Try telling an orally fixated kitten that you too like to lick your bowl clean. It’s a Zen thing, I explained. Clean your bowl! As you can see, he’s not impressed. I’m fascinated by Sprout’s practice of defending himself. My lacerations will heal soon and the sting does little to deter me from testing out what actually triggers his grab-and-slash reflexes. So far I’ve sorted out that it has little to do with territory (but he has yet to meet the other two cats) or food (ample and free-range). It does have much to do with that vulnerable underbelly.
Form. The first of the Five Skandhas and the one that stands as the exemplar of the boundlessness, the unknowability of the other four. Red Pine in his commentary (1) says that it represents our obsession with the material. It is “our first line of defense in contesting attacks on the validity of our existence…” and we need to believe it exists. We try to define ourselves in terms of the structure, shape, and extension into space and time of our body. Oh and, how we fail.
Red Pine goes on to say we disregard the other four skandhas at our own peril. We risk entrenching form as the only path to understanding emptiness and forget the intricate role all five play with each other. One of the things that always fascinated me about this section of the Heart Sutra is the dropping out of “sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness” from the recitation. It worries me that we don’t chant them with the same thundering detail as we do with form. It elevates form as something to truly be wary of and without attention, our stance to the other four becomes one of benign neglect. And, truth be told, becoming caught in believing the solidity of sensations, perceptions, memory, and consciousness is more cause for worry than form by itself.
Let me put it this way: when the body fails us, we may have a sense of assault on our image, identity, potential, and so on. However the power of the delusion that we are identified by our form lies not in the body but in what we sense in it (pain!), perceive of it (Oh this is never going to end!), memories we have of it (the last time I was laid up forever!), and consciousness of the experience with it (why me!?).
So repeat regularly:
Feelings are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as feelings
Perceptions are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as perceptions
Mental formations are the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as mental formations
Discernment is the same as boundlessness; boundlessness is the same as discernment. (2)
(1) Heart Sutra, translation and commentary by Red Pine
(2) Skandha terms from Heart Sutra version translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi & Joan Halifax Roshi © 2003