In my spare time, I practice Reiki, and am apprenticing to become a Reiki Master. While some claim that Reiki has its roots in ancient Tibetan Buddhism, its modern founder, Mikao Usui, was himself a practicing Zen Buddhist.
One of my requirements for completing Master-level certification is to write a series of reports about Reiki-related books I’ve read. I’m an avid reader, and I particularly enjoyed writing this one, which I thought appropriate to share here. I have read many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, and I am always impressed by his ability to capture and express complicated concepts in simple, dignified and beautiful language.
Thich Nhat Hanh, 1988, 2009. The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Berkeley: Parallax Press.
Frank Arjava Petter begins The Original Reiki Handbook of Dr. Mikao Usui with a discussion of the Buddhist origins of Reiki and a brief interpretive reading of the Prajnaparamita (“Perfect Understanding Heart Sutra”). This sutra is cited or chanted daily in monastic and lay communities around the world. One might call it the Buddhist equivalent of the “Sermon on the Mount”: it is one of the few sutras that grounds together all of the many sects of Buddhist thought and practice, and it articulates the very essence of Buddhism. The Prajnaparamita is not very accessible to newcomers, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary is valuable for all audiences–expert and novice–as he is capable of meeting the needs of both with equal weight and grace.
The sutra begins by stating that the (neither male nor female) Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara perceived that all five skandhas (sometimes translated as “aggregates”: these are form (matter or body), feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness) are empty and, as a result of this epiphany, s/he was saved from all suffering. This is perhaps the most important line of the sutra, because it summarizes the essence of the rest of it, and I found it to be most perplexing before reading the commentary. What does it mean that matter, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness are empty? And, how can that realization possibly lead to the cessation of suffering? Understanding the rest of the sutra hinges upon an understanding of this crucial sentence.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that what is meant by “emptiness” is “emptiness of a separate self.” All things—matter, emotions, objects and subjects of perception, thoughts that are formed in the mind and consciousness—depend upon each other and do not have independent existence. Just as cells depend on other cells and organs upon other organs in a living organism, all beings and matter in the cosmos cannot exist independently. Life itself is conditioned upon this kind of “emptiness.” From the microcosmic to the macrocosmic, all matter and all forms of life are interdependent and, as he puts it, “inter-are.” Deep understanding that there is no separate self is the gateway to perfect wisdom and alleviation of suffering: it is the foundation for the experience of compassion and the starting place for healing at every level, from interpersonal to global:
“If we are concerned with peace and want to understand another country, we can’t just stand outside and observe. We have to be one with a citizen of that country in order to understand her feelings, perceptions, and mental formations. Any meaningful work for peace must follow the principle of nonduality, the principle of penetration. This is our peace to practice: to be one with, in order to really understand…(Y)ou have to enter in order to be one with what you want to observe and understand. A husband and wife who wish to understand each other have to be in the skin of their partner in order to feel, otherwise they cannot really understand. In the light of Buddhist meditation, love is impossible without understanding.” (p. 10)
The sutra goes on to state that just like the skandhas, all dharmas (“things”) are marked with emptiness: they do not appear nor disappear, they are not defiled nor pure, do not increase nor decrease. In other words, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, there is no birth and there is no death, as energy is neither created nor destroyed, but only converted from one state of being into another.
The next part is crucial, to my mind: nothing is impure, nothing is pure. One of the reasons that Zen Buddhists try to cultivate lack of preference for one thing or another is based on this understanding of emptiness. Cultivating lack of preference is a way of rooting out greed and hatred. Real and lasting peace can only be achieved by understanding this principle. Without entering into “the skin” of something or someone that one believes is impure or defiled, one cannot see its true nature (which is neither pure not impure). Our beliefs about good and bad are often delusionary; they bolster our egoic notions of separation. They have led us to put other people, communities and nations into false and negatively contrived categories that perpetuate rather than eliminate suffering (“Jews,” “queers,” “criminals,” “gang-members,” “terrorists,” and “Axis of Evil,” to name but a few).
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the metaphor of the rose and garbage to illuminate the idea of lack of preference: the opening rose in a vase is lovely and has a sweet aroma, but it will die and emit the smell of rot. But, if one uses it as compost, the rot has a generative purpose in producing more lovely, sweet-smelling flowers. In this way, not only is nothing pure or defiled, but it also neither decreases nor increases. Nothing diminishes—everything transforms into some other state of being. Both the flower and the rot should be valued—neither one need be preferred because both are intrinsically valuable for what they are.
The objects of our senses and the subjects of them (our organs of perception) “inter-are.” As Suzuki Roshi once put it, if we hear a bird, the bird becomes one with our being because its peeping lives in our mind. The “external” object becomes internal by perceiving (“I hear a peep”), mental formation (“that’s a blackbird”) and by our consciousness (“Morning has broken like the first morning! Blackbird has spoken like the first bird!”). The sutra stresses this: “Therefore in emptiness, there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, no consciousness, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form, no smell, no sound, no taste, no touch, no object of mind, no reams of elements (from eyes to mind consciousness), no origins, no extinctions, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end of suffering, and no path, no understanding and no attainment of enlightenment.” Even the Four Noble Truths inter-are. Even Enlightenment itself is empty of separateness. Enlightenment is of this world—it is not separate from it.
The cosmic energy that the Reiki practitioner accesses also inter-is. As quantum beings, our energy interacts and collides with environmental energy all the time; we don’t perceive it unless we cultivate that understanding. Thus, we may feel that our bodies are little islands of healthfulness or dis-ease, not realizing that all things, including us, are formed from a continuous web of energy which has the capacity to transform us through our inter-acted-ness. All things inter-exist and depend upon one another. Sending Reiki out into the world really does help to alleviate suffering, in part because it honors the true state of reality—that all beings, matter and consciousness are interconnected.