Preface and Introduction
to the Heart Sutra
In the following series of posts I will introduce the Heart Sutra and proceed
to explain its key points. At the same time I will address the issues likely to
be raised by a skeptical, or critical reader. In certain instances, the issues
may be of a historical nature, in others they may be more philosophical. Likewise,
I will also share my particular understanding of the topics.
I have chosen to use the Heart Sutra as a means of exploring many of the topics
proposed in the original outline. This is partly a time-saving gesture on my part
- but it also serves to provide a vivid context for those subjects set out in
the original outline. For example, included in the sutra are the Four Noble Truths,
dependent origination, the basis for imputing a self, the two Truths, epistemology
and ontology. The reason those topics were included in the original outline was
because they discussed topics, such as consciousness, the way in which we impute
a self, the nature of mind and so on - which are ideas that have been discussed
somewhat on the FACTS board. My impetus, again, was to present a fresh view of
those concepts. The point here, is not to have a religious discussion, nor even
a discussion about religion.
Along those lines a couple of ideas arise. The first is that the Dharma, to borrow
the words of Stephan Batchelor, is "not something to believe in, but something
to do". That being said, the main thing to do is meditate. But we will not
do that. The fact that we won't meditate will substantially limit the discussion
- but we're not here to bring anyone around to the Path of the Buddha (if anyone
would like to discuss how to meditate, however, they can contact me off the board).
Therefore, this discussion will be less for the skeptic, (unless the skeptic wants
to take up meditation and resume this discussion after stabilizing his/her practice
a few months down the road), and more for the critical thinker.
I expect this to be time consuming to produce - and hopefully time consuming to
read. If it is, I hope it because of the amount of thought being given to the
topic. I will try to be very thorough in explaining new terms as they arise without
disrupting the flow of information too much. In some instances end notes may suffice.
Otherwise, I may include a glossary of terms.
The outer topic, the Heart Sutra, is very complex and quite sophisticated. It
is one of several prajnaparamita sutras.
The longest is in 100,000 lines. There's a 25,000 line prajnaparamita sutra, an
18,000 line sutra, a 10,000 line sutra and an 8,000 line version as well. All
of the ideas in those sutras have been distilled down into the forty lines that
appear down below. The sutra can be even further reduced into the mantra OM GATE
GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA, or just to the syllable AH. The point here
is that a lot of information is being compressed into a very small amount of words.
Indeed, this is sutra is the quintessential Mahayana text. The entire Mahayana
and Hinayana paths are contained within this sutra. Therefore, please treat the
contents with proper respect. Not religious respect - but respect for the efforts
and intellect of its composer(s) and commentators.
The inner topics, concerning epistemology, ontology, the explanations of a conceptual
or a nonconceptual mind and external phenomena, are also somewhat sophisticated.
Much of what I present is not immediately intuitive from a Western point of view.
It would be a mistake to presume therefore, that since its meaning isn't immediately
obvious, that it is flawed - or just in need of the lamp of Western reasoning.
My guess is that a lot of misunderstanding will arise over language and its cultural
components. Language because of the difficulty not just of translation, but especially
because of the difficulty of giving name to concepts that do not exist in the
English language or western canon. And,
cultural biases will also be an obstacle. For example, the whole pathetic history
of the gap between science and philosophy since the time of Descartes has strongly
colored the way we regard mind; i.e. as nothing more than a function of an activated
brain. I'll do my best to provide guidance and encouragement so that we can sail
through the hazards of our biases.
And, just to give you a taste of where we're going, we will follow in the footsteps
of Christopher deCharms, who, in his book Two Views of Mind: the Abhidharma and
Brain Science offered this little brain teaser i to acclimate his readers to the
difference in ways we and the Tibetans regard phenomena.
1. A phenomenon exists (has individual existence)
2. The phenomenon does not exist.
These two possibilities pretty much sum up the western view with regards to relevant
possibilities. Either an object exists, or it does not exist. From the Buddhist
perspective there are two other possibilities.
3. The phenomenon both exists and does not exist.
4. The phenomenon neither exists nor does not exist.
Assume now that the phenomena in question is the chair you're sitting on. Which
of these four possibilities would be correct? Again, the Western answer is probably
(1). That is the intuitively correct answer. What if the object is Santa Claus?
Maybe (2) is correct - but (3) might also be correct - because he at least exists
in the minds of children, on Christmas cards and cartoons and so on. What if the
object in question is our own "self"? From a Mahayana perspective, none
of the four possibilities stated above is correct. This philosophically "proven"
view avoids the extremes of eternalism and nihilism, as well as the extremes of
Cartesian dualism and monist/materialism. And while I will not go into further
explanation here, the above should serve as evidence that the logic we are familiar
with may not be easily applied to this system of thought. This is not, however,
a plea for special consideration. A very extensive system of logic and hermeneutics
has evolved over the millennia and we shall explore it. My advice is to listen
hear - to get the contents of the package and then to contemplate its meaning.
Introductionto the Sutra
As for the sutra itself, it is perhaps the most popular sutra in the world. It
is chanted daily in China (where Buddhists practice) Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan,
Vietnam (where Buddhism is practiced), Taiwan, Korea and Japan.
Likewise, it is chanted in all Mahayana sanghas outside of Asia. Furthermore,
scores of commentaries on the sutra have come out of those countries. It's popularity
can be attributed to the profundity of its contents and to its brevity.
It is one of the Prajnaparamita sutras which distinguish the Mahayna Buddhism
from Hinayana Buddhism.
Prajñaparamita has been translated to English as 'Transcendent Wisdom'.
Jña means consciousness, knowledge or understanding. Pra is an intensifier.
Hence, Prajna means wisdom. ii There are two etymologies for the word paramita.iii
The first comes from the word parama meaning "highest", "most distant",
"most excellent". Thus "that of which there is nothing superior
in this world is said to be excellent (parama); the excellence of wisdom is the
perfection of wisdom". iv In the second etymology, paramita is divided into
para and mita. Para means "beyond" or "the other shore", and
mita means "that which has arrived", or "that which goes".
So, generally then, prajnaparamita means the unsurpassed wisdom which goes to
the other shore. Thus it is the highest wisdom in Buddhism because of its ability
to deliver one to the other shore; i.e. realization, by means of the contemplating
and meditating on it.
In particular, what is unique about prajnaparamita is its view of twofold egolessness
which understands the emptiness of inherent existence of self and of other phenomena.
The experience of this is known as shunyata. Shunyata "is an awareness that
apparent phenomena are without origination or basis; it is freedom from conceptuality.
In particular, it is the realization of threefold purity: that there is no "I"
as actor, no action, and no "other" to be acted upon. It is very important
to understand that shunyata is not the nihilistic idea of nothing, or voidness.
As the sutra says, it is inseparable from the appearance of perceived objects
such as forms." v This view departs from the Hinayana views which see the
egolessness of self, but which nonetheless believe that objects exist from their
own side. Another key
divergence is the role of the Bodhisattva and of compassion. Compassion is inseparable
from emptiness. It is perhaps for this reason that Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva
of compassion plays the main role in this sutra."
Throughout the prajnaparamita sutras' existence, several commentaries (Skt. shastras)
have been written. I am most familiar with the Indian and Tibetan commentaries
on the Heart Sutra. It should be pointed out that as the Mahayana tenets evolved
in India, so too did the commentaries on the sutras. Likewise, after the Tibetans
translated the Indian texts, the Sanskrit originals gradually disappeared in Tibet,
and inevitably, commentaries based on the etymology of Tibetan words began to
appear as well. So, there are disagreements amongst the commentaries on various
points, which reflect the contemporary view bumping up against older views. In
a certain way, it is this process of continual refinement which kept the dharma
viable. On the other hand, it has also led to low-grade sectarianism. As for the
substance of these disagreements, as far as I can tell, none reflect any fundamental
conflict. Perhaps the differences
are like intra-discipline spats amongst biologists or other researchers. There
is consensus regarding the theory itself, but there's some disagreement as to
the actual mechanisms involved. In any event, I do not mean to present a comprehensive,
nor necessarily even a balanced view of the disparate shastras. For additional
information about the sutra or its topic, I've made a small list of books which
you will find below.
In the next installment I will post the sutra and we will discuss the meaning
of its title and the common and uncommon prologues.
Recommended Readings on Prajnaparamita and Shunyata/Emptiness Cutting Through
Spiritual Materialism, pp. 187-206. A discussion of shunyata.
Echoes of Voidness by Geshe Rabten (Wisdom Publications, 1983), pp. 20-45. A commentary
in the traditional Tibetan style.
Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom, translated by Edward Conze. A
useful anthology arranged by topic.
The Heart Sutra Explained by Donald Lopez (SUNY Press, 1988). Compendium of Indian
commentaries on the Heart Sutra
Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso A commentary in the traditional Tibetan
Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra Lex Hixon
i This is known as the Four Cornered Negation, or catush koti. It is the basis
of Buddhist logic, for it avoids the extremes of eternalism and of nihilism. Likewise,
it avoids the extremes of monism/materialism and Cartesian dualism.
It is fundamental to, and pervades Mahayana philosophy.
ii Note, there are two types of prajna; worldly and transcendent prajna. The former
is a sort of discriminating intelligence, such as was referred to in the first
chapter. Transcendent prajna generally refers to the intelligence which transcends
conceptual mind, hence it is synonymous with wisdom.
iii The Heart Sutra Explained; Lopez, Donald; p. 21
v Nalanda Translation Committee.