Walking the Way: Praxis and Gnosis in Religious Experience
Institute for World Religions Fall Faculty Lectures Berkeley, California
Bhikshuni Heng Hsien:
Our teacher explained this teaching as cause and effect, and it involves the concept that there have been previous lives. The explanation is that if people have intelligence in this lifetime, that is the result of having done good deeds in past lives. Our teacher also imparts that good done only for people to see is not true goodness, and evil done fearing people will know about it is real evil. The reward of intelligence comes from good deeds performed in the past without the demand for recognition, or trying to better the situation of other people without trying to be known for good deeds. Evil done while trying to keep others from knowing about it increases the evil because it festers— it's hidden and you don't clean it out, so it becomes worse.
There is the wish for reputation. In scholarship, there is our scholarly reputation to consider. Every time we write something, we have to consider the effect it's going to have on our career. Our scholarly reputation is at stake. In that sense there is a real decision to be made and a real issue to face. If we are going to be successful in the scholarly world, in terms of being famous, envied and admired, we might have to promote ourselves. We learn the tricks of the trade. We learn how to be an authority, how to make sure everyone else knows that we are the authority. But intelligence in this life comes from practicing hidden virtue. When we continue to do good deeds without being known or admired, we continue to nourish that intelligence. However, if we just enjoy the reward of intelligence while forgetting about the hidden virtue, smartness turns around and defeats itself. There are examples of extraordinarily clever people who turn out to be treacherous. Our teacher talks about Cao Cao, a treacherous person in Chinese history who became emperor for a time. It is said that Cao Cao was as clever as a ghost. By contrast, Emperor Yao, one of the great sage kings of the past, was as wise as the spirits. The decision is whether to pursue intelligence or develop wisdom.
This is why the Heart Sutra was very meaningful to me. It is the heart of Prajna Paramita. Prajna is the Sanskrit word for wisdom. Paramita literally means "gone to the other shore," or to have completed or perfected something, to have reached enlightened wisdom. Together, the words mean "wisdom gone to the other shore." The
Heart Sutra is in abbreviated formulas. I had been reciting this from memory when I first came to the temple. The
Heart Sutra was central to a merging of my intellectual activities and my spiritual aspirations. I was attending lectures at the temple and our teacher taught mostly in Chinese, with someone translating into English. Our teacher was a very lively lecturer, very dynamic. Some people understood Chinese already and would laugh during the Chinese portion of the lecture, before the words were translated into English. During a lecture on the
Lotus Sutra, I suddenly had the feeling that our teacher was speaking directly to me, in Chinese, and that it was incredibly meaningful. I waited until the translation to find out what was so meaningful. Our teacher was quoting the
Heart Sutra. To me this meant that he knew everything about me, that everything in my life had been leading up to my current experience and activities at the temple, and that he was actually my teacher from many lives past. These words don't add up to that experience.
The Heart Sutra was the one thing I really related to in Buddhism, although I had not yet deciphered what I had memorized in Sanskrit. For the Master to know my mind, to know what was most meaningful to me, and to be speaking it to me in Chinese all clicked. I realized that my intellectual and academic work did not have to be set aside in order to follow the spiritual path, which had been my dilemma. "Do I have to put all that away if I follow the spiritual path? Did I make a mistake? Does it mean there was no meaning to it and it was all a waste?" No, in fact, the message was that the fulfillment of my previous activities was to go on the spiritual path.
The Heart Sutra speaks about not using the discriminating mind. It means to go through the process of discrimination, then go beyond it. It does not mean to be dumb, but rather to be wise instead of just smart. As for perfecting your wisdom, that's probably the job of many lifetimes. The nice thing about Buddhism is that you have many doors, approaches or ways to get in and stay in. I mentioned that I taught in Berkeley for a while. I passed my qualifying examinations and eventually received a fellowship to finish my dissertation, which I was required to complete in one year. All the other nuns helped me finish in a year, if you can imagine. I still feel a great debt of gratitude and I should renew that feeling because the nuns at that time took a lot of the responsibilities at the monastery, and let me just study and finish the dissertation. They even helped me type it. After I had completed my dissertation, in 1974-5, we heard that there was a property called the City of 10,000 Buddhas. We started having meetings to discuss it: "What will we do with this wonderful big place if we get it?" We decided to have a university, which is the university I have been talking to you about— Dharma Realm Buddhist University. Here are a couple of its graduates sitting next to me, of whom I am very proud. We started the university, we had all of these departments, with all of these university activities. In the beginning, I was able to stay intellectual for a long time. As the years have gone by, I am becoming more of a nun and less of a scholar. I didn't expect to talk about what that's like because I thought in this series I was going to give a talk on Sanskrit. I already had a title: "Sanskrit Solutions to Chinese Puzzles." But I'm still trying to piece together my own puzzle, which is the puzzle of how to fully integrate the intellectual life with the spiritual life. I'm talking to you at the forefront of research on the topic because it wasn't my field of study. I hope there will be some material for reflection and some interesting principles that will be useful in people's lives. Now I am going to hand it over to the next speaker.
To be continued