Listen to a Zen master’s beautiful recitation of the Heart Sutra—and then find out how to become a master of Zen Buddhism yourself
Here is Deshimaru Roshi, Dharma heir of the great zen master Kodo Sawaki, leading the Maka Hannya Haramita Shingyo (Heart Sutra) sometime in the 1970s, probably in Paris. The call to chant lasts for about a minute, then Deshimaru begins at 1.29. By the four minute mark, you’re flying.
The Heart Sutra is all about Avalokiteshvara (variously known in other cultures as Chenrezig, Tara, The Dalai Lama, Nātha, Cundi, or Chandi) telling one of the Buddha’s most faithful students (Sariputra) the low-down on reality, form and emptiness.
“The Bodhisattva of true compassion,” the Heart Sutra begins, “Through deep practice in Great Wisdom, understands that the body and the five skandas are only emptiness. And with this understanding, he helps all who suffer… All Buddhas of the past, of the present and of the future, through this incomparable, unparalleled and authentic incantation, can attain understanding of this supreme wisdom which frees us from suffering. As it does away with all suffering, it allows us to find reality, true ku. Go, go, go together, beyond, fully beyond, to the shore of satori.”
But if these are the incredible spiritual heights to which Zen Buddhism begins, how do we begin on the path? How do we even set aside a bit of time to meditate every day?
Check out our handy guide below.
Starting and Deepening a Meditation Practice — Even When You Can’t Be Bothered
Daily meditation practice is very useful and good, but hard to do. It’s hard to start, hard to keep up, and hard to re-start once you fall out of the practice.
I’ve been struggling with this for over a decade. A friend introduced me to the zen practice of zazen on a clay hill near Pearl, Mississippi, in the last dusk of the last millennium. Despite the auspicious start, I didn’t stick with the practice. I tried off and on for years, and I still try. Sometimes I sit daily for weeks, and sometimes I don’t sit at all for weeks.
Here are a few tips that I’ve come by over the years—either by having the good sense to listen to my teachers, or by accident, hard knocks, and luck—that sometimes help me keep a steadier practice.
1. Don’t let yourself decide whether you should meditate.
Because your normal self is likely to say, naaah. I’ll be watching Doctor Who, thanks, and sipping a chilly Tuborg. If you stop and think “whether” to do it, you’re much more likely to decide against sitting. So make it like flossing (do it when you brush your teeth, no debate!), and sit without “deciding” to sit. Wake up, sit.
2. A little ritual goes a long way.
This is a big one, because it has to do with respect for the practice. Yes, you can meditate anywhere, any time you like. Yes, you can do it casually and comfortably and erratically. But if you take the time to establish a bit of a ritual element to your practice, it gets down deep in your subconscious. Ritual teaches us things symbolically that it might take years to learn in other ways.
So treat your cushion with respect. Use a special rug, a corner of the room you like best. Light a candle or burn some incense, if it helps. And if you’re religious or want to honor some particular idea or being from an inherited mythos, hang up a picture of him or her, or place a little statue on a shelf in the room you use. Once you make the meditation a rite, the practice somehow gets deeper—and you’re on the hook to take it that way.’
3. Meditate with others (sometimes).
Back in Mississippi, I associated with a sangha in the Deshimaru lineage. I didn’t sit with them every week, or even every month, but when I did get the chance to visit (especially for a multi-night meditation retreat, a sesshin), it deeply enhanced my practice. You get to see that you’re part of a community of other folks struggling with similar problems. Here’s a recently-divorced bank teller who feels guilty for having to kennel her dog this weekend. There’s a busy young dad, sticking out the zen even though all he really wants is to go back home and play Legos with his son on the floor of their double-wide trailer. It helps a hell of a lot to remember that we’re in it together.
4. Thoughts are bubbles in a toilet.
I get discouraged if, after a few days of sitting regularly, I feel like I’m having “bad” meditations. I still get dragged along by my thoughts, and I don’t get that special something, you know, that… that little wow or clarity that might be some very distant retarded cousin to kensho. We want the ecstasy, the Moment, the Enlightenment. But you may have a lot of what you’d consider “bad sits” for a while, and this can break up your practice if you let it. Don’t let it. Feel victorious that you have again returned to meditate, even though you’re not having “good” meditations lately.
I think it was Livingston Roshi who said that thoughts are like bubbles in a toilet. They form, they pass—so what. Whether it’s a thought you like (or don’t), or a meditation session you like (or don’t), it passes. Just get back on that cushion. Meditation sessions are like bubbles in a toilet.
5. Don’t get all religious about it.
Daily practice is useful and good. But if you start to cling to it, get all high falutin’ about it, and get testy when it’s interrupted, then maybe it’s getting to be too much like a religion. In my own meditation practice, the main idea is to sit there and not get hung up on stuff. Just let it pass. If the practice itself is something you become all hung up on, then maybe it’s time to skip a sit and go get an ice cream in the park. Sure, be serious in your dedication and intention. But please don’t mistake an attachment to the practice (or a revulsion for things “not of the practice”) as progress on the way.
Stay loose. Be silly. Enjoy. Keep going.
How to Meditate the Hardcore Way
Ready to get serious about meditation? (Well, serious in your discipline, not your emotional state!)
Ultraculture has an online class on Hardcore Meditation: The 8 Limbs of Raja Yoga that will teach you everything you need to know about the practice of real, true meditation, the one skill that can improve literally every area of your life.
The material in our course will steadily develop your mind and calm your emotions, and ultimately allow you to transcend your ego and experience pure ecstasy. Yes, it is that incredible.
Check out the course here and dive in to the still, calm waters of bliss that your brain can produce for you any time you like—if you know the right techniques!