Notes on the Heart Sutra

Slightly different track for today’s post.  A handful of people know that I have a deep respect and appreciation for Buddhism, especially the Thai Forest and Japanese forms of the religion/philosophy.  It was one of the first alternative religious traditions I was ever exposed to, and something I’ve taken more than a passing fancy in studying on my own; had I more time and energy and resources, I’d dedicate myself a lot more to it seriously than I can, but alas, my path is slightly different and does not (yet) allow for it.  Still, it’s always got a high place in my heart, and recently I’ve been dwelling on one of my favorite texts in the entire Buddhist canon: the Heart Sutra.  It’s a deep abiding not-quite-joy to recite and to meditate on, and given its popularity, I figure I may as well recognize it here.  Sure, it’s a slight departure from the usual Hermetic stuff on this blog, but I never claimed to stick to any one particular track, and I think bringing this up to most people’s awareness would do them and the general occulture some minor amount of good.

There have been endless translations of the Heart Sutra into any number of languages, but a problem is that it really is a summary overview of so much of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy and teaching that it can almost be considered a CliffsNotes-type of sutra; unpacking everything would pretty much necessitate a full exploration of Buddhist thought, which is just a little out of the scope of this blog.  I find that the one by Jayarava (provided in 2013 on his blog) is particularly excellent for modern readers, but below is another one based on the one available on Wikisource that I’ve modified for diction and clarity, with links to any possible Buddhist reference for terms or concepts that I can manage:

The Great Sutra of the Heart of Perfection of Wisdom

When the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara was practicing the profound perfection of wisdom, he examined the five aggregates of existence and saw that they were all empty of all suffering and affliction.

Śāriputra, form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form.  Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form.  Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also such as this.

O Śāriputra, all experienced phenomena are empty: not created, not destroyed, not dirty, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing.  This is because in emptiness there is no form, sensation, perception, volition, or consciousness.  There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or thoughts; no form, sound, scent, taste, sensation, or dharma; no field of vision, up through no realm of thoughts.  There is no ignorance nor end of ignorance, even up to and including no old age and death, nor end of old age and of death.  There is no suffering, its accumulation, its elimination, nor path.  There is no knowledge and no attainment.

Because there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on the perfection of wisdom, and their minds have no obstructions.  Since they have no obstructions, they have no fears.  Because they are detached from perverse delusions, their ultimate result is the release from suffering.  Because all buddhas abiding in the past, present, and future rely on the perfection of wisdom, they attain the highest-possible perfect awakening.

Therefore, know that the perfection of wisdom is a great spiritual charm, a great brilliant charm, an unsurpassed charm, an unequaled charm.  It can truly remove all afflictions.  This is true and real, this is no lie.  Speak the charm of the perfection of wisdom; the charm is spoken thus:

GATE GATE PĀRAGATE PĀRASAṂGATE BODHI SVĀHĀ

The Heart of Wisdom Sutra

So what does this all mean?  In many ways, the Heart Sutra is an ultra-condensed form of Mahayana Buddhist teaching, and the earlier/original versions of the text don’t even have the usual context set and setting.  The slightly longer form establishes the frame for the discussion of the Heart Sutra like this: at one point in time, the Buddha was gathered with a great community on the mountain of Vulture’s Peak (Gṛdhrakūṭa), east of the ancient city of Rājagṛha (modern Rajgir in India) .  Amidst all the monks, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (also known as Guan Yin, Kannon, or Chenrezig) was practicing Prajñāpāramitā.  The Buddha himself entered a deep state of meditation and awareness, and by his powers, induced his disciple Śāriputra to approach Avalokiteśvara and ask the bodhisattva how one should go about practicing Prajñāpāramitā.   Avalokiteśvara then replied with the above sutra, describing what Prajñāpāramitā and how to practice it.  At this point, the Buddha himself left his state of meditation to praise Avalokiteśvara on the discourse, and that both he and every possible buddha ever approves of it, and then everyone lived happily ever after.

So what is Avalokiteśvara saying?  Basically, everything is empty.  This isn’t to say that everything is nothing a la nihilism, but that everything that exists or that is experienced is simply a construct.  Every entity does not exist as a thing-in-itself, concrete and independent from the rest of reality and existence, but that every possible thing lacks an intrinsic identity, quality, or existence.  Everything exists because of everything else that has gone before it so that it can be constructed; it is “empty” only so far as regards an independent nature.  My coffee cup on my desk, for instance, only exists because:

  • I bought it to exist in my life
  • I put it where it is for it to exist on my desk
  • The materials for it were harvested by other people
  • The processes to craft it were handled by other people
  • I, the harvesters, and crafters were all born and nourished by the actions of other people, who in turn were born and nourished by the actions of yet other people, ad infinitum
  • The materials for the coffee cup and all possible nourishment were generated/recycled through natural meteorological, geological, and cosmological forces

In other words, there is no part of this coffee cup that exists on its own without the input, causes, actions, or reactions of everyone and everything else that has gone before it; it is empty of “itself”, because there is no “self”.  There is no “being”, only “interbeing”; nothing is independent, because everything depends on everything else.  That is emptiness, generally speaking, and Avalokiteśvara describes the aggregates of existence (five skandhās) as all being empty: material form of objects, the sensory experiences of objects, the sensory and mental processes that registers and perceives objects, the mental actions and constructions triggered by objects, and the consciousness, awareness, and discernments we make involving objects.  All of these things are empty, no one of them existing apart from each other or the objects themselves, and for that matter anything else that exists in the cosmos.  But, going beyond that, Avalokiteśvara describes all phenomena as empty, as well.  The exact word here is dharma, which we usually mean as “law” or “doctrine” (as in Buddhism or Hinduism itself), but its meaning is wide enough to capture all possible phenomena, all monads or atoms, as empty.  It is out of these dharmas that the skandhās themselves are made, so if an object is the result of the processes and phenomena that developed it, then each process and phenomenon itself is likewise the result of other dharmas that developed it.  Thus, there is no thing, neither local or temporal nor material nor procedural, that exists apart of anything else.  Everything is the result of the interplay of everything else; there is nothing intrinsic to anything, no law nor self nor quality nor idea.  It is Heraclitus’ παντα ρει (“everything flows”) taken to its logical extreme.

Again consider, however, my coffee cup.  Speaking less philosophically, it is currently empty of drink, and yet it is not empty at all, since it is volumetrically full of air.  By pouring coffee into the mug, I have not really “created” coffee, but simply transformed the location of coffee from the coffee pot to the mug; I have not destroyed the air inside the mug, but instead displaced it.  I did not do this as its own divinely-inspired, pure-of-need action, but I poured coffee because I wanted coffee and needed something convenient to drink it from.  Because the act of pouring coffee took place within the greater context of my life, the act cannot be considered on its own but as an aggregate formed from everything else in my life, as well as an aggregate forming my life itself; there is no true “start” or “end” to the act of pouring coffee, just as there is no “start” or “end” to the existence of coffee itself; it is formed from water and coffee beans and heat, yes, but at what point do these stop being separate things that have never been coffee and start becoming a single thing that is only coffee? At what point does coffee no longer stay coffee but becomes something else that was never coffee?  These questions have no answer, because there is no intrinsic “coffee” to consider.  Thus, there can be no purity or contamination of coffee, just a series of phenomena and experiences and aggregates that collectively make something that I can give the label of “coffee” to for the time being.  As Avalokiteśvara says, “not created, not destroyed, not dirty, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing”.

It then follows that literally all of Buddhist thought—the five skandhās themselves, the eighteen dhātus of objects/sense faculties/consciousness that operate through the skandhās, the twelve nidanas of causes and effects that provide the basis for birth and rebirth in this world of suffering, the Four Noble Truths that the Buddha himself declared upon his enlightenment, even the notion of knowledge or wisdom itself or the ten bhūmis or stages of achieving them—are all empty.  All of it.  Everything is empty, therefore the whole religious philosophy and practices within it of Buddhism must all likewise be empty.  There is nothing intrinsic to Buddhism that makes it Buddhism, holy, special, or powerful; it’s the result of everything else and is the cause of everything else just as much as everything else is.  It’s not that it’s nothing, but that it’s part and parcel of everything, just as much as everything else is.  In other words, it’s reaffirming and emphasizing the teaching of Buddhism in its own terms, and because of this, the whole notion of Prajñāpāramitā (which is basically the wholesale realization of the foregoing and the insights and awareness it provides) is what gets bodhisattvas to where they’re trying to go.  If nothing has its own independent qualities, then nothing can be considered intrinsically scary.  If nothing can be scary, then there is nothing to fear.  If there is nothing to fear, then there is nothing to escape or hide from.  If there is nothing to escape or hide from, there is nothing to lie about.  If there is nothing to lie about, then there is nothing to be deluded about.  If there is nothing to be deluded about, then there is nothing stopping you from being free of suffering and illusion.  And, if you can be free from suffering and illusion, then there’s nothing stopping you from achieving the whole goal of the whole shebang: complete, utter, total enlightenment.  You’re already there, because there is no such thing as getting there, you just haven’t realized it yet, because you haven’t seen how empty you are yet or how empty your world is yet.

In other words, Prajñāpāramitā—the perfection of wisdom itself—is the full realization and insight of emptiness.  By this and this alone, everything else in the bodhisattva path of awakening follows.  The Heart Sutra recalls this very thing, to remind us that awareness of emptiness is the perfection of wisdom, and that by its recitation, we gird ourselves with the strength and compassion of wisdom itself for the sake of liberation.

So, onto chanting it.  The Heart Sutra, as can be seen above, is a pretty short text, if not one of (or the most) shortest in the Mahayana Buddhist canon.  For this reason, it’s a favorite for people to chant as an entire thing, and it’s not uncommon for it to be chanted daily at monasteries or temples across the world.  Current academia on the origins of the Heart Sutra suggest that it was originally composed in Chinese, and then back-translated into Sanskrit (or the hybrid Buddhist Sanskrit that was in use for many such texts, which is not properly Sanskrit as such).  The Chinese text is what was disseminated throughout Asia, and though it was historically recited in any number of local languages, they all rely on the same fundamental Chinese text using their respective Sinitic methods of recital; I prefer the Sino-Japanese style of reading this text mostly because I can actually trust and understand Japanese phonology.  The transcription below comes from Andrew May’s website, modified for diacritics and organization; note that hyphens link multi-character words together, and are generally (but not always) limited to Sanskrit-derived names or words (e.g. Han-nya-ha-ra-mi-ta for Sanskrit Prajñāpāramita, or Sha-ri-shi for Śāriputra).  In general, one syllable matches one character, though some characters are two syllables (e.g. 厄 “yaku”).

摩訶般若波羅蜜多心經 MA-KA HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA SHIN GYŌ
觀自在菩薩行深般若波羅蜜多時 KAN-JI-ZAI BO-SATSU GYŌ JIN HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA JI
照見五蘊皆空度一切苦厄 SHŌ KEN GO UN KAI KŪ DO IS-SAI KU YAKU
舍利子色不異空空不異色 SHA-RI-SHI SHIKI FU I KŪ KŪ FU I SHIKI
色即是空空即是色 SHIKI SOKU ZE KŪ KŪ SOKU ZE SHIKI
受想行識亦復如是 JU SŌ GYŌ SHIKI YAKU BU NYO ZE
舍利子是諸法空相 SHA-RI-SHI ZE SHO HŌ KŪ SŌ
不生不滅不垢不淨不增不減 FU SHŌ FU METSU FU KU FU JŌ FU ZŌ FU GEN
是故空中無色無受想行識 ZE KO KŪ CHŪ MU SHIKI MU JU SŌ GYŌ SHIKI
無眼耳鼻舌身意無色聲香味觸法 MU GEN NI BI ZE SHIN I MU SHIKI SHŌ KŌ MI SOKU HŌ
無眼界乃至無意識界 MU GEN KAI NAI SHI MU I SHIKI KAI
無無明亦無無明盡 MU MU MYŌ YAKU MU MU MYŌ JIN
乃至無老死亦無老死盡 NAI SHI MU RŌ SHI YAKU MU RŌ SHI JIN
無苦集滅道無智亦無得 MU KU SHŪ METSU DŌ MU CHI YAKU MU TOKU
以無所得故菩提薩埵依般若波羅蜜多 I MU SHO TOKU KO BO-DAI-SAT-TA E HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
故心無罣礙無罣礙故無有恐怖 KO SHIN MU KEI GE MU KEI GE KO MU U KU FU
遠離一切顛倒夢想究竟涅槃 WON RI IS-SAI TEN DŌ MU SŌ KU GYŌ NE-HAN
三世諸佛依般若波羅蜜多 SAN ZE SHO BUTSU E HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
故得阿耨多羅三藐三菩提 KO TOKU A-NOKU-TA-RA SAM-MYAKU-SAM-BO-DAI
故知般若波羅蜜多 KO CHI HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA
是大神咒是大明咒 ZE DAI JIN SHU ZE DAI MYŌ SHU
是無上咒是無等等咒 ZE MU JŌ SHU ZE MU TŌ DŌ SHU
能除一切苦真實不虛 NŌ JO IS-SAI KU SHIN JITSU FU KO
故說般若波羅蜜多咒即說咒曰 KO SETSU HAN-NYA-HA-RA-MI-TA SHU SOKU SETSU SHU WATSU
揭帝揭帝般羅揭帝般羅僧揭帝菩提薩婆訶 GYA-TEI GYA-TEI HA-RA-GYA-TEI HA-RA-SŌ-GYA-TEI BŌ-JI SO-WA-KA
般若心經 HAN-NYA SHIN GYŌ

I translated whatever technical terms I could in the above translation, but there’s the notable exception about the final set of words.  This is generally considered a mantra, and mantras aren’t generally translated; their potency generally is said to lie in the actual sound and vocalization of them and less in any meaning, but Jayarava’s translation of the mantra here has it as “gone, gone, gone over, gone over to the other side, awake, svāhā” (where “svāhā” is a typical end to a mantra, literally meaning “well said” but used to mean something like “all hail”, “so be it”, or “amen”).  He’s also gone over the mantra in a more in-depth manner elsewhere, and notes that the descriptions of the mantra as great, brilliant, unsurpassed, and unequaled are usually epithets for the Buddha, and thus liken or equate the mantra itself to the Buddha, but that it’s less a mantra and more of a dhāraṇī or vidyā, in either case something more akin to a spell or magical invocation.  Thus, I’ve translated it above with the word “charm”, based on how the word is used for similar “words of power” sequences in more Western texts like the PGM (which, it would seem, would be a translation that even Jayarava might agree with).  In any case, the mantra-dhāraṇī-vidyā-charm-spell would be pronounced /gəte gəte pɑːrəgəte pɑːrəsəⁿgəte bod̪ʱi sʋɑːhɑː/ or, for a less IPA-based approach, “guh-tay guh-tay pah-ruh-guh-tay pah-ruh-sahn-guh-tay bohd-hee swah-hah”, if you wanted to use the proper Sanskrit pronunciation, though again, any vulgate language that the whole sutra is recited in would use its corresponding Sinitic readings of the characters 揭帝揭帝般羅揭帝般羅僧揭帝菩提薩婆訶, which were used in early/middle Chinese to transcribe the Sanskrit sounds themselves.

An excellent rendition of this text in Japanese is that of the Sōtō Zen monk and teacher Taisen Deshimaru, who in this particular recording leads a group of Buddhists in reciting the sutra.  The recording opens up with a brief bell meditation, recites the sutra three times at an increasingly fast but rhythmic pace, and concludes with  a slow recitation of different texts after the 7:26 mark:

I share this all not just because it’s been on my mind lately and I wanted to have some sort of outlet for it, but because it reminds me, in a grand sense, that we’re all in this together.  There is nothing that you’ve done that hasn’t affected me, nor vice versa; there is nothing that exists that hasn’t impacted the existence of anything else.  There’s another saying about emptiness: “if it exists, then one speck of dust exists; if it doesn’t, then the whole cosmos doesn’t either”.  We’re all here because each and everyone one of us is here; everything that is happening (or has, or will) is happening because, with, by, and for us, endlessly and continuously, just as we exist/happen for the sake of everything else.  As Ghandi (actually) said, “all the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body; if we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change”.  

In other words, be good or be good at it.  The entire cosmos is literally riding on it.

(also oh my god Kalagni I’m so sorry if I bungled any of this, please fix anything that’s broken)

Advertisements

About polyphanes
I'm a software developer and Hermetic occultist living near Washington, DC, USA. I claim that I'm youthful, dashing, daring, and other things. I make things and chant stuff, and periodically write about them.

2 Responses to Notes on the Heart Sutra

  1. Kalagni says:

    No bungling at all hun, you did a good job explaining the text and the importance.

  2. Lonnie says:

    Great post – thanks for the reminder. The Heart Sutra here rendered is exactly as we chanted it many years ago when I was living in a Rinzai Training Center in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Thanks!

Leave a Note

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: