Heart Sutra

 Kanzeon (Avalokiteshvara)

Kanzeon (Avalokiteshvara)

Notes on the Heart Sutra (or, the heart of perfect wisdom)

The Heart Sutra (in Sanskrit, Prajnaparamita Hrdaya) is recited daily as a mantra/chant in many Mahayana Buddhist traditions. A translation by Seung Sahn, a well-known Korean Zen teacher, is provided at the end of these notes.

Origins of the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is part of the much larger Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) Sutra, which is a collection of about 40 sutras composed between 100 BCE and 500 CE. The precise origin of the Heart Sutra is unknown. According to the translator Red Pine, the earliest record of the sutra is a Chinese translation from Sanskrit by the monk Chih-ch’ien made between 200 and 250 CE.

In the 8th century another translation emerged that added an introduction and conclusion. This longer version was adopted by Tibetan Buddhism. In Zen and other Mahayana schools that originated in China, the shorter version is more common.

The Heart Sutra condenses some of the main tenets of Buddhist teaching into a very short text that is full of paradoxes and ambiguities. These notes aim to unravel and make a little clearer what the Sutra is about.

A Bodhisattva, in Buddhist legend, is an enlightened being who has vowed not to cease striving until all beings have achieved freedom from suffering, wisdom and peace.

Beginning

Shariputra, a senior student of the Buddha, has asked Avalokiteshvara [Kanzeon/Kannon/Kuan-yin], the Bodhisattva of mercy or compassion, to teach him the practice of prajnaparamita: The Perfection of Wisdom (or perfection of the mind). The early lines of the sutra discuss the five skandhas – which in Buddhism are the processes that make up each personality or identity: form/matter, sensation/feeling, conception/cognition, mental formations/impulses/will, and consciousness/discernment. The Bodhisattva has seen that the skandhas are empty of any enduring reality, and this frees him from suffering. The bodhisattva speaks:

 Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita
perceives that all five skandhas are empty
and is saved from all suffering and distress.
(trans. Seung Sahn – Korean Zen teacher)

The Bodhisattva continues with these enigmatic words:

Shariputra,
form does not differ from emptiness,
emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness,
that which is emptiness form.
The same is true of feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
(trans. Sahn)

Another translation goes like this: Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness; emptiness no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form. Sensation, conception, discrimination, and consciousness are also like this. (trans. Red Pine)

What Is Emptiness?

Emptiness (in Sanskrit, sunyata) is a key tenet of Mahayana Buddhism. It is also often misunderstood. Too often, people assume it means that nothing exists, that the universe is void or empty. But this is not the case. The current Dalai Lama has said, “The existence of things and events is not in dispute; it is the manner in which they exist that must be clarified.” Sunyata means that all things are empty of self-existence (emptiness), that is, they have no autonomous essence, separate or independent of everything else.

Sunyata [also known as anatta & anatman] is, according to the Buddha, one of the three marks of existence. The others are: anicca – impermanence/ flux; and dukkha – the sense of unsatisfactoriness or suffering that arises when the other two marks of existence are ignored or denied. Sunyata and anicca are closely related, for if all entities (including ideas, feelings and perceptions, as well as objects and beings) are impermanent, they cannot have an enduring essence or self-existence – they cannot be considered as entities separate from everything else. Entities are always conditional upon one another. In the flux of existence all things arise and decay – they are always changing from one state to another, becoming something else. In Buddhist terms everything that exists is interdependent upon everything else – this is the idea of dependent origination or mutual co-arising. If we cling to the notion that some things, beliefs or ideas, for instance our selves, have independent existence we will always be frustrated, dissatisfied and feel a sense of loss. Buddha taught that right understanding of the way things are, can lessen our suffering and lead to greater tranquillity and enjoyment.

If all phenomena are empty (of self-existence) and are interwoven with and inter-related to everything else, then any distinctions we make between things are arbitrary. That is why the Heart Sutra continues:

No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;
no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no object of mind;
no realm of eyes
and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.
(trans. Sahn)

no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, thing [the skandhas] (trans. Red Pine)

As Red Pine points out:

“There is no point at which the eyes begin or end, either in time or in space or conceptually. The eye bone is connected to the face bone, and the face bone is connected to the head bone, and the head bone is connected to the neck bone, and so it goes down to the toe bone, the floor bone, the earth bone, the worm bone, the dreaming butterfly bone..”

Because nothing has self-existence, nothing is autonomous or separate from everything else, therefore any distinctions we make between things are arbitrary, conventional and relative, for instance: up/down, large/small, dog/cat, mammal/insect, wise/foolish, past/future, Buddhist/Christian. We use language to label things and categorise the world – which is useful, it helps us to think about the world and to do things – but it can also give us a false sense of separateness and permanence. Language and discrimination can add to our misunderstanding and suffering/dissatisfaction. We need to keep in mind that the labels and categorisations are labels and categorisations, not the way the world IS. Delusion arises not in using words, labels and concepts, but in believing that this is how the world is – hence, the qualifications that arise in many Buddhist teachings about language and conceptual analysis. Conventional truths are conventional truths. It is important not to become attached to labels, names and forms as if they are permanent and actual – when they are not.

All of this applies to us, as much as to everything else. We also, are empty of self-existence and are impermanent. We are a constellation of five skandhas (form/matter, sensation/feeling, conception/cognition, mental formations/impulses/will, and consciousness/discernment) – a stream of ever-changing currents of feeling, thought, mood, perception and aspiration. We have no fixed essence, soul or self, and we have no clear and permanent boundaries. What we call the ego, my-self, me and I, are conventions, names and labels for fluid and always changing phenomena. In mindfulness meditation we observe these passing phenomena without judgment, commentary or clinging – seeing and accepting them for what they. The self in Buddhist terms is a process, not a thing, it has no fixed ego-centre or essence. We make and re-make ourselves from moment-to-moment.

No ignorance and also no extinction of it,
and so forth until no old age and death
and also no extinction of them.

No suffering, no origination,
no stopping, no path, no cognition,
also no attainment with nothing to attain.
(trans. Sahn)

When we understand and realise these characteristics of existence, and are no longer attached to phenomena (including names and forms) as if they are permanent and separate, then we are able to live more fully and peacefully, less prone to dissatisfaction and frustration.

The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita
and the mind is no hindrance;
without any hindrance no fears exist.
Far apart from every [distorted] view one dwells in Nirvana.
(trans. Sahn)

We have a tendency to spend too much of our time in the world of difference and distinction and not enough in the world of direct experience. To sit in mindful awareness without judgment or commentary is to let go of language and categorisation and be in the HERE and NOW. In the undifferentiated moment labels, names and forms have no substance: everything is as it IS – breathing in, breathing out, until even these distinctions disappear.

Ending

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha. It can be translated as “Gone, gone, gone to the other shore.”

This picks up the metaphor used by the Buddha: that his teachings are to be considered like a raft that can carry us across a river – from one shore to another. We need to use the raft and then let go of it. It is up to us to translate his words into actions – to test what he teaches against our own experience and to realise our understanding in the way we live.       [notes by John Danvers]

The Heart Sutra – Maha Prajna Paramita Hridya Sutra

(translated by Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn)

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita
perceives that all five skandhas are empty
and is saved from all suffering and distress.

Shariputra,
form does not differ from emptiness,
emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness,
that which is emptiness form.
The same is true of feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

Shariputra,
all dharmas are marked with emptiness;
they do not appear or disappear,
are not tainted or pure,
do not increase or decrease.
Therefore, in emptiness no form, no feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;
no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no object of mind;
no realm of eyes
and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.

No ignorance and also no extinction of it,
and so forth until no old age and death
and also no extinction of them.

No suffering, no origination,
no stopping, no path, no cognition,
also no attainment with nothing to attain.

The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita
and the mind is no hindrance;
without any hindrance no fears exist.
Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in Nirvana.

In the three worlds
all Buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita
and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.

Therefore know that Prajna Paramita
is the great transcendent mantra,
is the great bright mantra,
is the utmost mantra,
is the supreme mantra
which is able to relieve all suffering
and is true, not false.

So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra,
proclaim the mantra which says:

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.