Walking the Way: Praxis and Gnosis in Religious Experience
Institute for World Religions Fall Faculty Lectures Berkeley, California
Bhikshuni Heng Hsien:
Our Master led the session, and, as a result, many people transferred down from the University of Washington to study in the Bay Area, even though they lost credits in the process. They were an impressive group. By the time I came, there were three monks and two nuns. I had never heard that there were any nuns at all. However, it took a while for me to get over to the temple and find out that there were nuns who would be role models for what I would want to do.
So why did it take me a long time to get over there? I was in the Sanskrit department. Many of the people study Sanskrit for religious reasons, because they want to deepen their knowledge and study their own tradition. The main tradition for which people study Sanskrit is the Hindu, or Vedic, tradition. There were people in the department who were members of ashrams. I knew the kind of life they lived. It was very hard to be a full-time graduate student and get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, do a lot of reciting, and go to the temple, which is far away. There's a lot of commitment in religious practice. "How could that possibly be compatible with being a full-time graduate student?" I asked myself. For me, one of the keys was the
Heart Sutra, which is considered a profound sutra, the
Heart of Prajna Sutra. In my case, during the period of delay and hesitation about even visiting the temple I had read about in the journal, I went to Seattle (Berkeley was holding some event up there) and met some people up there who were combining a religious practice with their graduate studies. They were role models.
One day I was introduced to our Master's lectures. One of the graduate students handed me a mimeographed manuscript of the
Heart Sutra lectures by our Master, and also introduced me to the Sanskrit of the
Heart Sutra—the late professor Conze's edition, with the English translation. It was like a puzzle, very fascinating. It talked about the five
skandhas, and I set out to research the nature of the five
skandhas. In the late 60's there was not much available. Today you can read about the five
skandhas in the Shurangama Sutra in great depth. They are: form, feeling, thinking, formation and consciousness. The only resource available was the translation by the Pali Text Translation Society. It didn't answer all of my questions, but everything I read there was fascinating. My wish to learn more and more about the
Heart Sutra grew that summer.
My approach was to memorize and recite the
Heart Sutra in Sanskrit along with the mantra. I found it incredibly meaningful to go to Mount Rainier and recite the
Heart Sutra. But it also had the intellectual content I needed. I would not have related to anything else. I, eventually went to the temple and immediately felt that I belonged, that these were the people I had been looking for. It was my intellectual and spiritual community. There's a story about the first time I encountered our Master. Most people have a story about meeting our Master, and you might remember the first time you encountered him. In my case, it was my first time in the temple. First we sat in meditation, then we attended a class that was taught by a very learned lay lady in Cantonese and translated by another person. This lady taught a "Consciousness Only Treatise" (the
Palm Treatise), which I had studied slightly previously. It has the snake analogy, which teaches how everything is made from the mind alone. The snake analogy explains the three different natures: one is what you imagine, one is what you figure—which is based on something else—and one is the way things actually are. The analogy is of a person walking on a dim night and seeing a rope on the road ahead of him. His mind jumps to the conclusion that the rope is a snake and he starts worrying about what's going to happen. However, he goes a little closer and sees that it's not a snake, but a piece of rope. He feels relief that there is no danger and his whole perception changes. The first is the purely imaginary nature. The next is having a bit more understanding. The last is the way things actually are. Basically there is nothing— everything is made from the mind alone.
So this was my first experience in the temple. As the class progressed, our teacher came into the room very quietly, without fancy clothes or the fine marks of being someone special, and sat quietly listening to the lecture. He left just as quietly. Years and many lessons later, I realize that there was a message for me in the way the Venerable Master presented himself. What was that message? The message was about arrogance, showing off, ego and wanting people to know who I am. As a graduate student, I first took refuge at the temple, then became a novice. I was instructed to keep going to school. Then I became ordained and taught at Berkeley while I was wearing nun's clothes. So in the past I might have just placed myself at the center of attention, thinking, "That's where I'm supposed to be." Today I try to avoid that place. I had instruction with my teacher about the ego and wanting to be first. Since our teacher has left, now when we talk about our teacher we become a little emotional, so if that nostalgia creeps into my voice, please excuse me. Although we completed the three years of mourning a few months ago, I would still rather have our teacher be in the world.
These were wonderful teachings, because while we were having our collective and individual egos pared down, we were also being given wonderful missions. We were the pioneers who would establish Buddhism in the West. We were told that we should do a good job, study and cultivate hard. The world was waiting for us. This country needed us to get ourselves ready and to start bringing real Buddhism to the United States.
Going back to my first visit to the temple, why do I say that that was a message for me? Because the Venerable Master sat there and did not demand to be known. There's a film on the life of the Venerable Teacher Confucius in which this theme appears over and over. In English it is translated as, "To not be upset when people do not know who you are, is to be a superior person." In explaining the
Confucian Analects, our teacher gave us an example. If you are a famous professor and you go someplace and nobody pays any attention to you -- they don't ask you to talk, they don't give you a big introduction, they just ignore you -- and that doesn't bother you at all, then you are being a superior person. As graduate students, you are in an elite situation. You went through a lot of testing and came out on top to get into the top schools. You've also stuck with it. You have what it takes in a lot of ways, but can you manage to not get arrogant about it? If you go somewhere and nobody recognizes you, is that okay? Do we put on airs? Do we want to be treated as the professor or the accomplished scholar or the promising graduate student, or the budding author or the promising painter? We want to be recognized and appreciated. The wish for recognition and the feeling of pride and the feeling of superiority goes along with the intellectual path. All those things need to be pared down on the spiritual path because those are ego reinforcements, and on the spiritual path, we need to clear out what are called the marks of self. We also have to work on the mark of others -- that is, to be aware of what's going on with other people. In one of the teachings someone talked about winning, but in the middle of their victory they recognized that everyone else had lost.
When we have a talent we often want to show it off and be appreciated.
But what about the people who are having a rough time? What
about their sense of self-esteem? What about their feeling
of usefulness, purposefulness, in the face of your success?
These were the issues that I had to see. On the way over
here I was listening to a teaching by our Master on tape. It
was a teaching he gave frequently when I was a new person at
the temple. The teaching was a verse, translated roughly as,
"Intelligence is the result of hidden virtue, and it's
hidden virtue that nourishes intelligence. But if you only
use intelligence and you do not practice hidden virtue, then intelligence turns against you and ends up defeating itself."
To be continued