The Heart Sutra: A Meditation Guide

 

The Prajnaparamita Hridyam Sutra is a short text; it is about the length of a page.

But it’s a very deep text. It’s title means The Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, but we usually just shorten it to Heart Sutra.

It’s part of the Prajnaparamita school of texts, along with the Diamond Sutra and a few others. These are called the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ texts and they are considered by many to be the greatest works of the Mahayana.

Prajnaparamita means Transcendent Wisdom of the Other Shore. The Prajnaparamita School presented a new goal for Buddhist practice: achieving Buddhahood, rather than simply attaining Nirvana and escaping the wheel of birth and death. This is the ideal of the Bodhisattva instead of that of the Arhat. This is enlightenment in the midst of the world, rather than escaping it. Prajna is considered the highest virtue.

Prajna teachings are based on wisdom and emptiness.

This Sutra challenges us, in our meditation practice, to face duality, profound and relative truths, impermanence and emptiness.

It’s a beloved text and can be used as a guide of advanced meditation practices. It’s considered such an important sutra that it’s chanted in Zen temples every day all over the world.

It’s a dialogue, as a lot of sutras are. In this Sutra Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is giving teachings to a monk named Shariputra.

Here is the text (1):

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita, looked upon the five skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds for sensation and perception,
memory and consciousness.
Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness not birth or destruction, purity or defilement,
completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no
consciousness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind; no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling
and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual
consciousness;
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death; no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita, the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.”

 

Just meditation on this text can blow our minds wide open.

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form

This challenges our notion of duality. Our minds like to put things into nice neat little categories that don’t often match reality. This Sutra challenges the idea that even existence and non-existence are two separate and distinct things.

No attainment and nothing to attain

Buddhist sutras remind us over and over that we’re walking the path in order to penetrate our delusion, not to attain something. Enlightenment isn’t something we gain. It’s our true nature, we just have to uncover it.

But the text also tells us that these teachings can take us to enlightenment. It tells us to “take refuge in Prajnaparamita and live without walls of the mind.” Cultivating this transcendent wisdom is a path to enlightenment.

A lot is made of that last line, which is usually left untranslated because it’s a mantra and we usually chant mantras in the original language.

“Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, Bodhi svaha.”

“Gone, gone, gone beyond, fully gone beyond, enlightened so be it.”

Footnote

  1. Porter, Bill. The Heart Sutra: Translation and Commentary. (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Books, 2004)

 

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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