Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week, Lion’s Roar magazine’s art director Megumi Yoshida reflects on the early influence of Buddhism in her life. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
At 6am, one ring of the shrine bell would wake me up. Breathing in energetically, grandma would sing:
As she sang the Heart Sutra in a weird, monotone voice, I would slowly get out of the warm futon next to hers. When she was done, we’d go to the kitchen where the shinto shrine sat up high, and pray for a good day ahead. This was my daily routine until I was about six years old.
…fu-zo-fu-ghenze-ko- / ku-chu-mu-shikimu- / ju-so-gyo-shiki / mu-ghenni-ji-bi-de-shin-/ i-…
To me this was a riddle:
…wind elephant, wind, tax-cut child / mid-air dream, colour blind / baking soda, line-style / no-limit, ni-ji-bi-de- [mysterious word], new / frown…
It was an absolute shock when I first heard the English version. “No increasing, no decreasing… no eyes, no ears, no nose…” What?!
I had no idea, and neither did grandma, I bet. She breathed and inserted word breaks where it didn’t make sense. The sutra is written and recited in in the antiquated Japanese form of old Chinese poems, and she clearly memorized the sound of the chanting without the proper word breaks. The only word I got right was “air/sky/empty” which appeared many times in the song (aha!).
She would have learned this through her diligent pilgrimages to many temples; regular visits to Mount Koya, where our family grave is; and from frequent visits by the chief priest from our local temple. She recited the sutra every single morning and every single evening. This was her practice and way of life.
I am grateful for the mysterious riddle she left with me. It led me to the wonderful dharma community at Lion’s Roar. It led me to meet the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön (both of whom remind me of grandma), and others — teachings like the three below.
I’ll always remember how she used to sing and smile.
—Megumi Yoshida, art director, Lion’s Roar magazine
In memory of Chiyoko Yoshida (1912–2008)
Penetrate the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, says Karl Brunnhölzl, and nothing will be the same again. The secret is to make it personal.
When we read it, it sounds nuts, but that is actually where the wisdom part comes in. What the Heart Sutra (like all Prajnaparamita Sutras) does is to cut through, deconstruct, and demolish all our usual conceptual frameworks, all our rigid ideas, all our belief systems, all our reference points, including any with regard to our spiritual path. It does so on a very fundamental level, not just in terms of thinking and concepts, but also in terms of our perception, how we see the world, how we hear, how we smell, taste, touch, how we regard and emotionally react to ourselves and others, and so on. This sutra pulls the rug out from underneath our feet and does not leave anything intact that we can think of, nor even a lot of things that we cannot think of.
Zen teacher Norman Fischer looks at the famed Heart Sutra and explains why compassion and emptiness go hand in hand. Plus, Thich Nhat Hanh offers his new translation of the Heart Sutra, which teaches the transcendent wisdom that frees us from fear, wrong perceptions, and suffering.
The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata, used the character for “sky.” All dharmas are empty like the sky — blue, beautiful, expansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane. The emptiness of the Heart Sutra isn’t the emptiness of despair; it’s the emptiness of all limitation and boundary. It is open, released.
When I am bound inside my own skin and others are bound inside theirs, I have to defend and protect myself from them. And when I do place myself among them, I must do it carefully, which is hard work, because I am often hurt, opposed, and thwarted by others. But when there’s openness, no boundary between myself and others — when it turns out that I literally am others and others literally are me — then love and connection is easy and natural.
The mind of enlightenment, called bodhichitta, is always available, in pain as well as in joy. Pema Chödrön lays out how to cultivate this soft spot of bravery and kindness.
The only way to fully understand the bodhichitta teachings, the only way to practice them fully, is to abide in the unconditional openness of the prajnaparamita, patiently cutting through all our tendencies to hang on.
During this teaching, known as The Heart Sutra, the Buddha actually didn’t say a word. He went into a state of deep meditation and let the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, do the talking. This courageous warrior, known also as Kuan-yin, expressed his experience of the prajnaparamita on behalf of the Buddha. His insight was not based on intellect but came through his practice. He saw clearly that everything is empty.