I recall running across the Heart Sutra very early on in my journey to Buddhism. Oddly enough, it did not leave much of an impression on me. I say it is odd because approaching the Heart Sutra from a literary point of view, it is just the kind of minimalist, e.e. cummings style of poetry I’ve always been drawn to, plus the fact at that time I was rather young and immediately dug anything that smacked of being mind-blowing.
My next encounter was some thirty years later. In the interim, I was in Buddhist traditions that did not use the Heart Sutra as a teaching or practice.
When I left the tradition I had been involved in for twelve years, I started visiting different centers and groups in the Los Angeles area. One place I visited was in the San Gabriel Valley, an English speaking Dharma group, and on my first visit, we chanted the Heart Sutra in English and it was then that I had my mind-blowing experience. It was a little like the line in the Bob Dylan song: “every one of those words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal pouring off of every page . . .”
This is truly a between-the-lines sutra. I think that without some basic knowledge of Buddhist dharma, the sutra does not have as much of an impact. Even then, to grasp the full meaning of the Heart Sutra is a daunting task.
I recently ran across an old notebook of things I had jotted down from dharma talks and lectures I attended and books I was reading some ten years or so ago. One of the notes I found was from a class I took at a Buddhist Center in mid-town L.A. The instructor of the class mentioned that she had recited the Heart Sutra daily for nearly fifteen years and yet only recently had she began to have real insight into the sutra’s meaning.
There are also a few pages of notes I took when I attended teachings by the Dalai Lama for the first time. I only went to the last two days, and it was sort of a fluke, and I was somewhat unprepared, knowing very little about Tibetan Buddhism. I can’t even recall what the teachings were on. However, I think that at some point a question concerning the Heart Sutra was asked of the Dalai Lama, and he replied, “Heart Sutra is actual words of Buddha, not transmission.”
I hope that I have taken him out of context, because to this, I cannot agree. The historical Buddha had nothing to do with the Prajna-paramita or any Mahayana sutras. I don’t know why it is necessary to keep propagating that nonsense. The fact that Buddha did not directly teach it does not make the teaching any less valid.
He also said, “People should recite Heart Sutra in accordance with their own country.” Now, this I agree with completely, however when I am reciting the sutra alone, it is often in Japanese. In my experience, when some individuals are introduced to Buddhist chanting in Asian languages, they feel a bit put off. They don’t understand the words and we Westerners just have to understand the meaning of each word if we are expected to recite it.
Chanting in Japanese is my personal preference because I spent many years doing that and I like the rhythm. Chanting in a traditional Buddhist language allows me to approach the sutra with a more meditative mind. I know the general meaning of the sutra, I can recognize many of the sutra’s Chinese characters, and I know, for instance, that when I say “ku” it means empty and so on. At the same time, since the language is foreign, I am not weighed down with the baggage of literal meaning English would suggest. Reciting in Japanese allows me to relax my mind and just go with the flow of the sutra.
In the English version I use, Avalokitesvara appears as Kuan Yin, in the female aspect, and I encourage those chanting with me to envision the Bodhisattva in that way. Bringing Avalokitesvara over from the Lotus Sutra, gave the Mahayana authors, or compilers, of the Heart Sutra a chance to make a little dig at the so-called “Hinayana.” Having Shariputra, one of the foremost shravaka disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni, asking a question of and then receiving instruction from a Mahayana Bodhisattva is kind of designed to put the “Hinayana” in their place.
Nowadays, this Mahayana attitude appears to be just a little unseemly, and we realize what a derogatory term “Hinayana” is, and most people don’t care to hear much about shravaka and non-returners, etc. But, if you go a step further and envision Kuan Yin as female, I then think you have something that is both revolutionary and relevant to today.
With this slight change, we have one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, and remember that all his disciples were male, receiving instruction from a woman. That seems pretty mind-blowing. This may not be a traditionally accepted interpretation, but really what’s wrong with it? In this way, we can broaden the symbolism we use and make it more inclusive by expanding the role of women in our mythology. This interpretation is not just relevant to women but to everyone, because every person reciting the sutra is then encouraged to tap into and cultivate more of their innate feminine qualities, one aspect of which is symbolized in the sutra as compassion.
Maybe some already view it in this way, but I haven’t heard about it.
A few other things I have jotted down in this old notebook:
The mantra is the essence of the sutra. It tells you how to proceed to enlightenment. “Go, go, go way beyond . . .”
The five skandhas are all delusions. They are not definite and real. Our delusion is that we cling to them as being an actual and real self.
Buddha said first requirement for “faith” is suffering. Faith is commitment to practice in the face of great difficulty. Suffering wakes us up from our dream.
True form is no form. The Bodhisattva of freedom realizes the form of no form, the principle of ultimate emptiness, particularly in sound. Avalokitesvara, one who perceives the sounds of the world.
Buddha: After I am gone, the dharma is the teacher.
What are the five skandhas empty of? Sunyata-svabhava, empty of self-being. Svabhava, the being or essence, character, is-ness of a thing or person. Absolute self-being equals eternalism and ignores cessation.
Perfection of wisdom, transcendent wisdom, is not present as an existing thing.