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Heart Sutra and Emptiness (Part 1 of 5)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Mar 31, 2004
In topic: Sutras and Commentaries
First in a series of five talks on this central Mahayana teaching.
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The Heart Sutra
Lecture Number One - Zoketsu Norman Fischer

Abridged and transcribed by Ryusen Barbara Byrum 


GREAT WISDOM BEYOND WISDOM HEART SUTRA


AVALOKITESHVARA BODHISATTVA WHEN PRACTICING DEEPLY THE PRAJNA PARAMITA PERCEIVED THAT ALL FIVE SKANDAS IN THEIR OWN BEING ARE EMPTY AND WAS SAVED FROM ALL SUFFERING O 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 FORMATIONS CONSCIOUSNESS O SHARIPUTRA ALL DHARMAS ARE MARKED WITH EMPTINESS THEY DO NOT APPEAR NOR DISAPPEAR ARE NOT TAINTED NOR PURE DO NOT INCREASE NOR DECREASE THEREFORE IN EMPTINESS NO FORM NO FEELINGS NO PERCEPTIONS NO FORMATIONS NO 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 UNTIL NO REALM OF MIND-CONSCIOUSNESS NO IGNORANCE AND ALSO NO EXTINCTION OF IT UNTIL NO OLD AGE AND DEATH AND ALSO NO EXTINCTION OF IT 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 UNSURPASSED COMPLETE PERFECT ENLIGHTENMENT THEREFORE KNOW THE 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 THAT SAYS GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE! BODHI! SVAHA!

We will spend the next five weeks trying to appreciate and understand these words, which are chanted in Zen temples all over the world and in other Mahayana Buddhist schools. There is a new translation of the Heart Sutra that a committee of scholars and practitioners has done. I think the Zen Center uses the new translation, but for purposes of this class, we are going to use the old one.

When I first started practicing Zen, I had an experience that has never been repeated. I practiced in the snow in upstate New York in the middle of the winter. Around 1969, I attended a retreat with Shibayama Roshi, the author of The Gateless Barrier, who gave his comments on the Mumonkan at this retreat. During the breaks I would go out into the trackless snow and walk around and around and chant the Heart Sutra. For me, the meaning of the Heart Sutra is mixed up with a snowy landscape, where everything is covered in whiteness, as if each thing were one thing - one taste, one form, one shape. In those days when I was young, visiting my parents caused in me a state of absolute exasperation. To relieve my troubles, I would go outside and walk up and down the river chanting the Heart Sutra, and it would really cheer me up. So for me the Heart Sutra has memories and associations of great comfort and consolation, and even though on the surface of it the words of the Heart Sutra don’t seem comforting or calming, I always found them to be so. I had no idea what it meant, and I still don’t know that I do, but there was something about it that seeped in, even though the technical meaning may have escaped me.

The title in Sanskrit, which is rendered in English as the “Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra”, is Maha Prajna Parimita Hridya Sutra. The first word, maha, is translated as “great”, but in the context of the title of the Heart Sutra, it means “unsurpassingly great”. It is all extensive, with nothing outside of it; there is no boundary to this greatness. Greatness, then, is not a comparative term. It is a greatness that transcends comparisons and covers everything. One could say that the word maha is almost a synonym for emptiness itself - vast, unnamable, indefinable, limitless - the mysterious nature of being. If being itself is maha, then it is also unlimited. What we usually call being has a strict limit, and the limit of being is nonbeing, but the being of maha also includes nonbeing: life/death, not as opposites, one canceling out the other, but as inextricably bound up together in one endless and indefinable continuum. Life/death as one thing.

In our conceptions of the world, life and death are opposite. Being and nonbeing are opposites. But it is interesting that in Buddhist thought and terminology, the dichotomy is not between life and death and between being and nonbeing, the dichotomy is between wisdom and ignorance, or nirvana and samsara. Life/death, as one continuous thing, is samsara. Life/death as one continuous thing is ignorance. Life/death as one continuous thing is nirvana. Life/death as one continuous thing is wisdom. So when we embrace life/death as a limitless flow of being/ nonbeing, as great, joyful, mysterious, and pure, this is maha. It is a shout, “Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra!” - a great shout of joy and mystery.

Prajna means wisdom. The two words, prajna and paramita, are translated in our title as “Wisdom Beyond Wisdom”. In the Western tradition wisdom is a vague word. It implies a wise old man or a wise old woman with a knowing smile and a gentle way. I suppose it has the same meaning in the title of the sutra, but is also has the more technical meaning, “to see life as it really is”. In early Buddhism, the term prajna existed because to see life as it really is, rather than to see life distorted by our desire and confusion, is to live life based on that true seeing. Prajna is sometimes called, “the eye of prajna,” and is the faculty to see things clearly, as they really are, and not perverted by our conditioned views. The point of the Buddhist path is to develop this faculty until you can see things as they are and also to live your life based on that true seeing.

In older schools of Buddhism, in the first formulations of dharma, right view was seeing impermanence. Even though intellectually we know that things are impermanent, we live in a world that we think is full of permanent things, beginning with ourselves. Even though we know that our bodies and minds are not permanent, we think they are, and so it is always a shock to us in moments of illness or facing death that it is not so. It is always a shock, because no matter how much we think we know, we don’t know how impermanent mind and body are. So, seeing reality as radically impermanent, and embracing the implications of that, was in early Buddhism the notion of what prajna was seeing.

In Mahayana Buddhism this shifts a little bit. Rather than seeing impermanence, we are seeing emptiness. Prajna, then, is the eye that sees the empty nature of phenomena. But actually impermanence and the emptiness of things are not really two different things. Dogen has a fascicle that is called, “Impermanence is Buddha nature.” These are equivalent views. Reality that we think is permanent is impermanent; reality that seems substantial is empty. The reality we see as messed up, is actually Buddha nature. So these are all one thing: Buddha nature, impermanence, and emptiness. Each is a way of talking about the unnamable reality. All of our conceptions of reality, including conceptions of impermanence and emptiness, fall short of what is real.

So now paramita. The six paramitas are the six practices of bodhisattvas: giving, ethical conduct, energy, patience, concentration, and wisdom. The word paramita can be translated as “perfection”, and that is what it means: the perfection of giving, the perfection of ethical conduct, the perfection of wisdom, and so on. Perfection literally means “going beyond”; for example, going to the end of morality, and then going beyond that. Imagine walking down the road of ethical conduct until you got to the end, and then leaping off into the void. That is the implication. That is why the title is translated, “Wisdom Beyond Wisdom”. The perfection of wisdom would be wisdom beyond wisdom. This means not having an idea of wisdom or morality. For example, if you are practicing giving, and later say, “Look I am getting good at giving,” the very thought of that would be a limitation to your giving. Real giving would be giving without any thought of giving; it would be a reflex of your living. So wisdom beyond wisdom is not anything that you would be able to define or recognize, and if you did see yourself defining wisdom, you would know that it was a lack of wisdom. Wisdom beyond wisdom is beyond any designations. It is wisdom without boundary or definition. Therefore, the perfection of wisdom is the same as the perfection of giving, because if you go to the limits of each paramita and jump into the void, it is the same void. In the void there is no difference between patience and giving and wisdom.

So we come to the word hrdiya, or heart. In Sanskrit the word “heart” has a triple sense just as it has in English. It means the heart as an organ, it implies the heart as the seat of emotion, and it means, as it does in English, the heart of something or kernel of something, its essential quality. “Go right to the heart of the matter,” we say.

There is a whole literature of the Prajna Paramita. It is a great thing to read all of the literature. I have done it once and would like to do it again. There is a Prajna Paramita Sutra in one hundred thousand lines, which is a very thick book, a Prajna Paramita Sutra in twenty five thousand lines, which is a less thick book, and a Prajna Paramita Sutra in eight thousand lines, the Diamond Sutra, and the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is one page long and purports to be the heart of what is included in all the other sutras. There actually is a Prajna Paramita Sutra in one letter, the letter “a”, but it probably wouldn’t take us five weeks to discuss it! So the Heart Sutra gives the essence of the teaching of Prajna Paramita.

The last word is the word sutra. A sutra is a scripture in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. For example, there are the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The word sutra is like the English word suture, which means to sew together. I think this is because the first sutras were a collection of aphorisms or scriptural sayings strung together. In Zen, sutra as scripture becomes extended further to include all phenomena, and with the eye of prajna, when you observe all phenomena, you are actually reading sutras. The world is a scripture: all thoughts, sounds, taste, mind, objects, and smells are scriptures if we have the eye to read them.

So that is the title. It is possible that we could do part of the first sentence tonight:

AVALOKITESHVARA BODHISATTVA WHEN PRACTICING DEEPLY THE PRAJNA PARAMITA PERCEIVED THAT ALL FIVE SKANDHAS IN THEIR OWN BEING ARE EMPTY AND WAS SAVED FROM ALL SUFFERING

Bodhisattva is the great hero of Mahayana Buddhism. In early Buddhism, “bodhisattva”, specifically referred only to one Buddha, the Buddha in his previous lives. The bodhisattva was a Buddha in training. So in early Buddhism the idea was to become an arhat or a Buddha, and a bodhisattva was only a preliminary stage. But in Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva is raised up until a bodhisattva is almost the equal of a Buddha, not in rank, but in spirit and in value, and even, to some extent, greater than the Buddha.

Western writers have described Buddhism as two different religions, but I don’t think this is true. At some point Buddhist practitioners became overcome with the spirit of compassion. My theory, and there is scholarship to back this up, is that around the same time that Buddhists were developing the powerful notion of compassion, it was becoming an obsession with Jews and early Christians – compassion as universal benefit and salvation for all. That is why giving or generosity became the first paramita in later Buddhism.

Compassion and emptiness, and this is an important point, go hand in hand. If you read the words of the Heart Sutra, they might seem cold and abstract, almost nihilistic, but when you understand what the sutra is saying, you see it is not that way at all. Earlier I said that impermanence and emptiness of phenomena were two different ways of talking about the same thing, but the difference in the way of talking is important. When you emphasize impermanence, you emphasize detachment and letting go. When you emphasize emptiness, you are emphasizing connection. Emptiness is actually saying that there isn’t any thing; there is only the connection between things. As soon as you try to grab something, you are grabbing everything else. Emptiness is connection. There are no boundaries or barriers between things. Everything is just endlessly flowing in and out of each other. So if you had the inner eye of compassion, you would see that the universe is nothing but compassion. Compassion arises in me, not because of some desire or emotion, but because that is the nature of reality itself – a flow and connection and mingling of everything. Reality is nothing but the free flow of love. Reality is compassion.

Compassion is the response to the nature of reality. So if there is compassion, you are going to find emptiness. If there is emptiness, you are going to be overwhelmed with feelings of compassion and love. Loving-kindness and compassion are the implications and content of emptiness. So bodhisattvas are beings who absolutely embrace the empty nature of phenomena and compassion.

In earlier Buddhism, there was the idea to notice suffering, to drop suffering, and to achieve nirvana, and the only thing you could do for someone else was to encourage them to do this also. Then, the rise with the Bodhisattva path the idea was that the only point of attaining nirvana was to save others. Later the teaching was not even to attain nirvana but just to help others, and when everybody achieves nirvana, you could achieve nirvana also. In fact, how could you attain nirvana if no one else had? It would be impossible. If everything is empty, how could I find peace separate from you? Only when everyone is at peace can I have peace. Only then can I have final awakening, and to do less than this is to misunderstand the nature of awakening.

So a bodhisattva is a wildly energetic, willing, endlessly practicing being. Among the myriad arrays of bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara, the speaker of the Heart Sutra, is the bodhisattva of compassion. Her practice is to hear the cries of the world. I think of her as the equivalent of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico. There is a large icon of her in the Mexico City zendo. She is the embracing feminine principle of universal love and compassion.

In the beginning of the sutra, Avalokiteshvara is in the very act of seeing the empty nature of phenomena. Seeing the empty nature of phenomena, she is immediately free from suffering.

It is warm in this room, and when it is warm, we begin to nod off, so we will continue with this sutra next week!