The Heart of the Matter
Early this morning I was recalling Thict Nhat Hanh’s English interpretation of the Heart Sutra and its place in my Bodhi Day ceremony last year. In particular, the phrase “… while practicing deeply with the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore …“, strikes a profound chord within me. I envision crawling onto the shore, nearly dead, after being adrift at sea for days as a very good visualization of awakened Enlightenment. It’s not all that different from Siddhartha Gautama’s journey to his Enlightenment on his Bodhi Day.
The Heart Sutra is the Elevator Pitch of Buddhism, succinctly capturing its essence, its “heart”. It’s something familiar to me since my earliest memories, mindlessly chanting that Sanskrit (sometimes “mindless” is not really that great a thing … hahaha) at my family’s Shingon Mission. It wasn’t until a few years ago it occurred to me that in this Internet age I could find an English translation. It would be nice to know what I was saying all those years.
And that didn’t help. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” What?! Since then, through hundreds of hours of contemplation, meaning in the Heart Sutra began to take shape for me. I wrote of my understanding of “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” in two posts, No Thing Exists and Everything forms Every Thing.
Back to “the other shore” and why that phrase in Thict Nhat Hanh’s interpretation clicked something in me.
I was born and raised on Oahu, one of the islands of Hawaii. Before moving to the Mainland in my mid twenties, I spent a total of less than a month outside of those islands over three separate trips. In my mind, Oahu seemed like it was the entire world. I recall as a very young child riding in the car with my parents around Hanauma Bay, thinking that must be the deserts I saw in cowboy movies.
Like many others born on isolated islands, or small towns, we sense that there is so much more out there. But we don’t leave. It’s a long swim or hike to whatever is out there. People on our islands and small towns need us. And we need them because they are part of us.
Like a Fish out of Water
All journeys are treacherous to some extent as all of them by definition mean we’re leaving our comfort zone, the safety of what we know. The Eternal Fishnu says that in the entire history of Earth, there have been countless brave souls reaching the other shore. The fish of the Devonian, from where Fishnu first appeared, made a horrendous journey from ocean to land … after a few hundred million years evolving to all land vertebrates we see today … including us.
The Eternal Fishnu has told me tales of small bands of brave souls he appeared to as a blue salmon well over ten thousand years ago. They came from Asia and Europe, reached the other shore of North America, and continued Eastward or Westward, respectively. Some drowned, starved, or froze along the way. Some who actually made it to shore were greeted by the short-faced bear. Of course, brave souls continue towards the other shore today. Whether they reached the other shore or not, they all found freedom from the moment their journey began.
My Bodhi Day
Very early in the morning of December 8, 2017, I left the warmth of my Airbnb log cabin in the Utah desert, my Bodhi Tree, on a two mile hike into the dark desert to my chosen place. It was very cold and very dark. I needed absolutely no distractions, so I didn’t bring my phone, no camera, just what’s shown in the photo above.
It wasn’t just very cold and dark. I also heard rumors over the week of a cougar in the neighborhood. It is also a place filled with history of Native Americans, miners, and Mormons. If anywhere is haunted by spirits, my Bodhi place certainly is a great candidate. But I had no fear of cougars or ghosts – for Thou was with me.
I arrived at my Bodhi site, sat down on a rock, still dark, cold and very isolated. I had no idea how to begin, so I just starting playing the singing bowl (towards the left in the photo above). The sound amplified in the open desert unlike anything I’d ever heard. Soon enough, something took over.
I spent what I think was around thirty to forty-five minutes chanting, starting with the Hanya Shingyo the way I learned it as a child and the English translation I just discovered, to the Morning Star Mantra, to Psalms 23. I then closed my eyes and went into a deep meditation. There, I found myself standing on a long shore that went both ways forever as I could tell. Just off the shore were many little islands. From one of the islands I could here my name being called.
I wanted to get to the island to see who was calling me. There wasn’t any vehicle to take me there, so I would need to swim. It wasn’t a big swim, but I didn’t know how to swim. They kept calling me over. I eventually learned how to swim and made the tough but doable journey over to the island. I found it was my parents calling me.
I spent much time on that island, getting to know it very well. Periodically my parents and I would take trips to the nearby islands to visit friends and relatives. Eventually, I would hop to further islands, by myself, making friends of my own.
Then came the time I found myself on a relatively far-off island staring off in a direction with no other islands in sight. I looked out into that endless expanse wondering what was out there. But that’s all I did. I went back to my parents’ little island, eventually some time later finding a nearby island of my own.
The world was made up of countless islands. All those islands were worlds of their own in the most obvious sense, but the isolation seemed so artificial. Life was experienced little chunks at a time, no big picture. It was like eating a wonderful hamburger one ingredient at a time. The parts were certainly not as good as the whole hamburger, but there was comfort in the confines of those little chunks. As Siddhartha Gautama jumped from guru to guru diving all-in to what they had to teach, I went from island to island never finding the one with all the answers.
I tried to go back to the shore from which I came, but no one would let me go back there. Well then, what about that big ocean? Everyone warned me not to go there. They really didn’t know what was out there. They just knew a few went a little way out and came back terrified, never to try it again, learning to be happy with their island life.
See, not everyone discouraged me from jumping out into that ocean. Some seemed curious and wanted me to go further to see what’s there so I could report back to them. The problem is that anyone who swam far enough out of sight never came back.
I jumped into the ocean heading out towards anything that wasn’t just another of these islands. I wasn’t much of the way into the swim before I wondered what I had done. There I was beyond the point of no return, trapped, needing to struggle for every little breath, to stay afloat, and to ferociously battle the creatures of the deep.
As I thought I lost all hope in finding anything out there, too far to turn back, and the creatures of the deep would soon defeat me, I disengaged. I let myself settle into the calm of the deep water. Then the blue of the ocean turned into The Eternal Fishnu.
The Eternal Fishnu
“Fishnu! I’m a terrible Buddhist, probably the worst ever!”
For months I had been more cynical, dissatisfied with my accomplishments, and just about gave up hope that I would ever be happy with myself. How could anyone be further from Enlightenment?! I recalled something Ringo said, “Sometimes it’s hard tah tell a good Buddhist from a wankah.”
Fishnu asked, “Who from your daily life do you think is happy with themselves and really have things figured out?”
Many people came to mind. Those who I’ve been comparing myself to because they always seem so happy, confident, and calm. Those who started life with more than me, those who seem so comfortable with themselves and others, those who aren’t afraid to sell anything.
“There are four ways people appear happy and calm – not necessarily happy, happy at least from outside appearances. They could be Enlightened, they could have their head stuck up their ass, they could be masters of camouflage, or they could be lucky enough not to have faced genuine hardship.
“For the Enlightened, all of them have made this gruesome journey to get to the other shore. All of them left behind their comfort and faced what they thought is the Demon Mara.
“The people who have their head stuck up their ass have learned to ignore horrors, sweeping them under the rug. They are sometimes mistaken for being enlightened because they’ve indeed let go of things – which in a nutshell are all the things in the direction of the other shore. These are people who have jumped into the ocean, made some headway to the other shore, but turned back. This group accounts for well over 90% of people who appear happy and calm.
“For the masters of camouflage, virtually all creatures on Earth utilize camouflage as a very inexpensive form of weaponry in the eternal battle between predator and prey. They only appear happy and calm just as a puffer fish only appears to be big and strong. These are the poker players.
“Then there are those who have not encountered horrors – either because they are very lucky to have not bumped into any yet or they have been sheltered from it by others. The latter being the situation of Prince Siddhartha Gautama until he left his sheltered life to find the Truth,
“During Siddhartha Gautama’s long meditation under the Bodhi Tree, he was tormented as never before by the Demon Mara. But it wasn’t a demon stopping a soon to be Buddha for whatever reason. There was no demon, just a tough journey to the other shore that all must make to see the reality of the Universe.”
With that, The Eternal Fishnu vanished and I found myself on The Other Shore. None of those islands in sight, none of those creatures of the deep either. There was just a big frontier, a dynamo of One, with no boundaries.
For what seems like eternity, I explored the big frontier of that world with no boundaries. Nowhere to be, nothing to defend, met everything with “Is that so?” Until one day, I happened upon another shore, a shore that seemed so familiar. It was the shore where I began, before I knew anything about the islands, or the ocean, or the Other Shore. I could again see my parents calling to me from that little island. And again, I swam over, but this time knowing what is on the other shore.
Picking Up the Bag
I opened my eyes, awakening not just from my deep meditation sitting in the Utah desert, but from the illusion of the islands. The sun was just rising over a mesa in the distance. No Morning Star, Venus, to greet my awakening as she had done for Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, about 2500 years ago. I later learned that Venus actually was there, but behind the mesa. By the time she rose above the mesa, the sun was too bright in the sky to see the her. That was a little lesson driving the point home a little more.
I sat there in the desert for a few minutes, not knowing what was next until a raven flew just above my head. I told the raven that’s too cliche: “Hello! Carlos Castaneda called and wants his meme back.” Nothing changed, but everything changed. I collected my things and walked back to the log cabin, back to what wasn’t “my life” anymore, but just “Life”.
We’re all unique souls and even if the end lessons are the same, we all converge to Enlightenment from different paths. And that’s the beauty of human sentience, the way each of our complex brains reflects the vastness of the One. But we must all live among the islands for a time to safely gain the skills we need to make the big journey to the other shore. With those skills built, when we fully recognize that reality isn’t a bunch of fragmented islands to experience each in isolation, we will want to venture out to the Other Shore.