In his translation of the Heart Sutra, Red Pine has a line that says bodhisattvas "live without walls of the mind," the walls being the names, characteristics, definitions and more that we assign to ourselves, others and things we experience, internally and externally. These lines we draw and boxes we build around things are arbitrary, yet become more solidified and fortified as time and experience go on, leading to a sense of individuation and separation. These divisions become the primary way we meet and interact with the world, the directness of experiencing its essential nature being diminished as it is filtered through our beliefs and concepts. Our allegiance to our beliefs and concepts is strong. Becuase of this they become tools through which we measure our experiences, generally leading us to discard that which doesn't match up to our views and accept that which further confirms what we think to be true.
It is these walls and divisions of the mind that are empty, not what is "contained" within them. In fact, taking emptiness to mean that the substance of things is ultimately void is a way of fortifying the walls, which I find to be quite a dangerous, harmful view. For instance, I had a conversation with a young woman who shared that she once had a school teacher who said he was Buddhist and practiced non-attachment, therefore he was non-emotional and unruffled by events and happenings around him. As I see it, he had used emptiness as a concept to build a wall of protection around himself, keeping the world out and keeping some kind of lifeless serenity within, ultimately denying reality and his intimate connection with it. That kind of practice is one of detachment, not non-attachment, which I see as being fully engaged with life, not attached to wanting things to be different during times of difficulty or to wanting things to remain as they are when all is well, meeting it directly just as it is, just as you are, and taking part in the co-creating of what is unfolding. It still makes me sad to think of what this young woman told me, knowing that this teacher of hers is not an isolated case. Yet I'm also glad that I was able to share that my experience is completely the opposite, that because of my practice I feel things more deeply - sorrow and grief being more piercingly painful, joy more ecstatic and full than before. I consider myself fortunate and find my gratitude continually increasing because of this intimate, open, vulnerable relationship with life.
Of course, there's also a danger in falling too far into the territory of living without walls of the mind. This tends towards what Aitken Roshi referred to as "pernicious oneness," commenting further that it is all fine and wonderful to know that everything is one, but if you don't differentiate between the kitchen and the bathroom there will be difficulties. We need these walls to help us exist within and cope with our world effectively. It's good to have a sense of who we are, to know our strengths and limitations; it's good to notice the similarities and differences through our relationships with others, to collaborate with and challenge one another as we grow together; it's good to be aware of injustice in our local communities and the wider world, to stand up to and address it by supporting and initiating change. You can't do any of this without walls of the mind. Nothing really happens in that place of complete openness, and trying to abide there is another way of ignoring and denying reality.
Living without walls of the mind doesn't mean that we insist on not having these walls, but instead that we not insist on rebuilding them when they fall. In fact, it is not about building walls at all but more about allowing them to arise on their own, to see what their function is, help that function become manifest and, when the work is done, allowing the walls to fall away. This arising and falling takes place continually and endlessly in the large field of existence. Commonly in Zen that field is called emptiness, and in my lineage we more often refer to it as vastness, using the terms interchangeably to some degree. But I see value in distinguishing between the emptiness of the field and the emptiness of the constructions within it, so having these two terms for what is essentially the same thing is good. Thus, realizing the emptiness of the walls that arise from and within the vast field enables their permeable, porous nature to remain, allowing the vastness to arise within and flow throughout them, unhindered.
Now to bring this back to ground some. I was watching a clip of an interview with parents and family members who lost their loved ones at Sandy Hook in Newtown. At one point a father noted how people in general, when faced with such a tragedy but not directly affected by it tend to think that these kind of things happen in other communities, not theirs; to other schools, not theirs; to other people's children, not theirs...until it does actually does - this is fortifying the walls of the mind and blocking intimacy, vulnerability. He said he and others like him will keep working to keep what happened at Sandy Hook alive and relevant, hoping people will realize this did happen in their community, in their school, to their children - this is reaching through and beyond the walls, to foster relationship and connection from which can flow meaningful action.
I certainly have my views and thoughts and emotions about this complex and deeply troubling event, as well as many others that have happened and are happening, sensing that there are more to come and knowing desperately something must be done. As I work to discover what I can do and what efforts I can support, finding many solutions that I’d love to draft, disseminate and make so with certainty, and find these questions abiding with me, keeping me in touch
with the deep caring I have about these issues: What happens when I uphold my views and allow the words and feelings of those directly affected to continue flowing in? What happens when I uphold my views and allow the words and feelings of those who hold vastly different views than I to flow in as well? What happens when I hold the allegiance to my views a little more loosely, my willingness to jump on board with those tending to agree with me a little more reservedly, my opposition to those with whom I disagree a little less strongly? What happens when I release the divisions of me and you, us and them, right and wrong, falling into the realm of we, ours, I don't know but I'm committed to being a part of the finding out together? I have no answers, but I'm up for living the questions into solutions that endure.
It's seems to want mentioning that this meditation retreat I recently took part in wasn't about studying the Heart Sutra and these concepts in detail, but rather having them along as companions, to find out what we would experience together. The Japanese term for a retreat like this is sesshin, which means to touch the heart-mind -- one's own as well as the heart-mind of the vastness (is there a difference?). We sit in stillness and silence for days on end, the activity of deconstruction taking place, revealing a reality that is always flowing beneath and through everything. I've written of this deconstruction before and it seems to be mostly what I've been taking up again this time, another way of saying the same thing, which I will likely continue saying in other ways in other posts. Isn't that what reality is, always right there with you regardless of circumstances yet able to be expressed in a multitude of ways without exhausting it?
To sum up, here's an even shorter way of touching upon what I've spent time with today. It is a verse offered by one of my teachers, Joan Sutherland, Roshi, during my son's Baby Welcoming Ceremony:
This is what it means to be born -
to fall headfirst into a world that will crack your heart open,
that the distant stars might fill it.