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.
A 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