winds of joy, light at my feet

From Bodhidharma Anthology by Jeffrey Broughton: Entering through practice – equanimity

The second entrance to the path is through the practice of following conditions or (Red Pine) adapting to conditions.  

(S)entient beings lack a self and are all whirled around by conditions and karma; suffering and joy are to be equally accepted, for both arise from conditions.

When life throws up these dust storms that blind me or the days grow darker and darker, my support circles point to the light at the end of the tunnel.  I understand that in their love for us and their wish to speed up the journey through the dark or bumpy parts, they’d like us to look into the distance and grasp that this experience is impermanent.  However, it’s a risky process which can carry us too quickly away from the reality of what is right here.

The light at the end of the tunnel is actually more useful when it shines right here in tunnel at my feet.  

Bodhidharma’s teachings suggest that we are vulnerable to being swept away by the winds of joy and the dust storms of suffering.  To attach to each one unduly makes no sense because the conditions that created them are not sustainable.  (Oh yes, I can definitely continue to make myself miserable but that’s not the same misery I started out with.  Check it out for yourself!)  To reject either unconsciously is dangerous because this creates a loss of intimacy with ourselves and others.  To become confused about the origins of them is pointless because the causes and conditions lie in an intricate and oft-times tangled web of action and reaction.

Unmoved by the winds of joy*, one is mysteriously in accordance with the path.

Now you may thank that this reduces you to zombie-like blob, careening off the walls and lamp posts of your path.  At their extreme, all statements are untenable and likely false.  To be unmoved is to be steady in the experience of joy, to be connected deeply with it.  So deeply that there is a spaciousness that arises which can contain the entire spectrum of variability in each joy, sorrow, contentment, pain, love, and anguish.

The adaptability we practice is not to the great brush strokes of impermanence.  It is to the rhythmic variation in the winds of joy and woe.

Auguries of Innocence
William Blake 

It is right it should be so:
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

*”Winds of Joy here may refer to the eight winds or eight worldly conditions.  For a brilliant story read here.

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.


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

first line of defense

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 

intimate secret

Yes, a little Sprout fix for those of you feline-inclined.  February is Feline Appreciation Month by the way, so go out and hug something furry with sharp teeth and claws.

Back to books.  Tasty ones.  I remember the day I dug into Analayo’s Satipatthana and just about swooned at the deliciousness of taking nibbles out of the sutra, one word, one sentence at a time.  It should be tedious but it’s not.   Or perhaps it’s a peculiarity of mine that most won’t point out in polite company.  Liberated Life Project asked on the Facebook page:

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing right now for a job, what would you do to earn your livelihood? Quick… first thought, best thought!

I replied: study, learn, write.

How’s that for smacking up against my most intimate truth?  I think I’ve momentarily arrived at that place where studying is truly for pleasure, learning is amazing just for what it entails, and writing is a joyous expression of weaving the threads together.  More than all that, I hope I’ve learned to let go of the nay-saying voices: the folks who deride my love of reading about Buddhism, the ones who stand proud on their fundamentalist views that Buddhism is only about beliefs, or the ones whose faces pucker in fear and disgust when I start a sentence with “Well, Red Pine’s translation of the Heart Sutra is fascinating for its…”

Study.  Learn.  Write.

There’s a lip-smacking delight in this.  I said to my coach (did I mention that I have one?): When you return from your journey of 10,000 Leagues under the Self, I’d like to study a sutra and start on my path of learning.  His response in summary: “Why wait until I return?”  In effect, he suggested I start immediately by intensifying my daily practice: meditations morning and evening every day until our next meeting.  I was thrilled.  We’re into Day Two.  And I’ve deliciously failed already!  Look, Ma!  I’m Learning!

Study this.  In that moment of waking, notice the sinking mind.  In that moment of turning away from the edge of the bed, notice the holding back.  There really is a space for a choice.  “Failure means you’re in the game,” he said in our first session.  I may well end up MVP!

Learn something.  Red Pine opens his commentary(1) of the Heart Sutra with a translation of “prajna which means ‘wisdom’ and is a combination of pra, meaning ‘before,’ and jna, meaning ‘to know.'”   Wisdom is something that comes before knowing, a “beginner’s mind” that is transcendent and not tied to discrete entities, and by definition not something that can be “learned.”  I’m still in the game!

Write.  In a word, practice.  It’s no different from getting up, sitting down, and opening ourselves to this unfolding panorama of life as it is.  It’s tedious; muses are highly disrespectful of agendas and scheduled appointments.  It’s frustrating; the black squiggles on the page or in the mind don’t always lend themselves to transparent coherence.  It’s terrifying; it will never measure up to what the mind created in that interstitial space between sleep and waking up.  Do it anyway.  Stay in the game!

Someone asked me in a meeting whether the meditation session we run on Sunday are different from the one on Thursday.  Although I gave an answer that would encourage engagement, this is what I wanted to say:

There is no answer I can give you that will bring you to your life right here, right now.  If your choices are based on the particulars of time and distance, no schedule or location in space will never be the right one.  No plan of practice or topic of the day will bring you to that most intimate secret in your heart.  No matter what the schedule, personality of teacher, or some vague peculiarity of community, if you do not choose to step out into your life you cannot arrive in it and learn the magic it is.



(1) The Heart Sutra, translated and commentary by Red Pine

a poke in the ribs

Iha Shariputra!

That’s Avalokita giving the Great Sage a knock on the head, a poke in the ribs.  Wake up!  Shariputra was renowned for his ability to think through the Buddha’s teachings – a fact that supposedly delayed his ascendency to arhantship by a week behind his pal Maudgalyayana.    But what Avaloikta is saying here to this very well-achieved and learned disciple of the Buddha is “Don’t stop at knowing the five streams of body and mind, the Three Poisons, the 12 stages of Dependent Origination, the Four Noble Truths!”  We can dive deeper than the dis-illusion of self into the five streams of body and mind.  It’s much more than annihilating the self, deconstructing I-me-mine.

When my brother was in the seminary, he used to give me Bibles for presents.  I have a nice collection that, although I shake my head at his inability to understand the twelve year old I was, I do treasure.  “There’s Good News in this!” he would proclaim, thrusting the massive volumes at me.  I suppose if I had worked as hard at the Bible as Shariputra had at the five skandhas, Three Poisons, 12 Stages of Dependent Origination, and the Four Noble Truths, I might have found the Good News.

Form is the same as boundless; boundlessness is the same as form works for me as Good News.  It means practice is not about getting rid of something or becoming perfect at anything.  In fact, translating the Heart Sutra as the “Perfection of Wisdom” appears to set the bar rather high.  It seems to say, Grasp the non-existence of a fixed self and non-duality and you’ve got it made.  Well, that’s not what is meant by “Perfection” nor is it likely to happen in my world where I tend to trip on solid objects and step on people’s soft emotional centers like a sociopathic bull.

I’m reminded again and again by Kaz Tanahashi Sensei’s words: The enso is not perfect but it is complete.  Complete because it contains the perfect and the imperfect nondiscriminately.  Form and boundlessness are not discriminable; together they are complete.

The more I sit with this, the simpler it becomes:

Iha Shariputra!  Iha Genju!

Or if you’re into the Japanese version: Sha Ri Shi!  Genju!

You there!

Wake up and stretch beyond the lists that limit you from completion.