Sunday, September 8, 2013

calm water

calm water, Lake Como, Italy
A visitor to the Temple today, someone who was new to Zen practice, asked the very reasonable question, "what do you do with your thoughts during meditation?"  She wondered if we spent our time in zazen cultivating thoughts about peace or love or tranquility, to replace the ordinary thoughts we all have about doing the laundry and catching up on emails.

It was hard, at first, for her to understand that we don't do anything with our thoughts -- we notice them coming and going, but we don't try to get rid of them and we don't replace them with other thoughts.  We let them be, and just sit still and upright, in silence.  At a certain point in our conversation, her eyes lit up with understanding, and she said, "how freeing!"

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, in our Boundless Way translation of the Heart Sutra,  sees "that all five skandhas are empty", what is being seen?  The Bodhisattva, known in Chinese as Guan Yin, has been "practicing deep prajna paramita" -- the practice or perfection of wisdom, of clear seeing to the very root of reality.   The Bodhisattva's clear seeing to the bottom is itself liberating, like the glimpse of freedom our visitor had today.  Everything comes and goes.  The five skandhas or "heaps" that constitute human beings and the world we inhabit (form, sensation, perception, mental reaction and consciousness) all come and go, all are impermanent and empty of a fixed self-nature.   This is not emptiness as some concept of nothing, but emptiness as a realization of everything.  Form is seen as emptiness, and emptiness itself is seen as form.  Nothing is fixed or static -- everything is in movement.

One of the many things I love about this practice is that this insight into form and emptiness continually interchanging is available to everyone, caught in glimpses or larger moments of realization.  And the instruction, to be still and to be silent and to sit upright, opens the door to this insight, which is truly one of the heart-mind, and not easily available to the intellect. "Right here, " the text says, "is nirvana."  Right here is the place we have been looking for -- the place we imagine as peaceful is in constant motion, and we can rest in the middle of the coming and going.   It's a bit like the experience of resting our eyes on the surface of a calm lake, and having the complex flux of motion revealed.  Nothing is happening, and everything is happening.  "How freeing!"

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