Teachings in Zen
By Bernie Glassman
Copyright © 2002 Bernie Glassman.
All rights reserved.
No Yellow Brick Road
The Heart of the Perfection of Great Wisdom Sutra
Maha Prajnaparamita Hrdaya Sutra
The Wisdom literature, or the Prajnaparamita sutras, exists in many different lengths. There are versions of one hundred thousand, twenty-five thousand, eight thousand, one hundred, and fifty lines. The version I'm discussing here is twenty-four lines and represents the heart (hrdaya), or essence, of the Prajnaparamita.
Some people say it's not necessary to read the Heart Sutra in its English translation, that the essence of this Wisdom literature can be achieved by just chanting it in the original Sanskrit. Before I review the meaning of the title, let me say that when you truly just chant the Heart Sutra, all of it is contained in the act of just chanting. When we chant in such a way that nothing else is happening, that all our concentration, all our mental and physical energies are condensed into just being the sound A (the first syllable of the original text, from "Avalokitesvara"), that is all that exists. Just A! Just the elimination of any trace of separation between subject and object, which is nothing but our zazen itself. If we put all our energy into just chanting in this manner, there is no separation, and that state of no separation is the state of sunyata, or "emptiness," or what I also call not-knowing. That is the state of 100 percent action; everything is fully concentrated in this very moment. This is the heart of our practice, to be totally in this moment, moment after moment. It doesn't matter what words are being chanted; when you are totally A, it is not even A anymore; it is the whole universe, it is everything.
This is the essence of the first word of the Sanskrit title of the Heart Sutra: Maha. The entire title in Sanskrit is Maha Prajnaparamita Hrdaya Sutra, or in English, The Heart of the Perfection of Great Wisdom Sutra. In a way, the whole textas well as all of Zen teachingis summed up in this title.
Maha is commonly translated as "great" in both a quantitative and qualitative sensein fact in a very special sense. Maha is so great that there is no outside. An analogy from mathematics may help. If you draw a circle, that circle includes certain things and excludes certain things. If you make a larger circle, there are still going to be things outside the circle. In mathematics, one way of defining a circle or determining its size is by trying to find something outside it. You ask of any given object, "Is this inside or outside?" If it's outside, then you know the object is exterior to the circle.
Let's look at ourselves. I draw a circle representing who I think I am. In a way, we all do that. When I say that maha means there's no outside, then any object I name is inside the circle of myself, of who I think I am. Everything is nothing but me. If I look at anger, that's me; it's not outside me. If I look at the trees and the river, they're me, too; they're not outside me. Everybody reading this book is me. Moreover, the stars and moon are me; they're not outside. If this is true, then each one of us is this maha. If we are all within the same circle, then all of this is One Body; there is no outside. Since there is no outside, there is no inside either. This is one of the major teachings of Buddhism and one of the fundamental teachings of Zen.
When we introduce the term outside, that automatically introduces the correlative term inside and creates a boundary, a circle. If there is no outsidefor the circle is infinitethen not only is there no inside, there is also no circle anymore. What remains is a single entity, just one thing. This is what is meant by One Body, which is the fundamental meaning of maha.
Maha is all-inclusive, nothing is left out. In this sense maha also describes what's known as the Way (Tao). Since maha is no-outside-and-no-inside, it is therefore the Way. By contrast, people tend to think that the Way is some kind of path, or that it refers to the way of doing things or some sort of direction that we take. But the Tao is everything. Each of us is the Way; each of us is walking the Way.
You remember Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz? Someone sets her on the yellow brick road so that she will finally get to the Wizard of Oz. But there is no yellow brick road! We are already on it. Wherever we are, that is the yellow brick road, that's the Tao, that's maha. And maha declares that there is no outside or inside to the path. Everything is the path; we are all on the Way. Where? It doesn't go anywhere! It's the pulsating of life everywhere.
The second word in the title is Prajna, which is usually translated in English as "wisdom," but in a special sense. In some meditation halls, a monitor hits the shoulders of the meditators with an encouraging stick known as the sword of wisdom, or Manjusri's sword, to help cut off their delusions during meditation, to cut away all their ideas and notions. So this prajna is not wisdom in the sense of knowledge or a gathering of information, nor does it refer to an omniscient sage who knows all the answers. It's not even the wisdom implied in understanding the essence of life. We speak of prajna as the wisdom of emptiness.
Prajna is empty in the sense that it has no content of its own. It's nothing but the functioning of maha, which is the One Body, or everything as it is. It's the functioning of reality at this very moment, of nothing but this very moment. Being hot, we sweat; the very act is prajna. Sweating is the wisdom of being hot because it's the functioning of this moment as being hot. You light a candle and the light itself is prajna. When we walk in the rain, we get wetthat's prajna. We step on a dog turd and our shoe stinksthat's prajna, the functioning of what is.
A Nazi putting a young child into the Auschwitz gas chamber is also prajna, so we can't look at prajna in terms of right and wrong, good and bad. The sword of Manjusri, the sword of wisdom, cuts away all dualisms, leaving only what is. The functioning of that state is prajna. It's so vast that most of the time we don't realize we're even experiencing it. For example, you are experiencing a leaf falling from a tree somewhere in Connecticut right now, even though you don't realize it. That's prajna. It's the sounds that we hear, the rain, the sunlight, the smell of flowers, the airplane overheaddirectly experienced as not being separate from us. When our ideas or concepts drop away, so does the separation from what is, and the very functioning of this nonseparation is what we mean by prajna. Because prajna is the functioning of maha and maha is nothing but us, prajna is our functioning and we are nothing but prajna.
The first half of the Heart Sutra explains what this prajna is. The second half explains the functioning of the bodhisattvas, those who realize this prajna. We all manifest prajna, but bodhisattvas have a realization of what it is. It turns out that we are bodhisattvas too, as we shall soon see.
The next word in the title is paramita, which is often translated as "perfection." However, param literally means "to go to the other shore." Paramita is the present perfect tense ("having gone to the other shore"), so it means "at the other shore." Do you know where the other shore is? Some people call the other shore nirvana. Being at the other shore thus means that nirvana is already here. It signifies that we have already gotten to the place where we are this One Body. Instead of thinking of going from the state of delusion to the state of enlightenment, what paramita means is that we are already there. This is the other shore; this is the state of enlightenment.
We talk about six paramitas, of which prajnaparamita is only one. But the Heart Sutra deals with prajna as the vehicle that takes us where we already arethis is it! Now obviously, if everything is nothing but the One Body, how could there be another shore? On the other hand, if this was so clear to us we'd have no need for Manjusri's sword cutting off the delusion of duality. But we do! For although there is no other shore, it is neither obvious nor acceptable to us. We are always searching for that other shore, for something extra, something outside ourselves, thinking it is some wonderful place we are going to find. We refuse to accept the fact that this is it.
We don't go to the other shore; the other shore comes to us. Something happens, and we awaken to the realization that under our feet lies the shoreline. This very body is the Buddha, and all the sounds of the worldeverything that happens as isare the Buddha's teachings.
Everything in Zen is present perfect tense. There is no future, no pastit's all now. There's nowhere to go, nowhere to reach, it's all here, all One Body, one thing. Since we are already here, we are already at the end of the path and we are also at the beginning. We don't practice to become enlightened, we don't practice to realize something; we practice because we are enlightened. We don't eat to live; because we are alive, we eat. We usually think it's the other way around, that we eat and breathe so we'll be or remain alive. But no because we're alive, we breathe, we eat, we do.
To say that we practice to realize the Way misses the point, because it implies that through practice we're going to attain something, maybe enlightenment. That same logic implies that because we breathe, we're going to be alive, as if being alive results from breathing. No, both are happening at the same time. They're not linear; cause and effect are one.
We generally tend to look at life from a linear perspective: We do something and that causes something else to happen later. But in fact it's all happening at this very moment. There seems to be a linear sequence, but it's not real. Looking at a movie, we think it's continuous, but in fact it's composed of separate frames. Realityeverythingis here right now. Our minds think that what happens this moment is going to create the next moment, and in a way it does, but this way of seeing things is misleading. Both what happens now and what happens later are all here right now, this very moment.
If we stop breathing, of course, we won't live very long. Because breathing is the very function of life, one can't not breathe. But breathing doesn't cause life, it's inseparable from it. Breathing is life. It can no more be separated from life than wetness from water. The oneness of cause and effect is this complete inseparability.
Dogen Zenji says that firewood does not become ash. From our linear viewpoint, we think that the burning of firewood causes the firewood to become ash. But there is no such thing as becoming! Firewood is firewood and functions as firewood; ash is ash and functions as ash. Breathing is life, life is breathing; they're not related as cause and effect. Just as firewood does not become ash, so life does not become death. Life is life and functions completely as life. Death is death and functions completely as death.
To say there is no such thing as becoming follows from the fact that this is all One Body, all one thing. It does not mean that things don't change. Shakyamuni Buddha said that everything is change. This is itand it's changing. This is the enlightened state and it's changing. If we can really see that, if we can really let it soak in, there is no way to be upset about ourselves, no way to feel dissatisfied or guilty about not doing things right. It's all going to change, whatever it is. Instead of being tormented by guilt and bad feeling, we simply say, "Well, let's do it better." Whatever it is, is the enlightened state.
Since this is the enlightened state, it is the best that could happen at this very momentbut best in the special sense that it's happening and there is no choice. It is in this sense that we say everything is perfect just as it is, in the sense of being complete. Take an incense bowl. It's perfect as it is. If I drop it and it breaks into a lot of pieces, each piece is perfect as it isbecause that's what it is. We may have the notion that all those pieces should be returned to their original condition as parts of a whole incense bowl so they can be perfect again, but that's just a notion.
Another synonym for perfect is absolute. The pieces are just what they are. If we add anything to the incense bowl, we don't make it more perfect, we change it to something different. We are perfect as we are. If we add another head on top of our own, we create something else, another kind of creature. If we add anything to who we are, we're something different. Therefore, whatever happens at any given moment is the best that could happen at that moment. Any other conclusion is the result of our ideas about how things should be or are supposed to be, and these too are just notions.
Sometimes it helps to think of perfect, or complete, or absolute in mathematical terms, meaning that nothing is left out. Again, take an incense bowl. Is there anything left out? We can say, "Well, it should have a top, the top is missing." At that moment we're pointing to something not there that we want to be there. We're coming out of our notions of what an incense bowl should look like.
There is a wonderful little story from the Surangama Sutra that illustrates the point I am making. Once upon a time there was a prince who, upon waking up, would look at himself in the mirror and exclaim, "Ah! Beautiful!" He was very handsome and he loved himself. One day he woke up and picked up the mirror the wrong way. Because the back of the mirror was not polished, he could not see his face in it and he panicked. "My head is gone! My head is gone! It's missing! It's missing!" He went completely berserk. Running into the streets yelling in this manner, he searched everywhere to find his missing head.
Eventually some friends saw him and grabbed him, saying, "You have your head. Why are you running around like this?" "No, my head is gone!" the prince insisted. They took him back to the palace but were unable to calm him down. They did not have straitjackets in those days, so they tied him to a pillar. He screamed so loudly they had to gag him. So there he was, bound and gagged, struggling to break loose so he could continue searching for his missing head. Finally, he got tired. (You can only struggle for so long.) When he had calmed down somewhat, one of his friends hit him in the face, and the prince shouted, "My head! It's there after all!"
For a few days he was beside himself with joy, telling everyone he'd found his head. His head was there, how wonderful! But when all his friends just looked at him in disbelief, he finally stopped being so exuberant about having found his head. It had always been there.
We have a notion that something is missing or not here, and one day we awaken to the fact that it is here, if only we could see it. And what is here? Just what we are, as we are. Our preconceptions and ideas block our acceptance and realization of this simple truth.
Because perfect means neither good nor bad, just what is as it is, even the murder of a child is perfect in this sense. It is just what it is. Good and bad are the judgments we add to what isthey're extra. Rain is what is. If we are farmers, we tend to say rain is wonderful; if we're planning a picnic, we think rain is terrible. But rain is rain. People say rain is wet, but a fish wouldn't. Water is the very essence of life to the fish, neither wet nor dry. The fish attaches no notions or dichotomies to it. When we say that something is perfect, we're pointing to this absence of dichotomy or dualism. Within the One Body, there is just one thing happening.
The brain functions in a dualistic way, breaking things up into this and that. It judges everything we do as good or bad, right or wrong. But good and bad, including the notion of evil, are extra. This does not mean that evil does not exist or that good and bad do not exist. It simply means that they're judgments that exist in the realm of the relative, colors we add to the thing itself. They're as the woof is to the warp, which brings me to the last word of the title, Sutra.
Sutra has several meanings. We have the English word suture, a joining or sewing of two together into one. Sutra also means warp, the threads that run through everything, the foundation threads of a weaving, or the interweaving of all things. The threads that run through everything are everything. So the sutra is the plane we hear flying outside. Breathing in and out is the sutra. All the discourses of this One Body are the sutra.
Excerpted from Infinite Circle by Bernie Glassman. Copyright © 2002 by Bernie Glassman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.