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Lions Roar : September 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2011 48 WHEN FORM EMPTIES Form is exactly emptiness. Emptiness exactly form. —H EART SUTRA Practicing Buddhists may regularly read these crucial lines from the Heart Sutra, said to be the most concise and complete statement of the true nature of reality. As we study the words, we may think we understand them. Leaving aside any spiri- tual insight and reasoning solely on the basis of scientific fact, we can easily see the truth of imper- manence. Everything changes. Nothing lasts, not even feelings. It’s obvious, and yet in matters of the heart, it can be a hard thing to wake up to. I must have been about thirteen years old when my mother hung up the phone one evening, turned, and told me that my uncle had come home from work at lunch that day, walked into the kitchen and told my aunt that he didn’t love her, had never loved her, and was leaving right that minute. Since then, I’ve heard of many parting scenes with a similar script, and even uttered a variation of it myself. But, at such a young age, to hear the words that shattered a family and dis- solved its story made the ground give way. Whether we notice it or not, the ground is always giving way, disappearing into the vast chasm of impermanence and inconceivability, where our understanding of a line or two of ancient text doesn’t begin to reach. To suffer a loss or heartbreak is to live the irrevocable truth through which one’s own wis- dom awakens. It’s the hard way to wisdom, but it’s the only way, and the path is well worn. When the love story ends, take the path that lies before you, and it will always lead you out of suffering. NOT WHAT YOU THINK The thought of enlightenment is the mind that sees into impermanence. —DOGEN ZENJI A broken heart can seem like an undignified or even trivial way to start a spiritual transforma- tion, but it’s a powerful one, as the life of the great Dogen Zenji attests. His mother died when he was but a boy of seven, and some scholars trace his pro- digiousness as the revitalizer of thirteenth-century Zen to that early event, when his mind was seized by unanswerable questions. We experience a subtle spiritual awakening the moment we see that life goes on, even after our life has been ripped apart by loss. However unimaginable, life goes on even when we don’t recognize it as our life. It’s absent of the familiar people, places, or things we previously used to navigate it, and it’s without the tenuous threads we used to bind it together. When a relationship so central to our life proves unreliable, we might wonder what is real. If we look deeper into our discursive mind we see how we create memory, sentiment, and meaning. Suddenly nothing means what we once thought it did. Ordinary things take on the weight of our rage and the freight of our pain, and a toothbrush is no longer just a toothbrush. Indeed, your home may be your new hell; your bed, a torture chamber; a sleepless night, an eternity. Perhaps nothing is what we conceive or perceive it to be. When this thought occurs to you, take heart. Doubt is the dawn of faith, and faith will see you through darkness. THE STRIDE OF NO-STRIDE This is the greatest illusion of all. — MARPA, weeping over the death of his child It would be nice if we could keep from falling apart when our lives collapse around us. It would be handy if by our spiritual learning alone we could pull our- selves together, keep up appearances, and maintain our stride. We might be saved embarrassment and shame. We might look like we’re coping. We might even stay positive. But that is not the way reality works. We can’t outsmart it. Impermanence always knocks us off our stride. It is a pothole, a landmine, and a head-on collision. We tumble and fall, and that can be useful. Falling is the fastest way to drop our arrogance, cynicism, pretense, and indifference. Pain brings us fully to life. Such is the lesson in the story of Marpa, the eleventh-century Tibetan teacher, who wept copi- ously over the dead body of his young son. Finding him in the throes of inconsolable grief, Marpa’s disciples were taken aback. Hadn’t the master taught them repeatedly that life was an illusion? Why was he carrying on like this? Was he a liar or fake? Marpa responded, “Yes, everything is an illusion, but the death of a child is the greatest illusion of all.” Your pain is the most piercing illusion of all. Fac- ing it, feeling it, you will awaken your sympathy and kindness. You will feel compassion for yourself, and soon, for all. You will find your footing by losing it. KAREN MAEZEN MILLER is a teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Her most recent book is Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life.