In inquiry, Flint talked about the quote from the Buddha on a beautiful card he received, with an image of a heron on the front:
The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.
But what does that mean, really?
The obvious answer is: don’t look outside yourself for the path, look within. But that is the topic of every spiritual teaching, and is rather obvious.
We Americans in particular have championed romantic love as our highest expression of the heart. So we might believe that this must be what the Buddha means. And we also embrace love of country, love of puppies and babies, and even love for our sports team or favorite celebrity, beverage of choice, technology, TV show, and on and on. This is sentiment, not heart.
How do we get beyond the sentimentality that naturally arises when we think about this teaching? It’s very sweet when we are feeling warm and loving. We can easily and comfortably agree with it.
In Zen, we don’t talk much about love, although I have been really fortunate to witness and experience the profound, powerful, and fierce love of great Zen teachers for their students. I think that silence is actually beneficial, because we have so many notions about love (and about Zen for that matter) that there is the potential to trivialize, idealize or romanticize the spiritual bond between teacher and student, or between sangha members. A lot of confusion surrounds the concept of love, of a spiritual path, and of Zen. The Way that is in the heart is not always easy to see.
The way is fraught with obstacles (many of our own construction), with dangers, with struggle and with everything that comes into a human life: loss, aging, fear, anger, misfortunes, joy, despair—the whole human condition. This is what is actually in our hearts: everything, not just our sweet or loving feelings, not just our warmest connections with others.
This life demands everything of you, and the way that you travel may very likely pierce your heart, break it, tear it open, rouse it, silence it, and ultimately demolish it.
We don’t want to accept this teaching when our hearts are aching, when they are broken, when we have lost someone we love, when we are lonely, when we are depressed. Then we want something—anything—to do, somewhere—anywhere—to go, someone else—anyone else—to be. We want a book or a movie or something out there, in the sky, that can lift us out of the pain we feel inside.
The last thing we want to do is to turn toward that pain, to find that our way cannot be separated from it, distracted from it, or lost from it. There are lots of proverbs about this, “a broken heart is an open heart,” “The pain of having a broken heart is not so much as to kill you, yet not so little as to let you live,” and on and on. But that never helps much when it is your heart that is broken, or the heart of someone you cherish. It’s a bitter truth that there is no remedy, nothing that can soothe or pacify you when the way of the heart passes through such suffering. There is only this moment, and then this one. And if we are really lucky, in this way we discover how much compassion is born of this suffering, and how we are connected with every other being in it.
This connection, too, is the way of the heart. It can’t be taught, but it can be cultivated. That is why the Buddha taught lovingkindness as one of the divine abodes. I love that simple word, abode, which carries the warm sense of something we inhabit, our natural home. Sometimes we use metta practices, simple phrases that express our intention for happiness and well-being. Simply saying these phrases over and over, out loud or silently, has a profound impact. You don’t even need to believe in them or understand how they work; they are a kind of internal combustion engine.
We begin by offering lovingkindness to ourselves, especially when we need it most: when we are stuck in our anger or anxiety or depression, when we feel least deserving of it. This is the first way of the heart, to offer lovingkindness to our own selves in the midst of our struggles. Sometimes this is difficult to do. And so in some cases, to help us begin this practice, we visualize someone we cherish or deeply love, and we offer lovingkindness to that person. I call this the second way of the heart. We see them with all of their human qualities, their own struggles and suffering, their profound impact on our lives. Our natural aspiration is for their well-being and happiness. Traditionally, the third way of the heart is to offer lovingkindness to someone you feel completely neutral about. The fourth way of the heart is to offer lovingkindness to someone you have difficulty with, someone you may dislike or view as an enemy or a problem in your life. Finally, the fifth way of the heart is to offer lovingkindness for all beings. It is a kind of training program in cultivating what Joko calls “a larger container.”
This is a venerable way to explore the path of the heart, and it is a specific antidote for anger, anxiety, worry, and depression. The traditional phrases have many different translations, but here is one set:
May you live in safety, free from danger;
May you be free from suffering and the causes of suffering;
May you be at ease;
May you be happy.
I had some difficulty with this traditional version of the metta phrases. I am too analytical, actually. I thought that I could not wish for some people to be at ease and happy because the things I believed would make them happy would cause a lot of suffering for others. What metta phrases could I use on someone who was dangerous, a dictator, or destroyer of the environment? I gave this a lot of reflection while I was at the monastery, and here is what I ultimately decided I could use for anyone, anywhere:
May your body be at ease,
May your heart be open,
May your mind be boundless,
May you be awakened.
Under any circumstances, I could offer this expression for anyone as my genuine aspiration. When using this practice for myself, I was not keen on using the word “I,” which sort of establishes an egoic identification. Instead, I used this:
May this body be at ease,
May this heart be open,
May this mind be boundless,
May this being awaken.
And of course, for all beings:
May all bodies be at ease,
May all hearts be open,
May all minds be boundless,
May all beings awaken.
I should mention that Joko cautioned me about using metta practices. They can be problematic if we use them to set up an ideal about how we or others should be. They can give the impression that we are seeking something, rather than resting in just this moment. If you use them to try to become “more loving” or “more compassionate” you will be caught in the same vicious cycle of lack and seeking and grasping that has created all your problems so far. Still, I have found them very useful in simply recalling that great natural perfection that is inherent in each and every one of us. This is who we are.
When you turn toward the way in the heart instead of the sky, what do you find? Vast spaciousness, even in the icy grip of pain; boundless connection, even in the desolation of loneliness or abandonment; joy, even in the most overwhelming grief; equanimity even in the storms of anger. It is paradoxical, and counter-intuitive, and there is a mystery at its heart, and that is why, I think, the Buddha gave this teaching. The way is not in the sky. The way is in the heart.