Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What is "The Heart Sutra" actually about?

Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, Ananda M. (D.M.I.), Ashley Wells (ed.), Wisdom Quarterly

Often people say the Heart Sutra (Hṛdaya Sutra of the Prajnaparamita literature) is an experience of enlightenment. But it can't really be that.

Instead, it is about the ultimate teaching that leads to enlightenment, the key direct-realization that would free us.

What frees one? The Truth, the Truth sets one free. Which truth? The whole truth and nothing but the truth? No, it's not that. The Enlightened One focused on Four Ennobling Truths (truths that lead to the noble state of enlightenment or awakening).

The Buddha said, pursue these for the welfare of everyone. We all know the four:
  1. Things are unfulfilling (they suck).
  2. There's a reason they are.
  3. There's an end to all suffering.
  4. There's a way to that ultimate bliss.
So what keeps us from realizing the Truth and touching liberation right here and now?

How did we get a "heart" sutra?
The "Perfection of Wisdom" or Prajna-paramita is a body of literature explaining all of the relevant truths. At the heart of this, as the perfection of wisdom, is this teaching of emptiness or egolessness.
  • Why did the historical Buddha and one school talk about not-self (anatta) while the other school talks so much about emptiness (suññatā)? Of course the whole world and universe are without self. In that sense they are empty. But the Buddha, rather than talking about all other things that are of this nature, focused on the most important thing: self. What is true of the universe is true of ourselves. Form (materiality) is empty, that is, devoid of "self." The very emptiness is form. Mind (mentality or the other four heaps/aggregates the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara mentions (feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness) are also empty. What does it matter if anything is without essence or identity. I am not clinging to those things. It matters that this is without essence and identity because I am clinging to these "things" (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations like volitions, and consciousness). Better to focus on that and find release, freedom from all rebirth and suffering, moksha (liberation), enlightenment in this very life.
For until there is the direct, personal, unmediated realization of this one thing, there will be no deliverance, no freedom, no salvation from the Wheel of Life and Death, endless rebirth in the spiraling round of continued wandering through samsara.

The Heart Sutra is about that, that one thing, that doorway, that gateless gate to freedom. What is it? What is it! First, consider what the Buddha taught. There are Three Marks or Characteristics of all states of existence. Wherever we are reborn, those worlds (including this human and deva one) are marred by these three verifiable facts:
  1. All states are radically impermanent (not lasting unchanged for two consecutive moments).
  2. All states are disappointing/unsatisfactory, incapable of finally satisfying our endless thirst).
  3. All states are impersonal, not-self, egoless, not me, not mine (the impossible possibility).
The deva Avalokitesvara
It is this third characteristic that we are quite incapable of fathoming by means ordinary consciousness.

"Of course things are mine!" we say. "I am I. And like God, I am that I am. I'm me, and this body and mind are mine, and all of this mess is myself."

The Buddha would smile. Who could ever guess that this assumption (listen up, Descartes) is verifiably, certifiably wrong? It's a dangerous assumption made, wrought with pain and misery unutterable. This, then, is what the Heart Sutra is really about.

At the HEART (center, core, essence) of the Perfection of Wisdom literature is this one impossible fact: It's all impersonal. I am not this, not that, not other. This is arisen (through dependent origination) as an illusion. Illusion begets misery. Truth begets freedom.

Avalokita, Shakyamuni, Maitreya
Don't believe it? Of course you don't believe it! We see everything through the prism of SELF. We cling to self, soul, ego, personality, I, me, and mine. When we agree with religion, we say, "Well, yeah, this is not myself, but that invisible part, the Casper the Ghost part, that's me," and then we cling to that.

It's good that we understand that there's a Higher Self, in a sense, but that too is impersonal. We don't see that coming. All of Buddhism, then, is aimed at either taking one to heaven as a self clinging to (the five aggregates clung to as) self OR, if one is smart, as a means of liberation from all ignorance, aversion, and clinging.

The real meaning
Heart chakra = two interpenetrating arrows
For those who have read the Heart Sutra a million times and chanted it a million more, never thinking there was a decipherable meaning, there is. Look at it again, but this time not from the perspective of Mahayana-Hinduism. Look at it instead from the eyes of the historical Buddha as preserved in the old schools before the Brahmins co-opted Buddhism into a part of Brahmanism/Hinduism as a continuation of their august Vedic tradition:

Avalokitesvara (now become KWAN YIN, Goddess of Compassion) is saying something to the Buddha's chief male disciple, SHARIPUTRA, who has been declared "foremost in wisdom" among the male disciples (just as Khema is declared among the female disciples). She is explicating the Five Aggregates Clung to as Self:
  1. form
  2. feelings
  3. perceptions
  4. formations
  5. consciousness.
There are three universal marks of existence
What is she saying about them? They are "empty" -- this is, devoid of "self." The "soul" (atman, atta) we cling to as our real self -- our higher self, our self above selfish ego and transitory personality -- is devoid of owner. It is mere transitory phenomena. But we knew that. We know we are not this body. We continue as it perishes even now, burning away.

We must not be FORM (earth, wind, fire, air which our picturesque ways of saying that materiality, composed of kalapas, has four characteristics). We must be the other four things in the list, which together are called "mind," "psyche," "soul," or "I."

I'm not that stinky body, for I am my MIND: my feelings (agreeable, disagreeable, and neutral), my perceptions, my mental formations (such as my volitions that color my karma). Or, better yet, I'm not any of those formations. I AM CONSCIOUSNESS itself. But the Buddha taught that consciousness (vinnana) is not a "thing." It is a process. These are not nouns but verbs. Moreover, it is an impersonal process. Behold!

Setting: top of Vultures Peak, Rajgir, India
Close your eyes and look (as happens when one emerges temporarily purified from dhyana/jhana and practices satipatthana for liberating insight).

See how the feelings, perceptions, formations (of which there are 50 but just consider the volitions to not get lost in the weeds) arise and pass away at a tremendous rate in awareness. I am not awareness itself, but I would have to be because everything here is empty (selfless). So I must be the one experiencing it? But that's just it! No one is! This construct, this fabrication, this impersonal formation, this collection of heaps is just EMPTY. By ignorance it is taken as a SELF. By wisdom is one released.

With the realization of selflessness, the first stage of enlightenment (stream winning) is reached or realized. One is assured of victory. There will be a lingering sense of self. All that we've said has been tainted by this wrong view. Now there will be residual "conceit."

One knows there is no self, but the very conventions of speech force us to speak of "us," "we," "me," "myself," and "I." Yet, now like the Buddha, we are not trapped or tripped up by these conventions. We can use them and not come under their spell.

For by the spell (mantra) of great wisdom are we released, and this is said in awe of that release: Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi swaha. ("Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, oh what an awakening, so it is!")

And that, friends, is what the Heart Sutra is about. Read 'em and weep. Reread it. Look closely. None of it was an accident. It could have been shorter, less paradoxical, more to the point, but it's a gatha, a devotional song exalting Kwan Yin and denigrating Shariputra. It is building up Brahminical-Mahayana syncretism.

(Note that the protagonist is a Brahmanical deity or deva, Avalokiteshvara, while putting down a "Hinayana" figure, one of the historical Buddha's most prized disciples).

In one sutra the Buddha points out how everyone loves Ananda (the Buddha's attendant monk and very likely his son, from one of his harem wives from before his enlightenment when he was the Prince Siddhartha living in luxury, in accordance with the sacred scriptures of some Buddhist schools).
  • Common tradition says that he was the first cousin of the historical Buddha by their fathers. The Mahavastu states that Ananda's mother's name was Mrigi ("Little Deer"), who is named in the Kanjur and Sanghabedavastu as one of Siddhartha Gautama's harem wives (prior to his great renunciation), pointing to the possibility that Ananda is in fact the Buddha's son by a mother different than Rahula's mother [Rahulamata, Yasodhara, Bimba Devi, Ven. Bhaddakaccana. Rāhula was known to his friends as Rāhula-bhadda (Rāhula, the Lucky)]. (Wendy Garling, Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha's Life, 2016, Shambhala Publications, pp. 94-106).
The Buddha points out there how Shariputra is much wiser, much more worthy of their praise. But they like Ananda because he is kind and a regular fellow, humble and unassuming.

We'll be reading the Heart Sutra on April 26, 2018 at 6:30 PM at the Dharma Meditation Initiative meeting and answering any and all questions for the naysayers and doubters.

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