Using the Heart Sutra

I once attended a class on the Heart Sutra at a Zen center and the teacher stated how she had been studying the sutra for forty years and was just then beginning to get a firm grasp on it. It’s amazing how a text that is so concise, employing so few words, can be as broad and complex as it is; a complete survey, negation and then affirmation of all Buddhist teachings.

Last week, I mentioned Donald S. Lopez and his book, The Heart Sutra Explained, which he published in 1988. Almost a decade later, in 1996, he expanded on the work in Elaborations of Emptiness Uses of the Heart Sutra. In the introduction he wrote,

Perhaps no other Buddhist text, in either speech or writing, has been more popular than the Heart Sutra. The Lotus and the Sukhavativyuha* have been more influential in East Asia in the inspiration of doctrine and art. But the presence of the Heart Sutra has been more pervasive. It is recited daily in Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean temples and monasteries, and we have evidence of its recitation in India.”

In Elaborations of Emptiness, Lopez examines different uses of the sutra; as a mantra, an exorcism text, a meditation guide, and as philosophical text, and he includes translations of eight extant Indian commentaries.

HeartSutra-WordCloud04bA very effective use of the Heart Sutra is simply to recite it daily and reflect on the sutra’s words. Reciting the sutra is easy. Reflecting on it’s words, not so simple, especially for those new to the sutra. When first encountering the Heart Sutra (Prajna-Paramita Hrdaya/Heart of Transcendent Wisdom), it may seem overwhelming, or so cryptic as to be dense.

Attending a class, like I did, on the Heart Sutra is always a good idea, and there are a number of good books on the sutra. (A list of those I recommend at the end of the post.)

One excellent place to begin is found within the sutra itself, with the mantra, gate gate paragate parasam gate bodhi svaha. It is an exhortation to expand our consciousness, and is the luminous gateway to the central teaching of the sutra. The Heart Sutra asks us to think differently, to open our minds and let our thoughts “go beyond.” In one of the commentaries that Lopez translates, Vajrapana noted,

Gate, gate: “gone, gone”; all mindfulness has gone [to be] like illusions. Paragate: “gone beyond”; beyond mindfulness, one goes beyond to emptiness. Parasamgate: “gone completely beyond”; beyond the illusion-like and emptiness, one goes beyond signlessness. Bodhi svaha: “become enlightened”; having purified the afflictions and all objects of knowledge, one transcends awareness.”

But this is not merely an exercise in obtaining knowledge and then tossing it aside in order to abide in some entranced, transmundane state. That’s not what Prajna-Paramita, or Transcendental Wisdom, signifies. Srisimha wrote, “Gate [gone] beyond . . . is gone for one’s own welfare. The [second] gate means gone also for the welfare of others . . .”, and so, as Lopez himself says, “The mantra thus seems to connote progression, movement toward a goal,” and that goal is not a realization of emptiness, as many suppose, for emptiness is but a step toward the ultimate goal of Bodhisattvahood.

The sutra is a road map for the bodhisattva path. Srisimha continues: “Parasamgate [means] that one has [gone] to the supreme state or perfected the welfare of others and the compassion observing [others] arises . . . Bodhi is uninterrupted compassion arising as the means of the perfection of wisdom [Prajna-Paramita] . . . Svaha means the self-liberation of the [mind] . . .”

The mind of the bodhisattva, who strives for both the welfare of self and others, should be a mind that sees things differently, thinks differently, outside the box, outside sensations, forms, and concepts. And the heart of the bodhisattva, the great loving heart, is the heart of the Heart Sutra.

Recommended Books: One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness from the side of quantum physics. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the more positive spirit of the sutra. Lopez’s Elaborations on Emptiness is a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Indian 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. Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings is somewhat light, but definitely not a waste of time.

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* Larger Sutra on Amida Buddha


Against the Stream, in a Leaky Raft

“My dharma is against the stream.”

– A real Buddha quote (I think)

I’m not a regular reader of the National Catholic Review, but I happened to notice they recently reviewed The Scientific Buddha by Daniel S. Lopez, Jr. The book has been out for almost a year now, so I don’t know why NCR is just now getting around to it, except that Buddhism is probably not a high priority for them, and then the title of the review is “Are Buddhism and science incompatible?” which is currently a hot topic.

The reviewer, Paul Knitter, the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, writes,

Who is this scientific Buddha who, in Lopez’s view, is threatening, “bleaching,” “domesticating” the message of the original Buddha? It’s the Buddha “discovered” by critical, Enlightenment Europeans who thought they found a religion without God, based only on experience and reason. Nowadays, it’s the Buddha who is presented as not only compatible with, but a harbinger of, the discoveries of quantum physics and even biological evolution. Most recently, it’s the Buddha whose teachings on the benefits of meditation are being confirmed by neurological research and by movements such as “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” Lopez will have none of this . . .

Now, I like Lopez. His The Heart Sutra Explained contributed greatly to my understanding of that text. But I wonder why he is spending his time on this rather fruitless debate, which is not really about Buddhism vs. science, but religion vs. secularism.

First, the Enlightenment Europeans did find a religion without God, at least without a concept of God, as we in the West understand it. I’m not too sure they thought Buddhism was based only on experience and reason, after all, they were not blind to the mythological and supernatural elements woven into the dharma. Nor am I convinced they wanted a completely secular spiritual philosophy, because many of them, just like many Western Buddhists today, were reluctant to let go of their belief in some sort of all-powerful super-enlightened being controlling the universe.

I think it’s great that scientific research is confirming the benefits of meditation, but on the other hand, I don’t think too many people become Buddhists so that they can prove it is compatible with quantum physics. No, I think the debate is really about whether or not Buddhism is a religion.

My feeling is that Buddhism is more than a mere religion. It was many years ago and I don’t remember who said it, but someone in a documentary (about Jack Kerouac, perhaps) gave about the best description of Buddhism I’ve heard yet. It went something like this, “Buddhism is a religion, a philosophy, a discipline, a yoga, a way of life – it embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.”

Buddhism is a path, a Way. It’s not easily defined, and I think it is unique.

There are folks who will argue that if you say Buddhism is not a religion, it’s akin to asserting some sort of Buddhist exceptionalism. That seems rather silly to me. Just because you say that something is unique or different doesn’t mean you are claiming it is superior. Thank goodness all religions are not the same. That would be boring.

Most of the religion vs. secularism debate centers around the two concepts of karma and rebirth. I’d be the first to say that they do require a leap of faith, and are both unprovable. However, I don’t think its necessary to throw them out. If you cannot understand these concepts literally, it’s possible to understand them differently, as Jung did, as archetypes, or as metaphors.

I’m in favor of minimizing the religious aspects, and the mythological elements, but I am less interested in secularism than I am in non-sectarianism. And that’s what bothers me about the Secular Buddhist movement. It’s essentially just creating another sect of Buddhism, and don’t we have enough already? We should spend more time building bridges instead of creating more dividing lines.

I’ve always liked the idea of “home-grown” Buddhism, the cultivation of neighborhood sanghas, small groups practicing together in their communities made up of Buddhists from different stripes, crossing over the sectarian divide to practice with one another where they live. I think this would go a long way toward dispelling ignorance about different forms of Buddhism and their histories, and would bring people together.

People often ask which sect or school of Buddhism I belong to, and I have different answers depending on my mood at the time. Sometimes I say, “All of them.” At other times, I will say, “None,” which is the more accurate response.

I have been interested in Buddhism since I was a teenager, but didn’t begin to seriously practice until thirty years ago. Since then, I have practiced with different groups, studied with various teachers, taken refuge in a number of traditions, received empowerments and precepts in several, have been ordained as a Buddhist minister by two organizations, and yet, for some years now, I have been on my own, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. Hmm, that sounds familiar . . .

I don’t believe that you have to belong to a particular tradition or group in order to be a Buddhist. At the same time, I think that it’s a good idea to find ways to practice with others since it is very difficult to maintain a daily practice all on your own. I used to think that I was an anomaly. However, I think these days there are quite a few, who like myself, are unaffiliated and yet consider themselves Buddhist.

Now, of course, another reason why I am unaffiliated with any Buddhist sect or organization is because I also follow the teachings of Marx, and as the great guru Groucho once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”