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"My Favorite Sutra" by Shane Hennesey

19 March 2010

My favorite sutra is The Heart Sutra. It was the first sutra I was introduced to before I really knew what sutras were and it spoke to me on 2 major fronts. One was it had the word “heart” in the title, which made me think that it was going to tell me the “heart of the matter” in regards to practice. This it certainly does, many times over. The other thing that called to me were the lines “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” These blew me away because it echoed a feeling that had grown in me over my many years as a spiritual vagabond. It had the gravitas of Truth and it resonated in me more strongly than anything that had come before. That’s what caught me up in Buddhism in the first place…here were all these ideas and practices that made real something I had organically come to understand…and someone had been writing it all down for 2600 years.

Now, my Western mind doesn’t connect very well to Asian ideas and metaphors, so it takes me a lot of meditation time to grasp them along with the help of commentaries. Of the ones I’ve read, Thich Nhat Hanh’s has been the most helpful for me as it tends to be the most simple and god knows I need simple. What he said that really anchored the sutra in my brain, though, was “Emptiness=water, Form=wave” and BAM it all came together for me in a way my pea brain could grasp. This idea and the rest of the sutra says to me…look, no matter what you think you know and have figured out in your years, life unfolds exactly as it is supposed to at all times and in all places. Just like an ivy, when it reaches a blockage, it does not cry that it cannot grow left, it just grows right or over or under or around another way. It knows that all things are “marked with emptiness, neither defiled nor immaculate,” there is just Perfect Understanding that moves forward. The Understanding that does not cling inappropriately but continues to move forward responding appropriately to all it encounters. It does not shut down, but keeps moving into the mantra “gate gate paragate parasamgate” ["gone, gone, gone beyond, completely gone beyond"].  Do not bemoan what you cannot do, do not get mired down in stuck-ness, get up, pay attention, keep moving into the fullness of life even when it feels scary or uncertain or groundless.

The Heart Sutra is the essence of what I call Dirty Dharma…it’s not prettied up or made lovely or spoon fed, it’s the essence of the practice where the rubber meets the road and if you get lost or stuck you have only to read the mantra at the end again: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. To me this says: get up, start walking, engage life, keep practicing, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel because there is no tunnel, just the bright light of all that is, so keep moving and you will wake up.

For me, this sutra, as with all sutras are best when I read them more as poetry and less as scripture. I was raised Catholic, so "scripture" carries a heavy and negative feeling with it whereas poetry is easier for my mind to open to and embrace. Working from this perspective, I find that I see many modern day sutra writers if you just listen to their poetry. Here is one that hits on the prajnaparamita for me currently:

Let the crisis become a bridge, you’ll cross that bridge tomorrow,
And in the time that comes between, baby, why don’t you let go of the sorrow?
She says ‘the sky is crying’, he says ‘no, the sky is blue’.
- Juliet by Stevie Nicks 

So I carry on being a wave studying the water.

In case you’ve not seen it before, here is the excerpt of the Heart Sutra that is often read or chanted by different sects of Buddhism. This is a very poetic version that I find quite nice (I believe from the Rochester Zen Center).

The Heart Sutra

The Bodhisattva of Compassion
from the depths of prajna wisdom
saw the emptiness of all five skandhas
and sundered the bonds that create suffering.

Know then:

Form here is only emptiness,
emptiness only form.
Form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness no other than form.

Feeling, thought, and choice,
consciousness itself,
are the same as this.

Dharmas here are empty,
all are the primal void.
None are born or die.
Nor are they stained or pure,
nor do they wax or wane.

So in emptiness no form,
no feeling, thought, or choice,
nor is there consciousness.

No eye, ear, nose,
tongue, body, mind,
no colour, sound, smell,
taste, touch, or what
the mind takes hold of,
nor even act of sensing.

No ignorance or end of it
nor all that comes of ignorance:
no withering, no death,
no end of them.

Nor is there pain or cause of pain
or cease in pain or noble path
to lead from pain.
Not even wisdom to attain,
attainment too is emptiness.

So know that the Bodhisattva
holding to nothing whatever
but dwelling in prajna wisdom
is freed of delusive hindrance,
rid of the fear bred by it,
and reaches clearest Nirvana.

All Buddhas of past and present,
Buddhas of future time,
through faith in prajna wisdom
come to full enlightenment.

Know, then, the great Dharani,
the radiant, peerless mantra,
the supreme, unfailing mantra,
the Prajna Paramita,
whose words allay all pain.

This is highest wisdom,
true beyond all doubt,
know and proclaim its truth:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bhodi svaha!
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bhodi svaha!
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bhodi svaha!

[The mantra may be translated as, "Gone, gone, gone beyond, completely gone beyond, enlightenment, so be it!"]

Shane Hennesey is a gay man exploring the Dharma of life beyond 40. You can visit his regular writing at www.zenfant.wordpress.com.


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