Joseph Campbell, Ferryboats, and The Heart Sutra

In my recent reading of the new Joseph Campbell book, “Myths of Light,” (reviewed here), I was intrigued with his all too brief discussion of the Prajna-paramita (Heart) Sutra, which I excerpted almost in its entirety in the review. It left me hungry for more. The Heart Sutra [text and video here] is a cryptic work, an essential Buddhist text. Nearly every word is a symbol, a metaphor for a deeper concept, or some deeper experience. It would be wonderful if Campbell, that great interpreter of spiritual literature, had written or spoken at length on the Heart Sutra. But I don’t think he did, or at least, nothing substantial has yet been published.

The Heart Sutra: A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering

Campbell’s remarks about Prajna-paramita appear in the chapter “Vessels to the Farther Shore,” in a section titled “Ferryboats.” The analogy of the ferryboat or raft is symbolic of one of the sutra’s themes: the way of the Bodhisattva. Campbell discusses “ferryboats” in terms of Buddhist yanas (vessels or vehicles), the “different Buddhist paths to enlightenment,” such as Hinayana, the so-called “small vessel” (of which Theravada is the only remaining school), and Mahayana, “the great vessel.” He makes the point that “Little ferryboat Buddhism is the Buddhism of monks, the Buddhism of people who make a distinction between this shore [the world] and [the shore of Nirvana] and are striving to get there,” while the great ferryboat of Mahayana “is meant to be the boat on which we all can ride – it takes us to the yonder shore and then ferries us back to this world.”

Campbell is expressing the Mahayana view here about “small vessel” and “great vessel,” to which some in the Theravada tradition might disagree. Nonetheless, he is exactly right that the prime point of Mahayana Buddhism is, metaphorically speaking, about a ferryboat large enough to carry all people across the sea of suffering to the yonder shore that, in actually, is not a yonder shore at all, but right here. 

Prajna-paramita or “wisdom that goes beyond” is said to be the ship that ferries us to the realization of “the world of suffering is Nirvana.” But then, but when you reach the shore of Nirvana you do not stop, you have to keep going. You may no longer need the vessel that ferried you, but a vessel is only a tool for travel, it’s not the journey. The journey is “the endless further,” going beyond, going far beyond.

Many people tend to focus only on the theme of emptiness in the Heart Sutra. However emptiness in one sense is just a tool. The purpose of understanding emptiness is to develop non-dual wisdom, so that we can practice compassion to the fullest extent. Prajna-paramita is a Bodhisattva vessel and Bodhisattva’s cannot rest until all living beings have been liberated.

That’s a big job, and an impossible one. Yet this is allegory, and the deeper meaning is about trying to capture the spirit behind the idea of liberating all livings beings.

In “There Is No Suffering,” Ch’an master Sheng-yen writes,

Paramita literally means ‘from here to there,’ but it also has the connotations of ‘leaving behind’ or ‘transcending.’ In particular, it means leaving behind and transcending suffering and its causes: the root afflictions (kelsas), propensities (vasanas), and deluded thoughts, words, and actions (karma). Another nuance of paramita is ‘liberation’  . . . the journey across the ocean of suffering, and its causes, to the other shore, liberation.”

That’s why in many of the English translations of the Heart Sutra you see the phrase “Avalokitesvara while practicing deep prajna-paramita crossed over all suffering” or words to that effect. ‘Crossed over all suffering’ does not appear in the original Indian and Chinese versions of the sutra. It’s there to reinforce the idea of transcendence, of going beyond, making the journey. It’s not a solitary trip. One’s motivation to go on the journey should be for the sake of all beings.

And since Prajna-paramita is the way of the Bodhisattva, it’s also why a Bodhisattva is front and center in the Heart Sutra and not the Buddha. I truly believe that the Mahayana Buddhists who put this sutra together were trying to send a subtle message that it’s more important to be a Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha. Why? Because in Mahayana, Buddhahood or enlightenment is not a destination, it’s just a stage in the journey. While the practice of compassion, is something for right now, in the present moment, for every step along the way.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the Heart Sutra, “The Heart of Understanding,”  he writes,

In Buddhist meditation we do not struggle for the kind of enlightenment that will happen five or ten years from now. We practice so that each moment of our life becomes real life.”

Whether you call it enlightenment, liberation, Nirvana, or just plain happiness, looking for it outside of your life, somewhere beyond this world, or at some future time, is a not a real journey, but rather, a dead end. That kind of ferryboat just gets tossed upon the sea and eventually sinks.

In “Myths of Light,” Joseph Campbell says,

Illumination comes from having something happening inside . . . The main sin is inadvertence, not being attentive to life, to the moment you are in, to its mystery, to what is happening right here now. When this is there, and you realize that the whole mystery and void is shining through at you, you are there.”

So here you are, standing on the shore, and the ferryboat is loading, and it’s not leaving a few minutes, or in an hour, or tomorrow, it’s leaving right now, in present moment. Climb on board.

In my next an upcoming post, more on the Heart Sutra, a bit more of Joseph Campbell, and about how Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when viewed in the female persona of Kuan Yin, represents the feminine element within all beings.


2 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell, Ferryboats, and The Heart Sutra

  1. Just discovered your blog and am extremely thankful especially since there’s so much I can learn from you regarding the Heart Sutra.

    1. Glad you found the blog, hope you keep reading it, and thanks for leaving your comment. It’s always nice to know that the work one does on a blog is appreciated and helpful to others.

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