Friday, 30 December 2016

The Heart Sutra: Everything is Empty

Thanks to Yuan Hao who introduced this teaching to me, but any errors in these notes are mine.

The Buddha’s teachings after enlightenment are sometimes categorised into three turnings of the dhamma wheel. In the first of these, Buddha elucidates the four noble truths for extinguishing suffering. In the second, he emphasises the teaching of emptiness and the selflessness of phenomena. And in the third, he discloses the luminous nature of the essence of the tathagatas.

The Heart Sutra is the shortest of this second wheel, also called the perfection of wisdom or prajnaparamita teachings. It comprises a condensation of several heavy bookcases of prajnaparamita suttas in the Tipitaka. These were further developed by Nagarjuna and commentaries on Nagarjuna by Aryaveda and Candrakirti.  The Heart Sutra is often used as a daily prayer and also as a blessing both in Tibetan as well as other branches of Buddhism. Its importance is due to its encapsulation of the most fundamental and essential of Buddha’s teachings, namely with regard to emptiness.

The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) is sometimes regarded as a goddess to whom one pays homage. Bowing in Buddhism is not to idolise or worship a figure as if it is real, but to remind oneself of its embodied qualities, and to transcend the self that bows. During meditation, experienes of physical and mental bliss, of clarity and of emptiness may arise. But attachment to these states is an impediment to the practice. When coming to the text we begin by paying homage in order to facilitate a sacred state of mind.

At the beginning of every text, there are often recounted the five perfect attributes which serve as a reference guaranteeing the authenticity of the teaching and so dispelling doubt. These are the time, the place, the teacher, the teaching, and the audience (which in its retelling includes ourselves).

The main body of the Heart Sutra has the form of a question by Sariputra, an answer by Avoliketeshvara and an affirmation by Buddha Sakyamuni.

The emptiness teaching comprises an emptiness of foundation (the five aggregates), an emptiness of path (the twelve links and the four noble truths) and an emptiness of result (the profound wisdom).

The five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Everything in the world is made up of these five. They are all empty. What does it mean to say that they are empty? Two images are used. One is of a white shell which appears yellow to a person with jaundice: just as such a person does not perceive the original whiteness, it is only because of our way of looking that we do not see things as empty. Another simile is that of the moon in the water. Emptiness is a lack of inherent existence or conceptual separation. It is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls inter-being or inter-dependence.

If the Heart Sutra is the essence, the essence of the Heart Sutra is in the enigmatic quatrain:

Form is emptiness;
Emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness;
Emptiness is not other than form.

If we can contemplate and realise this, the same applies by analogy to each of the other five aggregates. Once realised for the five aggregates, the same can be realised for the twelve sense bases, the eighteen constituents, the twelve links of dependent origination, the four noble truths and the profound wisdom of the Buddha itself.

These four lines speak to the attachment to existence, to non-existence, to both and to neither. Contemplating the four areas of a Venn diagram, the identity of form and emptiness is established.

To say form is empty is also to say that form is empty of an independent self. Conventionally speaking, we can talk of a car and a person and the moon. We can talk of good actions having good consequences and the importance of taking responsibility for our body, speech and mind. These are relative truths. To say all these are empty of existence or self-nature is absolute truth. 

If we were to ask the philosophical question: if I replace one plank at a time of a wooden ship, at what point does it cease to be the original ship? Or the same question, but now where the replacement planks are made of metal? Or what if the planks are not replaced at all? What if instead of a ship, it is the human brain being replaced one molecule at a time with computer chips performing the same function: at what point would the result cease to be human? All these questions are based on a supposition of original nature. In a relative sense, the ship might cease being the original ship from that point when we did not recognise it as such. This emphasises how its nature is defined not in itself but by our own perception. But in an absolute sense, the nature of the ship or the human being is emptiness, so these questions are based on a false premise.

Emptiness is sometimes expanded upon into 7 further profundities of emptiness: emptiness, no characteristics, no production & no cessation, no stains & no purity, no increase and no decrease. Characteristics include the feelings they may induce, whether beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant. The remaining three pairs refer to the perceptions, mental formations and consciousness respectively which may be induced. Though waves may rise and waves may fall, the wave is empty of inherent existence being but a movement of the sea of consciousness.

In order for sound consciousness to arise, there must be an ear consciousness and a sound. These three constitute sense contact from which pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensations may arise, from which in turn craving or aversion may arise. The same is true of all the six senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and mind. There are therefore twelve sense bases in total, six internal and six external, and eighteen elements including the consciousnesses that arise therefrom. All of these eighteen constituent elements are empty.

Likewise the twelve links of dependent origination that begin with ignorance and end with ageing and death are empty. These twelve are: ignorance, karmic formations, consciousness, name and form, six sense bases, contact (just discussed), feelings, craving, clinging, becoming, birth and finally ageing and death.

So too the suffering, origin of suffering, cessation of suffering and the path leading to the cessation of suffering, as taught in the first turning of the dhamma wheel, are all empty of inherent existence. The wisdom then is to surrender to the cure, follow the dhamma, but not attach to it, because it too is empty of inherent existence just like the sickness it cures.

We finally turn to the emptiness of result: “no wisdom, no attainment, no non-attainment”. We already possess the Buddha’s profound wisdom, but both the wisdom and the self are empty. They only exist and manifest themselves as if in a dream. Abiding in this profound wisdom purifies the mind of all mental afflictions and attains liberation. But there is nothing attained. We experience a shift, as if waking from a dream inside a dream to realise that we are still dreaming. And this is a universal experience of all buddhas, past, present and future to become enlightened through this wisdom of emptiness, this prajnaparamita or supreme wisdom.

The answer to Sariputra’s question concludes with a mantra for this perfection of wisdom: 

tadyatha om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

This is a blessing with healing power both mentally and physically. Tadyatha means “as follows”, the rest means gone to the other shore, completely gone beyond, completely awakened and enlightened, and svaha means “so be it” or “may it be”.

This mantra expresses a self-surpassing moment, beyond even the opposition of this shore and the other shore, awake or not.

Ken McLeod writes on the use of the six perfections to realise the prajnaparamita: Where is the other shore? For generosity, nothing to own. For ethics, nothing to hide. For patience, nothing to fear. For effort, nothing to achieve. For stable attention, nothing to wander. For wisdom, nothing to know. As a friend of mine joked: wisdom is what remains when all that we have learned is forgotten

The elements of natural awareness are like snowflakes falling on a hot stone, beautiful but transient. In the Amulet Mahamudra of the Shangpa tradition, the four drawbacks of this primal awareness is that it’s so close you can’t see it, so deep you can’t fathom it, so simple you can’t believe it and so good you can’t accept it.

As Ken McLeod says, “the most that a teacher can do is to help create the conditions in which seeing, the experiencing of presence or awakening can arise. The student needs three things: willingness, know-how and capacity.” Willingness is a letting go and is connected with faith. Know-how can be taught and helps cultivate attention. Capacity is the ability to use the know-how we have been taught in practice. Capacity can be developed.

At the end of the teaching, Buddha affirms the teaching. The function of this is to dispel all doubt of both the questioner, the answerer and all those present. The response from all the worlds of gods and men is to rejoice and praise the teaching. This signifies that the Buddha’s teaching is truly universal and applicable equally to all. 

Image: The Convent of St. Agnes in Prague, photo taken by okei.

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