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Heart Sutra and Emptiness (Part 5 of 5)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Mar 31, 2004
In topic: Sutras and Commentaries
Fifth in a series of five talks on this central Mahayana teaching.
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(Transcribed and Abridged by Barbara Byrum)

The Heart Sutra
Lecture Number Five

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!

Last time we mentioned that the Heart Sutra lists the fundamental Buddhist doctrines and then it says that they are not so. It denies the fundamental reality of all these things that were thought to be basic points of Buddhist thought. It says that these doctrines are not so in the way that you thought they were so. We went through the five skandas, which were seen to be empty of own being. We went through the six sense organs, the six sense objects, and the consciousness that arises. And last week we went through the twelve fold chain of causation, a kind of moral physics of the universe, all of which were denied, not only the twelve fold chain of causation, but the possibility of reversing the chain and entering the unconditioned was also denied. All of these things were said to be empty.

Again, as I have said many times, empty does not mean nothing. Things do exist but in a mode that is fundamentally and radically different from the way that we think that they exist. How do we think they exist? We are convinced in our gut that things are separate, fixed, independent, solid, weighty, and “out there”. The Heart Sutra says that things are not like that. They are all a fluid, connected, flowing reality. So, in this sense, we could say that nothing - no thing - exists. A thing is something ripped out of the fabric of the world, like me, or like you. But that thing does not exist. We are each a bright space on which everything in the world converges.

Now, in the passage that I just quoted, we have another item of Buddhist philosophy that is enumerated so that it can be denied. This item includes the Four Noble Truths, the cornerstone of Buddhist thought. The first is the truth of suffering. Suffering does not mean that everything is depressing and negative, and if we don’t think so, we are kidding ourselves. We all know through our personal experience that although we may experience a certain amount of depressing and difficult things, we also experience a certain amount of joy and delight. So the truth of suffering is not denying that we feel that joy, it is saying that because of the nature of human consciousness, we experience an underlying sense of anxiety or restlessness, even in moments of happiness, if we look closely enough, because we sense the ungraspable and temporary nature of our experience. We know that this moment of happiness, no matter how beautiful it may be, is fleeting. This bothers us existentially. This is not to mention all the unhappiness that can pile up – the loss, the death –you can make your own list. So all conditioned reality, whether it is joyful or depressing, is all called duhka, or suffering.

The second Truth is the origination or cause of suffering. In the earliest layers of the Buddhist teaching, it was said that desire is the cause of suffering, but as the discussion went on through the generations, it became more subtle, and instead of being sensual desire, it was more a question of a deeper, unconscious desire that things would be graspable and that they would last. The need for things to be other than they are is the cause of suffering. The desire is constant, and so the suffering is constant.

The third of the Nobel Truths is the stopping of suffering. That is to say, if we can discover the cause of suffering, we can suppress the suffering. So in the Heart Sutra, seeing the empty nature of phenomena, seeing the true aspect of things as they are, is to see that our desire to grasp something is ridiculous, because there is nothing to be grasped. If we see this fact completely and experientially, there is the stopping of suffering.

The fourth Truth is the truth of the path, the way of stopping the cause of suffering and finding peace. There are many ways to describe the path; one is the Threefold Path of ethical conduct, morality, meditation or insight. The earliest one was the eightfold path that we would have an understanding perfectly according to reality: viewpoint, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. The last three have specifically to do with meditation practice. And when these last three were developed properly, they would lead to right understanding, which is the first of the eightfold path. So you are going over and over again: deeper understanding leads to deeper intention, which leads to deeper effort, and so on. There is an endless refinement until we get past the havoc of suffering.

So these Four Truths are the cornerstones of the edifice of Buddhist teaching, but the Heart Sutra says, “No suffering. No origination. No stopping. No path”, which is to say they are empty of any fixed and fundamental reality. They are simply concepts that are no different from any other concepts floating around in our minds, and they are not different from anything that we would see or hear or touch or taste, because everything flows together. There is no separate thing called the Four Noble Truths.

Since there are no Four Noble Truths, it stands to reason that there is no cognition of the Four Truths, no cognition of fixed, separate, distinguishable truths. Also there is no attainment of wisdom, as had been promised earlier: if only you penetrate these truths, then you will attain a cognition and wisdom of them, and you will achieve nirvana. But there is no attainment of these truths in the way that we thought. There is no cognition and there is no attainment of wisdom. To say that there is cognition or attainment is to say that there is a fixed, separate object to be cognized and a fixed, separate state called nirvana to be attained. But there is no separate fixed object or state to be cognized, because in emptiness all such distinctions are mere designations, provisional concepts. So we could say there is an attainment, as long as we recognize that it is a provisional designation, a conceptual statement that had no fundamental reality.

So the Boddhisattva harmonizes with things as they are: free, connected, endless, without a single obstruction anywhere. So, as the sutra says, how could there be any hindrance? Acts of perception and thought, all volition, thought and experience, whether positive, negative, or neutral are without any hindrance. Everything is unfolding in this vast framework of emptiness. So, this being the case, the sutra says, what could we ever have to fear? I find it astonishing that the Heart Sutra mentions fear. There is a long list of technical propositions and Buddhist philosophy, and then there is the line about no fears. The Heart Sutra becomes human and emotional, and says that there is nothing to fear. Reflecting on this fact over the years, I have come to appreciate the strong and necessary association of fear with the first noble truth of suffering. We live with a strong, pervasive sense of fear; it is really common. Fear seems to be endemic to human experience. We start as children with the fear that there is a vast world standing over against us. We feel that we are in a state of constant threat. There are threatening, fearful forces, but where do they come from? These forces themselves are motivated by fear. Fear produces violence and confusion. Due to our universal existential fear, there is outer danger in the world as well.

But when we depend on prajna paramita and see the true shape of things as empty, then there is nothing to fear. What is the worst thing that could happen? The world could disappear, we could feel pain, we could die, but death is only connection, so what are we afraid of? The sutra says that it does not matter what is going on; there is nothing to fear. You may ask if this is really possible, to live in the world in this way? Well, since you asked, I would say “yes and no”. Yes, because I really believe the Heart Sutra. With a full integration into our daily living, with effort over time, we could live without fear. And no, at the same time we remain conditioned people. It is natural that we do not want to feel pain; it is natural that we do not want to die or to have those whom we love die. Still, with establishment in the practice of prajna paramita we can not want to feel pain, but still not be afraid of the pain. We can not want to die, but still not be afraid to die. But even if we have the fear of pain or death, that fear would not shake us to the core of our being. We can feel fear at the surface of our mind, a true, human feeling of fear at the surface of our mind, but feel a deep calm and fearlessness underneath. I think that is possible. The Heart Sutra is not just some idealistic religious text, but I think it is a possibility for an ordinary person.

Then the sutra says,

FAR APART FROM EVERY PERVERTED VIEW ONE DWELLS IN NIRVANA

It is called a perverted view when one sees things as having a separate existence. Maybe a better translation is “inverted view.” We see the world in the mirror opposite of what it is; it is an inverted view. When we see the empty nature of the world, we turn the world right side up, and instead of restlessness and anxiety, we have peace. That is nirvana: the flame of our restless passion is burned out. We are living in the conditioned realm but with an unconditioned feeling.

It then says,

IN THE THREE WORLDS ALL BUDDHAS DEPEND ON PRAJNA PARAMITA AND ATTAIN UNSURPASSED COMPLETE PERFECT ENLIGHTENMENT

Everywhere in time and space, all the Buddhas depend on prajna paramita and attain unsurpassed, complete enlightenment, with nothing beyond this enlightenment.

Then the sutra ends with a burst of enthusiasm. I have thought that the entire Heart Sutra was not meant to be a meaningful text, but was intended to be an incantation. Many people have told me that chanting the Heart Sutra would calm them down. It can be a meaningful and powerful experience just to chant it. I recommend committing it to memory and chanting it to yourself. Let it work from the inside and not from the mind, where we are usually working things out. Minds are important, but we don’t always have to use them. We can use the heart and the voice and the emotions to practice the Heart Sutra.

Fundamentally I think the whole Heart Sutra is a magical incantation, and at the end it becomes clear. The author of the sutra gets very enthusiastic at the end and says that this is all you have to do, this is a magic thing, just chant this and all these truths will become evident to you through the chanting of this mantra. The understanding of the world propounded by the Heart Sutra is more miraculous and magical by far than it is conceptual or even a meditative experience. I think it is beyond that. We might have a flash of insight into the empty nature of phenomena in meditation practice, but that is not what the Heart Sutra is pointing toward. It is pointing toward something more wonderful and magical than that, because these enchanting and wonderful things are not just happening now and then during meditation, they are happening all the time.

My favorite saying of Suzuki Roshi is, “The world is its own magic.” The world being empty of any separate thingness is at any moment completely marvelous. The healing that you need is right there in any state of mind.

By the way, as a footnote, if you will be sitting with the dying, if your parents are headed in that direction, it is very profound to chant the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra. I often do this with my rosary beads 108 times.

GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE! BODHI! SVAHA

Gone, gone, utterly gone, awakening…wow! Basically, that is what “svaha” means…wow!


I would like to end with my poem on emptiness:

What a Wonderful World

What seems separate, weighty, out there is actually already dissolved because the moving into it is a giving up of everything that has already been lost anyway.
So it is easy to do.
Everything works together, even griefs.
Nothing more clever than the mind to tangle things up in without which we couldn’t ever do or even ever appear.