The Heart Sutra and the Mantra of our Life
Sojun Mel Weitsman
May 15, 1983
At the end of the Heart Sutra we chant the mantra, Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha. The sutra refers to the great bright mantra. According the Edward Conze, a mantra is literally, a kind of spell. But spell means various things to us. We tend to think of a spell as an enchantment by a witch or a magician. It is something which takes us over. If we listen to a piece of music, we come under the spell or influence of the music. If we go into the woods, we come under the spell of the trees and plants. If we go to the beach, we come under the spell of sun, wind and water. Watching a movie, we become absorbed in the story. It doesn’t have to be seductive, but we tend to think of it that way because of our associations. But mantra is not exactly a spell in that way. Maybe you could say it’s a kind of samadhi, a concentration or absorption. Something that contains the means for absorption or compels our attention. There are no mantras in the six hundred volumes of the Prajna Paramita Sutras. So, to have this mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra is rather unusual.
It is the mantra that expresses Prajna Paramita, or crossing to the other shore. Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate: gone, gone, gone to the other shore, svaha. Svaha is not exactly translatable. It’s a kind of exclamation; something like "well-gone." This mantra is called the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the unsurpassable. What does it mean, and how does it apply to the sutra?
I used to think of Suzuki Roshi’s life as a mantra. We tend to think of a mantra as a phrase which we repeat over and over again. Sometimes people ask, "Can you give me a mantra?" — something to repeat over and over in order to evoke or to maintain a certain concentrated or pure state. But when I observed Suzuki Roshi it seemed to me that the way he lived his life as a mantra. His life had a very obvious form. Every day at the old Sokoji Temple at Bush Street (in San Francisco), I would see him enter the zendo from his office and light the incense, sit zazen and do service. Every day he did the same thing, which was amazing to me. I had never seen anyone do that kind of activity before. His life was devoted to sitting zazen, bowing, lighting incense, and the various other things that he did.
When there were so many other things to do in the world, here was this person simply doing these things over and over again every day. And he had been doing them over and over every day for most of his life. I never thought of myself doing anything like that in what seemed like such a narrowly disciplined way of life. So I was impressed by it. After a while, it occurred to me that his life was a mantra. Everyday he had these tasks that he would do. He was always concentrated and went about his activity in a light and easy manner. Somehow, it was not just repetitive. It was a dynamic that was always producing light. One way to produce energy is to have something going around in a circular path. If you hook up a conductor to that energy producer, the energy flows from it as a dynamo. That’s why he had so much spiritual power.
The form that he gave to Zen Center is what made Zen Center work so well. The schedule is also like a mantra. The mantra is a powerful basis. There also has to be sincerity and some incorruptible leadership. With good leadership and the strong, powerful, dynamic mantra of form, the Prajna Paramita reveals itself and is lived through the form.
Thich Nhat Hanh talked about the Heart Sutra when he was here. He said that you shouldn’t just revere the Heart Sutra as some ancient Buddhist document. He said that you should use it. You should know how to use it. And he kept saying that every day. We should think about how to use the sutra. The sutra is intellectual—it tells us something and prepares our mind; but the dynamics of the mantra expresses the actual use of the mantra.
In The Tiger’s Cave, Abbot Obora talks about the great bright mantra of the Heart Sutra. When we sit in zazen, our mind is like a mirror, sometimes called the "great round mirror samadhi." Whatever appears in front of us is reflected just as it is, without any thought, or idea, or concept standing between clear mind and its perception. Perception is direct and intuitive. With that kind of direct perception our mind is like a mirror, simply reflecting, without contrivance.
It’s like when you come out of zazen into the bright morning. The trees are glistening and everything has a very fresh vibrancy; and you feel, "Oh, I hadn’t remembered seeing it this way before. It’s beautiful." That’s because you are beautiful. You’re seeing a reflection of your own mind; seeing it just as it is. It’s not beautiful, we feel that it’s beautiful. We feel something, and then we say it’s beautiful. Before we say, "It’s beautiful," we just have some feeling. We see our own reflection in the trees and the bright morning. And when we see our friend we have some kind of feeling and we see that wonderful feeling reflected back on us; some identification and reflection because there is nothing standing between us. This kind of mirror samadhi we have in zazen. When we leave the zendo, we can’t stay in zazen posture. I can’t walk out with my legs crossed and my concentration gets diffused. I start thinking about things and discriminating. Pretty soon I see something I don’t like and it bothers me.
Abbot Obora tells the story of a monk who talks to Hogen. Zen Master Hogen was one of the well known zen masters in China. The monk asked Zen Master Hogen, "What do I do with the bright mirror?" Hogen replied, "Smash it into a thousand pieces."
Smash it into a thousand pieces. In all the thousand pieces of your life, each piece becomes a mirror. In all the splinters and bits and pieces of our daily life, each one is still a mirror, reflecting in its own sphere, having that clear mirror quality. As Dogen says, "Even in each dewdrop on the grass, the whole universe is reflected."
Our mantra must be extended like a thread that runs through all of those bits and pieces, even if we don’t see it. It is not a thread that ties it into a big bundle. It’s a thread that makes all of the pieces consistent with each other. This is how we express the mantra and how prajna is brought forth in our daily life. This is an interesting way to think about it. Mantra is our daily activity expressed moment after moment. It’s not just something written down at the end of a page.
You don’t have to say "gate, gate" all day long; just practice the spirit of zazen, which is to continually bring forth the Bodhisattva mind. It means that when we have to make a decision, we can make a decision based on our Bodhisattva mind and not on a self-centered idea. If we want to practice the mantra, then we base our decisions on preserving Bodhisattva mind so that we never get turned around through anger, delusion, or greed. Even if we do get upset, we keep bringing ourselves back to Bodhisattva mind. No matter how much we want to do something right, we’re bound to do something wrong. Every once in a while, we do something right. But knowing when we do something wrong, even in doing something wrong, there’s life in it. It’s our life.
No matter how much we want to do something right, we can’t live an ideally perfect life. Realizing this brings forth our compassion. We feel compassion for others and for ourselves. First, we have to be able to feel compassion for our self. When we can do that, we can feel compassion for others. A perfect life must include the imperfections.
We can be strict with ourselves, but strict does not mean without compassion. Being strict with ourselves, we should know what we have to do and really try to do it. If we really make an effort, we won’t do so much wrong. And if we do something wrong or something that we can’t do so well, the very fact that we are sincerely trying, or that we’re facing our failures and not turning away from them, is itself compassion. And we can extend that compassion to others. If we have that really deep compassionate mind, even though our life does not meet our ideal, we still have some fundamental current of joy, and we can appreciate our life.
In our practice we are trying very hard. Sometimes we’re successful and sometimes we’re not. But within success and failure we can enjoy our life. One moment things are going beautifully and the next moment it’s all wrong. But the practice of zazen is to be settled in that ‘right there’ place in the midst of these conditions. When our legs hurt in zazen we just abide in this calm place. The only thing you can do is to become calmer and calmer. Even if the world is raging right through you’ you just get more and more calm, till you finally get down to the bottom of your life. When you finally get down to the bottom, you know how to practice within all of your activity, always returning to that still place. Compassion comes forth from that place, and the mirror-mind is always reflecting each aspect of our life, and each moment’s division reflects our true mind.
Question: Could say a little more about the Bodhisattva mind?
Sojun: Bodhisattva mind is the mind which is always turned toward practice, which means it is always fundamentally grounded in emptiness and is expressed through our activity. Bodhisattva mind is the mind which is always giving up self-centeredness in order to see into the truth. So we always keep returning to that mind. It’s like sitting zazen, we have all this activity going on and thoughts are coming up and desires keep arising. So in daily life, when some question comes up, you return your mind to the Fundamental, in order to come to a decision. How does my decision accord with this non self-centered view? If you keep doing that, then you’re continuously practicing. If you’re just getting carried away by your feelings, thoughts and emotions and start to follow all these tracks, it’s easy to get lost. But if you keep coming back to base your decisions on this Fundamental Mind, then you don’t get lost and you know how to practice. You may get lost, but you know how to get back. You always know what to come back to. We’re constantly coming back. That’s zazen: constantly coming back to our undivided Fundamental Mind. That’s Bodhisattva practice and the mantra of our life.
Reprinted from the Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter
© Sojun Mel Weitsman, 1997