I had a dream last night about meeting a man by coincidence with whom I felt great affinity and connection.
I was at the side of the road trying to fix a flat tire but the hole was too big. And the man I met was saying hello and that he had the same kind of bike – what a coincidence! And we got to talking in the dream and it was clear he held many similar attitudes about life as well. There was a wonderful sense of connection and affinity. The man mentioned that he had recently been able to purchase a vacation house on Samish Island for instance but when I asked him about it he expressed great regret that somehow in the purchase of that place he’d upset a friend he cared deeply about. And so we had much in common – gender, attitudes, possessions, values about friendship. But the feeling of affinity in the dream was so much deeper than just a sum of similarities. There was a sense of belonging together in a certain way. That affinity for others is more than just the sum of the overlaps in our personal Venn diagrams of interests and passions.
In his essays Robert Aitken roshi says the Japanese word for this kind of deep affinity is “nen” which is the feeling expressed in our short Sino-Japanese chant Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo. We chant “cho nen kan ze on, bo nen Kanzeon, nen en ju shin ki, nen ne fu ri shin” In the morning I feel affinity with Kanzeon, in the evening I feel affinity with with Kanzeon, my thoughts and attentions.
The character nen is 念 which has the heart-mind radical and means attention, desire, thought, feeling, idea, and wish. It’s used in the ordinary word for thought but I think in our sutra we can assume a deeper meaning. So rolling all of those English concepts together maybe we have something like “deep yearning for connection” and this is a beautiful thing but letting go of it is also beautiful. When I was looking the character up in the dictionary I learned that the absence of nen, unen (無念) is a Buddhist term for freedom from obstructive thoughts. Which is what the Heart Sutra is all about. So we connect through our affinity and our thinking and our concepts but when we let them go we are truly connected.
(Nen in the online dictionary: http://jisho.org/kanji/details/%E5%BF%B5 )
And so in my dream the vehicle to connection with my new friend were some of the concepts we see as solid and divided from other concepts. He liked this bike, not that bike. He cared about friends’ feelings. He was this gender, not that gender. And yet the feeling of affinity was so much deeper than these flimsy concepts.
When Avalokitesvara looks deeply into her moment by moment experience she sees that everything that’s arising is empty. This implication is “empty of own-being” two technical Buddhist terms together. Empty meaning not bound, not limited to, own-being being separate and divided. So all experience – every thing, every concept, every thought, every feeling is boundless. It’s an entry point and it’s own release.
When Avalokitesvara goes on to elaborate further that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” we see this dynamic especially once we realize that the sutra is abbreviating here. This entire pattern needs to be repeated:
Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form.
It says so more clearly in our current translation than the previous one actually:
Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this.
That’s saying “repeat this process of investigation with the other skandhas” although our current translation has an unusual translation for the second skandha of vedanā as “sensations” which is maybe better than “feelings” but still not quite right. After I awoke from my dream it occurred to me that “leanings” though a little odd sounding might be a better translation for vedana because it’s the sense of how the mind leans into the pleasant and away from the the unpleasant, but it really might be one where we just learn a sanskirt term. Our practice is a bit of a pastiche of language really.
Vedanā does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from vedanā. Vedanā itself is emptiness, emptiness itself vedanā.
Or maybe if we use “preferences” for vedanā which is combining vedanā with the way we elaborate on that sense of pleasant/unpleasant with our thinking and actions it’s more helpful:
Preferences do not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from preferences. Preferences themselves are emptiness, emptiness itself is preferences.
That’s surprising isn’t it? We know that our preferences cause suffering very experientially every day if we study our experience honestly. This endless trying to get what we want on gross and subtle levels all the time has us stuck and bound up. And so there’s a part of us that wants to get rid of our preferences and enter some kind of pure liberated state that’s free of preferences. And at the same time there’s part of us who is totally committed to our preferences and cursing at that ascetic impulse to be free of them.
The Heart Sutra seems to be saying that neither is helpful. That we can enter into emptiness through our preferences and if we open our eyes we can see emptiness expressed right in the middle of our preferences.
This sutra is a deep expression of the non-dual teachings that Zen explores. That right in the middle of the trouble there is peace. The non-separation of samsara and nirvana. That preference and concepts are vehicles not problems. Not to be ignored but not to be taken to reified either. Entering into experience deeply on every breath is the sense here. Carried there by what’s arising now not by some kind of pushing our way into some idea of a beautiful spiritual reality that’s different from what’s right here, right now.
Since emptiness has this sense of no-boundaries, or the fluidity of separation, we can also translate it as boundless or boundlessness.
So let’s play with the Heart Sutra’s phrase using boundlessness and the fourth skandha of samskāra which is a kind of catch all for all kinds of thinking and volitional impulses and thoughts that we put together to create concepts about the world – the usual translation into English is “mental formations” – the thoughts and thought-assemblies which we make and take to be reality in a certain way. Let’s just say thoughts because in our practice we can identify thoughts coming and going.
Thinking is boundless, boundlessness is thinking. Thought does not differ from boundlessness, boundlessness does not differ from thought. Boundlessness itself is thought, thought itself boundless.
So when we see and practice with thought the sutra encourages us to notice thinking with a different attitude. To explore the boundless nature of thinking itself – these thoughts which seem to have a discrete quality – if it’s this it’s not that – a kind of dualistic, separating nature, actually are not that way at all. Actually they are an expression of the boundless nature of reality and that this collection of experienced I call me is that way too. Boundless, limitless, vast. Containing everything and not separate from anything.
So when we feel some affinity with somehow that seems to be based on common interests or some separate discrete something – gender, ideology, preferences, whatever it is, we can practice exploring the way that’s just a kind of mental short cut for our total affinity and connection with everyone and everything.
It’s like Walt Whitman felt in writing Song of Myself, which actually a long poem – we should read the whole thing sometimes not just grab little quotes out of the work to make a point and in my notes to this talk online I include a link to it:
It would be great to read the whole poem out loud to yourself.
Here’s section 51 towards the end of the poem which interestingly uses “emptied” as a verb. And Walt Whitman part of what is sometimes called the American Enlightenment right? So these teachings are not something Asian and special, they are part of our human birthright.
The past and present wilt--I have fill'd them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?