The Heart Sutra and Zen Practice


The essence of the Heart Sutra, as well as of Mahayana Zen Buddhism, is egolessness: no ego. As the Heart Sutra points out, it is the combination of the five aggregates of form, sensation, thought, will and consciousness - these empty perceptions - that we mistakenly recognize as ourselves, as our ego. When we are drawn by the eye we are eye. When we are drawn by the nose we are nose. We smell something delicious and feed ourselves even through we aren't hungry. Tossed from here to there, from left to right, we just barely regain our poise when we are drawn again. So goes life, so goes suffering. This is what Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, meant when he said life is suffering. We are slaves, victims to this phantom, ourselves.

Here is where our non-seeking zazen practice, shikantaza - "just sitting" - can play such a vital part in our lives. When you become adept at zazen, you gain an ability to step back, to objectify. But this only comes through sincerity and continuous practice, daily practice. Why do we instruct you to just watch the parade of thoughts as they are occurring, watch your response to thought, watch everything? Because you must become the perpetual observer. Look; do not touch. With this kind of continual practice, practice, practice, your zazen matures and this keenness permeates your whole being. It spills over into your everyday life and you can put this to work so that you are not perpetually victimized by these thoughts, emotions and sensations. You come to actually experience "No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, nothing increases, nothing decreases, no birth, no death, nothing is defiled, nothing is pure." This is a very profound idea. "Nothing is defiled, nothing is pure, nothing increases, nothing decreases, no form, no feelings, no thought, no consciousness." Does this mean that youre dead? No, just egoless!

This ego is the sense of "I-ness" and once this sense develops and grows stronger by continual nurturing it overwhelms your whole life. As long as there is a sense of "I," a sense that there is this tangible being that resides somewhere within you, and as long as you feel and submit to this ego, you are finished! Ego is the boss; you are the slave. Then the defenses arise; for if you have this ego or identity, it must be protected and on and on it goes.

Zazen shows the way. As this objectifying ability matures, it clears everything, cuts right through and dissolves the ego. Always mentally take one step back, one step back. You discover there is no looker. There is no seer. You and Buddha Nature are one: not attempting to unify, but become one and the same. Buddha Nature is the inherent nature of all being. The innate nature of all things in the universe is the Buddha Nature, not the ego. You do not have to worry that you will disappear. You do not have to fight for yourself. This ego is an illusion. Each one of us sitting in this room today was born with a different shape, different nose and different attributes. Who looks like anyone else in this room? No one. Look around: that's a fact. So your inner nature will express itself freely. You won't have to defend it. You won't lose you. Zazen, zazen, continue, continue; don't look for anything. Don't expect results. Who are you to get anything? Just give, don't worry about getting. You will get; it will come one hundred-fold. But as long as you are peeking around the corner looking for it to come, it will never happen. Be sincere, be magnanimous. Just sit; this is your Buddhist form of prayer. It is not necessary to pray to some other being. Your inner nature, your Buddha Nature, is the "Godness" of the universe.


Gone, gone, gone beyond to the other shore,
Arrived at the other shore, enlightenment,
Shore of enlightenment!

Anyone who is at all sensitive to pain, distress and suffering spends their life, to some degree or other - depending on their seriousness, diligence and strength - finding or searching for some other shore. This is not just in Buddhism. Christianity shows another shore, in another life. I think with all the seeming pessimism in Buddhism, it is really a very positive philosophy. It deals with THIS life. In Zen, we don't even allow for a pure land outside of the pure land right here, before us.

The five aggregates again are form, feeling, thought, impulse, and consciousness. According to Buddhism, though they have no qualitative state of their own, all elements of the phenomenal world are comprised of these aggregates. Comprised of, in the sense that there isn't something or someone who smells, sees, or feels. We are comprised of these five empty aggregates. So there is no "you" that these aggregates are stuck onto like buttons. But without knowing this in our hearts we are always looking for this other shore, always en route. Where is peace? Where is real understanding, real knowledge?

We all take different routes. Maybe a BA degree, maybe a master's, maybe a doctorate, maybe a husband or wife, let's have some kids, no let's not; maybe a new car, new house, another degree; then we become spiritual. Tokudo (formal initiation into Zen Buddhism), discipleship, priesthood, how grand! - ego still eating away - nothing satisfies. We become victims because we really believe that we consist of some entity, some solid substance. We suffer when we try to hold these ever-shifting components to a static entity. We are trying to affirm something that doesn't exist. Emptiness, as it is found in the Heart Sutra, is translated from the Sanskrit word shunyata, meaning empty or void. Shunyata has no negative connotation. It is very positive, full, clear: empty. And again, empty of what? Empty of ego content. The beauty of zazen and the real significance and validity of this practice is that it allows you to see a unity amidst all this constant fluctuation and change. When these aggregates come into proper relationship, they settle. When they are not fed and fired by the fictitious ego, then you have real strength in your life. The natural state is at rest. The Tao Te Ching says "the storm will never live out the day." The ocean in its natural state isn't turbulent. Storms are the exception, not the rule. Don't perpetuate this urge to satisfy some entity that doesn't exist. We have continual internal turbulence and it grows and grows, so suffering grows and grows. Without something that opens the spiritual eye, as zazen does, I can't see how rest is possible. You can't solve life intellectually. We have tried that. You can't solve life materially. We all certainly have tried that. And as a title of a book I have seen, Spiritual Supermarket, shows, you can't go to camps and do two hours of Tai Chi, two hours of rolfing, tomorrow Gestalt, and then go to a room and scream madly and attain spiritual realization. But you'll still have to pay the bill. How many bills do we have to pay? We each must answer this for ourselves.

Consider, for the moment, the heavy traffic on the street this afternoon. Were you disturbed? What, who was disturbed? Kanon, the central personage in the Heart Sutra, is said to have gained enlightenment through the medium of sound. All sounds are the voice of Buddha. All sounds become transformed into spiritual sound, equivalent to the sound of birds, to the sound of a gong. How is this accomplished? Zazen, zazen, more zazen. Sesshin should be the norm, not the exception. More zazen, daily practice of zazen. If you think you can solve life's problems through the intellect, why haven't you already? I say this to emphasize and re-emphasize. It is so easy to get hung up doing something, because sometime in the past you perceived in your heart that it offered a solution. It's easy to forget why and just continue the habit. Even something as difficult as a sesshin can be nothing more than stroking the ego. "Oh I can sit for two days or five days or one hundred days!" It doesn't mean anything unless you get to the heart of the matter and see the skandhas (the five aggregates) as constant interplay. Don't impose opinions and ideas. Always look. As Dogen Zenji said, "Sit as though your hair were on fire." It is pretty hard to be dull when your hair is on fire. Wake up! Always wake up. Be your own kyosaku. In the Temple use the stick. It is not punishment. Every time you hear the crack of that stick, it is screaming at you, "Wake up!" Follow the sound of the gong; where is it going? Wake up! When I have problems with drowsiness at home, I get up and walk backwards. Take initiative in your practice. Be hard on yourselves.


I left you last night en route: going, going. But I think the real value of zazen and more specifically sesshin - because it is highly concentrated zazen - is that it gives you a glimpse of not having to be en route. When you first came here Thursday, you sat down for zazen and as the hours went by you became aware of disturbances within yourself and this awareness seemed to become heightened and then it gradually diminished. This neutral point where you don't know anything, but are with everything, is just that starting point. This is the whole meaning of the closing verses in the Heart Sutra. Going, going, going, you don't know where. Going, going, finally reaching the other shore, only to realize you never left.

There is a collection of koans called the Mumonkan. This title means empty gate, or in this instance, the gateless gate. There are many gates, as referred to earlier. Material gates, social acceptance gates, on and on to spiritual gates such as priesthood; these are various attractions that we succumb to and perhaps later discover to be really unattractive after all. Ultimately, we must come to this point zero. We then see that there was no gate, there is no gate. We are not, as Christians believe, born in sin, incomplete, something wrong with us. It is a hideous conception, in my mind, to conceive of the universe, which is our only universe, our only home, as somehow incomplete. When is the final touch put on? That you are incomplete is your idea, not the universe's. The universe is OK. It will be going on much longer than we will. We are always constructing another gate to pass through, only to find that when we do it isn't really there.

As I said, you know nothing but are with everything. You find out at the end of a sesshin the differences in your condition, both physically and mentally. You feel a deep settled-ness of the mind and yet the mind doesn't disappear. Quite to the contrary, you are much more alive, much more keen and alert. What else could you ask for in any practice, discipline, or state of being? IT allows that very penetrating glimpse into yourself, into the nature of yourself and consequently the nature of life. It allows you to grow and be with it all. That is assuming that you continue to deepen your zazen and you don't just flounder around like a fish bounced out of the ocean. Flapping, flapping, first this way then that. Big enthusiasm now, big let down later. This is the dilettante's lukewarm approach. This is nothing! I see too much of this. Be hard.

This idea of being hard is very difficult for some people to understand, and in this kind of phrase I leave myself wide open for serious misinterpretation. What does it mean to be hard? We are talking about compassion. It means be hard on yourself, but be easy on the next person. They are having a hard enough time, and we have enough business to take care of with ourselves. One of the strongest criticisms I receive when we give introductory classes around the community is "What do you do for society?" I reply, "Refine ourselves," I feel this is much more important than it might first appear. Because when you go into society, which is inevitable, you contribute your whole being. How can you exist with society? How can you contribute to society? By refining yourself. The insight and refinement gained through meditation, through zazen, through sesshin, leaves a residual effect you can't deny. You have no choice in the matter. By throwing yourself into your practice, you leave yourself wide open for what it has to offer.

The practice of zazen is the practice of inifinity. Living in infinity is the practice of being.