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The Well Spring of Experience


Reading Katagiri Roshi’s book ‘Return to Silence’ recently, I was struck by the following passage:

“Whatever question you want to study, you cannot study it from your own shallow viewpoint.  Finally, you will come to a vastness that is like spring water endelessly coming up out of the earth.  The more you study something seriously, the more you will realize that everything is boundless.

From where does this spring water come?  Not from anyone’s small, individual territory.  The water that comes from your territory is limited, not deep.  The original nature of your life, or of your study, or of your personality or character is the spring water that comes up from the vastness of the earth.”

Although Buddhism does deal with issues such as what happens after death and cosmology, it differs from many other religions in placing the observation of experience and what we can actually perceive at the centre of its spiritual curriculum.  Meditation is the primary method for observing experience and while shamatha (calm abiding meditation), such as breath awareness, aims to still the mind, vipassana (insight) techniques build on that stillness of mind to look directly at the nature of what we see, feel, hear and think.
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Thoughts on The Heart Sutra

Most Buddhists know the brief prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) text, The Heart Sutra. Many can recite it by rote. Who among us really know what it is saying, though, especially on an experiential rather than intellectual level?

The Heart Sutra (THS) is part of my daily liturgy and some days it speaks to me. Other days it is a more or less uninpenitrable wall of words! Of late, though, I have been realising how it works, for me at least.

Some wise person (it might have been Descartes) once said that accepting everything or accepting nothing are similar states as they require no thought whatsoever. Likewise, in the sense of THS, accepting experience as either solid (eternalism) or empty (nihilism) are both unthinking states. By pointing this out (‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’) the sutra moves us away from either extreme, into the middle ground where experience is neither solid nor empty but both and neither. As the dharma teacher Ken McLeod (author of the commentary on THS ‘Arrow to the Heart’) often points out, by holding two ends of an extreme simultaneously we can then open to all points in between.

So, away from the edges of eternalism and nihilism, the mind still tries to grasp onto certainty, like a person adrift in the ocean reaches out for anything solid. In this case, the ocean is a sea of experience and, finding the groundless nature of reality, we look for any solid concepts with which to anchor ourself. Most of the rest of THS is about removing all these easy handholds with respect to ideas of skandhas, senses, four noble truths, twelve links of existence and even the notion of pristine awareness itself. It is like a swimming instructor removing any solid object from the student’s grasp when they try to grab hold. A more spiritual analogy is that in Greek Orthodox Christianity in which it is said ‘whatever you think God is, it is not that’.

With all of the easy options taken away from us, we are left with nowhere else to turn except the sea of experience itself. Experience, or God in the above example, must be perceived directly. For me, this is the purpose, beauty and function of The Heart Sutra. Your mileage may vary.

“One, seven, three, five –
The truth you look for cannot be grasped.
As night advances, a bright moon illuminates the whole ocean;
The dragon’s jewels are found in every wave.
Looking for the moon, it is here, in this wave and the next.”

– Xuedou