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The Heart Sutra
Dr. Peter Della Santina

In this chapter we will discuss a very important class of Mahayana literature that concerns the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita). But before we look at the texts themselves, it may be useful to examine the meaning of the term prajnaparamita and the history of the Perfection of Wisdom discourses. The term prajna, which is often translated 'wisdom' or 'insight,' is composed of the prefix pra and the root jna which means knowledge. Pra added to the root jna gives the sense of spontaneity, penetration, transcendentality. One might therefore better translate prajna as 'penetrative or special knowledge or wisdom.' The term paramita is most often translated 'perfection'; other popular translations include 'gone beyond,' 'transcendental,' and even 'the climax of' wisdom. We will understand the term better if we notice its similarity to the English words 'parameter' and 'meter,' both of which concern measurement or limit. In paramita, therefore, we have a word that indicates 'going beyond the limit.'

Thus the whole term prajnaparamita ought to be understood to mean 'penetrative wisdom or insight gone beyond the limit.' If we remember this, we will avoid the danger of thinking of the perfection of wisdom as something static or fixed. This inevitably happens because the word 'perfection' conjures up images of an unchanging, perfected condition. Yet in the perfection of wisdom we have a dynamic idea--the idea of a penetrative wisdom or insight that transcends the limit, that is transcendental. The perfection of wisdom is one of the Six Perfections of the Mahayana tradition. It is also the name of a large number of Mahayana sutras that are collectively called the Perfection of Wisdom literature or Prajnaparamita sutras.

This class of texts includes discourses such as the Diamond Sutra (Vajrachchhedika) as well as the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines (Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra), the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Twenty-five Thousand Lines (Panchavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra), and the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra), which runs to a little over one page. It is generally agreed that each of these is either an expansion or an abridgment of a fundamental text of the Perfection of Wisdom discourses, resented in different versions and lengths to suit the tastes of different readers.

It is generally accepted by modern scholars that the Perfection of Wisdom discourses date to the beginning of the common era, and that they were among the first Buddhist texts translated into Chinese in the second century C.E. On the basis of this and additional evidence from India, we can confidently say that the Perfection of Wisdom literature is among the oldest available to us from any of the Buddhist traditions. The particular example we will discuss here is the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, or the Heart Sutra for short, which is an excellent example of the essence of the Perfection of Wisdom teachings. There are three prominent figures who participate in the conversation in this sutra--the Buddha, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, and the disciple Shariputra. The presence of Shariputra is another indication of the continuity in the Buddhist tradition because, just as Shariputra figures prominently in the Abhidharma, so he is a major figure in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras.

Another important fact is that, although the dialogue between Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara is said to take place through the power of the Buddha, the Buddha is said at the very outset to be seated all the time in deep absorption. It is only at the end of the dialogue that the Buddha manifestly enters the conversation to commend Avalokiteshvara on his exposition. This is another indication of the inconceivable, extraordinary power of the Buddha--a reflection of the Mahayana vision of the transcendent nature of the Buddha that we considered in our discussion of the Lotus Sutra in Chapter 15.

The Heart Sutra, like the other Perfection of Wisdom discourses, sets out to accomplish one important task: to expound and encourage the transformation of wisdom into the perfection of wisdom. It sets out to complement analytical wisdom (which belongs to wisdom per se) with relational wisdom (which belongs to the perfection of wisdom). The analytical and relational methods are used in the Abhidharma literature, in the first and seventh books of the Abhidharma Pitaka, respectively. We might illustrate the nature of these two methods by means of an analogy: Through the analytical method, a chariot is seen not to be a unitary and homogenous whole but, rather, to be composed of individual parts. This comprehension of the composite nature of the chariot is the result of analytical wisdom. Through the relational method, however, even the individual parts of the chariot are seen not to exist ultimately. In the light of the perfection of wisdom, they are now seen to be dependent, conditioned, relative.

The passage from wisdom to the perfection of wisdom is thus the passage from a vision of reality characterized by perception and acceptance of individual components of reality to a vision characterized by perception of the emptiness, or voidness (shunyata), even of these individual components. This point is made very clearly in the Heart Sutra with reference to the five aggregates and eighteen elements, which are the result of the analytical method of the Buddhist investigation of reality.

In the Heart Sutra, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara says that form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness are, in their own being, void--that is, that the nature of the aggregates is empty of independent existence. And just as the five aggregates are empty, so are the eighteen elements that comprise personal experience.

Analysis reveals that three elements are involved in each of the six avenues of personal experience (the five senses plus the mind). For example, the activity of seeing can be analyzed into (1) the element of form, which is the visible object; (2) the element of the eye, which is the sense faculty of vision; and (3) the element of visual consciousness, which is the mental element. Similarly, in each of the activities of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking, there is (1) an external or objective element, (2) an internal, subjective sense faculty, and (3) the consciousness that arises in conjunction with the external object and the sense faculty. Hence there are three components for each of the six activities, for a total of eighteen elements that result from the analytical investigation of personal experience. According to Avalokiteshvara, these eighteen elements do not exist in reality; like the five aggregates, they are empty of existence, or void.

Emptiness is not, however, a metaphysical entity. According to the teaching of the Perfection of Wisdom and Mahayana masters, emptiness is synonymous with both interdependent origination and the Middle Way. It is synonymous with interdependent origination because all that exists is conditioned and, relative to other factors, empty of independent existence. Emptiness is synonymous with the Middle Way because understanding emptiness enables one to transcend the alternatives or dualities of existence and nonexistence, identity and difference, and so forth.

Emptiness is not a view. This is illustrated at considerable length in the works of Nagarjuna, the founder of the Middle Way school, which championed emptiness. Emptiness is itself relative and devoid of independent existence. This is why Haribhadra, in his commentary on the Abhisamayalankara, a text that elaborates on the message of the Perfection of Wisdom literature, lists among the various types of emptiness 'the emptiness of emptiness': emptiness, too, is relative and empty. Emptiness is, in fact, a therapeutic device. It is a corrective for the exclusively analytical view, which leaves us with a residual belief in the real existence of the elements of experience. Emptiness is a device that enables us to transcend this pluralistic belief in the independent existence of things. It is for this reason that emptiness is likened to a medicine that cures residual belief in the independent existence of elements. Emptiness is also likened to salt, which makes food palatable.

Like medicine and salt, emptiness taken in excess, or at the wrong time or place, can be dangerous and unpalatable. This is why one ought not abide in or cling to emptiness. Like a medicine, emptiness is designed to cure the illness of perceiving the independent existence of things. Once this illness has been overcome, one should discontinue the treatment, not persist in taking the medicine. Similarly, emptiness is the salt that renders experience palatable, and just as salt by itself is unpalatable, so emptiness by itself is an unpalatable diet. It is because emptiness reveals and expresses the relativity of all phenomena that it becomes the key to understanding nonduality. We can see how recognition of the relativity--and subsequent transcendence--of opposites is tantamount to the perception of nonduality, or non-differentiation.

At this point we come to the central Mahayana doctrine of the nonduality, or non-differentiation, of samsara and nirvana. This is indicated in the Heart Sutra when Avalokiteshvara says that form is not different from emptiness and emptiness is not different from form. The other aggregates, too, are not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from the aggregates. Thus samsara and nirvana, the aggregates and emptiness, phenomena and the unconditioned, the conditioned and the transcendental are all alternatives that are relative to each other: they have no independent existence. Indeed, because they are relative to each other, they are, each of them, ultimately unreal and empty. Hence the duality of samsara and nirvana is dissolved in the vision of emptiness. Emptiness is the way out of all extremes, even the extremes of samsara and nirvana.

Indeed, just as the distinction between samsara and nirvana is relative--being a subjective distinction that belongs to our way of perceiving and not to samsara and nirvana in themselves--so, in emptiness, there is an absence of other alternatives, an absence of the characteristics of origination and cessation, which are relative to each other and unreal. Unreal, too, according to the Heart Sutra, are ignorance, old age, and death; the destruction of ignorance, old age, and death; the Four Noble Truths; attainment and non-attainment. Like the roof beams of a house, none of these concepts, which depend one upon the other, exists independently.

The Heart Sutra says that, by relying on this perfection of wisdom whose object is emptiness, all the Tathagatas of the past have achieved the ultimate, supreme, and perfect enlightenment. It is for this reason that the perfection of wisdom, through which emptiness is known, has been called 'the mother of the Tathagatas'--in other words, that from which the Tathagatas come. The perfection of wisdom has also been likened to a sighted guide leading an assembly of blind men to their goal. The other perfections (of generosity, morality, patience, energy, and concentration) are themselves blind. They are unable to find the way to the goal of Buddhahood. But with the help of the eyes of the perfection of wisdom, they can arrive at that goal.

Again, the perfection of wisdom has been compared to baking an earthenware jar which, in the process, becomes resistant to shattering: so, too, when a Bodhisattva is trained and steeped in the perfection of wisdom, he becomes durable, stable, and difficult to shatter. The drive toward condensing the teaching of the larger Perfection of Wisdom Sutra into the pith instruction of the Heart Sutra is further reflected in the emergence of the verbal formulas and mantras we find in the Mahayana tradition. Many of these are condensations of elaborate ideas that serve as aids to memory as well as to meditation. In the Heart Sutra we find the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, which, the sutra says, makes the unequal equal. We can see why this should be so if we recall that, in emptiness, all opposites, all alternatives, all extremes, and all characteristics do not exist. The perfection of wisdom mantra is also said to pacify all suffering. This, too, is clear from understanding that, in emptiness, neither beings nor sufferings exist.

We can see the essence of the perfection of wisdom expressed in the few lines of the mantra, Tadyatha, Om, gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha ('Thus, Om, gone, gone, gone beyond, gone well beyond, enlightenment, hail'). This is the transcendence of all alternatives, all views, all dualities that marks the entry into enlightenment through going beyond all limitations, dualities, and dogmas. Arising from his deep absorption in meditation during the dialogue between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra in the Heart Sutra, the Buddha commends Avalokiteshvara on his exposition of the perfection of wisdom, an exposition that reflects the ultimate, not the conventional standpoint. Briefly, the ultimate standpoint is the standpoint according to which beings, objects, and karma have no place, whereas the conventional standpoint conforms to the usages familiar in the world, in which beings, objects, and karma are treated as if they exist in reality. The Perfection of Wisdom sutras reflect the ultimate standpoint, born of the experience of nirvana. Even according to the Theravada canon, the Buddha said of this state that neither earth nor water, fire nor air, origination nor cessation exists in it, and that it is not describable in terms of existence, nonexistence, both, or neither.

The Perfection of Wisdom literature suggests that we can all see symbols of emptiness in our own experience--stars, faults of vision, lamps, magical illusions, dewdrops, bubbles, dreams, lightning, clouds, and the like. Such phenomena are the visible expressions or manifestations of emptiness. In the conditioned, dependent, and insubstantial nature of these phenomena, we find intimations of the emptiness that is revealed in the perfection of wisdom.


[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 141-148].


Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing this article.


Updated: 1-5-2000

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