THE HEART SUTRA – PART ONE
by Josh Bartok
evening everyone. Please sit comfortably. As you do, please endeavor to
maintain this spacious broad attention of zazen as you listen.
I am going to talk about the Heart Sutra. With this talk, I just hope
to orient us all to the Heart Sutra, point some things out, and perhaps
make it a little more rich and alive for us.
I’m going to take this bit by bit. The first three lines:
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when practicing deep prajna paramita
Clearly saw that the five aggregates are empty
And thus relieved all suffering.
a whole lot going on even in that opening. The being who is talking in
this sutra is Avalokiteshvara, so this is the background, setting the
stage. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. That’s
interesting because this is a sutra about prajna, about deepest wisdom,
so you might expect Manjusri Bodhisattva to be the one talking.
Manjusri is the Bodhisattva who is associated with wisdom. His flaming
sword is the sword that cuts through delusion. But here we have
Avalokiteshvara – her name means “The One Who Perceives or Beholds the
Cries of the World” or "The one who regards the cries of the world."
Right here in the beginning we see that Avalokiteshvara, through
practicing prajna paramita, relieves all suffering, not just some
suffering, and just her own. Please be challenged by that. One of the
next things we can see is that Avalokiteshvara practices.
Avalokiteshvara has to practice prajna paramita. Even the great
Mahasattva Bodhisattva of Compassion, even that being has to continue
to practice in every moment to relieve the suffering of all the world.
And she does indeed see the world, and the suffering beings in it, and
the suffering beings in her own mind. It isn’t that there are no
beings, no world. There is suffering, within, without, neither within
Prajna paramita – prajna is translated often
just as wisdom. Prajna paramita is the perfection of wisdom, the best
knowing of wisdom, or as we chanted in our dedication, wisdom beyond
wisdom, which is a presentation that I find really satisfying. I also
sometimes hear those as "wisdom beyond mere wisdom." It’s the wisdom
that isn’t dependent at all on any of the contents of your mind. It’s
the wisdom that isn’t any kind of wise or pithy saying. It’s the wisdom
that isn’t even any deep penetration or experience of kensho, a deep
penetration of emptiness. It’s beyond all that.
Clearly saw that the five aggregates are empty.
is part of what we are practicing in our zazen, what we are seeing as
we open the hand of thought as things arise in our minds. In the
version we chant, the five aggregates are form, sensations,
perceptions, formations, and consciousness. Let’s first talk about the
word aggregate, and then about the five specific ones. Aggregate in our
version is a translation of skandha. Another more literal translation
is “heap" or "pile"—as in a pile of junk. Take away each individual
piece of junk in the pile, and the pile itself is gone. There is no
"heap essence" or "fundamental pile nature" that exists apart from the
collection of individual pieces of junk. These are the things
that pile onto what we ascribe self-nature to, the things we mistake
our self and all beings for. In fact, these are comprised only of the
aggregates. The teaching of Buddhism is that aside from these things –
form, sensation, perception, formations, and consciousness – there
isn’t any other thing that remains and is precisely us. And yet, again,
this doesn’t mean that it isn’t meaningful to talk about existence, to
talk about beings, about suffering, about the world. But we should
perhaps ask ourselves what precisely we are talking about when we do so.
best analogy for the relationship of the aggregates to the thing we
ascribe existence to is a rainbow. A rainbow is a phenomenon. There
exists a thing that is a rainbow. Nobody is denying that rainbow
exists. However, the rainbow is in fact an interaction of light coming
in at a specific angle, an observer in this specific relationship, the
particles of water suspended in the sky, the interaction of light and
particles. All of these things produce the experience of “there’s a
rainbow.” But a rainbow isn’t anything other than the water, the light,
the perspective. There’s nothing you can grab that is the rainbow. In
the same way, there’s nothing you can grab that is us, that isn’t our
form (which is to say our body), or our sensations, perceptions,
formations, and consciousness. These latter four things are the
traditional Indian way of breaking down all the contents of the mind.
And there is a way too in which even form is mind!
to unpack formations. What we are saying there is mental formations.
Those are like karmic imprints of your mind, conditioned patterns of
your mind, all of your beliefs, all of your reactivity, all of the
things that come together and create your personality. That’s in the
category of formations. What these five things are meant to include are
everything that arises in your mind. This is why we say that in
zazen there aren’t two kinds of mental experience, of mental
phenomena, mental dharmas that arise. There aren’t the ones that you
grab onto because those are the good ones, and then the other ones that
you practice letting go of. There’s only the phenomena that arise. And
with regard to all of them, we do just one thing: open the hand of
thought and return, over and over, to this.
in the category of formations is volition - willing, impulses,
the urge to action and the urge that precedes physical movement, for
instance. Coming back to zazen, this is why we practice stillness. Not
because movement is bad, or because there’s anything inherently
excellent about stillness. In practicing stillness we’re gradually able
to see the urge to move. In our ordinary life we just respond to it. We
scratch our nose, we shift around. That doesn’t teach us a great deal.
So we start to change our relationship to it when we allow that urge to
arise and then don’t act on it. In that moment we see that we are not
identical with that urge.
In the category of perceptions
are all of the things you see and all of the physical reactions you
have. Again we practice embodying of this realization of emptiness.
Even if we don’t have a cognitive insight into it, we practice
embodying our insight into the emptiness of pain each moment we remain
still, each moment we sit undestroyed by pain in our knees, in our
backs, in our shoulders, in our minds. All of that arises and passes
I’m going to use three main sources tonight. The
first one is Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries
on the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra. It's a really lovely book, nice and
brief. As somebody who spends all day reading Dharma books I’m
extremely grateful for a little conciseness! One in the background that
I want to commend to you is actually the Heart Sutra chapter in
Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth about
Reality. It is strangely, in my opinion, one of the best and most
concise presentations and orientations to the Heart Sutra. Then we’re
going to use a little bit from the Samyutta Nikaya, a piece of the Pali
Canon, a sutra that the Buddha actually spoke, unlike this Heart Sutra
which is probably around fifteen hundred years old.
us back to the fact that there is no "heap essence" or the epigraph to
the chapter on the Heart Sutra in Hardcore Zen begins with a quote from
C’mon, Milhouse, there’s no such thing as a
soul. It’s just something they make up to scare kids, like the
boogeyman or Michael Jackson.
Let me touch briefly on the
word empitness. Other translations of emptiness include "zero,"
"boundlessness," "openness," "fluidity" and "empty/fullness." Emptiness
and empty are just placeholders. What it is a placeholder for is part
of what your practice will reveal for you. Don’t get too caught up on
any ideas you have about what "empty" means but let me just state very
clearly that it isn’t nihilism. Buddhist emptiness has nothing at all
to do with the statement, “Everything is so empty, I feel so miserable
and worthless.” And the reality of emptiness doesn’t mean that
there aren’t beings in the world.
Clearly seeing emptiness
relieves all suffering. This is a really appealing hook. I invite you
to be tantalized by that, pulled ahead by that, encouraged by that, to
let that be a way of not becoming too self-satisfied, too complacent
with any understanding of Buddhism. All of your understandings of Zen,
of the Heart Sutra, all of them are in the service of relieving all
suffering. I want to also point out a caveat of this is that relieving
suffering might not precisely take the form that you were imagining. In
fact, I’d bet that it probably won’t.
I want to also say
this about emptiness. I should get one of these to bring in as a prop.
Have you seen these books, they’re called the Magic Eye? They are these
books that look like computer-generated snow, just random dot patterns,
and if you look at them just right and hold your eyeballs a certain
way, instead of looking on the surface of the page it’s like you’re
looking four inches behind the page. Then you see that there’s this 3-D
holographic image. That, for me, is a little bit like the relation
between form and emptiness. There’s a way in which if you don’t know
how to look at those magic eye things you say, “What are you talking
about? Those are just dots on the page. I don’t see a dolphin. There’s
no dolphin there. Obviously there’s no dolphin, look!” That’s the same
as when we haven’t figured out how to do that internal eyeball
adjustment that lets us look at forms in a different way. So we say,
“No, no, what do you mean they’re empty? Of course there’s this. Of
course there’s a me. Of course this is all.” But then it changes, and
there are two different kinds of truths. There’s the truth of the dots
on the page, the truth of form, and there’s the truth of the dolphin,
the truth of emptiness.
"Form is exactly emptiness,
emptiness is exactly form"--this is really as clear as at gets, even
though before you realize it, this phrase sounds utterly
And here let me talk a little about
Buddha and Mara. Mara, sometimes called Mara the Deceiver or Mara the
Evil One, is the personification of evil in Buddhism. In various
places in the Pali Canon, Mara takes a form and addresses Buddha and
tries to dissuade him from his insight and compassion, dissuade him
from the Path. I’m going to read you a little bit here from Thich Nhat
Buddha needs Mara to take the evil role so Buddha
can be a Buddha. Buddha is as empty as a sheet of paper. Buddha is made
of non-Buddha elements, just as paper is made of non-paper elements. If
non-Buddha is like us and not here, how can a Buddha be? If the
rightist is not here, how can we call someone a leftist?
I want to point to this brief quote in the Samyutta Nikaya.
Now, on one occasion the Blessed One was instructing, exhorting, inspiring, and gladdening the bikkhus…
(That's lovely usage, isn't it, “gladdening.”? Practicing the dharma means gladdening the mind!).
with the Dhamma talk concerning the five aggregates subject to
clinging. Those bikkhus were listening to the Dhamma with eager ears,
attending to it as a matter of vital concern, applying their whole
minds to it. Then it occurred to Mara, the Evil One, “This ascetic
Gotama is instructing, exhorting, inspiring, and gladdening the
bikkhus. Let me approach the ascetic Gotama in order to confound them.”
then he proceeds to try to confound them by taking the form of an ox
and creating all kinds of destruction. In the stories about Mara,
Buddha always causes Mara the Evil One to become "sad and disappointed"
(as the Sutras always say) and disappear right there. The way He does
it is by recognizing that Mara is Mara. “Ah, Mara, I see you.”
The Blessed One, having understood this is Mara the Evil One, addressed Mara in verse.
Form, feeling and perception,
Consciousness and formations,
I am not this.
This isn’t mine.
This one is detached from it.
am not this. This is not mine.” That’s what speaking from freedom
sounds like. That’s what speaking from the ultimate reality of having
penetrated emptiness comes from. This is the opposite of the way we
normally talk. We talk about “my anger,” “I am angry.” Both of those
constructions in our language reflect owning or identity. The other
thing that our zazen teaches us, that our zazen embodies, whether or
not we notice it, is that there’s a different perspective. I encourage
you to look for the one in which anger is present. "Here is some anger
now." "Angry thoughts are arising." Or look carefully, and explore the
constellation of thoughts, believes, and bodily sensations that are
present in that angry instant. What is it? All of this is different
than mistaking yourself for that anger. Anger is just a mental
phenomenon. It’s just something that’s arising in your mind. It’s just
content. And prajna paramita is beyond all content. When we talk of
"letting go" of thoughts (or more usefully, of "letting them be"), we
don’t need to evaluate their content as mine or not mine, good or bad,
insightful or deluded. We just return over and over to … this.
also talks about "I-making" and "mine-making." These are the paths
towards suffering. That’s an activity that we engage in. Rather than a
static condition of being, it’s something we do to create suffering. We
engage in I-making, we engage in mine-making. If we cease doing that or
change our relationship to doing that we begin to see what it means to
be free from suffering.
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness,
Emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness,
Emptiness itself form.
version of this that I imprinted on at Zen Mountain Monastery is the
one that, if my attention wanders while we’re chanting, I start
chanting what I used to chant. In that version they say,
Form is exactly emptiness,
Emptiness exactly form.
is, in my opinion, the heart of the Heart Sutra. Another way of using
the Magic Eye example is that the dots are exactly the dolphin, and the
dolphin is exactly dots, and yet not. Another image is to think that
the wave is itself water, water itself the wave. It isn’t that wave and
water are two things. It isn’t that when you are looking at the ocean
sometimes you see the wave and sometimes you see the water. The form of
the water is the wave. The form of emptiness is form. When we look at
form, we are seeing emptiness.
Let me read you an excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh again.
wave in the ocean has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death, but
Avalokiteshvara tells us that the wave is empty, the wave is full of
water but it is empty of a separate self. A wave is a form which has
been made possible thanks to the existence of wind and water. If a wave
only sees its form with its beginning and end it may be afraid of birth
and death, but if the wave sees that it is water, identifies itself
with water, then it will be emancipated from birth and death. Each wave
is born and is going to die, but the water is free from birth and death.
sentiment, form is itself emptiness, emptiness itself form, is what we
also chant and what the Third Chinese Ancestor, Sencan, tells us in
Affirming Faith in Mind:
What is, is not.
What is not, is.
This is exactly the same as “Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.” Then the Third Ancestor goes on to say,
If this is not yet clear to you,
You’re still far from the inner truth.
can sound a little daunting. But there’s also this line, “Know this,
and all is whole and complete.” And he might have added, "and you too
will relieve all suffering"
Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness.
They neither arise nor cease,
Are neither defiled nor pure,
Neither increase nor decrease.
Therefore, given emptiness,
There is no form, no perception, no formation,
No consciousness, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue,
No body, no mind.
isn’t a negation of the fact that there are eyes, ears, nose, tongue,
body, mind. There are, of course. That’s half of it. The other half is
that there are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind. From one
perspective, there is. From another perspective, there is not. This is
the absolute and the relative, the conventional and the ultimate. The
thing about Zen is that at no point are we forced to decide, this or
that, one or the other. This is what we express in the gesture of
gassho, this coming together of opposites, the many becoming one, form
and emptiness meeting together--as they always do, right here.
Sometimes we see form as form, sometimes we see form as emptiness,
sometimes we see emptiness as emptiness. They are the same. No birth
and no death.
I’m going to read two paragraphs from Thich Nhat Hanh.
cannot conceive of the birth of anything. There is only continuation.
Please look back even further and you will see that you not only exist
in your father and mother, but you also exist in your grandparents and
your great-grandparents. As I look more deeply, I can see that in a
former life I was a cloud. This is not poetry, it is science. Why do I
say that in a former life I was a cloud? Because I am still a cloud.
Without the cloud, I cannot be here. I am the cloud, the river, and the
air at this very moment, so I know that in the past I have been a
cloud, a river, and the air.
This is also Thich Nhat Hanh speaking directly to how to practice koan study, as some of you may recognize.
And I was a rock, with minerals in the water. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation.
just want to emphasize that. Nothing in Buddhism is about
reincarnation, especially in Zen. We speak of rebirth, which is
something entirely different, and is what Thich Nhat Hanh is talking
about here. Reincarnation only exists in Buddhism in the Tibetan
tradition. The rest of us have rebirth.
Buddha said that
in one of his former lives he was a tree, he was a fish, he was a deer.
These are not superstitious things. Every one of us has been a cloud, a
deer, a bird, a fish, and we continue to be these things, not just in
former lives. Do you think that a cloud can die? To die means that from
something you become nothing. Do you think that we can make something a
nothing? Let us go back to the sheet of paper. We may have the illusion
that to destroy it, all we have to do is light a match and burn it up.
But if we burn a sheet of paper, some of it will become smoke, and the
smoke will rise and continue to be. The heat that is caused by the
burning paper will enter into the cosmos and penetrate into other
things because the heat has been at one with the paper. The ash that
has formed will become a part of the soil, and the sheet of paper, in
his or her next life, might be a cloud and a rose at the same time. We
have to be very careful and attentive in order to realize the sheet of
paper has never been born and will never die. It can take on other
forms of being but we are not capable of transforming a sheet of paper
Master Dogen, in Genjokoan, talks about
this same thing from a slightly different perspective when he talks
about wood and ash. The wood turns into ash and never becomes wood
again, but we should not think that wood precedes ash and ash follows
wood. Wood is a state full and complete unto itself. Ash is a state
full and complete unto itself. That’s the other side of what Thich Nhat
Hanh is pointing to here.
Krishnamurti points to this
truth, saying, “The observer is the observed.” Meister Eckhart says,
“The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.”
of this is related to a cosmic, expansive conservation of energy,
matter, karma, intention. It points to this beautifully closed system.
For me it’s really freeing, in a way that I don’t know if I can
express. It’s all right here. All of it is right here. Our past lives,
our future lives, our dead relatives, our suffering planet, the
Buddhas, the Ancestors, our deluded self, our enlightened self. All of
those things also are mental content, they’re just content. All of
those things are ideas. Birth and death, enlightenment and delusion,
Buddha and Ancestors, all of those things are things right now that are
arising in your mind. Prajna paramita sees beyond that, sees the larger
empty fullness that holds all of them, all of those things that arise.
Thank you everyone.
Josh Bartok began his practice under the guidance of John Daido Loori, and
lived for eighteen months as a monastic Zen practitiioner at Zen Mountain Monastery. He
was James Ford's first shoken student in Boston, and also currently studies with Jan
Chozen Bays at Great Vow Zen Monastery. He works as an editor at Wisdom Publications, and
serves as practice leader (tanto) at the ZCB affliate Spring Hill Zen in Somerville.