Talk on the Heart Sutra

by Josho Pat Phelan Roshi

I would like to talk about some passages in the Heart Sutra and what they might mean. The Heart Sutra is chanted and studied in Mahayana Buddhist traditions in China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, Japan and now in the West. Sutras are considered Buddha's teachings and they were first written down about 300-400 years after Shakyamuni Buddha lived. The word "Buddha" means an awakened one. The British teacher, Sangharakshita, described a Buddha as "one who sees reality face to face, one who experiences reality fully ... at every level of ...being;" and he said that a "sutra is a communication from this heart of reality." Although the Heart Sutra may be the sutra most often chanted, it also may be the most difficult to understand.

The Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra is called the Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra in Sanskrit. Maha or Maka in Japanese, normally means large or great; and in Buddhism, it also has the meaning of ultimate or incomparable-being beyond comparison or duality. Prajna means wisdom, the wisdom of the way things really are, which is empty of substantiality.

Paramita means perfection and when it is used with "prajna," it means crossing over and reaching the other shore. The world of birth and death or samsara is this shore, and nirvana is the other shore. However, the realization of the incomparable wisdom of the emptiness of all things, or the direct experience of emptiness, is in itself crossing over to the other shore. In Mahayana Buddhism, "reaching the other shore" doesn't mean leaving this world, rather it is the experience of the reality of this world.

The next word in the title, Hridaya, means heart, or essence, or the essential point. The Heart Sutra is considered the essence of a large group of 35 longer sutras that focus on Prajna Paramita teachings, one of which is the Diamond Sutra. One way to translate the title of the Heart Sutra would be the "Essence of the Teachings of the Incomparable, Ultimate Wisdom of the Emptiness of all Things."

The Sanskrit word shunyata is often translated as emptiness, but it is important to understand that emptiness does not mean nothingness or voidness, and it does not refer to a nihilistic or existential view; it means empty of an absolute, independent existence, empty of an autonomous or free-standing, unchanging, and permanent essence. But I think it's pretty common in the West to associate the word "emptiness" with nothingness or something like a cold, dark abyss, but this would be a big misunderstanding of the Buddhist meaning of emptiness or shunyata.

Emptiness has been described as the teaching of Co-dependent Origination, the view that everything comes into existence dependent on other causes and conditions, so nothing exists except in relation to other things. All phenomena or dharmas, including all aspects of our material and psychological experience are interdependent, they depend on something other than themselves in order to arise and exist. Because nothing can exist on its own, Buddhism considers emptiness or co-dependent origination to be the true mark or true characteristic of phenomena.

In his translation of the Heart Sutra, Kaz Tanahashi translated shunyata as boundlessness, giving the feeling of limitlessness and spaciousness-beyond boundaries. He said, "Boundlessness is the nature of all things." For me, this means, no fixed-nature — nothing is fixed, everything changes and is impermanent. In the Dalai Lama's commentary on the Heart Sutra, he said that emptiness doesn't mean that things don't exist, it means they don't possess the intrinsic reality we naively thought they did.

The Heart Sutra continues, "Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form; that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness, form." This means that emptiness does not stand apart from things as their true nature, as if emptiness were more real or more permanent than things themselves. This is important: emptiness itself, as well as all Buddhist teaching, is also empty of an absolute existence. Buddhist teaching is not an end in itself, it is a tool that supports us to experience the nondual, unlimited, interconnected nature of reality for ourselves. To me the empty nature of emptiness means, open your hands, open your heart, open your mind and let it go, don't mistake Buddhist teaching for reality; insight, including experiential insight, can be helpful, but don't cling to it.

After saying, "Form does not differ from emptiness ... the Heart Sutra continues, "The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness." which is the short way of saying, "Feelings do not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from feelings. Perception does not differ from emptiness, ..." and so on. So, all of our experience depends on and is connected to other elements. Again, emptiness is not some thing that can exist by itself; it is a characteristic of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the word emptiness or shunyata as being an adjective or a description, not a noun or a thing.

Form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness are the five skandhas or aggregates of human experience. The five skandhas collect and integrate to make our body and mind, including our personality and a sense of continuity that we experience as our self. The first skandha, form is basically matter, and it refers to the material side of experience. Form includes both our body and all the objects of our sense organs-everything we can see, hear, smell, taste or touch.

The other four skandhas, feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness correspond to the nonmaterial aspects of experience. Feelings, here, do not refer to emotions, but mean the immediate, gut level response, either conscious or unconscious, that we have to everything we experience. Feelings are either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral-there are only three types-and they happen very quickly, so it is easy to miss them. Feelings are the fundamental, primitive responses that even plants and animals have-like the instinctual pushing away of what's painful or unpleasant, or reaching out for what we like and want more of. Since our conditioning is rooted in these gut level responses, becoming aware of feelings is fundamental to becoming free from our conditioned reactions. When we are aware of this impulse to reach for or to push away, we have the opportunity to interrupt our conditioning and habits. This is the place where, if we are paying attention, we can interrupt our automatic reactions and not follow through on our impulses. This is where we have the power, or the space, to be able to choose a different response and break the chain of our automatic reactions.

When we encounter an object we receive some sensory stimulation which creates and corresponds to images or representations in our mind. These representations are the third skandha, perception. Perception functions to categorize what we encounter by distinguishing the different characteristics of sense objects: such as blue, yellow, long, short, loud, quiet, male, female, friend, enemy, food, poison, etc. In this context, perception is considered a pre-naming discrimination that we learn in the first years of life, like the ability to distinguish between milk and water. So, this type of perception occurs before language is engaged.

The fourth skandha is mental formations (samskara) which literally means "together-makers." It functions by constructing and changing our mental continuum. This means from one thought to the next, constructing volitional activity that propels our body, speech, and thought. Mental formations are impulses, volitions, and emotions including all psychological states, as well as the thoughts and fantasies that carry us along on the stream of our mental activity.

The fifth skandha is consciousness, and it has the function of maintaining, cognizing, comparing, storing and remembering all the seeds of consciousness, including all of our past experience. When we are simply thinking or worrying about something, experiencing sadness, anger, desire, and so on, this is the fourth skandha of mental formations. But if we become aware of our thoughts and other states of mind, this is mental consciousness. Consciousness includes what we may think of as the self, as well as pure awareness and intentional thought. When we talk about the subject and object of an experience, the subject refers to the fifth skandha, consciousness.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, "The subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. He gave the example, "To see is to see something. To hear is to hear something. To be angry is to be angry over something. Hope is hope for something. Thinking is thinking about something. When the object of knowledge is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge." Another way of saying this is that objects don't exist independently from differentiating or discriminating consciousness, which is referred to as the subject. So, discriminating consciousness and its objects always arise together.

The function of discriminating or discursive consciousness is to differentiate, divide, and separate-it turns our experience into an object that we can reflect back on. The subject, me, and the object of consciousness, this room and the things in it, co-arise. For a long time I thought this meant that objects-the things that make up the world-do not exist at all, except when they are the objects of consciousness; or they only exist when some form of consciousness seeks them out. I imagined Chapel Hill or the whole world as a kind of swampy, indistinguishable mush which had objects popping into existence as consciousness sought them out and then disappearing into this mushy swamp when consciousness disengaged from them.

This reminded me of the question, If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does sound occur? These ideas brought a kind of panic about the nature of reality. I thought it meant that objective reality, instead of being the world filled with things as you and I know them, was instead a void; and if I were enlightened, I would dwell in this voidness or non-existence of objective reality. This was not only somewhat frightening, but it also sounded pretty boring. Of course, there was another part of me that thought, What does it matter whether or not objective reality is void? How would it change my daily life? And actually, I was never too worried that one day I would go into my office and find my computer void and my work void.

So, I asked my teacher, Sojun Roshi, to explain this. Actually, I asked several times over several years because it took a long time for me to understand it well enough that I could remember what he said once I left the room. His explanation was that the objects of the world, the roads and cars, buildings, mountains, flowers, butterflies, you and me, and so on, exist, whether or not discriminating consciousness has arisen, but they don't exist as objects-they aren't differentiated until individual, discriminating consciousness separates them from the whole. Objects don't exist separately from or opposed to each other. The universe is non-dual, it is only perceived as dualistic when discriminating consciousness is engaged, distinguishing things as separate. When discriminating consciousness arises, it arises with an object-a form, feeling, perception, or a mental formation. There is no discriminating consciousness without an object. And when discriminating consciousness drops away, our sense of separation also drops away which Master Dogen referred to as the dropping of body and mind, or we might say the dropping of misperceived or conceptualized boundaries.

Discriminating consciousness distinguishes between things, it objectifies and names them, and globs on associations from our past experience, and this is necessary for us to make our way in our everyday life. But this process is so strongly implanted in us that when we see something, what we actually perceive is the unique representation in our own mind which is informed, filtered and shaped by all of our past associations and experience. So, the way each of us perceives and experiences the world is completely unique based on and adjusted to our individual experiences from our past; and when we die, this unique world of ours will also end. The usual understanding is that the world which you and I experience, exists in common with others, and this world existed before we were born and will continue after we die. However, in Buddhist teaching this is considered a false view. For example, if we take this representation of Buddha on the altar, a common way of thinking is that it exists objectively-at this time, in this room, we are all seeing the same beautiful figure of Buddha.

But according to Buddhist teaching, this is not quite the case. We each see the figure from a slightly different angle, in slightly different light and shadow, and we each have our own individual past associations and current feelings and emotions that flavor what we see and how we feel about it, and this loops back around and flavors how we perceive it. For example, the altar may remind someone of the incense and altar they experienced in a Catholic church and bring up their feelings about that. For someone else, seeing the Buddha figure may remind them of their potential for liberation, giving a feeling of assurance and peace. While someone else may have gotten car sick on their way to visit their first Buddhist center and when they see the Buddha figure, they may be reminded of that nausea. So, we each bring associations from the past and emotional overtones to the way we perceive things, and maybe some of us are even a little color blind or have an astigmatism. So, this Buddha statue is a different statue for each of us, having its own place in each of our worlds.

Going back to emptiness, Suzuki Roshi said, "There is no emptiness which has no form." In other words, emptiness has no independent existence, it cannot exist apart from form, feelings, perceptions, formations or consciousness. Suzuki Roshi said, "‘To empty' something means to experience it without relying on the form or color of being... what it should be empty of is our preconceived idea of it ..., our idea of big or small, round or square." This is our usual way of measuring and comparing one thing to another. We tend to carry these values into our way of experiencing things, but things themselves have no inherent scale, or weight, or value. We overlay reality with our judgements and comparisons which results in assigning a value, and then we use these values so much that we often become blind to them. But they don't exist anywhere but in our thinking. Suzuki Roshi said, "When we have an idea of something, when we conceptualize something, it is already ‘dead' experience. It's not actual experience and the reason we empty a thing...is that what we empty is not actual reality, but the idea of big or small, good or bad. I don't say that such comparisons are always wrong, but mostly we are liable to use our selfish scale when we analyze,.. [or] when we form an idea of something.... We must empty this part. The way we empty this part is to practice zazen."

Talking about emptiness or the subject and object of consciousness can get pretty abstract or intellectual. One way to practice with this is to use the notion of emptiness, or boundlessness, or our deep interconnection with everything, to support getting in touch with the place where we are open or vulnerable, and in that place try to put down our guard. By turning toward our own open heart, we turn toward a space which isn't so fixed by our ideas of the way we think things should be. When we let go of self-protection that fixes our position and holds it in place, there can be space to allow movement. We can play with letting go of our identity which serves to define the boundary between inside and outside. We can practice, for example, letting go of controlling our breath. The space where we let go of control, but at the same time remain present, is the space where change and movement can occur, where we can come closer to things as they really are. Suzuki Roshi said, "Emptiness does not mean annihilation, it means selfless original enlightenment which gives rise to everything."

© Copyright Josho Pat Phelan, 2019





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