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The Heart Sutra

Prologue by 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?

1. Explanation 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 follows:

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.

The combination 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 narrow outlook.

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 of these.

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.

Originally, 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.

The differences 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.

"Sutra" 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 enlightenment.

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 of Emptiness.

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.

The connection 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.

The obstacle 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.

The original 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 humans.

Therefore the purpose of all Buddhadharma is to depart from suffering and dwell in happiness.
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.

While teaching, 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.

Initially, the 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 eight years.

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.

To summarize, 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 ripened curd.

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