{Shikoku Hachijūhachikasho Meguri}

--HEART SUTRA--
---A VERY BRIEF OVERVIEW---

For those that may be new to it, this page offers my attempt at a brief overview of what the Heart Sutra is, what it means, and why it is important to those that choose to walk the henro trail. If all you are looking for is the text of the sutra, go to the bottom of the page.

The Heart Sutra
(Hannya Shingyō)

While the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was in a deep meditative state, that inner state called the Perfection of Wisdom, he came to understand, at the very core of his being, that the five aggregates are empty, completely empty, and thus brought an end to all suffering.

Shariputra, you must understand that form is no different than emptiness, and emptiness is no different than form. But don't mistake what i'm saying: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Likewise, the same equalities hold true for the other four aggregates: feeling, perception, mental volition, and consciousness.
...

And so begins the Heart Sutra. A foundational text of Mahayana Buddhism, the Heart Sutra is one of the shortest versions of a series of sutras (lectures attributed by the Buddha himself) called the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. The first Perfection of Wisdom Sutra was written in 8,000 lines and first appeared in India somewhere around 100 B.C., hundreds of years after Buddha died. Over the course of the next 500 years, or so, the sutra was expanded several times in versions of tens of thousands of lines, culminating in a version of 100,000 lines. After 500 years of revisions, though, the entire series was summarized in two very short, very concise, and very direct sutras called the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra, and these are considered very important documents in Mahayana Buddhism.

The Heart Sutra is said to teach the core, the essence, the heart, of the Buddha's teachings and is recited by the majority of Buddhists around the world almost every morning. On Shikoku, it is recited by nearly every pilgrim at every temple on the pilgrimage. Some pilgrims also hand copy the sutra and leave a copy at each of the temples. Written with only 278 characters, it summarizes all of the Buddha's teachings, but looks at them through the unique concept of "emptiness."

For a few rare henro, the trail around Shikoku is as much a walk of self-discovery as it is a walk through a physical landscape. For these henro, there are two maps to guide them on their journey — the normal trail maps for the physical trail and the Heart Sutra for the internal trail. Since "times of old," the four prefectures that the henro trail pass through have been divided into four graded spiritual stages:

For those henro on a walk of self discovery, the pilgrimage around the island is a pilgrimage through these four divisions and through the Heart Sutra. If one immerses oneself in the Heart Sutra, your understanding will deepen in stages as you progress around the island — beginning with the simple belief that Avalokiteshvara's understanding is correct and a faith that you have the potential to realize it as well, progressing through many days and weeks of discipline and contemplation, and up to the summit of:

No suffering, No cause of suffering,
No cessation of suffering, and
No path leading to the cessation of suffering.

No wisdom and no attainment,
Because there is nothing to attain.

However, just as all pilgrims are warned against slacking off as they reach the fourth and last prefecture and near the final temples, those also walking through the Heart Sutra are warned not let their spiritual guard down here either; they are reminded that this third stage isn't the end of their journey. With continued effort, these pilgrims need to work their way back to where they started: physically at Temple 1, and mentally at:

There is Suffering, Cause, Cessation, Path, Wisdom, and Attainment

at which point they have the final mantra in sight:

Gone. Gone. Gone Beyond. Gone Completely Beyond. Hallelujah.

The Heart Sutra is not a document that you read one time and expect to understand it. It is not a short, concise, summary of the teachings in the sense of Cliff Notes. Rather, it is a summary of how to look at the core teachings you learn in other documents from the point of view of Emptiness. And because it takes that point of view, and because that point of view is so contrary to our normal way of looking at the world, it seemingly negates all of the major teachings of the Buddha. But this negation is only a negation of our conventional view of reality. The Heart Sutra is pointing out that in the absolute view of reality, the view from the mountaintop of Emptiness, things are not as they appear in our everyday conventional view of reality.

Finally, once the sutra deconstructs our normal view of reality, it finishes by telling us how Bodhisattvas and Buddhas see it. It tells us that the way to nirvana, a correct understanding of reality, is to get rid of the obstructions in our mind; to eliminate the negative mental factors that corrupt our perceptions of everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think. To eliminate the conditioning and habits that prevent us from simply Being. By eliminating these obstructions, we see that everything, and i mean everything, is impermanent and non-self existent; including ourselves. On the other side of our ego, this is what we will find if we allow the search to continue to its inevitable conclusion. We see that everything and everybody is nothing more than a manifestation of that one reality that is who we are — pure awareness; pure, unobstructed, unmanifested, undefined, infinite awareness. And when you see that, the result is unsurpassed, perfect, enlightenment.


Section by section explanation.
[Perfection of Wisdom]
When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was practicing the deep Perfection of Wisdom,...

Bosatsu is the Japanese transliteration of the word bodhisattva, one who has vowed to save all other sentient beings before passing on to final nirvana him/herself. Kanjisai Bosatsu (also, and more commonly, known as Kannon or Kanzeon Bosatsu) is the Japanese name for the bodhisattva Avolokiteshvara, who has vowed to use any amount of compassion and mercy and any tool necessary to protect and save all sentient beings and to lead them to nirvana. As you will see at the temples, Kannon is the most common diety enshrined in the pilgrimage hondō. Thirty of the temples have Kannon as their honzon.

The Heart Sutra starts by telling us that Kanjisai Bosatsu had a deep spiritual realization while practicing the Perfection of Wisdom. As it begins, we find Kannon deeply immersed in the practice of the Perfection of Wisdom, Prajna Paramita (Jp., Hannya Haramita). What is this? What was he doing? In simple terms, he was meditating, but as with much about this sutra, "simple" only skims the surface of what is meant.

While meditating, or, more accurately, while in this meditative state, Kannon wasn't counting his breaths, reciting a mantra, visualizing a deity, or any of the other many meditation techniques we frequently learn today. The term prajna paramita refers to Buddhist wisdom at the deepest level — not just wisdom, but the perfection of wisdom; wisdom of the true nature of reality, wisdom of the true nature of who we are, wisdom of the true nature of the complete interdependence of everything, wisdom of the emptiness of everything, wisdom of the emptiness of nothing.

In this objectless meditative state there was no Kanjisai Bosatsu, there was no he, no other, no me, no mine, no this, no that, no alive, no dead, no birth, no death, no experience, no non-experience, no being, no not being, no subject, no object. There was no dualistic perception at all. There was no dualism or non-dualism. In this meditative state there was no one meditating, There was no one. There was no meditating. There was nothing, yet that nothing contained everything. There was just "this," just Being in its totality, as it is, as it has always been, as it always will be.

And in this state Avolokiteshvara understood, not cognitively, not intellectually, but simply "knew" that the the concept of emptiness applies to the five skandha (five aggregates) just as much as it applies to all other phenomena and ideas. Emptiness isn't just a concept that applies to everything "out there," it applies equally to who we are. It even applies to the concept of emptiness itself.

And once he had that realization...


[Five Aggregates]
When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was practicing the deep Perfection of Wisdom,
he intuitively perceived that the five aggregates are all empty;
thus he was delivered from all sufferings and ills.

When asked what a table is, you'd say it's the sum of all its parts: the legs, top, and whatever other pieces there may be. Outside of the assembly of those parts, there is no table. There is no such thing as an inherently existing table — a table that can be said to exist without those parts. Table is empty of an existence that stands by itself, separate from the parts that make it up. Table is just the label that we add to the thing that results when those parts are assembled in a certain way in order to obtain a certain functionality. Change the way the parts are assembled or change the functionality and you may no longer have a table, even with all the same parts included.

Likewise, what is a car? Outside of the assembly of an engine, wheels, tires, electrical system, etc., there isn't an inherently existing thing that we can call a car. The concept of a car is empty of anything that could be seen as inherently self-existing. Car is just the label that we add to the thing that results when all of those pieces are assembled in a certain way in order to arrive at a certain desired functionality.

Why, then, do we all of the sudden think differently when asked "What am i?" or "Who am i?" Buddhist's look at the world in a rational way and say that there is no reason to suddenly change your standards and say that there is an inherently self-existing something that can be pointed at and said to be you. Using the same logic as before, they say that there is no inherently self-existing thing that can be called me outside of the parts that make up who i am. We, too, are empty. Empty of any inherent, stand alone, existing by itself, self-existence.

What are we made of? What are the parts that make up who we are? Buddhists say that each of us is an assembly of a body and mind, and that these can be further subdivided into five aggregates (or, skandhas): form, feeling, perception, mental volition, and consciousness. While we are empty of inherent self-existence, we are composed of these five aggregates. It is the temporary coming together of these five aggregates that we call me — temporary in the sense that when they come together this body & mind that people call me is born and when the agglomeration dissolves that body/mind is pronounced dead and discarded.

But even if most people get this far, that's where many of them stop. They accept the lack of an inherent self-existence of me but then settle on and accept an inherent self-existence of each of the five aggregates. Avalokitesvara (Kannon or Kanjizai, in Japanese) went a step further and realized that even the five aggregates themselves are empty. He came to the realization that everything is empty; there are no exceptions.

In other words, Avalokitesvara saw the emptiness of all phenomena. He understood, not just intellectually, but intuitively, at the deepest level possible, that everything is empty of any inherent self-existence. Everything is impermanent and constantly changing. Everything. Including you and me. Don't misunderstand, being empty of inherent self-existence does not mean that something doesn't exist; you are really there, reading this while drinking a cup of tea. It just means that everything is empty of anything that is inherently self-existing. It is empty of anything that is unchanging; anything that is permanent; anything that comes into existence, never changes for some period of time, and then goes out of existence.

Consider waves and wind as two fairly easy examples to understand. Waves and wind obviously exist, you certainly can't deny that, but they don't really exist, not as independent entities that could stand alone, that you could isolate and study in complete isolation from anything else.

If you went out on a windy day, held a cardboard box high up in the air, and "caught" a box full of wind, immediately sealed it and took it to your local scientist for analysis, he'd look at you strangely if you told him you had some wind in your box. You wouldn't. You'd have some air, but no wind. Likewise, if you went to your nearest ocean, sea, large lake, or pond, found the largest wave you could find, and put some of it in a bottle, the same scientist would tell you that what you brought in for analysis was not a wave, but just a bottle of water. Waves and wind exist, but only temporarily and only because the right causes and conditions came together to produce them. If those causes and conditions disappear, then the wave and the wind will cease to exist. If those causes and conditions had been different in any way whatsoever, the wave and wind would have been different. If those causes and conditions change, the wave and wind will, necessarily, change as well. They do exist on the one hand, and don't exist on the other. That's how you should look at this.

When Avalokitesvara had this realization, when he realized that there is no inherently existing self, that the self is impermanent, constantly changing, empty, then the causes of suffering disappeared. The cause of suffering is our never ending attempts to hold onto our belief in the existence of our self, our grasping to hold onto things we like and our attempts to avoid things we don't like. When Avalokitesvara understood that everything is empty of inherent self existence, impermanent, and constantly changing, and therefore there was really nothing to hold on to or to avoid, he understood that there were no causes of suffering; that suffering is a mental construct that need not be indulged. Hence, he was freed from all suffering.

That doesn't mean he didn't feel pain, just that he was freed from suffering. Pain, whether physical or mental, is a sensation, a sensation we all experience from time to time, suffering is the mental reaction that you lay over that, one way of dealing with the pain. You can feel pain and choose to suffer (usually without thinking about it) or you can choose to simply accept the pain, deal with it the best you can, and move on — without adding the suffering. Avalokitesvara realized that since everything is impermanent and has no inherent self-existence, then there is nothing that needs to be grasped at or pushed away, nothing that we should fear not getting or fear losing. Accept things that come your way and accept it when they go away. Accept gain and accept loss. Accept pleasure and accept pain. Accept fame, accept disrepute. Accept praise, accept blame. Accept the extremes while knowing that they don't exist on the absolute level. Don't be attached to either. When you can do this, there is no suffering.


[Empty Forms & Formed Emptiness]
Sariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from form.
Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form;
the same is true for feelings, perception, mental volition, and consciousness.

Sariputra, these are the characteristics of the emptiness of all dharmas:
They neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.

So, we are composed of the body (the form aggregate) and mind (the feelings, perception, mental volition, and consciousness aggregates). These all lack anything that stands alone, independent, and unrelated to anything else. They are empty of inherent self existence. They are nothing but temporary, impermanent manifestations of that infinite pure awareness, that emptiness, that is reality itself. Given that, we can say that the form aggregate is no different than emptiness. Or, the other way, emptiness is no different than form. Likewise for each of the other four aggregates — they are no different than emptiness and emptiness is no different than them.

But, when said like that ('A' is no different than 'B'), most of us make the mental leap and assume that A and B are different without even thinking about it. In one hand you have A, in the other you have B. And the one doesn't differ from the other. Ah, so i have two things that are similar. But, that isn't what is being said, and to get rid of that interpretation the sutra goes one step further and says 'form IS emptiness, and emptiness IS form. It's not just that each of the aggregates is no different than emptiness, they are one and the same thing. Identical. A single (non)entity. You can say that the five aggregates are empty (of inherent self existence) or you can say that emptiness manifests as the five aggregates, in either case you are saying the same thing. You are pointing to the same thing. They are identical, and when you talk of one or the other you are simply talking about one or another view of the same reality.

This is called the view of Ultimate Reality. Everything is empty of an inherent self existence. Everything. Nothing is independent of everything else. Everything is interdependent and temporary. In the ultimate reality view of existence, then, nothing is born and nothing dies. Nothing arises and nothing ceases. Using the word as we usually do, to say that something is born implies that where there previously was no something, a something has come into being. To say that something ceases or dies implies that where a something previously was, it has ceased to be. In ultimate reality, however, nothing is born because what is real has always been. Nothing dies because what is real never ceases to be. Instead, we should see that when the appropriate causes and conditions come together, something appears and we apply a label to it so we can categorize it and use it. But, it does not have any inherent self existence that never changes. It changes continuously, without stop, and with each change a new something is born. Then, when those causes and conditions disappear, when they separate, that something no longer appears to us and we say it is gone.

Certainly, at some point in time the body that this stupid old man living in Lockport uses to get around is going to die and cease to exist. But, what i really am, what animates this body, what exists, what is "being" minute by minute, day by day, year by year, will continue. How could it not?

In the same manner, in emptiness nothing is pure because that would imply that purity was inherently existent and had fixed characteristics that everyone could attach to things, ideas, thoughts, etc. — which they can't. Purity is just a label that we apply in ways that suit your culture, your beliefs, your morals & ethics, etc. Likewise with defiled. It is simply a label we use for our convenience and doesn't exist in emptiness. And how can anything increase or decrease? In the ultimate view of reality, there is no everything, no anything, no nothing; there just "is." Nothing in this view can get bigger or smaller because that implies that there was a specific size to begin with — which there wasn't. Reality is what is, in all it's indescribable vastness. It is everything and yet is is nothing. It is all that is and yet it is nothing at all. It manifests as everything "we" "have," yet can be seen to be nothing at all.

If no thing is permanent, self existing, and independent, and everything is interdependent, dependent on everything else, then nothing can be singled out. Everything just is. We're the one's that add labels and nametags, but in reality we should keep that interdependence in mind at all times. Emptiness and interdependence go hand in hand; you can not talk about one without the other.

Of course, in conventional reality, the way we are accustomed to looking at the world, things do appear to exist in and of themselves, things are born, do die, can be labeled as pure or impure, can grow and can decrease. But not in ultimate reality. You have to know which view of reality is being referred to when you deal with these issues. But, more on conventional reality later.


Therefore, in emptiness there is:

[The Eighteen Elements]
no form, no feeling, perception, mental volition, or consciousness;
no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind;
no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or mind object;
no eye sense-sphere, until we come to no consciousness sense-sphere,

In the first line here he simply reiterates what was said before; from the view of ultimate reality, the view of emptiness, there is nothing that we can point to and say, ah ha, see, there is 'form,' and over there is 'feelings,' etc. The aggregates do not exist as independent entities. The words are simply useful and efficient labels we attach to concepts in order to make life more easily maneuverable.

He then goes on to dispute the self-existence of The Eighteen Elements.

In order for us to interact with the world around us, we need three things: an external object, a sense organ to interact with that object, and a consciousness to internalize that interaction. The Eighteen Elements, therefore, are a listing of the six sense objects, the six organs we have at our disposal, and the six consciousnesses we use. These are:

ObjectOrganConsciousness
FormEyeEye Consciousness
SoundEarEar Consciousness
SmellNoseNose Consciousness
TasteTongueTongue Consciousness
TouchBodyBody Consciousness
Mind Object
(Thoughts)
MindMind Consciousness

It seems obvious to us that external objects exist. It seems obvious that we have eyes, ears, noses, tongues, bodies, and minds that we use to interact with those objects. It seems obvious to us that, if not six separate consciousnesses, we have at least one that interprets everything we take in about those external objects. Well, what appears as obvious isn't so obvious, according to the Buddhists. From the view of ultimate reality all of this is empty as well — empty of any inherent self existence — and thus we can say there is no eye, no ear, ... no smell, no taste, ... no eye consciousness, no mind consciousness, etc. Just as we said back at the beginning that there is no table, just some temporary accumulation of subparts that, when assembled in a certain way acceptable to all, we give the name of table, each of the eighteen elements don't exist as independent 'things' until we apply a label and give them their existence.

In the world of emptiness, in that world of the Perfection of Wisdom, in that empty meditative state that Kanjizai was practicing as the sutra began, none of these exist. There is no me, no body, no eye, no ear, etc., no external objects such as form or sound, etc., and no consciousness to translate those into solid concepts. In the perfection of wisdom, there is nothing, manifesting as everything, inside that place where there is no time.

At the start of our practice, we aim to reach this state on our zafus. With patience and perseverance it will make its appearance, coming and going of its own will, until, one day, you convince it to stay. As its willingness to stay lengthens, you take this state off your zafu and out into the rest of your life, out into that conventional world this body & mind live in. Of course, in conventional reality there are ears; there are sounds; there is a consciousness. But not in ultimate reality; not from the viewpoint of emptiness. During meditation, there is no 'ear,' no 'sound,' and no 'ear consciousness' — there is just perception. There is just this single unified process of experience. There is not a sound out there and a perceiver in here. They are not two..... yet not one either. That's the line you have to walk between ultimate reality and conventional reality and that is the viewpoint the Heart Sutra is trying to make us see and understand.

The sutra isn't trying to teach us to live like blind, deaf, and dumb idiots, refusing to accept the reality of the conventional world, dismissing everything as empty, impermanent, and unworthy of notice. No. What it is trying to teach us is that the conventional way we have been taught to view the world is not the only way it can and should be viewed. There is another way, through the view of ultimate reality. The push here is to get us to understand that once we see the world through this new view, our understanding of the world, of our place in it, of how to live a valuable life in it, will change forever.

Intellectually understanding this view may be the easy part of the teachings. The hard part, vastly harder, is to take this view back into our world of conventional reality, integrating the two so that we can see them both at the same time, so that we can operate in the conventional world through our understanding of the ultimate world. And if you are a Mahayana Buddhist, everything you do and study is done and studied to bring you to the point where you have this ability.


[Chain of Dependent Origination]
no ignorance nor the ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death nor the ending of old age and death;

The sutra continues on its rampage to dispute seemingly everything the Buddha taught but now it also begins to tell us how the Buddha would approach rebuilding it once we begin that process. One of his most important teachings was about the concept of Interdependent Origination (or Dependent Origination) and Karma, the law of cause & effect. These two concepts are at the heart of everything the Buddha taught. They explain impermanence, no-self, emptiness, why 'virtuous' actions are beneficial and 'non-virtuous' are harmful, nirvana, samsara, and everything in between.

Many people have seen pictures of the Wheel of Life, and one could write pages about its meaning, but i'll simply say that it is a visual depiction of interdependent origination and composed of five separate sections.

The Wheel of Life teaches us why things exist as they do. How things come to exist in the first place. What types of existence are possible. Why one might be born into one or another realm and how the process keeps circling around this wheel lifetime after lifetime. When you then add the teachings of Karma, the teachings of cause and effect, the teachings that each step is a cause for other steps, that each step is the effect of a previous step, then you can then see how and where you can break the twelve link process of interdependent origination and how you can release yourself from this circular ride around and around and around this process of one unsatisfactory life after another.

The teachings on Interdependent Origination say that there are two ways to study and understand the twelve links involved — one constructive and one destructive. The first way is to understand that from step one (Ignorance) comes step two (Volitional Activities, or Karma), from which comes step three (Consciousness), ... , up to step twelve (Old Age & Death). This method gives you a clearer understanding of why the world is as it is. Why we are as we are. The other way to understand it is to see that if you want to avoid step twelve (Old Age & Death), then you just need to end its cause, step eleven (Birth), which can be eliminated by ending its cause, step ten (Bringing into Existence, or Becoming), ..., which brings you back to the ending of step one (Ignorance).

But, if this is such an important teaching, how can the Heart Sutra say that these don't exist? How can it say that there is no ignorance nor ending of ignorance? No volitional activities nor ending of volitional activities, ... , up to no old age & death nor ending of old age & death? That disputes exactly what the Buddha taught. It can all be disputed as above, however, when we view existence from the standpoint of ultimate reality. From this standpoint, there is no ignorance, at least not something that stands alone, independent of everything else and which can be singled out as existing in and of it's own right. Likewise for the eleven other steps. Once again, there is nothing that exists independently of everything else. There is nothing that is inherently self existent.

These are just words, words strung into sentences, strung into paragraphs, strung into a teaching attributed to the Buddha. But even his teachings have no fixed existence, no immutable core that has existed forever and never changes. Words come and go. Teachings come and go. Don't fixate on even the teachings of the Buddha. Don't fixate on anything, everything is empty.

Remember, saying that something is empty does not mean that it doesn't exist. It simply means that it doesn't exist as we normally think and assume it does. It does not exist as an inherently self-existing entity. It doesn't exist in and of itself, apart from everything else, independent of the existence of everything else. At the root, we just are. Everything just is. Everything else we think we know about ourselves and others are concepts that we add with our minds.

Throughout the day we continuously reveive sensations through one of our sense organs. We subconsciously choose to ignore the vast majority of those, selecting those that consciously or subconsciously seem important. A feeling about that sensation then arises, an immediate reaction, good, bad or indifferent. From that, thoughts arise and we overlay that sensation with those thoughts. All the attributes we pin on everything are just thoughts we make up in our minds. All the adjectives we use to describe everything are something we have made up in our minds. They don't really exist.

Those feelings and thoughts are our reality, not the object "out there." Those thoughts and feelings define our world. Everything we think is true is based on those. We design our own reality. And since no two people have the same thoughts and feelings, everyone designs their own reality. Everyone lives in their own world. "The world" for you is different from "the world" for me. When you are born your world comes into existence. When you die your world ceases to be. And the same for me and my world.

In the view of conventional reality.

In Kannon's meditative state of the Perfection of Wisdom at the beginning of the sutra, none of these six realms existed. There were no causes and effects. There was nothing that could be a cause or an effect. There was no ignorance or wisdom, no birth or old age & death. On you zafu, you can find the same. That's the view of ultimate reality.

With practice, you learn to take that new view to the market with you and find that even the green pepper you hold in your hand doesn't exist. Until you blink, at which point it pops back into view and you throw it in the shopping cart and head to the check out line.


[Four Noble Truths]
no Truth of Suffering, of the Cause of Suffering, of the Cessation of Suffering, nor of the Path.

There is no wisdom, nor is there attainment, for there is nothing to be attained.

And finally we come to the ultimate two disputations before we try and pick up the pieces and rebuild the Buddha's teachings. At the very core of what the Buddha taught are the Four Noble Truths. These comprised the first message he taught after his enlightenment and everything he taught for the rest of his life simply expounded on these four assertions.

The Buddha realized that the problem with all of us is that we have let suffering become an integral part of our existence. Suffering dominates our life. There is more to it than the simple suffering of birth, sickness, old age, & death, or the suffering we feel when we smash our toe against the sofa, or the suffering we feel when we are separated from our loved ones. Another way to say it would be to call it a feeling of dissatisfaction — dissatisfaction with our lives, our jobs, our marriages, our looks, our bodies, our salary, our anything you want to add here. We may be blind to it, or we may not want to see it and have simply covered over the symptoms, but it is there. Our lives are permeated with dissatisfaction/suffering. This is the Truth of Suffering. (In the Buddha's teachings, there are three categories of suffering, but going through them doesn't add to this explanation so i'm going to leave that discussion out.)

Like any good doctor, once he found the disease that has infected all of humanity, he looked for the cause of that disease. He goes on to tell us in the Truth of the Cause of Suffering that the cause is our constant need to grasp at things — physical things, mental ideas, emotions, feelings, ideologies, you name it, we grasp at it if it makes us feel good and try and push it away if it doesn't. Even worse, there is our naive grasping for a sense of self, grasping and trying to hold onto the belief that "I" exist independent of "you." That "I" exist independent of anything else.

Once the doctor found that he could isolate the cause of the disease, he checked to see if there was a remedy, to which he said there is. In the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, he simply tells us that, given the specific disease we have, and given that we know the cause, there is certainly a cure, there is certainly a way we can stop the constant suffering and be free. The cure is to cease our non-stop insistence on believing that sentient beings and phenomona have a unitary, intrinsic, and stand-alone existence at their core, to stop our never-ending grasping and to understand the emptiness of ourselves and of all phenomena. The cure is a correct understanding of Impermanence, No-self, Suffering, and Nirvana.

He then went on to tell us that the way to implement this cure, the way to use it to heal ourselves, is to follow the Eightfold Path, or, more accurately, to make the Eightfold Path our lives. These eight processes are not steps to be followed in a linear manner (first do this, then this, then that, etc.) but eight ways of looking at your life, eight ways to lead your life, eight ways to interact with the world, that, if done consistently and over the very long term, will cure you and relieve you of the constant suffering. The eight steps are: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. If you want to know what it means to be a practicing Buddhist, this is it. This is the path that you must walk. This is the path that leads you to liberation.

But, just as has been done with all the other teachings, the Heart Sutra points out that from the view of ultimate reality, even these four essential teachings have no independent existence of their own. They are man made, albeit by a Buddha, and don't, therefore, exist in and of themselves. Nothing exists in and of itself, even the teachings of the Buddha. In emptiness, nothing exists in and of itself, everthing as a whole just is. It is — sometimes manifesting as you out there, sometimes as me, here as a person, there as a tree, over there as a dog, etc.

In emptiness, there is nothing that can be called wisdom. For there to be "wisdom," there must be something to know, someone to know it, and the process of knowing. In emptiness none of those exist, there is just one all encompassing whole. One. It. Emptiness. Whatever you want to call it. And, if there is no wisdom to attain, then there is nothing that can be called attainment.

And that's the exact conclusion the sutra comes to when it says "There is no wisdom, nor is there attainment, for there is nothing to be attained." If you are practicing Buddhism with the aim of "attaining" something, then you are wasting your time. There is no mysterious, mystical, esoteric "wisdom" out there to attain. Nothing that your teacher is going to hand you after your accumulated contributions to the Sangha reach $3,472, or when your total time on the meditation cushion reaches 7,241 hours. There is nothing he/she can hand you.

There is no wisdom that can be passed from teacher to student. If you are practicing in order to attain something, then there is still a you and a separate something. But, it's just not that way. There is nothing to learn, nothing to reach, nothing to attain. This path is all about letting go; letting go of ideas, getting rid of things, releasing beliefs — not about learning, gaining, or attaining.



The Heart Sutra has now done its job. It has destroyed anything and everything that you could try to grab and hold onto. Nothing, absolutely nothing, exists in and of itself. By itself. With no dependence on anything else. Not even emptiness. No man is an island. No thing is an island. Islands do not exist. Period.

Some people get hung up at this stage, and in the Zen world, this is referred to as the dreaded "Zen Sickness." Once they develop to this point and can truly see existence from the point of ultimate reality, they think they have arrived. Emptiness is it. And they stop searching, stop inquiring, stop moving forward. One has to be very, very careful here, the cement around emptiness is setting quickly. It is easy to intellectually understand the 'no form, no feeling..., no eye, no ear, ..., no cessation of suffering, no path.' It is a completely different matter to go past that intellectual understanding and realize once again, yet in a completely new light, that there is form, there is feeling, there is eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, & mind, there is suffering, cause, cessation, and path, and everything in between.

It is relatively easy to see that there is no wisdom and nothing to attain, but it can take a lifetime of study to attain the wisdom to understand what that means.

According to the stories that have been passed down to us from long ago, when a student would get hung up at this stage, some ancient teachers we read about would reach over and grab them by their nostrils and basically try and rip their nose off. When the student, quite naturally, reacts with pain and anger, the teacher simply points out that their nose obviously does exist, pain obviously does exist, anger, feelings, and emotions obviously exist. At that point, the student is brought back to the view of conventional reality, the view with which we normally look at the world. But because he/she has seen the view from the other side, the conventional view no longer holds as much power over him/her. Now, even the conventional world has been changed.

Hopefully that twisted nose brings us through the Zen Sickness ceiling and allows us to move up to the next level of our training. The one where we realize and understand that ultimate reality and conventional reality both exist. Simultaneously. It's like looking at two sides of the same coin — you can look at the coin from one side, or the other side, but you are still looking at the same coin. Sometimes it may be appropriate to examine it from one side, sometimes it may be appropriate to look at it from the other. You can even flip-flop from one view to the other. In both cases, however, you still have the same coin in your hand.

So how do you do that? How do you see that there are two ways that reality manifests in our lives? How do you see reality as it is. As it really is. How do you see that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Not "how do you see emptiness" and "how do you see form," but how do you see "form is not different than emptiness and emptiness is not different than form." How do you see this? How do you actualize it in your day-to-day life? Sitting on your cushion, can you be both form and emptiness? Can form and emptiness both, simultaneously, sit on your cushion? Can you be both form and emptiness while driving to work? While paying your bills? While signing your monthly alimony check?


[Delusions]
Because Bodhisattvas rely on the Perfection of Wisdom,
nothing obstructs their minds. Because obstructions exist not,
they have no fear and pass far beyond all illusions and imagination and awaken to ultimate Nirvana.

The way to see reality as it really is is to follow the eightfold path and to be especially dedicated to Right Meditation. As you develop, your understanding improves and you get glimpses of reality more and more often, more and more clearly, and for longer periods of time. Those that reach the stages just below that of the Buddha himself are called Bodhisattvas. The Heart Sutra says that they rely on the Perfection of Wisdom, a perfect understanding of ultimate emptiness, to awaken to ultimate nirvana.

Because they have a perfect understanding of ultimate emptiness, Bodhisattvas have no obstructions in their minds that cloud their view of reality. These obstructions are the delusions that cloud our minds making it all but impossible to see things clearly. There are many delusions, but the three most important are called the Three Root Delusions: greed, hatred, and ignorance, the three found at the center of the Wheel of Life. Or, as they are sometimes called, attachment, aversion, and ignorance.

Ignorance is just the opposite of "a perfect understanding of ultimate emptiness." It is ignorance of reality as it is, ignorance of who and what you really are. An ignorant belief that there is an inherently existing "self" that is at the core of who you are, and that can be pointed to, singled out, and isolated. The ignorant belief that you have something called a "soul" that comes into existence when you are born, remains unchanged for the duration of your life, and then goes out of existence when you die — or is promoted/demoted to an existence in heaven or hell, or continues unchanged from one life to another to another, ad infinitum.

It is this ignorance that causes our attachment and aversion, our greed and hatred. It is because we think that "I" exist, that we are attached to things that give us pleasure and feel an aversion towards things that displease us. It is because we want to keep this make believe "I" happy that greed rises in our minds at every turn and hatred arises just as strongly when something doesn't go our way. These three delusions taint every thought we have, every experience we undergo, everything we say, do, or think. And when this happens, we do, say, and think non-virtuous things and imprint negative karma on our minds.

No matter what we do we imprint karmic seeds on our minds. Some of those are positive, some are negative, and some are neutral. But, as long as delusions filter everything we say, think, and do, we are certain to spend more time on the negative side. The Bodhisattvas, however, because they see the emptiness of this "I," have cleared their minds of the root delusions and this frees them to see reality as it is.

The Buddha said this very clearly, as shown in the collection of his sayings called the Dhammapada (pdf). In the very first two verses of the collection he says:

  1. All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

  2. All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

If your mind is controlled by delusions, you will do, say, and think non-virtuous actions, and this will produce negative karma. This, in turn, will produce unhappiness, now, in the near future, years later, or in another lifetime. If your mind is clear of delusions, you will do, think, and say virtuous actions, and this will produce positive karma. This, in turn, will produce happiness, now, in the near future, years later, or in another lifetime.

Your life and happiness are in your hands. Karma is not fatalistic, deciding what happens to you in ways that are completely out of your control. You, and you alone, control what karma you produce. You, and you alone, decide at any time and in any circumstance how you will react to what is happening to you at that moment, thus deciding how the karma will play out. Karma is not a foregone conclusion, but a predilection towards something good, bad, or neutral happening. It is completely up to you how you grab the reins and which way you steer. Realizing this, the Bodhisattva is free of fear. Free of fear of death. Free of fear of uncertainty. Free of fear of anything. And this freedom allows them to pass far beyond the normal things we worry about and imagine can, could, may, might possibly happen to us. This freedom allows them to pass far beyond all the normal illusions that dominate our lives and contain us in suffering. This freedom gives them the ability to awake to nirvana, a life with no suffering, a life open to everything, a life open to everyone, a life open to living.


All the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, by relying on the Perfection of Wisdom,
attain Unsurpassed Perfect Enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva has taken a vow not to enter Unsurpassed Perfect Enlightenment until everybody else, everything in existence, has entered before he or she has. The Bodhisattva has vowed, in effect, to stand there and hold the door open until every other sentient being has passed through before him. And if there are those who haven't found their way to the door because they don't know where it is, or because they don't yet know that it exists, or because they have temporarily lost their way, the Bodhisattva has vowed to go find them and teach them, lead them, or push them along as needed until they get to the door.

For those who have made it to the Buddha stage, whether the man called Shakyamuni who was born in southern Nepal 2,500 years ago, or the Buddhas of the past, or the Buddhas to come in the future, by relying on the Perfection of Wisdom, the perfect understanding of ultimate emptiness, they have reached, and will reach, the ultimate goal — Unsurpassed Perfect Enlightenment — and they no longer circle from life to life to life around the Wheel of Life, the Wheel of Interdependent Origination.

{As an aside, i have to admit here that i still wonder how there can be any present Buddhas. If all Bodhisattvas vow to hold off on unsurpassed perfect enlightenment until all others pass through before him/her, how then, with all the messed up people in the world, can the Bodhisattvas say their job is done?}


[Mantra]
Therefore, know that the Perfection of Wisdom is the great mysterious mantra, the great mantra of illumination, the supreme mantra, the unequaled mantra which can remove all suffering, and is true and not false.

I would like to think that at this point all of you reading this are jumping up and down for joy with me. By the time i get to this point of the sutra, i am frequently overwhelmed at how lucky i was to be born in a time, place, country, class, etc. to have found myself in a position to have stumbled across the Heart Sutra. From the first words to this point a very simple system has been laid out that, if followed, leads from the dull monotony of an unlived life straight to Unsurpassed Perfect Enlightenment. But more than that, this system tells us how to live each and every moment of this current life, how to be fully alive each moment. The sutra can be viewed as not just a map of how to get from here to that final goal, but more so an algorithm for living in the immediate present, for living in that one and only place you can truly live, here and now.

There has been nothing presented that is overwhelmingly difficult to understand or do. Nothing that is beyond the grasp of anyone. Nothing that can't be done — if you set your mind to it. The Perfection of Wisdom is the mantra that can remove all suffering. All. Every bit of it. It is supreme and unequaled in this regard. Learn the lessons of emptiness and illumination will brighten your life as the full moon brightens the darkest nights. There is no question that this is true as serious efforts on your part will quickly verify.

As T.S. Eliot says, "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go." Do you have the guts to take the risk?


Therefore is said the Mantra of the Perfection of Wisdom: GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA.

Gate translates as Gone. Paragate as Gone Beyond. Parasamgate as Gone Completely Beyond. Bodhi as Awakened. And, Svaha as Hallelujah, or Praise Be. Therefore, a literal translation would be "Gone. Gone. Gone beyond. Gone completely beyond. Awakened. Hallelujah!"

But the question i would guess most people ask at this point is "Gone where? Beyond what?" And if you ask that, stop here, go back to the top of the page, and start reading again. You didn't get the message. Try again. Because if you ask that question, you still see yourself as separate from everything else. You still think of yourself as being "yourself." But as the message of emptiness has tried to point out, you are NOT. There is no you that is going to go somewhere other than where you are. This mantra isn't saying that you go beyond anything. No, no, no, and still no.

In ultimate reality, in the world seen and lived from the viewpoint of emptiness, there is no here or there. There is no this side or that side. There is no gone because there is nowhere to go; there is nowhere that you don't already exist. In ultimate reality, there is no you that is existing, there is only existence; there is only being. There is no beyond because that implies that there is a place other than here and a time other than now.

What this sutra is telling us is that when you let go of the delusions that cloud your mind, when you open to the vast reality that is who you are, when you come to understand that enlightenment is a state of complete release, not a state of complete attainment — then, and only then, do you find yourself beyond the limitations that fence you in and keep you chained to a life of suffering, lifetime after lifetime. And when you get there (without going anywhere), Hallelujah, Praise Be, you will be enlightened. And this is where i break out singing "Oh happy days. Oh happy days. When Jesus washed, When Jesus washed. He washed my sins away." This is all about washing away something. Everything.

When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was practicing the deep Perfection of Wisdom, he intuitively perceived that the five aggregates are all empty. And with that perception, he had passed beyond. Bodhi Svaha!


So, if you are one of the lucky ones, the question that you find yourself faced with as you stand at the gate leading into Ryōzenji (Temple 1) isn't what kind of walk you want, but what kind of life you want. Anyone can make it around the physical henro trail, all you have to do is walk. Vastly fewer will make it around the Heart Sutra trail. It's both infinitely harder and infinitely easier. It requires enormous amounts of effort and no effort at all. It's like a dream — while you may have worked up a sweat year after year after year in a dream, in that one instant when you wake up, you realize you had really done nothing at all. Yet the rewards for your efforts on the henro trail are unimaginable.

Are you willing to make this more than just a walk? Are you willing to make it a pilgrimage? For those henro whose main map around the island indicates roads, highways, and cities, at journey's end, while they will have had an interesting life on the trail, the effects will slowly but surely wear off. On the other hand, for those henro that use the Heart Sutra as their main map, by journey's end they will have laid a strong foundation for an awakened life, a life with meaning, a life well worth living. A life full of living.

What kind of life do you want?

May you be one of those who dares to take the risk and see how far you can go.


With that...

The text and two audio recordings of the Heart Sutra