I have been trying to get back to the local Zen Center every week, after a short hiatus. We do 50 minutes of Zazen (seated meditation), combined with some chanting and Kinhin (walking meditation). After the practice, some of us were talking in the kitchen and a student (I unfortunately can’t remember her name, all credit due to her) asked a pretty insightful question referencing the Heart Sutra and practice in general. This question was along the lines of: “If there is no attainment and nothing to attain, why do we sit?” I think this is a pretty common question that arises as we sit, especially as we continue to grow in our practice and the discursive mind begins to seek answers to questions such as these.
A similar question supposedly motivated Eihei Dogen in his own process of inquiry:
As I study both the exoteric and the esoteric schools of Buddhism, they maintain that human beings are endowed with Dharma-nature by birth. If this is the case, why did the Buddhas of all ages – undoubtedly in possession of enlightenment – find it necessary to seek enlightenment and engage in spiritual practice? (Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, 22).
This is a profoundly challenging question. If we are the very embodiment of truth and enlightenment is an expression of our original nature why do we sit in Zazen? Is this like the koan where we are polishing a tile to make a mirror?
Let us examine the passage from the Heart Sutra the student is referencing and then I’ll try to give you my understanding of this.
The passage (taken from Red Pine’s translation) is:
No suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
No knowledge, no attainment and non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment;
Bodhisttavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
And live without walls of the mind.
The Heart Sutra is an essential Buddhist text that directly inclines us to the heart of truth. This is the truth of our lives, of the present, and of reality. Buddhism is realistic, and derives directly from lived experience. It is a very concrete approach to truth that is not limited to any particular concept or metaphysic. In our meditative practice, the concepts we form about reality begin to fall away, and the immeasurable complexity and richness of the world become starkly apparent. We no longer have to relegate the whole of the world to our opinions about it, and no longer need to take refuge in systems and frameworks of our own devising.
The Heart Sutra is thus a critique of these concepts, and proceeds to negate each in turn. Proceeding through “no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;” and come to “no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.” The present opens, teeming with life. It becomes clear that reality is unfettered by the symbols we traditionally use to describe that experience. Throughout our practice we begin to see our concepts as fundamentally incomplete. We “live without walls of the mind,” open to the boundless possibilities for action in each moment. A vast field opens up, and we become more flexible and fluid.
The Heart Sutra is thus an antidote to our mind’s constantly seeking security in concepts such as “attainment.” When we say that we will “attain” enlightenment, we divorce ourselves from the present reality. We project enlightenment into a state in the abstract, that will be realized in the future.
Asking what exactly we mean when we use concepts such as englightenment can help us as we look into ourselves. Taking apart this question and exploring it should be gone into deeply and taken to the end.
At the same time, we will not be able to understand the feelings that gave rise to works such as the Heart Sutra without a regular meditative practice. This is similar to how no amount of reading, writing, and intellectualizing about fitness will make someone a stronger athlete. One must begin by looking into the particulars of their own situation. We sit in order to aid us in this process of inquiry, as sitting is one method that allows us to investigate our reality. This understanding will not be brought into our lives without some kind of practice. An example of this is brought out in Genjokoan:
Mayu, Zen Master Baoche, was fanning himself. A monk approached and said ‘Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?’
‘Although you understand that the nature of wind is permanent,’ Mayu replied, ‘you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.’
‘What is the meaning of its reaching everywhere?’ asked the monk.
Mayu just kept fanning himself.
The monk bowed deeply.
The actualization of the buddha dharma, the vital path of its authentic transmission, is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha house brings forth the gold of the earth and ripens the cream of the long river.
This passage describes and directly points to actualization and action in the present moment, the becoming-real of the monk’s interaction. In our practice, we bring this understanding and appreciation for action into our lives. Sitting in Zazen helps us to see this with more clarity. It is important to remember that there is “nothing to attain” even as we do our best to practice. In this way we always come back to and appreciate whatever is arising in our lives in the present moment, without arbitrarily separating ourselves in thought. Paradoxically, we attempt to attain something in order to realize there is nothing to attain (in the way we have conceptualized it) and begin to feel the truth of it for ourselves. Zazen helps us remember the truth of who and what we are.
We embody this understanding, always coming back to the present and caring for this reality. This is the beauty, completeness, and blossoming forth of our own lives.