Why Asia?

We are Glenn and Carol Webb. We are retired academics, now living in Palm Desert, CA, in the place shown just above our picture. We have spent most of our lives studying Asia, with Kyoto, Japan as our port of call. This blog consists primarily of essays, written by me, Glenn Taylor Webb, with the input of my wife, Carol St. John Webb. I began writing most of these essays just before we retired. Some have been published, some not. Most were first presented as lectures.

Our lives were changed by what what we experienced living in two cultures. The different ways of thinking about almost everything in Japan (and Asia in general) made us examine some of our fundamental views of life. As a history professor I had to keep a certain distance between historical events and their effects. But at this stage in my life (I'm 75) I feel like sharing with friends the impact that Japan today has had on my family as well as myself. I'm still writing things down. So take a look and let me know what you think.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017



For many years I recited the Hanya Shin Gyo, the so-called Heart Sutra, in Japanese, as I was expected to do in the Zen temples in Japan, where I was training, while doing doctoral research at Kyoto University.  I frequently complained to my Zen teachers that I wanted to be able to put this sacred text into my own language.  They always told me to go ahead and do it.  So I tried.  At the UChicago and the UWashington I sought the help of Sanskrit scholars.  We agreed that   every one of our explanations of the text's meaning seemed insufficient. It would remain the enigma it is today (even after I later came to my own feeble interpretation.)

Subsequently, I toyed unsuccessfully with the rhythm of the Sanskrit text, trying to put it into the same cadence that the scripture is chanted in throughout Asia. I assumed then as now that the Heart was chanted in Sanskrit and Pali in all Mahayana Buddhist temples at one time. But I never came up with an exact rhythmic match between the Sanskrit and other Asian languages. However, I found the exact same number of syllables in the Heart Sutra chant in Japan, Korea, China, and Tibet. I wondered how that came about.

Koreans and Japanese took their written languages from China, so naturally their version of the Heart Sutra is the same in cadence. Their transcription of the Heart Sutra is written character-for-character in Chinese.  Only their pronunciation of each character is different, while the number of syllables in their recitations of the Heart is the same.  But Tibet surprised me. Its language is totally different, but the monks seem to have used the 7th-century Chinese version of the Heart Sutra and adjusted each character's sound to Tibetan pronunciation, just as the Chinese and Japanese did.  

This was proved to me by personal experience.  On my first trip to Lhasa I followed the voice of a child monk who was chanting by himself in one of the rooms of the Johkang.  At first I just watched him secretly.  He had his eyes closed. Softly I joined my voice to his chant, using the Japanese sounds of "Hanya Shin Gyo" that I knew so well.  His sounds were Tibetan, mine were Japanese, but the number of syllables and the rhythm were the same.  Towards the end, at the "Gyate, gyate..." section, he opened his eyes and looked directly at me. We finished the chant together, at the same time, and smiled at each other. He was about twelve, I reckon, and I could communicate with him only by writing notes in Chinese, the language the government required all Tibetan children to learn, rather than their own. 

On page 11 of a 1985 edition of a sutra book I first compiled in 1970 for Zen students in the Seattle Zen Center (which later became the Temple of the Virtuous Rock, Tokugan-ji), the Heart Sutra appears in Romanized Japanese pronunciation. Students recited that version of the Heart every time they participated in any of the Center's activities. On the next page of the sutra book they could read my short explanation of the Heart Sutra's background and a tentative English translation of the text itself. This is what I wrote:

The Heart Sutra is a verbal description of the enlightened state of consciousness.  It was given by the Great Bodhisattva of Mercy, Avalokiteshvara [C. Guanyin, J. Kannon, etc.], who literally is the Regarder of the Cries of the Universe, whose mercy and compassion is inexhaustible.  His (or if you prefer, her) description of enlightenment comes at the end of the scripture on Perfect Transcendental Wisdom, the Prajna Paramita-sutra, while the historical Buddha Shakymuni, surrounded by his disciples, sat in deep meditation on Vulture Peak near Rajgir, in northern India. While watching the seated Buddha, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara experienced his most profound understanding of transcendental wisdom.  Shariputra, the most intelligent disciple, witnessing his two teachers reach such depths of wordless understanding, begins the Heart Sutra by asking the unanswerable question that the disciples asked constantly about the nature of full perception: "What is it like to achieve such transcendent wisdom?"  The verbal exchange between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra, beginning with the latter's urgent question and followed by the Bodhisattva's answer, has been regarded, even by the Lord Shakyamuni himself, as the best possible example of a student and teacher exchange. It goes like this, in the body of the scripture itself:

Shariputra:  "Lord Avalokiteshvara, how can students achieve such enlightenment?"

Avalokiteshvara:  "Shariputra, all students must see the natural thusness or emptiness of all phenomena.  Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not apart from form, form is not apart from emptiness.  Feeling, perceiving, even consciousness itself, is empty.  All conditions of being [dharmas] are empty of self and have no characteristics.  The Buddha-Mind is unborn and undying; it is not impure or pure, it neither grows nor shrinks.  Thus there is no form, no feeling, no sight, no thought; no eye, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no sensation, no ideas; nor is there any such thing as hearing well or poorly, or of being wise or stupid; there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no ending of suffering, or way to end suffering; there is no wisdom, attainment, or nonattainment.  Buddhas and Boddhisattvas awaken through transcendental wisdom.  Gone! Gone! Here, Fully Awake!  This, Oh Sariputra, is how we should live."

What I did not say at the time, when dealing with students' complaints that they didn't find the words "empty" and "emptiness" or even "selflessness" very satisfying, is what I really believe.  And that is, that part of me really misses form and self when I think they are gone.  To feel better, I find myself reassuring myself that any self or form by itself, even mine, will feel better if it agrees to accept all selves and forms as my own. I'll try to continue this Blessed Assurance as long as I live. I like to think of it as the thusness of things, or as the modern Japanese phrase "sono-mama" puts it so sweetly, Just As I Am.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful essay.

    I am a very angry survivor of the Church of Christ, and I was astonished to see "Blessed Assurance" and "Just As I Am" in zen writing. Then I read that you taught at Pepperdine. Aha!

    I have been studying and practicing, with a rollercoaster's-worth of backsliding, with Dosho Port for 3.5 years now. The Heart Sutra is my favorite text; I can see already how inexhaustible it is. I really love a Kwan Um version available on Youtube because it reminds me of CoC congregational singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjHBYgI_x4Y .

    Is the Heart Sutra as baffling and contradictory in Sanskrit as it is in English?