‘Buddha preaching Abhidhamma in Tavatimsa’ – Wikimedia Commons
There is a text that came from the dawn of ages, whose author is unknown, but has been widely accepted, practised, and chanted in Mahāyāna Buddhism as a condensed exposé of the teaching of Buddha. Although known and praised as the ‘Heart Sutra’, its original Sanskrit name translates as ‘The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom’. If the Sutra’s main teaching asserts that all phenomena is ‘Śūnyatā’, a term widely translated as emptiness, its wide implications extend to many other aspects in the understanding of our true nature. Originally translated in Chinese by a 9th century Buddhist monk called Prajñā, the text exists in a shorter and longer version. I am sharing here the standard long version that provides an elegant and story-like context to the main teaching. I have also chosen to give to the many Sanskrit terms their original meaning or context. Following the Sutra is a short text that I wrote, some words that the text has evoked in me. I hope that this presentation will give justice to the profundity of this text, and that you will enjoy the reading.
“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
~ The Heart Sutra
Thus have I heard.
At one time, the Buddha was in Rājagṛha
[The modern city of Rajgir, meaning ‘The City of Kings’, in the actual State of Bihar in India.]
on the mountain of Gṛdhrakūṭa,
[A spot meaning the ‘Holy Eagle Peak’ because of its resemblance with a sitting eagle, and one of Buddha’s favorite retreat.]
along with a great saṃgha of bhikṣus.
[An ‘assembly’ or ‘community’ of ‘Bhiksu’, meaning literally ‘mendicant’, and a name for monks.]
At that time, the Lord Buddha entered the Great Vast and Extremely Profound Samādhi.
[A word meaning ‘to bring together’ or ‘be impregnated by’ (‘sam’) something which is ‘higher’ or ‘unified’ (‘adhi’),
which means the contemplation of, or abiding in our true nature.]
Within the multitude, Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva-mahāsattva was practicing the profound Prajñāpāramitā,
[A ‘great living being on the way to enlightenment’, or a ‘master looking deep within’, was attaining ‘perfect wisdom’ or ‘transcendental knowledge’.]
when he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw they were all empty,
[The ‘skhandas’ are ‘heaps’ or ‘collections’ of factors — forms, feelings, perceptions, conditionings, and mentation,
which lure us into the illusion of separation, or separate self, and lead to our sense of lacking and craving.]
and left all suffering and misery.
Then Śāriputra [Buddha’s main disciple], by the power of the Buddha,
joined his palms together in respect for Noble Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva-mahāsattva, and said:
“Virtuous man, if there are those who wish to cultivate the extremely profound practice of Prajñāpāramitā, how should they cultivate practice?”
After speaking thusly, Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva-mahāsattva addressed Elder Śāriputra, saying:
“Śāriputra, if virtuous men and virtuous women practice the extremely profound practice of Prajñāpāramitā,
they should contemplate the Five Skandhas as empty of self-nature.
Śāriputra, form is not different from emptiness,
and emptiness is not different from form.
Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form.
Sensation, conception, synthesis, and discrimination are also such as this.
Śāriputra, all phenomena are empty of characteristics:
they are neither created nor destroyed, neither defiled nor pure, and they neither increase nor diminish.
This is because in emptiness there is no form, sensation, conception, synthesis, or discrimination.
There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or thoughts.
There are no forms, sounds, scents, tastes, sensations, or phenomena.
There is no field of vision and there is no realm of thoughts.
There is no ignorance nor elimination of ignorance,
even up to and including no old age and death, nor elimination of old age and death.
There is no suffering, its accumulation, its elimination, or a path.
There is no understanding and no attaining.
“Because there is nothing to attain, bodhisattvas rely on Prajñāpāramitā [‘Perfect wisdom’] and their minds have no obstructions.
With no obstructions, they have no fears.
Because they are far removed from backward dream-thinking, their final result is Nirvāna [Meaning ‘blown out’, in short ‘happiness’.]
Because all buddhas of the past, present, and future rely on Prajñāpāramitā, [‘Perfect wisdom’]
they attain Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi. [Or ‘Supreme Perfect Enlightenment’.]
Therefore, know that Prajñāpāramitā is a great spiritual mantra, a great brilliant mantra, an unsurpassed mantra, and an unequalled mantra.
Because it can truly eliminate all afflications, the Prajñāpāramitā Mantra is spoken.
Speak the mantra thusly:
gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
[“Gone, gone, everyone gone to the other shore, awakening, svaha (‘svāhā’ marks an auspicious ending).”]
“Thusly, Śāriputra, all bodhisattva-mahāsattvas should practice Prajñāpāramitā thusly.”
At that time, after he had spoken, the Lord arose from the Great Vast and Extremely Profound Samādhi,
and praised Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva-mahāsattva, saying:
“Excellent, excellent, virtuous man! Thusly, thusly, you have truly spoken.
The extremely profound practice of Prajñāpāramitā should be practiced like this.
When practicing thusly, each and every tathāgata is in approval.”
[‘tathāgata’ means simultaneously ‘one who has thus gone’, and “one who has thus come”, and is a term for ‘enlightened being’.]
At that time, after the Lord had spoken,
Elder Śāriputra and Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva-mahāsattva both experienced great bliss.
Then the multitude of devas, humans, asuras, and gandharvas heard what the Buddha had truly said.
With great bliss, they believed, accepted, and practiced in accordance.
My reading on the Sutra:
I once met somebody who had a comprehension of his true nature, and an insight into the nature of reality. He showed me that the apparent reality of our world, or the forms that constitute our experience, belong to, or are a property of our sense perceptions. They only have a pseudo, inferred reality. They are yet the expression of a truer, deeper reality which, as is implied in the Sutra, can be experienced. It can be experienced both as being itself alone, and as being the very essence of the many forms of experience. This newly accessed reality renders to our pseudo everyday reality, its true and natural essence, and holds the key for the dearly sought-after meaning of existence.
In the same way that our sense of a limited, personal self is devoid of any reality of its own, and is in fact superimposed, or artificially added to the impersonal, unlimited expanse of consciousness itself, the forms of experience do not have a solid, independent reality of their own, but are as to say painted on the canvas of emptiness. It means that all appearances borrow their apparent solidity and form to a reality that is empty and formless. It means that every sound heard draws its apparent existence from silence. And that our sense of time is drawn from unfathomable eternity. Our sense of space from the immeasurable. As for the many names given to these forms or appearances, they are an attempt at describing a reality whose nature can only be nameless, on account of its non-objective nature, and its ungraspability.
‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ can only find its articulation and meaning in the middle ground of empty, formless being. Being is therefore the experiential point where such a truth can be comprehended. The experiencing of this reality is never an experience coming from sense perceptions. It never is an experience that a person can have. It has a closeness and dumbfounding intimacy that is way before or beyond what any sense perception can give. The reason behind this is that only this reality is in capacity of knowing itself. It has the exclusivity of its own knowability. This exclusivity excludes any other instrument of knowing, such as thoughts, feelings, or sense perceptions. It is total and requires an equally total engagement on our part which is: We can only experience this reality through the vehicle of its own emptiness, which requires that we must first die to our own illusory structure and experience as name and form. Only through the dying of forms will the formless be revealed. And only through accessing the formless will we be able to know the true nature or essence of the many thousand forms of experience.
But there is more to it. The profound implication of ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ is that no thing ever stood out filled with its own reality. The ‘many’ is only inferred and is hiding a reality thriving as oneness. That reality is the only thing you will ever experience. And the veiling of truth lies precisely in inferring a non-truth. It is because we believe in the ‘many’ that we miss the One. It is because we believe in form that we miss emptiness. And it is only when we tie again with emptiness that forms can reveal their true essence and meaning. But see further now: If form is emptiness, what would death be, but veiled immortality? What would ignorance be, but veiled wisdom? And what would suffering be, but veiled happiness? And finally, what would our dearest search for enlightenment be, but veiled realisation?
The Heart Sutra is by unknown author
(Translated by Lapis Lazuli Texts)
Additional text by Alain Joly
Second painting by Solias Mendis (Kelaniya Temple)
–‘The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism’ – by Kazuaki Tanahashi – (Shambhala)
– ‘The Heart Sutra: An Oral Teaching’ – by Geshe Sonam Sonam Rinchen – (Shambhala)
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