Crazy Wisdom - The Great Heart Sutra
AVALLOKITESVARA, BODHISATTVA OF COMPASSION, OBSERVING DEEPLY THE REFINEMENT OF WISDOM, PRAJNA PARAMITA, CLEARLY SAW THE EMPTINESS OF PERSONALITY, THUS ENDURING ADVERSITY AND PAIN.
O, SARIPUTRA, FORM IS NO OTHER THAN EMPTINESS, EMPTINESS NO OTHER THAN FORM; FORM IS EXACTLY EMPTINESS, EMPTINESS EXACTLY FORM, THE SAME IS TRUE OF FEELING, PERCEPTION, MENTAL FORMATIONS AND CONSCIOUSNESS.
O, SARIPUTRA, ALL DHARMAS ARE FORMS OF EMPTINESS, NOT BORN, NOT DESTROYED; NOT TAINTED, NOT PURE, NOT INCREASING, NOT DECREASING, AND SO IN EMPTINESS THERE IS NO FORM, NO FEELING, NO PERCEPTION, NO MENTAL FORMATIONS, NO CONSCIOUSNESS; NO EYES, NO EARS, NO NOSE, NO TONGUE, NO BODY, NO MIND; NO COLOR, NO SOUND, NO SMELL, NO TASTE, NO TOUCH, NO THOUGHT, NO REALM OF SIGHT AND SO FORTH UNTIL NO REALM OF CONSCIOUSNESS, NO IGNORANCE, NO END TO IGNORANCE AND SO FORTH UNTIL NO OLD AGE AND DEATH, AND NO END TO OLD AGE AND DEATH, NO SUFFERING, NO DESIRE, NO CESSATION, NO PATH, NO WISDOM, NO ATTAINMENT.
AND SO THE BODHISATTVA RELIES ON THE PRAJNA PARAMITA WITH NO HINDRANCE IN THE MIND, NO HINDRANCE, THEREFORE NO FEAR, FAR BEYOND DELUDED THOUGHTS, THIS IS NIRVANA.
ALL PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE BUDDHAS RELY ON THE REFINEMENT OF WISDOM AND THUS ATTAIN THE CULTIVATED ENLIGHTENMENT. THEREFORE, KNOW THAT THE PRAJNA PARAMITA IS THE INTERDEPENDENT MANTRA, THE INTERCONNECTED MANTRA, THE MANTRA OF WORLD MAKING, THE MANTRA WHICH RELIEVES ALL SUFFERING,
SO PROCLAIM THE PRAJNA PARAMITA MANTRA, PROCLAIM THE MANTRA AND SAY:
GATE! GATE! PARAGATE! PARASAMGATE! BODHI, SVAHA!
Wow, that’s a lot of negation for a Saturday morning. Is it really saying that nothing has any existence, everything is illusion? Are we supposed to discount everything we experience through our senses? That sure sounds like what it’s saying, but I maintain that it’s actually teaching just the opposite; that we should be firmly rooted in the experience of the moment. That’s why I call it Crazy Wisdom.
Let’s look first at the meaning of Emptiness. In modern English emptiness has a negative connotation, thanks I think to our consumer society. If something is empty it cannot be grasped, held, bought or sold. That statement I maintain is true for the emptiness described in the Heart Sutra - but without the negative connotation to it.
In Chinese the term used here is expressed by a character that contains the radical for “Sky”. Now in Chinese there are few actual word sounds. In spoken Chinese this means different meanings of a word are designated by the pitch - rising, falling, swooping, etc. - with which it is spoken. In written Chinese many characters are made up of two - or more - parts, or radicals. One will tell you how the word should be pronounced and the other will tell you something about the meaning. So what does it tell us that this character contains the radical for sky? It says that we should see this emptiness as the openness, the receptive emptiness of the sky.
The sky does not reject either the sun or the clouds but let’s each be in their time without itself being changed by them. Neither clouds nor wind, nor rain nor birds - nor jet aircraft - are the sky; but they are all contained within for sky for a period - and then allowed to go their own way. Indeed the sky can neither be grasped nor held nor bought nor sold - and that is a wonderful, liberating thing! This is the emptiness toward which the Heart Sutra points us - the emptiness of the receptivity to experience.
There is a story I love to tell that illustrates what I’m talking about. A couple of tourists were walking in the hills and came upon a temple with a beautiful, ancient bell hanging outside. When the monk came out to greet them they asked how old the bell was. He said, “the bronze was cast five hundred years ago, but the emptiness inside is eternal.” As they looked at him with a bit of confusion he rang the bell, producing a pure and beautiful tone that echoed through the valleys and then asked them, “Which produced the tone, the bronze or the emptiness?”
Next I want to talk about these philosophical concepts that we are told are empty - form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness; although I usually replace feeling with sensation. These are called the five skhandas, or the five aggregates. In Buddhist philosophy they are the constituents which make up our being. Form is our own physical form as well as the physical reality of all those things and people around us. Sense is our physical sensation of these forms - the actual activity of our sense organs (which in Buddhist philosophy include the brain). Perception begins the process of transforming those sensations by applying identity to them. Mental Formations include both positive - language, attention, etc. - and negative - prejudices, desires, predispositions, etc. - habits and applies them to these identities (basically giving a value judgement to them). Consciousness is the base which ties all of these together and acts to form out of them a coherent world-view and self-conception. Yet the sutra starts by telling us they are empty of inherent meaning.
They are empty because we build them as we grow - they do not spring ready made from some inherent soul or self but themselves grow into what we call our self. We are being told here to not cling to this concept of our selves as though it had a true identity but to open ourselves to the possibility of change; to be receptive to our experiences and to allow ourselves to grow and transform into more compassionate, receptive individuals.
Next, I want to speak about the next paragraph where we are apparently told that everything we perceive is illusion. First a little more philosophy. There are six negations in this section and they are repeated three times with variation. These refer back to the Buddhist view of the senses, which are vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch and thought. The three groupings we have refer to the sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind), the sense objects (color, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought) and the sense consciousnesses (realm of sight, realm of sound, etc.); but none of that’s really important. These are just words and concepts out of Indian philosophy. We can convert this whole section into practical advice for living.
First we are told to experience our senses as they come, not to concentrate or force meaning onto them. This is a very Taoist philosophy - and more evidence this is a Chinese sutra….Suzuki Roshi says the same thing about thoughts specifically in my favorite poem on Zazen:
Open your front door and back door.
Let Thoughts come and go…
Just don’t serve them tea.
Next we are reminded to be careful of the meaning we place on the objects of our senses. Are there inherent meanings or just our perceptions of values and content? Do the meanings we place on them have any more reality than the meanings that someone else may place on them? Explain blue to a person blind from birth - is there an inherent meaning to blue that is true for all beings?
Finally we are told to avoid confusing our interpretation of the realms we build up in response to our sense input with the reality of forms themselves. You may see a Zen monk, my husband saw a source of emotional support and sexual pleasure, my mother maintained in seeing a heterosexual, Christian child but none of these perceptions are me - yet I also can’t deny that each of them are me.
Finally, for this section of the day, I want to talk about the beginning and end of this paragraph of the sutra. All Dharmas are forms of emptiness and the section on knowledge and ignorance and old age and death. This is going to lead into the next Dharma Talk this afternoon.
Dharmas, or teachings, or truths, are forms of emptiness. Teachings are signposts only, not awakening themselves. Teachings are designed to tell specific people specific things that they need to know so that they can live their lives in the best manner possible. This is the heart of expedient means - or upaya - in Buddhist thought. An uneducated person may only be motivated to do good and avoid evil by the threat of rebirth in a hell realm. A Brahmin may best understand the teachings as bringing them closer to unification with Brahma. A liberated practitioner is able to see both of these as only the guides that they are, not as eternal, inherent Truth with a capital T.
In the same way this receptive emptiness is not bound by knowledge or ignorance and not limited by age or death. It is eternal and experiential. One does not learn about it or study it; one experiences it. One does not have to have either great age or youthfulness to experience it; it is open to all. You need not spend years in a monastery - but doing so does not hold you back from emptiness. Be the sky and open yourself to experiencing the Tao that precedes all knowledge, that undergirds all Awakening.
Crazy Wisdom - The Great Heart Sutra Pt.2
So last time we talked about the Emptiness that the Heart Sutra teaches; but what is the overall thrust of the sutra? This gets to the heart of why I’m calling this talk Crazy Wisdom. After saying last session that the sutra is not about negation but about emptiness I tell you now that the Heart Sutra IS in fact about negation; just not the negation of experience but the negation of doctrine and teaching.
This could actually be seen as a more poetic rendering of the Octet on the Pure from the Atthakavagga:
3. The wise person does not acknowledge purification that comes from another; for this one does not cling to what is seen or heard or to morality or good works and neither to good nor evil. This person leaves behind what had been grasped and builds up nothing in this world.
4. Moving from teacher to teacher, from philosophy to philosophy many cling to one thing and then another. Following their disturbed passions they never let go of attachments.
5. Clinging to religious dogma and observance a person swings from joy to sorrow led by their passions; but the wise person being freed from attachments does not swing from joy to sorrow, from one thing to another.
6. The wise person is a peace with all philosophies and does not cling to what is seen or heard or felt. This person, going about with clear sight is not changed by this world.
7. They do not advance any view or utter any preferences; they don’t say, “I have the only way”; having cut the knotted cord of attachments they seek for nothing in this world.
8. The wise person goes beyond all boundaries and clings to nothing seen nor heard nor felt. This person seizes on neither passion nor dispassion; places nothing in the world as first among many.
We are enjoined to not cling to any philosophy but to be at peace with all of them. We are told not to hope for Awakening at the hands of another - or of a teaching or doctrine. This is also what the Heart Sutra teaches as it tears down even clinging to the Dharma of the Buddha. It goes right after the great foundation of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths:
NO SUFFERING, NO DESIRE, NO CESSATION, NO PATH, NO WISDOM, NO ATTAINMENT.
This teaching - or as Batchelor calls them, this Fourfold Task - has no inherent Truth outside of receptive emptiness.
The Heart Sutra is not tearing down only non-Buddhist dharmas, but Buddhist as well; but it is not tearing them down to replace them with another teaching. It does not purport to be a new dharma to replace the old. It is the destruction of any Dharma to believe in; and it replaces them only with the Dharma of being and doing.
Brad Warner is fond of saying that Buddhism is not a religion - or philosophy, or way of life or whatever else you want to call it - of belief but of action. By this he does not mean that it is a philosophy about what actions you should take and why - that’s still a philosophy of belief. He means that the whole of the religion is Be; Do; Experience.
This is what the Awakened through the ages have learned - that there is nothing to learn, nothing to believe in, only something to be. This is what all koan point too - that there is no logic you can apply that will replace the experience of carrying water, or doing laundry or cooking a meal.
Does this mean that we passively accept the world as it is without trying to improve it? No. What it does mean is that we must be careful about the judgements we make to insure that they arise from receptivity rather than reactivity.
There is a Japanese aphorism Ki Shu Bu Shin - or Demon Hands, Buddha Heart. It has been adopted in martial arts circles to mean that even though your hands are deadly your heart is pure; but this isn’t what it means to me. A Japanese friend of mine not into martial arts said it is often applied to surgeons and others who do things that would normally be seen as bad but do them for a good purpose. To me it means that we must be leery of judging another just by their actions without knowing the causal chain that led to them.
This is what I mean by making sure that when you strive to correct a situation you are acting from receptivity. Receptivity to the actual causal chain and what should best be done to better the result. Receptivity to the fact that your interpretation might be wrong. To act otherwise is to act from reactivity rather than receptivity. To act from doctrine rather than from emptiness.
Do not see the Heart Sutra as about negation but as about receptivity. Not about teaching a doctrine to believe in but teaching us to BE without clinging to any doctrine - even Buddhadharma. See it as the ultimate practice guide; your reminder when you want to judge to examine your motives and see that they come from a place of receptivity rather than reactivity. This is when you will see that - as it says in the Song of Zazen - “This place is the Pure Land, this very body the Buddha.”
I would like to leave you with my own formulation of the Great Heart Sutra. I don’t say it’s any better or worse than others, but maybe it helps to rephrase concepts that we have had a hard time understanding in English.
Pragmatic Heart Sutra
The heart of compassion, deeply experiencing the perfection of intuitive understanding,
Comprehends Emptiness and comes to a complete and full realization of suffering.
Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental Formations and Consciousness are all empty of inherent meaning and open to the receptivity of experience.
All teachings as well are only signposts for those who need them and are empty of inherent Truth or Falsehood.
This Emptiness is the receptivity to experience. It comes before Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental Formations or Consciousness. It opens us to experience what our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind experience without judgement. It forms the basis of what we perceive as color, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought. It forms the ground from which we draw our conception and interpretation of what is seen, what is heard, on so forth.
Within this Emptiness of Receptivity there is neither knowledge nor ignorance, neither life nor death, neither Truth nor Falsehood.
Within this Emptiness of Receptivity there is no Fourfold Task, no Eightfold Path, no Dharma and nothing for which to strive.
The person who comprehends this experiences the perfection of intuitive understanding; and, without being hindered by thought and fear, understands that this present moment is Nirvana.
This has been comprehended by all those we call Awakened throughout all ages; and this has become the ground of their Awakening. This is why the Perfection of Wisdom Mantra is repeated by all the Awakened to focus their experience of the moment; and so with all beings we say the Perfection of Wisdom Mantra:
Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi, svaha!
Going! Going! Going on beyond. Always going on beyond! This is Awakening, may it be so!