Notes from the Podium: Gone, gone, real gone

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

This is the text of Brian Tate’s dance-like piece which Siskiyou Singers will be performing at our concerts May 4 and 5 at SOU Music Recital Hall. The text is usually translated: “Gone, gone, real gone, completely gone, Alleluia!” The idea that we would celebrate being gone, or everything being gone, is very foreign to us! Why would we want to be gone? Where have we gone? This Buddhist text sounds very nihilistic to our ears. I must, at this point, do my disclaimer that my understanding of all this is decidedly with a “beginner’s mind.” It is also hard to sum up 2500 years of Buddhist teaching in a few paragraphs!

Our text comes at the end of the Heart Sutra. The word “sutra” means “teaching” and it is the “Heart Sutra” because it is at the very heart of Buddhist thought. Although we have many different translations into English of this sutra, “gate gate…” is never translated from the original Sanskrit. It is intended as a mantra to be chanted which sums up the ideas in the sutra.

The sutra explains the world as one unified whole. “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is a puzzling foundation of this teaching. But the word “emptiness” does not mean a dark hole of nothingness. It actually is a complete whole of everything. Stacy Waymire, a teacher at the Ashland Zen Center, muddies our traditional, rational understanding of reality by pointing out that it is impossible to separate each of us from all that is around us. “Your nose is not a nose without something to smell.” He goes on to explain that Buddhists name six senses, sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste, and mind. In a famous Zen story two monks argue (oops, discuss) a flag on a pole. One says “the flag is moving” the other says “the wind is moving.” At that point the teacher chimes in and says “mind is moving.”

The other side of the same coin is the idea of “impermanence” which says that nothing stays the same. Our world is always changing. “You can never step in the same river twice.” We see this intellectually, but our gut tells us that we are a permanent being and we want ourselves and everything else to stay the way we want! We want to go on forever and have everything be just as it is right now. But that is not the truth, according to Buddhists.

So we are not independent and we are always changing. According to the Heart Sutra, it is very freeing when the idea that we are a completely independent, unchanging self is “gone.” Alleluia!