The heart of the matter

Jonquils - Spring is here already!

Jonquils – Spring is here already!

I’ve been thinking about starting another blog specifically for exploring the Heart of Wisdom Sutra, the shortest of the hundreds (thousands?) of Buddhist sacred texts, that encapsulates the profoundest teachings of Buddhism. It has been the foundational text of all my spiritual learning and continues to provide me with deep insights every day. As many of you may know, the Heart Sutra is a focal point of my teaching as a Buddhist priest as well, and although I don’t refer to it specifically, it underlies everything I talk about here in this blog as well as everything that I have so far learned about the nature of reality and the meaning of Truth: the Heart Sutra is the gateway to enlightenment and paves my spiritual path to understanding ‘Being’. But I might have to wait until my final semester of study is complete before leaping into another new project! In the meanwhile, please enjoy this beautiful video with the chanting of the Heart Sutra…

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of the word “heart”. In Japanese, the name of the Heart Sutra is 般若心経 (Hannya Shingyo), and the third Japanese character 心 means ‘heart’. In English, we tend to distinguish between ‘heart’ and ‘mind’, whereby the heart is the location of emotions and feelings and, of course, a symbol of love; and the mind is the location of consciousness and thoughts and knowledge. But in Japanese, the word 心 means both heart and mind – there is no separation. This becomes quite a problem when translating into English because I must stop and ask, well which one is it – heart or mind? But lately I’ve started to question this apparent separation between heart and mind, feelings and thoughts, as realise that it’s not that clear cut after all.

The full name of the Heart Sutra is the Heart of the Practice of the Perfection of Wisdom; that is, heart as ‘essence’, as the intrinsic nature or deepest underlying quality of something. And this is what we mean when we say we are getting to “the heart of the matter”: getting down to the essential and profound aspect of something. It also means to realise in a clear thinking way some deep underlying truth about something. When we get to “the heart of the matter” we gain some insight into the “truth of the matter”. Beyond just knowledge, getting the heart of the matter brings forth an awareness of wisdom from the core of our being; it is through our hearts that we can gain wisdom, which we recognise with our minds as containing some deep truth. In that moment of insight – at the heart of the matter – we are using our minds to understand this; that is, there is no separation between heart and mind at that point.

Mushroom in my garden - that is its true colour!

Mushroom in my garden – that is its true colour!

And when we offer our “heartfelt” thanks, what do we mean? Something “heartfelt” means coming from the very core of our true being, it means something that is fundamentally authentic and true and pure: the wellspring of our being. So “heart” also equates with the essence of who we are – natural and unadorned and truthful. But when we offer our gratitude, in that “heartfelt” moment it is through our minds that recognise this gratitude and we think of words to express our thanks. Again, there is no clear separation between our heart and mind in that moment of offering heartfelt thanks.

So after thinking (with my mind) about the meaning of “heart” I realise that heart is the location of wisdom, of authentic being, of love, but that this realisation can only be made manifest through mind that enables us to experience and appreciate and share. We may say “heart” and “mind” but really they are just the two faces of our pure being. So, I just want to say…

I heart you!

Hello again…

Dappled sunlight on the scroll in my kitchen today

Dappled sunlight on the scroll in my kitchen today

My retreat from cyberspace wasn’t quite as I expected. In fact, not long after I decided to take a break from all things internet, I started another blog as part of my university studies! This is my last year in completing my BA in Japanese and I am starting to look for a specialised area in which I can develop my professional translation skills, so if you’re interested in Japanese cuisine, you can see what I’ve been translating at my Kyoto Kitchen blog, which I’ll be continuing as part of my studies at least until the end of this year. In fact, I’m still on the computer every day because I have been undertaking some units as an external student, so my cyber retreat seemed somewhat hypocritical and a bit of failure.

But in this “failure”, I have learned something about myself that perhaps might resonate with you too. I realise that in my desire to withdraw from the cyberworld I actually wanted to be living in a different world – one that doesn’t exist any more. I have felt quite nostalgic for the pre-computer world that I grew up in, where we might have shared a ‘real’ cuppa together, where neighbours dropped by unannounced, where the pace of life was slower, where bread seemed to taste and smell more ‘breadlike’, and so on. But that world only exists in my own imagination. And by harking back to another time that sometimes feels more real than the present time, a world that I have made up with my memories, I create a kind of sadness that this world, this reality, is not more like the one I have created with my memory and imagination.

It dawned on me then that this is the essential teaching contained in the Buddha’s words:

“All that we are arises with our thoughts;
With our thoughts we create the world”

Wattle in my garden today

Wattle in my garden today

Whilst of course its fine to take a break away from the computer screen, there was more to it for me than just to rest my eyes for a while. Because, as I said, in my uni studies I was at the computer every day, so it clearly wasn’t just about taking a break. The root of my retreat was this nagging feeling that somehow this “cuppa” wasn’t as real as sitting across the table chatting with you face-to-face, and that led me to feel a kind of sadness. But my nostalgic melancholy stems from the creation in my own mind that there was some other kind of reality than what presents itself to me right now, right in the moment of typing on the keypad and chatting with you. This connection is far more real of course than anything in my imagination because it is a real event, happening right now, and so this is the only reality that can possibly exist. My whole being is connecting with you right in this very moment and that is a cause for happiness and celebration. So whilst I know that I will slip into my nostalgic ruminations, my spiritual path is to continue to practice immersing my whole self in experiencing this very moment. And right at this very moment, I am sharing a cuppa with you. Thank you for being here.

108 Blessings

2013.01.01 bell03New Year’s Eve in Japan is not an occasion for partying (that happens with gusto during the cherry blossom season!) but instead is a time for reflection upon the passing year and for honouring the arrival of the coming new year. It is not sombre, though, because it is a time for communities to get together and share in bringing in the New Year. Temples around the country ring their great bells 108 times at midnight and throngs of people gather in the freezing cold for a chance to thrust the huge log ringer against the massive bronze bell, which is said to bring good luck for the coming year.

This tradition was observed even in the small rural village where I lived. I remember vividly the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated there in 1995 because it was snowing as I walked up the mountain pathway with my young children, who were so excited about having stayed up so late, joining the other villagers and their children as we made our way up to the temple. Although now fallen into a state of aged disrepair, needing far more money than this small village could ever hope to raise to bring it back to its former glory, the temple was once a large training centre, focussed on mountain asceticism. Now there was a single priest, who had inherited his position from his father and his father before him, and who was more often to be found in the local bar than in the temple! The belfry, however, was still quite grand. It was a separate standing bell tower of wood, which held a magnificent ancient bronze bell that was rung only on New Year’s Eve or in the event of fire, using a massive log which was held by ropes and swung onto the side of the bell, creating a wonderful deep sonorous gong.

2013.01.01 bell01We huddled around a huge brazier kept stoked with firewood from the mountain forest, everyone chatting and laughing as we waited for midnight. Although a time of reflection, it is also an important community event and gathered together in the dark, in the snow, in the middle of the night, everyone was excited and in a heightened good humour. There was a great kettle over a stove that held amazake, a thick sweet beverage made with the lees leftover from making sake, with freshly grated ginger and sweetened with sugar. A perfectly delicious hot drink to have while standing in the snow at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

The bell was rung 108 times, each gong made by one of the villagers. The priest insisted that my family go first because it was our first year in the village. At the base of the rickety steps the priest told us to clear our minds and hold in our hearts a feeling of gratitude for all the good things that had come our way in the past year, and that this feeling would make the bell sing. Actually, I was a little afraid that I might fall off the platform with the force needed to release the rope, but instead took a deep breath of cold snowy cleansing air and thought of all the blessings that I had received that year. I drew back the rope – let it swing in once, then back again to build up momentum, then… GONG! The deep sonorous sound vibrated throughout my body and I felt cleansed.

As I descended the steps on the other side of the tower, I was met by one of the village elders who carefully counted out and placed three peanuts in their shells into my hands. Thinking there was ritual significance to this act, I reverentially asked what the peanuts symbolised. The old man looked puzzled for a moment before saying, “It’s a snack!” I just burst out laughing because it was another good reminder to me that in Japan the sacred and mundane are not separate, yet everything you eat, thing and do can become a special moment of awareness and connection.

These days, back in Australia, with the kids all grown up and off doing their own New Year’s Eve things, my husband and I have a new tradition. We go down to a small lookout in Yalgorup National Park, from which you can see west out over the ocean, east out over a large estuary and hills, and north and south over the forest and bushland of the national park. It is a magnificent view. At sunset, watching the sun sinking into the Indian Ocean and the forest turning deep pink in the sunset, we use a prayer mala of 108 beads to name 108 things for which we are grateful. After listing these blessings I always feel filled with an enormous sense of gratitude for simply being alive in that moment, surrounded by the glorious beauty of nature, and my New Year wish is that I continue to be able to bring into my life that feeling of simple gratitude that I am able to appreciate this fact of being alive and feel the connection to the natural world of which I am a living part. Why not try it for yourself?

2013.01.01 Yalgorup

Happy New Year of the Snake to you all, and may your year be full of blessings and peace.

Juggling the sun and the moon

In Buddhist teachings there is always an emphasis on trying to achieve balance in all aspects of our lives, in an effort to reach a state of equanimity (stability and calmness). This is why it is called the “Middle Way” – to find a path between the extremes. Often in our lives we are aware of how our own pendulum swings from one extreme to another, but it seems that it’s only when we get to one extreme that we realise it and then try to move back to a centring position. Well, this is what I always do when it comes to chocolate, anyway! This morning my husband pointed out (in a very amused voice, mind you) that there was an empty chocolate wrapper on the bedside table, an uneaten chocolate in my handbag, and not one, but two bars of chocolate in the groceries I’d just brought home! Mmm… time to let the pendulum swing back a bit the other way towards balance (funny how that metaphor works for the indicator on the bathroom scales as well!)

But it isn’t always so obvious when we are moving into an unbalanced state, although we certainly can feel ‘out-of-whack’ and intuitively sense that something is not quite right. In the larger picture though, we live in a very “masculine” society: that doesn’t mean that we live like men as such, but rather that our lives are filled with action, light, heat, moving forward, and expending lots of energy. That’s what “masculine” energy means in a spiritual sense. This masculine energy is represented in Buddhism as the figure of the sun. On the other hand, “feminine” energy means just the opposite: passive, dark, cool, staying still and drawing energy inwards. This feminine energy is represented in the figure of the moon.

In our society, however, being active and moving forward are seen as positive traits, whereas being said to be “passive” is viewed negatively and implies laziness and of not being seen to be doing something. However, this is also how we “burn out” – think about that… burnt out, as if we have gotten too hot and melted and there has been nothing to cool us down. So it is essential to our physical as well as spiritual wellbeing to take time out and just be still. Rather than being lazy, it is the way that we can return to the balance that is vital to living a peaceful yet fulfilling life.

This image of the masculine hot sun and the feminine cool moon is used extensively in Buddhist art, but recently I found that this symbolism has also been used in Medieval Europe in the context of alchemy and even as far back as ancient Egypt. In alchemy it refers to the “Chymical Wedding”, which is the union of the masculine and the feminine so that a new perfectly integrated whole can be achieved that joins all opposing aspects of our nature into the Divine One. This is the spiritual alchemy of Medieval mystical Christianity. The psychiatrist Carl Jung used this imagery also as a means of finding balance psychologically in one’s life.

I use the symbol of the sun and the moon a lot in my own meditation and awareness practice, and it is quite easy to feel when I’ve heated up too much and need to draw energy inward instead of expending too much. But even after many years of concentrated effort I still find it difficult to give myself the space I need to be quiet, without feeling like I should be doing something else. The masculine side of our society is so deeply entrenched it takes time… well, to give ourselves just free time! So right now I’m sitting outside in my garden as the sun is shedding that special winter light that filters green through the new nasturtiums and glints off the water in the birdbath as the little Honey Eaters descend for their ritual bath. Aaah……Breathe out……switch off the computer now and go somewhere to sit quietly for just a few minutes – that’s doing something!