Listening to the Heart Sutra

| May 10, 2013 | 38 Comments
Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Shorter Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sūtra (Heart Sutra)
When Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva was practicing the profound Prajñāpāramitā, he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they were all empty, and crossed over all suffering and affliction.

“Śāriputra, form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form. Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form. Sensation, conception, synthesis, and discrimination are also such as this. Śāriputra, all dharmas are empty: they are neither created nor destroyed, neither defiled nor pure, and they neither increase nor diminish. This is because in emptiness there is no form, sensation, conception, synthesis, or discrimination. There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or thoughts. There are no forms, sounds, scents, tastes, sensations, or dharmas. There is no field of vision and there is no realm of thoughts. There is no ignorance nor elimination of ignorance, even up to and including no old age and death, nor elimination of old age and death. There is no suffering, its accumulation, its elimination, or a path. There is no understanding and no attaining.

“Because there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on Prajñāpāramitā, and their minds have no obstructions. Since there are no obstructions, they have no fears. Because they are detached from backwards dream-thinking, their final result is Nirvāṇa. Because all buddhas of the past, present, and future rely on Prajñāpāramitā, they attain Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi. Therefore, know that Prajñāpāramitā is a great spiritual mantra, a great brilliant mantra, an unsurpassed mantra, and an unequalled mantra. The Prajñāpāramitā Mantra is spoken because it can truly remove all afflictions. The mantra is spoken thusly:

gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā

The Heart Sutra is one of the most famous Mahāyāna sutras, part of the standard liturgy in many Buddhist temples. I recall chanting it many times before taking to my cushion for zazen; it always left me feeling somewhat puzzled. Perhaps it’s a good time to listen to it with focus.

The “Frame”

There are two elements of the sutra’s “frame” (its beginning and ending) that might strike us as odd. First, there is the fact that it’s an exhortation from the deity Avalokiteśvara, rather than coming from the Buddha or one of his disciples, as is normal in Buddhist sutras. Second, it ends with a mantra. While mantras in general, and that mantra in particular, do appear in other Buddhist texts, they usually do not come at the end. Buddhist scholar Jan Nattier argues that both of these elements point to its having been constructed in China rather than India, and later translated back into Sanskrit.*

This isn’t as big an issue as one might suppose, since the text has clear origins in Sanskrit sutras of the early Mahāyāna, Prajñāpāramitā tradition, most particularly the Longer Heart Sutra.

The Middle Section

There are charitable ways to interpret the strange message one finds in the middle section of the Shorter Heart Sutra. “Emptiness” is another way to express impermanence, or the dependently arisen nature of passing phenomena. So “emptiness is form” can be taken to mean that physical objects are impermanent and dependently arisen. The other dharmas are similarly empty of permanence.

“Neither created nor destroyed”, however, is a bit more problematic. By being impermanent and dependently arisen, all dharmas are by definition created and destroyed. Perhaps the key to this passage is the phrase, “in emptiness”: this is a claim not made from our ordinary, everyday point of view, but instead from the point of view of “emptiness”, nirvana, the “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned”. (Udāna 8.3).

A few issues arise. First, if this interpretation is correct, it seems to treat nirvāṇa as a place one can be inside of (“in emptiness”), and from which one can make claims about the world. Namely, one can see that dharmas are “neither created nor destroyed, neither defiled nor pure, and they neither increase nor diminish”, and so on through the rest of the paragraph. But is nirvāṇa really a sort of place like this?

Second, the sutra makes clear we are talking about “bodhisattvas”, beings who have put off attaining enlightenment in order to save all sentient beings. Are these then beings who nevertheless are capable of seeing reality from that nirvāṇic point of view? If so, how are they then not themselves enlightened? As I understand it, this is something of a contentious issue within the Mahāyāna.

Third, this raises the thorny issue of what nirvāṇa really amounts to; whether it is a state separate from normal saṃsāric existence, or whether somehow saṃsāra and nirvāṇa are the same (there is “no attainment”); whether the state of mind one achieves in nirvāṇa is revelatory of the way things are; and how we are to interpret such odd locutions as “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned”, notions that helped us in approaching the sutra in the first place.

One way to understand “not-born”, and so on, is that the nirvanic state is not born from greed, hatred, or ignorance. This is sensible: we can appreciate that there are selfless states of mind like these, and we can see how someone that could remain in such states throughout their life would be “awakened” in the ethical sense intended by the Buddha.

But such an interpretation fails to adequately account for the rest of the sutra. If there were such an ethically perfectible state of mind, dharmas would still be created and destroyed. There would be eyes, ears, noses, tongues, bodies, and minds. There would still be ignorance (other people’s ignorance), there would still be the elimination of ignorance. There would still be old age and death. And the four noble truths would still be true, along with the possibility of the attainment of the path, at least by others.

Practice or Ontology?

There is an interesting difference between the long and short versions of the Heart Sutra. In the short version, as we see above, Avalokiteśvara begins right away by saying, “Śāriputra, form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form”. The rest of the text follows this structure: it is a series of simple claims of nonexistence.

The longer version has Avalokiteśvara beginning in a crucially different vein:

After speaking thusly, Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva-mahāsattva addressed Elder Śāriputra, saying: “Śāriputra, if virtuous men and virtuous women practice the extremely profound practice of Prajñāpāramitā, they should contemplate the Five Skandhas as empty of self-nature.

I have highlighted the difference: the focus of the longer sutra becomes one that we might put as “right contemplation”. Virtuous men and women should contemplate the skhandas as non-self. This implies that the rest of the sutra is aimed at exercises in contemplation, rather than claims of existence. By losing the context of those first sentences, the shorter Heart Sutra takes on more ontological significance than the longer.

So perhaps the sutra is about clinging, rather than existence. I have argued elsewhere that the proper interpretation of the Buddha’s message in the parable of the raft (MN 22) is about clinging to views, not about the nonexistence of true or false views. It might be that by saying “in emptiness there is no form”, and so on, Avalokiteśvara isn’t denying the existence of form. Instead he is denying that the bodhisattva would cling to form. Certainly an ethically perfected state without greed and hatred would also be one without clinging: one might say, “there is no form, sensation, conception, and so on, there are no dharmas, there is no suffering, understanding, or attainment for him“: he has cut off clinging to such things.

If this is correct, it would illuminate the poetry of the sutra: by expressing the viewpoint from the perspective of an enlightened being, it makes plain an aspect of the goal. Presumably this is why the Heart Sutra became so important in Mahāyāna Buddhist practice.

But to my mind, and in my practice, the way the short version walks the path is too confusing to be useful. If it means to recommend relinquishment, it should recommend relinquishment. It should not claim that the things to be relinquished do not exist. For if these things do not exist, then they cannot exist to be clung to, nor to be relinquished. If in fact “there is no suffering” and “there is no attainment”, right effort on the path is a waste of time: saṃsāra really is nirvāṇa. And this threatens to reduce the Buddhist path to banality or even a quietist counsel of despair.

It is concerns such as these, I think, that led Bhikkhu Bodhi to inveigh against a “non-dualistic” interpretation of the dhamma, one that identified saṃsāra with nirvāṇa.

The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality, and hence in their emptiness all the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: “All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature.”

The teaching of the Buddha as found in the Pali canon does not endorse a philosophy of non-dualism of any variety, nor, I would add, can a non-dualistic perspective be found lying implicit within the Buddha’s discourses. …

When we investigate our experience exactly as it presents itself, we find that it is permeated by a number of critically important dualities with profound implications for the spiritual quest. The Buddha’s teaching, as recorded in the Pali Suttas, fixes our attention unflinchingly upon these dualities and treats their acknowledgment as the indispensable basis for any honest search for liberating wisdom. It is precisely these antitheses — of good and evil, suffering and happiness, wisdom and ignorance — that make the quest for enlightenment and deliverance such a vitally crucial concern. …

Going back to the Canon, dualisms permeate the Buddha’s teachings. Indeed, one cannot even formulate the Eightfold Path without the duality implied by the word “sammā”: “right”, “appropriate”, “perfect”. If there is a “sammā”, there must also be a “micchā”: “wrong”, “inappropriate”, “imperfect”. The practice lies in cultivating the former while removing the latter. (C.f., the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 117).

I do not argue for the Canonical approach because it may be prior and hence more authentic or original. Authenticity and originality have no bearing on the truth or usefulness of views, and anyhow certain of the earliest teachings must be dispensed with. My argument is rather that the alternative provided by the Heart Sutra is mystifying, at least as regards practical advice along the path.

Perhaps the Heart Sutra is intended as an advanced teaching, one not particularly appropriate for neophytes. It has also been argued that the Heart Sutra wasn’t really intended so much as a doctrinal elaboration, but rather as a “dhāraṇī scripture” for chanting and recitation.** That is, it’s something to keep in the back of one’s mind rather than something to really guide daily practice along the path. If so, of course, it’s less appropriate to criticize it on the basis of cogency.

Toward Fruitful Practice

Each person must find teachings that inspire and motivate them to practical betterment. What inspires and motivates you may not work for me, and vice versa. That’s all as it should be, and I would not want to overstate the main message here: I’m talking about my own approach to the path. I practiced Zen meditation for many years, and have recited the shorter Heart Sutra many times. It does have an unmistakeable poetic power, but also a message I find intellectually confusing and rationally untenable, at least if read at face value.

Concerns such as these drew me away from the sutras of the Mahāyāna back towards the suttas of the Pali Canon. That is not to say one cannot find confusing messages in the Canon, of course. However in my estimation the message one finds in the Nikāyas is generally clear, cogent, and well-argued enough that it supports a little confusion around the edges.

An approach that I find reasoned and coherent is the only sort that can motivate me to action. While it is possible to interpret the Heart Sutra in reasoned ways that I have termed “charitable”, I find the most fruitful approach for my own practice to be one that sticks to the better coherency of the Nikāyas.

Whatever your practice is, may it be fruitful.

—————
* Jan Nattier “The Heart Sutra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?”, (JIABS Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 174-9).
** Fukui Fumimasa, quoted in Jan Nattier (p. 175).

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (38)

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  1. mufi says:

    Thanks, Doug.

    I’ve hinted at this suggestion before, but I think it’s about time to rename this site/org the Secular Theravadin Association (STA). 🙂

    But, seriously, whether or not one is able to make more sense of Mahayana literature than you or I may be completely beside the point. Your analysis hints at that conclusion when it admits that the Heart Sutra “does have an unmistakeable poetic power”, but I’m tempted to go a step further and suggest that its main appeal (if not Mahayana’s, in general) resides primarily in its aesthetic value – i.e. how the language makes me feel, once I’ve put aside coherence and plausibility as aesthetic criteria. If so, then it seems like another “eye of the beholder” or “there’s no accounting for taste” kind of scenario.

    I say that from the point-of-view of a secular Westerner with no in-depth personal history with any Buddhist school or “vehicle.” However, when I look for a presentation of the dharma, I look for one that strikes me as most down-to-earth and easy to understand. And, so far, the Theravadin(-ish) stuff is doing the trick.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yeah, absolutely, mufi. While there are certain more or less objective claims one can make about the Heart Sutra, or indeed any body of work, at the end it comes down to what you find works for you. I’m sure many people get into the poetry more than I.

      Another example that I didn’t pursue here is the use of nonsense-mantras like “gate gate …” This one does have a Sanskrit translation, but as in many of these cases, the translation isn’t really all that helpful, so it’s left as is. Perhaps one treats it like the breath; just sound without sense.

      • mufi says:

        Indeed.

        And I feel obliged to add: If there’s one thing that I find heartening (no pun intended) about Mahayana, it’s the degree to which it’s taken creative license with early Buddhist teachings, and yet still qualifies as a valid expression of the dharma, millenia later and across the globe. (I believe it’s even the dominant form, in terms of percent of adherents.)

        IOW, given the creative license that Secular Buddhists take with the dharma (from a 21st-Century Western-naturalistic point-of-view), Mahayana seems to offer quite a bit of encouragement to us (unless, of course, its mysticism is its secret ingredient for success).

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Well, right. This issue came up in my piece on Donald Lopez’s books on Buddhism and Science: namely, that if one looks at practice in the Mahāyāna, some of it is quite at odds with early teaching. Examples include Zen priests getting married, sex and alcohol consumption in Tantra. Compared with that, I don’t think Secular Buddhism is so strange. I don’t think the patimokkha would license kicking us out like it would practitioners of Zen or Tantra. Perhaps I’m wrong.

  2. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    I have to admit the first few times I hear the Heart Sutra I felt like someone had done some serious drugs before writing that one. Now I get where some of the lines are coming from, but it’s not a piece of writing I turn to in my practice. When I discovered it has supposedly been told to someone through a deity, my thought was, “Oh bother, not this crap again.”

    I agree, Mufi, that secular Buddhism most closely fits Theravada without the belief in superstitions and reincarnation.

    For the Pali Canon, we’ve had only the works of a few translators. It will be interesting to see what happens with that as others share their translations, especially if any secular Buddhists take on translation projects.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Yes, thanks Dana. My impression of the translations so far, especially after having talked with relatively secular scholars, is that they’re generally pretty good. I wouldn’t want a translator to do an expurgated version, at least not for my purposes. I prefer to do the expurgating myself!

      🙂

  3. richrose says:

    That I am no scholar of such matters has long since been established. But I will share that the Heart Sutra played a big role in driving me out of ThichNhatHanhVille. The experience of sitting in a few sanghas at various locations in my travels, chanting in monotone a bunch of words that 90% of the people in the room clearly hadn’t a clue to the meaning of was simply too off-putting to tolerate. I tried respectful silence during the dance but always felt quizzical looks (real or imagined). “If he is not going going to play, why is he in the Bingo Palace?”

  4. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Mufi, just last night an opportunity came up to bring in more Mahayana, with a potential shared endeavor with our friends over at Sweeping Zen. More to come!

    • mufi says:

      Good to know, Ted, although if you paid close attention to my exchange with Doug above, then you may already know that I wasn’t complaining.

      On the contrary, in relation to Mahayana, I’ve come to see Theravada as significantly more amenable to the SBA project of secularizing/naturalizing the dharma.

      Not that I expect many orthodox Theravadins will appreciate that assessment. 🙂

  5. Jayarava says:

    “This isn’t as big an issue as one might suppose, since the text has clear origins in Sanskrit sutras of the early Mahāyāna, Prajñāpāramitā tradition, most particularly the Longer Heart Sutra.”

    It’s a small point but the consensus is that the long text is an extended version of the short text, not it’s source. It’s long been known, even in traditional Buddhist circles, that the core of the Heart Sutra – from “form is emptiness” down to “no knowledge and no attainment” is drawn from the 25,000 line Perfection of Wisdom text. Nattier’s article shows that the extract was made from Kumārajīva’s Chinese text.

    One of Nattier’s main points back in 1992 was that the Chinese version attributed to Xuanzang (T 8.251) is in fact the precursor of all the other versions, though not exactly “original”.

    The difference you point to between the two sutras is I believe a problem of translation. I’ve recently been exploring the many mistakes in Dr Conze’s edition of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra, one of which is to separate the practice of PoW from the insight into the Skandhas. In fact, as the translation you use above shows, what Avalokiteśvara is supposed to be doing at the time is examining (vyavalokayati) the skandhas. The Chinese verb can also mean “illuminating”, but in this context it clearly relates to vyava√lok.

    BTW in the 25k PoW Sutra the lines attributed to Avalokiteśvara are spoken by the Bhagavan.

    I think some context helps with interpreting the apparent negativism of the sutra. The PoW arose partly as a reaction to Sarvāsti-vāda (the ideology that the building blocks of experience are *real* ‘sarvaṃ asti’). In relation to a doctrine where dharmas are real, one must point out (echoing the Kaccānagotta Sutta SN 12.15 and the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā) that real and unreal don’t apply in the domain of experience. One has experiences, but the experience per se is not real or unreal. Dualistic ontological frameworks are not applicable.

    In setting out to destroy the fundamental categories with which Buddhists of the day analysed experience, the point was not to create a doctrinal void. It was to smash the concrete in which Buddhist doctrine had been set by Abhidharmikas.

    I’ve argued that the canonisation of the Abhidharma left the Mahāyāna in a quandary. Modern Secular Buddhists have a Sautrānatika tendency – we chuck out the Abhidharma and stick to the sūtras. But it seems that in ancient India this was not so easy. And thus the extension of the concept of dependent-arising that we see in śūnyatā was a way to cope with the ontological speculations of the Abhidharma without chucking it out completely. Hence also we find the idea of two truths associated with this material. Early Buddhists did not need two truths because they remembered Kaccāna. It’s only when we forget Kaccāna and start thinking in terms of real/unreal that two truths are required. In a milieu which includes the ideas that dharmas are real, supported by canonical texts, then some new critique must emerge. Hence śūnyatā.

    The idea that the Heart Sutra is a dhāraṇī is not limited to the East. Many of the 18th and 19th century Nepalese manuscripts refer to this text as a dhāraṇī. And history suggests that the main use of the text was magical protection – as much as anything the Heart Sutra is a charm against misfortune.

    Closely studying the Heart Sūtra, including personally examining many of the manuscripts that Conze worked from has highlighted a problem. A lot of nonsense slipped into the discourse about the Heart Sutra in modern times because Conze could not properly distinguish nonsense and bad grammar from mysticism, or because he preferred the latter. But I suspect that this merely continued a trend in Buddhism – there are a couple of quite nonsensical readings in the Tibetan canonical versions as well.

    My last four blog posts have explored this. Next week I’ll publish my revision of Conze’s edition – a full critical edition will have to wait till I have the resources (which hopefully be late next year). But the new addition tackles the errors identifies by Nattier and a few that I have identified as well. Once we get a sensible text, and put it in the appropriate context, then the Heart Sutra is much more straightforward. See http://jayarava.blogspot.com on Friday 29th Sept 2013.

    I think your assessment of the Heart Sutra might suffer from misunderstanding the context and the rhetorical strategies of it’s author. And your assessment of the Nikāyas seems a little generous.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hello Jayarava, and thank you for your extensive and interesting reply. I’ve glanced at the pages on your site about the Heart Sutra and can see you have put a great deal of depth into your analysis.

      I agree with your points as regards the sutra’s “apparent negativism”: it stemmed doctrinally from a reaction to the abhidhamma/abhidharma. My own view, however, is less charitable towards this effort than yours. I do not view the abhidhamma/abhidharma as “concrete” that needed to be “smashed”. That is, however, how the proto-Mahāyāna viewed it, as seen through the eyes of the Heart Sutra.

      The Kaccānagotta Sutta is interesting, however I do not view it so much through Madhyāmika eyes, which I think overvalues its approach to the dhamma. It’s an attempt to deny the reification of existence and nonexistence themselves as substantival entities, or as eternalism and nihilism (“all exists”/”all does not exist”), particularly as regards “the world” taken as a whole. This does not stand in opposition to the claim that particular things exist and pass away, however. (“… [W]hat arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing.” Compare to the Heart Sutra’s: “There is no ignorance nor elimination of ignorance”, etc.). I think one has to take this sutta in the context of the rest of the Nikāyas.

      It may be that some of our apparent disagreement here stems from the fact that my approach in this piece was to look at the Heart Sutra less from its historical antecedents (though those are of interest to me) than from the eyes of a modern practitioner with a background in philosophy. And of course, as such each person’s practice will differ, and one person may find a text helpful that another does not.

      • Jayarava says:

        The discussion turns on how one understands the word ‘loka’. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that by that word the early Buddhist texts mean one’s *experiential world* in this context. Compare for example Noa Ronkin in her discussion of dharmas in Metaphysics of Early Buddhism, or Sue Hamilton’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach. Compare their work with that of Jan Gonda’s 196 page epic on the word ‘loka’ in Vedic. Looking at the secondary literature it becomes apparent that we are not talking about the world “as a whole” in either Kaccānagotta or the Perfection of Wisdom tradition, then re-read the suttas and they start to make a lot more sense.

        As you say the text needs to be read in context. I’ve done just this at some length in my essay: Is Paṭicca-samuppāda a Theory of Everything?
        http://www.jayarava.org/writing/paticca-samuppada-theory-of-everything.pdf
        Linda Blanchard did a blog on this as well, with, I think, much the same conclusion.

        As we see in texts like the Kaccānagotta and others that discuss characteristics of “the world” and other related concepts like “the universe” (sabbaṃ) the Buddhists are always talking about how vedanā arises from contact. And contact is between an object about which nothing more is ever said, and a sensing organ in conjunction with a sensing mind which is the focus of almost every page of the canon. Arising is precisely the arising of dharmas which are the object of manas. Hence it of the greatest interest that the Heart Sūtra declares: “sarvadharmāḥ śūnyatā-lakṣanāḥ.”

        Which is to say that the discussion from my point of view is always about the nature of experience, not about the nature of reality. Which is far more relevant to practising than the world in your sense. Indeed the physical world merely serves as a metaphor to illustrate the principle of arising in the Nikāyas.

        Your last comment involves one of my favourite Buddhist rhetorical strategies – an appeal to subjectivity and relativity. This effectively ends any discussion about what a text is saying, and refocusses on whatever appeals to the individual. Which is my signal to log off and walk away. Bye.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          … the discussion from my point of view is always about the nature of experience, not about the nature of reality.

          The problem is that this is an artificial distinction. Experience is also reality.

          Insofar as we interpret the emptiness of all dhammas to mean that they are dependently arisen, we cannot say that they do not exist. If they arise dependently, that arising just does signify their existence. That existence is, of course, temporary and conditioned. The issue for the Buddha of the Nikāyas was to argue against the permanency of dhammas — all dhammas are anicca — not to argue against their existence, as the Heart Sutra implies.

          I understand that there are hermeneutic strategies one can adopt by which the Heart Sutra’s implications are more mundane than I have given. I also understand that such strategies have historical precedent and are, for some, more charitable.

          • mufi says:

            Doug: The issue for the Buddha of the Nikāyas was to argue against the permanency of dhammas — all dhammas are anicca — not to argue against their existence, as the Heart Sutra implies.

            That’s my sense, as well. With that historical agreement in mind, just a quick philosophical comment…

            At least as I interpreted Paul Williams’ explanation of emptiness (sunyata), the theory has merit and jibes quite well with a modern-scientific worldview. Owen Flanagan seemed to agree (in The Bodhisattva’s Brain), but right now I have in mind the work of the late biologist/neuroscientist (and Tibetan Buddhist), Francisco Varela (e.g. see The Embodied Mind, which he co-authored with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). Fun stuff! 😉

    • TomSchulte says:

      I can’t find a translation of the word “Sautrānatika”. Could you help me?

  6. jos says:

    Doug,

    After some consideration I’ve decided to comment on your post.
    I might be considered a follower of the Theravāda way, I cannot say much about other ways of practice. Therefore my interpretation of the sutra might be off from their perspective.

    Let’s look at the main considerations in the sutra:

    It states that the 5 aggregates are emptiness and emptiness is the 5 aggregates.
    Then it states that dhamma’s are empty because there are no aggregates in emptiness.

    To consider what this means we need to look at emptiness first.
    I think a good start is Sutta MN121.

    Based on my limited experience on meditation I can say that it’s possible to reach a state where the mind stops ‘thinking’.

    When looking at the mind from meditation it’s possible to experience 2 modes.
    The first one is the mind like vapor. The mind moves where ever the wind dictates it. This is the ordinary mind.
    The second is the mind like water. In this case the mind does not move along with the wind but wind is still causing waves on the water.
    When progressing in meditation it’s possible to still the wind somewhat so the waves get smaller and smaller.
    In the end there is only a slight disturbance.

    However, it’s possible to reach a third mode.
    In this mode the mind becomes solid, like ice.
    It drops it meditation object, drops thinking, drops acting and only knowing remains.
    It knows the remaining silence, the emptiness.

    Since there is no object, no thinking, no acting in this state of mind it’s impossible to speak about knowing, hearing, thinking, tasting, viewing.
    As long as the mind is in this state it will not perceive arising, staying or cessation.
    After a while the mind starts to move again.
    This will seem like small movements of the water, hardly possible to notice. Still no thinking.
    Then it’s possible that sound (this one is very obvious when emerging) is percieved. However, since the mind is still not thinking it will only be the sound.
    There is no conception of the origin of the sound. And no conception of the listener. It’s bare sound.

    After this experience there will be no doubt about the emptiness.
    There will be no doubt about the sound. And other things perceived when the mind started moving.

    After this it’s possible to understand:
    Sound, like the sound of a bird, does not exist alone (the wave does exist, however this wave will never refer to itself as sound).
    Sound exist because of a cause (there was a bird singing)
    It exist because of a receiver (my ear picks up the sound)
    It exists because of contact (the mind experiences something and gives it meaning: bird noice)

    Without this last part which might be called fabrication, making, it’s still possible to hear the sound.
    However, it will just be a disturbance.

    The same is true for all other statements, illness, old age, death, suffering, ignorance, understanding, attainment.
    For example, death is something real. Old age is somthing real.
    They both have an origin, life. Without life, no death. Without youth/birth no old age.
    They are a problem because we crave life, crave youth, crave beauty, crave things to remain.
    Once we accept: ‘I was stupid to crave for life, this caused me to live an existence where I was born, grow old and death will follow’ things get easier.
    Age, death, illness are not the problem. It’s our stupidity thinking we can avoid them once born.

    To me it sounds like the heart sutra is spoken from the view of an enlightened one.
    And the receiver is also enlightened (it’s one of the two main disciples of the Buddha).
    I see a wonderfull verse that I would not recommend teaching to beginners.
    I would focus on purifying life first. Start talking about action and result.
    Then move to the mind. Showing how life connects to the mind. How to calm the mind.
    Show how the mind opererates. How the use of one duality (repulsive) can subdue another (beauty) of greedy people. Or the other way around for hatefull people.
    Only when people start seeing this for themself I would start talking about emptiness.

    We use duality to end duality, something the heart sutra shows.

    Metta!

    Jos

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi Jos and thank you for your thoughtful response. I think you are right that the Heart Sutra is intended to come from an enlightened being, and is not intended to be understood by beginners. It’s also, as you suggest, non-dual in its approach.

      I am more interested in coming at the issue from the point of view of a non-enlightened being. As such, I don’t find its approach helpful to my practice, for the reasons I point out, though I think you have an interesting and plausible take on it.

      As a historical matter, one doesn’t find the teaching of non-dualism in the Nikāyas; it’s a later, Mahāyāna teaching. The Nikāyas are full of dualities. Of course, one is not to cling to them, but they are there nevertheless. But just because it isn’t in the Nikāyas doesn’t mean one shouldn’t incorporate it into one’s practice, and many contemporary, Theravāda-based teachers do incorporate non-dualism into their approach to the dhamma.

  7. jos says:

    Thanks for your reply Doug.

    I’ll give you something to consider.
    In SN12.15 the Buddha referes to two extremes. The view ‘this exists’ and ‘this does not exist’.

    Once you see something born you cannot say anymore it does not exist.
    Once you see something die you cannot say it does exist anymore.
    Only for the brief moment of time between birth and dead we can speak of existence, right?

    To put this in practice in meditation next time you sit: can breathing in and breathing out exist at the same time?
    Does breathing in exist without breathing out? Breathing out without breathing in?
    And more specific, even breathing in has a birth and a death.
    There is a clear start, a middle that’s long or short and a clear starving. After the ‘death’ of the inbreath there is birth of the outbreath.
    Should we consider this as two dualities or should we observe it as a single process?
    What is the difference, if any?

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Hi again, Jos. The difference has to do with anicca. Without dualities, there is no anicca. Anicca depends upon birth being succeeded by death, breathing in by breathing out. We can view breathing in and out as a single process only by viewing that process as itself being born and dying.

      With metta.

      • mufi says:

        Without dualities, there is no anicca.

        If we were to substitute “pluralities” for “dualities”, would this statement be any less true?

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          I was thinking along the same lines, Mufi. Of course, the smallest plurality is a duality. Thus base two, and binary code. 🙂

          • mufi says:

            Ah, now you’re talking my kind of shop (viz. software).

            But, seriously, it’s one thing to assert that phenomenal experience is dynamic (a.k.a. impermanent). That I can see for myself. It’s quite another to assert that existence/reality is ultimately like that, in which case I plead agnostic.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Since phenomenal experience is part of reality, if it is dynamic, so too must be reality, at least in part.

          • mufi says:

            Since phenomenal experience is part of reality, if it is dynamic, so too must be reality, at least in part.

            Hmm, I had expected that, by inserting “ultimately” into my previous comment, I would have side-stepped this objection. But then perhaps you’re more “gnostic” than I am about what’s ultimately real.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            I don’t know anything whatever about what’s “ultimately” real, unless that can be known through phenomenal experience. That’s why I tend to shy away from phrases like “ultimate reality” and suchlike.

          • mufi says:

            Me, too, but we’re in mixed company, and at least in my experience, people often act like they know what’s ultimately real (e.g. there is a God, there is no God, there is Karma, there is no Karma, etc.).

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Well, I don’t think that existence claims involve notions of “ultimate reality”, unless that’s made explicit. When I say, “there are no unicorns”, I mean always to assume that we can trust our best evidence and information. If we cannot, if phenomenal experience in its broadest sense is unforthcoming, then no existence claim we ever make has much chance of being accurate. That’s how I’m talking when I say (and I do say, quite emphatically) that there is no God nor karmic causation.

            Or in other words, all knowledge claims are fallible.

            But I don’t want this to devolve into a discussion on epistemology, so I’ll leave it there.

          • mufi says:

            if phenomenal experience in its broadest sense is unforthcoming, then no existence claim we ever make has much chance of being accurate

            Granted, but we’re having this conversation in the context of a Buddhist tradition that features (among other, even contrary, views) a skeptical view of all existence claims, are we not?

            In any case, I’m most concerned about our prospects for survival and flourishing, and a “natural, pragmatic approach” like that does not seem to hinge on accurate existence claims, unless perhaps we redefine those as information re: the threats and opportunities we should look out for while treading on our paths.

          • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

            Granted, but we’re having this conversation in the context of a Buddhist tradition that features (among other, even contrary, views) a skeptical view of all existence claims, are we not?

            Actually I don’t think that the early (Nikāya) tradition had a particularly skeptical view of existence claims per se. That came later. Instead it viewed all existence as transitory, and clinging as the main problem. Indeed, more thoroughgoing skeptics were some of the Buddha’s opponents.

          • mufi says:

            Doug: Where did I claim that “early (Nikāya) tradition” features a “skeptical view of existence claims”? After all, I associate that view with the Madhyamaka school(s).

          • mufi says:

            PS: Perhaps it was my reference to the SBA tag line that suggested it (i.e. “natural, pragmatic approach”).

            BTW, I’m not sure when “early” was inserted into that tag line, as I only recently noticed it.

            In any case, I hope that it does not have a chilling effect on more discussion of later developments in “Buddhist teachings and practice” like these, as my interest in those (particularly, in Madhyamaka) has grown in recent months.

      • jos says:

        Hey Doug and mufi, thanks for participating.

        I agree on annica an I’m going to push this one a bit further.

        Let’s go back to breathing.
        I’m breathing in once and breathing out once.
        Prior to breathing out I could not say this outbeath exists except for a fabrication thinking of things to come.
        Now I breath out I can say it exists.
        Finished breathing out and starting breathing in I cannot say the outbreath exists except for a fabrication thinking things past (memory).
        Fully realised one will come to:
        “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation”

        However, there is something else to observe.
        While not as easily observable as the view above I can observe that once breathing in is arrising breathing out is arrising.
        This is not a fabrication, it’s reality.

        So now I have two real observations.
        In one reality I see inbreath and outbreath as two distinct parts, maybe parts of the same process. In the other reality I see inbreath and outbreath as arrising at the same time.

        Is it possible to have both views or is one better than the other?

        With metta,

        Jos

  8. jos says:

    Doug,

    Let me explain what I said, though it’s better to examine in mediation yourself.

    The moment the air moves in to the nose and lungs the conditions for the air moving out the lungs and nose start to accumulate.
    The moment the moving in is completed (the end of breathing in is reached) the moving out starts. We might be able to hold this process for a short while (I recall the Buddha tried this prior to enlightment) however this generates only pain and stress.

    While our usual language and initial experience describes breathing in and breathing out as distinct functions it is not possible to separate them. When we start to breath in there is breath out.
    The time this stops is when breathing in stops (I carefully choose breathing out in my previous post), death.

    Why am I pointing this out you might ask?
    It’s because it’s a basic principle of Buddhist teachings.
    Most people know this as ‘from ignorance come fabrications … birth leading to stress’.
    However, this is not the end. SN 12.23 shows there is more.
    From stress there is faith or conviction. Conviction leads to joy … release leads to knowledge.

    And what is known? This is form (and the other 4 aggregates), this is how form arises, this is how form disappears.
    And what is ignorance: not knowing the truth of stress, the origin of stress, the cessation of stress and the path leading to cessation.

    Here we get back to the original post on the heart sutra, however I would like a small sidestep.

    The final words of the Buddha were:
    “All fabrications are subject to decay. Bring about completion by being heedful.”
    This is the basis knowledge to what is called stream entry and the monks with the Buddha were all at least at this level.
    So there must be a vast difference between the basic knowledge and final release.

    This is where we get back on track.
    The basic knowledge of annica can be applied to everything observed.
    It emphasises duality, specially on the world outside.

    But what happens when it’s applied to the inside, the thinking world?
    It does not lead to duality. It leads to unity.
    Working up to first Jhana is bringing the mind to an object.
    Then the disturbance of evaluation is brought to an end. The disturbance of rapture and joy ends. Perception of form ends.
    Other perceptions end. In the end the mind stands alone, united.
    Not depending on anything. One could call it emptiness 🙂

    I hope you can see where I’m moving.
    I’m moving away from ‘book knowledge’ to actual experience.
    The word stress is not the same as the actual experience. Release is not the actual experience of release.
    There is a ‘place’ where words and descriptions end.

    Wish you experience this someday.

    With metta,

    Jos

    • mufi says:

      Jos: Your words somehow remind me of an earlier phase of experimenting with meditation, when I was less familiar with Buddhist thought and jargon than I am now, I experienced what I later named “The Void.”

      It was like I had accidentally flipped off the switch to discursive thought and was left with just pure sensation and open awareness. At first, it was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but then I forced myself out of it, for fear that I might not be able to flip the switch back on.

      I’ve yet to repeat that experience to the same degree, but I’ll never forget it, as it struck me just how much of my “reality” is characterized by an internal monologue – not unlike what’s happening right now, except that I’m transcribing some of it into a laptop, so that I can share it with you.

  9. jos says:

    Thanks for your insightful reply mufi.

    Experiences like that leave a deep impact indeed.
    I’ll briefly share two that really shook me up.
    First one left me with a smile inside that never faded for 15 years.
    I dare to say I saw heaven and hell originating in the mind and lost all fear of hell and all desire for heaven at that moment.
    Second one left me with the knowledge that the mind moves alone and can work at incredible speed. From this experience it got difficult for me to speak about ‘I’ as a distinct entity. And that things experienced from mental silence are ‘more real’ than things experienced when the mind is making stories about them.

    Funny thing: I cannot consider myself an enlightened person or anything like that, it’s more like I’m a ‘lable-less’ person now.

    On repeating your experience, I’m not sure it’s possible.
    Some things are just once in a lifetime…

    What I experienced is that the normal meditation ‘formula’ is too rigid. It describes the steps and phases, however the mind has it’s own movements. I’d say stay tight with your meditation object whatever happens, once the mind is ready you have no choice but to drop it and reach ‘Void’. First impression I have the main obstacle is the desire (or in your case latent fear?) to reach the state, moving you away from your object (I have the same problem too many times).

    Jos

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