Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Emptiness at the Heart of the Heart Sutra

Here's something inspired by James Ford's recent Facebook reference to his earlier blog post "How to Live Forever: a Meditation on the Heart Sutra" from December 4, 2014.

Thanks James. Good words.  Loving the Heart Sutra is inconceivably deep.

The word “skandha” is often translated as aggregate or heap, but I think the more accurate translation is “shoulder,” where the arm branches off, or “crotch,” as in the crotch of the tree where branches part.  The skandha is that part of the stem or trunk where the branches begin, or a large branch or bough that stems therefrom.  The five skandhas are the five shoulders or crotches of the five main branches of the tree of a person. The terms heaps or aggregates creates the image of separate entities piled into heaps, as if counting all the pieces and bits that make up a person and putting them down into one of the five categories.  However, this image is too artificial and contrived for the organic interconnectedness of what the  psychological paradigm of the skandas is pointing toward, which is the holistic living limbs of the psyche of the person. The five are not heaps of bits, they are the five living branches of the tree of life. The appearance of many bits and pieces are actually the living manifold twigs and leaves on these five branches, not disconnected items piled up like lifeless gravel.

I’m confused about what is meant by “The traditional list is form or matter, sensations or feeling, mental formations or impulses, and consciousness, discernment.”  Is that four or five?  It looks like four to me:  (1) form or matter [1st rupa], (2) sensations or feeling [2nd vedana], (3) mental formations or impulses [4th samskara], and (4) consciousness, discernment [5th vijnana]. It seems the 3rd skandha of perception or samjna is missing from the list.

By using the common Latin root "capere"--to seize, take, grasp, lay hold of, etc.-- in its combining forms such as -cipere and -cep, to show their mutual interrelationships, I like to list the five skandhas as (1) inception/to incept, (2) reception/to receive, (3) perception/to perceive, (4) conception/to conceive, and (5) deception/to decieve.  This formulation of the five skandhas as the five forms of "ception" and pointing out that consciousness is inherently deceptive is worth an essay in itself.  Suffice to say, the "vi" in "vijnana" refers to the division, bifurcation, or polarizing of knowing, "jnana." It is this inherent split that is both the benefit and the bane of consciousness.  This split or division of our knowing makes self-consciousness possible, but it is also the basis for all the false dualities and oppositions arising out of the conceived  "self" that are the root of our suffering and vexations.  This "vi," or duality within the 5th skanda's consciousness "vijnana," is the deception at the heart of the myth of eating form the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. This is why self-consciousness is inherently deceptive and why we feel banished from the primordial Garden upon eating from the tree of knowledge.  Until we encounter the flaming sword that "cuts us into one" held by the Bodhisattva Manjusri, i.e., the Archangel Michael standing at the Gates of Eden in the Christian context, we can not reenter the Garden.     

"Manjusri's most dynamic attribute is his sword, the vajra sword of discriminating wisdom or insight. The sword cuts through ignorance and the entanglements of conceptual views. It cuts away ego and self-created obstacles. Sometimes the sword is in flames, which can represent light or transformation. It can cut things in two, but it can also cut into one, by cutting the self-other dichotomy. It is said the sword can both give and take life."
I mostly like Red Pine's translation, but I feel compelled to pick two nits. First, the use of the word "memory" for the 4th skandha is very problematic, not so much because of the technical application of the terminology, if the word memory is used in its widest possible connotation, but because of the common usage of the English word memory, which is very much more limited and narrow than the 4th skandha's "samskara," which literally means “putting together,” “making complete,” “correctly together” etc.  Memory is commonly conceived of as information that is encoded, stored, and retrieved, thus nominalizing it as data rather than seeing it as the active living function of mind’s organic patterning in fields that make self-consciousness possible.  Memory is commonly used with the file cabinet or computer analogy of encoding, storage, and retrieval, and to the extent this limited view is what the word is conjuring up, then it is wrong to use “memory” for samskara  

The 4th skandha is the most psychologically challenging of the 5 skandhas to understand. Carl Jung coined the term “complex” in his attempt to describe this very function of the psyche, while in other contexts he simply called it the function of "thinking."  In the context of Jungian archetypal psychology, the 4th skandha includes all the complex mental formations that at one end of the spectrum are the individual complexes upon which we base our idea of impulses and our self-image of personal volition, and at the other end are all the mental formations we call the archetypes of the collective unconscious that act upon us a the deepest levels and upon which our worldviews are established.  If we remember (pun intended) that “memory” is the mental activity and function, not just the data, that includes entirely all the mental formations and complexes, both individual and collective, that make up our self-identity and worldview then the word memory is not an invalid translation.
Second of less concern, but still concerning, is Red Pine’s use of the designation “mantra of great magic,” also because the term magic conjures up the paranormal or illusory.  As Ford suggests when he points out the problems with seeing a mantra as a tool of magical efficacy, most people will read “magic” and hear “mantra of great illusion” or “mantra of great superstition” or ‘manta of great hocus-pocus.”  This reading is funny but does a disservice to the Heart Sutra.  If seen as the “great magic” that is a child’s smile, or at the sea shore with the waves revealing marvelous shells, or the supernatural magic of drawing water and carrying firewood, then no harm , no foul.
I greatly appreciate Ford's discussion of emptiness and the warning against being too reductive.  Becoming worm food is most definitely not what emptiness is about, and he has hit the bull’s eye with the phrase “a vastly more wonderful truth.”  
I lament that there has been so much focus on the first example of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” while the other four skandas are overlooked and neglected.  Yes, there are four more parts of that formula that are rarely examined and only contained in the phrase “also like this” or “the same holds for…”  To be whole, and to avoid one-sidedness, we should always include in the discussion of emptiness in relation to the Heart Sutra the remaining four variables in the formula: “sensation is emptiness, emptiness is sensation; perception is emptiness, emptiness is perception; “complex-formation is emptiness, emptiness is complex-formation; and consciousness is emptiness, emptiness is consciousness.”  For more on this, see my blog on the Heart Sutra without the shortcuts.

While the statement, “there is no part of us that is outside the phenomenal world,” is not incorrect, it is problematic as it may be easily misunderstood.   The problem, as I see it, is that most people begin from the stand point that there is a “phenomenal world” that is outside us, and conceive of the “inside of us” as outside the outside of us.  So to point out that there is no “part” of us that is separate from the phenomenal world is correct if we mean that everything that is identifiable as a “part” of anything is exactly a thing of the phenomenal world, even all the parts that we think of as "inside us."  But this does not address the deception of a "phenomenal world," as it is the emptiness of those parts themselves that is the second fold of the two-fold emptiness of self (atman) and things (dharmas), and I fear that, while many people will acknowledge that the “parts” of us are not outside the phenomenal world, they will still conceive of those parts as existing inside a “phenomenal world,” rather than becoming free of the whole conceptual apparatus of “outside and inside” and of “phenomenal world.” 

The "phenomenal world" is not outside or separate from mind.  The phenomenal world is mind. Mind is the phenomenal world.  That is, while "it" is not a “part" and "it" is not "outside,” there is "that one who is shining brilliantly," who is neither outside nor inside the phenomenal world, and who is listening right now to the Heart Sutra.  That one is the emptiness of the Heart Sutra.  

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