Heart Sutra Lecture One

Warren Lang

The Heart Sutra – Lecture One – 2 Nov. 2014 – Red Cedar Buddha Sangha

The Heart Sutra is one of most important Mahayana Buddhist texts, chanted and discussed in Mahayana centers world wide. As translator Red Pine says, “The Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell. It covers more of the Buddha’s teachings in a shorter span than any other scripture, and does so without being superficial or commonplace.”

The Heart Sutra is a teaching on Emptiness. But Emptiness points to our essential freedom. So, I would say that The Heart Sutra is a poem of True Freedom, freedom from suffering and confusion.

While it can be helpful to have explanations of a text such as The Heart Sutra to allow one an entrance into it, ultimately it is meant to point to that which is beyond explanations or concepts. My teacher, Steve Hagen, has said that when he first encountered The Heart Sutra, he would read it on the bus to and fro from work. Just that. Read it. Just take it in. Let it become part of you and open itself up to you.

In its early history, The Heart Sutra was known as a “dharani”, a kind of magical text to protect and comfort people. I have recited it to myself when I was feeling badly and it did bring me to a place of ease, of equanimity.

No one knows who authored The Heart Sutra, but it is thought to have originated in Southern India in the early centuries of the Common Era. Between 100 BCE and 100 CE a group of texts appeared called Prajnaparamita, that is, wisdom that goes beyond. They may have arisen to correct misconceptions some saw in the view of the Sarvastivadin school, a prominent sect at the time (though it no longer exists).

The Buddha taught that nothing has self-existence, that all phenomena exist only in relation to each other, interdependently—or, as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing. The Buddha taught that what we call the self like all other phenomena, has no substantial basis. To help people understand this, he taught that the self exists only as a combination of the five skandhas or aggregates: form, sensation, conception, inclination, perception or consciousness. They are the elements that together make up what we call a “self.” Form refers to the body and the senses; sensation refers to feelings that arise, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; conception refers to our placing of our sense data into categories (cat, dog, house, etc.); inclination refers to what we are inclined to do in relation to our sense data (e.g., try to avoid something or try to grasp it, etc.); perception or consciousness refers to our basic awareness of a sense object and is classified according to the sense involved (e.g., visual consciousness, aural consciousness, etc.).

The Buddha taught that these ever-changing elements account for all of what we do or are as human beings. There is no “self” we can find beyond them. Belief in a self, the Buddha taught, is the root of our suffering. To see through the self is to free oneself from dukkha and be awake and free.

After the Buddha’s time, followers created what is called the Abhidharma, (the term means the “higher dharma” or “teachings about dharmas”). The Abhidharma broke down human experience into units called dharmas. Studying these dharmas and understanding their relationships would guide one toward nirvana.

The Sarvastivadins continued this tradition by categorizing their own set of 75 dharmas. However, the Sarvastivadins came to believe in the reality of these dharmas—that is, they believed the dharmas—including the five skandhas— were irreducible units of existence, much like early atomists who thought that the atom was the irreducible unit of matter. It is true, they taught, that all empirical phenomena are illusory, have no substance. However, the finest constituents that comprise these phenomena, the dharmas, do have substance.

The Heart Sutra, as all the literature of the Prajnaparamita—introduces Emptiness to refute the idea that anything—dharmas included—has self-existence. This is no mere philosophical matter. If there is anything we feel is permanent and we attach to it, we suffer. The Buddha’s entire teaching is aimed at pointing us toward liberation from suffering.

With that as background, let’s enter the sutra. First the title: Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutras. “Maha” means great beyond compare, Ultimate Reality.

“Prajna” can be broken down into “pra” which means “before” or “preceding” and “jna” meaning knowledge. So, prajna means that which is before knowing, a knowing beyond our concepts. The Mahayana schools focus on prajna or wisdom while previous Buddhist schools emphasized jnana or knowledge.

Paramita has two possible meanings: perfection or gone beyond, as to the to other shore, as in we live on the shore of samsara, confusion, delusion and the Buddha’s teachings are the raft to transport us to the other shore of nirvana.

Hridaya means heart, the essence, the core of something.

Sutra could be derived from a root meaning to sew and meaning a thread that holds things together (as in suture). Or it could be derived from a root meaning “wise saying”. It is usually applied to texts that are said to be the direct teaching of the Buddha.

So taken together, the title can be translated as The Great Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra or the Great Heart of the Wisdom of the Other Shore Sutra. It can also suggest that the Perfection of Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Other Shore, activates the heart, moves it to compassion for all beings.

The Sutra begins with Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. The name Avalokiteshvara means one who hears the cries of the world. Avalokit. is often depicted as having a thousand arms with an eye on each hand of those arms, ready to see, hear, and reach out and help all those who suffer. (Marion and I saw statues of Aval. in Vietnam.) He (later she in China and Japan) is the embodiment of the quality of great, unconditional compassion. Fa-tsang says about Avalokiteshvara:

This name is given to someone who has the power to see without being obstructed by concepts or objects and whose power to see how to aid those who hope to be rescued is also unobstructed. The first explains his wisdom, the second his compassion.” (Red Pine, p. 48)

It is important to note that, as Fa-tsang says, Compassion and wisdom are not separate. By having the embodiment of great compassion speak about wisdom, the Heart Sutra points to the truth that compassion and wisdom arise together—great compassion is wise; great wisdom is compassionate.

A bodhisattva is an awakened being (Bodhi=awake, sattva= being) who forgoes full entry into nirvana to remain in the world until all beings are enlightened.

So, Avalokiteshvara is “practicing deeply the Perfection of Wisdom.” What does it mean to practice the Perfection of Wisdom? It means, simply, to be present moment to moment as we practice in our sitting meditation or in any other moments in our lives when we are truly present. The Perfection of Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Other Shore, is true seeing, experiencing Here and Now Reality directly, beyond words and concepts.

Fa-tsang, an 8th c. commentator on The Heart Sutra says,

Prajna is the substance and means ‘wisdom,’ which is the spiritual awakening to the subtlest mysteries and the wondrous realization of the true source. Paramita is the function and means ‘to reach the other shore,’ which is to use this marvelous wisdom to transform sansara until one reaches completely beyond it to the realm of true emptiness. (Red Pine, 54)

Another 8th c. commentator, Chih-shen says, “To practice means to proceed according to the principle of suchness thought after thought without stopping for a moment” (Red Pine, 55). As Dogen says, “If you want to attain Suchness, you should practice Suchness without delay.”

So, Avalokiteshvara is doing what we do when do our sitting meditation. He then sees that “all five skandhas are empty”. TNH talks about mindfulness and concentration bringing about insight. Aval., through his focused practiced of mindfulness has a deep insight: “all five skandhas are empty.”

It is important to note that Avalokiteshvara doesn’t reach his insight through philosophical analysis, but rather through insight that arises from practice. So, The Heart Sutra begins not by arguing logically with the Sarvastivadins, but by pointing to direct experience beyond concepts as the origin of the insights that populate this sutra.

Aval., through his deep insight, has “perceived” or “discovered” that “all five skandhas are Empty.” The Heart Sutra is primarily a disquisition on Emptiness. The term “Emptiness” in Buddhism, does not mean “nothingness”. As TNH says in his commentary on The Heart Sutra, when you say empty, you need to ask, “Empty of what?” The answer is empty of self-existence. Empty of enduring substance.

TNH goes on to talk about a cup that has no water in it. We say that the cup is empty. But, though it is empty of water, it is full of air. Because we are empty of self-existence, we are “full” of everything. We don’t exist as isolated, separate beings but we “Interare” with all beings. The condition for our existence is all other beings. The condition for the existence of all other beings is us.

This is not small matter. If we truly “see” this—not just accept it intellectually—we will, just like Avalokiteshvara, be “saved from all suffering and distress,” “overcome ill-being.” This realization is complete mental freedom. We are freed of the burden of self and find ourselves swimming in the sea of all beings.

Next, Avalokiteshvara addresses Shariputra. Shariputra was one of the original disciples of the Buddha, known for his wisdom. If he is known to be wise, why is Aval. addressing him, in effect, instructing him?

There is a historical reason for Shariputra to enter the poem in this way. The Sarvastivadins considered Shariputra to be the author of the Abhidharma texts that they held to as the basis of their understanding. So, by instructing Shariputra, The Heart Sutra sends the message that the basic understanding of the Sarvastivadins—that dharmas are real, have self-existence—is faulty, that Shariputra’s understanding is incomplete, that he has not brought wisdom to its perfection.

Aval. then points out to Shariputra that “form does not differ from Emptiness.” This is one of the most famous and fundamental formulations of Mahayana Buddhism. “Form”, the first of the five skandhas, is the same as Emptiness. Or, in TNH’s version, “The Body itself is Emptiness,” What an astounding statement. The Sutra continues: “Emptiness does not differ from form” (in TNH, “Emptiness itself is the Body”).

The first statement—that form is Emptiness—tells us that form is not separable from the indivisible Whole; there are no entirely separate entities. In fact, form is none other than this indivisible Reality.

Yet we can’t dismiss form or the body. The next statement is that “Emptiness does not differ from form.” So, form does “exist” but only as Emptiness. We can’t say, then, that form does exist or that it doesn’t exist. As my teacher has often said, it’s clear that something is happening. Reality is one, indivisible on the one hand, yet we can’t ignore the appearance of difference. This is a seeming paradox. Yet, we see with the eyes of a Buddha, it is clear. The nature of Reality cannot be put into a concept.

TNH gives the example of a piece of paper. TNH says that when he looks at the piece of paper he sees clouds, trees, earth. The paper, he says, is made of non-paper elements. “Paper” is just a convenient designation we put on this object. There is not such thing as “paper”. The paper is made of wood and water. But the paper also wouldn’t exist without the lumberjack who cut down the tree or the machines that process the wood or the people who run the machines. And these people wouldn’t exist without their parents and grandparents and so on until the entire universe is seen as part of the paper. Form is Emptiness. Emptiness is Form.

These statements point to the error in the formulations of the Sarvastivadins, but more importantly they point us toward Truth, Freedom, Awakenness.

Next, the Sutra says that the same is true of the other four skandhas. In other words, you can also say “sensation does not differ from Emptiness and Emptiness does not differ from sensation” and so on through the rest of the skandhas.

So, Avalokiteshvara cleanses our mental slate from anything to hold onto, any tiny bit of “self” to cling to.

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