The Other Shore

Waimea Bay.
Waimea Bay – Looking out to the ocean. What’s out there?

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.

Hanya Shingyo Heart Sutra
Rev. Hanamoku’s mother jotted down the Hanya Shingyo, the Japanese name for the Heart Sutra. It’s a “Japanese-ized” Sanskrit. For example, “han ya ha ra mi ta” is supposed to be “prajna paramita”, actually the sanskrit title of the Heart Sutra.

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.

Hanauma Bay
Hanauma Bay. The desert-like Leeward side of Oahu. My mother used to sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” here to me when I was a very young child. Why didn’t the guy pining for Bonnie go over the ocean too?

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.

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My Bodhi Day gear.

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.

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This is from the day I met 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.

Fishnu said:

“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.

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The long steady path of the Enlightened. Enlightenment is having the smarts to visit the fantastic Zion National Park.

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.

No Thing Exists

Observation Point at Zion.
No Thing here today will be there in a geological blink of an eye.

In yesterday’s post, See, I discussed the phrases “Nothing exists” versus “No thing exists”. Let’s recap that discussion from another point of view because this is a fundamental Buddhist/Zen topic.

Think of having heard a Buddhist priest saying, “Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists.” Does the priest mean there are no stars, no Earth, no chair I’m sitting in as I type, no laptop, no Cable One providing my Internet connection, not even me? That’s what I thought the first thousand or so times I heard something like that.

Why would it be said that everything is an illusion, nothing exists? Well, it’s pretty much what the Heart Sutra is about, particularly the line, “Form is emptiness and Emptiness is form”. The Heart Sutra succinctly captures Buddhism – thus “Heart” as in “heart of the matter”, not the organ or Valentine’s Day heart.

But things do exist. When I leave for work in a couple of hours, I need to deal with the traffic on real roads, real traffic lights, real other cars with drivers, and everything else that prevents me from just driving in a straight line to work.

You’re probably thinking, “What a load of crap!” Things are there, but yet that is something Buddhist priests do say. So are they insane, high, scamming us, having fun at our expense … perhaps it’s wishful thinking on their part, as if reciting a mantra, “If I say this enough, I’ll actually believe it”. Perhaps some of them … hahaha. Things obviously exist, so out of the priests who aren’t insane, high, or whatever, they must mean something else, something completely different from our Western frame of mind.

Here’s my real-life version of an old Zen story: The hike to Observation Point (the scene in the photo above) is magical. The heights, the views of Angel’s Landing, the very real dangers, the wildlife, the constant change of it all, the untamable erosion. I said to Rubber Ducky, “I feel the Oneness with this place, nothing matters, things will be what they’ll be, there is no pain.” As I looked around in awe and contentment, my toe kicked a rock in the middle of the trail. I hear Rubber Ducky laughing his ass off – Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack Mack …

The Buddhist monk isn’t saying the Universe is empty but that whatever our brain thinks of, whether my car, Mrs. Hanamoku, or the leftovers from yesterday’s Independence Day celebration, are just snapshots of something I encountered in the past. Like JPG photo files on my iPhone or my laptop, they are just snapshots of scenes from the past, specifically whatever the “Date Created” says.

These files encoded on my iPhone and laptop, such as the photo at the top of this post, in no way resemble what is displayed, and even less what was actually there. It doesn’t capture what is behind the things you see in the photo, how things are moving, the sounds, the “Fall-ness” of the time I was there – the cool temperature of the air, the smells. It doesn’t capture that I’m standing very close to the edge of a 2000 foot drop, nor does it capture the spirit of awe I share with the few others there.

Such photos are pitifully inadequate models of what we are seeing. Likewise, my brain holds encoded snapshots of things I recognize that are just encodings in my brain. To be certain, our brain encodings are in most ways magnitudes more sophisticated than the encodings of a JPG file. But still, they are pitifully inadequate models of the what is really there now.

This beautiful scene rendered in the photo above no longer exists. You may be thinking that if you were to go there this coming late October, you could take a photo “exactly” like this. It may even be difficult to differentiate our photos side by side. But by this coming October, tons of the canyon will have eroded away, the trees will be different (although imperceptibly because of the distance), the drama of the wildlife will have a different cast. It may be so crowded there that it could actually be a bit unenjoyable. Do our two photos really represent the same thing?

Everything is an illusion. Nothing exists. Every single thing we think of is just a ghost living only in our brain. The only thing that exists outside of our brain is what is right here, right now. What do you do with this insight? Don’t be the guy who “knows everything”! You know nothing! Do you now know what that means?  Empty your cup! Take off your “black belt”, tie on that old “white belt” you haven’t seen for decades, and ironically sew the knot on permanently.

This post is Part 2 of a three-part series on the Heart Sutra:

  1. See
  2. No Thing Exists
  3. Everything Forms Every Thing

See

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One of the most frustrating words used in modern Buddhist literature is “see”. For example, “If you see the reality of the Universe, you will know that nothing exists and that all is One.” That is an important statement because it just about defines enlightenment, even though it sounds like esoteric garbage.

So how does one “see” so one could be so lofty too? It’s not just with your eyes for sure, as “see” would normally imply. At the highest state of seeing, it is “without the mind” meaning absolutely no recognition of things, no judgement, no biases, no prejudice, and no expectations. All of those things are based on the pitifully flawed model of the world built from our experiences. Expectations are usually the end product of computations of our mind incorporating the rules of our recognition of things, judgement, biases, and prejudice.

Such interference from our mind obscures and over-simplifies what is right in front of us – like turning a real flesh and blood tiger into a taxidermy piece. As I type this post, I see my laptop and it is there by my understanding of where an object begins and ends – a black, flat thing with a hinge, a screen, and a keyboard.

But I fail to consider the trillion or so circuits, all the kind, lovely people at Intel and Micron who built critical parts, all the software and the people who wrote and will support the software, the people who made the raw material, John Von Neumann who inspired the architecture, E.F. Codd who laid down the concepts underlying much of what I do, my work which is a culmination of my decades of experience and interactions with co-workers, customers, and friends who diffused (or exacerbated) stress. I could really go on into infinity well beyond our African ancestors and even well past that with the supernova that fused the gold, platinum, and silver in my laptop. That is my laptop!

That isn’t just a flowery Buddhist way of putting things. That is the reality of my laptop. I too am this laptop. Even after I hand it down to Mrs. Hanamoku, I still am too this laptop, as it wouldn’t have become Mrs. Hanamoku’s at that time otherwise. It will still carry the history of development and demos of software that impacted customers, earned income for myself and my partners/customers.

There was a clue to the theme of this post in the first paragraph, the italicized “nothing“: “If you see the reality of the Universe, you will know that nothing exists and that all is One.”

If we add a single space to that quote, it makes what seems to most a nonsensical statement to something that hopefully makes more sense: “If you see the reality of the Universe, you will know that no thing exists and that all is One.”

No thing exists because the Universe is constantly churning away as the grandest process that it is. Whatever we humans perceive as a “thing” is not much more than a snapshot we took with our iPhone. In fact, the snapshot of the thing we took in our minds is in some ways inferior to a photo.

If you’ve ever walked through somewhere like Bryce Canyon or Zion, you know you can’t come close to capturing its grandeur in a photo or even video. The fullness of such a place while physically immersed into it is lost in a photo and even your own memory. The tenuous paths down steep slopes, the feel of the wind, the excitement of other souls equally awed, the contrast between your puny body compared to its overwhelming scale. The only way to experience such grandeur is to be there, no camera, no conversation, be there. As Ringo Starr famously said, “Ya gotta be there to be there.” That is seeing.

See that everything in the past, present, and future are intricately connected, there is just a One. In that way, no thing exists! “Things” are constructs of our minds drawing artificial borders in order to carve out a simple piece of the Universe for our worldly purposes. And those “worldly purposes” are those things we do to put food in our mouths and avoid being food ourselves. When you see this, you will see the folly of your Dukkha. The fact that the One actually exists means all is good, there is no need to suffer. Otherwise, there would just be the noise of nothing.

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Ordained Zen Priest of the Order of the Common Area Ponds

This post is Part 1 of a three-part series on the Heart Sutra:

  1. See
  2. No Thing Exists
  3. Everything Forms Every Thing