My Heart Sutra: A Zen Teacher Reflects on the Spiritual Life

My Heart Sutra: A Zen Teacher Reflects on the Spiritual Life May 25, 2017

Tibetan Book of the Dead
My Heart Sutra

When the heart of compassion walked through the gate of wisdom, she looked into the body of the world and each of us, seeing each of us and the world itself is boundless. And with this all suffering vanished.

Dear one, all things are boundless; the boundless is nothing other than all things. Everything in itself is boundless; Boundlessness is all things. This is true of us and our feelings, experiences, and consciousness itself.

Dear one, the stuff of the world is boundless. It is not born, it does not die. It is not impure, nor is it pure. It neither increases nor diminishes. And so within boundlessness there is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, sound, smell, taste, objects of touch; no field of existence; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance; no old age and death and no ending of old age and death. There is no suffering, no gain, no loss, no path, and no wisdom or attaining of wisdom.

Understanding this boundlessness, the pure hearted one is free. Without entanglements the true person of the way is not afraid.

The pure and unexcelled way.

All the sages of past and present and future attain to this truth and find freedom.

And so this becomes the great mantra, supreme and unexcelled, it removes all suffering.

Gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha!
Going, going, always going on beyond. Always going on beyond. Blessings!
Gone, gone, gone beyond. Completely gone beyond. Blessing and blessing!

Heart Sutra (my paraphrase)


I’m of the opinion that those who get angry about belief in God as the gateway to pretty much all the ills of the world, are looking in the wrong direction. I suggest it’s the belief in a soul that occupies the body but does not belong to the world that is a regular cornucopia of human hurt.

People trying to defend the belief that they, and their loved ones, are not destined to death, will often do the cruelest of things to those who challenge that, frankly, perhaps brutally, but this is what it is: vain hope. Belief in a god isn’t the real problem. The problem is believing the soul is something just passing through the hurt and the wonder, but not part of it.

Now there is no way to say this without annoying someone. I raised this issue on Facebook and friends made a number of comments. One friend opined, “Think of a soul as kin to the bacteria which live in your gut, and without which we would not survive.” Then an old friend from Arizona, offered, interestingly, “A soul is something you build over the course of your life through your love, your learnings, and your service. Some call it character, I prefer to call it your soul because that is what lasts forever in the fabric of the universe.”

The UU minister Mark Hoelter offers, “I don’t believe people have souls. But I know from experience we can have soul! And when we have soul and cultivate soul, there is something more in our presence to each other, and something more which lasts beyond death.” Finally, Stephen Slottow, an old Zen hand from Texas mentioned, how a teacher we shared in esteem, “Aitken Roshi wrote somewhere that everything is the unique avatar of the mystery. Fancy words, but true nonetheless.”

This pushed me a bit. While I’m sure there are no essences unique to a person, or any other thing under the sun, or for the sun, for that matter; nonetheless there is something precious and beautiful about us, each and every one of us. As someone once said the universe is infinite and every point is its center. We are all of us woven out of the stuff of the cosmos, and each of us, is the center, or, perhaps slightly better – a center.

How we think about this strange truth that we’re unique and precious and completely bound up together, woven out of each other, is what brings me to a consideration of souls as something more than just an escape hatch from life. And I suspect the consideration of souls has always been more complicated than that passenger in the bus of life conceit can ever satisfy.

In our human languages we’ve come up with a million words for this mystery. Phil Cousineau lists a lot of them. “Psyche, anima, atman, savira, semangat, nephesh, otachuk, loakal, tunzi, prana, duk, and geist… sacred words used by primal peoples the world over for the surge of life itself, linguistic cousins of what was called sawol in Old English, sawal by the Anglo-Saxons, sala by the Icelandic folk, and eventually, as if stone-polished by the ages, what we now call soul.” Charles Nodier observed of this storm of words, “The different names for the soul, among nearly all peoples are just so many breath variations, and onomatopoeic expressions for breathing.”

Soul is breath. Soul is life.

So, one may ask, “And what’s in it for me to focus on this breath of life? Particularly, if the truth is, that there is no physical immortality in the deal, no my ego survives the disruption of the body?” I suggest within a reflection on what soul can be there’s a way through the hurt and confusion of our lives, to something more healthful and beautiful and healing.

The psychologist James Hillman suggested this represents a reductionism in our current culture leading to a simple Cartesian divide “between outer tangible reality and inner states of mind, or between body and a fuzzy conglomerate of mind, psyche, and spirit.”

And here’s my third point, the main point. Hillman thought, “We have lost the third, middle position which earlier in our tradition, and in others too, was the place of soul: a world of imagination, passion, fantasy, reflection that is neither physical and material on the one hand, nor spiritual and abstract on the other, yet bound to them both.” I can’t say how important I think this is for those of us who want to live authentic lives.

Hillman goes on to suggest our more natural “threefold division has collapsed into two, because soul has become identified with spirit. This happens because we are materialists, so that everything that is not physical and bodily is one undifferentiated cloud…” Okay, after saying I don’t believe in souls, at least in souls as something separate from us and untouched by our human condition, I’m going to offer we should consider embracing not only souls, but also spirit. Our beloved ancestor Ralph Waldo Emerson did suggest, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, and philosophers, and divines.”

For Hillman spirit is “arrow straight, knife sharp, powder dry…” For him it is yang to the yin of the soul, which is found in “natural urges, memories, fantasies, and fears.” Soul is about “the realm of experience and (of) reflections within experience.” I find this is a key to another tradition important to me, and it’s teaching of the “three bodies of the Buddha,” which are the world of form, the world of unity, and a third. Let’s run through them, quickly.

The first body is that of form, of history. We usually get this part. It’s what we live with all our lives, with all its aches and pains. Think of this ordinary sense of the way things are with everything separate and unique, as the part of the iceberg above the water. Another part of what we are, the second body, floating in the depths beneath the surface, is that place where all things collapse into one. In many ways that place is the realm of spirit. Here spirit is the great intuition of our ultimate unity.

But, we can’t leave it there. This binary view of separate bodies and one body isn’t quite right. Traditionally the third body is the place of rule breaking, of magic and related mysteries. I suggest we can encounter this place of imagination run wild, of fantasy, of dream, as the realm of soul. It is dark and rich and fertile, it is the seedbed of possibilities.

I’ve seen the consequences of being too tightly tied to one or another of these bodies, any of them. Lost in the realm of phenomena, we think we end at our skins and become isolated from our true destiny. Caught up too much in the realm of spirit, of the one, we become pure and forget our bodies and our friends and our neighbors. Lost in the realm of soul, of dream, is to tumble into lunacy disconnected from either our uniqueness or our radical interrelatedness, wandering lost in some moonscape.

We need ‘em all. Elsewhere I’ve addressed our separateness and our unity. Here, I hold up that third place. I’ve found that attending to the matters of soul, or, perhaps slightly better, attending to soulfulness, opens a life for us that is full, pregnant with constantly unfolding possibilities.

So, here’s a suggestion. You want to be of use in the world? Well, start by loving the world and not turning from it, not hoping to escape it. Second, notice how we are all of us related, every precious one of us part of the same family. And, third, pay attention to your dreams that place where the imagination runs amok.

Now this may not be as easy as it sounds. My first experience of how to pay attention to my dreams came about in one of those classes with Gordon Tappan, another of those seminars this time with a dozen graduate students and me. The seminar was simple enough. We would keep notes on dreams and then discuss them in our small group.

One afternoon a member of the group described her most recent dream. She was ethereal, tall and thin, with long golden hair that frizzed just enough to create a halo effect around her head. She described how in her dream a woman walked toward her holding a golden ball. As she watched transfixed the ball started glowing, the brightness growing, and growing until there was nothing but light. Nothing but light.

When she finished the group was silent. That pause extended a minute or so, almost achingly long. Then out of that silence Gordon asked, quietly, simply, kindly, “What do you think all that light was hiding?”

So, what happens when we bring our attention to the interior landscape of our lives, to the mysteries of soulfulness, to what might lie hidden at the heart of it all? My old teacher John Tarrant in his lovely, dense and compelling book The Light Inside the Dark, brings some suggestions. “Much of the journey is about the ways we work with our attention…” John says. “It expands the register, bringing us to notice more of the vividness and consolation of our dark lives, so that we can exist in our true range, and not go around missing things, as if we knew countries only from their airports and hotels.”

And then John tells the secret, my fourth and final point. “Attention is the most basic form of love: through it we bless and are blessed… What was matter and merely inanimate becomes family, and we, the children walking, walking, walking home… (I)t is this inner connection that resolves the problem of who we are and makes us at home in the world. For the interior life sweetens the humblest thing. It opens for us the magic in ordinary life.”

It’s as simple as breathing. It is the soulful way. And we’re all welcome to it.

It’s my Heart Sutra.

It’s our Heart Sutra…

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