by Linda Hoka Bebernes

In the Wisdom Sutra seminary class this spring, our first reading assignment was the Ratnaguna, the verse form of The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. As often happens the first time I encounter a Sutra new to me, I was at a loss to make sense of what I was reading. I felt an urge to pick out just a couple of verses and somehow find a way to make them apply to my life.

On the second page of Edward Conze’s translation of The Perfection of Wisdom Sutra that we were using in the class, I came across these verses.

9. To course in the skandas, in form, in feeling, in perception,
Will and so on, and fail to consider them wisely;
Or to imagine these skandas as being empty;
Means to course in the sign, the track of non-production ignored.

10. But when he does not course in form, feeling, or perceptions,
In will or consciousness, but wanders without home,
Remaining unaware of coursing firm in wisdom,
His thoughts on non-production—then the best of all the calming trances cleaves to him.

I decided I’d like to try to apply this teaching to my personal vow for this Ango period. My vow has been to investigate a certain situation that frequently arises in my household. My partner Kate has been developing some hearing loss and often doesn’t understand what I am saying to her. When she asks me to repeat what I’ve said, I say it louder and – more often than not – in a tone that conveys exasperation. She then becomes annoyed that I’m annoyed with her. And that is the beginning of a familiar pattern that has played out many times in our household.

Here is what I learned from these verses.

“To course in the skandas … and fail to consider them wisely;”
When I’m coursing (moving, living) in the skandas, I’m attaching to the “self” that is arising. I feel annoyance in response to what I perceive to be criticism for not speaking loudly enough and feel justified in using a tone that conveys that annoyance.

With a wiser perspective, I’m likely to still experience the initial annoyance (this is a habitual pattern with a long history). But failing to consider the skandas wisely (mistaking this momentary configuration of the skandas for who I am) closes off the potential for a different response. If I’m not ready to recognize and let go of this delusional self, I will end up continuing down the habitual path of defensiveness rather than opening to the possibility of a more supportive response.

“Or imagine that these skandas are empty;”
It isn’t about eradicating “I” (the self) but simply seeing through the illusions that seem to be who I am. For example, it’s not helpful to imagine my annoyance is just an illusion and thus not relevant. Being able to clearly see and acknowledge that annoyance is quite relevant to what I do next.

“Means to course in the sign, the track of non-production ignored.”
Conze defines sign as “object of attention” or “an occasion for entrancement.” If I am coursing in the sign, I’m caught up in or entranced by aspects of my illusory self. My responses are likely to be reactive and confined to the context of “me vs. you.”

The track of non-production seems to be related to karmic flow. Perhaps this is saying that if I am caught up in an illusory self, I will likely have little awareness of the possible negative consequences of my actions, at least at that moment at which the karmic flow is initiated. When I put out of my awareness the consequences of my actions, I am “ignoring” the track of nonproduction of (unwholesome) karma.

“But when he does not course (in the skandas)… but wanders without home.”
One who wanders without home recognizes and accepts that the self is impermanent and constantly changing rather than being confined to the habitual patterns associated with the illusion of a permanent self. The door opens to a more spontaneous, creative way of being. When Kate asks me to repeat what I have said, I may still feel annoyed. But when I acknowledge and let go of the delusional self that is insisting on being right, I am then free to improvise a different response to her request, thus breaking my habitual defensive pattern.

(S)he who wanders without home is still an “I”, but one without overlying skanda-derived delusions. I’m inclined to say this “I” is simply a sentient being interconnected to all other beings – which sounds trite at first, but it leads me to think about how being aware of the intimate interconnection between all beings orients one toward compassion.

Kate and I are a system, like two gears intermeshing or a weft and warp interweaving. I respond with exasperation, she gets annoyed, I feel bad and try to make it right, but make it worse when I try to do it in a way that still protects that imagined “self”. We are both feeling out of sorts by now and, as we continue to interact with each other and with others throughout the day, the ripples go out and come back. A kinder initial response would have been so much more beneficial all around.

“Remaining unaware of coursing firm in wisdom,”
Perhaps this is pointing to a level of practice where these insights have become so internalized and transformative, that they don’t even need to be brought to mind to influence how one conducts oneself. One simply improvises a selfless compassionate response to whatever arises.

“His thoughts on non-production—then the best of all the calming trances cleaves to him”.
If I am coursing firm in wisdom, I will respond with expansive compassion rather than constricting anger or fear. I will likely feel calmer — but more importantly, the more wholesome karmic consequences of my conduct will result in calmness around me.