How to Find God on the Zen Path: The Heart Sutra, The Thread of Love by Fashi Lao Yue
What no eye has seen or ear heard…..
In the Zen tradition there is a ritual for tending to and disposing of the remnants left after burning a stick of incense. When the incense burns down it leaves a tiny bit of incense in the ash which is still in stick form. It is smaller but it is still of the same form and goes by the same name of incense.
The ash in the bowl after many burnings looks a lot like a miniature logging accident. There are tiny logs of incense scattered helter-skelter poking up throughout the ash.
The Zen ritual is to clean the ash by removing the remnants that did not burn and saving them until the New Year. At the New Year, the remnants along with the burnt matches are gathered and burnt in a ceremonial fire.
It is a simple, loving act of care with a deep message for spiritual adepts. The deep message is also a simple loving act of care but we need to know what to do and how to do it. In a very real sense we need to clean up the remnants of the seeds deposited in the form of old hurts and old grudges in the body and mind. It includes old loves and old wants; these bits of old attachments still floating up into consciousness that disturbs and harm.
When we look at anything whether it is in the external world of name and form or the internal world of name and form we look with attachment. Often the attachment comes disguised as wanting or hating. This attachment is the unburned bits, the remnants that continue to surface distracting us from what the eye has not seen or the ear has not heard. The eye cannot see and the ear cannot hear when it is looking at name and form that floats up from the past. These remnants veil our true nature.
In order to understand the deep message and in order to know what and how to find it for ourselves we need to look at one section of the Heart Sutra. Arguably there are many versions of the Heart Sutra and an ongoing, continued debate of the origin and the author, but for most practitioners there is agreement that form and emptiness as well as a negative approach is the common ground of this sutra.
In this sutra we have a saint who gives us the message and tells how to know it.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Saint A.) when practicing deeply the prajna paramita perceived that all five skandas (the five heaps of stuff we call the stuff of the body and the stuff of the mind which include the remnants of attachment) are empty….empty of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. That’s it. It is to practice seeing and hearing everything we meet without form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.
A recent example is a trip to the Y to go for a swim. The pool is small, just 5 lap lanes. There are close to 9 million names and forms close by. During this time of year the pool is packed with these five heaps which includes this close-up bag of heaps in the shape of complaints…too many people…my lane…rude swimmers. If I go and begin to look at any of the remnants of the heaps, form, feelings, perceptions I go full and not empty. Full of concepts and judgment and wants and aversions and you name it. The fullness of mind remnants guarantees to block transcendent wisdom.
That is what the message is…to go empty….without a hair breadth of desire…. then what we find is the perfection of wisdom. Empty the body and mind of attachment to the remnants of the heaps.
The word empty can be substituted with the word love. It could read from a connotative perspective….all five heaps of the body and mind are love, but when we look at just name and form we do not see it as empty or love. Name and form trick us into seeing it as something to want or something to hate, something to attach to and something to discard. Name and form conjure up old hurts and old desires.
If the face of someone we knew comes to mind notice how all the heaps come up along with all the attachments to one or more of the heaps. These are the remnants. And they are not to be attended to except to be gathered and burned up.
As we go along, it hopefully will become clear that this love is not the romantic, brotherly or parental love depicted in most art forms (film, books, paintings, poetry). Although parental love sometimes comes close it in itself is not IT. .This love, this emptiness is not seen with eye or heard with ear. It is transcendent.
Now we need to clarify the method, the approach Saint A. used.
When we lose a set of keys, as a common example, we often go through rounds of searching for the keys which is certain to include a round of – no, not there – I didn’t leave them in the car even though we might have to double check that we didn’t. No, not there in my jacket pocket, no, not there in the junk drawer. This method is a familiar way of finding something. The familiarity of the search suggests we somehow intuitively know we have lost something or are separated from something we once had. This intuition is based on the waking up to the sense of something is missing. In the example, the keys are missing. For Saint A. transcendental wisdom was missing. When this awareness happens, many of us begin to look for what it is that is missing. Often we go through rounds and rounds of finding out no, not there. We all have a list of no, not there.
How many times have you looked for something you never had and never lost?
Saint A. practiced deeply looking for transcendent wisdom and found it. She did it. She saw and heard the emptiness, the love not seen with the eye and heard with the ear. And her method was very much rooted in – no, not there.
Saint A. found transcendent wisdom on a negative path which we all know. Saint A. was looking for something. There is some subtle factor that cannot be overlooked here. She looked because she had some intuitive sense she knew something was missing. And when something is missing we tend to rely on this negative, – no, not there – approach.
And with this approach she sums up where transcendental wisdom is not. The method is to be done not believed. Is the body where the eternal, unborn, undying is? Nah. It ain’t. The body is subject to aging, sickness and death. It is going to vanish and return to the dirt.
How about those feelings? Nope. Our feelings seem to be at times in a hyper state of change, especially if we fall in love. It’s that time when everyone waits for the lovers to sober up.
How about perceptions? Ah….it too succumbs. At one point in life we perceive a toy as our biggest treasure only to give it away, throw it away or store it in some dusty attic.
Impulses? HA! These little babies are on speed and not to be trusted.
Perhaps the hardest one is consciousness. This seems to be pervasive, prodigious and perpetual. Everything has consciousness. But wait. Does consciousness itself change and fall apart. Yes it does. Here is my example.
I was sitting with someone who was courteous in conscious listening until a bee buzzed through bombing any ability to concentrate and focus in a conscious way. What happened to their consciousness?
No form, no feelings, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness. All let downs as far as the transcendental. No, not there.
In short order we are able to see, hopefully, these heaps of what the body and mind are made of are not the unborn, undying, eternal nature. God ain’t there.
What does this mean?
It means when Saint A. studied the perfection of transcendent wisdom she eliminated these things from the list. She no longer polished them up because polishing them up led to suffering. No matter how much you rub the five heaps it will not lead to finding what is missing.
But she goes further. She goes through every part of the body as not it. The logic being the gross form is not it, but maybe God is in the little stuff, like the eyes, the ears, the nose. But as you read the Heart Sutra we soon discover – no, not there – continues to be what is found. But this is all on the way to finding God on the path of the perfection of transcendent wisdom.
In short, stop looking there. It’s like the keys. I looked in the car and I know they are not in the car. More precisely stop looking in the way you are looking. Begin by looking at what it is not and then shift to looking at what it is. Transcendent wisdom is not in the heaps.
Where, then do we look and how do we look. Well, you look backward into that which is powering up the looking, the hearing, and all the actions of life. You stop looking at the remnants and you look at the Source. This is the emptiness and love that Saint A. discovered. It is right here, in everything waiting for you.
We meet the Source. In order to meet the Source we must know all the heaps are empty of transcendent Wisdom. This is a two-step process. (1) We meet everything for what it is not. (2) And then we can meet it for what it is. This is love, transcendent love that is indefinable, ineffable and immeasurable.
When we approach life from the place of benefiting and generating from the heaps, we will miss the Source. If we meet anything with the remnants of the heaps, we will get sick and look and feel very much like a logging accident. All sorts of miseries will come along. When we meet everything empty, we meet everything with the love not seen by the eye nor heard by the ear. And IT is indescribable, ineffable transcendence.
Everything is waiting in this great patience to come alive from what is powering up everything. In a very real sense every single thing is waiting to be, to awaken and to be transcendent. IT is never apart from right where we are.