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The Heart Sutra An Elaboration

By Aik Theng Chong, The Buddhist Channel, Feb 8, 2011

Singapore -- Buddhism started with a minute analysis of the human personality (the pudgala) into the elements (dharma) of which it is composed. These elements were divided into good and bad, those that can be purified or defiled and also those that are considered to be neutral. 

Ordinary life was considered as a condition of degradation and misery. The purifying elements were those moral features that led to Nirvana - an unconditioned element. The defiling ones led one to a life of suffering. That then was our mental life. There was no Ego, no Soul and Personality. The so called personality was a collection of ever changing, interrelated elements. It was the Lord Buddha’s teaching as interpreted by the Theravadins, the “Doctrines of the Elders”.

With the emergence of the Mahayanist, all physical and mental elements which were interrelated, dependent on each other were view as unreal. The real, ultimate existence or ultimate reality is a reality that is free of all relations and interdependence, it was unconditioned. It was a No-Elements doctrine, a doctrine of relativity and unreality of all elementary data into which existence has been analyzed.

The Sutra opens with the early Buddhist understanding of what constitutes the individual Self; the form and the remaining four other mental aggregates. It then when on to discuss other early Buddhist teachings and how it is view and interpreted from the Mahayanist perspective. The language of negation is used to describe what ultimate reality is, as it is something beyond concepts and can only be grasped by intellectual intuition only. But when one have ‘arrived’ at that state of realization, there are certain qualities that will become evident in the person which can be described. This is expounded in the later part of the Sutra when it dwelled on the paramitas of the Mahayanist.

There are many translation of the Heart Sutra. This is one, as follows:
When Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita, he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty.

Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form. So too are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.

Shariputra, all Dharmas are empty of characteristics. They are not produced, not destroyed, not defiled, not pure; and they neither increase nor diminish. Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness; no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind; no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or Dharmas; no field of the eyes up to and including no field of mind consciousness; and no ignorance or ending of ignorance, up to and including no old age and death or ending of old age and death. There is no suffering, no accumulating, no extinction, and no Way, and no understanding and no attaining.
Because nothing is attained, the Bodhisattva through reliance on Prajna Paramita is unimpeded in his mind. Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid, and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind. Ultimately Nirvana! All Buddhas of the three periods of time attain Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi through reliance on Prajna Paramita. Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is a Great Spiritual Mantra, a Great Bright Mantra, a Supreme Mantra, an Unequalled Mantra. It can remove all suffering; it is genuine and not false. That is why the Mantra of Prajna Paramita was spoken. Recite it like this:

Gaté Gaté Paragaté Parasamgaté Bodhi Svaha!

"When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.”

The Mahayanists considered those who practices according to the Doctrines of the Elders, as practices that benefit the individual self only. On the other hand, the Mahayana practice is aimed not just for the benefit of self but is also for others as well. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was chosen to demonstrate to the followers of the Theravada the full dimension of the Mahayana teaching.

“was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita."

After the first moment of the non intelligible perception of our senses, the intellect takes over, and starts the thought process of constructing what was perceived by our senses into an external object and the discriminating subject perceiving it. With the perceived object, mental states such as our feelings and volitions too arises, these provides the occasions for craving and clinging to develop in the self. Craving and clinging comes about due the present of an Ego.

The perfection of Wisdom (Prajna) is profound, as it required the practitioner to go beyond our thought construction, beyond discriminating knowledge, beyond duality of mind to realized and attain Truth itself, and the abandoning of our Ego. It is to go beyond birth and death.

"He illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all Empty."

The Buddha taught that an individual is a combination of five aggregates of existence, called the Five Skandhas (aggregates). These are: Form, Feeling, Cognition, Mental formations and Consciousness.

The first is our physical form.

The second is made up of our feelings, both emotional and physical.

The third, cognition which is when a sense organ comes into contact with an object, be it physical, mental, or an idea, causes thoughts to arise follows with conceptualization and reasoning.

The fourth skandha, mental formations, includes habits, prejudices, predisposition, volition, and other mental states both virtuous and not virtuous. The causes and effects of karma are of this aggregate.

The fifth skandha, consciousness, is awareness of or sensitivity to an object, but without conceptualization. Once there is awareness, the third skandha might recognize the object and assign a concept-value to it, and the fourth skandha might react with desire or revulsion or some other mental formation.

The Buddha taught that our egos, personalities and the sense that the “self” are just illusory effects of the skandhas. Through mindfulness contemplation, we should see these aggregates of existence as they rise and fall and not cling on to them. Once our clinging to the skandha diminishes, so too the notion of a separate “self” and the Ego. It will lead us to apprehend that these aggregates as having no intrinsic reality.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, does not allow his mind to discriminate: Seeing is seeing, hearing is hearing, smelling is smelling, tasting is tasting, knowing is knowing, understanding is standing; They arises when right conditions are there, ceases when these conditions disappear, they are relative, they are empty, empty of all self existence.

"and He cross beyond all Suffering and difficulty."

Ignorance (delusion) and desire are the root causes of our suffering. Ignorance is not able to see the true nature of things and in the believed that an independent “I” existed, which give rise to the suffering of the cycle of birth and death. Desire is craving for pleasure, material goods, and immortality, and can never be satisfied. As a result, desiring them can only bring suffering. With the realization that the Skandhas are relative and empty of any self existence, our ignorance and wrong views of existence is abandoned and with it the clinging to an Ego and the notion of a separate “I”.

The Buddha taught there are three main kinds of Sufferings (dukkha). These are:
Suffering or Pain - Ordinary suffering, in the form of physical, emotional and mental pain.

Impermanence or Change - Thing that is subject to change, such as happiness, sadness, worries and even the state of bliss experienced in spiritual practice, its rise and fall with passing time.

Conditioned States - To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. According to the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are conditioned. Everything affects everything else. This is also suffering as it gives rise to the clinging to the skandhas with all its accompanying ills and difficulties.

When Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara perceived that all the five skandhas are void, he had transcended all suffering and its accompanying difficulty. It does not mean that suffering of pain in the form of physical, emotional and mental are not there, it is just that we do not cling or be overwhelmed by it.

"Sariputra, Form Does not Differ from Emptiness, Emptiness Does Not Differ From Form. Form itself is Emptiness and Emptiness itself is Form; so too are Feelings, Cognition, Formation, and Consciousness."

Sariputra was the best, the most advanced disciple of Theravada Buddhism, renowned for his wisdom. This part of the sutra is thus directed at the adherents of the Theravadins.

Words and names are indirect knowledge obtain from our memories, thought construction and concepts. They are also dual in nature. The word “Blue” come about after our intellect has run through all that is consider as “not-Blue” and “other than Blue” before arriving at the conclusion that what we saw is called “Blue”.
The paradox nature of the above passages is difficult to explain in words, more so when the word “Emptiness” is used to describe a realization that is non-dual in nature.

To say Form is empty of any self existence can be intellectually analyzed and understood. It is another matter altogether to become “aware and feel” that it is so as it require one to go beyond our dualistic intellectual thought process. It is like saying, “if you open your mouth you are already wrong, if you give rise to a single thought you are in error." It is the silence that follows after the sound of discussion has ceased and when the role of thought is over. The result of this realization will eventual leads us on to the path of letting go of our clinging and grasping of the Self. This realization can only be designate a term; in this case, “Emptiness” is assigned. Of course we can also call this realization “a leave” or “a flower” if one has not as yet designate “leave” and “flower” to some other things already.

Form is not just empty of any inherent existence, what is percept by the senses are momentary flash of energy only and have the character of being instantaneous, of being spit in discrete moments, and they disappear as soon as they appear. Matter does not exist apart from sense-data and everything necessarily must have an end. We would have notice by observation, that such thing as fire, changes every moment, so do our thoughts, even our body is constantly changing. This is the true nature of all things when it is perceive by a mind that does not try to grasp and cling on to everyday objects which have been constructed by our imagination and stabilized. “Form is Emptiness”, is a realization that the nature of all things are void of all inherent self existence.

There is motion always going on in living reality, but what we noticed are only some special moments which we stabilized in our imagination. This is the function of our understanding which differentiated these sensations into subject and object.
This is the first construction of our mind and in which further cognition is accompanied by an Ego. Ego is always emotional, be it in very slight degree. Objects perceived can give rise to desirable or undesirable, pleasant or unpleasant feelings. The stronger these emotions are, the stronger will be the present of the Self in us and the more it will cling on to the existence of the physical body without the individual realizing that it is the body that goes through the cycle of birth and death and what is deathless is the pure mind. It is in this mind that all things arise and cease. “Emptiness is Form”, is the realization that it is in this imperishable and indestructible mind that all Form takes shape. Mind itself when polluted by passions and ignorance is phenomenal life, that very Mind when empty of it is deliverance. There is no “Is” or not-“Is”; it is devoid of all duality.

The skandha of form embodies eleven dharmas (constituent factors) consisting of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, the five attachments or aversions of these senses plus the thoughts of our mind. All these are "not different from Emptiness" as well, therefore "form does not differ from Emptiness, and the Emptiness does not differ from form."

The remaining four skandhas are the domain of the Mind. Once the skandha of form are found to be empty of a separate, lasting self, the mind skandhas were also be found to be empty. Feelings, cognition, perception and consciousness are, likewise, recognized as void of selfhood: Emptiness is their true essence.

"Sariputra, All Dharmas are empty of Characteristics. They are not Produced, not Destroyed, not Defiled, not Pure, and they neither Increase, nor Diminish."

In the Theravada tradition, form, feeling, cognition, formation and consciousness are considered to be the ultimate reality. They are the final irreducible component of existence. These are the dharmas, the ultimate entities that existed. In combination, they give rise to conventional reality such as persons, animals and also give the apparent stability to objects in our daily lives. When conditions are not there, they cease to be. In other word, there is conditioned birth and death.
Feeling, cognition, and consciousness combined, give rise to the fifty two mental formations of wholesome (pure) and unwholesome (defile) factors. These mental formations will also rise and cease with the state of consciousness we are in. At the same time, such beautiful factors as mindfulness and love and unwholesome factors such as greed and delusion will also increase or diminishes dependant on the zest in our cultivations.

To the Mahayanist, these are all worldly dharmas, by themselves they do not existence, their existence are due to the dependence on each other, the characteristic that are attributed to them are not real and do not exist and should also be abandoned as well. Rejecting unwholesome factors, clinging to wholesome one, these are acts that will eventually give rise to yet another attachment because of our natural tendency toward opinions and prejudice. It is only when discriminating thought no longer arises that liberation can be attained. That they are not produced, not destroyed, not defiled, not pure; that they neither increase, not diminished are also distinguishing marks of their emptiness.

"Therefore, in Emptiness there is No Form, Feeling, Cognition, Formation or Consciousness. No Eye, Ears, Nose, Tongue, Body, or Mind; No Sights, Sounds, Smells, Tastes, Objects of Touch or Dharmas; No Field of the Eyes, up to and Including No Field of Mind Consciousness.”

Form come into existence when a deluded mind crave for it, when the mind no longer grasp for it, form will ceases to exist and with it, the other four mental aggregate of feeling, cognition, formation and consciousness as well.
The teaching on Emptiness is also connected with the eighteen worldly dharmas, where the objects of the world, the senses and the senses’ consciousness combined to give us the deluded views of permanence and the independence of individual existence.

The supra-mundane Emptiness of True Existence is possessed by all and we are endowed with the same truth and would come to know it, that is, once we relinquished our discriminating mind.  Anyone can become a buddha spontaneously by deeply comprehending that "all existences are Emptiness."

 "and No Ignorance or Ending of Ignorance, Up to and Including No Old Age and Death and Ending of Old Age and Death."

This part of the Sutra is made in reference to the Doctrine of Dependent Origination of the Twelve Causal Links of existence of the Theravada teaching. It falls under the sphere of the five skhandhas which was discussed above.  Since these skhandas were found to be empty, the twelve links are also empty of any ultimate reality.

The wheel of Twelve Causal Links represents the whole of phenomenal life itself.
The series is conditioned by the central element of Ignorance. (1) Due to our Ignorance, we cling on to a self, (2) Our pass karma then, provide the conditioning factors for the next life, (3) Consciousness arises, which again carries the sense of self, (4) It give rise to name and form, the individual mental and physical constituents, (5) Follow by our six senses, (6) Accompany by our sensations, (7) And the Feeling of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral states, (8) Which give rise to our Desires, (9) Allowing free actions of clinging, grasping, (10) Which brought about future becoming again, (11) New birth in the six realms, (12) Follow by old age and death. The whole series of process is only interrupted, when the element of Ignorance is extinct. This is the Theravada special law of moral causation.

To free oneself from confusion or ignorance is a requisite for right or correct practice. When ignorance is eliminated, all delusory activity ceases. Without grasping there can be no becoming, which means that all future rebirths are extinguished. Without birth there is no aging and death and that is the end of pain, grief, lamentation and anguish.

Those who practice the dharma of the Twelve Causal Links would be liberated from birth and death, but will not have reached the realm of buddhahood without the realization that they are in themselves empty and are not ultimate reality.
To understand the essential Emptiness of all existence is to understand the True Mind. To see one's Self Nature enables the attainment of buddhahood, because when the ignorance of the existence of a permanent self is dispelled and recognized as empty of any such self existence, there is nothing left to cling on. Therefore the sutra says "also there is no ending of ignorance", as originally, there is no such thing as old age and death and ending of old age and death. They are just the product of our conceptual mind.

"There is No Suffering, No Accumulating, No Extinction, and No Way.”

This sentence deals with Emptiness as the ground of the Four Noble Truths. The Truths are stated as; there is Suffering, Causes of Suffering, Cessation of Suffering and the Way to the Cessation of Suffering. The teaching transcends the mundane and provides access to sainthood. A saint from the Theravada tradition attains the path and the fruit on the basis of one’s practice of The Four Noble Truths. The Mahayana attainment is in the realm of the supra-mundane. The suffering spoken of is the suffering in this world. Its causes are, likewise, of this world, the path is operative in this world and Nirvana or cessation of suffering is our exit from this world. The path, which is the Noble Eightfold Path provides for the practice aimed toward enlightenment.

The first of the Noble Truths is presented in three aspects:

Suffering or Pain - Ordinary suffering, in the form of physical, emotional and mental pain.

Impermanence or Change - Thing that is subject to change, such as happiness, sadness, worries and even the state of bliss experienced in spiritual practice, its rise and fall with passing time.

Conditioned States - To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. According to the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are conditioned. Everything affects everything else. This is also suffering as it gives rise to the clinging to the skandhas with all its accompanying ills and difficulties.

The second of the Noble Truths posits the cause of suffering as craving which produces becoming, accompanied by passionate clinging. Numerous causes come together, and we know that our present suffering is the effect of previous causes. Likewise, our present behavior is the foundation for future effects. The cause of suffering is a cluster of six root defilements: Greed, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt and heterodox views and together with the lesser defilements cause all the suffering in the world.

The third of the Noble Truths follows logically from the first two. If craving is removed or transcended, there will be no more suffering. Cessation means calmness and extinction, or Nirvana, yearning for Nirvana, will made one resolve to practice and attain the path and the fruit, i.e., Nirvana.
The fourth Noble Truth makes the teaching a complete whole. Those who focus their desire on attaining the supra-mundane Nirvana can break off the causes of suffering and practice toward enlightenment. The practice of discipline removes the obstacle of greed, meditation reduces delusion and the two combined foster wisdom.

The practitioner of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths should reach understanding of the cause of suffering and direct one’s efforts toward the dissolution of the cause of suffering and resolve to attain Nirvana.

At the time the Buddha set the wheel in motion by teaching the Four Noble Truths, the followers of the Theravada tradition attained sainthood. In the later teaching, the Buddha taught the Dharma of Emptiness to promote the understanding of the supra-mundane Emptiness of True Existence. We have seen the emptiness of the five skandhas, the Dharma of the Four Noble Truths is also empty as well. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering and no path. They are just like the reflection on a mirror. The reflection is not separate from that which reflects it; the reflective surface and the reflection are one. To understand this means to be close to enlightenment.

"There is No Understanding, and No Attaining."

This part of the sutra concerns the teaching of the six paramitas (perfections), the bodhisattva practice of Giving, Discipline, Patience, Effort, Concentration and Wisdom which can take one across the Sea of Suffering, enter Nirvana and attain enlightenment. Allowing one's actions to be guided by the paramitas, one will surely attain the path and the fruit. Each of the six paramitas is an antidote for each of the six fundamental defilements.

Giving eliminates greed, Discipline cures laziness, Patience overcomes hatred, Effort overcomes laxity, Concentration cools the mind making it receptive to Wisdom and Wisdom dispels ignorance. The Mahayana doctrine of action and principle differs from the Theravada as to its intention. Besides cultivating the paramitas, one should endeavor to liberate all sentient beings by leading them toward an upward path while seeking one’s own enlightenment.

According to the Buddha, "there is no understanding and there is no attainment". It means that the paramitas and the bodhisattva action are not entities to be grasped, conceptualized, and manipulated. The six paramitas and the bodhisattva action are like the reflection in the mirror, since they are all amenable to change and therefore empty of self. The true nature of a mirror is its capacity to receive and relinquish all that goes on in front of it without holding on to any part of it. If the paramitas are practiced with the understanding that they are rooted in Emptiness, the great enlightenment can be attained. Non-wisdom is the true wisdom, non-attainment is the true attainment.

"Because nothing is attained, the Bodhisattva through reliance on Prajna Paramita is unimpeded in his Mind.”

"Nothing is attained" is the all-important theme of the Sutra. The impediment refers here to the working of the: The impediment of deeds done in the past, the impediment of retribution and the impediment of earthly desire.
Since the bodhisattva cannot seek outside help when dealing with these impediments, he has to rely on insights provided by his own radiant wisdom for his attainment of freedom. The first of the impediment to break off is the impediment of retribution. Since the infinite past, we have accumulated much heavy karma in our past existences. Unless we embrace the True Law, we will be obliged to carry such a karmic debt and to suffer karmic retribution in this present life and perhaps in future lifetimes as well. Therefore, when we encounter various hardships in the course of Buddhist practice, we can consider them as the retribution of slanderous deeds in the past, effects that would otherwise have had to be experienced to a greater degree and over a much longer period of time. A bodhisattva would have already discarded this obstruction, and anxiety would also vanish from his mind.

"Because there is no Impediment, He is not afraid,"

This is the removal of the impediment to action, cause by bad karma created by committing any of the five cardinal sins or ten evils. The five sins are the killing of one’s own parents, an arhat, injuring a Buddha and causing disunity in the Buddhist Order, the ten evils are the precepts of not killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, five kinds of wrong speeches, covetousness and wrong views.
When the body and mind is not impeded by our past actions and deeds, we are free of worry and fear. There are five kinds of fear, and those who have not break off delusion yet, who are in the early stages of the bodhisattva career, are particularly susceptible:

(1) Fear of being left without sustenance after giving away all possessions; (2) Fear of being insignificant after giving up one's reputation; (3) Fear of dying in situations that call for self-sacrifice; (4) Fear of falling into evil circumstances; (5) Fear of addressing an assembly, especially in the presence of important people.
These five fears obstruct Dharma practice and without them there is no impediment to action.

"and He leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind.”

This statement is related to the obstacle or impediment of desire. That obstruction has its root in the defilement of ignorance arising from the three poisons of greed, anger, and foolishness, manifested as mistaking the impermanent for permanent, the ugly for beautiful, and suffering for happiness. It is the way of people of mundane interests. The bodhisattva whose perception has been clarified through Prajna has been liberated to a great extent from this impediment.

"Ultimate Nirvana!"

When there is no more mental pain or grief, Nirvana becomes perceptible, comprehensible, inviting and attractive. It is the complete and final cessation of greed or craving, hatred and ignorance, and therefore the cessation of rebirth and of the continuity of life. Prajna, and consequently freedom, manifest themselves to their fullest. Nirvana cannot be expressed through words; it has to be experienced.

"All Buddhas of the Three Periods of Time Attain Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi through reliance on Prajna Paramita. Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is a Great Spiritual Mantra, a Great Bright Mantra, a Supreme Mantra, an Unequalled Mantra. It can remove all Suffering; It is Genuine and not False.”

Prajna is proclaimed to be the perfect, ultimate Dharma of supreme relevance not only to bodhisattvas but also to all the past, present and future Buddhas as well.

The perfected Wisdom (Prajna) here is then equated with the qualities of a Mantra. Mantra is a “tool for thinking”, a “thing which creates a mental picture”. With its sound it calls forth its content into a state of immediate reality. Mantra is power. It is not mere speech which the mind can contradict. The words are deeds, acting immediately. The power and the effect of a mantra depend on the spiritual attitude, the knowledge and the responsiveness of the individual. The sound of a mantra is not a physical sound but a spiritual one. It should be heard by the heart and uttered by the mind. Mantra has power and meaning only to one who has gone through a particular kind of experience connected with the mantra and gives power only to those who are conscious of its inner meaning. Its power and its strength are operative in realms not amenable to manipulation. Its effect can manifest itself instantaneously, transcending the worldly, attaining holiness. When Prajna is here link with a Mantra, it also suggests that the theme and the essence of the Heart Sutra transcends concept.

"That is why the Mantra of Prajna Parmita was spoken. Recite it like this:
 Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!"

Mantras are esoteric teaching by means of which we are reminded of the subtlety and complexity of the inconceivable Dharma. The teaching of the Heart Sutra includes some exoteric parts, such as the sutras, and some esoteric ones, such as the mantras. Exoteric Teachings are accessible to rational understanding and can be explained, but the meanings of the esoteric or mystic forms of prayer such as mantras are not within the reach of the intellect. During recitation, mantras enable the one reciting them to control both the sound and the timing, but any recognizable words and meanings which would normally hold in one’s mind captive are not there. One has then an opportunity to experience the expanse or space of one’s mind, it being one of mind's very special characteristics.

To recite this mantra by itself, omitting the text of the sutra is a true Mahayana practice of the non-discriminating mind. The inconceivable nature of the teaching is apprehended and the teaching seen as a whole. Thorough study of the sutra and a complete understanding is equal to the meaning implied in the mantra.

The elaboration of the Teachings is here completed. Blessed indeed is one who is acquainted with this Sutra.



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