The Heart Sutra
The Heart Sutra, also known as the Heart of Wisdom, is one of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras and a very important Buddhist text explaining the essence of emptiness. Buddhists recite the sutra often as a way of practice and devotion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that it is good to recite the sutra as it helps one keep one's faith and reminds oneself of the practice. However, he emphasized the need to understand the meaning of the Heart sutra and practice meditation on emptiness. This will help us realize the meaning of emptiness and grasp the reality of all existences and the ultimate nature of our minds.
Generally, we get a gross idea of impermanence and dependent origination of all phenomena through this teaching of the Heart sutra. Impermanence and dependent origination are important aspects of Buddhist teachings. Some of us might have conceptual idea of what emptiness means; the subjective and objective existence of all phenomena; and the two truths, conventional and ultimate truths.
Impermanence means all composite things are subject to change and dissolution. This helps us in understanding the futility of our grasping to self and others as if everything exists permanently. This misunderstanding is ignorance which fuels afflictions such as attachment, aversion, hatred, etc., in us.
Dependent origination means everything that we relate to exists dependently; nothing exists independently. We are all part of this universe; we do not exist independently. Our happiness is dependent on others. With this understanding, we look at all sentient beings compassionately as any mother would do to her child. The teachings say that we need to look at all the sentient beings as one's mother in one of the many samsaric journeys of ours.
Proper understanding of the emptiness gives us more clarity about impermanence and dependent origination.
In Heart Sutra, the meaning of emptiness is explained according to the two truths, conventional and ultimate truths. Emptiness does not mean that nothing exists; it says things exist subjectively but not objectively. Later, it explains the shunyata, the nature of emptiness, the ultimate reality. Finally, it introduces a mantra that explains the paths a practitioner needs to follow to reach enlightenment through the realization of emptiness, the ultimate nature of self or mind.
The text says:
Form is empty;
Emptiness is form;
Emptiness is not other than form;
Form is also not other than emptiness.
The form is empty means that although we see a form, it is devoid of independent existence. It is a combination of many factors, a label that we have for a particular form. Say a flower; it does not exist independent of its attributes. Let us meditate on a flower; the flower is not independent; its existence depends upon many other factors and attributes. It has no inherent independent existence on its own. So, the form is empty of objective and independent existence. It exists subjectively; form is conventional truth.
Emptiness is form: Due to the absence of independent existence a subjectively existence form is possible. This is what is referred to as the emptiness is form. What we are seeing is what we have labeled as a form; it does not exist independently. There is no objective existence of the form. Therefore, what we see as forms is emptiness seen in forms only. We say it is a flower, but the flower is empty of independent existence. What we see as flower, therefore, is a mere appearance to the subjective mind. What is empty of objective flower allows the subjective flower to exist. Therefore, emptiness is the ultimate nature of form.
The Buddhist concept of emptiness is not about the non-existence of any phenomena; it says things exist subjectively, not objectively. This denial of the objective existence of phenomena is emptiness.
The text ends with a mantra. It indicates that this is a great and excellent mantra which could overcome the sufferings of Samsara.
Tayatha, ga-te, ga-te, para ga-te, para sam ga-te, Boddhi-svaha
It is roughly translated as: Go, go, go beyond, go further beyond, and establish Buddhahood!
This mantra encapsulates the five paths that a practitioner takes to achieve Buddhahood. The five paths are 1) the path of accumulation, 2) the path of joining (preparation), 3) the path of seeing, 4) the path of practice (meditation), and 5) the path of fulfillment (no more learning), Buddhahood. [ཚོགས་ལམ། སྦྱོར་ལམ། མཐོང་ལམ། སྒོམ་ལམ། མི་སློབ་ལམ།]
The first stage, the path of accumulation, is when one has realized the altruistic mind of Bodhicitta – the courageous mind wishing to become Buddha for the benefit of all sentient beings.
The second state, the path of joining or preparation, is when a practitioner has acquired high skill in the meditational technique of Vipassana and Samadhi. The practitioner has a high conceptual understanding of emptiness but has not perceived emptiness directly.
The practitioner enters the third stage when he or she has directly perceived emptiness, therefore, the path of seeing. Those who have reached this state are honored as Arya beings. The path of seeing has sixteen moments or stages, the last one being the 16th which is referred to as subsequent knowledge of the path.
The fourth stage, the path of meditation, is where the practitioner dwells deep in the direct realization of emptiness frequently tempered by the mind of Bodhicitta. Meditation and familiarity with the non-conceptual wisdom of emptiness complimented by the noble eightfold path is practiced at this stage.
The last stage, the path of no more learning, is when the practitioner has fully realized the emptiness for the ultimate deliverance from all obscurations. Arhat or dgra bcom pa is at the stage of "no more learning" in the case of Sravakas, Personal liberation seeker, paths and Nirvana is achieved.
For a Mahayana practitioner at this Mahayanist stage of "no more learning", the ultimate nature of mind, the pure, clear light of Dharmadhatu in its consummated form is manifested and Buddhahood is achieved.
Note: རང་གི་ཡིད་ལ་ངེས་ཕྱིར་ངས་འདི་བརྩམས། འདི་འབྲེལ་ཁུངས་དག་ཏུ་ཤེས་འདོད་ན་གཤམ་འཁོད་དཔེ་དང་གསུང་ཆོས་ལ་གཟིགས་རོགས་ཞུ། I write this to familiarize myself with what I have learned. A serious student should refer to the link below for more information.
- H.H. the Dalai Lama, Introduction to Buddhism & Tantric Meditation, Paljor Pubications, New Delhi
- H.H. the Dalai Lama, Essence of Heart Sutra, Wisdom Publications, USA
- Geshe Dorjee Damdul, Quintessence of Heart Sutra, Tibet House Delhi Teaching, 27/09/2020
- Geshe Dorjee Damdul, Heart Sutra (3-day intensive course) April 2013, Tibet House Delhi
- Geshe Dorjee Damdul, Tenet System, 09/10/2017, Tibet House New Delhi
- Ani Thupten Chodron, Commentry on the Heart Sutra, Sravasti Abbey, USA
- ダライ・ラマが語る般若心経、Kozo Otani and Kazuo Kikuchi 2006角川学芸出版