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.

and a map

And finally, Glenn Wallis offers sixteen propositions as a map to find our way through the texts.  These cluster into six groups that are fascinating in their intent.

The teachings begin by asking you to recognize and explore where you are (Habitat).

You are introduced to ideas and perspectives that have a disorienting effect (Dis-orientation).

You are introduced to ideas and perspectives that point you in a different direction (Re-orientation).

You are shown a plan for a new habitat (Map).

You are given the details of that end (Destination).

You set out on the open journey (Going).

Looking them over, I can see that I don’t tend to get further than the second group.  Of course, every journey begins with hours of obsessively cleaning house (habitat? – likely not), and organizing the unorganizable.  Some call it procrastination; I call it letting the Muse emerge.  Then I’m likely stuck in a dis-orientated pose for years and years.  The primary question of the last three days has been “Am I willing to change?”  Or more poignantly, “Am I willing to give up my treasured stances to dukkha on the chance – a Chance! – that it might lead me in a different direction?”

Wallis calls de-orientation a “bewitchment” against knowing reality, “knowing for yourself.”  I like this.  I like Magic in general; it takes the responsibility off my shoulders.  But I’m guessing that a true application of the teachings isn’t going to let me wave any more wands.


Here’s the third question to ask as we dig into our relationship with the teachings texts of the Buddha (as far as we may know them):

Would I be willing to alter my life in the way the text is suggesting?

Often, the answer – and a superficial one – is to say, No.  I feel challenged by Wallis’ call to sit in the dynamic of a good question.

Learning takes place at the point of tension between credulous appreciation and wary dismissal.

He points out that we are experts at the dichotomies. We thrive at the nadir and zenith of the acceptance/rejection continuum.  And we are loath to abandon this immediate stance.  And that’s just fine.

Whatever it is, your response to a word, passage, or text is the very lifeblood of reading.  It is in your response that your relationship to the world of the suttas is formed, developed, and fulfilled or unfulfilled.

The art of discovery lies in the willingness to open – not so much to the answers but to the question.


Here’s the second question from Glenn Wallis’ approach to working with Buddhist texts (from Basic Teachings of the Buddha):

What limitations do I impose on the text?  For example, would I be willing to do the practices that may be required for a thorough understanding of the text?

 I’m no scholar of Buddhist texts so my work with this question would be, in itself, a limiting of the texts as a meta-document.  One of things I do struggle with are the repetitions among various collections but also an anxiety that I’m not picking up the subtleties that may also be contradictions.  That aside, it makes for interesting self-revelation to sense into the hitch of the in-breath, the slight clutch at the throat or belly when I encounter a teaching that just doesn’t mesh with the way I believe the world should work.  That initial arising of doubt or culturally-based rejection points to a rich understanding of my own limitations, my own willingness to push my edge.

The validity or veracity of the text can be in question; hoisting 2,600 year-old teachings into the present poses many difficulties.  But for now let’s suppose that isn’t so much the issue as is cultivating wisdom.   If the intent is to develop trust in my intuitive understanding, it helps to notice these moments of resistance.  Then it is important to turn towards this self that is stepping back as ask the question again – of a different subject:

What am I imposing on myself?  

questions -1

When I started the Chaplaincy program, I had envisioned a process of studying the sutras and digging deeply into koan practice.  As the year unfolded it became clear that this weaving together of heart/mind was going to be challenging and it demanded more than structuring time to read and reflect.  The subtle aspects of learning, absorbing Dharma rain, are not laid out in any manual.  It is very much a process that relies on the convergence of teachers, materials, readiness, and simmering time.

One of the best approaches to this form of heart/mind absorption of the teachings is by Glenn Wallis.  In trying to organize my thoughts on the Four Noble Truths (and, if you’ve read of my previous notations on them here, you may feel it’s a hopeless task), I started working with Wallis’ Basic Teachings of the Buddha.  Nothing like going back to the basics and, in this case, well worth it.

Wallis takes great pains to explain the nature of his own organizational structure.  In about 11 pages of Introduction, he covers the developmental history of the Buddha and his teachings.  Then on page xxi, the fun begins.  I actually may never get past the Introduction to the texts themselves because what Wallis proposes we pose as questions in our relationship to the suttas are also life questions.

In reading the texts, Wallis suggests we ask several questions.  The first few are related directly to the texts themselves: meaning, theme, trajectory and so on.  Then he suggests questions that I particularly love to work with – not just with respect to contemplative text but with any aspect of life presenting itself in the moment.

Here’s the first one:

What does this text demand of me?  For example, does it indicate some sort of practice is required for a thorough understanding?  Does it ask me to alter my life in some fundamental way?

Wallis has sixteen suttas he presents in his book.  I think this approach would work with any text.  Or any life.  Give it a shot and let me know what opens up for you.