The Enlightened Heart


When the mind is at peace,
The world too is at peace.
Nothing real, nothing absent.

No holding onto reality,
not getting stuck in the void,
You are neither holy nor wise, just
an ordinary fellow who has completed his work.

–Layman P’ang (c. 740-808)

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

“When the mind is at peace, the world too is at peace.”  That’s really the central message of “the enlightened heart” and, in other traditions, it might be considered best to end here and spend the rest of our time together in silent contemplation.  But, perhaps some time in discourse is also good.

The book with that title, The Enlightened Heart, is a collection of sacred poetry from a number of traditions, edited by the poet, translator, scholar, and anthologist Stephen Mitchell.  He says, in the foreword, “Most of what we call religious poetry is the poetry of longing: for God, for the mother’s face.  But the poems in The Enlightened Heart are poems of fulfillment.”

Because our lives are so often dominated more by longing than by fulfillment, it may be useful for us today (maybe even enlightening) to look into the poetic traditions that find completion in the seemingly contradictory notion of letting go.

The Buddhists call it “non-attachment.”  In other traditions, there are other words for it.  Lao-Tzu is considered the founder of Taoism, though it’s not clear just who Lao-Tzu was, as his name can be translated simply as “Old Gentleman.”  Here is how he puts it in a three-stanza poem:

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don’t realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant, disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother, dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

“When death comes, you are ready.”  Who among us does not wish for that?  Who among us is not afraid of death?  We try not to think about it.  We hope that it will be postponed as long as possible.  In our heart of hearts, it may be that we don’t expect that we’ll ever really be ready for it.

Some of us deal with it (death) as something that leads to a greater life beyond the grave, an eternal life in which all will be perfect, there will be no strain, no conflict, no suffering, no pain, no loss, no death.  Others believe it’s nothing but the void, the extinguishing of our light as we enter eternal night in which there is no consciousness and from which there will be no awakening.  Others say, “I cannot know what will happen after death.  No one has ever returned from the grave to report on what death is like, so there’s no knowing and nothing to be gained in contemplating death.

That’s not the same as being ready for death when it comes.  What is death?  What does it have in store for us?

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

But, what is the source?  Come on, admit it, you’d like to know what the source is before you agree to commit yourself to going to it, right?  (As if you have a choice–Right!)

Lao-Tzu is saying that all things in the universe come from the same single source.  That’s what our science speculates is true, as well, and there have been many observations to confirm that thesis.  So, because we all came from one source, does it make sense to believe that we all return to that same source?

Lao-Tzu thinks so.  “Returning to the source is serenity.”  Why should we think that that is so?  Through speculation?  Lao-Tzu says “no.”  We know it because we have experienced it.  “Empty your mind of all thoughts.  Let your heart be at peace.”

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

Does the universe have a consciousness?  Can that consciousness be called “God”?  Wu-Men was a Chinese poet and Zen master who lived in the twelfth century.  He answers that question in a poem of four lines:

One instant is eternity;
eternity is the now.
When you see through this one instant,
you see through the one who sees.

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

You see through the one who sees.  What can that mean?  Well, we know about the self-centered self, the egotistic self, the one in whose skin we reside, the one who sees the whole world through the lens of what that self needs and desires.

The Buddhists say that there is also the “non-self.”  Well, there would have to be, wouldn’t there?  I mean, how could a self be complete without the existence of a non-self?

In Buddhism, the self is called the atta in Pali or the Atman in Sanskrit.  So, the non-self is “anatta,” not-self.  “Anatta is used in the early Buddhist texts, as a strategy to view the perception of self as conditioned processes… instead of seeing it as an entity or presence” (Wikipedia).

The self is an action.  There is our self-oriented experience of ourselves as a separate being, and there is the non-self centered understanding of ourselves as eternal being living through time and conditioned by experiences.

Is there a way to view yourself not from a self-centered perspective, but from an outside perspective, as a living, breathing, worthy creation of the universe, but no more special than any other such worthy, breathing, living creature of the universe?  Perhaps, there is– through the eyes of the non-self.

Buddhism goes further, though, to draw a distinction not only between the “self” and the “non-self,” but from a deep perspective, from the point of view of neither the self nor the non-self.  This is not something that I have heard conceptualized, and I do not think that it can be conceptualized.

Its very function may be to take us beyond our ordinary categorical thinking and to bring us to a new dawn of awakening that goes beyond the limits of what the mind can conceive to take us into the world of pure experience, unconditioned by our personalities and the layers of experience that have contributed towards creating those personalities.

Watching the moon
at dawn,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely:
no part left out.

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

That short poem was written by the tenth-century Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu (974-1034).  In the poem, the poet finds himself not a separate being, whether self-centered or non-centered or other-centered, but uncentered except within the larger scheme of things which includes the moon at dawn, solitary and in mid-sky.  The poet knows himself completely.  No part has been left out.

The way we view ourselves usually is from the point of view of a single self which, of necessity, leaves out the larger part–all of those things which are not the self as an idea of the mind, but the self as integral to the whole.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that without him the Buddha cannot exist and without the Buddha he cannot exist. Martin Luther King, Jr. says that “We are all wrapped up in a single garment of destiny.”  Our seventh principle says that we respect the interconnected web of existence of which we are a part.

The Buddhists tell a deeper truth, we are all one, aspects of a single interrelated whole.  We can’t escape our interdependence.  We can’t even differentiate ourselves from it.

The roaring waterfall
is the Buddha’s golden mouth.
The mountains in the distance
are his pure luminous body.
How many thousands of poems
have flowed through me tonight!
And tomorrow I won’t be able
to repeat even one word.

The eleventh century Chinese poet, Su Tung-P’o (1036-1101)

So, the poems have been lost, have they?  Or is nothing lost, because the poet and the poems and the experiences which brought forth the poems are all aspects of one larger whole that includes everything, so nothing is ever lost.  Unless, you identify with it in some way, and claim it as your own.  Then, when it departs, through loss or theft, you are bereft, you have been diminished, you are desolate, you are alone, you are afraid.

But, what if nothing is ever lost?  What if possession is an illusion?  What if we can be whole and empty at the same time?

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

The thirteenth-century poet Rumi says:

Don’t grieve.  Anything you do comes round
in another form.  The child weaned from mother’s milk
now drinks wine and honey mixed.
God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box,
from cell to cell.  As rainwater, down into flowerbed.
As roses, up from ground.
Now it looks like a plate of rice and fish,
now a cliff covered with vines,
now a horse being saddled.
It hides within these,
till one day it cracks them open.

What cracks them open?  “God’s joy,” if you remember the subject of the sentence.  God’s joy moves from cell to cell, connecting all things.  God’s joy.  Imagine that!  It may be God’s joy that produces the enlightened heart.

A short poem by Antonio Machado, a Spanish poet whose life bridged the 19th and 20th centuries:

Between living and dreaming
there is a third thing.
Guess it.

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

Some traditions call this third thing “eternity.”  It may be contained in an instant.  God may live there.  God’s joy may permeate that as well as living and dreaming.

Perhaps you have another name for this third thing.  Perhaps you are content to leave it unnamed, a mystery, the mystery, the mystery of living and dreaming and the third thing which is guessed at, hiding within things till one day it breaks them open, breaks you open.  Perhaps in that moment the truth of death will be revealed to you as no different than life, just understood, finally, from the perspective of pure release.

Perhaps not.  Perhaps something else entirely.

You can cultivate a perspective that is less egocentric, that is more non-attached to goals, outcomes, and feared eventualities, just as you have cultivated a self-centered perspective.  One difference, though, is the self-centered perspective is encouraged by the culture that you live in, the one in which your team deflates its footballs just a little bit to gain an advantage in a competition because it is so important to triumph.

You are a winner or a loser and there’s nothing in between; the end justifies the means.  Go for it!  Distinguish yourself!  Achieve!  Dominate!  Conquer!  Glory in the victory!

It’s the culture that influences the political position of your candidate for president who, when asked about his thoughts now about whether it was the right thing to do to make war on Iraq, changes his answer twice over three days.

We are conditioned to shape our sense of ourselves in the world towards desired outcomes.  The point of view of the non-attached self is to make a plan for action according to an assessment of the terrain, but to do so in a way that pulls back from the self-obsessed perspective to a more balanced view, where our interdependence provides the framework for our actions.  It is a practice.  And the practice shapes the living and the living shapes the outcome.  As Emily Dickinson says,

Not “Revelation”– ‘tis– that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes–

[sounding the bell of mindfulness]

The Buddha counsels that suffering derives from attachment in the form of desire or aversion.  Equanimity arises from non-attachment, neither desiring nor avoiding, but accepting things as they come.  With this acceptance comes a peace in which love can flourish and which provides the ground for compassionate living.

Is it possible to live in a way that is devoid of attachment?  Perhaps it’s a question like the one about death.  You cannot know in the abstract.  You must live your life towards it, trusting that your practice, like all practices, will bring you closer to accomplishment.  And the speaker does not claim to be an expert or an enlightened being.  But, sometimes there are moments of clarity, when something breaks open.  Because “the times, they are a changing.”

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke has written a poem about the Buddha.  In it, the East meets the West, so maybe that will be a good place for me to leave off talking for today.


Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
and beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.
Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into the endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,
a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

 by the Rev. Peter Connolly at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY, on  17 May 2015


  • The Enlightened Heart edited by Stephen Mitchell.
  • en.Wikipedia. org.: “Anatta.”
  • www. “The Path of Non-Attachment” by Peter Morrell

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