Part Nine - Sailing towards Suchness
Recently the great 19th Century maritime ship The Cutty Sark was in the news, as a serious fire had raged through its hull, destroying a large part of its timber decking and frame. The day after, on BBC Radio Four's - Today programme, there was an interesting debate. The topic for discussion was - If the boat were fully restored, with little of her original timbers left - could it still be considered The Cutty Sark? - the general conclusion was that it could. For over the years it had been repaired on numerous occasions, and restored to its former glory. What it represented to maritime history, had over the years of its existence become almost archetypal, it possessed an identifiable ‘Cutty Sarkness’, a mythos and continuity that it alone could own. This had survived nearly two centuries of repair and renewal. I thought this revealing in terms of our relationship to the things we have created, and also by extension our relationship with that other created thing - our own Self.
Our own bodies bones, muscles and flesh are also in constant repair. Cells are being replaced every second, every minute, hour and day of our lives. The me that is now physically fifty years old, has little left in it of the me that existed fifteen or thirty years ago. Yet there is still a physical body with remembered experiences and a continuity of habitation – a history of ‘Vidyavajraness’ that persists, despite irrevocable change and aging. This continuity of habitation is the backbone that upholds and supports the Self. If you took away the Self, took away that continuity of habitation, took away those recollections of past experiences and feelings, removed that ‘Vidyavajraness’, what would be left? Would you be empty, if so what sort of emptiness would that be? Would you be a simpleton, a vegetable or would you be a sage at peace with themselves? Perhaps there would be just the fundamental essence of a being-be-ing left, an indefinable experience sometimes called ‘Suchness’.
The Heart Sutra, is the most famous and popular of the prajnaparamita or Perfection Of Wisdom Sutras. It has something to say about the nature of ‘Suchness’ It’s presented in the form of a monologue addressed by Avalokiteshvara (an Enlightened being) to Sariputra one of the Buddha’s most intellectually adept disciples. It could be interpreted as an instruction from a being established in ‘suchness’ to one, who in the sutra at least, has not achieved this state. In typical Buddhist fashion it largely proceeds in defining ‘suchness’ by virtue of what it is not, thereby resisting making a firm definition of something that's spoken of as being beyond definition. It begins as follows :-
“ Avalokiteshvara, the Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down from on high, he beheld but five heaps, and he saw that in their own-being they were empty”14
The five heaps he ‘beholds’ are the five skandhas:- Form, Feeling, Perception, Volition and Discriminating Consciousness – the collective constituents and supporting mechanisms for the Self. These are also referred to as the five aggregates. Now, I find aggregates an interesting choice of word to use in relation to the Self. It does have strong associations with builders merchant's yards that supply, wood, earth. rocks, gravels, sand, concrete and bricks, in fact everything you need to build a house. They lie in those merchant yards in bays, in segregated heaps, catagorised, labeled and priced per ton or length. Each has it's own value attributed to it. But Avalokiteshvara beholds these aggregates and says, not that they aren’t worth much, but that they actually aren’t worth anything, that as heaps they are empty of any intrinsic value or meaning we might attribute to them. They don’t individually possess even a gram of self-consciousness. They don’t sit there thinking “I am a heap, I am an aggregate, I’m a measly pile of rocks,” they just lie inanimate and worthless.
The five skandhas make up the Self, in the same way individual small pieces of cloth when stitched together make up a patchwork blanket. Each scrap of cloth, taken in isolation, cannot be called a blanket. In themselves the skandhas lack a sense of their own-being. There is no owning being, there is no intrinsic value to them, this is not changed even if we bunch them all together, tied tightly with a rope so they can become owned - my body, my feelings, my perceptions, my volitions, my discriminating consciousness. When there is an ‘owning being’ it confers and places value onto whatever it owns – owning is valuing – owning infers meaning. So ‘Binding one’s Self - without a rope’ may mean to do so - without attaching any value to the Self - without encouraging the ‘owning being’ to take possession of what you’re doing. The Heart Sutra then takes it one step further :-
Here,O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness”14
It’s not just the skandhas, but anything that’s formed from them, indeed anything that has form, or is given form, is empty in its own-being, is empty of an owning being.
If you look at a pottery vase, what makes it useful is the emptiness that it’s form contains. We bring to it purpose and meaning by placing water and beautiful flowers in it. But this purpose and meaning is transitory, the flowers die and the water becomes stinking and repugnant. Even the vase itself is breakable and can become useless fragments. Likewise, we possess a form, a body that houses various senses and a consciousness. Individually, there is no owning being, what owning being there is - the Self can only be brought and placed into the body, like those flowers are into the vase. The body and the Self (both the container and what is contained) are conditioned by existence, whatever we place within it will be subject to gradual decay and death. Not only the Self, but also the body and senses that house it, are then all empty of any durable essence. Later in the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara says:-
“Therefore, O Sariputra, it is because of his indifference to any kind of personal attainment, and through his reliance on the Perfection of Wisdom, that a Bodhisattva dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana”14
The phrase that he ‘dwells without thought-coverings’ is intriguing, because when those ‘thought-coverings’ are absent the vicissitudes of conditioned existence no longer appear to disturb him. 'Thought-coverings' are all those things that the Self protects itself beneath, I, Me, ,Mine, You, Them, Theirs, all dualities, all ideas, all ideals, and concepts – pure and impure, conditioned or unconditioned – all thoughts of personal gain or attainment.
If we now return to Dogen’s phrase “Binding one’s Self without a rope’ I think we can now pull on another thread and see what unravels. ‘Binding’ implies there is something tangible that must be restrained. ‘Binding’ could almost define the nature of conditioned existence. The language we apply within such an existence, will tend to justify and bind us to the very thing we may wish to eradicate. Unwittingly the very way we conceive the Self can tacitly support and make it seem viable. Even the notion of ‘suchness’, is an idea flowering from conditioned soil, and can become possessed by the Self. In ‘Binding one’s Self’ within conditionality one needs to cultivate doing so ‘without a rope’, without owning, without conferring value or meaning, without any ideal or conceptual framework, without any other ‘thought-covering’ that might constrain or mislead. even without any idea of attaining Enlightenment. ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’ appears to be suggesting a process of gradually letting go and eventually doing without the support of any rope whatsoever. Paradoxically to - Bind one’s Self – without - a Self to bind it.
The end of the Heart Sutra finishes with the recitation of the Prajnaparamita Mantra :-
“gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha”
This translates in an unadorned manner as – 'Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, All Hail !' – it’s a further precis of the Heart Sutra. Outlining in one sentence a progression of higher states, through which consciousness is purified of its discriminating taints, each ‘going beyond’ the one preceding it. As each impediment to Enlightenment is ceased one becomes raised to further higher state of consciousness With the first ‘gone’, we have surpassed the conditioned. With the second ‘gone’, we have surpassed the unconditioned, and all preconceived notions of what enlightenment may be. This is followed by being ‘gone beyond’ any dualistic notion at all - of being an impure being in search of purity, of Samsara being distinct from Nirvana, of emptiness being separate from form. At the penultimate stage we have ‘gone altogether beyond’ any subtle concept relating to the emptiness or otherwise of all phenomena or reality. We are empty of all ‘bindings’ associated with the Self – we are completely - Without. This is followed immediately by ‘an awakening’ and a loud salutation from a whole Universe of Enlightened beings.
Part Nine - References
14- Taken from – Buddhist Wisdom Books containing the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra,
Translated by Edward Conze – Published by Unwin Hyman 1988