Grand Master T'an Hsu
The Hrdaya or
Heart Sutra is presently the topic. According to the grand master
Chih I of the T'ien T'ai sect, any speaker who endeavors to explain
one of the Mahayana sutras should cover five points of the scripture's
profound meaning, or five profundities. What are they?
of terms and names.
2. Definition of the substance.
3. Clarification of the principles.
4. Discussion of its (sutra's) application.
5. Discernment of the doctrine.
The five profundities
regarding this sutra are as follows: The Dharma and the example
stand for the name. All dharmas are empty (or void) of substance.
"Nothing there to be attained" is the principle. Breaking
off the three hindrances (greed, hatred and ignorance) is the application
and the ripening of the fruit is the doctrine. The following details
will provide further explanation:
By means of
explaining its name, the sutra will be seen and distinguished within
the context of all of the Buddha's teaching. Altogether, there were
seven reasons for naming a sutra according to seven categories as
The first consists
simply of the name of the speaker (of a particular sutra), for example
Amitabha Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, etc. In the second category the
name designates the teaching conveyed in that particular discourse,
such as Nirvana Sutra or Prajnaparamita Sutra, to give two examples.
In the third category, the sutras are named to elucidate the doctrine
they teach by analogy. The title Brahmajala Sutra derives from the
net of banners used for the adornment of the palace of Mahabrahman.
Each eye of
the net is said to have contained a Mani-Pearl and their brightness
reflected each other ad infinitum. Likewise, the BuddhaDharma is
forever reflected through the brightness of the radiant minds of
bodhisattvas. In the fourth category, the sutras are named after
the person(s) seeking Dharma from the Buddha, i.e., the Sutra of
Prajna for the Benevolent King spoken by the Buddha. In that sutra,
the Buddha teaches sixteen benevolent kings. The Buddha and the
kings are the persons and Prajna is the Dharma. The fifth category
combines an example specific to each case and the Dharma. The name
Prajnaparamita Hrdaya (heart) Sutra for example, consists of Prajnaparamita
which is the Dharma, and Hrdaya or Heart which is the specific example.
(More on the subject later.)
In the sixth
category, the name of a sutra expresses the connection between a
person or a being, and an object or event that is the clue to the
Dharma. The name The Sutra of the Bodhisattva's Necklace, to give
an example, hints at the transcendental adornments of a highly accomplished
spiritual being. The bodhisattva is the being, the necklace is the
object, and their connection is the clue to the Dharma.
of the teacher's name and the name of the Dharma with an analog
are included in the seventh category of titles. Consider, for instance,
the title Buddhavatamsaka Mahavaipulya Sutra: The Buddha is the
teacher, Mahavaipulya is the Dharma and Avatamsaka is the analog.
The Buddha attained the fruit of buddhahood because he returned
all the causes of all actions. Avatamsaka is the analog, the ground
of buddhahood. Maha means great, suggesting that in this instance
the doctrine is applied universally and accommodates all other doctrines.
Vaipulya stands for the function of pure karma in all places. Because
of the Buddha's attainment of that stage, the mind encompasses the
universe and all is buddha-sphere in the ten directions. Furthermore,
each buddha-sphere encompasses a chilicosm: This is over the heads
of most because people only know about this world, due to their
The above seven
categories of the titles relevant to Mahayana sutras are based either
on individual(s); a particular Dharma; an analog; or any combination
The title of
The Prajnaparamita Heart (or Hrdaya) Sutra combines Dharma, i.e.,
Prajnaparamita, with a specific example Heart or Hrdaya.
The terms used are in Sanskrit: Prajna means wisdom, and Prajnaparamita
stands for wisdom acquired experientially, by means of intuitive
insight, and perfected through cultivation to the level of transcendental
knowledge; it is the original wisdom of the mind, or the True Mind.
Why, then, add words to it? Because that sutra is axiomatic to the
entire collection of the Prajnaparamita scriptures. Just as we hold
the heart to be the center, that sutra holds the essence of all
the Prajnaparamita texts.
Prajna manifested itself as intuitive wisdom in all sentient beings
since time immemorial. That is called former wisdom or wisdom of
life; but people became confused through grasping, and the True
Mind fogged over by perverted views manifested itself as obsessive
thought-patterns. The cycle of birth and death never stops turning
the wheel of life, and it is difficult to get out. Actually, the
True Mind is never separate from us, not even for one moment. The
Buddha spoke the Prajnaparamita Dharma for close to twenty-two years.
Recorded and compiled, the resulting text consisted of six hundred
scrolls, classified into eight groups.
that existed were merely differences in expedient means, adjusted
to suit a particular potential, and in every case the aim was to
free those who listened from perverted views, abandon grasping,
return to the original source and understand their True Mind. In
other words, the Prajna teaching is aimed to remove confusion, bring
about recognition of one's own True Mind, and return to the truth.
According to this doctrine the mind has three layers: First is the
layer of the deluded mind; the second is the Prajna mind, and the
third is the center, the heart, or the pivot of the Prajna mind,
and such is also the relation of this sutra to the doctrine. The
Heart Sutra is the axis of all the Prajnaparamita teachings. Taking
further the example of the mind, one might call the Heart Sutra
the center of the central sutras. If we compare the core of this
sutra with the worldlings' mind, the mind of Prajna is the true
mind and the mind of worldlings is the deluded mind.
Again, the center
of the mind's center may be perceived as consisting of three layers,
i.e., the mind of saints, the mind of bodhisattvas and that of buddhas.
Minds of worldlings are immersed in suffering of many kinds. The
mind of a saint, such as the accomplished individual of the two
vehicles, is approaching buddhahood; next comes the mind of a bodhisattva
with only one more rebirth to endure and at the center of mind's
center is buddha or the Ultimate or True Mind. The mind of Prajnaparamita
Sutra is the True Mind, also referred to as the Essential Wisdom.
Essential Wisdom we are speaking of is to be distinguished from
an awareness of objects or environment and their use and value usually
characterized as "knowledge" by worldlings.
The term "Paramita"
is in Sanskrit and it means reaching the other shore. Prajnaparamita
or the Wonderful Wisdom, coursing like a boat, transports all sentient
beings across the sea of defilement to the other shore that is Nirvana.
The word Nirvana, also from Sanskrit, means transcending birth and
death, or simply liberation. Prajnaparamita is, therefore, the Essential
Wisdom and the center of all kinds of prajna. Most every sutra functions
at two levels simultaneously: One level is general, the other, specific,
but the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra is just specific: Although its
title includes the word sutra due to usage, the text does not function
at the general level.
in Sanskrit originally meant to uphold, and when applied to principles,
it upholds the principles of all buddhas moving upward, downward
upholding sentient beings according to their potential. If the one
who understands BuddhaDharma upholds the principles of all the past
buddhas, he/she can liberate sentient beings. Whoever can understand
the theory behind the flawless, accomplished Buddha, can understand
also how to uphold the potential of sentient beings. Sutra means
a shortcut, and a well frequented. path. It means the way to complete
The second profundity
is the definition of substance. What is the substance of the Heart
Sutra? Starting with "Oh, Sariputra, the characteristic of
the voidness of all dharmas is non-arising" until "there
is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever" is the
definition of the substance. Consequently, the characteristic of
the voidness of all dharmas" is the substance of this sutra.
The third profundity
is focused on the clarification of the purpose of the sutra. As
we already understand the meaning of this sutra's name as well as
the meaning of its substance, we should have no difficulty understanding
the sutra's principle or purpose. We should understand its principle
according to the sentence "There is nothing to be attained."
When there is nothing to attain, one is able to discern the characteristic
As to the discussion
of the application of this sutra - it being the fifth profundity
- it is to break off the three obstacles. What are these? They are
1) passions; 2) deeds (past karma); and 3) retribution. Problems,
worries and suffering all are related directly to the three obstacles.
There are two
kinds of retribution: 1. Being the resultant person, 2. Being in
the dependent condition(s). Being the resultant person means being
what we are physically, our body. Some are strong, in good health
and others respect them for it. Some are unsightly, unwholesome
and others dislike them. The strong, the weak, the long-lived and
the short-lived, the beautiful, the ugly, the wise as well as the
foolish, all have varied causes in their previous lives, and accordingly
receive diverse effects in their present existence. Those who have
produced good causes in their previous existence enjoy good health,
longevity, beauty and wisdom in this life. Those who generated evil
causes in their past lives have various deficiencies and shortcomings
in the present. That is what being resultant person means.
Being in the
dependent condition(s) means one's circumstances, including clothing,
sustenance and shelter. Obviously, those who have all their needs
satisfied live happily; favorable events occur, yet they do not
have to exert themselves, because of good causes in their previous
lives. A resultant person relies on dependent conditions for survival
and the conditions, in turn, have their causes in the past existence.
Good karma, practice and deeds that benefit others at present will
produce favorable effects in future existence.
between cause and effect must not be doubted. The obstacles resulting
from past deeds come into existence because we live in this world.
It really does not make any difference who is a lay person and who
is a monk or a nun. Most are involved in interactions inevitably
connected with existence within society, which frequently produce
circumstances generating obstacles through karma. Karma is of three
kinds: Good, bad and unmovable.
of passion arises because of retribution for deeds done in the past.
The circumstances produced then are favorable or adverse according
to karma. Strife to achieve one's goal combines with the confusion
that usually accompanies it, produces numerous defilements and the
result is suffering. That is the obstacle of passion.
defilements count six in number: Greed, hatred, ignorance, aggregates,
doubt and heterodox views.
All three obstacles
are severed naturally when the meaning of the sutra is thoroughly
understood because the application of this sutra is breaking off
the three obstacles. To get rid of the three obstructions is to
be released from many kinds of suffering. The suffering is all-pervasive
and even devas must endure it, though to a much lesser degree than
purpose of all Buddhadharma is to depart from suffering and dwell
Discernment of the doctrine: Since we have already reached some
understanding as to the meaning of the sutra in terms of the four
profundities, i.e., its name, substance, principles and application,
we are in position to proceed to the last one - the discernment
of doctrine. The entire body of the Buddha's teaching can be divided
into five phases and the example of five ways milk is used to provide
nourishment can be applied to situate the phase of the Heart Sutra
in the context of the entire body of the Buddha's teachings.
the Buddha frequently referred to the example of the white cow of
Snow Mountains. On the slopes of the Snow Mountains grow many varieties
of grass that make the cow healthy and strong. The milk is wholesome
and rich in nutrients and helps those who drink it better to survive.
Similarly, the Buddhadharma can nourish our wisdom, and therefore
the example of five uses of milk appropriately illustrates the five
stages of the Buddha's teaching.
Buddha spoke the essence of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hwa Yen in Chinese),
it being the first phase of his teaching. It was the teaching as
formulated in the Mahayana sutras, and those with obstructions could
not rise to its level. It was like offering fresh, raw milk to a
baby; those with obstructions could not rise to its level.
The second phase
is represented by the Agamas, comparable to thin, sour milk. The
Buddha spoke the Avatamsaka first so that the eyes of Mahayana bodhisattvas
would open to the view of the buddhas. At that time many of shallow
root could not and would not accept these highest teachings; though
they had eyes they could not see; though they had ears, they could
not hear. Though they had mouths, they could not ask. It was as
if they were deaf and mute. The Buddha continued teaching the Avatamsaka
for three weeks to convert all those with bodhisattva potential.
Many who could not listen later formulated the Theravada tradition.
In the Deer Park, the Buddha chose to teach the Agamas thereby making
his teaching comparatively easier to understand. Five of his friends
attained deep understanding and became his first monks (bhiksus)
and that marked the beginning of what later became the Theravada
tradition. The Buddha taught Agamas for close to twelve years. Those
who could not follow the teachings during the Avatamsaka phase can
be compared to babies, unable to digest fresh milk, but can take
it thinned down or after the milk was allowed to turn. The teaching
of Agamas is comparable to milk that was thus made easier to digest.
The third phase
is Vaipulya, interpreted as containing doctrines of equal relevance.
That phase is comparable to milk of full strength that was allowed
to turn in order to be easily digestible. During that time the Buddha
spoke four kinds of teachings, and the division into Theravada and
Mahayana was not marked. The phase is said to have lasted for approximately
The fourth phase,
that of Prajna, is believed to have lasted for twenty-two years;
it can be compared to the ripened curd. The nourishment it provides
is concentrated as well as digestible.
The fifth phase
relates to the Saddharma Pundarika and to the Nirvana Sutras. Returning
to the milk simile, it has the quality of clarified butter. During
that period the Buddha is said to have taught Mahayana Dharma, the
unimpeded teaching pointing directly at the mind.
the Buddha taught Dharma in five stages and each of these displays
two facets: Expedience and reality. Expedience means following the
causes and conditions (such as the sentiment and potential of sentient
beings in a given situation); Reality equals Truth or the absence
of falsehood. The Buddha spoke truth of his unsurpassed wisdom directly.
1) The earliest
stage is that of the Avatamsaka Mahavaipulya Sutra. The Avatamsaka
is said to consist of expedience and reality (or truth) in equal
proportion. Expedience means promoting the understanding of reality.
The Teaching Of Reality makes the entry into the wisdom of buddhas
possible: The first stage includes both 'expedience and reality.
2) The stage
of the Agamas is focused on expedience. The Buddha adapted his teachings
to the potential of sentient beings, specifically of those in the
world; consequently, he did not discuss the superb Dharma at that
time. Agama is a Sanskrit term, meaning incomparable. The name "Incomparable
Dharma" is intended to convey the conviction that nothing can
be compared with the Agamas.
3) In that stage,
the proportion between expedience and reality is about three parts
to one, expedience being predominant. What are the expedient teachings?
The first was later developed into the sutra section of the Tripitaka.
It deals with the two vehicles of Sravaka and Pratyeka Buddha in
relation to their ending the cycle of birth and death of allotment
only, but not the cycle of mortal changes. The two vehicles have,
nevertheless, birth and death. The second expedient characteristic
of the third stage is the earliest formulation of Mahayana: The
Dharma of the attainment of non-birth. The third expedient is the
teaching of differentiation. The fourth expedient belonging to this
stage is the Dharma of Reality. It manifests progressively the doctrine
of perfect teachings. During the third stage the Buddha is said
to have taught these four different approaches.
4) The stage
of Prajna, or the fourth stage, is reflected in the Prajna scriptures.
It is said to be composed of two parts expedience and one part reality,
i.e. the Mahayana teaching, or the great vehicle.
5) The fifth
is that of the Saddharma Pundarika and Nirvana Sutras, is the stage
of the Dharma of Reality or Truth without concern regarding expedience.
At that stage the Buddha had little time left and could not afford
to spend it worrying about the potential of the assembly. Following
his delivery of the Bequeathed Teaching which lasted one day and
one night, the Buddha entered his final Nirvana.
The Heart Sutra,
the topic of the detailed commentary below, belongs to the fourth
stage according to the above scheme. It is said to consist of two
parts expedient and one part Reality, and it is comparable to well