with a multinational company that distributes products in rural Africa. In Guatemala, d.light sells its lamps in mountain villages through the microconsignment system that I wrote about last year.
These programs are small, in part because the potential market for full-price sales is so big. But the price of solar lighting is likely to drop substantially. Gaurav Gupta, who heads the energy and environment practice at the consulting firm Dalberg, makes the point that the demand for portability and energy efficiency is being driven by rich consumers, who want smaller and smaller mobile phones and better solar lights. But those improvements will end up bringing down the cost of solar lighting for the poor. If it gets cheap enough, then there just may be a simple business model that can serve almost everyone — the market.
So this little solar battery powered light is one thing here, another thing there. Any concept we might have about this little light or anything really becomes more fluid and dynamic the more we learn. The Heart Sutra is teaching us this, our hearts are teaching us this, the world is teaching us this.
Dizang said to Xiushan, “Where do you come from?”
Xiushan said, “From the South.”
Dizang said, “How is Buddhism in the south these days?”
Xiushan said, “There’s extensive discussion.”
Dizang said, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and making rice to eat?’
Xiushan said, “Don’t you care about the world?”
Dizhang said, “What do you call ‘the world’?”
[book of Serenity, case 12]
Avalokitesvara saw the emptiness of our experience and she knew there was space there to help even more as all fear and distress lifted.
Let’s use our time skillfully during this sesshin. Touching the heart. Just touching it. Opening to the mystery of this mythical life. Remembering the broad context of this world. What do you call the world? What do you call me? What is the myth of this moment. This breath. Just this.