Saturday, August 17, 2019

Running On Empty

When PBS was on Shikoku filming the video OHenro segment of Sacred Journeys, i was hired to get them around and take care of the day-to-day logistics. I still remember their telling me when we first talked about the project that in their opinion suffering was a requirement of doing pilgrimage successfully. It seemed that they believe suffering was the most important tool in a pilgrim's quiver if he/she hoped to find answers to whatever questions they brought to the trail.

I didn't see any sense in getting into discussions of Buddhist philosophy at the time so simply told them that i thought that idea was wrong, that they misunderstood pilgrimage, at least how it applied here on Shikoku. In the end, though, my words changed nothing as it was clear throughout the project that they continued to believe in the value of seeking out suffering as a method of purifying yourself.

I wonder how many other people bring this idea to the henro trail? I also wish i could convince people that it is absolutely not true and save them some time and effort in finding this out for themselves.

The Heart Sutra makes this clear from the very opening lines. As the sutra begins, we find Kanjizai (Kannon Bodhisattva) in a deep state of meditation when he realizes that the five aggregates are empty. If we understood nothing of the Heart Sutra beyond this, but could see this as intuitively and as clearly as Kanjizai saw it, then our paths would be nearing an end. Even without a lot of practice, a great many people can see the truth of the emptiness of the "external" world. It doesn't take a lot of time or a lot of mental effort to see the truth of impermanence, non-self, and suffering with relation to the world "out there."

Moving internally, it isn't even all that difficult to come to an understanding that this thing i call me is impermanent, has no intrinsic self-being, and causes suffering. Everyone knows on some level that who they are today is not who they were when they were children and infants. We grow and change from second to second, throughout our lives, and our beliefs, ideas, and emotions have caused us countless hours of suffering over the years.

Taking one more step backwards, though, bothers a lot of people. The majority of people don't even see any need to do it. I was walking part of the trail with a friend one year when the subject came up and after i got out about one sentence my friend cut me off and asked why in the world anyone would even want to go down that path? I changed the subject and he never even blinked an eye; he followed the new subject line and never even hinted that he saw that i hadn't answered his question. For people like this, those so firmly established in the normal material world, taking that backwards step is so counter intuitive that it doesn't even register as a valid line of reasoning. Of course the world as i see it exists. Of course i am this body and mind. Of course i change, but there is an "I" that is me.

Then some of those people learn about Buddhism and the five skandhas, and this gives them something new to hold onto as they give up their previous notion of a permanent "I." I may not be permanent, but certainly the five skandhas are. I mean, the Buddha said it himself, it's right there in the sutras — we are made of the five skandhas.

And it is right here, at the hardest step to take in the backwards direction, that the Heart Sutra begins. Yes, i know that's what he said, and in one sense it is true, but in the deepest of meditations, at the pinacle of wisdom, Kanjizai tells us that even the five skandhas are empty, that even these do not exist in-and-of themselves, that they are impermanent, and as untrue as everything else.

And what happens when he realizes this? He passes beyond all suffering and discontent. It doesn't say that he realizes that he can ignore them, that he can bear them with dignity, that he can work through them; it says that he passes beyond them. He sees them as non-existant, he sees them as the mirages that they are.

In other words, as you take your first steps on the henro michi, you are beginning with the understanding that not only do you not have to look for suffering to be successful on this walk, but that suffering does not exist. If you are looking for suffering you are looking in the wrong direction. It's as if you arrive on the trial with a new map and compass and as you try to orient your map to make sure it aligns with what you are looking at you lay your compass on it, but put south to the top in the capsule. When you do that you guarantee right from your very first move that you are looking at the world upside down.

As you bow at the sanmon of Temple One and take your first steps inside, do so with the firm conviction that not only is your superficial personality empty, everything about you is empty. In the world of absolute reality that you will be investigating during this walk there is no you. That may not make sense yet, but accept that coming to understand this is the purpose of walking the henro trail as a pilgrimage. Everything else in the sutra is an added bonus. Kanjizai tells you right up front, right in the opening words everything you need to know: Even the five skandhas are empty. There is no You. And when you get it, there is no suffering or discontent to be found anywhere. They don't exist either.