Thursday February 5, 2009
Lately, I have been thinking about the Heart Sutra, that strangest of all Buddhist texts, bristling with negations and systematically overturning the most hallowed of all Buddhist concepts: there is neither ignorance nor the end of ignorance; there is nothing to be attained, but neither is there no non-attainment… and so on. For those who have not come across the text, the Wikipedia article linked above should in turn have links to a wide variety of translations from the Chinese, Tibetan and Sanskrit.
The Heart Sutra is probably the most recited of all Buddhist texts throughout the world, as mellifluous as it is baffling. This happy combination of mellifluousness and opacity, as well as the brevity of the text, has rendered it astonishingly successful and resilient. It is a meme, that is to say, with a mission.1 It is easy to recite with the sense that you are saying something deeply and profoundly meaningful; but it also relieves you of the pesky inconvenience of actually having to mean anything at all. A neat trick, if you can pull it off.
Nevertheless, I have a sneaking admiration for the text, even if I’m not convinced that it isn’t at the same time a pretty shifty piece of work. One the one hand, I think that there is in fact a place for things that are imbued with a sense of meaningfulness without having any meaning at all: life itself, after all, may be one rather big thing that is imbued with a sense of meaningfulness but that lacks any kind of determinate meaning. And so it might not be unreasonable to argue that the meaningfulness without meaning of the Heart Sutra might serve, in one way or another, to encourage our reflection upon meaning in the world, or to bring us into alignment with the way of the world seems to be constituted. But having said this, on the other hand I wonder if the reverence that surrounds the Heart Sutra tends to miss something, obscuring the fact that this is a text that almost entirely rips up the rule-book for (Buddhist) thinking, throwing all pieties out of the window.
Here are two thoughts, then, that I like to keep in mind whilst reading the Heart Sutra. The first is the appealing idea that the text, for all we know, might just be a load of idle nonsense that was concocted by a particularly bored monk with a perverse penchant for negation, as he idled about during the course of some rainy Sunday afternoon (or whatever afternoon it was that monks found themselves particularly bored in ancient India or ancient China or wherever it was composed). The other is that, if the text must be read, it might be timely to add another negation to the negations upon negations, so that a bit of fresh air be allowed to circulate once again. Stick the whole damned thing in brackets, I say, and precede it by the logical operator “NOT”:
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1 Memes, of course, no more have missions than do genes. And no less. That’s Universal Darwinism for you, folks.
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