It hardly needs to be said that the Heart Sutra is one of the most popular and influential Mahayana sutras. And it is certainly the shortest of any text called a “sutra.” Kukai, the founder of Japanese Shingon, wrote “while brief it is essential and though concise it is profound.” Kukai maintained that the sutra encompassed all the Buddha’s teachings, or at least, all those in the Mahayana canon, a view shared by a more contemporary teacher, the Korean Jogye Seon master, Seung Sahn:
“The Heart Sutra has only two hundred seventy Chinese characters, yet it contains all of Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching. Inside this sutra is the essence of the Diamond Sutra, the Avatamsaka-sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. It contains the meaning of all the eighty-four thousand sutras.”
As I’ve observed previously, people have a tendency to focus on the sutra’s treatment of emptiness, often at the expense of the other themes, the Bodhisattva path, the practice of compassion, and Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom (the sutra is called the “Heart of Transcendent Wisdom”, after all).
The Heart Sutra is also an exposition on the Two Truths. To refresh our memory on this concept, let’s recall what Nagarjuna wrote in “Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way”:
“The teachings of the Buddha are based on two truths, the relative and the ultimate. Those who do not know the distinction between the two do not understand the profound meaning in the teachings of the Buddha.
The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the relative truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, liberation is not possible.”
Over-emphasizing the teaching of emptiness in the Heart Sutra is an example of misunderstanding the Two Truths. It’s seizing the ultimate while neglecting the relative, often a source of confusion.
Emptiness by itself is neither ultimate reality nor ultimate truth; rather it refers to the relative truth. This is what the sutra means by “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form,” telling us that emptiness is simply looking at phenomena from a different perspective – things do exist but in combination with causes and conditions. We know that emptiness itself is relative because it, too, is empty (sunyata-sunyata).
Through the series of negations (“Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose . . . no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.”) the Heart Sutra denies all that Buddhism holds sacred. Ultimately, all Buddhist doctrine is relative, conventional truth, empty.
But then the sutra turns around and negates the negations, pointing to Transcendent Wisdom and the Bodhisattva Path: “Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita . . . and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.” Although all that is relative is empty, without the relative, the conventional, there is no path to the ultimate.
It is said that when Transcendent Wisdom is in harmony with emptiness-knowledge and compassion, there is suffering, but no sufferer; there remains no thinker, no thought: this is the state of non-duality, the bodhicitta (thought of awakening), and the luminous truth.
When the Heart Sutra refers to emptiness, it’s actually in a form of shorthand. What the sutra is saying “empty of self-being” (sunyata-svabhava), and this, Nagarjuna says, is the true nature of all phenomena. Without that which is empty, there is no emptiness.
Pretty heady stuff, or as Nagarjuna put it, “extremely profound and difficult to understand.” How does it relate to our daily lives? Frederick Streng says emptiness is ‘freedom.” In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, he wrote,
This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety . . .
In removing such hindrances there is no fear and no illusion, as the Heart Sutra states. The path is cleared and there is nothing to prevent us from engaging wholeheartedly in the practice of wisdom and compassion, the Heart Sutra’s ‘ultimate’ truth.
“The true heart is wisdom; wisdom is the true heart. Because prajna can be translated “true heart,” the two hundred fifty or so words of this sutra are the heart within the heart – the heart within the six hundred chapters of the prajna text of the Great Prajna Sutra”.
-Hsuan Hua, Ch’an Buddhist teacher