Some mornings at work, if I have time, I go into the bathroom and read some of the dharma. Without sounding too graphic, by the time I get to work, my breakfast of granola, yogurt, berries and green tea are ready to be recycled back to the earth. You all know the ritual, the “loose” reminder of life, of impermanence, of “oneness”. When I get to work early enough, I have plenty of time to enjoy this ritual that I learned from my father, which was to sit on the toilet and read. My latest dharma reading has been a book that my writing coach, G, loaned me, A Winter Sesshin: Ten Talks on the Heart Sutra buy Roshi Pat Enkyon O’Hara. She was the abbot of the Village Zendo in New York when the talks were given.

I learned that Roshi O’Hara is G’s zen teacher, which for some strange reason, came as a surprise to me. I was surprised because I know G from the SF Zen Center, and I suppose my limited thinking guides me into thinking that western zen begins and ends in the SF Zen Center, which, of course is laughable. I helped G move out of the ZC about a month ago. It was then when she went through some books and passed them along to me, some for keeps, some for loan.

“Here, read this; this is my teacher.” G handed me the book.

The book is a small self-published periodical, and rich in content. It consists of a series of dharma talks that Roshi O’Hara gave between December 2004 and March 2005, but the editor, Howard Thoreson, claims in his notes that he has created a “fictional framework of a ten-day winter sesshin…with he hope that is in some small way this would reflect the ‘daily return’ so dramatically experienced in sesshin. When morning after morning one comes back to the cushion, to the ritual, to the dharma talk.” I have to give the guy credit, this is what he has accomplished. There are no titles to the talks, only numbers. And I must confess that I did not read the editor’s notes until moments before writing this blog post, so I honestly thought it was taking place during a winter sesshin. The simple black and white photos of a winter landscape preceding each talk also helps set the hibernating tone of the book. O’Hara’s talks are all about the Heart Sutra, also known as Maha Prajna Paramita. O’Hara breaks it down, word for word, and being the devoted Buddhist scholar that she is, she also sprinkles in some historical context.

Zen Centers all over the world chant this sutra every day. Like Buddhism, the Heart Sutra started in India, then found its way over to China, then eventually Japan, and now, alas, it has arrived in the West. I have fond memories of chanting it every morning during service in the Zen Center. I still chant it every morning on my drive to work. No matter how tired I am, how grumpy or how resentful I’m feeling about my long commute, I still find myself chanting this chant within seconds after turning on the ignition, buckling my seatbelt, and pulling onto the road. Some days, I forget some lines, so I just start over until I get it right. Even then, I don’t get it “right”, so I just do the best I can.

I made an amateur’s attempt to write about this sutra in my previous blog, though I find that this sutra is a deep, vast well that continues to reveal new truths each time I chant it, and each time I hear a new dharma talk on it. Basically, this is the “emptiness” chant, meaning “form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form”. It is connected to the notion that ignorance is the cause of suffering. It is the essence of Buddhism, and nearly impossible to explain, which, I believe, is the point. As much as we try to break it down, to explain it, to understand it, it is really about experiencing it, being it. Which is hard to explain. But, this morning, as I was sitting on my “throne” at work, reading O’Hara’s Eighth Talk, I was struck by how eloquently she explains it when discussing the origination of the Four Noble Truths:

It is based on the early Sutras in which Shakyamuni Buddha declares that this is what he saw as the cause of suffering. He saw that ignorance – and ignorance means our spiritual separation – ignorance, our inability to see the truth, gives rise to impulses, which gives rise to consciousness, which gives rise to name and form, which give rise to sense and realms, which give rise to contact, and contact gives rise to sensations, that give rise to clinging, that gives rise to becoming, that gives rise to birth, that gives rise to suffering, gives rise to old age and death. This is a completely interdependent chain of origination and causation and you can say that it takes place in your lifetime, or in [snaps fingers] that moment. In a nen. In a nen: arising and falling, causation of suffering arises and falls.

 So this part of the Heart Sutra is saying this Chain of Origination has no separate existence, and it’s shorthand; it doesn’t go through all of them, it starts at the beginning, “no ignorance” and ends with the last one, “old age and death”. This too does not exist!

 At the end of this no old age and death the Heart Sutra says, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path – which are the Four Noble Truths. Even this! The Four Noble Truths are empty of intrinsic existence.

Roshi O’Hara then goes on to pose the question, “What will happen if we realize there is no suffering? What would it be like for us to live our lives without having anything to attain?”

Something to think about.

Feeling grateful for yogurt, granola, fruit, and green tea. Interesting how it recycles itself.