Norman gives his fifth talk at the Angela Center Sesshin 2015 on Prajna Paramita.
Prajna Paramita – Angela Center Sesshin 2015
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Transcribed and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Today I want to talk about prajna paramita, the sixth perfection: the perfection of wisdom. Actually we have been talking about it all along, because all the perfections are prajna paramita.
In Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism especially, the word prajna, wisdom, has a special technical sense that is described and discussed at tremendous length in the famous prajna paramita literature, which includes most famously the Heart Sutra that we chant every day. This literature also includes the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 8,000 lines, 12,000 lines, 24,000 lines, and 100,000 lines.
The first time that I chanted the Heart Sutra and I heard the words about no eyes, no ears, no suffering, no noble truths, no Buddhism, I thought, “Good! Nobody is going to tell me what to think! There is no Buddhism. This is a good religion. I like this. Everything is empty.” Dear Lou Hartmann used to say, “And that’s why we are making it all up!” Lou Hartman would go to every shuso ceremony. I think he did this for about 30 or 40 years. Every single shuso ceremony he would always ask the same question, “The 6th patriarch says such and such, and I say we’re just making the whole thing up. What do you say?”And that is what the Heart Sutra says, that we’re making it all up. Everything is empty. Nothing is really there in the way we think it’s there. So I only had to chant the sutra once to see that, Yes, this is good, this makes sense to me. There is nothing that I have to think or do, other than what I can imagine to think or do.
The first book that I ever read about Zen was a collection of essays written in the 1960s by D.T. Suzuki, with an introduction by Professor William Barrett of Columbia University. Dr. Barrett was an expert on existential philosophy, which was very popular at that time. He presented and conceptualized D.T. Suzuki in the light of that philosophy. What I got out of my first reading of Zen was this: The existentialists said that God is either dead or gone fishing. So nobody is in charge of the world. It’s scary and it’s absurd, and the only real response is to be in despair. But the Zen Buddhists said that God is either dead or gone fishing, or maybe never existed in the first place, and the world is all screwed up, and this is perfectly fine, so one might as well be happy.
I really appreciate that all dharmas are empty. Everything is empty. And the sutras point out at great length that even emptiness is empty. The sutras seem to say, What a pity to be somebody who sees reality, which is empty, and doesn’t think it’s empty. Even more pitiful is somebody who sees emptiness and doesn’t realize that emptiness is also empty.
So I really got all that. And I appreciated that all dharmas are empty, and there is no such thing as emptiness. It is a just a word. A concept like everything else. So there’s no point in getting all hung up on emptiness. As we know, Avalokite┼øvara sees that all dharmas are empty. Far from freaking out over this fact, Avalokite┼øvara is instantly saved from all her sufferings. She is free and unburdened and happy; she can barely wait to share the news with Shariputra and all of us.
After all our seminars and all our dharma studies over all these years, the teachings of emptiness are no mystery to us. I think we all know that these teachings are not saying that things don’t exist or that things are illusory. The teachings aren’t saying that. They are just saying that things don’t exist as we imagine that they do. Things don’t exist as independent functioning entities. Things are empty of svabhava, own being, own independent being. They are empty of an independent existence, which means they are full of dependent existence. That is, things are radically connected. There are no things; there is only connection. And this difference is a big difference.
If things are connected, there are still things. But actually, logic says that if there are still things, they cannot be intimately connected. This is one of the points that Nagarjuna makes really cleverly in his analysis of this concept. He says, “If there is a thing, it cannot be connected to anything else. If there is connection then there are no things.” Intimate connection does away with separation. Intimate connection is full identity, full merging. So there are no things. You look for something being there as itself, but you actually cannot find it. All you can find is everything connected to that thing. Only the connections are there.
It’s as if everything you see is just an outline in space, an empty outline that is defined by all the things around it. Maybe you could imagine a drawing, a big piece of paper with a drawing on it. And in this drawing, the paper is black with stuff drawn in. There is no space. And all kind of things are in it: insects, bugs, sky, moon, people, skyscrapers, buildings – all kinds of things filling up this whole paper. But in the middle of the drawing there’s actually a blank space with nothing drawn on it in the shape of you. So you look at the drawing, and you say, Oh, this is a drawing of me. This is a picture of me. But actually it’s a drawing of everything but you. And you are the space around which all the causes and conditions of your life are arrayed.
So things are empty in that way. Now if you were counting on the fact that you were really you, and this was of utmost importance to you, then emptiness is terrible, terrible news. It is literally disillusioning. But if you don’t mind, emptiness would be great news. First of all, you are free. You literally have nothing to worry about. And second, you are everything other than you, which I find lovely and delightful. What could be better than that?
The question for us would be, What would it be like to really know this? To take this into our hearts, to feel it and live it? This is really what we are working on in our practice. This is the whole of the Bodhisattva path.
They say that the Mahayana is a bird that soars on two wings: compassion and emptiness. Maybe you can see how this is so. Remember that we have been saying all along that compassion is much more than being a nice person. There is something more profound and more fundamental about compassion as it is understood in Mahayana Buddhism. Compassion is identity. You identify with others. You realize that “self” is your vehicle for relating to others, who are actually yourself.
Identification with others is lovely and peaceful. Remember Shantideva’s famous example: you are walking on the path, and you get a painful thorn in your foot. Your hand automatically, easily and matter-of-factly, without any fanfare and any speeches, just pulls the thorn out of your foot. The hand is not congratulating itself on being so compassionate and so nice: Look at me. Look at the big favor I did for the foot. No, because, the hand knows that it’s one body. If the foot gets an infection, ultimately it is going to bad for the hand.
So the bodhisattva has this awareness and sees that there are no things. There are just connections, one body. And the bodhisattva, just like the hand, naturally takes care of things, which the bodhisattva realizes is just life. The definition of life is just taking care of one thing after another. Whatever is there to be taken care of, you take care of it. That’s your life. And that’s your practice. Maybe by now, by this last day of sesshin, you have gotten how this all plays out in the form of sesshin. Maybe you can now appreciate this.
By now, I guess we can all feel how the forms are a smooth and beautiful way of living together as one body, each part honoring each other part, each part expressing kindness and love toward every other part. All of us living and feeling in our bones that we are living in a world of radical connection in which really and truly there is no separation. Our every gesture has an impact on every other one of us. And every single thing we do is an act of inclusion. All my acts, every one of them, large and small, influence all of you and the whole universe. And all of your acts do the same. It’s always been true, all of our lives, whether we are in sesshin or not. We just don’t notice it.
Practicing the forms helps us to feel in our body how true this is, because there is no me or you. You feel it. There is just the flow of our being together, moving and changing and being in space and time. Every moment and gesture includes everything and invokes everything.
This is one of the features of Zen that I have always appreciated. We are practicing kindness and compassion, not only for and with human beings, but for the entire physical world, for everything that we touch, and everything that touches us. We practice kindness with our bowls. We practice kindness with this whole physical world that is so generous to us. Some of the sutras talk about the earth as the utter image of patience. The earth is so forgiving. Even now, when we are doing tremendous damage to the earth, the earth still loves us. The sun still comes up. The moon comes out shining beautifully on the water. The plants are growing. The earth is not stinting one bit in everything it is giving us, even though we are doing all this damage to it. The earth, the physical world, is so inherently generous.
And finally we get it, even if we don’t think it. Our body gets it: this life isn’t ours. We didn’t make it. The earth, the sun, the plants, the ground—it’s all us. We’re eating food from the earth. It’s sustaining our life. It’s us.
All of this is wisdom. All of this is prajna. All of this is a direct expression and living demonstration of these emptiness teachings. Having an intellectual understanding of these teachings is really good, because I think it makes a difference. Straightening out your thinking is a good idea. But that is not nearly as important as living the emptiness teachings. Feeling the teachings in the way that we hold our bowl and wipe it clean in a circle, and how we fold up our wiping cloth and put it away and bow. And in the way that we walk, and in the way that we stand, and in the way we sit down.
The life of connection and gratitude and beauty, the life of wholeness, or maybe completion on every moment, is an expression and an enactment of prajna.
Dogen would call it the life of Buddha. In sesshin we are wearing Buddha’s robe. We are living Buddha’s lifestyle. And maybe in that context, we can feel that the person we are – the person we think we are, our circumstances, our hopes and concerns —is empty. We don’t really exist in the way we think we do. We can feel that in sesshin! Isn’t our life lighter? Because things are empty, the world we live in is lighter.
“Ironic wisdom” is a really good phrase for prajna. Because the world looks like there are all these things, and there are all these individuals running around bumping into each other, and there is all this trouble and strife. There’s this and there’s that. But actually, it’s all empty. They are just empty outlines in space. Everything appears to be in exile from everything else, but actually there isn’t anything to be in exile. There is only connection. There are no eyes and ears, and yet we see and hear. There are no four noble truths, and yet we practice them. There are no beings, and yet we commit ourselves to saving them all. There is no Zen practice. And here we are!
Our friend may be suffering terribly. We care about that; of course we care about that. In our gut, we’re feeling terrible. And we try to help. But at the same time, we know it’s okay, because this is our life together. This is what happens; this is what we go through. This is how life unfolds through the suffering, through the truth of each and everything that happens. So we are not destabilized. We are not falling into despair and discouragement. This is how healing occurs.
Of course we are doing what we can to help. But we’re not overdoing, right? We don’t burden our poor suffering friend with our need to be helpful, so that we can relieve the pain of our feeling her pain, or somehow feed our own need to be useful and good people. We are not doing that to our poor friend, who has already got enough to deal with.
Mostly we’re appreciating the love that we feel, the love that we already felt before this terrible thing happened. But now we are feeling love so much more strongly, because of this terrible thing. Yes this really is a tragedy. We are both empty of our own being, but fundamentally non-existing doesn’t take away the fact that this is a tragedy.
And yet, tragedy is perfectly okay. Knowing that this is the case might give you a special ability to be of service to your friend, because your knowing it is okay helps her. The tragedy, just the way it is, is already okay. And nobody knows what will happen next. Whatever your friend fears and dreads, you know is not what is going to happen. Practicing prajna paramita helps you know that every moment is by its nature a hopeful moment. All dharmas are empty means that all dharmas are unknown and ungraspable. Every moment is unknown and ungraspable.
If all dharmas are empty, and we are all outlines of ourselves, then the only way we are going to get anywhere is on this bodhisattva journey. The only way we are going to get anywhere is together, in the sum total of our views and actions. Bodhisattvas see this very clearly.