Talk on Emptiness and Love given at Mountain Rain Zendo in Vancouver.
Emptiness and Love
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | January 24, 2009
Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
Good morning everybody. It's so nice to see so many of you here. Very exciting. Lots of new faces. This is a good thing, because I think practicing dharma makes you happier and clearer about your living. And if it's good for you, it's good for your family. They're going to feel better and be happy to have a wise person in their midst, and then they're going to spread that goodness to their associates and friends. The world really needs this little extra measure of light right now. So I feel very encouraged to see all of you here.
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita perceived thatall five skandas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering.
Doesn't that sound like good news, that we are saved from all suffering? In the fall of last year we chanted the Heart Sutra at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. All the Zen and dharma centers have different translations of the Heart Sutra, and there they were using the translation of Kaz Tanahashi. In Kaz's translation the word shunyata, which is almost always translated as "emptiness," is translated as "boundlessness." Boundlessness. Avalokiteshvara perceived that all five skandhas are boundless and was saved from all suffering.
The Diamond Sutra, which also speaks about emptiness, refers to phenomena as being empty; and therefore, because empty, they are dreamlike, phantom-like, like a bubble, like dew, like a flash of lightning, like a wave on the ocean. And according to the Diamond Sutra, that's how you should view conditioned things.
The Heart Sutra is telling us that Avalokiteshvara has both a faith and an unshakable confidence in this experience of emptiness. The faith is that this dream-like quality is not a hallucinatory trick of the mind or an illusion. This really is the way things are; only we don't see them that way. We seem to persist in thinking of ourselves, of our problems, of our world, of everything, as being fixed and substantial – each thing separate from one another.
I think if we were honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that this is the way we see the world. We do see it that way – separate, out there, problematic, difficult. And also, we see ourselves on the inside in the same way. It seems as if we are not alone in this. At least as far back as the Buddha's time, and probably further back than that, this is how human beings have seen themselves and the world. So we come by it honestly. We should not blame ourselves for our confusion and our problems, because this is the human birthright. We're made to have these problems.
Even though we see and feel the world this way, and our ancestors have seen and felt it this way, the Heart Sutra tells us that it is not that way. It never has been that way. Things are not really as painful in the way that we are convinced that they are. Things are actually like a dream – like a phantom, boundless and empty. They are not fixed, substantial, and separate. Instead, they are mixed up all together – flowing in and out of each other. Things shift and melt and merge, as in a dream. Now something seems to be one way, but in the next moment it can be completely different. That's actually how things are in this world. That's why we all understand that compassion and love make so much sense.
How do you not love the world that is yourself and that you are? How do you not love others that are yourself – that are what you are? And how not love yourself for being all of this? To practice as Avalokiteshvara practices the Prajna Paramita – the Perfection of Wisdom, the wisdom that sees emptiness – is to see deeply in our hearts that things are this way. And then love arises, and we have compassion and concern for others. We have a sense of ease in our living, even when things are tough. That's why, even though the Heart Sutra teaches emptiness, the speaker of the text is not the one that we would imagine – Manjushri Bodhisattva, the bodhisattva of emptiness and Prajna wisdom. The speaker of the text is Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of love and compassion – the one who hears the cries of the world and loves all beings. She's the one who is speaking the truth of emptiness, because the consequence of understanding the empty, boundless nature of emptiness is always love.
The Buddha, as his life story shows, and as his teachings illustrate, had a passion and a concern for one thing, and one thing only: human suffering. He felt suffering himself, and he felt our suffering. He wanted to address, in a fundamental way, this most pressing of all human concerns. He asked, "What is the cause of suffering?" He saw, more or less, that the cause of suffering is ourselves – our sense of being separate, atomized, distanced individuals, standing over and against the powerful world. That's actually the cause of suffering, because without that feeling that we have, there isn't any suffering; there are just things that happen. When we hate the things that happen or feel that they impact us in a bad way, we suffer. If I don't feel that way, then when something happens, it just happens. It's not suffering. And further, he realized that this viewpoint that we have about ourselves is not something that can be easily overcome, because it is so embedded in the way we think and the way we perceive. It's even embedded in the whole operation of our sense organs and the way we put together a world. To overcome it takes some serious doing.
So he thought, "How can I help people to overcome this deeply ingrained viewpoint that causes so much pain and suffering?" One of the strategies he devised, among an incredible array of brilliant strategies, was a way of looking at our experience – a kind of organized way of analyzing and viewing our experience, so that we could see through this deeply ingrained habit of self and separation. In other words, to investigate not what we think is going on, but what is actually going on. Cutting through our concepts and our conceptualizations. What is really going on? And he found, through this practice of investigation, that the five skandhas are a very useful framework for viewing our experience – five categories of experience that would pretty much contain all that goes on in a human lifetime.
So what are these five skandhas? The first one is called rupa – matter or physicality. Matter is important to us, because we all depend on it. We have bodies. No body – no you and no me. There is some stuff here on which everything is based, but we don't actually know or experience this stuff directly. Our mind, that interprets this data of the senses, is the only access we have to whatever rupa really is.
The second skandha is vedanā – or feeling. This is our somatic, deeply conditioned reactivity to anything that we perceive. We always have some reactivity. Before we know what we are experiencing, we have a gut reaction to it – a primitive reaction to it. Even a paramecium is reacting to stimulation, one way or the other. We either have a positive reaction – wanting to incorporate it, or have it, or make it stay. Or we have a negative reaction – wanting to escape from it, get away from it, or make it disappear. Maybe we have a mixture of both. Or maybe we are out to lunch and don't even notice what our reaction is. So it's a very primitive, basic reactivity.
It is based on that reactivity that we have the third skandha, saññā, which is perception. The whole bundle of experiences that constitute our lives – the things that we see, and notice, and think about – are based in perception. We identify things of the world. They may or may not be there in some way, but we really don't know. We think that they're there in a particular way, because of vedanā, and saññā. This, of course, involves the sense organs and the mind, and also, probably, some kind of language, or proto-language that allows us to separate and identify.
So, the Buddha understood that perception is not a primary experience. It is a concoction, a conceptual process. In other words, the Buddha recognized that we are actively making the world we live in, and that the world that we take for granted is not necessarily the world that is there. It's a world that we are creating. Our life is a life that we are creating through our reactivity and our perception.
The fourth skandha, samskara, is based on the world that we have created. This is a very important one. This is the field of practice. This is where we work in our practice. Just as saññā is based on vedana, so samskara is based on saññā. The word "samskara" is usually translated as "impulses" or "formations" or "confections." It refers to the whole set of volitions and volitional impulses that arise in us whenever we have any experience – the impulses that lead to choice and action and all sorts of directed thinking. They are also the emotions that arise based on those actions and volitions. This whole realm of experience can either lead us into a lot of suffering, or the opposite. If we take volitional actions that are wise, they can lead to a reduction in suffering. This is why the samskara field of the fourth skandha is so important for our practice.
And finally, the last skandha, the fifth, is called vijnana, which is consciousness. In Buddhist psychology there are six distinct kinds of consciousness: five that go with the sense organs and the sixth that goes with what is considered to be the sixth sense organ – the mind. The mind cognizes thought and emotion as an object, and cognizes in the same way as an eye cognizes a visible object. There are six kinds of consciousnesses that go with those six organs.
I described the five skandhas as if they were psychological categories to be thought about and analyzed, but I think they were designed to be a distinct spiritual practice. We would begin to pay attention to our experience, not only in terms of me – "Do I like this? Is this good for me?" – but to see how we make our lives up as we go. Through mindfulness techniques we could see how we create our lives. We could develop these techniques in the context of monastic living, which is a very simplified living, like this retreat. In this way of living, we can observe what goes on in the mind and the heart a lot more easily than when we have complicated tasks to do. Through looking at our lives in terms of the five skandhas, we see, "Oh, that's an impulse, that's perception, that's vedanā, that's feeling, that's rupa." Through that way of looking at our lives, moment by moment, we would eventually get over ourselves, and being so stuck on ourselves, and so concerned about ourselves. We would begin to enter the flow of our actual experience.
So all of that is what Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is referring to when she is deeply practicing the Prajna Paramita and seeing that this whole way of practice is empty. Maybe the early monks who were practicing this way were beginning to get a little stuck on the five skandhas. Maybe they were beginning to make them a little too substantial and take pride in their capacity to discern their experience in terms of the skandhas. Maybe Avalokiteshvara was trying to point that out when she said, in effect, "Don't get so excited about the five skandhas. They're actually empty. You don't really need to be so obsessed with categorizing and analyzing all of your experience. After all, the Buddha intended that in the beginning they be used as a device, as a convenience. The whole point was never to be an expert on the five skandhas and the analysis of your experience. The point was to let go – to recognize that self has always been empty, groundless, and boundless. So the skandhas are empty too." So says the Heart Sutra.
So how do we suffer? Isn't suffering exactly losing what we want and love, fearing the loss of it, or possessing it with such fear and anxiety? Wishing for something we don't have, or wishing for the absence of something in our lives that we don't like? So when we see the emptiness of everything, when we see that we never really had the things we thought we had, or lacked the things we thought we lacked, things get very simple and much easier. We are free. We can be happy. And then the practice of love and compassion become foremost in our minds, because we don't have to worry about ourselves anymore.
I have always been a great fan of the emptiness teachings. I always loved them a lot and studied them over many, many years, over and over, going back to them. I'm especially grateful to them now because they helped me cope with my great loss. You know that I lost my friend, Rabbi Alan Lew, just a little while ago. On Monday, January 12th he got up in the morning and meditated and went to the prayer service and had breakfast. It was beautiful weather out – crisp, cool, but sunny. He was walking on a country road, and I guess he fell down and died instantly.
His passing is a great and terrible thing for his family, who really, really loved him. It was a great tragedy for the many people in the Jewish world and beyond, who depended on him. And it is also very sad for me, possibly the worst loss for me, even though I lost both my parents. It might be that losing my friend of more than forty years has been more difficult than that.
So I have devoted myself to grieving. I stayed with the family. I was surprised that I had as many tears as I did have. I didn't think I would, and it was good to have tears. It is still difficult to believe that I won't see my friend again. Forty years of sharing spiritual practice and friendship and going through every conceivable life change that can happen in forty years. Gone in a flash. In one phone call on a Monday morning.
You all know the famous poem of Issa, that I am fond of quoting. It's a haiku that he wrote at the burial of his two year old daughter, which was the fourth or fifth child that he lost. He wrote:
The world of dew
is the world of dew,
All things really are empty of own-being. All things are really like a dream, like a phantom. This is actually the truth. Even if most of the time we do not experience things directly in this way, it's a feeling that we have about life that comes through our practice over many years. We know it's true. And it makes us appreciate the gifts and the beauty. But we really understand that it is evanescent, not only because later it's gone, but because even now it's not really here. Still, due to love, due to our humanity, due to our compassion, we feel grief, and we shed tears. At the same time, we know better than this. We are not regretful or bereft, because we know better; but there are tears, and there ought to be tears. And we don't wish for it to be any other way. These are beautiful tears.
I often worry that maybe our practice is too easy. It's too peaceful. Maybe we have too much dew and not enough tears. Maybe there should be more tears and more desperation in our efforts to help one another. And I guess I am not talking about our practice, I am just talking about my practice and myself. Maybe it hasn't been such a great idea that I have studied the emptiness teachings so much, and maybe even though I had more tears than I thought I would have, these last ten days or so, maybe it wasn't enough.
Anyway, I really appreciate the emptiness teachings. These teachings really do help in the times of suffering and loss. I know that many of you here have also suffered losses recently. Many of you here also have a lot of suffering, because the world is hard right now, and a lot of people are having a hard time, if not you yourself, no doubt friends of yours – people you know and love. And it seems to be a moment like that in our world. I guess that happens sometimes, when we are so much aware.
When someone takes away our toys and our distractions, we look around, and we become aware of how much suffering there is. When there's suffering, we have to be able to feel it, and feel the discomfort of it and shed tears. But we also have to be able to have some confidence and some joy and ease within it, even though we know that the suffering will end, and it will begin again. I really think that our practice and these teachings make a big difference. A big difference. Hard to imagine how people bear these things without some practice to keep them going.
So I suppose these things won't stop happening, but they do have a way of reminding us of how important love is. And I know that I'm going to try to do better with my concern for others. And I think that is going to make me happier. Still, unlike money or material goods, which are limited, love is unlimited. No matter how loving you already are, and I know you are, you can be more loving. So I recommend that as a path.