Luckily, being heartbroken is a perfect opportunity to practice the dharma. Good news for those of us with achy breaky hearts. But why? Because you have already had the rug pulled out from under you. You have already experienced a great loss. You know what it is to walk in groundlessness, with so much stripped away. In this state, you are open to something new. How about the Heart Sutra, the great Buddhist teaching on compassion?
The Heart Sutra doesn't seem like an antidote to a broken heart at first. There are no, ahem, warm fuzzies here. No consolation, no reassurance, no nothing! In fact, the primary word in the Heart Sutra is the word "No"! Many Zen student's say they don't like the Heart Sutra. "It's too negative."
The Heart Sutra is a concise and shocking teaching directly from Avalokiteshvara, the gender fluid bodhisattva compassion. This courageous warrior, also known as Quan yin and Kanzeon, expresses their experience of the highest teaching of the Buddha in this sutra. Their insight was not based on intellect but came through their practice and life experience.
Then one of the principal disciples of the Buddha, a monk named Shariputra, began to question Avalokiteshvara. This is an important point. Even though a great bodhisattva was teaching, the profound meaning emerged only through questioning. Nothing is taken on blind faith.
Avalokiteshvara answered with the most famous of Buddhist paradoxes: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.” When I first heard this, I had no idea what it was talking about. It just made no sense, and my mind drew a blank. The sutra, like life itself, is inexpressible, indescribable, inconceivable.
What is this emptiness, anyway? It's not vacancy, or nihilistic nothingness. Rather, it points toward the fact that nothing has a permanent form, but rather is in a process of becoming and falling away. So the "emptiness" in Buddhism is our lack of permanent and separate existence. We are interdependent, and we are becoming, anything is possible.
When we perceive the experiences of our lives as empty, without any barriers or veils, we understand the perfection of things just as they are. So when Avalokiteshvara says, “Form is emptiness,” they're referring to this simple direct relationship with the immediacy of experience—direct contact with heartbreak; with love and hate. We go beyond our story of right and wrong, of blame or grievance. We keep pulling out our own rug. When we perceive form as empty, without any barriers or veils, we understand the perfection of things just as they are. One could become addicted to this experience. It could give us a sense of freedom from the dubiousness of our emotions and the illusion that we could dangle above the messiness of our lives.
But “emptiness is form” turns the tables. Emptiness continually manifests as war and peace, as heartbreak, as birth, old age, sickness, and death, as well as joy. We are challenged to stay in touch with the heart-throbbing quality of being alive. That's where practice comes in, meditation and study. If you'd like to join a small group studying the Heart Sutra, join us here!
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..