Critiquing the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is a Buddhist text that explains how prajna-paramita (transcendent wisdom) goes beyond fundamental ignorance to penetrate ultimate truth or things as they really are. This wisdom is not intellectual knowledge, rather it is an intuitive wisdom that when uncovered leads to the transcendence of suffering and the flowering of compassion. The Heart Sutra is also a practice in that it teaches a method for training the mind.

The other day while browsing some Buddhist blogs, I ran across a blogger who had analyzed the Heart Sutra in terms of which parts are formulaic, advertising, meaningless filler, repetition, stuff that is wrong, stuff that is weird, and actual content. Even the term prajna-paramita was classified as just unimportant religious formula and therefore, unnecessary. In the end, everything judged to be of no value was removed and there was not much left. Well, this is nothing new. Indeed, the sutra was crafted from a process of reductionism.

It’s likely that the precise history of the Heart Sutra will never be known. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether it originated in India or China. Some maintain the sutra was composed in 1st century CE by a monk of one of the early Buddhist schools. Other scholars date it several centuries later. I think it was probably “composed” by a number of people, one or more of whom added elements that are not found in the Prajna-paramita sutras (Avalokitesvara/Kwan Yin from the Lotus Sutra) and there is a strong influence from esoteric or tantric Buddhism whose practitioners had a keen interest in distilling Buddhist teachings into short phrases (dharani and mantra) and eventually into single letters (bija or seed syllables).

The Heart Sutra is based on the collection of 40 Prajna-paramita Sutras. These were first redacted into the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra with 100,000 lines. Following this was a 25,000 line sutra, an 18,000 line version, a 10,000 line sutra, a 8,000 line version, and eventually a 40 line version which is the essence of the Heart Sutra as we know it today. Around 250 CE, we have the first mention of a Prajna-paramita dharani (Chih-ch’ien), and later, a mantra: Tadyatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, which was further trimmed down by hacking off Tadyatha and Om. Finally, they condensed the Heart Sutra into a single bija or seed syllable, dhihmma, and then shorted it to simply dhih.

This centuries long process was undertaken for specific reasons, and while one aim was to negate the most fundamental concepts of early Buddhism, it was not a complete negation. After the negations, the concepts are then reaffirmed, only now in a new light, in the transcendent light of going beyond. On one hand the authors offered up a critique and on the other they presented an valid alternative view.

As many of you know, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra, a long version and a short one. The longer one has a prologue where the Buddha enters into a samadhi called “perception of the profound” (observation of emptiness) and an epilogue where he praises Avalokitesvara. The short version is normally used for recitation. In my opinion, every word is important and necessary, especially in the shorter version. This is a cryptic text. Each word has meaning, is a symbol, represents a thought, a concept. The Heart Sutra, in one way or another, discusses every major concept in Buddhism, and I would go even a step further to say that it touches upon nearly every philosophical idea known to the world. How is that possible in such a short work? Well, that’s the genius behind the text. It’s like a form of shorthand.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Heart Sutra is so sacred that it can’t be altered or subjected to different interpretations. I’m just saying that this carefully crafted work shouldn’t be filtered through one’s personal preferences or gutted for the sake of post-modernism or secularism.

In the context of Prajna-paramita literature, the term prajna-paramita means transcendent wisdom. This concept is perhaps even more central to the sutra than the concept of emptiness. Paramita means “crossing over” or “going beyond.” When Avalokitesvara sees that the five aggregates are empty of self-being, the sutra says that he was able to “cross over all suffering.” [The sea of suffering, the raft, the other shore, nirvana.] This implies real transcendence: the wisdom that goes beyond not only the extremes of conceptual thinking but suffering as well.

The relevance of the mantra at the end (“gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond . . .”) to the rest of the sutra is that it serves as a coda, summing up the sutra. And yet it has further significance. The mantra is a call to action, it implores us to go beyond, go beyond our preferences, our preconceived notions, our attachments, the limitations we place on ourselves, the limits of our mind – go beyond everything, entering into a new realm of insight and wisdom, which in the end means seeing things differently than we did before, seeing things with a pragmatic and intuitive kind of wisdom.

By the way, the phrase “crossing over all suffering” is not found in either the Sanskrit or Chinese versions. It’s usually added to English translations for clarification, to further emphasize the point of transcendent wisdom. The text is altered in this way for the purpose of clarifying  and supporting the sutra’s message.

So then, before we start to critique of this little gem, I suggest we try to practice it, study it, develop a basic understanding of the meaning and how it uses words and meanings to describe prajna-paramita which goes beyond words and meanings.

There are some very good books on the Heart Sutra. One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the positive spirit of the sutra. Elaborations on Emptiness by Donald S. Lopez Jr. is excellent as well, although I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book as it’s a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism. Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra and There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Master Sheng Yen and Chan Master Sheng-yen are also fine. I found Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings to be somewhat light, but it’s not a waste of time.

Here I am reciting the Heart Sutra in English. The text of the sutra is below.

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and crossed over all suffering. Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness: Not beginning, not ending, not stained and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing. Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, and no thinking; no realms from sight to mind; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death; no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering, no path; no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana. All Buddhas from the past present and future practice in this way and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know that the Prajna-Paramita is the great bright mantra, the great transcendent mantra that relieves all suffering. Know this as truth and declare:

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond, Be Set Upon Awakening!

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3 Comments for “Critiquing the Heart Sutra”

jasonwilliams

says:

Thanks for that David love the part about the mantra imploring us to go beyond our preferences,our preconceived notions.,that resonated.I’m becoming an endless further.com junkie lol

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