A Hitman and One Essential Phrase

Ghost Dog is a film by Jim Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a lone wolf hit man who follows the ancient code of the samurai. He lives in a homemade cabin on the roof of an abandoned tenement building where he keeps a flock of pigeons. Ghost Dog is cold-blooded but he also has warmth and humanity, something that was already a bit of a cliche by 1999 when the film was made, but it works. Ghost Dog broods a lot and in voice overs, frequently quotes from the Hagakure, a book of commentaries by a 18th century samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo:

Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase “Form is emptiness.” That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase “Emptiness is form.” One should not think that these are two separate things.

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form . . .” comes from the Heart Sutra, of course. It has been called the most famous statement in Mahayana Buddhism.

Boiled down from the much larger Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Heart Sutra not only touches upon every major concept in Buddhism, but I would say that of religion and philosophy as a whole. There’s even a shorter version of what is already the shortest Buddhist sutra, which in any of the Asian languages amounts to a mere paragraph, and it’s not much longer in English. Recited daily by Buddhists all over world, the Heart Sutra transcends sectarianism. I think the Pure Land, Nichiren and Theravada are probably the only mainstream schools that do not use the Heart Sutra in one way or another.

Interpretations of this famous phrase, “form is emptiness . . .”, might be as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. It is not my intention today to add another one, but rather present some words by a few contemporary Buddhist teachers.

The Five Skandhas are the components of existence. Buddhism holds that an individual is a combination of the skandhas, or aggregates, listed here in the passage that contains the statement under discussion:

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and thus crossed over all suffering. O Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Thich Nhat Hanh, contemporary Zen Master, from The Heart of Understanding:

Form is the wave and emptiness is the water. You can understand through that image. The Indians speak in a language that can scare us, but we have to understand their way of expression in order to really understand them. In the West, when we draw a circle, we consider it to be zero, nothingness. But in India, a circle means totality, wholeness. The meaning is the opposite. So ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form,’ is like wave is water, water is wave. ‘Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness,’ because these five contain each other. Because one exists, everything exists.

Sheng-yen, (1930-2009) Chinese Ch’an monk, from There is No Suffering:

Indeed, everything is empty, but emptiness is wonderful existence. It is precisely because our existence is illusory that we can experience enlightenment and help others to do the same. For this reason, “emptiness is not other than form” is more important to understand than “form is not other than emptiness,” in that the workings of the five skandhas are the full display of emptiness. The five skandhas do have a conventional existence. Our bodies are illusory, but we will suffer if we do not care for them. Food is illusory, but we will starve if we do not eat. Our activities are illusory, but only through activity can we help others. For this reason, there is action in the midst of emptiness, and because of this, we should remain active and positive, and avoid nihilism.

Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama, from Essence of the Heart Sutra:

It is important for us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or independent truth. Emptiness must be understood as the true nature of things and events. Thus we read, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is from. Emptiness is no other than form; form too is no other than emptiness.” This does not refer to some kind of Great Emptiness out there somewhere, but to the emptiness of a specific phenomenon, in this case form, or matter.

The statement that “apart from form there is no emptiness” suggests that the emptiness of form is nothing other than the form’s ultimate nature. Form lacks intrinsic or independent existence; thus, its nature is emptiness. This nature – emptiness – is not independent of form, but rather is a characteristic of form; emptiness is form’s mode of being. One must understand form and its emptiness in unity; there are not two independent realities.

Mu Soeng Sunim, Korean Zen teacher, from Heart Sutra: Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality:

The sutra insists that form is emptiness. There is a critical difference between form being empty and form being emptiness. Sunyata [emptiness], in Prajna-paramita sutras, is the ultimate nature of reality; at the same time it does not exist apart from the phenomena but permeates each phenomenon. Therefore, sunyata cannot be sought apart from the totality of all forms. And, although all forms are qualified at their core by sunyata, its presence does not negate the conventional appearance of form. In this sense, emptiness is dependent upon the form it qualifies, as much as form is dependent on emptiness for its qualification. Thus form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. At its core level, form does not differ from emptiness nor does emptiness differ with form.

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), Soto Zen Master, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra. However, if you are not careful the sutra itself will give you a gaining idea. It says, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But if you attach to that statement, you are liable to be involved in dualistic ideas: here is you, form, and here is emptiness, which you are trying to realize through your form. So “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form” is still dualistic. But fortunately, our teaching goes on to say, “Form is form and emptiness is emptiness.” Here there is no dualism.

When you find it difficult to stop your mind while you are sitting [in meditation] and when you are still trying to stop your mind, this is the stage of “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But while you are practicing in this dualistic way, more and more you will have oneness with your goal. And when your practice becomes effortless, you can stop your mind. This is the stage of “form is form and emptiness is emptiness.”



Poet Laureate of Harlem

If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out by now that I love poetry. The first poem I read that gave me a real sense of how wonderful poetry could be was e.e. cumming’s “in-Just spring.” I was either in the 3rd or 4th grade and the poem just bowled me over because it was so simple and it was so different from any other poem I had read and it made you feel what he was writing about. “When the world is mud-lucious . . . puddle wonderful . . . eddieandbill” – I remember it was cold outside but as I read the poem, I felt I was touching spring.

Since then I have always preferred poets whose styles are similar in some way to cummings. People like William Carlos Williams, Aram Saroyan, and Charles Bukowski to name a few. For me, the best poets use as few words as possible. That’s one reason why I also like Chinese and Japanese poetry so much. Saroyan once wrote a poem that consisted of just one word – crickets – typed repeatedly down the center of the page. You can see that poem and more of his minimalist word experiments here.

Langston Hughes is another poet I admire.  He’s best known for the work he did during the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and intellectual cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s and he was one of the first poets to experiment with blues and jazz rhythms.

Saturday’s post featured one of Hughes’ poems and I thought that some readers might not be too familiar with him or his work. You can read about Hughes here, while today, I present another of his poems. I think it’s one of the best pieces of poetry ever written.

Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while riding a train on his way to Mexico to visit his father. He was just 18 years old. Short and spare, yet containing powerful imagery, the poem manages to tell the story of human civilization in a mere 60 words.

I am not African-American, but this poem speaks to me. I, too, am familiar with rivers and very familiar with the last one he mentions, along with that city, and I’ve seen the river just as he describes.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


Freedom and Interdependency

The word “freedom” is often used to refer to an absence of restraint or control of a person’s physical and mental activities.  This kind of freedom is always limited by conditions that prevent individuals from doing certain things. These conditions may be natural or human-made laws, or they may be physical or mental limitations.

Different people feel free in different ways. Everyone has a somewhat unique sense of personal freedom. Some persons may feel that one way to be free is to be entirely unconnected with anything else. However, this sense of freedom is only an illusion because in truth there is nothing that is unconnected with anything else.

As far as Buddhism is concerned, spiritual freedom is release from suffering. Buddhism teaches that an understanding of interdependency is crucial to attaining this kind of freedom.

The Indian term for this relativity is Pratitya-Samutpada, rendered in English variously as dependent origination, inter-dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, etc. I like interdependency. It’s short and to the point.

Interdependency is often explained with the formula of “because of this, that arises; because of that, this arises.” Nothing exists by itself because everything is inter-connected and nothing can arise or come into being without be produced by causes operating under various conditions.

Since the Buddha was primarily concerned with the problem of human suffering, he used interdependency to trace the causes of suffering, which he ultimately attributed to ignorance. This resulted in a reverse formula: “because this is not, that ceases; because that is not; this ceases.” According to this reverse formula, if ignorance is not then suffering is not. The Buddha taught that if we remove ignorance and replace it with wisdom, suffering can be transcended.

What do we mean by ignorance? In 1997, while giving teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, the Dalai Lama offered these words:

The very word avidya or ignorance in itself shows a state that one cannot really endorse as positive. It is said to be fundamentally confused, so, surely it cannot be a state that is desirable. The point is that if our existence  is said to be completely determined and conditioned by that fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, how can there be scope for lasting freedom or lasting peace? Therefore, it becomes crucial to see whether avidya or fundamental ignorance can be eliminated.

Some schools of Buddhism consider the root of ignorance to be self-grasping; the mind grasping at self-existence on one hand and ignorance on the other. In the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, ignorance is understood as a state of mis-knowing, viewing the world in a distorted way, and this arises from non-comprehension of the interdependency of all things.

I feel that interdependency is a key word for the future. As our world keeps shrinking though advances in technology, we are seeing more and more how things are truly interrelated. Each day, science provides us with new examples of how life and our environment are both like fabrics woven into a complex pattern of causes and effects. In medicine, recognition of the mind-body connection is now more commonplace than ever. If, in the future, we human beings can ever begin to cultivate a deep understanding of interdependency, we might be able to turn the world around and establish some measure of lasting peace.

This last point is the great benefit of the concept of interdependency because it leads us to a true understanding of equality. Owing to the fact that we are interconnected and because we are subject to the same causes and conditions, we are all equal.

Seeing ourselves as unconnected to other things, particularly other beings, is not freedom. Here again the reverse applies in that true freedom is embracing inter-connectedness. It’s seeing the world as it really is.

The person who thinks that freedom means being unconnected is just grasping after a “self” which does not exist. A self that is independent, permanent, and unchanging, and nowhere can such a thing be found. We like to feel we are a self that is different in both appearance and substance from other beings, which is true, but only in relative terms. Science tells us that the components which make us different from other beings constitute only a percent or two of our total being, so ultimately the rest is the same as every other being.

If nothing else, here lies freedom from hatred and racism, for it makes no sense to hate another person because one or two percent of difference. Not to mention that for any reason, hate is not cool.

Nagarjuna said, “Everything stands in harmony for the person who is in harmony with interdependency.” He taught that peace and harmony in the world is possible when we reject the idea of the unconnected self, and further, that anyone who comprehends interdependency deeply can help all beings realize freedom. Such a person is called a buddha, one who has awakened.


What happens to a dream deferred?

On this date, 47 years ago:

Some 200,000 people were gathered for “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” an event that was more of a rally than a march. They stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial, where the great man in white marble looked down upon them, and where the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, uttered these historic words:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

According to biographer Anthony Scaduto, young folksinger Bob Dylan, who was to perform that day along with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and others, while in a private moment, looked over to the Capitol with a skeptical eye and said, “Think they’re listening? No, they ain’t listening at all.”

Hope and optimism was in the air. The times they were a’changin’. Yet, Dylan had already sensed the dark days ahead.

Only some listened and the country paid a heavy price: riots ignited in cities across the country and the cities went up in flames to the chants of “Burn, Baby, Burn!”, assassinations, student protests over the war in Vietnam turned into violent melees – unrest was as much the tenor of the times as peace and love.

In 1951, the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes wrote:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I remember a day in April of 1992: I stood on the roof of my building which offers a panoramic view of the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black cloud. Smoke. Plumes of smoke rose from locations all over the city. I went downstairs and on TV was Rodney King, the man savagely beat by the policemen whose acquittals had sparked the riots. Rodney King was speaking to a group of reporters. He looked confused, overwhelmed, like a man caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare. He said, “Can’t we all . . . just . . . get along?”

It seems so simple. If we could just get along . . .

Another Buddhist blogger, Adam, at Fly Like A Crow, wrote yesterday that he was tired of talking about race. I left a comment on his blog, agreeing. I am tired of talking about race. I am tired of racism. I am tired of everything having to be an issue. Tired of no one listening and everyone shouting. I am tired of young people dying in wars that should not be waged. I am tired of terrorism, and really tired of what it has done to our lives and our politics. I’m tired of the way that we can’t get along.

I changed my mind about that comment. I realize now that I can’t stop talking. We can’t be silent when there is injustice in the world. No matter how weary we may be, we can’t give in to complacency. We are interdependent, so when one dream is deferred, all of our dreams are deferred.

The former Mayor of Los Angeles, the late Tom Bradley (an African-American) once proposed the rather controversial idea of taking kids out of the ghettos and barrios and putting them into camps where they could get the kind of education and exposure to positive thinking they deserved. The problem he said was that many children, African-American youth especially, didn’t know how to dream. After being beat down for so many generations, they had lost the ability to dream. Their parents didn’t teach it to them because their parents had not taught it to them.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream and almost fifty years later the dream is still deferred for too many Americans. Hate crimes are on the rise. The nation is a battleground and the ominous signs of violent confrontations once again are on the horizon.

Yesterday I also read a piece by Katie Loncke at The Buddhist Channel who said she disagreed with the notion that smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism. But that is just the sort of thing that many people can do in the midst of their busy lives to keep talking. We don’t have to open our mouths to communicate. It seems to me, from my experience, that a smile can be a pretty powerful thing.

Loncke talked about inner work and outer work. I don’t know what that means. The work is both. There is no duality. In Buddhism we call it esho funi – self and environment are two but not two. However, the environment itself is really one. We all share the same environment, this world. When we strive to make it better for others, we’re making it better for ourselves, too.

We need to keep talking, but even more importantly, we need to listen. We should be like Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion, the Hearer of the Cries of the World. We need to lay down our soldier arms, lay down our barbs and jabs, our hate and selfishness – lay down these arms so that we can embrace our brothers and sisters, so that we can smile and hold them close, and hear their cries, and smother those cries with our understanding and compassion.

First smile, then listen, and then talk . . .We cannot continue to defer this universal dream.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream . . .

If you have never watched or heard the complete speech delivered by Dr. King on August 28, 1963, here it is:

This is Bob Dylan with Joan Baez at the March singing “When The Ship Comes In” along with a snippet of Dylan doing “Only A Pawn in Their Game” (both songs introduced by the late actor and social activist, Ozzie Davis):


To Be or Not to Be

“To be or not to be – that is the question” is, of course, one of Shakespeare most famous lines. Hamlet is contemplation suicide, and this phrase, according to Schopenhauer “is, in condensed form, that our state is so wretched that complete non-existence would be decidedly preferable to it.”

However, this assumes that there is existence and non-existence, being and non-being. Within the Buddhist tradition, there are divergent opinions on the subject of being and non-being. Nagarjuna rejected both the notions that ‘being is and nothing is not’ and ‘nothing exists.’ In considering this matter, he set up a formula of four possibilities, each one of which he rejected: something is, it is not, it both is and is not, and it neither is nor is not.

What Nagarjuna was really refuting were modes of thought, opinions, views, statements, and so on. As an antidote to the disease of clinging to either being or non-being, he took a middle path between the two. He taught that the tendency to cling to concepts and views was the root of suffering. His Middle Way is to see things as they truly are and to understand that nothing in the world actually exists absolutely, just as nothing perishes completely.

Here is an excerpt from a dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, France, in which he discusses this ‘question’ of to be or not to be:

Descartes said: “I think therefore I am.” He was caught in a notion of existence, clinging to it to overcome the fear of non-existence. Because he did not look deeply enough, he was fearful of being nothing especially when he was confronted with the death of someone, or with his own death. If we are caught in the notion of being we will also be caught in the notion of non-being. From the perspective of life span, we think we start to exist at the point of time we call birth; and we think we continue to exist until the point of time we call death, after which we think we cease to exist. Thus the notions of birth and death form the basis of the notions of being and non-being. Both of these notions have their roots in the fundamental notion of life span. The Buddha has taught that when conditions are sufficient things manifest, but to label that manifestation as being is wrong. Also when conditions are not sufficient, things do not manifest, but to label that as non-being is also wrong. Reality is beyond being and non-being, we need to overcome those notions. Hamlet said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” We can see that he was caught by these notions. But according to this teaching, “to be or not to be”, is not the question. Because reality is beyond the notion of being or non-being, birth or death, coming or going. Where do we come from and where do we go to? Those are philosophical questions. But if we understand suchness then we know that we don’t come from anywhere and we don’t go anywhere.