the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva

Sprout discovers The Thing.  It doesn’t fill him with as much fear as the Five Fears that assail bodhisattvas.  I found this a fascinating tidbit about bodhisattvas in Red Pine’s commentary (and there are innumerable delicious morsels in his translation of the Heart Sutra).

First a bit a backtracking.  The problem with studying, learning, and  writing is the time for consolidation isn’t always available.  After Rohatsu in December, I committed to taking on the various commentaries on the Heart Sutra and have been delighted by some I didn’t know about.  Coincidentally (or not), a copy of Red Pine’s translation arrived from Counterpoint Press and that just sealed the deal to dive into the sutra.  (I have Ken McLeod’s contribution on the shelf but may not get to it until later this year!)

Second, a bit of history.  The first book on the Prajnaparamita I tackled was Lex Hixon’s Mother of All Buddhas.  The outcome was the same as I would have had as a fair-to-middling Elementary School student trying to read about Quantum Physics.  Then came Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, The Heart of Understanding from which I extracted the magical nature of the mantra: gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.  That seemed to suffice with regular chanting of his translation of the sutra and admonishment to simply let it seep into my bones.  Unfortunately (or not), I’m not much given to blind belief and kept returning to and becoming discouraged by Hixon’s tome.

Over time, I think I fell into the common experience that the Heart Sutra is one part faith healing, one part penetrable only by advanced scholars, one part confounding of terms and language, one part apostolic creed, one part…  You get the idea.  It seemed to be the elephant many blind wise persons were trying to describe to equally blind audiences.

Before you buy my version of the elephant, do listen to Kaz Tanahashi’s commentary on the Prajnaparamita.  The recordings are from Rohatsu at Upaya Zen Center and are in the first 20 minutes of each dharma talk.  Listen to rest of the talks too but Kaz’s description of the origins and the intent of the sutra are invaluable to clarifying this tangle that arose out of scriptural, doctrinal, and cultural contacts.

Now to Red Pine.  This translation and commentary is painstakingly written and expresses the tangled history with luminous clarity.  You can read various tidbits from it in the previous posts of this week.   However, what really stands out for me is the way Red Pine puts into perspective the historical backdrop and the doctrinal intent of the sutra – with a dollop of rollicking Buddhist mythology.  As he walks through the sutra, we learn about the intentional way it is set up to deconstruct (as a deconstruction itself!) the teachings of the ancients which lay stuck in objectifying experience.  He takes us through to the meaning of being a bodhisattva and the challenges.  That was worth the price of admission.  And finally, there is a lovely flourish that draws the circle of going inwards into practice so we can emerge from the womb of the Prajnaparamita as buddhas (hence the sutra’s epithet, Mother of All Buddhas).

Back to the teaser: what are the five fears of the beginning bodhisattva?

We fear survival – what if I give all and that generosity depletes me?

We fear criticism – what if we are censured, undermined by the dis-ingenuousness of others?

We fear death – what if we back away from that ultimate sacrifice, of giving up our life for another, for all others?

We fear a bad existence – what if the teachings are not available just as we come into being and need them to guide us?

We fear speaking before others – what if we fail in relaying the urgency of practice if we are all to realize being buddhas?

This is the holding back in the early stages of bodhisattva-hood.  When we cannot extend our practice beyond these fears, it gives birth to a refusal time and again to engage in this very life that is our own.

resting places

Being a bodhisattva would be overwhelming if form, feelings, perceptions, memories, and consciousness were real.  Imagine the assault on our sensory powers and the domains in which they function!  Red Pine (1) explains that there are Twelves Abodes or “resting places” of our awareness: six sensory powers (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) and six domains in which they function (shape, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought).  Through these Twelve Abodes, we trace and locate what we call our experience.

And we already know the punch line.  None of these exist in and of themselves, being constructed of a “constant flux” of sensory flow.  That much is the typical patter of reciting the Prajnaparamita but what I really liked in Red Pine’s commentary was what should have been obvious about seeking the reality of the self.

We don’t tend to look for our sense of abiding self in the ear.  Or the eye.  Or nose, tongue, or body.  (Well, for those of us with body image issues perhaps we do see our enduring self inappropriately in the body!  Perhaps vanity and fears were localized differently in the Buddha’s time.)  We tend to seek our Self in the mind and the effluent of mind, thoughts.  Now, we can easily accept the insanity of saying my Self is defined by my nose and its function and yet we cannot discard the assertion of the mind that it irrevocably defines us.

Go figure.

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(1)  The Heart Sutra translation and commentary by Red Pine (Counterpoint Press)