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The Heart Sutra
Part 3

Sesshin talk given
October, 1994
Camp New Hope, NC

by Sojun Mel Weitsman

Buddha’s first sermon was called the Turning of the Wheel and it included the Four Noble Truths and conditioned co-arising which was exemplified by the twelve-fold chain of causation. The Heart Sutra is called the Second Turning of the Wheel and it is a kind of criticism of so-called Hinayana Buddhism. Hinayana ["lesser vehicle"] Buddhism is not an appellation directed to any particular sect or school of Buddhism, it criticizes Buddhists who think in a dualistic way. There were Buddhists who thought that, in order to be pure, they had to take all the bad things and get rid of them and cultivate all the good things. In doing so, they were going to the extreme of cutting off life and live in a very rarefied atmosphere which is a dualistic way of thinking or acting.

Some people think this is what Buddhism is. There are a lot of monks who practice this way, cultivating a kind of cult to purity. After four or five hundred years, Buddhists realized that this is not the right way and that, actually, purity is also to be found in the impure, they are not two separate things. In Hinayana Buddhism, there is an attempt to cultivate nirvana by denying samara. Samara is the undulation of life, the way it moves, the ephemeral present. Hinayanists try to cultivate the eternal present by cutting off the ephemeral present. Then Mahayana Buddhism came along and said the ephemeral present is the eternal present, and the eternal present is the ephemeral present. We cannot separate them.

The Heart Sutra says, Oh Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form, that which is form is emptiness and that which is emptiness form. In other words, the eternal present does not differ from the ephemeral present. Emptiness, which is the basis of life, does not differ from form, which is its manifestation. So all forms are the form of emptiness. If you want to know what emptiness is you cannot take away the form in order to see it. It does not work that way. If you want to know what emptiness is, just take care of the form. Look for emptiness in its manifestation rather than by looking for something called emptiness.

You will find an emptiness. Sometimes Buddhism uses the sky or space as a metaphor for emptiness. Space is like that in which everything can move—things move in space; without space, nothing can move. Space is like a matrix, a metaphor for the matrix of life from which everything can rise. People always look for the essence of life. What is the essence of life? Some people call it God, some people call it Buddha Nature, we have various names and various ways of looking at it. Buddhists say "emptiness," but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need or want something. Emptiness is form, form is emptiness.

The sutra goes on to say that the same is true of our feelings, our feelings are empty. The same for perceptions. Perceptions are empty. Mental formations are empty. Consciousness is empty; because of emptiness it can exist. Things cannot exist without emptiness, without being empty. It is unfortunate that people sometimes say, "Well, everything is changing and that is unfortunate because I am alive now and I will die sometime. Isn’t that terrible?" Actually, it is quite wonderful. We have this kind of feeling that we don’t want to die and we don’t want to get any older. But it happens. Without having to do anything, it happens. Is that bad? Is that good? We can figure it as bad; we can figure it as good. Maybe it is neither good or bad, maybe it is just the way it is. If it is just the way it is, there must be something going on. One thing stops and another thing begins.

The problem we have is that we think that, when we were born, that was the beginning and, when our life is over, that is the end. We may think, if we are good, we will go to heaven, or, if we are bad, we will go to hell. There is something to that, too. There is some reason for thinking that way. But heaven and hell are right here, and the way we think and act creates a heaven and hell right where we are. If life is continuous, and, really, we do have something to do with it, you know, there is a problem. Is life willful or is it predetermined? These are questions which Buddha had to deal with. "Predetermined" means that it just goes along and nothing you can do is going to change it. "Willful" means that whatever you do has some effect. Our life is not exactly willful—will plays a big part—but there are always cooperating causes for everything. So, yes, I create my own destiny through my actions, and I can change the direction of my destiny, but only through cooperating with causes.

For example, you can say, "I want to be a movie actor." But you cannot just go and become a movie actor. You cannot just get up there in front of a camera and be a movie actor. You have to go through various causes and conditions and channels. We create our own destiny, but in cooperation with the rest of the world. We are not singular. We only exist in cooperation with everything around us. That’s life. If we give ourselves to life, we realize that we don’t exist as a separate self, there is no "own being," no inherent existence in this person.

Our life is cooperative, no doubt about it. The more we try to be individualistic and act only by ourselves, the more trouble we get into and the more suffering we have. I don’t mean that we aren’t individuals, but only as much as we cooperate with the universe do we live a life of freedom. We always know where we are and we don’t get lost. There are two types of people: one type is a faith type and the other is a doubt type. (There must be some people in between.) The faith type just knows this since childhood. They don’t really doubt that they are part of the universe and they know how to work together with it. The doubt type isn’t quite sure and needs it to be proven. Something always needs to be proven to the doubter. Someone wrote a book about these two types in relation to zen practice and said that Dogen and Suzuki Roshi were faith types, and that someone like Rinzai or Hakuin were doubt types. The doubt types need something like a koan in order to have something to chew on, you know, so that they can have a big breakthrough and come to realize their faith in their own nature. Whereas the faith types always have it and it is not such problem. The doubting types need to be beaten or pushed, and the faith types need some encouragement.

This is the third day of sesshin and just about the midpoint. I know that everybody’s legs are [sore]...just a fact of life in sesshin. I really feel that, although everyone has a problem, that the feeling here is very strong and becoming more settled. On the first day of sesshin we are still caryying all the baggage that we came with. Little by little, although a lot of the baggage is still there, it is more in the background and we can just settle into our calm mind. Sesshin has a way of taking care of us, and, in that, something will drop away by itself and clarity will come. Even though there may be some confusion in our mind, there is also clarity.

Copyright 1998, Sojun Mel Weitsman

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