Contribution by Tom
Recently my sister-in-law visited us for the first time and noted that hanging on the corner pillar of my mud-brick study is a small, weathered-looking wooden sign that reads simply ‘No way’. I purchased it years ago at a duty-free airport shop as part of a group of such signs purporting to contain dinkum Aussie sayings. Another probably read ‘Gidday, mate’ or something like that. For some reason I didn’t give this one away and hung it on my study instead, thinking vaguely that it had some Zen significance. Only when my sister-in-law brought it to my attention again did I realise that it echoes a key phrase in the Heart Sutra.
The 7th century Chinese monk Xuanzang, who travelled to India and brought back a huge number of texts, is responsible for the translation of the Heart Sutra that is chanted where Chinese ideographs are used. It contains a distillation of Buddhist wisdom in only 276 characters, including wu…dao (無道 Jap. mudō), usually translated as ‘no path’ but could equally well be rendered ‘no way’. Indian thought was very thorough in its analysis of various categories of phenomena, naming and numbering things in minute detail, and the Buddha employed many of these categories in the sutra:
… So in emptiness there is neither form, feelings, perceptions, impulses or consciousness [the Five Aggregates];
no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind [the Six Faculties];
no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or object of the mind [Objects of the Faculties];
no element of sight nor any other element of consciousness [Types of Consciousness];
no ignorance, no old age or death [12 Links of Causation];
no extinguishing of ignorance, old age or death;
no suffering, no beginning or end, no path [the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path].
And yet the Heart Sutra presents an ‘enigma’1 in seeming to negate these very concepts, including even the Four Noble Truths, i.e. suffering, its cause (beginning), its cessation and the means of releasing ourselves (Eightfold Path). Why does it take such a seemingly radical step?
One teacher and scholar of Dōgen’s writings suggests that in so doing it aims to promote our freedom from attachment to even the most fundamental mental constructs of Buddhism ‘that narrow our ability to respond to reality as it unfolds’2. In other words, although these core concepts may provide necessary steps to fuller understanding and practice, they still have the effect of separating us from our day-to-day, minute-to-minute experience of reality.
So, how can this enigma inform our everyday practice? I think it serves to remind us of the ambiguities of an approach to life that embraces ‘both and’ rather than ‘either or’. It maintains a creative tension between the realms of the everyday or relative (senses of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and consciousness) and the transcendent or absolute (just undifferentiated being), or, as the sutra states, of ‘form’ and ‘emptiness’.
It also suggests that there is no such thing as ‘practice’ in the sense of standing apart from the rest of ‘life as it is’. Practice, after all, is just a concept and is thus is empty. So, just sit. No hurdles to jump. ‘Nothing to attain’.
However, by way of contrast, these very concepts that seem to have been negated can be very useful in our day-to-day practice. For example, by focusing on listening during our meditation we may become conscious of our ears registering a sound such as the ticking of a clock leading to an emotion of irritation; or by bringing attention to the workings of our ‘monkey minds’ we may become aware of our counting of breaths, losing track of the count and then blaming ourselves for incompetence. Such consciousness is important in becoming present, but it still acts to separate ourselves from the indivisible totality of the present moment, which is not broken into categories of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking.
One way to practice non-practice is continually to be asking ourselves throughout the day, throughout our lives, ‘What is my practice right here, just now?’ Usually the answer is something like, ‘Washing the dishes’, ‘Playing with my son’, ‘Sitting with the problem.’
As Dōgen has stated in his ‘Recommending the Practice of Zazen to All People:
The essential way flows everywhere; how could it require practice or enlightenment? The essential teaching is fully available; how could effort be necessary? … Nothing is separate from this very place; why journey away? …
Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body and mind of themselves will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practise just this.’
So, what is your practice right here, just now?
Tom Fisher May 2019
1 Kazuaki Tanahashi, The Heart Sutra (Shambala 2014), p. 5
2 Shohaku Okumura, Realizing Genjōkōan (Wisdom 2010), p. 35.