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Find Out What Five-year-old Dechen Bloom Asked Ven. Robina Courtin about the Heart Sutra
April 21, 2014, was a big day for Dechen Bloom, age six. Lama Zopa Rinpoche was visiting Dechen’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, and Dechen had something special to offer Rinpoche. Leading up to Rinpoche’s visit, Dechen had been working very hard to both memorize the Heart Sutra and to write it out, dedicated to Rinpoche’s long life.
Dechen bounced with excitement as he waited for Rinpoche to arrive at FPMT International Office. When Rinpoche’s car pulled up, Dechen was out on the sidewalk with his copy of the Heart Sutra. He offered it, smiling, to Rinpoche, who was very pleased. He also recited it on video for Rinpoche the previous day.
This offering to Rinpoche had been a couple of years in the making. As Dechen grew from a toddler into a young boy, his mother, Carina Rumrill, had noticed that while Dechen was able to read, count and learn shapes and colors much more quickly than other children his age, his behavior seemed to her to be a lot more difficult. As he reached school age, she took him to be tested by the local school district to see what they thought was going on. They identified him as having ASD (autism spectrum disorder), specifically they told Carina he had Asperger syndrome and sensory processing disorder.
Ven. Robina Courtin was visiting Portland during this period and spending time with Dechen. (She has known him since his birth.) She encouraged Carina, who is the former managing editor of Mandala and now an editor for FPMT International Office, to not label him with any disorder and to try and view his behavior in the context of Dharma teachings. She wrote about this in one of her “Postcard” blogs posts:
Dechen’s a powerhouse! Very much his own boss! As bright as a button, showing multiple talents. Children like him are often considered by contemporary psychologists as tending towards Asperger’s Syndrome. For me, that’s dangerous. Because there is no factoring in of past karma, a bright, fierce, super-intelligent, super-focused, stubborn child who is also quite mature emotionally can easily be misdiagnosed as having “psychological problems.” After all, “stubbornness,” when it’s used for the practice of morality, etc., is called “enthusiastic perseverance”: We all need that! As Lama Yeshe puts it, “if there’s no energy, there’s nothing to transform!” Give me a wild, stubborn, brilliant person any day!
Soon after this, Carina wrote to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, asking for advice about Dechen.
In addition to many pujas and practices that needed to be done for Dechen, Rinpoche recommended that Dechen memorize mantras and texts, and suggested starting with the Heart Sutra. Dechen started learning mantras and memorized them very quickly. Carina then thought Dechen could start memorizing the Heart Sutra. “His ability to memorize easily was evident even when he was very young. We were shocked to realize, when he was one-and-a-half years old, that he had memorized all the letters of the alphabet and numbers up to 100. He could barely talk at all, but if you asked him to point out any letter or number, he could. Many times we were surprised like this. When he was two, we discovered he could spell many words and count backwards from 100. He was reading by two-and-a-half, at age three, from watching YouTube videos, he had taught himself the alphabet and numbers to 100 in American Sign Language, when he was four he became interested in the alphabets and numbers of other languages, many examples like this.”
“Ven. Robina Courtin was due for another visit a few months after I received Rinpoche’s advice so I thought he could at least have the first paragraph of the Heart Sutra memorized by then. In order to help Dechen memorize it, I asked if he would like to type it out on the computer, then print it, then trace it. He said he’d like to try that,” Carina recalled. Dechen got to work and completed this in time to offer a copy to Ven. Robina. “During Ven. Robina’s visit we also read the sutra with her, and she gave some commentary on the sutra. At this point, Dechen became very interested in it.”
After the visit, Dechen exchanged emails with Ven. Robina about the sutra, with Carina serving as messenger. He was five years old at the time.
On 5 May 2013, at 05:55, Carina Rumrill wrote:
Hi Ven. Robina
… I told Dechen I was going to tell you he is typing out his second copy of the Heart Sutra for Lama Zopa Rinpoche because you’d be happy to hear that and he wants me to ask you one question.
He wants to know: “Why does Shariputra repeat his question to Avalokiteshvara?” Specifically he is really focused on understanding the line about “holding those five aggregates also as empty of inherent nature.” (He is looking at this while I type and has corrected the way I have phrased this question twice. I hope it makes sense!)
We look forward to your answer!
On Sun, May 5, 2013 at 3:01 AM, Robina Courtin wrote:
I am happy to hear from you and thrilled to bits that you are typing out for the second time the Heart Sutra.
As for your question: as far as I can see, Shariputra asks his question once, not twice. Please point out to me where he asks twice.
And remember, his speech is actually the words of the Buddha who is sitting there absorbed in meditation on emptiness and is inspiring the conversation between Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara.
As far as “holding those five aggregates also as empty of inherent existence” is concerned, in His Holiness’s commentary on the Heart Sutra the translator has “even” not “also.” His Holiness says that that “implies that a comprehensive list of phenomena will be included in this presentation of emptiness.” And that is what follows: Avalokiteshvara — inspired, remember by Lord Buddha — proceeds to list all the phenomena in the universe divided into the various categories: the six sense powers, etc., the twelve, links, the four noble truths, etc., etc., and that they are all empty of inherent existence.
That’s all I can say!
On May 6, 2013, at 1:44 AM, Carina Rumrill wrote:
Hi Ven. Robina,
Here’s what Dechen says:
At the beginning of the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara “beheld those five aggregates also as empty of inherent nature.” So why would Shariputra have to ask him about that again when Avalokiteshvara already told him and the other monks and bodhisattvas about that? If Shariputra was sitting with him, didn’t he already hear him answer that? I didn’t know that the Buddha was having them talk to each other! Why did the Buddha want them to talk to each other about that? Why didn’t the Buddha say it all himself instead? Are Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara both the Buddha!? I think that they are both the Buddha because how else could the Buddha make them talk!?
Carina (for Dechen)
On Sun, May 5, 2013 at 6:25 PM, Robina Courtin wrote:
Avalokiteshvara is “beholding” — that is, being aware of — the fact that the five aggregates are empty. He doesn’t actually say this to Shariputra.
Shariputra doesn’t ask the question “Are the five aggregates empty?” He asks what should a person do in order to understand “the perfection of wisdom” — that is, understand emptiness.
According to His Holiness’s commentary, there are “three principal kinds of scriptures attributed to the Buddha: those words that are actually spoken by the Buddha himself; those words spoken by a bodhisattva or a disciple on behalf of the Buddha; and those words spoken by disciples or bodhisattvas that were directly inspired by the Buddha.” Most of the Heart Sutra is the third kind.
So you can visualize Lord Buddha sitting in meditation, absorbed in emptiness, on Vulture’s Peak, surrounded by a ”great community of monks and great community of bodhisattvas.” When I went there I noticed how small it is, so I wondered how they all fit there. When I asked Geshe Dakpa in San Francisco this question, he said, “They sat in the sky!”
Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara are both there too being inspired by the Buddha to say the words they say. According to His Holiness, Avalokiteshvara “appears in the form of a bodhisattva on the tenth bodhisattva level.” Shariputra is one of Buddha’s two principal disciples “and the one among all Buddha’s disciples said to have the clearest understanding of emptiness.” So, he’s not actually a buddha yet, but pretty close.
Basically, Buddha is giving this teaching to the all the people but Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara are saying the words.
On 6 May 2013, at 15:42, Carina Rumrill wrote:
Thank you! Dechen is very happy with this answer!
Oh! Okay, okay!
Ven. Robina, how did they sit in the sky!? Did Geshe Dakpa tell you how they were sitting in the sky!?
On Mon, May 6, 2013 at 3:55 PM, Robina Courtin wrote:
Oh, that’s easy! As you develop power over the mind you also develop power over the physical world, including the body. The great yogis can not only fly in the sky they can also manifest their minds in different bodies, they can turn themselves into more than one person — a dog here, a human being there — in order to benefit sentient beings. By the time you’re a Buddha you can turn yourself into countless beings all the time. That’s the Buddha’s job. To benefit as many sentient beings as possible.
You can find links to the text of the Heart Sutra and other resources on FPMT Education Services’ page “Heart Sutra.”
To find Ven. Robina Courtin online, visit robinacourtin.com.
You can read more about Dechen offering his hand-traced copy of the Heart Sutra to Lama Zopa Rinpoche in the print edition of Mandala July-September 2014.
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