Introduction on the Heart Sutra



The load of ignorance makes footsteps of evil

When the Bodhisattva Kannon was practising the profound Prajna Paramita wisdom he saw all the five aggregates to be Emptiness, and passed beyond suffering.

‘O disciple Shariputra, form is not different from Emptiness, Emptiness is not different from form; form is Emptiness and Emptiness is form; and so also with sensation, thinking, impulse and consciousness. All these things, Shariputra, have the character of Emptiness, neither born nor dying, neither defiled nor pure, neither increased nor lessened.

‘So in Emptiness there is neither form nor sensation, thinking, impulse nor consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body nor mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch nor object of mind; no element of eye, nor any of the other elements, including that of mind-consciousness; no ignorance and no extinction of ignorance, nor any of the rest, including age-and-death and extinction of age-and-death; no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path; no wisdom and no attainment.

‘The Bodhisattva, since he is not gaining anything, by the Prajna Paramita has his heart free from the net of hindrances, and with no hindrances in the heart there is no fear. Far from al perverted dream thoughts, he has reached ultimate Nirvana. By the Prajna Paramita all the Buddhas of the three worlds have the utmost, right and perfect enlightenment.

‘Know then that the Prajna Paramita is the great spiritual mantra, the great radiant mantra, the supreme mantra, the peerless mantra, which removes all suffering, the true, the unfailing. The mantra of the Prajna Paramita is taught, and it is taught thus:

Gone, gone, gone beyond, altogether beyond, Awakening, fulfilled!’

A word on the full title of the Sutra, which is Maha-Prajm-Paramita Heart Sutra. The first three words are Sanskrit, Maha literally meaning great, Prajna meaning wisdom and Paramita meaning having reached the farther shore. Maha here has the sense of ultimate, and Prajna means wisdom in the Buddhist sense, namely negation of all things, not the little intellectual wisdom of the world. So Maha-Prajna means: by the knowledge of ultimate Emptiness to make all things Emptiness. Through the power of the great wisdom, which makes absolutely everything Emptiness, to cross over to the other shore—Param-ita.

When it is said to make everything Emptiness, what is meant is human life, our actual life in society, with our crying and laughing, elation and sorrow. In Buddhism this life is called the world of birth-and-death. Buddhism is the desire to make this world Emptiness and to live, as far as it may be possible, without holding anything in the heart, in Emptiness. To seek to do that, to become like that, is the manifestation in the heart of the power of wisdom, the power of knowledge of ultimate Emptiness.

Through the power of ultimate Emptiness to cross to the other shore—this other shore is called in the Sutras Nirvana. Nirvana is the farther shore, and the world of birth-and-death is this shore. From the present illusory reality let us make the crossing to the shore of realization of Nirvana. Throughout Buddhism the idea is to cross from here to the beyond, to transfer our living from here to there.

All Buddhism, Mahayana and Hinayana alike, has the notion of passing over. It is in Zen also. Passing over does not necessarily mean being reborn in the Pure Land paradise in the west; it means to pass from the present illusory I to the I of the bliss of realization. The idea is a very sound one, but people today are not interested in being reborn. Instead they talk of living meaningfully, of how to live. But in their talk about how to live there seems to be a frank spirit of doing it at others’ expense, which is hard to justify. Religions which look at life on the basis of distinction between oneself and others always have this sort of exclusiveness of spirit.

The object being a rebirth of the I, Buddhism is of course extremely introspective. How can the I progress from the world of illusion to the world of realization? The basis of the process is selfintrospection, self-reformation and thoroughgoing training. This is the passing over, this is the rebirth, and the idea runs through Buddhism In whatever scripture you look you will find it, and not only in the Heart Sutra.

The word ‘heart’ in the title of the Sutra means the essence. Into a mere 264 words has been condensed the immense Great Prajna Paraarnita Sutra with its sections. So this little Sutra is called the heart. The Chinese character for Sutra (which is read in Japanese kyo) was selected by the first translators because it has also the meaning of eternal, and the sense is that the Sutra is an eternally immutable truth. All the teachings of the Buddha are given this appellation kyo, and from ancient times to the present, and from the present into the future, never do they change. The Heart Sutra is one of them, being the essence of the Great Prajna Paramita Sutra.

Consider our life as it is with its crying and laughing. There is in each case a trace left; of crying it is a trace of crying, and of laughing the trace of that laughter. Our living leaves these traces. What I emphasize always is that even when it is laughter, we should laugh with a truly empty heart. But we never do so. ‘Cold today!’ and ‘Well, how are you?’—remarks which have no point, poured out like oil and accompanied with a little laugh. No real laughter of pure enjoyment, because even in our laughter the heart does not become empty of its burdens. The thing called the I is in the breast and the laughter is centred round that I. It is laughing because things seem well for the I. And the crying is of the same sort. With each step the track is left, and this way of life is the world of birth-and-death, the life of illusion.

The tracks left by joy or grief are footmarks. In religious terms, Zen master Dogen calls them the heavy burden of ignorance, root of evil. Though I die, the roots of the evil I have created are not annihilated. When he calls it a load, he means that all the time in our progress through life there is a great burden which is more than we can really bear, and shouldering it we are drenched in sweat, until finally our human life ends. We long somehow to put it down, by some means to lighten ourselves of the weight of conceptual thinking; but to do so we have to be earnest seekers. If we are not, there is no religion. The quest for inner lightness—to be able to cry but with an emptiness within the heart, to laugh but with the same emptiness—such is the great wisdom. To do things with an inner emptiness is the wisdom of the knowledge of ultimate Emptiness. The power of negating into emptiness is the great wisdom.

Only by completely negating our human living through wisdom-power is realization of the far shore possible. This is the Prajna Paramita. Only by ultimate Emptiness can we live each step of this frustrating life without a load on the heart, only then sport in the world of satori called Nirvana. Nirvana is translated ‘extinction’, but what extinction means is that even when crying the crying leaves no traces. Similarly, Emptiness does not have the meaning of a void with nothing in it. It means not leaving a track. At present each step is leaving a track, but if we can realize this trackless state, even in the present life, it is Nirvana.

To sum up: we are to pass over to the Nirvana state which leaves no track, by the power of the ultimate Emptiness of the Prajna Paramita wisdom. The way to do it is set out in the Heart Sutra. The practice is to cross to the world of Nirvana by the power of wisdom, and to train the heart to do it is what the Heart Sutra teaches.

by Abbot Obora of the Soto Zen sect



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