The Heart Sutra

April 30, 2019 § 1 Comment

Having read Thich Nhat Hanh’s new translation of The Heart Sūtra. ( ) it occurred to me that it may be useful to put a different take on the Buddhist teaching of emptiness. Not for the purpose of rewriting Buddhist teachings but to see if viewing emptiness in a new light may not remove some of the obstacles to its understanding. So, without further ado, let’s look at emptiness as openness.

The Heart Sutra is all about realizing emptiness. Emptiness of form. Emptiness of the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness, etc. When you realize this emptiness, you realize that all phenomena “are not separate self entities.”

This is not a nihilistic assertion. The existence of phenomena is not being denied here. Just its existence as separate self-entities. It is the same view given in the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination, which states that all phenomena arise in dependence upon all other phenomena. Both are affirmations of the oneness of all things, which can happen only if all things are open systems.

In scientific terms, a system is considered open when mass or energy can flow between it and its environment. Rather than go all scientific, let’s consider this on a simpler level. Imagine a corral in a field. For this corral to be considered an open system it would have to have a gate which opens to the surrounding field for things to pass in and out. If the corral had no gate it would be a closed system (and somewhat useless, too).

In this analogy the corral may represent any open system you wish; concepts, the building blocks of the universe, your own self, etc. When it comes to concepts, The Heart Sutra refers to them in terms of paired concepts of,

no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.

In our analogy paired concepts, like birth and death, may be seen as two corrals that share a common side that has a gate that allows passage between the two corrals. The meaning intended here is that birth cannot be properly conceptualized without its opposite, i.e., death. Birth implies death and death implies birth. Neither are “separate self entities” because of the gate that connects the two. In effect, because of the gate there really is only one corral whose true nature is not birth and death, but “no Birth no Death.”

The Heart Sutra refers to birth and death as “no Birth no Death” because the boundary between the two is not rigidly defined. At any time, the gate that connects the two can swing open. The further the gate opens, the more birth and death dissolve into each other. When the gate is fully open, birth and death lose all boundaries that define them as separate concepts. You can no longer call them birth or death, or even birth and death. The best you can say is “no Birth no Death.”

Although this ‘no this, no that’ approach is a more accurate way to describe the true nature of phenomena, if we are not careful it can easily become a subtle concept, or separate self-entity, in its own right. To counteract this, the two (yet one) corrals of birth and death must be seen as having other gates that open to complementary concepts such as beginning and ending, start and finish, being and non-being, etc. When something is born, for example, something must come into being. So, birth and death are connected to other concepts that are connected to other concepts such that the boundaries between all concepts become blurred.

If we carry this to its logical conclusion, we find that every concept is a gateway to every other concept. In terms of our analogy, we are no longer looking at corrals with definitive sides but corrals whose sides are all gates that open up to other corrals whose sides are also gates. If we were to stand on a hill overlooking all this, we’d see a collection of gates in an otherwise empty field. With this insight all boundaries fall away. Everything is open.

Without boundaries to define a thing you may say that it is empty or you may say that is it open. It’s really a matter of personal predilection how you describe it. In The Heart Sutra, however, Avalokiteshvara would say “no Emptiness no Openness.”

Moving away from concepts and turning our attention to the fundamental building blocks of the universe, we see that that there can be no separate fundamental particle that exists separate from all else. If there were such a closed system, then it would never be able to interact with the world around it.

In order to interact with something, a system must be open. It must have places (i.e., gates) where there are no boundaries between it and other systems. It is through this boundless openness that all interactions, all phenomena and all of life become possible.

There is a deep-seated fear of this openness because it leaves us with the feeling that there is no ground to stand on. That nature is unpredictable and uncontrollable. This creates a great deal of insecurity that motivates our grasping and clingy behaviour. To make ourselves feel more secure, we cling to the notion that there are boundaries that keep us safe. We imagine that the sides of our corrals are not gates but solid walls that keep whatever lies in the field out. The Heart Sutra reminds us, however, that these are empty. That the side of every corral is a gate that, once you stop holding them shut, will open to the ever-expanding field of Life about you that is your life.

Practicing this Insight brings you to the open field where you see no more obstacles in your mind, and because there are no more obstacles, you can overcome all fear, destroy all wrong perceptions and realize Perfect Nirvana.

The mantra of this Insight is “Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!” Translated it means, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it.” We may also think of it as gone through the open gate. Through all gates leaving us, “Open, open, open beyond, open completely beyond, awake, so be it.”



Opening the Heart.

March 30, 2019 § 1 Comment

In the last post I spoke of an experience I had many years ago in which my heart opened and all the boundaries that separated me from the surrounding space dissolved. I had a general idea of what was going on at that time but recently a clearer explanation came to me.

The experience began with a seemingly innocuous statement from a security guard that no photographs were allowed in the area where I stood. Upon hearing this all the boundaries that my ego had worked so hard to establish over the years fell away. I was left feeling completely vulnerable and my nervous system a raw nerve without any protection or covering whatsoever.

I see now that some part of me felt as if the fundamental mistake that I believed myself to be had been revealed for all to see. It was this mistake, this original sin, if you like, that my ego had been working so hard to cover up all my life.

The belief that my own nature was a fundamental mistake began that first time I was hurt so long ago. Looking for an explanation to the cause of the hurt led me to the belief that I was somehow fundamentally wrong. There must be something wrong with me, I thought, or I wouldn’t have been treated so.

Now I don’t remember who had hurt me, nor does it matter. What matters is that being hurt is a universal event for all people. And from it the early beginnings of the human ego take shape as the developing mind seeks to hide its vulnerable spot beneath layers of defenses meant to protect it from further hurt. This is done by selectively denying the hurt-self, as I call it, while developing qualities that will compensate for its perceived weakness. Qualities that are essentially the opposite of these weaknesses.

Some of this ego development is simply a part of one’s normal development where perceived weakness is turned to strength. A child, for example, may find his social skills lacking and begin to study his popular friends to learn how to be more social. However, if this lack was the source of an early hurt, he may eventually find himself to be a very popular fellow but still believe that he is fundamentally a fraud. He may go through life with a deep fear that others may discover this pretense and that some catastrophic rejection will occur when they do.

The relationship between the ego and the hurt-self is akin to a house and the foundation on which it is built. On a firm foundation a house will be able to withstand a lot of stressors but where the foundation is weak the house may easily crumble. Similarly, an ego built upon trauma will easily fall when the stress is great, or even when there appears to be little or no outer stress. One should not conclude, however, that where there is no trauma an ego will stand firm. Each of us have our own particular soft, vulnerable spot and when that is exposed the ego can crumble quite easily.

The ego will do everything it can to keep awareness away from the vulnerable spot because that is the one place it cannot survive. There it begins to fall away and that feels like death to the ego. As it begins to dissolve the sense of separation from the outside world drops away. It is possible at these times to feel a sense of joy and union with the world, but it is also possible to feel very vulnerable, as I did in my experience. When that happens, it means the ego is still holding on, still trying to protect itself. It’s doesn’t want to let go because it fears this new open space, which is really life in all its immensity.

The ego wants to keep you from opening your heart to that vast open space. That space is all about you right now. To know it, all you need do is to drop your thoughts. How do you do this? Just turn your attention towards something simple. The branches moving in the wind outside your window. The sound of the cars driving by that come in waves like the surf. Your own breath. Any of these are doorways to this open space, aka., the present moment. Don’t look beyond these simple things for some grander sense of consciousness. Just stay with the awareness. And when the ego starts thinking again, just drop it, too.

An experience with my open heart.

February 28, 2019 § Leave a comment

My mother was a devote Catholic. I grew up in a house decorated with Christian icons. Crucifixes hanging over doors were never given a second thought. One icon that did stick in my mind, however, was the image of Christ pointing to his exposed heart. “Why?” I thought, “Would anyone expose his heart to the world like that?”

Years later my heart was suddenly, and unpreparedly, exposed. It happened when a security guard said I couldn’t take any photographs in the area. Suddenly all the boundaries that separated me from the surrounding space dissolved. Although nothing in my surroundings changed, everything had opened up and I felt as a raw nerve, left exposed and unprotected to the harshness of the world.

In spite of my extreme sense of vulnerability I could not help but notice that this open space seemed a lot like the various experiences of higher consciousness I had read about. Except that there was nothing pleasant about this. I was completely sensitized to everything and felt entirely unsafe. The intensity of that experience waned after a few hours, but it took two years for the effect to work its way out of my system.

It was of great interest when, years later, I read Pema Chodron’s writing on the soft, vulnerable spot, or what I have recently come to call the hurt-self. I immediately recognized the vulnerable spot to be the area I had come into contact with so many years before. Pema Chodron confirmed in her writings the relationship between this soft spot and higher consciousness. And, if you want to advance along the path toward enlightenment, that you must connect with this soft spot. Like the iconic image of Christ, you must live with an open heart.

To live with an open heart is to live in the present moment without bias to anything that arises. Mindfulness meditation is the key to that life. In fact, mindfulness meditation may be described as the practice of opening your heart to life, as it is, in the present moment. You begin this practice by continually watching your own mind to see how you turn away from suffering and your own hurt-self. Then you expand your practice into daily life to see how you turn away from the suffering of others and the world.

The more you practice, the more you see how your conditioned awareness looks away from that soft, vulnerable spot that is your wounded heart. The key word here is awareness. I can’t stress that enough because you’re not looking to judge or fix anything. You’re just watching your awareness. Each time you find it dimming or moving excitedly to find something else to think about, you take note and return to the present moment. Over time you’ll find patterns in this movement. Patterns that reveal a history of trying to avoid some unpleasant thought or feeling. Patterns of self-protection that have led you to turn away from suffering, whether it’s yours or another’s, and close your heart.

I learned from my own experience that it’s best to ease into an open heart. You are, after all, dropping all your defences, and doing that too quickly can induce trauma. It’s best to do it slowly. As you do, as you become friends with yourself, something interesting happens. You discover that your suffering actually decreases. That’s because your very resistance to suffering is the major cause of suffering! To quote Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

The Hurt Self.

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

Meditation has been described here in August Meditations as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. Distraction was given in general terms as thought or thinking, the content of which is often dictated by underlying attachment and identification, the two main causes of suffering. Meditation may therefore be also described as the continuous waking from ego attachment and identification to what I call the hurt-self.

Now imagine a time in your youth when all things were bright and new. You were feeling pretty good about yourself and going about your business when someone came along and said or did something hurtful. This may have been your first encounter with hurt or one of many that didn’t bother you before but, for whatever reason, this time you held onto it. It stuck. This was a pivotal moment in your life for you had just identified as a hurt-self that needs protection and in doing so laid down the foundation for your emerging ego.

The significance of that moment lay in the fact that your awareness became confined to the ego’s narrow definition of itself as a hurt-self. Before this moment awareness flowed freely from moment to moment. After it, awareness came under the influence of the ego’s primary goal to maintain itself as it is or, to put it another way, to protect itself at all times. A narrative that ‘you’ were a ‘hurt you’ began as a way of keeping you safe, to which you began collecting instances of hurt to reinforce this narrative. When none were immediately available, past instances were recalled or ones yet to come were imagined.

With each new addition to the narrative the hurt-self became more and more sensitive, at times withdrawing into itself like a raw nerve touched by something sharp. This is what Pema Chodron calls the vulnerable, soft spot. It is the spot in your psyche that you don’t want the world to see and most want not to see in yourself. To accomplish this, you began directing awareness, yours and others, away from the spot. A persona or false self-image was created for outward appearance. While inwardly, you started burying the hurt-self through denial, an effort aided by feelings of shame and anger over what you believed to be your own weakness and vulnerability.

Ostensibly, these avoidance mechanisms were presented as a way to keep you safe. What was actually happening though was that the ego was keeping itself safe. This needs to be clearly understood. The ego is what it identifies with. If the attachment and identification to the hurt-self stopped, the ego believes it would stop or die. And to the extent that an individual believes himself to be the ego, he will naturally fear this death and want to keep his self-image intact and the hurt-self hidden. The result of these machinations is a self-made prison that limits awareness to seeing itself and the world through prison bars.

The bars of your prison are your own thoughts. Not sound, logical thought but the kind that is based upon the false premise that you really are the hurt self. And the corollary that you must protect that self at all cost if you are to survive in this world. Any problem arising from this false premise has no real solution because it is not based in reality. Following any such thought will lead to dead ends or be just plain gibberish.

Prison bars are numerous and vary from person to person but here are a few common ones.

  • Thinking the same thoughts over and over again (Loop thinking, as I call it)
  • Double-bind thinking, where two or more conflicting thoughts bind the awareness to an insolvable problem that by its nature creates an emotional conflict
  • All or nothing thinking
  • Catastrophic expectations
  • Perfectionism and the belief that you must fix yourself
  • Inner characters that tell you what to do and what not to do
  • The persona or self-image that you present to the world
  • Story-telling, wherein life events are made into a story that reinforces the hurt self

Thoughts such as those described above are all strategies of the ego that direct awareness into a maze of thinking that distort your experience so that you no longer live in the present moment but in your head. The only way to exit this maze is to turn your awareness towards what you’ve been avoiding. Meditation is a means to that end, but a word of warning.

The vulnerable, soft spot contains a lifetime of hurt. Where there is a history of mental illness or trauma it is better to seek professional psychological help than face it alone. For those with no such history, unraveling the knot in your heart will still be difficult. When times get tough, it may be of some consul to remember the words of Rumi who said, “That hurt we embrace becomes joy. Call it to your arms where it can change.”

Present Moment Consciousness

January 1, 2019 § 1 Comment

In the 1973 film, “The Paper Chase,” Professor Kingsfield begins the first day of class with these words to his students, “You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Other than the fact that I’m not going to be a lawyer, that was me when I started meditating. My skull was definitely full of mush.

The “mush” was mostly fear. My skull was full of it. I had spent many years trying to figure it out through psychology and dream interpretation but to no avail. It was only when life presented me with the opportunity to devote myself to a course of daily meditation and Buddhist study that things started to turn around. Even then it took quite a while before I started to believe that all those things my skull was telling me was real, wasn’t real, at all.

I also had a lot of mush about enlightenment. Still do, I suppose. Looking back, I don’t really know what I thought it was. I know I conceived it as some higher state of consciousness that I suppose, because of my fear, I saw as a place of refuge. The joke, as I later discovered, was that the door to enlightenment was exactly where my fear was most intense! It wasn’t a place of refuge from the world. It was, is, being fully alert, while facing the world.

But I’m not there yet. I’m still dealing with my mush. Sitting, watching, trying to discern the difference between the thinking state and the present moment. It’s becoming clearer but only in my seeing just how much more mush there is to clear away.

By ‘clear away’ I don’t mean fix. That’s what I was trying to do through psychology. Trying to fix myself. Turns out that’s an endless road to nowhere. The only solution I know of now is to see the difference between the thinking state and the present moment, and then choose to be in the present moment. Sounds simple but there’s nothing harder.

Like everyone else there are years, if not lifetimes, of conditioned thinking to see through. Conditioning that has left me identifying with an aggregate of thoughts and things that go into the making of my fear filled self. Conditioning that has me shy away from my mind’s most sensitive and vulnerable areas, while simultaneously trying to protect them. I am buoyed, though, by the growing certainty that success will come. Maybe not in this life. Maybe not in the next or even in ten lives after that, but at least I know nothing can stop it, now.

In the past I thought meditation would lead to some alternate state of consciousness that was somehow “elsewhere” from the one I was in. It never occurred to me that the alternate state I sought was the one I was in, just minus all the mush. And that just by watching and being friendly to all that is going on right now, without looking to the past or to the future and without trying to “fix” anything in myself, that I may realize this present moment consciousness, right now. And that it has been here all along. Life unfolding in the seemingly mundane activity of daily existence. My life. Your life, that is all Life.

Meditating With Unconditional Friendliness.

December 25, 2018 § 2 Comments

After Siddhartha Gautama, who was to become the Buddha, became an ascetic, he went to Alara Kalama. Kalama taught a particular style of meditation called the “sphere of nothingness” that emphasized deep inner penetration. Gautama became so adept at this practice that Kalama asked him to take his place, but Gautama refused. For Gautama it wasn’t enough that he realized his true nature in a profound state of deep contemplation. He knew that true enlightenment had to extend to every aspect of life. So, he left Kalama and continued his search.

Today you will find many classic references to meditation as a state of “one-pointed concentration” that sounds eerily suggestive of what Gautama rejected. These instructions, it should be noted, were often written for students living in monasteries undergoing intensive training. Once they realized their true nature, the students would continue their training to actualize this realization. Fortunately, there are instructions that provide alternatives to one-pointed concentration that are more suitable to today’s lifestyle. One is described by Pema Chodron in her book, “When Things Fall Apart: heart advice for difficult times.

In her book Pema Chodron describes Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach to meditation as one that instructs students to give 25% of their attention to the breath, “so that one was still aware of one’s surroundings and didn’t consider them an intrusion or an obstacle to meditation.” Later he asked his students to label any thoughts that arise as “thinking” but not with the aim of extinguishing thought. The attitude to cultivate, writes Pema Chodron, is “one of unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises in your mind.”

Being friendly to whatever arises in the mind is not new. It is what the Buddhist means when she asks that you give up labelling things “good or bad.” When she asks that you let thoughts arise and fall of their own accord. Or in the simple request that you first be compassionate to yourself. These are all directives to be open and inclusive to whatever is met in your mind and in your life. As so viewed, meditation becomes the practice of watching the breath amid the physical environment and the sea of thought that surrounds it.

Thought is still not followed with more thought while meditating but it is not suppressed either. And here we come across an aspect of meditation that is not often covered in meditation instructions. I’m referring to a sub-category of thought following that may be called keeping up appearances.

Each and every one of us has an ego that sees itself in a certain way and likes to be seen in a certain way, too. This is your self-image and to maintain it the ego must continually deflect awareness away from some things and towards others. In essence, the ego is saying, “I am I, and no other.” When this “I” is threatened, it will put up a fierce resistance. You may find this resistance the greatest obstacle you face to finding your true self. Yet, when it comes down to it, keeping up appearances is just another way of following thought.

The key to overcoming ego resistance is to reverse the process and turn your awareness towards whatever it is the ego doesn’t want you to look at, think or feel. That is, to become unconditionally friendly towards whatever arises in your mind.

When, for example, you feel uncomfortable, take that feeling into your meditation and look towards, not away, from whatever is making you anxious. Don’t think about it. Just turn toward it, staying with the discomfort as best as you can. Over time this simple discipline will decondition your impulse to retreat into your head and think even more convoluted thoughts to avoid the stress.

Turning toward suffering, rather than seeking relief through distraction, places you in the present moment. There you may find that you suffer less because you are no longer resisting what is by trying to replace it with what isn’t or what might have been. When you practice this way on smaller woes, you’ll be better able to face life’s bigger challenges, such as the death of a loved one or a serious illness. But don’t think that this is a way of avoiding intense emotion. Rather it is the path to an open and unresisting heart that can bear anything it meets in life.

A final note. One-pointed concentration of mind may sound sexy, but it can easily be appropriated by the ego to keep the awareness only on what it finds acceptable. Rather than dropping self, you end up keeping up appearances, instead.

Meditating With Distraction

November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments

It common while meditating to find yourself thinking rather than attentively watching the breath. When you do, the instruction is to take note of the distraction by labeling it as ‘thinking’ and then return to watching the breath. Although this simple act may seem inconsequential it is the foundation of awakening.

Meditation is the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. This statement should be understood as descriptive, meaning that it describes what goes on during meditation more than it tells you what to do. Anyone who’s taken up the practice knows it to be true. During meditation you rarely sit with unwavering attention on the present moment. The mind wanders. You stray from the breath. ‘Waken’ to the fact that you’re thinking and return to the breath where, after a time, you again become distracted.

In simple terms, waking is a recognition that you’ve strayed from watching the breath. What takes your attention away is called a distraction, which includes environmental or physical conditions of the body, such as excessive noise or pain in the legs. Usually when Buddhists speak of distraction though they mean thinking (which includes concepts, imagery and the emotions). It is important to note that waking to thinking does not mean stopping thinking. It means not being carried away by it.

In his book, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” Kosho Uchiyama spoke of three kinds of distraction. The first he called chasing thoughts, by which he meant ‘to follow some initial thought with more thought.’ The second is drowsiness or nodding off. The third is when you forget where you are and what you’re doing. Of this latter type he wrote, “Without being aware of it, we may start associating with or carrying on a dialogue with some vivid figure… that has been totally fabricated within our own act of chasing after thoughts.”

To Kosho Uchiyama’s list I’d like to add a fourth type of distraction. This is the “I” thought. The “I” thought exists both as a singular thought and as a thought that is attached to, and identified with, other thoughts and things. As a singular thought it is your sense of self or sense that you are, however vague that feeling might be. When the “I” thought attaches to other things it produces thoughts that identify it as ill or healthy, worthy or unworthy, smart or stupid, and a whole host of other concepts that combine into an individual idea that defines who and what you are.

In the sense that a thought is about a thing and never that thing itself, the “I” thought, whether it stands alone or as attached, is not the ‘real’ you. It is a fabrication, just like the characters you have dialogues with in Uchiyama’s third type of distraction are fabrications. It differs from these other fabrications only in its tendency to persevere throughout your life. (Reminiscent of Einstein’s, “…reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent illusion.”) As fabrications go it is very useful in navigating your way through life. But when it comes to meditation it is a distraction that you need to wake up from if you want to discover your true nature.

When you sit with awareness on the breath the “I” thought sits with you, as a subtle sense of a self that stands in opposition to the breath. It is this thought that creates the sense of separation you have with life. When you wake to the “I” thought the instruction is the same as waking to any other thought. You label it as ‘thinking’ and then return to your breathing. However, as the “I” thought is very persistent, no effort need be undertaken to stop it. As with any other distraction the aim is to continuously return to your breathing as best you can.

Perhaps you heard or read of someone who said she suddenly became one with everything. That, for example, there was no longer a bird singing; there was just singing. Consider this in terms of what is written above. Does it not seem the experience of oneness would be the natural result of the “I” thought dropping away, taking with it that sense of separation from the world as it goes? And does it not seem equally likely that as you practice waking from your own sense of self that you, too, will have this experience? Assuming, of course, you don’t let that thought distract you.

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