Thursday February 5, 2009

Heart Sutra

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”:

~(Heart Sutra)

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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#1 · David Chapman

5 February 2009

Two thoughts. One is that, indeed, the Heart Sutra is exceptionally radical. The lineage I practice in takes it to be the central statement of view and the essence of Dzogchen. (This is not a typical Dzogchen line.) I think of Dzogchen as “calling Buddhism’s bluff.” All Mahayanists theoretically accept the Heart Sutra — but if you really mean that, you have to accept the consequences. Which are uncomfortable.

The second is that meaningfulness is precisely a matter of emptiness and form. Meaningfulness is empty: nothing is inherently meaningful, and nothing has a definite, well-defined, or stable meaning. To say otherwise would be eternalism (denial of emptiness). On the other hand, provisional, inchoate, and heuristic meanings are everywhere. To say otherwise would be nihilism (denial of form).

I believe that the personal spiritual dilemmas that might be connected with the phrase “the meaning of life” can be properly understood, and resolved, by understanding meaningfulness as a non-dual dance of emptiness and form. I’m writing a book about that… bits of which I will probably start putting on the web when I finish my other Buddhist writing project.

Also, by the way, there’s an interesting piece on the history of the Heart Sutra here:…

#2 · Will

5 February 2009

Thanks for the comment, David, and the link to Jayarava’s thorough and thoughtful post, which may be a good antidote to the above…

Apologies, also, for the typo in which “logical operator” was replaced by “local operator”…


#3 · Barry Briggs

5 February 2009

The Heart Sutra seems to operate (not logically) on (at least) two levels:

The first is experiential. I’ve chanted it daily for 20 years now and occasionally a bit of it opens up in a new way. Recently the line “the mind is no hindrance” jumped out at me and created a new viewpoint into what practice is all about.

At a more historical/philosophical level, the sutra can be viewed as a direct, head-on attack on the Sarvastivadan Abhidharma. The sutra reveals that the entire analytical approach to Buddhadharma is nothing but emptiness. The five skandhas are empty. The Four Noble Truths are empty. Even dharmas are empty. In this view, the Heart Sutra is nothing more than a polemic – the Mahayanans (or perhaps the Mahasanghikas) going after the “foolishness” of the Sarvastivadans.

Red Pine (Bill Porter) has written a fine translation and commentary on the sutra – well worth reading.

#4 · Ned

5 February 2009

The only way I can see the Heart Sutra as being a text of negation is if you misunderstand the concept of emptiness.

The skandhas are empty of independent, permanent existence, not their existence itself.

I thought it interesting that you called the text shifty. What is shifting: the Sutra or you?

I don’t mean that to sound as cryptic as that might come across. Maybe the Heart Sutra has been so popular because any view you might interject just slides right off again.

#5 · Will

5 February 2009

I’ll look out Bill Porter’s book, Barry. Thanks for the tip.

I’m not entirely sure, Ned, that one can justifiably claim that this is not a text of negation, given that negation runs through the whole thing; although one can, I think, ask what it is negating, and to what end, as one can also ask what negation might be able to do that affirmation cannot do. So I’m not advocating a kind of nihilistic reading of the text: nihilism is not particularly to my taste. And, if you had any worries about my reading of the text, you could at least rest assured that in negating it with that final NOT, I’ve probably also negated my own reading.

What I like about the text, at least as a literary text, is precisely its quality of shiftiness (although I like your question about what, exactly, is shifting – a question I’d answer, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern style, with another: what, exactly, is not shifting?)

#6 · Ted Bagley

6 February 2009

Would “not” be the affect of a perceived split in negation?

#7 · Will

6 February 2009

I’m not sure I understand the question, Ted. “Not” could simply be a scribal error, taking the place of “knot”, which is either

i) the natural end result of philosophy

or, alternatively

ii) that from which philosophy (pace Wittgenstein) seeks to free us


#8 · Joseph

7 February 2009

I enjoyed your post. I’ve also been known to utter that the Heart Sutra is the most over-rated Buddhist sutra. Here in Korea it’s chanted daily. I also chant it in Korean, which is actually a Koreanized ancient Chinese — in other words, a kind of non-existent language. And when I chant it, I love that I don’t have a clue what I’m saying. I just chant it and enjoy! I’ve memorized the English as well, however, while chanting the English I tend to think about what I’m saying. The beauty of chanting is to not have to think.

#9 · zensquared

7 February 2009

I will second Barry’s recommendation of the translation and commentary by Red Pine (Bill Porter). The introduction gives a wonderful backstory of how he first considered the Heart Sutra to be simplistic and basically not very interesting — especially compared with longer sutras with which he has spent much time. But the more he studied it, the more he came to admire it.

I love this sutra. I memorized its English version inadvertently (because we chant it at my Zen center). Sometimes I just chant it for no special reason. It seems to me a complete portrayal of Zen Buddhism. It’s pared down to the essence. If you have learned about the five skandas and the six senses and the 12 Links of Dependent Origination, then it’s not baffling at all, and it certainly has a clear meaning.

#10 · Ad

7 February 2009

Nice post. Like the idea that texts for contemporary western audiences should look like equations. I think the next in line can’t be ‘not not the heart sutra’, as by doing so, you form a pattern of adding a negative every time a text grows stale, and patterns are forms of conceptualization. I think most Buddhist texts are designed to break down preconceptions of the time, to remind you of how little you actually know, and the wisdom doesn’t lie in the content as a thing in itself, but as a thing reflecting and questioning contemporary causes of conceptualization and suffering.

#11 · Will

8 February 2009

Thanks for the comments. I take the point that one has to know precisely what the sutra is negating – the five skandhas, the six senses and so on – to get some leverage on what is going on; but beyond this, I’m not sure that I’d agree the text certainly has a clear meaning. As Donald Lopez writes at the beginning of his book The Heart Sutra Explained, “The meaning of the Heart Sutra has always seemed elusive to its readers, as is evident from widely divergent doctrines discovered in it by its commentators.” It is hard to see how this would be the case if the interpretation of the text was so straightforward.

On some readings (and also for some of you who have commented on this post), I’m not sure if it is matter of clarity of meaning at all, but rather that the text has a more performative function (a point made by Bernard Faure, I think).

Within an individual life or an individual tradition, it might be possible to say that one is certain about the relationship between that life or tradition and the text, and that this relationship gives rise to clear and definite meanings; but I’m not sure if this is the same as saying that these meanings belong to the text. The best texts, in my view, can often be the slipperiest. The Heart Sutra seems like a good candidate for slipperiness.

#12 · Ned

9 February 2009

“I take the point that one has to know precisely what the sutra is negating – the five skandhas, the six senses and so on – to get some leverage on what is going on; but beyond this, I’m not sure that I’d agree the text certainly has a clear meaning.”

You might want to pick up “The Heart of Understanding” by Thich Nhat Han. It’s a small book, but it brought me a lot of clarity about the Heart Sutra and the meaning of emptiness in the Dharma.

IMO, the Heart Sutra is a statement of faith in Buddhism, much like the Our Father is a statement of faith in Christianity. People say it both for the meaning and to atone with the meaning through repetition. I disagree that people just repeat the Sutra without contemplating it’s meaning. Like any religion, some people are more into it than others.

And I’m not worried about whether you understand this or not. Why would I be worried?

#13 · Unrei

16 February 2009

I read, only the other day, that the Heart Sutra was given to the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna (c.150 – 250CD)in the form of a terma by a great Naga king (Naga = serpent of the underworld).

#14 · David Chapman

6 March 2009

One puzzling thing about the Heart Sutra is what the mantra (“gate gate paragate”) is doing in there. I’ve found an interesting article about this by Donald Lopez: www.wisdom

I’ve recently been reading Brad Warner’s books (and have published on-line a review of them). Readers of this blog might also find his work to their taste.

His lineage, like mine, regards the Heart Sutra as the essential scripture. He recounts that Kobun Chino, from that lineage, was once asked what the the mantra was supposed to mean.

Kobun Roshi replied, “I don’t know, that’s just Indian stuff.”

#15 · D

17 May 2009

An oyster hides the
Greatest gem of all inside.
No oyster, no gem.

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