Inside The Heart Sutra
The "Heart Sutra" is a remarkable document. It is
a concise definition of the Buddha's teaching on emptiness. The sutra begins by
telling us that the Buddha was staying at the ancient city of Rajagriha and that
this teaching was given at "Eagle Peak," or "Mount Sacred Eagle."
"Eagle Peak" is a real place that anyone can visit and it is a frequent
stop for tourists who visit modern day India.
This sutra is somewhat unusual
because the Buddha sits quietly nearby as two of his advanced students discuss
the concept of ultimate reality. We are told that the Buddha was immersed in a
meditative state called "profound illumination." From the textual clues
we realize that he was dwelling on the empty nature of all phenomena.
we are told that the Bodhisattva student, Avalokiteshvara was also engaged in
this same meditation practice. From this we can assume that Shakyamuni and Avalokiteshvara
had been discussing the subject just prior to this teaching or that this was a
practice the Buddha had already taught to the Bodhisattva.
At this point we
are told that Shariputra, "through the power of the Buddha" asks Avalokiteshvara
how "a son of the lineage" should train his mind if he wishes to "practice
"Through the power of the Buddha" simply means
that Shakyamuni was Shariputra's teacher. He had already spent years training
Shariputra's mind so the power we're referring to is the power of his teachings
to influence his students mind.
"A son of the lineage" is any person
who follows the guidance of the Buddha and wants to attain enlightenment for the
sake of all sentient beings. The final part of this question, how a student should
"practice this wisdom" is very important. Notice that he did not ask,
"How can I acquire this wisdom," he asked how to 'practice' this insight
because he already understood that this meditation is a lifelong commitment to
Please observe that the Buddha was engaged in this meditation
and he was already enlightened, so this is clearly a practice that should be continued
no matter what state of realization you have attained.
At this point Avalokiteshvara
answers Shariputra's question by giving a succinct definition of emptiness that
is treasured by all dharma students to this day. The bodhisattva begins his definition
by telling us that all existence is empty and that your five aggregates are empty
When Avalokiteshvara says that emptiness is the true nature of all
existence he means that everything is dependent on causes and conditions. There
is nothing in the universe that exists inherently. Avalokiteshvara adds the part
about your five aggregates because it is more difficult to realize that these
laws apply to you as well.
It is fairly easy to realize that the universe works
by cause and effect but it is much more difficult to fully comprehend that these
same laws always apply to you as an individual. We are always getting into situations
that we have created and then praying for the circumstances to change. It is so
easy to see that cause and effect works in the lives of others but we want things
to be different for ourselves. This is part of the mental sickness that keeps
us from finding liberation.
Avalokiteshvara continues by saying that 'emptiness
is form', form is emptiness', and he makes clear that there is never a situation
where this is not the case. Again, he brings this teaching home to us directly
by saying that this truth also applies to the components that make up our bodies.
is not telling us that form does not exist because this is obviously not the case.
He is saying that form does not inherently exist because anything you can think
of is dependent on the causes that created them, the proper circumstances, and
the correct environment. If any of these factors are absent then the phenomena
will not be manifested.
The next point to consider is that all things 'are
not produced and do not cease.' This means that there is no birth or death. Again,
Avalokiteshvara is not saying that you were not born or that you will not die,
he is talking about the eternal nature of all sentient beings. Yes, you were born,
but the energy that is you has always existed and can never die.
adds that the energy that is 'you' has no taints or separation from taint, this
means that we are not born 'evil or 'holy.' The way we behave is the result of
decisions we make every day. We choose to behave badly and so we embrace evil
but this does not make us inherently immoral. The same is true of 'holiness' or
what is perceived as good behavior.
The bodhisattva finishes this verse by
saying that phenomena do not increase or decrease. This means that the energy
that is the phenomena in question does not really alter in spite of appearances.
To make this easier to understand, let us examine the life of an 'average' person.
The energy of a human being does not alter with their life stage. The true entity
of that person is the same whether he is an infant or an old man.
paragraph assures us that everything is empty and that includes the twelve-link
chain of dependent origination as well as the four noble truths. This is telling
us that all of the Buddhas teachings are not somehow outside the system of rules
that govern everything. Everything is empty because everything is dependent.
is "no attainment" but also no "non-attainment" means that
this kind of dualistic thinking is not real. We are always attempting to place
things into categories but this does not ever reflect reality. A Buddha has learned
to see things just the way they are.
When we attain just a little of this kind
of clarity our life condition improves a great deal. As we continue to practice
our wisdom develops and we become happy individuals. As the sutra says, we become
filled with positive energy and our minds are freed from the fear of death. When
we attain Nirvana we are enlightened to the truth and thus completely free from
At this point in the sutra the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara pronounces
a dharani, which is quite common to advanced Mahayana teachings. To properly understand
the concept of dharanis please read "Inside The Lotus Sutra" (free from
The sutra concludes with the statement that any one who wishes
to train as a bodhisattva should follow these guidelines. The Buddha sat and listened
to this discourse and approved of what Avalokiteshvara taught.
I hope this
commentary brings benefit to as many beings as possible. May all beings reach
the freedom of Nirvana.
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho
May all beings benefit.