Saturday, January 12, 2013

Dark heart

Recently I decided to start reading up on Buddhism.  Of course I'd read introductory books before, but for a long time I avoided studying up on things, since I wanted to focus on the practice of meditation itself.  But I've come to see this approach as naive - Buddhism in a complex tradition, and with so many different brands out there, it's worth being well informed.

Before the Christmas holiday I borrowed a book with the unpromising title Buddhist Wisdom.  Instead of being a repository of bumper-sticker slogans, though, it in fact contained a translation and commentary of two of the most important Buddhist scriptures, the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra.  I thought it would be helpful to start with these, two texts which are central to almost all Zen schools and to many other Mahayana traditions.

Both of these sutras are part of the Sanskrit collection known as the Perfection of Wisdom (prajnaparamita).  These scriptures are supposed to have been rediscovered in the possession of the serpentine kings, the Nagas, by the master Nagarjuna.  Scholars used to date them to somewhere between 500 and 800 AD, but now prefer a much earlier date, somewhere around the turn of the millennium.

Both of them have a central place in most Zen practices, and I've heard them recited at both PZI and SFZC retreats.  The Diamond sutra has the additional distinction of being the text that the all-important Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng (639-713 AD) was reading when he attained enlightenment.  A Chinese edition of it from 868 AD, now in the British Museum, also happens to be the oldest printed book in the world.

So what did I make of these two holy texts?  Very little, I'm afraid.  Both are disquisitions on doctrine given by enlightened figures (the Buddha in the Diamond Sutra and Avalokitesvara in the Heart Sutra) to less enlightened disciples (one Subhuti in the first text and one Shariputra in the second).  Both are concerned with meditation, enlightenment, and transcendence.  Both emphasize the dogmas of non-attainment and no-soul, both central features of the Mahayana path.

Beyond this, I had trouble making head or tail of them.  They are full of technical terms, many of them devotional in character (so the Buddha is at one point referred to as 'the Tathagata, the Arhat, the Fully Enlightened One').  The questions the text raises seem either like tricks ('Is there any dharma that the Tathagata has expounded?' answer: no) or like simple invitations to assent ('If there were as many Ganges rivers as there are grains of sand in the great river Ganges, would the grains of sand in them be many?' answer: yes).

If there is one part of these sutras that rises out of the quagmire of unrewarding obscurity, it is the famous statement in the Heart Sutra that 'form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form'.  The teaching here is that of transience - objects are nothing but their passing away, and things passing is what objects are.  This may be clear enough, but it is startling (or jarring) to see it presented as a plain contradiction in terms.  We are back with Heraclitus: 'We are and we are not'.

I received little help from the commentary by Edward Conze, the Anglo-German scholar who did much to make Buddhist scriptures accessible to the West.  Conze announces in his preface, 'What I have left unexplained, seemed to me either obvious or unintelligible', and he has left much unexplained, and therefore unintelligible to his readers, who may not find things as obvious as he seems to think they will.

If Mahayana Buddhism has positive doctrines, neither of these sutras make it easy to understand what they are.  Instead, they wrap a few striking insights in a language which is difficult to penetrate, insistently contradictory, and over-pious to the point of sycophancy.  I may yet become more used to this language and become capable of seeing through it more quickly.  But at this point I must say that the Diamond and Heart Sutras will not be much help to those in need of help or understanding.

One reason I became interested in Buddhism was because it seemed to offer a religious path that was less littered with irrational belief than most others.  The more exposure I get to ancient Buddhist texts, though, the more I'm convinced that this Western image of Buddhism as a rational religion is as much of an imposition on the sources as versions of Christianity that seek to downplay Jesus' resurrection, say, or his miracles. 

What allows me to stay within the Buddhist tent is that nobody inside of it has ever insisted that I take what these sutras say as authoritative (though I have been asked to chant them a few times).  And there's also the practice - sitting in silence, avoiding striving, trying to be kind - which somehow is never less glaringly the way no matter how much of a mess the texts make of pointing to it.


  1. We always recite the Heart Sutra at Templestays but nobody ever explains it. ox