The Heart of Living, The Heart Sutra

I am always thinking: 
    By what means can I make sentient beings able to
    Enter the highest path
    And quickly attain the Dharma?
                – Buddha, Lotus Sutra
Along with the Diamond Sutra, the Heart Sutra is considered to be a pinnacle of Buddha’s teachings. Sometimes called the Heart of Wisdom sutra, the date of its presentation in written form (as with the Diamond Sutra) is uncertain. And over the course of centuries, it has seen many translations, and enjoyed numerous commentaries. In recent times, even the Dalai Lama has dedicated a 150-page book, Essence of the Heart Sutra (Wisdom Publications), to an interpretation of its subject matter. Included in this book is a three page version of the original Heart Sutra that is favored in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dalai Lama’s translator (who assisted with the book’s editing in English), Thubten Jinpa, sums up the heart of the matter—spiritual freedom, or what could be termed enlightenment—in his Preface: 

From its earliest evolution, one of the central teachings of Buddhism has been to gain freedom from our bondage  to clinging, especially to a belief in some kind of enduring reality, whether it be the external world or the internal world of one’s own personal existence. According to Buddhism, the source of our suffering lies in a deeply embedded tendency to grasp at an enduring sense of self. It is this grasping that gives rise to dysfunction in our interaction with our fellow beings and with the world around us. Since this tendency is deeply rooted in the psyche, nothing short of a radical deconstruction of our naive understanding of self and world can lead us to true spiritual freedom.

If there are any obstacles to living without conflict, he notes, they “stem from the deeply ingrained clinging to our own existence, and to the self-centeredness this produces.”

The overcoming of such obstacles, to use a phrase of the Dalai Lama, is to be found in “an attainment of a certain state of mind.” He states that this attainment is achieved through a clear understanding of the true nature of reality.

As one’s understanding of the ultimate nature of reality deepens, one begins to recognize more clearly the erroneous nature of one’s belief in intrinsic existence. As the erroneous nature of this belief becomes increasingly evident, one’s insight into the true nature of reality becomes deeper and clearer.

“One’s belief in intrinsic existence” means to view existent forms as independent of each other, rather than to recognize that all forms share a mutual interdependence: in other words, to conceive of each object or thing as a separate or individual entity, condition or phenomenon; setting it apart from all others. It is this divisive perspective which the Heart Sutra intends to dispel.

The setting of this sutra’s account is a visit by the Buddha to a community of adherents at a place called Vulture Peak.

On this occasion (according to the Dalai Lama’s version of the sutra), the adept Avalokiteshvara “saw” that even conscious personal experience is devoid of intrinsic existence; that is, independent reality. This realization by Avalokiteshvara was apparently noticed by the “venerable” Shariputra, one of Buddha’s principal disciples, who suggested that Avalokiteshvara share his understanding “of the profound perfection of wisdom” before those assembled.

His reply—that all phenomena are emptiness, devoid of defining characteristics—summarizes in a phrase the sutra’s message (details to follow).

Another word for phenomena is “appearance”; that is, to manifest, or present. (An antonym sometimes used in scripture to indicate the profound void is Noumenon; it is not apparent, or “knowable.”)

Any phenomena which is considered to exist—material, such as objects/forms, or immaterial, such as conceptions or events—are characterized as “things” through a multiplicity of “differences.”

It is these assumed differences by which phenomena are supposed to be “separate” from one another. Such differences are a matter of definitions, which are conceived in the mind. It is the definitions which propose that things perceived are “related” to each other. Without defining “characteristics,” there could not be said to be any particular “thing.” Therefore, all phenomena are devoid of (or empty of) defining characteristics “naturally”: differences are not intrinsic to any elements which share existence, but are imposed upon them by the human mind. Thus, each existent item is said to be devoid of independent reality; separative reality depends upon the discriminative mind.

Before resuming the text, another point. From a naturally undifferentiated existence, we have the conscious capacity to designate a multiplicity of “named things.” We conclude that each of these identified things has some conceivable relationship to all the other defined things. We have become conditioned to this “relative” perspective since infancy.

Undefined existence has no independent “characteristics.” It is merely a universal Presence, or Totality. It is simply “empty” of definite qualities. Absent of any named appearances, it is a Void. 

However, due to our relativistic tendency, our normal inclination is to visualize the Unnamed and Unnameable as contra-distinctive from those elements we have named or that are nameable. In so doing, we counterpose that which has no independent existence to all those things to which we have given relative reality, or existence—thus we ineluctably transmute “emptiness” into just another relative thing.

Another way of considering this:  from a natural state of undifferentiated presence, or emptiness, we arrive at our discriminatory conclusions; perceived forms arise, from an inseparable condition of emptiness. But emptiness itself has no existence, except to the extent that it has potentiality to give rise to perceived forms. After all, it is through emptiness that forms are recognized to be empty.

In other words, forms and formlessness are inseparable in either their purported existence or their nonexistence. 

There is a qualification, however. We bring the forms into existence. Emptiness cannot even have the defining characteristic of existence. All conceived forms have a beginning and an ending, as contrasted with emptiness.

Avalokiteshvara came to realize that consciousness, mind, thought, concepts, experiences and any other supposedly subjective “realities” are no more independently existent than are objective “realities” which are more obviously self-created imagings.

In this case, what of such things as enlightenment? Or death?

Avalokiteshvara, replying in detail to Shariputra:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty. Therefore, Shariputra, all phenomena are emptiness; they are without defining characteristics; they are not born, they do not cease; they are not defiled, they are not undefiled; they are not deficient, and they are not complete. Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental objects. There is no eye-element and so on up to no mind-element, including up to no element of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance, there is no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; there is no wisdom, no attainment, and even no non-attainment.

If “there is no body, and no mind,” what does that say about one’s “self”?

The Dalai Lama comments: 

If one understands emptiness … there is simply no basis for grasping onto selfhood to arise. From this practical perspective … emptiness constitutes the highest and most subtle understanding of the Buddha’s teaching on no-self ….

And since the ‘I,’ the individual, is devoid of intrinsic existence, devoid of self, so too are all things that are ‘mine’ devoid of intrinsic existence … so too are all the buddhas devoid of intrinsic existence. Finally, and this is a crucial point, even emptiness itself is devoid of intrinsic existence.


No-mind, or the empty mind, is not a trivial matter in the context of a deconstructive realization, such as portrayed by Avalokiteshvara. The Dalai Lama emphasizes:

Thus, meditative practice is negated. Next, the fruition  of this practice is negated—“there is no wisdom, no attainment”—by affirming the emptiness of the subjective experience. Finally, even this negation is itself negated—“no non-attainment.” Even the resultant state of clarity that arises from clear penetration into the perfection of wisdom is itself empty of intrinsic existence. All the qualities of the mind of one who has reached nirvana, or attained the supernatural powers of a buddha—these are empty, and are negated here … simply removing the obscurations to clarity reveals enlightenment; thus, the emptiness of the mind is said to be the basis of nirvana, its natural nirvana.

Basically, the means and the end are one.

 … emptiness is therefore both the means of eliminating the mental afflictions and the resultant state that one arrives at after having done so.

The empty mind does not make a distinction between relative awareness (“defiled”) and enlightened awareness (“undefiled”): both are without existence independent of the mind, or thought. The realized view both the relative and that which is not relative as the same in all that is seen.

Finally, when one removes the obscuration preventing the simultaneous perception of both ultimate and conventional truth within a single cognitive event, the omniscient mind of a buddha dawns.

In emptiness, there is not anything to be “left out” or excluded. Awareness of the relative does not obscure awareness of the non-relative, and vice versa.

Presumably, the Buddha was fully aware of the non-relative, even when among a social gathering. Yet he could be, also, simultaneously aware of the relative activities around him. After Avalokiteshvara’s declamation, the Buddha “arose” and “commended” him:  “Excellent! … it is just so … just as you have revealed.”

The Dalai Lama explains it this way:

This affirmation indicated that Buddha’s meditative absorption is in fact a fusion of both deep meditative equipoise upon emptiness—ultimate truth—and full cognizance of the world of phenomena continually unfolding—conventional truth. This simultaneous awareness is a unique quality of the mind of a buddha.

So, the Heart Sutra tells us of both the “first step” and the “last step” in enlightenment:  the emptying out of our separative distinctions. Jinpa summarized it effectively when he stated “nothing short of a radical deconstruction of our naive understanding of self and world can lead us to true spiritual freedom.”

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