April 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Puff the Magic Sutra

There’s something about an ancient book that makes you want to root through it for enlightenment, for deep wisdom, for solutions, for magic, for instructions. I have a fantasy that someday I’ll find a secret book, a book that teaches me to levitate, a book for learning alchemy, a book of hidden truths that change the way the world looks and smells and feels to me. Interestingly, I’ve found that book many times over, and I keep looking for another one. I keep wanting it to happen again. Sometimes in my dreams, I visit a magical library and try to memorize what I find there. Once I dreamt I wrote a book that would teach people how to carry books out of their own dreams.

Most readers are familiar with Borges’s famous short story “The Library of Babel,” in which the universe is a vast library that contains every book, within a certain format, that could conceivably be written. There’s so much information that books are ultimately useless, except to the person, the deity really, who finds the “crimson hexagon,” a log of all the books in the library. Fewer are familiar with Borges’ later piece “The Book of Sand,” in which a semi-autobiographical narrator is sold a book of infinite pages, with no beginning and no end. The Borges character is just as troubled by this volume as its previous owners. He decides to set it on fire, but fears that “the burning of an infinite book might likewise prove infinite and suffocate the planet with smoke.” He realizes that the best place to hide a leaf is in a forest, and drops the terrifying thing on a random, musty shelf in the basement of the Argentine National Library.  

I’m holding a glossy new paperback in my hands, with a snowy-white cover photo of an archer-monk whose dazzling red robe explodes like neon against the wintery scene. Inside the book is the Heart Sutra, a centuries-old sacred text known for its brevity, for its ability to capture “Buddhism in a nutshell.”

In his introduction to An Arrow to the Heart: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Ken McLeod explains that this short text is about “the perfection of wisdom.” It’s not supposed to help me conceptually understand the perfection of wisdom. It’s not a devotional work or a meditation guide. It is supposed to experientially bring me closer to “deeper knowing.” And of course, to talk about what it’s supposed to do is futile and pointless, because it defies explanation.

Meanwhile, in his commentary, McLeod doesn’t try to philosophically explain emptiness, but rather to present “a moment of being completely awake and present,” and to elicit that experience in the reader. For each line of the sutra, McLeod has written a poetic riff, a prose riff and some notes. There are little illustrations on every other page, of targets and arrows -- a heart as a bullseye, a dog looking at a target caught in a tree, a frog diving into a bullseye. According to the introduction, I’ll do best reading this book one or two pages at a time. The abrupt shifts in logic will create gaps in my thinking. On my first read, I shouldn’t try to “understand” the words: “Attempts to figure out the underlying structure will just enmesh you in thinking and take you away from what the Heart Sutra is pointing to.” Why is emptiness such an important teaching in Mahayana Buddhism? It opens the door to a “qualitatively different kind of compassion.”

            Form is emptiness,
            Emptiness is form.
            Emptiness is not other than form.
            Form is not other than emptiness.

These lines, says McLeod, will stop the “incessant cacophony of thoughts, memories and associations” in your head for a second. Then you’ll probably say, “Huh?” But that moment of emptiness is what the Heart Sutra is pointing at. For me, I didn’t have a “Huh?” moment when I read the lines. It was more of a “So?” moment. The rest of the Sutra definitely elicits some serious confusion, though.

I bow to Lady Perfection of Wisdom
Thus have I heard. At one time Lord Buddha was staying at Vulture Peak Mountain in Rajagriha, with a great gathering of the monastic sangha and the bodhisattva sangha.

Luckily, An Arrow to the Heart is designed for readers who might be new to Buddhism. “It wasn’t until I picked up McLeod’s book that I began to ‘get it’,” writes reviewer Peter Clothier. “What a relief! I didn’t have to ‘understand’ the sutra at all -- at least not in the purely intellectual sense.”

So, for the past few weeks, I’ve brought the Heart Sutra and McLeod’s commentary into my normal, daily life in New York City -- eating Austrian food in Brooklyn, hearing a free chanting demonstration at the Shinjo Ito show at Milk Gallery, reading The Amber Spyglass on the subway, job hunting, going to yoga or the library, giving my cat cranberry supplements, talking about astrology at Benny’s Burritos, volunteer tutoring precocious Ecuadorian children, and hanging out with men in kinky Helmut Lang pants. I read and reread a page or two at a time. I read sections aloud to friends. I leave the sutra lying around and pick it up at random moments.

I might be a very uptight person, but it feels like I’ve been surrounded by willfully mellow people my whole life. As a teenager, I was a failed stoner (“Hey Bud, Learn To Inhale,” reads one inscription in my yearbook) in a crowd of kids who sat in the park singing “Me and Bobby McGee” and making drugged tie-dye desserts and fashioning giant bongs out of test tubes stolen from the Chemistry lab and writing plays based on Alice in Wonderland or Roald Dahl stories and watching Alice’s Restaurant and reading Terry Gilliam’s fairy tales to each other. They actually liked Puff the Magic Dragon. As a toddler, I lived in some sort of commune where men in orange robes gave me bland cookies, and bearded men in bellbottoms talked about “the wisdom of the child” and read R. D. Laing. They liked Puff the Magic Dragon too. When someone tells me to “relax,” I get irritated. And I’ve always hated the way stoned people laugh at me. Either my sobriety is funny, or, if I get stoned too, my paranoia is funny. Maybe getting stoned feels different to different people, or maybe I just read the feeling differently, the way one guy at the top of a ski slope feels his rush of adrenaline as excitement, while the guy next to him experiences that same “excitement” as sheer terror. Maybe my friends are happily thinking, “This is slowing down my mind!” while I’m miserably thinking, “This is slowing down my mind.”

I say all this, because in between trying to let go and just read some pages of An Arrow to the Heart without worrying about “getting” them, I keep thinking, holy shit, this is just so seventies! Or, sixties? The Alice in Wonderland obsession… the Bob Dylan quotes… the Leonard Cohen quote… the Winnie the Pooh quote… the Douglas Adams quote… the line from “Me and Bobby McGee.” I don’t want to be uptight. Who doesn’t love Bob Dylan and Douglas Adams? And, it’s not like only stoned people or seventies people are into these cultural icons. There’s just something about the overall vibe of the book that brings me back, back to those various crowds of stoners, with their smug, knowing grins, saying things like, “Don’t say a word! As soon as you open your mouth, you contradict yourself,” or “Caught up in what you are going to be, you don’t know what you are,” or, “The Truth is its own falsification,” or “How fragrant is the idea of a rose?” Whoa, man.

The most irritating thing about stoners is when they get all “You’re harshing on my mellow,” about it. They say things like, “Why do you have to think so much? Why can’t you just be?”

Now, I’m assuming that Ken McLeod is not a stoner, and that his Heart Sutra commentary is not a stoner anti-manifesto. He’s a top Buddhist scholar and important translator of Tibetan works into English, and his commentary comes from decades of intensive study. In An Arrow to the Heart, he speaks disparagingly of more-zen-than-thou, “my buddhahood is better than your buddhahood” types.

I want to “get it,” and by that I mean I want to “get” how I don’t have to “get it,” and, you know, “get” that I don’t have to want or not want to “get it.” If I said this to McLeod, I figure he’d grin puckishly and nod, with a wise little chuckle. See? “First you want two, not one. Then you want one, not two… You can’t go over this. You can’t go under it. You can’t go around it. And you can’t go through it. Go ahead and think about it. See how your head feels in the morning!” Or, “In the end, it’s all empty. But is it like a room, like milk, or yoghurt, or like the horns of a rabbit, or like a secret that cannot be put into words?” Or, “Sweep these two rat turds under the rug! /  Where’s the rug?” I can imagine one of the guys I slept with in college, the one with the Acura whose dream was to move to Alaska and live in a cabin he built, reading McLeod’s poems in between buying Tim Robbins books and watching Soylent Green. “Hey Liz, listen,” he would call from the loft in his A-frame, chuckling wisely and toking on his little spliff:

The rings
Across the pond.

Nothing escapes
Their inexorable advance.

Mr. Frog?
He’s long gone.

I would be downstairs on the couch, drinking whiskey and doing homework, thinking, so what?! It’s there and not there, man. “Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness.” Then again, as McLeod writes later in the commentary, “You have awareness, don’t you? You are not a stone or a lifeless machine. Good. Then give it to a friend just the way you would give him a flower or a book. You can’t, you say. How do you know you can’t? Now that’s moving in the direction of great awareness!”

An ancient, magical text can transport you into another world. But the Heart Sutra aims to do something different entirely -- to bring you more deeply, more instantly, more truly, more profoundly into this world. Which is, of course, where you already are. How can you write about such a thing without sounding Yodalike -- irritating, solipsistic, pithy and stoned? In his introduction, McLeod says, “Emptiness frees us from concerns about who we are, what others may think, or what we should or should not do. At the same time, it brings a clarity that enables us to know what to do, moment by moment, to respond to the suffering and struggles of the world.”

I didn’t feel much in my weeks spent with An Arrow to the Heart. My heart didn’t open, or close. I didn’t find a new kind of clarity or compassion. I didn’t mellow out. But now it occurs to me, maybe all of those things did happen. Maybe they are happening. Maybe they don’t happen at all, man, they just are. Maybe I am Little Jackie Papers, and this is Honah Lee, and it’s all one, and we’re all one, so nothing has changed, and everything has changed. Maybe my not getting it is getting it. Maybe my normal week, my week on the subway making fun of Cheech and Chong-era stoner culture, and going to the library, and doing errands was a trip “along the cherry lane.” Maybe the Heart Sutra is inside of me, and I am inside of the Heart Sutra, and there is no inside or outside, only here. Maybe if I burned this glossy white paperback with the shock of red on the cover, nothing would happen. Maybe An Arrow to the Heart has already been burned. Maybe I should drop the flummoxing book on a dusty shelf in the basement of the New York Public Library. Maybe I am the book. Plop!