The Heart Sutra

Middle age is catching up with me. For the first time, I’ve come down with an illness that isn’t just the flu or a cold.

Last Monday, I woke up with half my face paralyzed. Bell’s Palsy they tell me, a reaction to stress. Much of it was of my own making.

Wait . . . ALL of it was of my own making. (Okay,okay, I’m not that spiritually high. A few jerks helped me along the way. I guess there are many teachers on the path to enlightenment.)

I’d been meaning to go inward a bit more, be a bit more reflective after the chores of summer. Looks like the universe forced me to make good on my promise.

To cope I have been trying to meditate on the Heart Sutra.

Body is nothing more than emptiness . . . All things are empty: Nothing is born, nothing dies, Nothing is stained, nothing is pure, Nothing increases, nothing decreases. In emptiness there is no body . . .

Of course, one isn’t supposed to hope to GAIN something through meditation, and I am desperately trying to gain the strength to deal with this paralysis . . .

and with age, that autumnal feeling.

And just last night as I was reading, that September equinox wind came up, the one I wrote about last summer, the first cool breeze of autumn. It happened as I read these lines in Tender is the Night ( a book about loss of innocence, about growing older, if there ever was one)

“Another gust of wind strained around the porphyry hills of La Nopoule. There was a hint in the air that the earth was hurrying on to other weather; the lush midsummer moment outside of time was already over.”

Okay, now I’m going to go all English major on you here, but look at that line, ” . . . the earth was hurrying on to other weather.” So beautiful. It’s the internal rhyme of earth and the last syllable of weath-er that reinforces the sense of turning. Perfect style.

Just think you, too, could have spent years in college writing about things like that.

Anyway, this was a bit of prose that seemed so true and so melancholy, and I recognized how the melancholy-ness of it wasn’t the meaning of the sentence. Fitzgerald had just observed a bit of all-too-fleeting-wisdom and with his fine skills captured it in words, revealing how the universe is both compassionate AND indifferent. Then he handed you, the reader, that wisdom the way a friend hands you a cup of tea.

The trick is just to be able to SEE the wisdom “uncolored by hope or desire.”

Well, here’s the poem that line comes from.


Jane Hirshfield

Potter throwing a vaseYou work with what you’re given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust.

Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table.
There are honeys so bitter
no one would willingly choose to take them.
The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity,
honey of cruelty, fear.

This rebus—slip and stubborness,
bottom of river, my own consumed life—
when will I learn to read it
plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire?
Not to understand it, only to see.

As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues,
this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.

The ladder leans into its darkness.
The anvil leans into its silence.
The cup sits empty.

How can I enter this question the clay has asked?

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