Bravely stepping outside the bounds of your average history seminar, a group of students and myself tried to get our heads around the Heart Sutra this week: a short but crucial text in Mahayana Buddhism, featuring the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara – known as Guanyin in Chinese, or Kannon in Japanese (from where Canon cameras took their name).
In deep meditation, Avalokiteshvara has a series of insights about the way reality is, and these form the basis of the sutra. It’s not a dense, complex text, in the way that a western philosophical treatise might be, but it’s not ‘easy’ either – see this excellent introduction by the late John Crook.
Going on students’ reactions in class, there are at least two major difficulties – or points of discomfort – with the Heart Sutra.
Firstly, rather than laying out a conceptual case about ‘truth‘, it’s hinting at something, provoking and evoking, as well as gently nudging the reader to a practice of meditation. This can come across as a frustrating sense of an argument being poorly made. The text also functions as a record of experience, to which a practitioner can return and perhaps say ‘right, yes, that’s a bit like something that’s happened to me': the sutra can’t take you anywhere, but it can help test or confirm your understanding of a place you’ve already visited.
A second problem is that the sutra seems to want to take away from us much of what we most value in life. It claims that nothing we know of in the world – objects, ideas, our minds and selves – ‘exists’ in the way that we usually understand existence: the apparent independent materiality or ‘thing-ness’ of a pen, a cup, or a person is just a product of the way that human brains are wired.
Even worse, any notion of trying to grasp this, and any happy sense of fulfilment or personal transformation in doing so, is just as misguided as the idea of independently-existing things. In reality, there is ‘no attainment’ of this or any other sort.
Ouch. So the concept – much beloved of modern living and modern spirituality – of getting somewhere, of being better, of understanding more, of suffering less anger and less anxiety, and of generally being less of a pain-in-the-arse to yourself and others, is just that: a mere concept.
I suspect this takes us back to the question of metaphors that underlie our thinking and behaviour. A great many academics might sneer at the narrow and obsessive focus on productivity and efficiency that seems to characterize the thought-world of business and commerce. But I doubt we’re any less driven by a deep-set faith in ‘progress’, in ‘getting stuff done’ – developing an idea, finishing a book, seeing students become sharper and more subtle, even just wading successfully through an email inbox. (John Gray’s Straw Dogs discusses this in terms of a ‘self-deluding’ human faith in progress).
Now even recreation and entertainment are falling victim to ‘achievement': we have what you might call ‘enterchievement’, as opposed to genuine rest or play. City breaks, where you have to learn x or see y, or at least be able to tick off a new location as ‘done'; bungie-jumping, requiring a video record of the achievement; paint-balling, to build a team or at the very least to win; an ‘improving novel’, a ‘difficult’ piece of theatre, or a ‘challenging’ TV drama; any number of culture-vulture activities, or a ‘healthy’ dose of (competitive) sport. Even rest can be construed as a recharging activity, fitting us for various achievements at work the next day.
There’s a relentless, addictive quality to enterchievement, orienting us towards a ‘better’ future in which we think we might – but in fact won’t – truly rest.
Just as Terry Eagleton rather ironically bemoaned the lack of a ‘solution’ offered in Straw Dogs there seems to be a trap of logic or habit with achievement or betterment: what do you replace achievement with? What does life look like without achievement, and would it be worth living? Is there anything on the other side of the boredom or inertia that seem to come with letting go of achievement?
Maybe this is why the Heart Sutra sticks to hinting, provoking, evoking: to worry about an absence of achievement is still to be locked into achievement mode, still to be striving towards a fulfilled future (the future, you won’t be surprised to learn, is also on the Heart Sutra’s list of things that don’t exist).
I find this all incredibly difficult and totally against the way I am for most of the average day; it seems either self-defeating and barren, or on the other hand an unusual and precious challenge – and a great example of subtractive over additive spirituality.
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