This Whole World is a Poem (March 2013)
Shambhala Sun | March 2013
This Whole World is Poem
This oriole, this friend, this daughter, this fox—MICHAEL SOWDER on all the poems that are just waiting for us to write them down.
My first English professor was
a Thoreau scholar, a poet, and an awakened human being named Theodore
Haddin. With wild black hair, a black beard, and an equally black coat,
he would read us poems and then take up his violin to play Bach’s
“Chaconne in D.” He’d tell us that when he heard Heifetz play the
chaconne, it felt like someone running a violin bow right through his
my idealistic eighteen-year-old eyes and ears, he seemed like a
magician, like an enlightened gypsy, or the green violinist on a roof in
a painting by Chagall. In his classroom, I found my home. Though I
didn’t fully realize it at the time, what Dr. Haddin was teaching me was
that poetry is a path to spirituality, to being awake to the magic of
the present moment. Now, thirty-five years later, he remains one of my
dearest friends and, following his example, I’ve devoted my own life to
teaching poetry and the practice of mindfulness. Poetry and Buddhism,
I’d come to know, share a long history. But at eighteen, I was just
beginning to discover how the heart of the dharma often finds its
fullest expression in verse.
morning during my first semester of college, I got up the nerve to
knock on Dr. Haddin’s office door. I went in and told him I was
struggling with an essay in our class reader—the “Conclusion” to Henry
David Thoreau’s Walden. The writing was difficult, I said. Was it worth the trouble? In class that day, Dr. Haddin talked about Walden and at one point said, “Why, I’ve read Walden like it was the only book in the world!” I resolved then that I’d read the book, however difficult.
look back at his comment today as the beginning of my spiritual life.
Thoreau became my first guru.
I sat at a table on the third floor of the
library poring over Walden,
while the yellow leaves of Lombardy poplars, lit by streetlights,
brushed the windows beside me. I read, “I see young men, my townsmen,
whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle,
and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of.” I
soon discovered that Thoreau’s revolutionary ideas had sprung from his
reading of the sacred books and scriptures of the world, especially
those of Asia, most of which are written in poetry: the Dhammapada, the Heart Sutra, the Dao De Ching, the Bhagavad Gita.
saw all inspired writing to be a kind of poetry, not limited to verse.
He believed poetry to be the highest human calling and considered Walden
to be essentially poetry. His teaching can perhaps be summed up in one
sentence: “Seek the riches within”—a very Taoist, very Hindu, very
Buddhist-sounding notion. It was, in fact, Thoreau—and his mentor,
Emerson— who in the early nineteenth century introduced the teachings of
Asia to America.
took another course from Dr. Haddin, entitled American
Transcendentalism and Asian Philosophy. All the writers we studied spoke
of meditation. But how did one actually learn to do it? You couldn’t
walk into a bookstore in Birmingham, Alabama, and find “how-to” books.
Then one day I saw a poster for a meditation class and showed up to sit
in a circle on the floor with other young seekers. The teacher, Niila
Keshava, was a tall wiry twenty-something with a bald head and big brown
beard. When he greeted me, he looked into my eyes with a beautiful
benevolent gaze, his blue eyes full of light. He was teaching meditation
in a tantric tradition and I dove in. After several years I became a
meditation teacher myself, and eventually a poet and professor.
at the beginning of every semester, as cottonwoods wave their yellow
prayer flags or wait with buds encased in snow, I tell my aspiring poets
that the thing I most want them to get out of my class isn’t how to
create a powerful poetic voice, or how to use metaphors and rhyme, or
how to get published and become famous. I tell them that the most
important thing I hope they’ll take away from my class is how to pay
attention to their lives.
tell them that the nineteenth-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley
said poetry’s purpose is “to remove the scales of familiarity from our
eyes.” Shelley saw how we become habituated to people, landscapes, and
things. He observed how we walk around lost in our thinking minds, on
automatic pilot, and no longer experience what’s around us—the shadows
of ash-tree leaves on my desk, a crow cawing in the distance, the voices
of children rising from the street. Emerson knew this, too. He said,
“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and
in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never
seen before, and which shall never be seen again.” I want my students to
see that poems are all around them, that we find our originality in the
uniqueness of the present moment.
Early in each semester, I share a story out of Stephen Levine’s book, Healing into Life and Death.
Levine, a longtime Buddhist teacher and hospice worker, says meditation
can reawaken old wounds in patients and often initiates deep grieving,
but that the breakup of frozen emotions facilitates healing and often
triggers a global awakening of perception. One woman, a victim of
childhood sexual abuse, practiced meditation for twenty minutes, twice a
day, and found it unbearably difficult. But after about two and a half
months, she said, “A miracle happened. I walked into the kitchen, sat
down at the table, and looked up and saw the wall. I just saw the wall! I
was just here in my body, in the world, in my heart. I saw the wall as
if for the first time. I was just here. It was the most wonderful
experience of my life!”
was nothing extraordinary about the wall the woman looked at. What was
extraordinary was the depth of her perception, the level of awareness
she brought to the moment. The practice of being a poet, an artist, or a
Buddhist is this practice of waking up to what’s around us, to the
miracle of what’s happening. Such moments of perception can lead to
powerful writing, original and alive.
paying attention we also receive the details necessary to bring writing
to life. I tell my students that in the classroom where we’re sitting,
in the expressions on their faces, in their hairstyles, the colors and
patterns of their clothes, in their laughter and the knocking sound in
the radiator, we find a constellation of images that has never come
together before and will never come together again. No one has written
about this moment before.
mindful poet opens to the life of things. Basho said, “you can learn
about the pine only from the pine, or about bamboo only from the bamboo…
The object and yourself must become one, and from that feeling of
oneness issues your poetry.” In such moments, seeing becomes something
more than ordinary. We feel things with our eyes, participating in what
Martin Buber calls an “I-Thou” relationship. When we practice
mindfulness, the things of the world are no longer inert objects but
presences in whose life we participate.
the world our attention is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s hard to sit
on a boulder alone in the desert without pulling out a snack, a drink, a
book. It’s hard to sit at home quietly without calling a friend,
turning on the TV, or getting on Facebook. We become uncomfortable,
start to itch, fidget. Memories rise up; we might come face to face with
our suffering. In a poem called “Black Oak,” Mary Oliver stands in a
forest looking up at an oak as it starts to drizzle. She wants to stay
and look but feels the urge to move: Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from / one boot to another—why don’t you get going? But
if we can sit through the itch—the boredom, the anxiety, the
suffering—we will see how thoughts and feelings pass through us. Our
true human condition is one of flow.
then there’s death. Poets and writers, like Buddhists, are sensitively
aware of the impermanence of things. David Bottoms, a poet I studied
with, said wryly that all poems are about two things—life and death—but
that they’re all really about one thing, and that’s death. This may
sound morose, but he’s getting at how the transience of things is
responsible for their irreplaceable pricelessness. “Death,” Wallace
Stevens tells us, “is the mother of beauty.” As poets, artists,
Buddhists, we are called to bear witness to the life around us—to this
oriole, this friend, this daughter, this fox, this fawn.
we pay attention to the world long enough, wakefully, lovingly enough,
we realize that everything in the world is sacred, that this whole world
is a poem, or a million poems, just waiting for us to write them down.
Michael Sowder is
the founder of the Amrita Sangha for Integral Spirituality. It is a
nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring the contemplative
practices of the world’s wisdom traditions, including teaching
meditation and creative writing in prisons. Sowder is an associate
professor of English and an adjunct professor of religious studies at
Utah State University. His new book of poetry is House Under the Moon,
which features poems about fatherhood as well as poems about
spirituality, and meditation.
Books in Brief (January 2013)
Books in Brief
By ANDREA MILLER
THE MONKS AND ME: How 40 Days in Thich Nhat Hanh’s French Monastery Guided Me Home
By Mary Paterson
Hampton Roads Publishing 2012; 256 pp., $16.95 (paper)
The Monks and Me
is the true story of Mary Paterson’s forty days at Plum Village.
Paterson’s lessons in the dharma take many forms, but I particularly
enjoy what she learns from her co-retreatants. Take Charlie, a
Newfoundlander who wears a Mexican poncho. “Killing the cats was fucking
killing me,” he says. Charlie used to be a neuropsychologist and his
work involved stimulating different parts of cats’ brains in order to
observe their reactions to fear, then killing and dissecting them. His
intimate relationships were stressful, too—he had three girlfriends at
the same time—and he had a mountain of debt to contend with. Then
Charlie took Thich Nhat Hanh’s five mindfulness trainings, most
significantly the first, reverence for life. This helped him quit his
job, solve his debt problems, and commit to a monogamous relationship.
Paterson’s colorful co-retreatants also include a shameless headphone
thief and a sad German with beige hair, beige skin, and beige eyes who
is driven out of the retreat by a fiery Brazilian.
BRIGHT MOON, WHITE CLOUDS: Selected Poems of Li Po
Edited and translated by J.P. Seaton
Shambhala Publications 2012; 224 pp., $14.95 (paper)
THE ART OF HAIKU: Its History through Poems and Paintings by Japanese Masters
By Stephen Addiss
Shambhala Publications 2012; 352 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
Po, the celebrated eighth-century Chinese poet, is most famous for his
drinking poems, full of pretty girls and jade vessels and hangovers. But
he is also well known for poetry reflecting his philosophical bent,
chiefly Taoist but also Buddhist and Confucian. In his introduction to Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po,
translator J.P. Seaton says, “There is often something almost
Dionysian, almost magically freeing, in [Li Po’s] poems, even moments
that sound like wobbly satoris. But (how like a Taoist!) he never uses
the Chinese words for satori, or sudden enlightenment, to describe any
physical, philosophical, or spiritual state he reaches.”
The Art of Haiku
is an extensive exploration of that poetic form, its corresponding
tradition of painting, and its related poetic styles. Haiku is
frequently described as a Zen art, but author Stephen Addiss points out
that the relationship between haiku and Zen isn’t clear-cut. While the
renowned Basho was a Zen practitioner, as were several of his followers,
most haiku poets didn’t study Zen. Some adhered to no religion; others
identified with Taoism, Shintoism, Confucianism, or other Buddhist
sects. The poet Issa, for example, was a devout Pure Land Buddhist. This
gem of a poem by him is one of the 997 poems included in The Art of Haiku: “baby sparrows / open their mouths to the plum tree— / a Buddhist chant.”
THE GREAT WORK OF YOUR LIFE A Guide for the Journey of Your True Calling
By Stephen Cope
Bantam Books 2012; 304 pp., $26 (cloth)
How can we get in touch with our true self and embrace our calling?
explore this question, Stephen Cope uses the wisdom of a
two-thousand-year-old Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, as a
jumping-off point. The Gita begins with Arjuna collapsing onto the floor
of his chariot because he’s conflicted over his vocation. What follows
is a philosophical discussion between Arjuna and Krishna, his divine
charioteer. According to Cope, “Arjuna is supposedly the greatest
warrior of his time, but really, he is just astonishingly like we are:
neurotic as hell, and full of every doubt and fear you can imagine.”
Nonetheless, over the course of eighteen ancient chapters, Arjuna
discovers and embraces his calling—and we can too. In The Great Work of Your Life,
Cope provides us with engaging examples of people finding their path.
Some of these people have so-called ordinary lives. Others are
well-known figures, including Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, and
Susan B. Anthony.
DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK Living with Wisdom and Compassion
By Thubten Chodron
Snow Lion Publications 2013; 224 pp., $15.95 (paper)
I started this book because the title made me laugh, but I kept reading it because of the insight on its pages. Don’t Believe Everything You Think
is an explanation of The Thirty-Seven Practices of Bodhisattvas, a text
written by the Tibetan monk Togmay Zangpo in the fourteenth century. My
favorite part of the book is the way Thubten Chodron has peppered it
with the experiences—both the challenges and lessons learned—of her
dharma students. For example, she relates Togmay Zangpo’s verse on
betrayal to how her student Deborah has worked with being abandoned by
her alcoholic mother, and to how her student Maria dealt with a
collaborative art project taking an unhappy turn. Thubten Chodron, an
American nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, is the founder and
abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Washington state, as well as the author of Buddhism for Beginners and Open Heart, Clear Mind.
MOODY COW LEARNS COMPASSION
By Kerry Lee MacLean
Wisdom Publications 2012; 32 pp., $16.95 (cloth)
Moody Cow Learns Compassion
is a picture book for children ages four and up. When Moody Cow and his
friend Bully catch a garter snake, Bully feeds it a cricket. “Awesome!”
shouts Bully as the little guy squirms in the snake’s mouth, but Moody
Cow just feels sad. “You are such a wimp,” says Bully, and Moody Cow
stomps off mad. That night Moody Cow dreams he’s as tiny as a cricket
and a huge snake slithers up to him with its jaws open wide. “Don’t eat
me!” he screams. Obviously, this whole cricket situation has Moody Cow’s
thoughts super upset but he knows exactly what to do. He takes out his
Mind Jar, which is a jar of water he uses to represent his mind. For
being called a coward and getting mad, Moody Cow puts a pinch of
sparkles into the jar, and for knowing how it feels to be eaten alive,
he throws in three handfuls. His grandfather shakes the jar and the two
of them breathe quietly as the sparkles and the upsetting thoughts both
settle. By the time the water is clear, Moody Cow feels better and he’s
ready to have some compassionate fun with Grandfather and Bully.
About a Poem: Red Pine on Ch'eng Hao's "Casual Poem on a Spring Day" (January 2013)
About a Poem
RED PINE on Ch’eng Hao’s “Casual Poem on a Spring Day”
CASUAL POEM ON A SPRING DAY
The clouds are thin the wind is light the sun is nearly overhead
past the flowers through the willows down along the stream
people don’t see the joy in my heart
they think I’m wasting time or acting like a child
would be the kind of poem I would write, or wished I could write, if I
wrote poems. Ch’eng hao (1032-1085) was the most famous philosopher of
his day and one of the founders of a movement that became known as
Neo-Confucianism. His unique contribution to this movement was based on
his understanding that the world was the manifestation of li, or principle, and that neither li nor the world existed apart from the other.
was especially famous for his lectures. They were attended by thousands
of people and were recorded by his students and later edited for
publication by such famous Neo-Confucians as Chu Hsi. But, like all
Chinese scholar-officials of his day, he also wrote poems and this one
appears in the most memorized Chinese anthology, the Chienchiashih, or
Poems of the Masters. In this brief quatrain, Ch’eng leads us through
his world with stream-of-consciousness artistry and portrays his sense
of oneness with that world. Ch’eng’s philosophy is not merely an
academic or intellectual posture. He allows us either to stand outside
as his critics might have done or to share his experience so that we
might better appreciate the arbitrary separation of ourselves from our
I first read this poem, I was reminded of the story in which Chuang-tzu
was out walking with Hui-tzu and commented on the joy of the fishes
swimming in the stream under the bridge on which the two men paused to
enjoy their own spring day around 300 B.C. Hui-tzu said, “You’re not a
fish. How do you know if the fishes are happy?” Chuang-tzu replied,
“You’re not me. How do you know I don’t know the fishes are happy?”
Indeed, our knowledge of others is one presumption after another. Then
too, our knowledge of ourselves is only slightly less presumptuous. But
here, in this poem, presumption disappears. It’s a spring day a thousand
years ago in a heart full of joy.
An award-winning translator of Chinese poetry and Buddhist texts, Red Pine was born Bill Porter. In the 1970s he spent more than three years living at a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. He then struck out on his own, working as a journalist at English-language radio stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong. His book Zen Baggage recounts a pilgrimage to sites in China associated with the beginnings of Zen Buddhism.
Love & Emptiness (January 2013)
Shambhala Sun | January 2013
Love & Emptiness
The Heart Attack Sutra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sutra
by Karl Brunnhölzl
Snow Lion Publications, 2012; 160 pp., $16.05 (paper)
Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra
by Dosung Yoo
Wisdom Publications, 2012; 254 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Reviewed by NORMAN FISCHER
All dharmas are empty: no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form...
I was thunderstruck the first time I encountered the words of the Heart Sutra. Somehow, no eyes, no ears, no nose
made sense to me in a way I couldn’t explain, and I felt great relief.
As a child I had always suspected that the world I was raised in didn’t
hold up to scrutiny, and on hearing the Heart Sutra for the first time,
my childhood confusion was suddenly acknowledged and addressed, even if I
couldn’t explain how. It seemed intuitively to me that the sutra was
affirming that the world was indeed not the way I had been taught it
was. “No, it isn’t like that. It’s like this,” the sutra seemed to be
as it is on first hearing, the Heart Sutra won’t go away. You wonder
and ponder, perplexed and fascinated. “No eyes, no ears... nothing to
attain... no hindrance and no fear...” How? Why? It has taken me many
years of practice and study to begin to appreciate and understand the Heart Sutra’s words and put them into practice in my life.
one page, the Heart Sutra is probably the briefest of all Buddhist
sacred texts, and the most influential. Foundational to Mahayana
Buddhism, it is prized in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and in Zen,
where it is chanted every day in most temples and monasteries. But what
does it mean? Can it really be denying the existence of the very nose on
our face? And why is that so important to a religion that prizes
compassion over all other virtues?
of its central importance to so many schools of Buddhism, the Heart
Sutra has inspired a number of commentaries in English from scholars and
teachers of almost every tradition. Both the Dalai Lama (Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings) and Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamitta Heart Sutra)
have taught it, and a number of younger Western-trained teachers,
probably many more than I know of, have also written commentaries.
Two recent books of note add some new perspectives and details to an already full picture of this great text. The Heart Attack Sutra,
by Karl Brunnhölzl, a German Vajrayana teacher, enthusiastically
discusses the sutra from the standpoint of the Tibetan Buddhist
tradition, with its rigorous logic and philosophy and careful parsing of
doctrine. (The title comes from a Tibetan Buddhist legend that some
early Buddhists, on first hearing Buddha preach this sutra, went
apoplectic and had heart attacks.)
Tibetan scholastic tradition, the emptiness teachings are a major topic
for intellectual study, and Brunnhölzl has made this tradition
completely his own, discussing the various treatises and doctrines with
ease and considerable wit. This text includes a sadhana (a visualization practice) of dazzling complexity that is an interesting supplement to the teachings.
Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra is
by the Won Buddhist teacher Dosung yoo. a twentieth-century form of
Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism, Won Buddhism now has a strong presence in the
U.s., and Rev. Yoo is one of its most eloquent proponents.
Korean Buddhist tradition strikes me as admirably simple and clear, and
this text shines brightly in those qualities. Like many other
commentaries, it goes through the text line by line and in the process
discusses basic Buddhist teachings thoroughly, with a delightful ease
and lightness expressive of the emptiness teachings themselves. It
features a wealth of charmingly told Korean folk stories and old Buddhist tales. Using such tales to illustrate, with humor and magical
realism, the potentially abstract and philosophical teaching of the
sutra is one of the strongest features of the Korean tradition, and of
The key term in the Heart Sutra is the Sanskrit shunyata,
usually translated into English as “emptiness.” As the sutra says in
its opening lines, “All dharmas [things, phenomena] are empty.” Eyes,
ears, noses, tongues, bodies, minds: all external objects—and all
Buddhist teachings—are empty. In fact, the Heart Sutra
is a brilliant one-page summary of the entire edifice of Buddhist
psychological, epistemological, and soteriological teachings, which are
enumerated and then denied. A devout and passionate Buddhist, seeing the
text for the first time, may well read it as a dismantling of Buddhist
Orthodoxy (thus the heart attacks). Judging from the defensiveness you
find in other, longer texts of the shunyata literature, of which the Heart Sutra is
said be the pith or “heart,” many early Buddhists probably did object
to the sutra on exactly such grounds. But in fact, the Heart Sutra does
not deny Buddhist teachings. It is merely shifting the ground on which
the teachings stand—which changes everything.
The word “emptiness” is a fair translation of shunyata,
but it has the drawback of sounding negative, even despairing. In
English the words “empty” and “emptiness” sound bleak. An empty life is
not a happy life. It is flat, meaningless, hollow. Nothing inside.
Alienated war-weary characters in Ernest Hemingway’s short stories often
had “a hollow feeling.” T.S. Eliot, in the same period, wrote a poem
called “The Hollow Men” describing the lost spirit of the times. Hollow
is empty, lost. To be empty inside, to be empty of faith and values, is
to be nihilistic and despairing.
The emptiness of the Heart Sutra is
something else entirely. It’s good news of joyful freedom and
liberation. Commentators to the sutra often ask the question, “Empty of
what?” and answer, “Empty of separate self, empty of weightiness, empty
of burden, empty of boundary.”
The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata,
used the character for sky. All dharmas are empty like the sky—blue,
beautiful, expansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a
cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane. The emptiness of the Heart
Sutra isn’t the emptiness of despair; it’s the emptiness of all
limitation and boundary. It is open, released.
The Heart Sutra
is not denying the existence of the world we live in. It’s denying the
basis of the world’s sticky intractability. It’s denying the ultimate
reality of the basis of our suffering—our separate, burdensome self and
all that seems to exist apart from it, all that we think we need and do
not have. No eyes, no ears,
and so on doesn’t deny the physical; it redefines it. Things do
exist—only not in the way we think they do. And when the sutra lists and
negates basic Buddhist teachings, it doesn’t mean the teachings are
false or unreal. It means they are true in a freer, more expansive, less
literal and substantial way than we thought. The Heart Sutra
showed me from the start that I could hold and practice the Buddhist
teachings in a light, flexible, open-handed way. I didn’t have to become
pious. Piety is empty, the Heart Sutra says. Buddhism is empty. And that is why it liberates us.
other side of emptiness, or, one could say, its content, is connection,
relationality. When I am bound inside my own skin and others are bound
inside theirs, I have to defend and protect myself from them. And when I
place myself among them, as I must, I better do that carefully, which
is hard work, because I am often hurt, opposed, and thwarted by others.
But when there’s openness, no boundary, between myself and others— when
it turns out that I literally am others and others literally are me,
then love and connection is easy and natural.
Nagarjuna, the most influential of all Buddhist thinkers, seized on the emptiness teachings as the cornerstone of his Madhyamika,
or Middle Way, approach. It’s not that things “exist” (heavy, hard, and
isolated) or “don’t exist” (in despairing nihilism). The truth is in
the middle: things are empty of both existence and non-existence. There
are no “things” at all and never were. There is only connection, only
love. This, Nagarjuna argues, is not a new doctrine; it is what the
Buddha was pointing to from the start.
This is why the emptiness teaching of the Heart Sutra,
which seems to be rather philosophical and dour, is the necessary basis
for compassion. Emptiness and compassion go hand in hand. Compassion as
transaction—me over here, being compassionate to you over there—is
simply too clunky and difficult. If I am going to be responsible to
receive your suffering and do something about it, and if I am going to
make this kind of compassion the cornerstone of my religious life, I
will soon be exhausted. But if I see the boundarylessness of me and you,
and recognize that my suffering and your suffering are one suffering,
and that that suffering is empty of any separation, weightiness, or
ultimate tragedy, then I can do it. I can be boundlessly compassionate
and loving, without limit. To be sure, living this teaching takes time
and effort, and maybe we never entirely arrive at it. But it’s a joyful,
heartfelt path worth treading.
Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is often discussed in terms of absolute
and relative compassion. absolute compassion is compassion in the light
of emptiness: all beings are empty, all beings are light, all beings
are, by virtue of their empty nature, already liberated and pure. As the
sutra says, suffering is empty, and relief from suffering is also
empty. Everything is inherently all right and taken care of—even the
pain. reality is inherently merciful. It’s okay to suffer, because
through that very suffering we find release. The old adage “time heals
all wounds” is more profound than it sounds: time, every moment,
actually is release, freedom, and healing. in the light of absolute
compassion, reality itself already is compassion. Nothing more is
point of view sounds nice at first but could also be quite monstrous.
Carried to its logical conclusion, it might inspire us to ignore wars,
natural disasters, illnesses, and deaths: since everything is perfect as
it is in emptiness, what’s the point of grief, sorrow, or helping? But
this would be one-sided and distorted. Relative compassion—human warmth
and practical emotional support—completes the picture. Absolute
compassion makes it possible for us to sustain, joyfully, the endless
work of supporting and helping; relative compassion grounds our broad
view of life’s empty nature in heart connection and engagement. Either
view by itself would be impossible, but both together make for a
wonderfully connected and sustainable life. Two sides of a coin, two
wings of a bird.
This is what I sensed without knowing it on first hearing the Heart Sutra.
And I am not the only one: many others have told me they too have
experienced this uncanny sense on first hearing the sutra. Its
matter-of-fact strangeness, even absurdity, seems to invite such a
response. It’s what I sensed as a child was missing in the world around
me. Life simply couldn’t be as small, as difficult, and as dull as it
seemed. Somehow I was sure there must be another way.
But the Heart Sutra
is more than an inspiring vision or understanding. It is also a
practice, a course of action that relieves suffering and transforms
lives. Practicing the Heart Sutra
is training in the feeling for life that arises when we have fully
internalized its teachings into our body and emotions. The
emptiness/boundlessness of all dharmas is not only something we would
like to believe; it is also a way we can hold our lives lightly and
joyfully, a texture we can palpably feel at the center of our awareness.
is the legendary founder of Zen. Once, his disciple Huike begged for
his help: “My mind is in anguish, please help me find peace.”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind.” After some time of practice
Huike said, “I cannot find my mind.” Bodhidharma said, “Then your mind
is at peace.” Once you feel in your bones and throughout your awareness
the emptiness of your mind, you are at peace. Even when problems and
difficulties arise, there’s still the thread of peace woven in at the
heart of them.
Zen practice, zazen (sitting meditation) is training in emptiness. The
practice is simply resting alertly in the feeling of body and breath,
letting everything come and go, without denying or latching on. Sitting
this way day after day, retreat after retreat, year after year, Zen
practitioners learn to hold things lightly: respecting them,
appreciating them, attending to them when the time for that comes, but
also letting them go as they naturally will— because they are empty.
Everything exists in time; time is existence. Time is empty; everything
comes and goes. In fact, coming/going is the reality of each moment.
Sitting, you feel the truth of this as your own immediate experience of
body and breath.
teachings internalized become a way of being fully and easily present
with what is—a passing, flowing, empty, ongoing stream of living and
dying. At my first long Zen retreat, in the deep snows of Upstate New
york, I wandered for hours in the woods above the retreat center as snow
fell, my tracks disappearing as I made them, until everything
disappeared into a soft uniform whiteness, the trees, the ground, the
sky—no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.
The Heart Sutra
is also practiced by chanting. Since it’s so short, it’s easy to
memorize, and anyone who has lived in a Zen temple for any length of
time will automatically have memorized it. Having such a text, as they
say, “by heart” is an experience increasingly rare in our culture, which
makes it all the more precious. A mind that can, at any moment, begin
vocalizing, in trance-like fashion (the syllables tumbling out of the
mouth even before the brain registers them), the familiar words of the
Heart Sutra is a mind that has at its disposal the means for its own
pacification and expansion. I remember many dark moments of confusion or
despair when I chanted the sutra over and over for comfort, the words
lifting me out of the rut I was in, opening up new vistas.
long ago, visiting my parents in a crisis moment when my life seemed
vague and directionless and i didn’t know what to do, my mind raged with
troubled thoughts I couldn’t share. It was autumn, and leaves were
falling from the many oak and maple trees that lined the streets of the
small Pennsylvania town where they lived. I walked through the leaves
for miles, chanting the Heart Sutra
over and over, until the thoughts dissolved and joy arose, my ears full
of the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, my heart grateful for the
strangeness of the passing of time.
chanting went in deepest of all at my mother’s hospital bedside, just
after her death. Everyone had gone and I was alone with my poor
bewildered mother’s body. Not knowing what else to do, I chanted and
chanted the Heart Sutra as tears filled my eyes. I was sad and not sad at the same time. The words of the sutra never seemed truer or more comforting.
We Need to Be Warriors (January 2013)
We Need to Be Warriors
The world needs people who are wholeheartedly engaged with life, says SAKYONG MIPHAM. That takes bravery.
days I am struck by the speed of life. As we get speedier, we do things
in half steps. Therefore, the practice of wholehearted engagement is
important. How can we be steady and complete, and what kind of wisdom
does that bring? In Shambhala warriorship we practice being on the spot:
we do things precisely and thoroughly. In meditation, our mind and body
are joined and we access and protect our wisdom mind by being present.
Then we extend our training into other aspects of our life.
is the key instruction in the Shambhala teachings. This is why these
teachings use the image of a warrior: when confronted by great
challenges, warriors rise to the occasion. When cowards are confronted
by difficulties, they withdraw. The challenge of being brave points to
one specific instruction—that we stop cowering from our basic goodness.
be brave is to actualize our nature as an offering to others. In paying
attention to the details of our daily lives in relation to each other
and the environment, we proclaim our worthiness to be alive and to
inhabit this planet. We empower our relation- ships with presence and
appreciation, because when we see the goodness in ourselves, we
recognize it in others. This form of warriorship builds and creates; it
does not destroy. Being brave enough to fully embrace our humanity is
how we will accomplish good things.
process of engaging life with bravery has an outer level, an inner
level, and a secret level. In terms of the outer level, fifty percent of
it is being there, showing up. Whether it is showing up on the
meditation cushion, showing up at work, or showing up in a friendship,
relationship, or family, how we show up is important. The most important
element is care—having respect for what we are doing. Without respect
for our own mind, we are not fully engaged, and even the act of
meditating becomes hollow. When we pay attention to what we are doing,
we naturally care.
of all the distractions and trauma in the world these days, it is
getting harder and harder to show up for the present moment and engage
in our lives. Our kindness and care are on the wane. Our culture tends
to lull us into a sense of false security: we think that somehow life is
going to get easier. It is like the idea of retirement—we work hard and
then there is a lull when we can flop and let everything hang.
path of engagement does not get easier, and there is no retirement. But
when we surrender to the reality that we have to keep showing up to
make progress—and that being present takes effort, discipline, and
dedication—then we discover a sense of delight. In the language of
Shambhala warriorship, this is called trangpo—steadiness,
resolve, not having a lot of ups and downs. That steadiness is one of
the basic qualities of a warrior. It means that once we have decided to
be present and engage in our lives with awareness, we stay with it.
In this culture we are constantly flip- flopping—mentally, physically, and every other way. That is anti-trangpo.
So many distractions and obstacles have the power to drag us away from
the spot—it is easy to feel helpless, overwhelmed by traffic on the
highway or the Internet. The process of truly being on the spot takes
energy: we have to surrender our habitual pattern of wanting to escape
to the past or the future. Right now the world needs steady people who
can show up for the present moment. It is the only time we can touch our
basic goodness, which requires wholeheartedly being here.
is the inner aspect of the practice of bravery. These days, when people
pursue a spiritual journey, they can be very enthusiastic at first. But
at a certain point they want to just shelve it and revert to their
comfort zone. We seem to want a spiritual path on our own terms. Wanting
to be on a path is really just the beginning. To become true warriors
and practitioners, we have to repeatedly come back to being present when
our attention wanders. This sense of steadiness reflects our decision
to hold the view of basic goodness.
secret aspect of engagement is the inherent strengths on which we draw.
Humility is at the top of the list, for boasting about our patience,
discipline, or generosity diminishes them. It’s the same with talking
too much about our practice. As we mature in our practice of warrior-
ship, we grow as individuals, and there is a quality of richness, both
internally and externally. This is the ripening of our protector
mind—something we need to guard as it develops. Bandying that about in
conversation is like opening the door of a sauna: the heat gets out and
the intensity dissipates.
at this time, there is a tendency for us to become sloppy, lazy, and
discursive. Even as we practice the dharma, it is easy to have little
places to which we escape, becoming comfort- or cocoon-oriented.
Personally, the more my path unfolds, the more I see the need for the
kind of discipline, structure, and paying attention that keeps us on the
spot: how we dress, how we speak, what we do, and how we engage with
others. Without that sense of discipline, we are always looking in the
back of our minds for our retirement. The training of warriorship helps
us to be precise in those neutral and uncomfortable moments. Being on
the spot pushes us into a profound form of practice. Even smiling at a
stranger can bring us into the present moment, which contains our own
should not shy away from this tradition of enlightened activity of
being on the spot. As warriors, engagement is our main buddha activity, trinle.
This Tibetan word means that when we are in the process of engaging, we
are actually giving our body, speech, and mind to the world. Whether we
are meditating, riding the bus, or doing our daily work, we can attain
great depth and profundity through engagement. With precision and
thoroughness, we also waste less time.
Shambhala and Buddhist teachings contain examples of enlightened
activity in the warrior-king Gesar and the yogi-saint Milarepa, as well
as the Shambhala sovereigns. In looking at their lives, we see that they
were trained and pushed all the time. That’s what made them great: they
all faced challenges. Recently I was looking at the memoirs of Yung-lo,
emperor of the Ming, who was a great warrior-bodhisattva king and
patron of Tibetan Buddhism. It is amazing to see how early his day
started, how late it went, and how he went through the process in a
dedicated and exalted way.
kind of role we are in, we have the potential to bring to it that
quality of being there and giving. That doesn’t mean burning ourselves
out. We will go through different phases of life, but whatever the
phase, we can enrich it with a quality of steadiness and presence.
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