Prajnaparamita. Entering Boundlessness Through the Gate of Suffering

Dear Friends,

In last week’s post I invited folks to engage in an improvisational mantra practice. Before we go further in the exploration of  prajna, I think it would be helpful to take a few minutes to try this out again, abandoning, for now, the word “wisdom” which tends to have a limited tone of something that can be achieved or something that is better than something else. 

The translation of prajna broken down into its two parts: pra and jna.

Prajñã

Pra

forward from

before

forth

in front of

onward to

away from

jñã

knowing

learning

ascertaining

seeing

Blend these words randomly before and after each other in a kind of spontaneous poem or rap. It is most helpful to write them down as you explore.  For example: “Forward from knowing, before knowing away from learning and onward to seeing but in front of ascertaining and forth from learning.” Or perhaps you find a series of just a few that undoes any conceptual ideas about prajna.

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Prajnaparamita is introduced in the buddhist sutra, (translated from Sanskrit) “The Transcendental Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Lines” which has been distilled down to 25,000 lines, 18,000 lines, 10,000 lines, 8,000 lines and the sutra that is most commonly referred to in American buddhism: “The Heart Sutra” which has significantly fewer lines. (Here is a standard translation: https://www.lotsawahouse.org/words-of-the-buddha/heart-sutra 1

In an essay from Roshi Joan Halifax, in 20042, Roshi suggests, with the support of Kazuaki Tanahashi, that the Prajnaparamitra Sutra is a teaching that expresses the boundless nature of prajnaparamita  rather than the emptiness of true nature which is the most often used translation.  So from this perspective the Prajnaparamita or Heart Sutra is expounding on the true nature of all beingness that is not only universally good but boundless in every way.  This wisdom beyond wisdom, is not something out there that is achieved through striving towards it, which would mean it has a beginning and an end or an arising and ceasing, but that is already here in this moment-just-as-it-is and in all moments, in all dimensions and is merely veiled by the habitual tendencies of mind and the unconscious activity of the body-mind organism. 

Still, there is still the question, “How do I unveil it?” Even with unquestionable faith in the teachings, and hours and hours of meditation practice, I look out into the everyday world and my everyday life and do not experience boundlessness. I can impute it from the logical processes laid out in busshist treatises, but it is still merely conceptual. There are moments when there is a taste of freedom from fear, and a sense of unending trust in just-thisness. If that is this boundlessness, how is it only temporaary and how does it become re-veiled? How did it become veiled in the first place? How do I prevent it from being veiled? Or as Shariputra asks of Buddha at the beginning of the Heart Sutra : “How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound Prajnaparamita?”3

It is important that Shakyamuni Buddha does not respond with words to this question but remains in stillness and that Avalokiteshvar, the bodhisattva of compassion responds because it is through absolute compassion that one realizes and becomes what one already is: prajnaparamita,  Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom.

What is the gate to this boundless compassion? The first teaching or Turning of the Wheel of Dharma from Shakyamuni: The Four Noble Truths.

There is suffering.

There is a cause to suffering.

There is cessation of suffering.

There is a way to the cessation of suffering.

Reflecting on the first truth. To see suffering is the first step to awakening to the world around us as it really is and to step out of our own palace of identity. It is the first story of Shakyamuni who had been sheltered in a golden palace of riches for his entire life and had never been allowed to experience or see any form of suffering. Until one day he snuck out and saw birth, sickness, old age, and death. He experienced in his being something that he had never known before, like something had been cracked open and his golden palace of identity and reality as he had known it was permanently shattered. What had been awakened was the heart of compassion which had been veiled with curtains of sensual fulfillment, and satisfaction of every whim or desire. This fire of beingness, this goodness would not be denied and so he began his journey to the bodhi tree.

When I look around with an open heart and mind and do not hide from the prevalent suffering of all sorts that thrives in these times, both my mind and heart are broken open and a quality of being flows forward. It is at first so painful that I want to avoid it or put it back into its container. I want to shield my senses and protect my heart and my palace of identity from this pain. I tell myself to stop reading the news, to avoid any unpleasant interactions with folks, to bury my own bouts of depression and self doubt under meditation, study or hard work or perhaps to have a drink. When I do turn toward the suffering, my own or others and receive it with open heart and mind, it feels like a fire cleansing the whole being. Burning away obstacles to generosity, harmlessness, patience, effortlessness and calm. I am more able to respond from selflessness and willing to offer just what is needed instead of doing or saying what my habitual self thinks is needed. 

There have been several instances in our practices in the sangha when folks have been willing to speak of their immense suffering. As a response to this sharing, members of the sangha have  consistently expressed how grateful they are for the generosity and willingness of those folks to speak to their suffering. Because our hearts break open, our mind is, if only for a moment, freed from its habitual traps of identity and a note, or whisper, or fragrance of boundless compassion shines forth. We are beginning to learn to let ourselves be touched by suffering  in all aspects of our lives, not to fix it, cover it up with bandages of kindness, or blessings, but to fully experience it. To render ourselves helpless to the buddha nature of the one who is suffering, the one who is guiding us on the path to compassion and prajnaparamita.

This then is the realization that suffering is the gate to compassion and that suffering is permeated by “Transcendental Perfection of Wisdom” and that this prajnaparamita  is simultaneously permeated by the Universal Goodness of Compassion unveiled and permeated by suffering. 

It is a beginning. 

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With these words I pay homage to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, sentient beings, and the totality. May these words not confuse, bring doubt, or harm, but bring ease and warmth and an end to suffering for all beings throughout all times and in all directions.

William

  1. https://www.lotsawahouse.org/words-of-the-buddha/heart-sutra
  2. https://www.upaya.org/dox/Boundlessly.pdf
  3. https://www.lionsroar.com/vague-no-ungraspable-yes/#:~:text=From%20within%20the%20embrace%20of,to%20practice%20the%20profound%20Prajnaparamita%3F

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Practice

Practicing in sangha, even virtually, supports the practice of meditation differently than practicing solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome. 

 We practice on ZOOM:

Mornings

  • Mondays – Calm abiding. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
  • Tuesdays – Body awareness. 6:30 AM Pacific Time 
  • Thursdays – Tonglen, 6:30 AM Pacific Time 
  • Wednesdays and Fridays – “Formal” Practice 7:00 AM Pacific Time.
  • Sundays – Paramitas. 7 AM Pacific Time 

ZOOM Link:   https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789 

Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at sanghaofthepandemic.org . If you would like to comment or offer feedback and insight you may do so in the comment section on the website or by email to wrgentner@gmail.com 

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Check-In

If you have questions about meditation practice, or would like to have a conversation about the practice or anything else, you can check in with William by making an appointment. Go to “Check In Appts.”

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