Posts Tagged ‘heart sutra’

Roshi Joan Halifax

Zen is not a methodical practice. Its character is more holistic than linear. Insofar as method connotes an immediate goal or predictable outcome, the word and the outlook it represents run counter to Zen teachings. “There is nothing to be attained,” the Heart Sutra sternly reminds us. The byword of practice is not attain but continue.

All that said, methods can be useful, especially for newcomers and those whose practice is in need of renewal. Of the methods available, one of the most helpful is a six-step set of instructions formulated by Roshi Joan Halifax, Founder and Abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Upaya is a Sanskrit term meaning “skillful means,” and the Upaya instructions are at once skillful and comprehensive, both as a structure for meditation and as a means toward meditative insight. What follows is a summary of those instructions, interpreted in accordance with my own experience.

  1. Settle the posture

A stable posture is essential for Zen meditation. In its absence, the body slumps and fidgets; the mind tends to wander. Conventional instructions range from vague injunctions to sit upright to detailed checklists, specifying the correct position of legs, hands, and so on. Occupying a middle ground, Upaya instructs us to “gather [our] attention” and “settle into a posture that supports [our] practice.” Toward that end, practical options include the traditional cross-legged postures (full lotus, half-lotus, etc.), a kneeling bench, or a chair. What is most important is that the chosen posture provide a secure foundation for physical stillness and alert, relaxed attention.

  1. Recall your intention

An intention is not a goal. Rather, it is an aspiration, a guiding star. For example, we might aspire to embody clarity of mind or compassionate wisdom. Upaya’s instructions advise us to cultivate an “unselfish motivation,” an “intention to awaken in order to serve others.” By recalling this intention, we align our present endeavor with our abiding values, including and especially service to others. We may also recall the general themes of Zen practice: to awaken; to relieve suffering; to extinguish delusion.

  1. Place your attention on your breath

Classical instructions for Buddhist meditation, as set forth in the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, enjoin the practitioner to focus on both the in-breath and out-breath. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. / Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” By contrast, Zen teachers instruct students to count their exhalations from one to ten. Whichever technique we might choose, the primary purpose, as stated by Upaya, is to “cultivate attentional balance and concentration.” This prepares us for the next stage of practice.

  1. Notice the arising and passing of phenomena

Once the mind/body has been stabilized, it becomes possible to observe sensations, thoughts, and other mental phenomena as they arise and pass away. By so doing, we become aware of fixed ideas and recurrent patterns of feeling that might otherwise govern our lives. No less important, we experience, in granular detail, the reality of moment-by-moment change. By taking the “backward step,” as Eihei Dogen called it, we gain insight into the impermanent, interdependent, and selfless nature of all conditioned things.

  1. Open the attentional field to choiceless awareness; practice shikantaza.

The term “choiceless awareness” was coined by the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986). It refers to a panoramic state of mind in which everything in the present is included in one’s awareness, and nothing is consciously excluded. Zen practitioners cultivate a state of choiceless awareness by practicing shikantaza (“just sitting”). Because the natural tendency of the untrained mind is to want to be elsewhere and things to be otherwise, this practice requires wholehearted effort. It runs against the grain. But, paradoxically, the long-term objective is a mental state in which even the most unwelcome thoughts, feelings, and physical conditions are accepted, just as they are, and the mind rests in open awareness.

  1. Dedicate merit to others

Like the recollection of intention, this element of formal Zen practice is often neglected in informal settings. Too often we practice mainly for ourselves. In keeping with a commitment to service, silent or spoken dedications transfer to others whatever good may have arisen. Whether those others be specific persons or “all sentient beings,” this ritual gesture reminds us of the true nature of Zen practice. However self-directed it may sometimes seem, it is ultimately not about ourselves.



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Today I am writing this column with my Sailor 1911 fountain pen. Its name commemorates the origin of the Sailor Pen Company, which was founded in 1911 by Mr. Kyugoro Sakata of Hiroshima, Japan. Having learned about fountain pens from a British sailor, Mr. Sakata started his own company, naming it after his source of inspiration. My Sailor 1911 is plum-colored and sports a gold-plated nib, from which the black ink flows freely. A gift from my wife, it is a pleasure to use and a handsome object in its own right.

Yet my pen is also a composite thing, and when I take it apart to clean it, I see that it consists of four principal components: nib, cartridge, cap, and barrel. Were I to take those components themselves apart, I would discover that my fountain pen, which feels so stable in my hand, is actually an impermanent aggregate, to which the concept “fountain pen” has been applied. And though it appears independent, it is really a locus of interdependent causes and conditions, including the manufacturers who produced its resin, metal, and ink, the craftsman who assembled it, and of course Mr. Sakata himself. Far from being a separate entity, my pen might better be seen as an event in the ever-changing web of life. For all its beauty and functionality, it is void of solidity or intrinsic existence.

That is no small discovery. And were I to continue my investigation, examining my Sailor 1911 under an electron microsope, I would see that my so-called fountain pen is mostly energy and formless space. I would recognize the formlessness—or what Zen teachings call “emptiness”beneath the form. Through direct experience, I would have verified the core teaching of the Heart Sutra, which is chanted daily in Zen monasteries. “Form is no other than emptiness,” that sutra informs us, “emptiness no other than form”. A pen is indeed a pen, but it is also not a pen. And what is true of fountain pens is true of all phenomena, ourselves included.

To examine the world and the self in this fashion might seem a rather negative, if not destructive, enterprise, but in practice it is quite the opposite. It is as nurturing as it is liberating. In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle explains:

Once you realize and accept that all structures (forms) are unstable, even the seemingly solid material ones, peace arises within you. This is because the recognition of the impermanence of all forms awakens you to the dimension of the formless within yourself, that which is beyond death.*

In Zen teachings, what Tolle describes as the “dimension of the formless” is usually called the “absolute” dimension. It is contrasted with the “relative” dimension, where a pen is a pen and a post is a post. In Zen training we are enjoined to see all things, including our bodies, thoughts, and feelings, from both perspectives. We cultivate a kind of double vision, seeing the changing and the changeless, the relative and the absolute, as two sides of a single coin. By so doing, we loosen our anxious attachments to things and thoughts and feelings, having recognized that ultimately there is nothing solid to be attached to, or any need to be attached. And if peace arises, as it often does, it is because at long last we are seeing things as they are.


*Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (Penguin, 2005), 81.

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