Sunday, January 22, 2012

Exploring the Heart Sutra (Sanskrit, English)

Wisdom Quarterly explanation based on Edward Conze's original Sanskrit translation
The Heart (or Core of Wisdom) Sutra in Japanese based on the Sanskrit with drawing of missionary Bodhidharma (

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit and English
Prajna-paramita Hridaya Sutra
The "Heart of Perfect Wisdom Discourse" (Prajnaparamita Sutra) is the most important Mahayana scripture of all. Why should this be? It was not uttered by the historical Buddha. It may not have been uttered at all. Yet it encapsulates one of the most subtle and important Buddhist teachings -- anatman (anatta, "not-self").

It is the impersonal nature of apparently personal phenomena that confounds thinkers. We cling to the skandhas -- forms (this body), feelings, perceptions, mental formations (of which there are 50), and consciousness -- as "self," myself, my immortal "soul," my ego, my all. This latter-day discourse is the epitomizing of realizing (almost as a mystical experience of profound insight) that these conventionally-personal factors are ultimately-impersonal:

They do not belong to one, cannot be relied on to behave as one wishes (as wish wishes since there is no homunculus behind the appearance of an independent agent). They are dropping away at every moment and being replaced by near identical, but NOT identical, replacements.

Is consciousness eternal?

Yes and no. How? From the perspective of conventional truth, life does not end at death. Life carries on. One is instantly reborn (even if one subscribes to an intermediate stage, there is no time that one is without aggregates). The wheel of existence (samsara) rolls on until full enlightenment makes an end of all suffering. That consciousness, identified as the "soul," is immortal compared to the mortal body. It is imperishable compared to the perishable body. Why? It is because life carries on without intermission. BUT how could it be said to be anything but perishable, mortal, and impermanent when it is passing away at every second, every moment, every sub-moment? Consciousness does not last a single instant. One consciousness moment arises, turns, and falls away to be immediately replaced by another that is a lot like but not identical to the preceding moment. It is, therefore, not eternal in an ultimate sense. Conventionally, we will not die at death. Ultimately, we will not survive another moment. There are subtle bodies, and one can see them with the divine eye. One would call that body a soul, spirit, ghost, or the "true self" within the body, but it is only a more subtle body. If one understood with wisdom, one would see the radical rise and fall from moment to moment of all elements (whether physical or psychological, kalapas or cittas).

Particles (kalapas) and mind moments (cittas) are the elements of which all we are is composed and constituted. Each is impersonal, disappointing, and radically impermanent (incessantly rising and falling). We conceive of ourselves as these Five Aggregates (Groups, Heaps, Sets).

That is, they themselves might be said to conceive of themselves -- these functionally integrated (and transient, unsatisfactory, empty) factors -- as a real "self." It is a wrong view that can only be cured by insight-wisdom. Thinking will never cure the habit of our delusion. Why is it important to breakthrough to an understanding of ultimate reality, particularly when we are so cozy clinging to these phenomena as "self" and therefore as me, myself, and/or mine?

It is important because it is the crucial (sine qua non) element leading to the first stage enlightenment, stream entry. "O, what an awakening!" It was all a dream, illusory, real in its own way but nothing to cling to or suffer over. They are just phenomena.

The setting is instructive. This is a Mahayana invention, not a canonical text taught to the Buddha's direct disciples (hearers, practitioners). [Note 1] The central figure is neither the Buddha nor his chief male disciple ("foremost in wisdom"). What Sariputra represents is, in fact, being made fun of in the sutra. The Buddhist school that created this sutra is setting itself up as superior to the school it is implicitly criticizing or attacking.

Having been set up as the straw man representing the Hinayana schools who so revered him for his wisdom. Mahayana, emphasizing compassion and devotion and intuition, here regard Sariputra's "wisdom" as mere reasoning, thinking, philosophizing -- not insight or direct experience. (Of course, Sariputra did have direct experience, but he was also a very well educated brahmin with a very sharp mind).

The pre-Buddhist Indian idol, Avalokita or Avalokiteshvara (the "one who looks down" and hears the cries of the world due to his immense compassion), is the central figure. And he is schooling straw man Sariputra in real wisdom realized through meditation that approaches "mystical" experience.

(It is, in fact, not mysticism but the sober, systematic practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness that leads to liberating-wisdom).

The location is a mysterious sounding place made famous in sutras handed down from the time of the historical Buddha: Vulture's Peak is a small hill, which has never seen a vulture, in Rajgir (the royal fortress town rung by seven small hills on the otherwise flat Gangetic plain), the ancient capital of Magadha. The "vultures" are shadows cast by the large natural stones that resemble the birds.

The goal of apocryphal texts is to make them sound authentic. And while this sutra was not handed down from the time of the Buddha the way the others were, through Ananda, it is not necessarily a great crime that it was invented. According to Alan Watts (audio, "The Journey from India," Part II), it would have been quite improper to claim authorship. The standard practice was to give credit to the font or symbolic source of the wisdom.

The Heart of Perfect Wisdom
Edward Conze, [Mahayana] Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959)
"Meditation at Vulture Peak Mountain" (Josh Fouse, Stanford University, India Program) taken at Rajgir, the alleged location of the Heart Sutra from Avalokiteshvara to Sariputra in the presence of the Buddha. Students from the AEA India Program can be seen meditating.

Om namo Bhagavatyai Arya-Prajnaparamitayai!
Homage to the perfection of wisdom, the beautiful, the sacred!

Arya-Avalokitesvaro bodhisattvo gambhiram prajnaparamitacaryam caramano vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhas tams ca svabhavasunyan pasyati sma.
Avalokita, the noble (arya, "enlightened") venerable ("lord") and bodhisattva (someone striving for full enlightenment), was moving in the deep course of the wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down from on high (as his name indicates), he beheld but five heaps (the Five Aggregates), and he saw that in their own-being they were empty (impersonal, not-self, devoid of a permanent soul, owner, or controller).

Iha Sariputra rupam sunyata sunyataiva rupam, rupan na prithak sunyata sunyataya na prithag rupam, yad rupam sa sunyata ya sunyata tad rupam; evam eva vedana-samjna-samskara-vijnanam.
Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness (void of essence, void of self, void of identity) and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is [impersonal], whatever is [impersonal], that is form, the same is true of feelings (sensations), perceptions, impulses (50 kinds of mental formations the most salient of which are volitions or impulses; in fact, sensations and perceptions are also formations but are so important as to be treated separately in this analysis), and consciousness.

Iha Sariputra sarva-dharmah sunyata-laksana, anutpanna aniruddha, amala aviamala, anuna aparipurnah.
Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas (phenomena, real things, things that bear their own nature) are marked with emptiness (non-identity, not-self, not representative of a self); they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete (but go beyond duality).

Tasmac Chariputra sunyatayam na rupam na vedana na samjna na samskarah na vijnanam. Na caksuh-srotra-ghranajihva-kaya-manamsi. Na rupa-sabda-gandha-rasa-sprastavaya-dharmah. Na caksur-dhatur yavan na manovjnana-dhatuh. Na-avidya na-avidya-ksayo yavan na jara-maranam na jara-marana-ksayo. Na duhkha-samudaya-nirodha-marga. Na jnanam, na praptir na-apraptih.
Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables (tangibles), or objects of mind; no sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to: no mind-consciousness element; there is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment, and [no] non-attainment.
  • Classically, the Abhidharma (the "Higher Teachings" or "Ultimate Dharma" as distinct from the sutras and the monastic disciplinary rules of conduct) breaks down the elements of being, both internal and external. Internally, there are the sense organs that give rise to the various kinds of consciousness (eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, etc.) and the sensitivity within each organ (sight-organ element, sound-organ element, etc.) Externally, there are visible forms (sights), sounds, and so on that impinge upon the internal to give rise to not only the various forms of consciousness but also to ignorance and the other links in the chain of Dependent Origination and the Four Noble Truths.
Tasmac Chariputra apraptitvad bodhisattvasya prajnaparamitam asritya viharaty acittavaranah. Cittavarana-nastitvad atrastro viparyasa-atikranto nishtha-nirvana-praptah.
Therefore, O Sariputra, it is because of his non-attainmentness that a bodhisattva, through having relied on the perfection of wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings (conceptions, conceiving, inferences, imagining). In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to nirvana.

Tryadhva-vyavasthitah sarva-buddhah prajnaparamitam-asritya-anuttaram samyaksambodhim abhisambuddhah.
All those who appear as buddhas in the three periods of time (past, present, future) fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect (supreme with the ability to teach) enlightenment because they have relied on the perfection of wisdom.
  • There is another kind of buddha, the non-teaching supremely enlightened person. A disciple's enlightenment (arahantship) is the same in terms of release, freedom, liberation, and nirvana, but it is not the same in terms of other things known. Those come as a result of having developed the Ten Perfections, of which wisdom is the final one).
Tasmaj jnatavyam: prajnaparamita maha-mantro maha-vidya-mantro "nuttara-mantro" samasama-mantrah, sarva-duhkha-prasamanah, satyam amithyatvat. Prajnaparamitayam ukto mantrah. Tadyatha: Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhisvaha. Iti prajnaparamita-hridayam samaptam.
Therefore, one should know the prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) as the great spell (mantra), the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering, in truth -- for what could go wrong? By the prajnaparamita has this spell been delivered. It runs like this:

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!

NOTE 1: Mahayana created a wonderful sophistry saying that the Buddha taught an implicit or to-be-inferred teaching and an expedient or dumbed down teaching and that the more sophisticated teaching, while taught first, was revealed second. So the
Hinayana ("inferior vehicle," a number of now defunct schools such as the Sarvastivada that never included the Theravada, which is the oldest extant school) is for dummies, and Mahayana ("great vehicle") is for geniuses.

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