Friday, October 28, 2011

The Heart Sutra - An Introduction (Part 1 of 5)

Some combination of brevity, succinctness, depth of meaning, and poeticism has made the Heart Sutra one of the most widely known of all sutras – revered by practitioners of nearly all the various schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Formally known as the Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, the Heart Sutra is the shortest of the forty or so sutras that comprise the entire Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 128 – hereafter referred to as S&W).

Perhaps we should, ahem, “brush up” on our Sanskrit! Prajna is usually translated as wisdom, but not without some reservation. My teacher, Rosan Yoshida roshi, actually prefers the word prognosis over wisdom due to the far reaching nature of the wisdom conveyed by the word prajna. Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) also has some misgivings about the use of the word wisdom in this context, saying: “Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block our understanding” (p. 8).

Paramita literally means “that which has reached the other shore” (S&W, p. 267); but it also implies perfection and transcendence. Reaching the other shore is a metaphor that is often used with respect to awakening or attaining release from this samsaric existence. A variation on this metaphor involves the admonition that we not mistake the raft for the shore. In other words, we shouldn’t make the mistake of considering the teachings to be the ‘be all and end all’ when what is really important is where those teachings can lead us.

Given, then, that maha means great, we now know sufficient Sanskrit to translate Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra in a more literal sense as “Great Sutra of the Wisdom That Reaches the Other Shore” (S&W, p. 274). Finally, with hridaya (hrdaya) translated as heart, and with a less literal translation of paramita, Rosan Yoshida roshi has translated Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (commonly known as the Heart Sutra) as “The Sutra of the Heart of Great Perfection of Insight” (from the Missouri Zen Center website).

Placing the Heart Sutra within Historical Context

In order to lend at least some historical context to our understanding of this sutra that we now call the Heart Sutra, let me attempt to provide a very brief overview of the development of Buddhism over its first thousand years or so. After the Buddha’s death at the age of eighty in around 483 BCE there was a period of a few hundred years during which his teachings were recorded and consolidated at various councils of greater or lesser import (Skilton, 1994, pp. 45-49). With the dawn of the Common Era, however, “a new movement arose that opposed many of the prevailing orthodoxies” (Trainor, 2001, p. 132). This movement would come to be known as the Mahayana or Great Vehicle. In contrast, other schools would come to be pejoratively referred to as belonging to the Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle (Snelling, 1991, p. 83). It should be noted, however, that even though Mahayana Buddhism began to differentiate itself as a movement or a school of thought as early as the first century BCE, it may not have been until as late as the fourth century CE that the term Mahayana actually began to be used (Skilton, 1994, p. 94). Thus, we might use caution before jumping to the conclusion that Mahayana Buddhism represents a reactionary rather than organically evolutionary development.

The Mahayana movement ushered in a new wave of teachings and writings. Perhaps the most important new teaching of this movement pertained to the so called Bodhisattva Ideal. Says Snelling (1991):

A new type of spiritual hero appears. Instead of the arhat…, who seeks release from the painful round of cyclic existence [samsara] for himself alone, and the pratyeka-buddha…, who wins it privately and never seeks to impart the Dharma to others, we have in the Mahayana the bodhisattva, an individual to whom both these highly desirable options are available but who rejects them, and instead aspires to buddhahood solely that he might help others. (pp. 83-84)

But it goes deeper than that. It’s not merely a matter of choosing one path to salvation over another. In fact, the Mahayana view is that striving for our own individual escape from the roiling waters of samsara even as all around us are in the midst of drowning is, by its very nature, a misguided endeavor. Using an analogy that Yoshida roshi often uses, and one to which I’ve alluded in a previous post: we are like bubbles in a great ocean. Our separateness is illusory. No single, individual bubble can attain individual salvation because no single, individual bubble exists of its own accord. Says Trainor (2001):

In the Mahayana view, the path to nirvana was impossible without the inclusion of the perfection of others as well, an ideal expressed in the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion, which bodhisattvas need in equal measure to attain their goal. (p. 132)

The Heart Sutra did not exist at the vanguard of this new Mahayana movement. Rather, it represents a process of evolution and distillation spanning hundreds of years. The Astasahasrika is one of the first of the Prajnaparamita Sutras and, according to the scholarship of Edward Conze, probably took the two hundred years or so from 100 BCE to 100 CE in order to complete. This Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines would eventually expand into the Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Lines over the next couple of centuries. Subsequent to that time, however, there began to appear efforts toward abridgement or summarization of these longer sutras (Sangharakshita, 1980, pp. 291-292). Finally, somewhere around 300-500 CE, the Heart Sutra blossoms into existence (Skilton, 1994, p. 102).

The Heart Sutra

Over the course of the next couple of posts I will be examining the Heart Sutra by looking at it through the slightly different lenses of three different translations – one by Rosan Yoshida roshi, one by Thich Nhat Hanh, and one by Edward Conze. In addition, I will examine it according to the structural breakdown that Conze used: invocation, prologue, first stage, etc. (Conze, 1959, pp. 162-163).

Invocation – I like the use of this term. On one hand, if we were simply reading the sutra we might refer to this as the title. On the other hand, in group practice the title also serves as a call by one designated individual to the assembled practitioners that they should prepare to commence chanting the sutra itself.

Prologue – The prologue acts as an introductory paragraph of sorts. It tells us who the main character is – the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva – and what it is that he has accomplished – the realization of the true nature of reality (shunyata or emptiness). With the beginning of the prologue the chanting of the sutra proceeds in time with the striking of the mokugyo (Japanese for wooden fish +) which makes a nice, resonant tock, tock, tocking sound. The rhythm is such that one syllable (or possibly two depending upon the translation) is (are) chanted with each strike of the mokugyo. This is where the poetic nature of the sutra comes into play; and I will definitely vouch for Yoshida roshi’s translation being very amenable to this form of rhythmic chanting.

Rosan Yoshida’s translation via the Missouri Zen Center website:

Prologue:         The Venerable Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,

when carry'ng out the profound Prajnaparamita career,

penetrated through the five aggregates

and saw that they are Shunya in their nature.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation via The Heart of Understanding:

Invocation:      The Heart of the Prajnaparamita

Prologue:        The Bodhisattva Avalokita

while moving in the deep course of Perfect Understanding

shed light on the five skandhas and found them equally empty.

After this penetration, he overcame all pain.

Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:

Invocation:      Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the lovely, the holy!

Prologue:        Avalokita, the holy lord and Bodhisattva,

was moving in the deep course of wisdom which has gone beyond.

He looked down from on high, he beheld the five heaps,

and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.

Let me close at this point. If you’d like to read ahead, please check out Rosan Yoshida roshi's translation on the Missouri Zen Center website. And have a great week!

+          In attempting to understand the symbolism of the fish carved into the mokugyo I discovered numerous possibilities: One – fish represent wakefulness because they either do not sleep or else their eyes do not close. (Alright, maybe I can buy that.) Two – the symmetrical representation of the fish represents harmony. (Hmmm, okay.) Three – the always-open eyes of the fish remind us that God is always watching (Nah, I bet that’s not it!) Four – their ease of movement through the water and inability to drown symbolize freedom in this ocean of suffering. (I really like this one!) Please let me know if you find out anything definitive.


Blum, M. (2001) Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.
Conze, E. (1959) Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988) The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980) A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Skilton, A. (1994) A concise history of Buddhism. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Windhorse Publications.

Snelling, J. (1991) The Buddhist handbook: A complete guide to Buddhist schools, teaching, practice, and history. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Inner Traditions International.
Yoshida, R. (1979) Sutra of the heart of great perfection of insight (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Photo credit:

Image of mokugyo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Llama Hunting in the Wilds of Colorado

“There’s a couple of spots right in front of the trailhead,” the campground host said as she pointed in the general direction of the trail. “You can park there or up by the road out here and I won’t have to charge you. Park anywhere else, though, and it’ll cost you five bucks.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” I nodded, and headed off in the direction that she’d pointed.

“You didn’t find it?” she greeted me with incredulity after I’d circled back around to where she still stood talking to one of the campers.

“No,” I smiled meekly, hiding my own aggravation.

“Alright, the road’s going to veer to the left and start heading back this way. That’s when you need to be looking to the right because the trailhead kind of sits back a ways.” She bent her wrist to the right just in case I had trouble telling my right from my left.

“Gotcha,” I said. “Thanks again.”

After I’d circled back around yet again, however, she was standing there with her hands on her hips as if she were fixing to give me a good scolding.

“Don’t tell me you still didn’t find it,” she said in mock exasperation.

“No, I found it,” I shook my head. “It’s just that a couple of horse trailers were pulling in just as I arrived. I’ll just park up by the road.”

“Like I said, you’ll be fine up there.”

“Thanks again!”

As I parked the car up by the main road the thought occurred to me to just put it back in gear and keep on going – back to Buena Vista to retrieve my stuff from the motel, and then on to Limon for the night. The fact of the matter was I was tired. My four days and three nights climbing up and down and around on the fourteeners in the vicinity had taken it out of me – that and the fact that after finishing my exploratory hike up La Plata Peak that morning I’d suddenly encountered a severe case of directional illiteracy. For the life of me I couldn’t manage to find the trailhead for one of the lesser-used routes up to the top of Mount Elbert. I’d driven up and down the road multiple times before finding anything that matched the description in my guidebook. Unfortunately, though, even after hiking part of the way into the woods I couldn’t convince myself that I’d found anything more noteworthy than a telephone line access trail. Forget it, I finally said to myself. Just head back to that campground down below and finish up with a little jaunt up above Twin Lakes.

“Now don’t you make me call out the rangers looking for you,” the campground host said as I walked past her on my way to the trailhead.

“No, no, I’ll try not to make that necessary. Thanks again!” I called out over my shoulder.

By the time I’d hiked all the way back to the trailhead there was a string of ten or so pack llamas all loaded up and ready to head out. Their three human handlers were scurrying about checking that all the loads were balanced and the cinches were tightened. A wave of skittishness shuddered through them like a gust of wind through a grove of aspen trees as I walked on past. Strange, I thought, somehow believing that llamas were much more sedate creatures than that.

“Where’re you headed?” I asked the man tending to the lead animal.

“Hope Pass,” he replied. “We’re stocking an aid station there.

“Cool,” I replied, thinking of Jack Kerouac’s description in The Dharma Bums of packing up to a remote mountain lookout to spend the winter there alone.

I sloshed around for a bit through the boggy lowlands where stream gradually transitions into lake, and then I settled into a slow and steady pace climbing up out of the valley. Occasional openings in the dense pine forest provided sweeping views of the Twin Lakes reservoir down below and the valley beyond through which I’d driven on the way up that morning. It was so, so quiet – almost eerily so – and I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I was deep in the heart of bear country. This was no well-travelled trail, after all, and I could no longer take comfort in being up above the timberline and away from any habitat in which a bear would normally like to forage. No, I was precisely where a bear would like to forage.

That’s always an interesting place to be – that physical place where bears like to forage, and that metaphorical place where ideas regarding the primacy of man are seen once again as the mere grandiose delusions that they are; that metaphorical place where comforting thoughts regarding how God will be there to keep anything bad from happening to you give way to the realization that, yes, your becoming bear food fits entirely within the grand scheme of the universe. In the past I’ve often wondered how it is that we modern beings have gotten so far removed from nature, but now I realize that we’re not. Recent headlines and just plain living have hammered home the reality that, in the time it takes for a pair of tectonic plates to slide across each other, in the time it takes a funnel cloud to dive down out of a supercell, in the time it takes for a fleeting twinge of pain to become the knowledge of disease, in the time it takes a wild animal to decide not to recede further into the depths of the forest we fall from our imagined pedestal of primacy and land back where we’ve been all along – smack dab in the middle of nature.

I take a break where a nice footbridge crosses a roaring whitewater stream, letting the sound engulf me so completely that not a shadow of my previous pondering or deliberation remains. There is only me and nature. No, there is only nature.

I watch as a cashew falls out of my cupped hand and bounces on the rocks before settling on a tiny bed of jewel-green moss. Yes, I’m aware of low-impact camping, but somehow I doubt that any chipmunk will end up going hungry waiting for cashews to appear on the trail after having enjoyed this one. I leave it and continue on up the trail. I’ve only just arrived at the intersection of the Willis Gulch and Colorado trails when I hear the sound of voices approaching from behind. I turn around to see a couple of young people tying fluorescent pink ribbons every few meters along the trail.

“What’s up?” I enquire as they make it up to where I stand watching them.

“The Leadville 100 is this weekend. We’re marking the trail,” one of them says as he peels off a few meters of ribbon and lays it across where the Willis Gulch Trail intersects with the Colorado Trail, securing it with rocks.

“Do you think everybody will see that?” he asks his partner.

“Yeah, I think so,” she says.

“We don’t want anybody taking a wrong turn!”

Wow, I’d always felt a certain sense of awe whenever I’d read about the legendary hundred mile running race. I’ve done a few traditional marathons, which were difficult enough, so the prospect of doing four times that distance – up in the mountains, no less – struck me as nearing the realm of the impossible. And yet it was always something that I’d fantasized about doing one day. Now, on one level such athletic endeavors have an element of ego about them – the ‘I am strong, I am powerful, I will prevail’ element. But there is also a spiritual element that cannot be denied – an absolute and total awareness and unification of body and mind, earth and sky. And at that perfect intersection of body and mind and earth and sky is stillness as profound as almost any I’ve ever experienced while sitting on a meditation cushion. As I turn around and head back down the trail I can’t help but think what a grand coincidence it is that my hike is coinciding even just a little bit with preparation for the event.

The llamas and their handlers are making their way up the trail now. Our meeting place is a narrow section of trail barely wide enough for one, with the forest sloping steeply down below – steep enough that a slip could have you tumbling for fifty meters or more. I step up on a rock on the uphill side to let them pass.

“Are these your llamas?” I asked the lead handler trailing a string of five as he stops to check the progress of those behind.

“No,” he says, “they belong to the woman pulling up the rear.”

“So, I hear you’re setting up an aid station for the race?”

“Yup, the Leadville 100 is this weekend.”

“Very cool!” I nod as he gets underway once more. “Good luck,” I add before settling into a more statuesque pose as the llamas, one by one, pause ever-so-briefly when they meet me and then quicken their pace to hasten past.

“So, these are your llamas?” I greet the woman pulling a string of four.

“No, they belong to the woman right behind me.”

I step off my rock and walk a little bit farther down the trail before stepping aside a couple of hundred meters down the way when I see a woman pulling a single recalcitrant llama up the trail.

“So, these are your llamas?”

“Well, this one’s not. He’s having a bad day for some reason. All it takes is one skittish animal to get a whole team of them riled up. I figured I’d best lead this one all by myself before he caused any further trouble.”

I’d only been walking another few minutes when a ruckus back up the trail had me spinning around in my tracks to see what was happening. Of course, I was thinking of bears; and even after I saw, not a bear, but a lone recalcitrant llama careening around the bend so fast that his pack-cinches came undone and the packs went flying I was still thinking of bears – bears chasing llamas, that is. Before I could worry about any bear, however, I had to worry about a llama running full-tilt straight at me on a trail only wide enough for one at a time. I hopped behind a tree and let him gallop past. Then I peered back up the trail looking for the bear that I thought must surely be in hot pursuit. Nope, no bear…, just a couple of packs lying in the trail and a question mark hovering in the air. Hmmm…, I quickly determined that I should check on the woman who’d been leading him. Bears were still not entirely out of mind, but equally plausible was that she’d taken a tumble down the hillside when the llama pulled free. And I would be the only one that knew anything had happened.

“Well, I’m glad you’re alright!” I called out to her when I saw her approaching looking none too happy about this turn of events.

“I don’t know what got into that rascal,” she scowled. “He reared up and yanked the rope right out of my hand.”

I followed her down the trail, walking faster than I had all day. This woman’s tough as nails, I thought. I couldn’t really tell how old she was, but I figured that she was closing in on sixty. She had that healthy but weathered look that people get when they’ve been outdoors most of their lives.

“Do you think he’ll stay on the trail?”

“Probably,” she sighed.

“Will he be able to survive up here on his own?”

“Well, he is a prey animal.” 

Um, yeah, I thought to myself, feeling as though I could easily relate. But they did originate in the mountains of Peru, didn’t they?

“I’m more worried about him making his way out to the main road. He won’t know the first thing about staying out of the way of any traffic.”

“Yeah,” I nodded glumly.

“Will you help me catch him?”

“Oh, sure. I assumed you’d need a hand.”

“My name’s Donna, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you Donna. I’m Mark.”

We walked back down the mountain mostly in silence. Donna didn’t seem like a very talkative person, at least not at the present time anyway, and I didn’t want to annoy her with a bunch of questions – like how the heck you catch a llama running free up in the mountains! I did learn, however, that she was a teacher and exercise physiology researcher who’d kind of fallen into raising llamas by accident – an accident that grew into a packing operation over the years. We did have a nice conversation, though, about distance running, the Leadville 100, the new “barefoot running” phenomenon, and Born to Run – a book about ultra-marathoning and the Tarahumara Indians, among other things. It wasn’t until we’d almost gotten back down to the boggy section of the trail that we saw the llama once again, standing beside a puddle of water with a shaft of sunlight falling across his vigilant eyes. He looked kind of pitiful standing there – thirsty, tired, lonely, with a saddle strap dangling down from his midsection.

“What’s his name?”

“I don’t know,” Donna said, “Like I said, he’s not mine.”

“So, how’re we going to catch him?” I figured that wasn’t too stupid of a question.

“Well, if I can sneak around to the other side of him we can probably corral him between us. If he stays on the trail – that is. If he tries to run by you just hold out your arms. They’re very visually sensitive that way.”

“Okay.” This was beginning to seem more daunting than I’d thought – not that I’d really thought very much at all about how we were going to track down and catch a wayward llama.

“Alright, you stay here.”

I stayed put while Donna slowly made her way down the trail and off into the woods where she hoped to sneak around to the other side of our quarry. Of course, the llama was too smart for that and simply trotted off down the trail. Hmmm. We walked on in silence.

“Hey, is that your llama back there?” A young couple asked as they made their way up the trail toward us.

“Well, he’s not my llama,” Donna said, “but he is in my care.”

“Do you need some help catching him?”

“I’d love some help,” Donna replied. She was beginning to sound weary.

We next spied the llama standing in the middle of the gravel road almost all the way back at the trailhead. We were running out of room to catch him before driving him back out to the road – the prospect that Donna most feared.

“Okay, how about you pick your way through the woods and get on the other side of him,” Donna said to the young man. “When you make it to the other side I’ll start approaching him. If I get him, great, but if I miss him, you all will be in position to block him from getting away.”

And so we waited, quietly, as Jason made his way stealthily through the dense woods. The llama looked confused. He looked at us and then off into the woods and then back at us and then off into the woods. Jason moved quickly, though, and in no time at all he was on the other side. The llama started toward us when he saw Jason appear in the road, but then he started back as Donna approached. He was like a base-runner caught in a rundown in a baseball game. Donna reached for the rope but missed and now the llama was running toward Lisa and me. We held our arms out and blocked the road as best we could. The llama turned to go the other way but by now Donna was in position to grab at the rope a second time. This time she got it! I closed in quickly before the llama could pull away and added my weight to the end of the rope. Success!

Smiling with satisfaction that the adventure had ended well, Donna and I said thank you and goodbye to Lisa and Jason and continued with our wayward friend back to the trailhead.

“Can I borrow your services for just a little bit longer?” Donna turned to me. “I’d really appreciate it if you could wait with this guy while I go back up to the road to get the trailer.”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

“Thank you. And to show my appreciation I’d like to have you down to our base camp for a beer and a complimentary Leadville 100 t-shirt.”

“Sounds great!”

And so the llama and I got to know each other just a little bit better as we waited by the side of the gravel road – him tied to an aspen tree and me holding onto his rope to keep him from jerking it loose. We listened to the wind together and we watched the sunlight flash through the aspen leaves. We looked into each other’s eyes and whenever he got just a little bit skittish I talked to him and put my arm around him. “I’m glad you didn’t make it out to the road, big guy,” I whispered to him and stroked his coarse fur. That seemed to settle him down. “We’re all in this together, aren’t we?”

“I am so exhausted,” Donna said as we settled back with our beers in the shade of a tarp back at the staging area. “I was so afraid he was going to get out onto the road.” She glanced over at the llama now tied securely to a stout tree. Her eyes had grown misty and I could tell that she really, really loved these animals. As it turned out she’d lost a very good friend to ALS over the winter. The year before that she’d lost her mother, and the year before that she’d lost her father. I suddenly realized the weight that she’d been carrying as we made our way down the mountain. She couldn’t bear another loss, not so soon, and certainly not one that she would feel in the least bit responsible for. Wow, I suddenly saw this tough old Colorado mountain woman in an entirely different light. She cared deeply, she loved deeply, and life and a rambunctious llama had yanked her back to staring into the abyss of great loss – an abyss that she realized all too well that she wasn’t ready to face – not so soon, anyway. Not so soon.

And I thought about how it came to pass that I was even sitting there sipping a cold beer with her. I thought about my pondering to even come out here, and how my hike up the Willis Gulch Trail had been nothing if not fortuitous. If I were inclined to believe in God I might even think that I’d been put on that mountain for a reason somehow – to help ease just a little bit of the world’s suffering by helping a llama back to safety. And Jason and Lisa were put there, too. Why was it that the only hikers within a mile of that spot had all converged on the same place right at the moment that they were needed? I don’t necessarily think in such terms, however. What I think about is the fact that spiritual practice is all about coming back down off of the mountain to be of service – that even as we’re embracing solitude we must be ready to be there for another. It’s all too easy to forget how deeply each of us feels and what trials we’ve each had to face along our respective paths. Yes, this is what our spiritual practice is all about – simply being what we need to be for each other in each and every moment that arises.

As I finish my beer and thank Donna for her hospitality she reaches for a box of Leadville 100 t-shirts and tells me to pick out one that looks to be my size. It’s funny, I think, after all of my marathons and adventure races, triathlons and bicycle races…, after all of those years spent chasing after the great truth that resides in that place where the body is pushed to the limit and the mind is forced to follow into the realm on the other side of words – that place where stillness exists in the midst of roaring physicality; and after all these years of loving the mountains and loving endurance events and thinking that the epitome would be to run in the Leadville 100 where that truth must surely exist every step of the way (or at least past mile ten or so); and after letting all of that go and finding a more direct path to that stillness…, it’s funny how from that stillness I now come back to this place and realize in no uncertain terms that the only reason to even bother seeking after it at all is to be prepared to be of assistance – to be prepared to ease just a little bit of the pain of this life for another. It’s funny that all of that searching should come together in this very moment, with Donna filled with gratitude for my assistance, and me filled with gratitude just to be able to be of assistance.

I pluck a t-shirt out of the box and pull it over my head.

“Perfect!” I exclaim.

“Yes, perfect.” Donna smiles.

Photo credit:

Portrait of an anonymous llama courtesy of Microsoft.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Wheel That Just Won't Stop Wobbling

Many years ago now I had a neighbor – a pretty young woman who played violin in the symphony. She was healthy and good natured, with an abundance of friends and stimulating work that took her to beautiful places all over the world. Her home was brightly furnished and stylish, and her European sedan was shiny and clean. There didn’t seem to be a single thing in the world that she lacked – with the exception of me, of course! Oh, the crush I had on that woman!

We were taking a walk one day and, knowing of my interest in Buddhism, she asked me for my take on it. Anyway, I took a deep breath and began what I thought would be a fairly involved monologue about how our existence is suffering and that this suffering is rooted in our fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. I anticipated that these first two Noble Truths were going to sound like a real downer, so I intended to make my way fairly quickly to the Buddhist equivalent of Christianity’s “good news” – that this suffering can be alleviated and that the way to do so is by following the Noble Eightfold Path (the Third and Fourth Noble Truths, respectively).

“Wait a minute,” she countered before I could even hit full stride. “How can you say that our entire existence is suffering?”

“Well, because it is.”

“No,” she said, and as she did her beautiful, dark eyebrows arranged themselves into a gorgeously delicate frown, “people starving over in Africa are suffering. People dying of diseases are suffering. The homeless people downtown sleeping out in the cold are suffering. I’m not suffering. Do you think you’re suffering?”

Sigh… How I suffered over that woman!

Okay, I must admit that I was just a little bit unskillful with my words in rendering the First Noble Truth as “existence is suffering.” Indeed, I am not the first person to have summarized it so; it’s just that I now see that it almost invites the contentious response that I received. In contrast, the Dalai Lama summarized the First Noble Truth more skillfully as “the truth of suffering” – a translation that, according to Rahula (1959), is used by almost all scholars (p. 16). So what is the truth of suffering, anyway?

It is the Sanskrit word, duhkha, that is most often translated as suffering. (In Pali, the word is dukkha – Pali being a language that is related to the more ancient Sanskrit, and the one that is the presumed language of the historical Buddha.) Actually, duhkha is often used without translation because of the difficulty of finding a one-word English equivalent. In order to understand the nature of this difficulty, try reading the following passage from the Samyutta Nikaya (56.11) a few times – interchanging the words stress/stressful, suffering, and duhkha each time:

Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:[1] Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

Certainly the word stressful just doesn’t seem to have the weight that the word suffering does when describing disease, aging, and death, for example; but the word suffering might be a little too strong when describing those ordinary life situations encompassed within ‘not getting what we want’ – not getting that quadruple-shot cappuccino in the morning, for instance, or not getting speedy passage through the checkout line at the supermarket. Do we really suffer when such inconveniences occur? It would seem then that it was this troubling aspect of the word suffering that gave my neighbor pause when I blithely stated that “our existence is suffering.”

The Dalai Lama (1997) states that “duhkha is the ground or basis of painful experience, and refers generally to our state of existence as conditioned by karma, delusions and afflictive emotions” (p. 43). In fact, however, the “ground or basis” referred to here is fairly all-encompassing. Again, according to Rahula (1959):

The Buddha does not deny happiness in life when he says there is suffering…. [T]here is… the happiness of family life and the happiness of the life of a recluse, the happiness of sense pleasure and the happiness of renunciation, the happiness of attachment and the happiness of detachment, physical happiness and mental happiness, etc. But all these are included in dukkha [duhkha]. Even the very pure spiritual states… attained by the practice of higher meditation, free from even a shadow of suffering in the accepted sense of the word… – even these very high spiritual states are included in dukkha… [for] they are [in the Buddha’s words] ‘impermanent, dukkha, and subject to change… [W]hatever is impermanent is dukkha’. (pp. 17-18)  

Apparently, then, my statement that ‘existence is suffering’ was not wholly without merit, it’s just that, without adequately contextualizing such a statement within the entirety of Buddhist teaching (as well as the subtle nuances of translation), it merely opens up a Pandora’s Box of negative and pessimistic interpretations. So, can we get a better handle on this word, duhkha?

Some years ago I heard a teacher speak about the etymology of the Sanskrit word, duhkha – now so commonly translated as suffering. She described how duhkha refers to the rolling of a wheel whose axle hole has not been crafted well, thereby causing the wheel to wobble back and forth or otherwise not roll quite as smoothly as it could or would in a perfect world. (You know that perfect world, don’t you, the one where everything happens precisely as it should – the one where everyone you ever have a crush on suddenly decides to ‘crush on you’ just as hard in return?) Anyway, I’d not heard duhkha described in such terms since that time, so I set out to see whether I could corroborate that interpretation. Being unable to confirm it with sources from my own library, I went in search of confirmation elsewhere.

A Wikipedia check of dukkha does turn up a nice article which, in part, delves into the etymology of the word; and, indeed, it does allude to the nature of axle holes. Encouraged, I began trolling around for online Sanskrit dictionaries. The Sanskrit-English Dictionary does provide evidence for the aforementioned story, stating that kha, among other things, can refer to “the hole in the nave of a wheel through which the axis runs” ( This possible meaning of kha is confirmed by the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon, as well ( Both sources also corroborate that su and dus are Sanskrit prefixes that modify the root as either good or bad, respectively. The difficulty, however, is that both of these sources, as well as Wikipedia, utilize the same Monier-Williams dictionary for the aforementioned quote related to “the hole in the nave of a wheel” ( Thus, at the present time, I have to leave open the possibility that the story that I heard told, as well as the  interpretations discussed here, are all rooted in the scholarship undergirding that single Monier-Williams source.  

Such questions notwithstanding, I appreciate this interpretation of duhkha and sukha. Sometimes life rolls along smoothly and with ease – sukha; and sometimes it wobbles harshly and with difficulty – duhkha. But even when things are going well we always know on some level that everything is going to change. Thus, even with sukha there is duhkha. Duhkha, pervades everything. Often we don’t get what we want, and when we do get what we want it doesn’t seem to last long enough, or if it does last long enough we end up getting tired of it. More often (it might seem) we end up either not getting what we want or getting what we don’t want – and when that happens it seems to just last and last and last! We long to spend time with people that we’re attracted to, and we’re frustrated that we have to spend time with people that bore us, agitate us, challenge us, or threaten us. And even when everything is going just swimmingly – when we’re enjoying intimacy with a loved one, or a beautiful sunset, or a feeling of profound peace – we know that it’s not going to last. We know that our intimacy will end and we will once again be alone; the sunset will fade into darkness; and our sense of peace will once again give way to anxiety over worldly affairs. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned sickness, aging and death, have I?

So, back to my conversation with my neighbor on whom I had such a profound crush: Indeed, I was experiencing dukkha in all of its glory! I longed for our relationship to be more than what it was – a neighborly friendship – but I feared her rejection. I wanted to impress her with what I knew but at the same time I knew that our walk together was going to be a mere sip of water on my thirsty lips. I wanted her to do the talking so that all I would have to do was listen, and look at her – albeit with glances that were all too brief due to our having to walk side by side. Sigh! And all of this turmoil going on inside of me was absolutely and unequivocally keeping me from simply enjoying to the fullest a walk with someone that I truly wanted to spend time with. Oh yes, our existence is suffering!

If only it were easier to simply accept things as they are – neither wanting them to be more than what they are, nor less. Our minds are always grasping, though, always wanting to hold on tightly or else push things away. Thankfully, through meditation we become more adept at watching this constant ebb and flow of the tides of attachment and aversion, and by doing so we gain freedom from their pull. We’re able to stop our karma, as Yoshida roshi describes it. (See Now, In Entering Into Zen.) At this point, let me close with a nice passage from The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma (Bodhidharma lived around 475 A.D. and was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to China):

People of this world are deluded. They’re always longing for something – always, in a word, seeking. But the wise wake up. They choose reason over custom. They fix their minds on the sublime and let their bodies change with the seasons. All phenomena are empty. They contain nothing worth desiring. Calamity forever alternates with Prosperity. To dwell in the three realms is to dwell in a burning house. To have a body is to suffer. Does anyone with a body know peace? Those who understand this detach themselves from all that exists and stop imagining or seeking anything. The sutras say, “To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.” When you seek nothing, you’re on the Path. (pp. 5-7)


Dalai Lama (1997) The Four Noble Truths – Fundamentals of the Buddhist teachings. Thorsons, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Pine, R. (1987). The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma (tr. Red Pine). North Point Press. A division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Samyutta Nikaya (SN 56.11) Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu). Access to Insight, 25 August 2010, Retrieved on 14 October 2011.

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.


Rusty Cart Wheel image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons via:

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Season of Introspection

The seasons can change quickly here in Missouri – at times seeming to go from the chill of winter straight into the sweltering heat of summer with hardly a trace of spring, or from summer to autumn over the course of an afternoon! It felt a little bit like the latter this year as we transitioned from a summer drought that seemed to never want to end into the chilly nights of fall over the course of just a scant few days. Of course, I’m speaking very subjectively right now. I don’t have any temperature charts in front of me showing the highs and lows of recent days in order to compare them to the averages of seasons past. I only have my experience of the passing days to go on right now, and my memories of seasons past to compare them to. (By the way, as I edit this we’re enjoying once again the warmth of summer. Such is the nature of St. Louis weather!)

Taking stock of where we’re at with respect to our spiritual journey is a similarly subjective exercise. As the years go by and the difficulties that we’ve overcome become hazy memories; and the comforts of our individual existence further crowd out the realities of that which we share; and our struggles to come to grips with who and what and why we are, and where our lives are going seem like just so many growing pains of our teen years long ago; and our current worldview or metaphysical belief system has become so entrenched as to make it feel as though we were born with it firmly intact, it might feel as though we’re no longer on a journey at all. It might feel as though we’ve arrived; we’re happy, saved, awakened, blessed, content, etc. If so, be grateful and enjoy it! Unfortunately, though, such feelings, like all others that are rooted in impermanent causes and conditions, can change more quickly than the St. Louis weather. And that is why it’s good every now and then to reflect upon the spiritual nature of our lives and make certain that we’ve not strayed too far from the path that is our truth.   

Autumn, for me, is the perfect time for such introspection. Regardless of when the autumnal equinox might occur or how quickly the change of weather might take place, autumn for me begins with a certain scent hanging on the cool evening breeze at the close of a late summer day. Perhaps it’s the dryness of the vegetation infusing the air with its earthy essence, or maybe it’s the faint tingling in my sinuses as I breathe deeply the cool, crisp air. Maybe someone somewhere has built a fire – farther up north perhaps where the seasons have already done what they’re about to do here – sending the inspiration of a thousand associations wafting wherever the wind might blow. That is when autumn begins for me. And when autumn begins for me, so begins another season of reflection and introspection. For just as the sap of the bushes and trees withdraws each year into the nurturing embrace of the earth, there to prepare for another spring, so my consciousness is drawn inward in order to prepare for a new season of spiritual growth and renewal.

Yes, my experience of the seasons is subjective, but what is spiritual practice if not subjective? Whereas the practitioner of science might presume the existence of some unwavering observer watching over the ever-changing phenomena of the world, the spiritual practitioner knows that it is precisely the ever-wavering nature of the observer that makes the self such an interesting topic of study. And so, regardless of the measured length of night and day, my autumn comes whenever it comes. All of my autumns come whenever they come – as do my winters and my springs.

A couple of weeks ago we marked the autumnal equinox with a weekend long meditation retreat; and with it I vowed to deepen my spiritual practice. (By the way, be careful if you ever decide to make such a vow of your own. The last time I vowed to deepen my spiritual practice my life flew apart at the seams! Funny thing, though, my practice did deepen!) Alright, I suppose I’ve digressed a bit. What does it mean, anyway, to say that we are deepening our spiritual practice? Well, the first things that come to mind are quantity and quality.

Quantity is the easiest parameter to understand. Whatever it is that you engage in as part of your spiritual practice, just do more of it. Do you pray? Do you commune with nature? Do you create? Just do so more often. Ah, but isn’t it strangely perverse how that which makes us feel most fully alive ends up being shoehorned into our meager spare time as if it is an obligation to be reluctantly fulfilled rather than the most fulfilling of things we can do? Indeed, whereas quantity might be the easiest of parameters to understand, it is not necessarily the easiest to address. Our lives are so tightly packed with obligations and complications these days – like those interlocking Chinese puzzles – that it’s difficult to change the quantity of anything.

Okay, so what about quality? If it’s hard to do something about the quantity of time spent engaged in spiritual practice, then maybe we can do something about its quality. Yes, but how exactly do we pray with greater intensity, or commune with nature with a more profound sense of connection, or create with a greater spirit of…, er…, creativity? Two things come to mind: intention and (you guessed it) quantity. It’s true that we can go through periods during which we are kind of sleep-walking through our spiritual practice, or going through the motions, if you will. If that’s the case then, yes, reexamining our intention and making appropriate adjustments to our focus and our diligence might be just what we need to do to regain quality. On the other hand, though, the quality of so much of what we do is a direct result of the quantity of time and effort that we devote to it. So, perhaps we have no other choice but to solve that Chinese puzzle that is our life, throw away a piece or two, saw in half a couple more, file down a few edges, and then call it our own!

Intention for me, with respect to deepening my spiritual practice, means working to arrange my life around spiritual practice rather than allowing secular existence to dictate the nature of my practice. Specifically, this means that I intend to continue my usual attendance at our Zen Center, in addition to going each weekday morning before work – something that I’ve heretofore only considered a theoretical possibility. “Hey, I meditate at home already,” I would tell myself. “And, besides, morning is one of my most productive times to write.” Well, you know, after one of the first times I showed up on a weekday morning, somebody remarked to the group as we were about to depart: “It’s great to have such a large group of people to meditate with.” And in that moment I knew that my practice was indeed deepening. After all, I did vow to save all beings, didn’t I? And what better way to help save them than by helping to create a community in which to practice? Oh, and my writing? I’ve found that I have enough time in between leaving the Zen Center and heading off to work to get in a good hour and a quarter of writing at one of my favorite coffee shops!


So, my life is now entering a new season of spiritual practice. I’m not completely certain where this path is taking me, but it feels right. It feels like I’ve given myself a tune-up and achieved greater congruence between who I think I am and what I actually do (see seamlessness). It feels like I’ve arrived at an important junction on this path that is my life, and made the right choice on which way to turn.

Speaking of spiritual practice and paths in life and arriving at junctions: sketching out a spiritual autobiography is a great way to gain greater awareness of yourself as a spiritual being – what work you’ve done, what insights you’ve attained, what remains to be done, etc. I was going through my files the other day and came across a transcript of a lecture that, among other things, provides a great example of a spiritual autobiography. Please follow the link to Margaret Katranides’ 2007 Jonathan Plummer Lecture given at the Illinois Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers). The title is Knowing and Not Knowing. As I reread it I wished that I’d stumbled across is as I was writing my own On Not Knowing series of blog posts some months ago. I would have referred to it specifically at that time. I got to know Margaret and many other fine spiritual practitioners during my time spent sitting in silence with the Friends here in St. Louis. I invite you to reflect on her words and perhaps gain inspiration from them as you begin your own spiritual autobiography. Perhaps doing so will usher into your life an entirely new season of introspection and subsequent spiritual growth. Thank you again, Margaret. And thank you, everyone.

Image of a Chinese puzzle from Wikipedia Commons via: 

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank