Chapter Sixteen The Heart Sutra In this chapter we will discuss a very important class of Mahayana literat ure

that concerns the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita). But before we look at the te xts themselves, it may be useful to examine the meaning of the term prajnaparamita a nd the history of the Perfection of Wisdom discourses. The term prajna, which is often translated 'wisdom' or 'insight,' is composed of the prefix pra and the root jna which mean s knowledge. Pra added to the root jna gives the sense of spontaneity, penetration , transcendentality. One might therefore better translate prajna as 'penetrative o r special knowledge or wisdom.' The term paramita is most often translated 'perfection'; o ther popular translations include 'gone beyond,' 'transcendental,' and even 'the clim ax of' wisdom. We will understand the term better if we notice its similarity to the En glish words 'parameter' and 'meter,' both of which concern measurement or limit. In paramita, therefore, we have a word that indicates 'going beyond the limit.' Thus the whole term prajnaparamita ought to be understood to mean 'penetrative w isdom or insight gone beyond the limit.' If we remember this, we will avoid the danger of thinking of the perfection of wisdom as something static or fixed. This inevitab ly happens because the word 'perfection' conjures up images of an unchanging, perfected con dition. Yet in the perfection of wisdom we have a dynamic idea--the idea of a penetrativ e wisdom or insight that transcends the limit, that is transcendental. The perfect ion of wisdom is one of the Six Perfections of the Mahayana tradition. It is also the n ame of a large number of Mahayana sutras that are collectively called the Perfection of W isdom literature or Prajnaparamita sutras. This class of texts includes discourses such as the Diamond Sutra (Vajrachchhedi ka) as well as the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines (Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra), the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Twenty-five Thousand Li nes (Panchavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra), and the Heart of the Perfection o f Wisdom Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra), which runs to a little over one pag e. It is generally agreed that each of these is either an expansion or an abridgment of a fundamental text of the Perfection of Wisdom discourses, presented in different versions and lengths to suit the tastes of different readers. It is generally accepted by modern scholars that the Perfection of Wisdom discou rses date to the beginning of the common era, and that they were among the first Buddhist

to be composed of ind ividual parts. We might illustrate the na ture of these two methods by means of an analogy: Through the analytical method. respectively.E. even of . and the disciple Shariputra. The presence of Shariputra is another indication of the continuity i n the Buddhist tradition because. This comprehension of the composite nature of the chariot is the result o f analytical wisdom. conditioned. The analytical and relational methods are used in the Abhidharma literature. in the first and seventh books of the Abhidharma Pitaka. which is an excellent example of the essenc e of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings. or the Heart Sutra for short. extraordinar y power of the Buddha--a reflection of the Mahayana vision of the transcendent nature of th e Buddha that we considered in our discussion of the Lotus Sutra in Chapter 15. The particular example we will discuss here is the Heart of the Perfection of Wi sdom Sutra. The passage from wisdom to the perfection of wisdom is thus the passage from a v ision of reality characterized by perception and acceptance of individual components o f reality to a vision characterized by perception of the emptiness. sets out to acc omplish one important task: to expound and encourage the transformation of wisdom into t he perfection of wisdom. Through the relational method. There are three prominent figures who participat e in the conversation in this sutra--the Buddha. they are now seen to be dependent. rather. This is another indication of the inconceivable. although the dialogue between Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara is said to take place through the power of the Buddha. the Buddh a is said at the very outset to be seated all the time in deep absorption. or voidness (shunyata) . In the light of the perfection of wisdom. It sets out to complement analytical wisdom (which belongs to wisdom per se) with relational wisdom (which belongs to the perfection of wisdom ). the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. just as Shariputra figures prominently in the Abhidh arma. relative. so he is a major figure in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. like the other Perfection of Wisdom discourses. even the individual parts of the chariot are seen not to exist ultimately. On the basis of this and add itional evidence from India. It is only at t he end of the dialogue that the Buddha manifestly enters the conversation to commend Avalokite shvara on his exposition. we can confidently say that the Perfection of Wisdom litera ture is among the oldest available to us from any of the Buddhist traditions. Another important fact is that.texts translated into Chinese in the second century C. however. a chari ot is seen not to be a unitary and homogenous whole but. The Heart Sutra.

which championed emptiness. which is the sense faculty of vision. relative to other factor s. Emptiness is itself relative and devoid of independent existence. emptiness is synonymous with both interdependent origination and the Middle Way. a text that elaborates on the messag e of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Analysis reveals that three elements are involved in each of the six avenues of personal experience (the five senses plus the mind). empty of independent existence. for a total of eighteen elements that result from the ana lytical investigation of personal experience. which leaves us with a residual belief in the real existence of the elemen ts of . in their own being. Hence there are three components for each of the six activities. and (3) the consciousness that arises in con junction with the external object and the sense faculty. In the Heart Sutra. Emptiness is not a view. lists among the various types of emptiness 'the emptiness of emptiness': emptiness. sm elling. Emptiness is synonymous with the Middle Way because understanding emptiness enables one to transcend the alternatives or dualities o f existence and nonexistence. This is why Ha ribhadra. touching. It is synonymous with interdepend ent origination because all that exists is conditioned and. tasting. feeling. in each of the activities of hearing. Emptiness is. there is (1) an external or objective element. in his commentary on the Abhisamayalankara. per ception. which are the result of the analytical method of the Buddhist investigation of reality. identity and difference.these individual components. And just as the five aggregates ar e empty. is relative and empty. a therapeutic device. It is a corrective for the exclusiv ely analytical view. and so forth. This is illustrated at considerable length in the works of Nagarjuna. that the nat ure of the aggregates is empty of independent existence. This point is made very clearly in the Heart Sutra with reference to the five aggregates and eighteen elements. Emptiness is not. subjective sense faculty. like the five aggregates. and thinking. which is the visible object. and consciousness are. According to Avalokiteshvara. so are the eighteen elements that comprise personal experience. (2) the elem ent of the eye. too. however. and (3) the element of visual conscio usness. they are empty of ex istence. these eighte en elements do not exist in reality. volition. in fact. the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara says that form. Similarly. the founder of the Middle Way school. which is the mental element. or void. void--that is. According to the teaching of t he Perfection of Wisdom and Mahayana masters. the activity of seeing can be analyzed into (1) the element of form. For example. (2) an internal. a metaphysical entity.

experience. too. whic . the destruction of ignorance. the Four Noble Truths. according to the Heart Sutra. At this point we come to the central Mahayana doctrine of the nonduality. one should discontinue the treatment. We can see how recognition of the relativity--and subsequent transcendence--of opposites is tantamount to the perc eption of nonduality. or non-differentiation. Indeed. Unreal. because they are relative to each other. so emptiness by itself is an unpalatable diet. phenomena and the unconditioned. Similarly. and death. Em ptiness is also likened to salt. emptiness is the salt that renders experience palatable. can be dangerous and unpalatable. ultimat ely unreal and empty. the ag gregates and emptiness. It is because emptiness reveals and expresses the relativity of all phenomena th at it becomes the key to understanding nonduality. Emptiness is the way out of all extremes. and emptiness is not different from the aggregates. emptiness is designed to cure the illness of perceiving the independ ent existence of things. old age. or non differentiation. Emptiness is a device that enables us to transcend this pluralistic belief in the independent existence of things. there is an absence of other alternativ es. not persist in taking the medicine. It is for this reason that emptiness is likened to a medicine that cures residual belief in the independent existence of elements. This is indicated in the Heart Sutra wh en Avalokiteshvara says that form is not different from emptiness and emptiness is not different from form. The other aggregates. or at the wrong time or place . Like a medicine. are ignorance. too. Hence the duality of samsara and nirvana is dissolved in the vision o f emptiness. even the extremes of samsar a and nirvana. the conditioned and the transcen dental are all alternatives that are relative to each other: they have no independent e xistence. an absence of the characteristics of origination and cessation. they are. and death. emptiness taken in excess. each of them. which are relative to each other and unreal. Like medicine and salt. Indeed. which makes food palatable. Like the roof beams of a house. Thus samsara and nirvana. none of these concepts. attainment and non-attainment. of samsara and nirvana. Once this illness has been overcome. This is why one ought not abide in or cling to emptin ess. are not different from emptiness . and just as salt by itself is unpalatable. old age. just as the distinction between samsara and nirvana is relative--being a subjective distinction that belongs to our way of perceiving and not to samsara and nirvana in themselves--so. in emptiness.

gone. Briefly. The perfection of wisdom has also been likened to a sighted guide leading an ass embly of blind men to their goal. Arising from his deep absorption in meditation during the dialogue between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra in the Heart Sutra. the sutra says. too. dualities. makes the unequal equal. But with the help of the eyes of the perfection of wisdom. bodhi. when a Bodhisattva is trained and steeped in the perfection of wisdom. paragate. all the Tathagatas of the past have achieved the ultimate. in emptiness. in the process. This. The other perfections (of generosity. and karma have no place. In the Heart Sutra we find the mantra of the perfection of wisdom. It is for this reason that the perfection of wisdom.h depend one upon the other. gone. which. the Buddha commends Avalokiteshvara on his exposition of the perfection of wisdom. stable. supreme. they can arrive at that goal. . in emptiness. neither beings nor sufferings exist. the ultimate standpoint is the standpoint according to which beings. a nd perfect enlightenment. energy. not the conventional standpoint. all opposites. and concentration) are themselves blind. This is the transcen dence of all alternatives. and dogmas. the perfection of wisdom has been compared to baking an earthenware jar w hich. gone beyond. Tadyatha. becomes resistant to shattering: so. too. objects. enlightenment. in which b eings. Again. gate. parasamgate. by relying on this perfection of wisdom whose object is emptiness. all extremes. all alternatives. all dualities that marks the entry into enlightenme nt through going beyond all limitations. We can see why this should be so if we recall that. is clear from understanding that. all views. he becomes durable. hail'). The drive toward condensing the teaching of the larger Perfection of Wisdom Sutr a into the pith instruction of the Heart Sutra is further reflected in the emergence of the verbal formulas and mantras we find in the Mahayana tradition. through whic h emptiness is known. morality. has been called 'the mother of the Tathagatas'--in other wor ds. We can see the essence of the perfection of wisdom expressed in the few lines of the mantra. Om . exists independently. that from which the Tathagatas come. patienc e. and all characteristic s do not exist. Many of these are condensations of elaborate ideas that serve as aids to memory as well as to medi tation. gone well beyond. whereas the conventional standpoint conforms to the usages familiar in the world. and difficult t o shatter. gate. The Heart Sutra says that. svaha ('Thus. The perfection of wisdom mantra is also said to pacify all suffering. an exposition tha t reflects the ultimate. Om. They are unable to find the way to the goal of Buddhahood.

lamps. The Perfection of Wi sdom sutras reflect the ultimate standpoint. nonexistence. lightning. we find intimations of the emptiness that is revealed in the pe rfection of wisdom. the Buddha said of this state that neither earth nor water. or neither. born of the experience of nirvana. The Perfection of Wisdom literature suggests that we can all see symbols of empt iness in our own experience--stars. . and that it is not describable in terms of existence.objects. dependent. In the conditioned. Even accordi ng to the Theravada canon. dreams. faults of vision. bubbles. Such phenomena are the visible expressi ons or manifestations of emptiness. and karma are treated as if they exist in reality. fir e nor air. dewdrops. magical illusions. origination nor cessation exists in it. and the like. clouds. and insubstantial na ture of these phenomena. both.

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