Monthly Archives: December 2010

Thoughts on The Heart Sutra

Most Buddhists know the brief prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) text, The Heart Sutra. Many can recite it by rote. Who among us really know what it is saying, though, especially on an experiential rather than intellectual level?

The Heart Sutra (THS) is part of my daily liturgy and some days it speaks to me. Other days it is a more or less uninpenitrable wall of words! Of late, though, I have been realising how it works, for me at least.

Some wise person (it might have been Descartes) once said that accepting everything or accepting nothing are similar states as they require no thought whatsoever. Likewise, in the sense of THS, accepting experience as either solid (eternalism) or empty (nihilism) are both unthinking states. By pointing this out (‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is form’) the sutra moves us away from either extreme, into the middle ground where experience is neither solid nor empty but both and neither. As the dharma teacher Ken McLeod (author of the commentary on THS ‘Arrow to the Heart’) often points out, by holding two ends of an extreme simultaneously we can then open to all points in between.

So, away from the edges of eternalism and nihilism, the mind still tries to grasp onto certainty, like a person adrift in the ocean reaches out for anything solid. In this case, the ocean is a sea of experience and, finding the groundless nature of reality, we look for any solid concepts with which to anchor ourself. Most of the rest of THS is about removing all these easy handholds with respect to ideas of skandhas, senses, four noble truths, twelve links of existence and even the notion of pristine awareness itself. It is like a swimming instructor removing any solid object from the student’s grasp when they try to grab hold. A more spiritual analogy is that in Greek Orthodox Christianity in which it is said ‘whatever you think God is, it is not that’.

With all of the easy options taken away from us, we are left with nowhere else to turn except the sea of experience itself. Experience, or God in the above example, must be perceived directly. For me, this is the purpose, beauty and function of The Heart Sutra. Your mileage may vary.

“One, seven, three, five –
The truth you look for cannot be grasped.
As night advances, a bright moon illuminates the whole ocean;
The dragon’s jewels are found in every wave.
Looking for the moon, it is here, in this wave and the next.”

– Xuedou