Books: My Heart Sutra

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By Jonathan Clements.

xuanzang2Early in the evening on 12th November 2019, on his way home from an interpreting job in Silicon Valley, Frederik L. Schodt was hit by a moving car. It was a moment that could have easily deprived this world of the author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. “A car suddenly ploughed into my lane,” he writes, “sending my motorcycle and me on two completely different vectors.” He was rushed to the hospital with a broken clavicle and three broken ribs, “but when waves of pain and dizziness washed over me in the ambulance, I began to worry that my luck might have run out completely.”

And so he began to chant a Buddhist scripture that had been with him throughout his life: “Form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.”

“I found that it helped to stabilise my mind,” he writes, “to concentrate, to stay conscious” and to remind himself of what the “emptiness” part meant – that there should be no fear. But this was just one of a thousand encounters that Schodt has had with the Heart Sutra in his life – the single most commonly recited scripture in Buddhism, said to have been carried from India to China, and thence to Japan.

my-heart-sutraThis is not merely a book about the Heart Sutra. It’s about the stories that grew up around it, its journey through human civilisation like a self-replicating meme, a scrap of wisdom whispering in temples, shopping malls and movies. It includes the tale of Xuanzang, the monk who ducked out of 7th-century China on an impossibly long journey through the desert and over the mountains in search of Buddhist scriptures. It’s the story of the story about Xuanzang, not merely the historical reality of his life in the Chinese capital translating his hoard of sacred texts, but of the novel written about him by Wu Cheng-en.

Xuanzang, inevitably known to British readers by his nickname Tripitaka, found a different sort of fictional fame in Wu’s novel Journey to the West, itself adapted on multiple occasions into many media, many of which concentrate not on the monk himself, but on his sinful assistants Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy – Schodt touches here on the Chinese wartime cartoon Princess Iron Fan, and some of the manga and anime variants on Journey to the West, but not on the 1978 live-action Japanese TV series (and newly reissued Blu-ray) Monkey, which is arguably far better known in the UK and Australia than it is anywhere else in the world, including Japan.

Schodt’s book also offers glimpses of other shores, snapshots of his own life, as if it were flashing before him as he hurtled through the air in a San Francisco sunset – the discount jet-set life of the Japanese interpreter; the colleague, a highly regarded author and translator, who had to spend much of his low-paid career relying on food stamps; that time that Reverend Billy Graham came to tell a school full of kids that they were all going to Hell (or did he…?). There’s a mural in San Francisco Chinatown in which one of the Monkey King’s famous assistants sports the belly tattoo “Notorious P.I.G.” A scramble of Japanese writing on the sleeve of John Lennon’s jacket, that seemingly allude to Buddhist scripture. These are all snapshots not of the Heart Sutra, but of the author’s life and times as he reminisces about things seen and heard.

There’s Jan Nattier, the scholar who sets the cat among the pigeons by suggesting that the Heart Sutra is, at best, something knocked up by Xuanzang’s disciples from off-cuts of other scriptures, not necessarily a “forgery”, but certainly something of a fix-up. There’s Lafcadio Hearn, the chronicler of Japanese folklore, who wrote up the tale of “Hoichi the Earless”, a monk who covers himself with Heart Sutra calligraphy to hold off vengeful demons, but forgets to write on his ears.

Schodt, ever the manga scholar, is excited that the Sumidera temple in Japan informs its visitors about the temple’s history in a giveaway comic, but once he is in Japan, he is also most assuredly on his home turf, investigating the many local manifestations of the Heart Sutra, including the “biggest Heart Sutra in the world,” written by a calligrapher prodigy with Down’s syndrome, and the place that claims to have a piece of Xuanzang’s skull, which turns out to have been looted from Nanjing in 1944. He tracks down Masahiro Mori, whom he knows for his work in robotics, and anyone who works in animation academia knows for his coining the term “uncanny valley” in the 1970s. But Mori turns out to be a man whose work is suffused with Buddhist philosophy, whose long shadow can be seen in the creation of that most Japanese of ideas, a Buddhist robot that preaches sermons at a Japanese temple.

Schodt has mentioned, threateningly, that this is possibly his “last book” – at 70, with a modest pension and grandchildren to play with, maybe he has had enough of the incessant sufferings of publishing. But he points off-handedly at innumerable experiences as-yet unchronicled – his journey down the Silk Road in the early 2000s, or the 500-mile pilgrimage he undertook in 1976, on foot, from Tokyo to Kyoto, chanting the Heart Sutra as he went. Schodt finishes his book on a charitable venture, playing the guitar to dementia patients in a San Francisco old people’s home, and musing to himself if John Lennon’s “Imagine”, which recently assigned a co-writing credit to Lennon’s Japanese wife Yoko Ono, might itself have been inspired by the commentary of the Heart Sutra, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” Imagine there’s no Heaven…

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. My Heart Sutra: A World in 260 Characters, is published by Stone Bridge Press.

Oct 29, 2020Jonathan Clements

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