From the Upanishads to the Heart Sutra: A Side Trip into Nihilism

As I’ve delved into the various teachings that are informing my world right now, I finished going through the Katha Upanishad and am deep into the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Both works are taking me into the origins of Buddhist philosophy and as such as giving me so much to think about and work with.

As part of this study, I reread the Heart Sutra. At first it was just a way to refresh my thoughts about the ways in which the Katha Upanishad and the Heart Sutra are connected. What my study became, however, was a much deeper struggle and very challenging meditations on the meaning of the Heart Sutra. Beware, fellow human, meditation can lead one into very dark places. As I have heard Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse say many times, meditation and mindfulness are not for the faint of heart and, more importantly, that it often can upend one’s life in a moment. His words are so accurate when it comes to my own struggles.

I started my reading of the Heart Sutra with Mindrolling Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. Her words and laughter made the Sutra less intimidating and allowed me a commentary to latch onto much as I had done with Eknath Easwaran’s words at the beginning of the Katha Upanishad. Her commentary is complex and effusive, offering not just insights into the Heart Sutra but also into our own nature. She constantly reminds the reader that we can get in our own way while medidating and studying these Buddhist texts. The texts can become, she says, the trappings of a superficial dharma. We use the dharma to suit our needs rather than aspiring to the principles of serving all sentient beings.

As those words rattled in my brain, I wondered at my own choice of dharma study. What was I really trying to do here? Why look into these various religious texts and seek to uncover some new found truth for myself. Was this practice just another in my own self-centered way to soothe my ego mind and try to understand my world and its problems? Was this just a shallow, self-referential treatment of these deep philosophical notions?

At first, of course, I thought not. My approach is for all sentient beings and that my aim was true, to quote Elvis Costello. I soon found, however, that this altruistic approach was just another way for my ego to reframe my study to make me feel better about what I was doing. I did not discover this problem until I was deep into the meditation on the Heart Sutra.

Sitting down and beginning a practice is always a challenge, and being present for the moments to come is one of those ways in which our mind surveils our practice. We think “be in the present moment.” Of course we can be, AND at the same time, our ego mind is lurking in our mind, just waiting to strike. At least that’s what I think I experienced. Let me explain: as I sat to meditate on these lines, I opened a path into a deep, dark place. The lines were,

“So, in emptiness, there is no body, no feeling, no thought, no will, no consciousness. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.”

I logically, rationally understand that emptiness is shunyata/sunyata and that it means no substantiality, no permanence, the interdependence of all things, and the constant flux of our existence. At the same time, emotionally, these ideas struck at the heart of who I was. As I went into stillness, I felt a sensation of falling into darkness. Fear rose and I felt a sense of dread and foreboding. This sensation caught me off guard and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had dug into the wrong hole at the wrong time. Nihilism emerged, and I felt meaningless and literally empty; a kind of void, blank.

The phrase “lean in” has been used and overused recently and in this moment my attempt at leaning in took me deeper into that oblivion. Rather than emerging into a sense of wholeness and connectedness that I had experienced before, now I was stuck in the worst kind of place. Darkness overtook me and here I was, floating in this void. It was awful.

I ended my meditation, dedicated the merit, and sat there. I found myself crying, big tears flowing down my face. I shook, helpless in the moment, overcome with this terrible feeling. I immediately thought about Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse and his words on meditation practice, “It is such a mistake to assume that practicing dharma will help us calm down and lead an untroubled life; nothing could be further from the truth. Dharma is not a therapy.

Dharma is not therapy. There it is. As clear as can be. I had entered the practice on the Heart Sutra as a kind of therapy during COVID. In fact, I started down this intellectual path reading the Upanishads and the Heart Sutra as a way to open my mind, change my perspective, understand something in the context of COVID. What I ended up doing is making every possible mistake on the path of releasing my own grief and frustration at my life and the life of my family during this pandemic. I pursued the Heart Sutra as a strange kind of balm, not realizing that what it really did was shatter my ego mind, thus leading to that sense of nothingness. The nothingness, it seems, was my terrified ego screaming into the darkness. “You’re destroying me!”

Destroying ego, in fact, is one goal of meditation. Crushing the self-clinging ego mind and the ambitious path we set ourselves on is one aspect of who we claim to be. Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche had told me this story. I read her words over again, after the meditation, and I think I finally started to get it. I was using the Dharma as that balm, a salve for the pain I was feeling. It’s not therapy and not for the faint of heart. It’s rough, it’s challenging in every way, and it’s the path I have chosen.

May you be happy, may you be well.