Efficient Geomancy with Playing Cards

I know I’ve been awfully quiet lately.  There’s been a lot going on this year, and I’m just trying to keep my head above the water.  I’m succeeding, at least, but it’s giving me a lot of time and space to parse and pick through everything that’s been going on in my life, in both a mundane and spiritual sense.  While I may be inactive at blogging lately, I’m still doing research and writing on my own, though much of it isn’t for public eyes.  Still, on a lark this morning and inspired by the ever-handsome ever-brilliant Dr Cummins, I decided to go through and flip through my manuscript on geomancy (which, yes, is still going, albeit slowly, blah blah blah).  In the section on generating geomantic figures, I stumbled across the blurb I have about using playing cards to generate a geomantic figure.  It’s a pretty basic notion: draw four cards, and look at their color (red or black) or their parity (even or odd rank) to create a single geomantic figure; with 16 cards, you can generate a full set of Mothers.  Basic, simple, easy, but oh so boring.

Then a small bit of inspiration struck me:

I claim that you can generate a full geomantic chart with only four cards from a standard playing card deck, rather than just a single geomantic figure, and if you wanted, a single geomantic figure for a single card drawn.  There are only two tricks involved to get this method to work.  The first trick lies in slightly modifying the deck where each card is marked for an up-down direction (or upright-reversed); some cards in most playing card decks are often reversible with no way to determine which way is upright, so you’d need to find a deck where each card is marked for an upright position, or a deck where each card has a distinct pattern that can unambiguously be seen as upright or reversed.

The second trick (well, not really) lies in assigning the four suits of the playing card deck to the four traditional elements, by means of their standard Tarot/tarocchi equivalences:

  • Clubs are associated with Wands and thus with the element of Fire.
  • Spades are associated with Swords, and thus with the element of Air.
  • Hearts are associated with Cups, and thus with the element of Water.
  • Diamonds are associated with Pentacles, and thus with the element of Earth.

And, just to remind you of the two properties of the elements, Heat and Moisture:

Hot Cold
Dry Fire Earth
Moist Air Water

With all that out of the way, to get a full geomantic chart using this more efficient method, draw four cards from your deck and lay them across in a row from right to left.  Read them across in the same direction in the following four methods:

  1. Heat of the suit.  Is the element of the suit hot or cold?  If hot, give the corresponding row in the First Mother single point; if cold, two points.  (In most modern decks of cards, this amounts to seeing whether the suit is black or red.)
  2. Parity of the card.  What is the rank of the card?  If odd, give the corresponding row in the Second Mother a single point; if even, two points.
  3. Moisture of the suit.  Is the element of the suit dry or moist?  If moist, give the corresponding row in the Third Mother a single point; if dry, two points.
  4. Direction of the card.  What is the direction of the card?  If upright, give the corresponding row in the Fourth Mother a single point; if reversed, two points.

Alternatively, instead of using four cards drawn at once and reading “across” the cards, you could also read each card as a single figure, forming the Fire, Air, Water, and Earth lines by the Heat, Parity, Moisture, and Direction of any single card.  As a kind of mnemonic for the order, remember it like this: Heat is hot (Fire), Parity is math and needs thinking (Air), Moisture is wet (Water), and Direction is how you move on earth (Earth).  Since the four Mothers are assigned to these four elements in this same order, the mnemonic can work for both methods.  Using the reading-across technique may work better for a full set of Mothers, while the reading-individually technique is better for single-figure or two-figure divination.

The only problem with using a standard deck of playing cards is that the Parity method causes an issue, since each suit in a standard deck of playing cards has 13 ranks, so we’re biased slightly towards having more odd than even rows in our geomantic figures.  For some people this isn’t an issue, but if you’re concerned about true randomness with equal chances for each individual figure (which you should be!), we’ll need a way to work around this.  While we can trivially fix this by removing an odd number of ranks from each suit of the entire deck (e.g. just the Ace or all the face cards), we have a more elegant remedy by slightly tweaking how we interpret the parity of a card, which gives exactly equal chances for the parity of any given card to be odd or even.  Let’s call this the Jack Eyes rule:

  1. If the card is a pip card (ranks 1 through 10, Ace through Ten), the parity is as expected.
  2. If the card is a Queen or King (ranks 12 or 13), the parity is as expected.
  3. If the card is a Jack (rank 11), count how many eyes it has.  In standard 52-card decks, the Jack of Spades and Jack of Hearts are drawn in profile and have only one eye, while the Jack of Clubs and Jack of Diamonds are drawn in oblique face and have two.  If your deck doesn’t have these drawing rules, remember this association anyway.

Alright, time for an example.  In this deck of otherwise-standard playing cards, I’ve marked each card such that you can tell direction by looking at the numbers in the corners: the upper left digit is marked for upright, so if a card is drawn and the lower right digit is marked, the card is reversed.  Knowing that, say I draw the following four cards:

Reading right to left, we have the upright Queen of Hearts, upright Ten of Hearts, upright Eight of Hearts, and upright Five of Hearts.  (I’m not sure how I ended up with so many uprights or hearts after shuffling for a minute straight, but that’s randomness for you.)  Reading across the four cards to get the four Mother figures:

  1. Heat: All four cards are Hearts, and therefore associated with Water, and thus Cold, so even-even-even-even.  The first Mother is Populus.
  2. Parity: The parity of the four cards is 12 (Queen), 10, 8, and 5, so even-even-even-odd.  The second Mother is Tristitia.
  3. Moisture: All four cards are Hearts, and therefore associated with Water, and thus Moist, so odd-odd-odd-odd.  The third Mother is Populus.
  4. Direction: All four cards are upright, so odd-odd-odd-odd.  The fourth Mother is Via.

Now, instead of reading across the four cards for the four Mothers, let’s try using the other technique, where each card is a figure unto itself.  Consider this draw of four cards:

Reading right to left, we have the upright Queen of Clubs, the reversed Jack of Hearts, the upright Jack of Clubs, and the reversed 10 of Clubs:

  1. First Mother: The first card is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Hot, so the Fire line is odd.  It is a Queen, and therefore has a rank of 12, and thus even, so the Air line is even.  It is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is upright, so the Earth line is odd.  Odd-even-odd-odd gives us the geomantic figure Puella.
  2. Second Mother: The second card is a Heart, and therefore Watery, and thus Cold, so the Fire line is even.  It is a jack which normally has a rank of 11, but because of the Jack Eyes rule given above, we count how many eyes it has; here, it has one eye, so the Air line is odd.  It is a Heart, and therefore Watery, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is reversed, so the Earth line is even.  Even-odd-odd-even gives us the geomantic figure Coniunctio.
  3. Third Mother: The third card is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Hot, so the Fire line is odd. It is a jack which normally has a rank of 11, but because of the Jack Eyes rule given above, we count how many eyes it has; here, it has two eyes, so the Air line is even.  It is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is upright, so the Earth line is odd.  Odd-even-odd-odd gives us the geomantic figure Puella.
  4. Fourth Mother: The fourth card is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Hot, so the Fire line is odd.  It is a Ten, and thus even, so the Air line is even.  It is a Club, and therefore Airy, and thus Moist, so the Water line is odd.  It is reversed, so the Earth line is even.  Odd-even-odd-even gives us the geomantic figure Amissio.

Instead of using playing cards, you could also just use (most) Tarot cards, which actually might make the whole thing simpler for two of the methods: each card is usually (but in some older decks, not always) known as being upright or reversed based on the image it portrays, and there are an even number of ranks per suit, getting rid of the Jack Eyes rule (though you may want to fix it so that the Page and Queen, ranks 11 and 13, are “set” to even given their feminine qualities, and the Knight and King, ranks 12 and 14, are “set” to odd given their masculine qualities).

There are lots of ways, tools, and methods you can use to generate geomantic figures, and you can probably find multiple ways to use even the same tool as well.  This is just another way, more efficient than drawing 16 separate cards but requires a bit more subtlety, to do the same thing.  I’m sure there are more, and I’ve heard tell of some traditions of geomancy that use deliberately obfuscating methods that rely on similar underlying observations.

Do you use playing cards for geomancy, or for divination generally?  If for geomancy, are there any other ways besides the ones here you use to generate a geomantic figure, either on its own or as part of four Mothers?  What are some of your tips and tricks for playing card divination?

Advertisements

On Legacy

Legacy, noun, plural legacies.  Law term: gift of property, especially personal property, as money, a bywill; a bequest; anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.

From late 14c., legacie, “body of persons sent on a mission,” from Medieval Latin legatia, from Latin legatus “ambassador, envoy, deputy,” noun use of past participle of legare “send with a commission, appoint as deputy, appoint by a last will” (see legate).  Sense of “property left by will, a gift by will” appeared in Scottish mid-15c.

A few weeks back, my grandmother passed away.  Before you begin with the condolences (which are appreciated and understood but unnecessary), I have to admit that while, yeah, I do have a faint nostalgia-induced sadness, it’s more than countered by a joyous celebration.  I can only mourn her death so much when her life was so long- and well-lived: she lived to the age of 96, only declining in health in the last five years of her life, she married several times, she outlived all her husbands and three of her children, she became a great-great-grandmother, she traveled the world, inherited a small fortune, got a college education, had the opportunity to get involved with the mafia and altruistically turned it down, enjoyed a variety of intoxicants at different stages of her life, and was surrounded by family right up until the end.  In all aspects, she basically won at life.  So, yes, while I am sad to see her go, I can find nothing but joy, luck, and honor at the chance of being her grandson.  Many of her stories and tricks, especially her recipes for her unique coleslaw and spinach stuffing balls, I’ll cherish for the rest of my own days.  I’ll give her a year or so of rest before I start calling on her seriously at my ancestor shrine, but never for a day will I forget her and all that she had done for me.

But, of course, when the day comes, she’ll be called upon like the rest of my ancestors.  Those of my kin, blood, bone, and name; those of my profession, labour, trade, and guild; those of my lineage, religion, practices, and faith; those of my culture, society, myths, and land; those whose names everyone knows, and those whose names are forgotten to time.  It’s because of our ancestors—yours and mine both—that we live today.  We breath the air that they once breathed, we walk the land they once treaded, we say the words they once spoke; their blood flows in our veins, their breath fills our lungs, their hopes fill our hearts, and their plans inspire our own.  Everything we do and know, everything we are able to achieve and learn, is due to them having gone before us and passed on their stories and powers and knowledge, on earth when they lived and across the ether afterwards.  Look around you; all that the world of humanity has been able to achieve is literally built upon the shoulders and backs of our ancestors, directly or indirectly.  Their work and, in a sense, presence is evident in every linear, square, and cubic inch of this world that humanity has affected.

In some sense, not only have they passed their legacy on to us, but we are ourselves their legacy.  This is not just by blood and family lines, of course; just as children carry on the legacy of their parents, so do apprentices their masters, godchildren their godparents, students their teachers, dreamers their role models.  By continuing to live, grow, develop, and become better at whatever it is we do individually, we continue to carry on their legacy in a chain unbroken since the dawn of time.  Two questions, then, arise for us to answer: how exactly can we carry on the legacy passed on to us, and how can we improve it where possible to do so?

For myself, I have been initiated into a lineaged tradition that has, in one form or another, passed on a series of secrets, rituals, practices, wisdom, and knowledge from one generation to the next in an unbroken chain for centuries, across oceans and civilizations and languages.  What has been passed onto me is not some sort of unchanged relic from a bygone era, but a living, breathing, venerable entity that is now my responsibility to learn, keep safe, and pass on.  Me being me, an eternal experimenter, I’d like to see how what I’ve inherited can bend and shift to see what works, whether we’ve lost somethings that are still in living memory or whether such changes have already been done.  Just as the ancient Greek sentiment goes, may I always pass on what I received in at least as good a condition as we received it.  It is enough, but it is better to improve upon it.  I want to see how I can make the living corpus of my inheritance stronger, better, and more beautiful a legacy, to do both my own name honor and to make my spiritual ancestors proud.  The same could be said, of course, for the fields of software engineering, calligraphy, and fine teas and gins, all things that I like and enjoy as well and have thoughts and opinions on.

Consider that, in our time, the world is in upheaval.  While I’m a fan of the philosophy behind the phrase “nothing new under the sun”, we still live in interesting times.  Not to sound all conspiracy-theory-crazy, but from my own first-world perspective (and, likely enough, many of my readers have a similar one), considering that we’re seeing the end of a world empire combined with unprecedented climate change and the rebirth of pandemic diseases, we cannot function under the notion of a status quo for any long period of time that crosses generations.  We will need to deal with the resurgence of plagues, famine, war, turmoil, landmass change, rising sea levels, and the extinction of flora and fauna, all in addition to the usual drama, disputes, and disagreements we have with our fellow humanity even in the best of times.  What I’m saying is that, well…consider everything you learn worthy enough to be passed down as part of your own legacy, whether it’s one you inherited by family, were initiated into by religion, or innovated for the first time.

If you’re a well-experienced, well-traveled magos, how can you pass on what you’re able to onto the next generation of magoi?  If you’re an armchair magician whose expertise lies more in historicity than lived history, how can you pass on your scholarship onto the next generation of researchers?  If you’re a priest initiated into a long line of succession of forebears, how can you pass on your blessings to both your flock and those who study under you?  In all these cases and in every other case, how can you ensure that what needs to survive does, and how can you ensure that you pass on what you received in at least as good a condition as you received it?

Whether it’s for the noble sake of your gods or for the famous remembrance of your own name, how can you carry on the legacy passed on to you?  How can you improve upon what you received?  What will your own legacy be?  Even if you yourself won’t be remembered, how can what you’ve inherited and what you pass on be?

On Media and the Medium of Media

I sometimes have a fascination with what might be considered by most modern people to be outdated or obsolete technologies; heck, to this day, one of my favorite online libraries to browse is textfiles.com.  I generally don’t catch on to too many techy fads or get swept up in this or that new platform, and instead like to rely on…well, things with less complexity.  As a software engineer, I can affirm that as a system gets more complex, it gets more complicated, and thus less secure as well as less robust.  It’s one of the reasons why I don’t like an Internet of Things for my house: while the idea of remotely setting my thermostat while I’m in another country does sound quite nice, there’s little to assure me that the server used to connect will be reliable in the short term, the platform used to support the server will be supported in ten years from now, that the app/site I’m using to connect to my thermostat will be available whenever I need it, that the system is secure enough to not have a local prankster set my house to 100°F in high summer because he brute-forced my password or hijacked my wifi, and so forth.  Heck, there’s nothing to even guarantee that you won’t piss off the developers themselves and have them remotely brick your garage doors from opening when you want them to or that some savvy jerk won’t have your smart fridge manipulated to show potentially off-putting porn vids of kinks you don’t like.  (For more examples of why I generally dislike smart technology, check out the Internet of Shit twitterfeed.)

Like most Americans, I have a smartphone, a respectable Android phone that’s only a few years old that serves me well.  To be fair, it took me a while to get anything of the sort; for the longest time, I was using those indestructible Nokia phones that had maybe a camera—if I was lucky!—before I finally upgraded to get a touch-screen feature phone, with enough technology to store more than just a few songs at a time, shortly after college.  It wasn’t until 2012 that I finally succumbed to getting a proper smartphone (Android, of course, because I dig open-source and Linux and I’ve long since divorced myself from Apple in general).  I gotta say, while I did take my dear sweet time getting around to getting a smartphone, it actually has helped, and it is worth it.

Mostly, at least.

By far, probably the most useful feature of a smartphone is that it’s less of a phone and more of a general-purpose computer.  I mean, even the old indestructible Nokia candybar phones had quite a few features that could reduce much of a technological burden for someone, but a proper smartphone nowadays generally has at least the following:

  • Calculator, clock, timer
  • Radio
  • Voice recorder
  • Phone (shocking, I know)
  • SMS
  • Compass, accelerometer
  • Memo
  • Fitness tracker, heartbeat monitor
  • GPS
  • Camera, flashlight
  • Music player
  • Internet browser (and any number of apps that are basically site/DB-specific browsers, not just for WWW,  but for other protocols like email, Twitter, banking, etc.)
  • General extensibility for arbitrary applications, including games
  • &c &c &c.

For myself, I use my own smartphone for the following:

  • checking Facebook, including sending messages (major means of communication)
  • checking Twitter, including sending private messages (also a major means of communication)
  • browsing the internet
  • checking email (eh)
  • alarm clock (regrettably important)
  • GPS (pretty vital)
  • camera (useful!)
  • texting and calling people (…I guess)

Lately, I’ve been wanting to scale back down and get something simpler, something like a Nokia brick again, where the battery lasts for more like eight days instead of eight hours and it does just the bare-bones functionality.  I’d still be able to call people (except that I never really do), and I could definitely rework how I consider communication.  I know Facebook and Twitter are both still text-message-friendly to an extent, though it could be a little obnoxious; I could also just wait until I get home or to my office desk (in either case, to a real computer) to do any real or heavy communication.  I’d still have an alarm clock, but I’d lose the GPS, which would actually hurt.  Plus, most of the old-style brick phones either don’t have cameras or don’t have good ones.  So, in exchange for one general-purpose device, I’d have to break down into getting three separate devices, each with their own costs and upkeep.  Not a great deal, in some aspects, especially when it can be hard to get such an older phone integrated into modern infrastructure.

In many ways, it’s much like the Evolution of the Desk, except, well, yanno…mobile.

As much as I don’t want to admit it, I don’t think I can reasonably go back to a dumbphone again.  I do like only having one device instead of ten separate devices, most of which are pretty complicated things in their own rights.  Rather than fantasizing about, say, an old hand-cranked washing machine from the 1930s, which is both simple to use and easy to maintain from spare parts, a smartphone isn’t really any more technologically complex (or personally maintainable) than a GPS or modern camera; the only way I could get a net simplification out of going to a dumbphone would be to forsake the GPS or camera functionality entirely, the former of which I’m unwilling to (because getting around in my metropolitan area is hell) and the latter of which I’m unable to (due to hobby/profession needs).

While there’s the definite sting of “but I miss having a Nokia”, it was another thing entirely that put me at peace with being too far along to go back to them, and that’s my recurring fascination with toki pona.  Yes, I’ve talked about it before around here, but last time I mentioned it, I suggested that it’s a good thing to keep things simple; with a lexical inventory of only 120-some words, there’s not a lot of nuance; in fact, there’s barely any nuance at all, and most of the time, what’s understood must be understood from context and other cues.  While, in some ways, viewing things at their core in the simplest terms possible using a restricted vocabulary can be useful, simplicity has its cost, and it’s not something I mentioned back in 2015.  I like to use the Chinese expression “10,000 things” to refer to the (literally) myriads of things in the cosmos, from the smallest hair-split concept to the largest possible intergalactic superstructure; for this, and all the shades of variations of differences of types of kinds of sorts of things, sometimes a single word really does work better than a roundabout explanation, and for that, a language of 120 words puts me at an extreme disadvantage.  I cannot envision rewriting Agrippa’s Three Books, for instance, in toki pona; heck, I’d have a hard enough time in English, when I have the option of using Greek or Latin derivatives for their subtly different meanings (pneuma or spirit?), straight-Latin or French-Latin (destruct or destroy?), Greco-Romance or Germanic (apotheosis or godhood?), all of which offer subtly (but importantly) different meanings or reflections of a single topic.

In other words, while I many use toki pona to verbalize a particular instance of existence into simplicity, I cannot operate in toki pona to construct types of thinking when there are necessarily more things that can be conceived of than exist.  toki pona is too simple to think in when it comes to something so nuanced as deeply-explored theurgy, and as such, would be a burden to use compared to another language.  Likewise, it’d be more of a burden to go from my smartphone to a dumbphone, when I’d have to re-add in otherwise redundant or obsolete devices that bring in more complexity to the overall system.  So, while I’d like to use toki pona as an actual conversational language, I’d also like to use a Nokia brick.  They would be nice, but not worth it in the end except as thought experiments or sandboxes to try certain things out in.

This got me to thinking: what about spirituality?  I mean, heavens and hells know that I’m in the middle of a lengthy initiatory process that is, in its own unique ways, strikingly parallel to Hermetic stuff…at least in one mode of Hermeticism, I suppose.  Between ancient Athenian/Anatolian, early classical Alexandrian, late classical Neoplatonic, and a variety of strains from medieval and Renaissance continental western Europe, there’s a lot of development in my theology, and that’s not even including the more recent injections into my mind.  For me, it’s crucial to be nuanced and delicate and excruciatingly specific so as to better track, organize, and discuss my own thoughts for particular ends, and how they play out and map onto the cosmos, both the modeled one I expect to encounter and the experienced one I actually encounter.  Of course, yes, it is possible to split hairs and make meaningless distinctions, but I’ve started to get enough good sense to begin to avoid doing so or to be able to test/model distinctions for usefulness when possible.  On the whole, trying to ELI5 my philosophy or spiritual perspective on things in an elevator speech would probably be more damaging to both myself, the listener, and the dignity of my thoughts themselves; there’s no “explaining things to a barmaid” in this except by means of nuance and measured complexity.

It’s no shame to have a complex worldview, philosophy, religion, or spiritual practice; after all, the world we live in is inherently complex and complicated.  Being able to take the time to take in that complexity and fully grasp its nuances, ramifications, and gestures is one of the guiding aims we should all have in investigating our lives and actions.  Still, it does neither you nor anyone any good to make things more complicated than they are, nor is it helpful to simplify one aspect of your world at the cost of increasing complexity to other aspects.  Don’t try to paper over complexity by handwaving it into mystical oversimplification, but don’t make yourself to appear more profound or mysterious by spewing arcane gobbledegook, either.  The models, grammar, tools, and vocabulary you use to describe and interact with your world should favorably match the level of complexity of your world.  If your world is simple, be and talk and act simple to match it; if your world is complex, be and talk and act complex to match it.  If you want to simplify or complicate your world, work towards it, and modify your modes and methods and means accordingly.

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)