hearts that see the forest

I’ve been immersed in books lately.  More so than usual.  Unfortunately these are not books I’m reading but books that are arriving, arriving at the door.  Books to be reviewed, books to be read, books to be studied.  Chaplaincy books, poetry books, psychology books, Buddhist books – all clamouring for attention.  And dare I mention the pixelated books in my e-readers that are sending me subliminal messages via 3G?  I can skate by with some of these by scanning the text and getting a feel for the author’s message.  Others are denser woods to navigate through and I risk not seeing the forest through the trees.

In some genres more than others, seeing the trees without losing sight of the forest is important.  The specifics of the book are critical to understanding the teachings they impart.  They must be practiced to be embodied and only then does a reflection on them have legs.  In particular, every book about Buddhism is a book with which one practices.  I’ve yet to find a book of this genre that didn’t demand this singular, whole-hearted commitment from the reader.  So, I quiver in fear at the number of Buddhist-y books stacking up on my shelf – I cleared out a single shelf solely populated by Buddhism-books-to-be-reviewed – because there are not enough life-times to practice what is contained between the covers of these volumes.

Somewhat disheartened, I stumbled around the megalithic bookstore in town wishing every sheet of paper bound between glossy laminates would leap up and flap their way up through the vents in the ceiling.  I stared at volumes of books by the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh – two of the most prolific authors.  I rolled glassy-eyeballs over titles that proclaimed liberation and peace were possible.  And I bought one of them.

I can justify this!  Really.  It comes to me unburdened by any publishing company’s publicity agent.  In fact, Parallax Press is rather firm in ignoring my offers to review Thich Nhat Hanh’s books despite the sycophantic waving of my brown Order of Interbeing jacket.  So, blessed by such ignominy, I feel free to recommend this book, unhampered by any need to please anyone.

Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist sutras and commentaries initially looks like a compilation of Thấy’s various sutra commentary books.  It’s not.  It is 608 pages of revised translations and new commentaries on key sutras.  The Anapanasati, Satipatthana, Knowing a better way to live alone (my favourite and a life-changer), Better way to catch a snake, On the Middle Way, On Happiness, Eight Realizations of the Great Beings represent the Pali Canon.

The Heart and Diamond sutras bridge us into the Mahayana teachings.  Each sutra is given a clearer translation and deeper treatment in commentary than the previous single volumes.  This is followed with a series of sections focused solely on practice.  New and detailed exercises for the Awareness of Breathing and the Four Establishments of Mindfulness sutras are available in this voluminous text along with histories of and other texts related to the sutras.  The commentaries of the Diamond and Heart sutras are vastly expanded and directly connected to everyday life.

There’s a contemplative feel to the writing (though I admit often having trouble getting into Thấy’s style) and it promises to challenge anyone attempting a sutra study.  If ever there was a book that qualified being called a Buddhist Bible, this might be it.  I’m looking forward to practicing with it over my lifetime.

on the art of losing one’s head

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara while moving through the deep chaos of renovations saw that form is emptiness.  She lost her head over that insight.  I take it only as a comment on the profoundity of the teachings and not a reflection of the vast complication that is my life at the moment.  However, Avalokite presents an important consideration which is the point of our practice: how do we lose our heads skillfully?

IF you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

With apology to Rudyard Kipling who began his poem with the implication that success lies in keeping one’s head when all about are losing theirs, I am beginning to understand that the object of practice is very much the losing of one’s head. My head.  Lost, fallen, tumbled off its precarious perch atop a spindle of a spine.  Strangely, this is a good thing because as that unwieldy lump falls off, I am left with nothing to rely on but my intimate connection with who I am.

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating…

I was blessed with a number of conversations over the last week with friends and colleagues who are good at holding my feet to the fire of trust, patience, transparency, and meeting aversion.  Perhaps the best teachings I received were to drop away from the anxiety that keeps me from speaking my truth.  The tendency when we fear loss is a natural gasp, an intake and holding of the breath which easily translates into a holding on.  When I see this as nothing more than a knee-jerk response fueled by thoughts of loss and not any loss that is real, my head falls off.  That frontal lobe dominance, that story-machine which churns out the miserable and the macabre – it withers and shrivels and drops off.  

This is a challenging practice.  It calls on us to hold our seat in the firestorm yet not be foolishly consumed, to be flexible in our commitments yet honour them, to hold true to our values yet find a path that is mutually nourishing.  It calls on us to lose our head and find our heart.

Avalokiteshvara lost her head one day.  And as I contemplated in the deep course of practice, I found the heart of what is true, intimate, and pure.