A: The Sutra's intention is to bring about a special kind of intuition, revealing what the Five Skandhas (corporealness) are empty of, namely, our self-nature, or the same, our fundamental nature. According to the Chinese Buddhists, the Heart Sutra, in speaking about emptiness, never means it to refer to our fundamental nature. The emptiness of which the Sutra speaks is merely the emptiness of signs. Apart from this emptiness we are to understand that what is left is our fundamental nature.
Q: Don't most other traditions take emptiness to be our fundamental nature, rather than what our fundamental nature is not?
A: Yes that is true. But in so doing, they are in error. In the Pali Nikayas, as a matter of proof, emptiness is not about our fundamental nature. It just means that we must empty the Mind of sensory images, including consciousness; finally to dwell in the fullness of Mind itself which is not empty. Let me put it this way: Emptiness is a kind of practice. In order to reach Mind itself, we must negate Mind's phenomena.
Q: What you are saying is different from what I have been led to believe. Doesn't the basic teaching of Buddhism tell us that there is no fundamental nature, such as a Self? One modern Zen master said, in fact, that phenomena are the absolute, because it was his understanding that emptiness is the Buddhist absolute. Doesn't the Heart Sutra imply that form is emptiness. So form must be absolute. Right?
A: I am afraid that is incorrect. It is not the true teaching of Buddhism that there is no fundamental nature or categorically no Self. Such interpretations of Buddhism amount to pseudo-Buddhism. The notion of essentiality is admitted in Buddhism. Think about this. If there is no fundamental nature, then how would anyone be able to take refuge in the Triple Gem, comprising the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha? Concerning the Self, if there is no Self, then why did the Buddha declare the Self to be like unto a guiding lamp? Even the great Nagarjuna, the 2nd. century founder of the Madhyamaka school, said the Buddha taught the Self to those who understood the implication of derived name.
Q:- So, would it be correct to say that we should understand emptiness to be like the via negativa of the mystics?
A:- Yes, that would be a better understanding. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara represents the idea of universal wisdom that teaches us how to comprehend our true nature which transcends the Five Aggregates. In order to reach the other shore, we must negate the Five Aggregates seeing them, instead, as being empty. On the other hand, if we affirm the Five Aggregates, how can be reach the other shore? We would always be attached to the finite and the imperfect. Finally, remember that the absolute is above and beyond emptiness and even the via negativa. In the perfection of wisdom we are passing through all things good and bad. This even includes exalted states of being. Actually, we are just trying to remove our fundamental nature from all things, conditions, and concepts that are inadequate to it.
Q:- How should I practice the perfection of wisdom? I mean, what should I do right now to begin to cross to the other shore as the Sutra says?
A:- That is a good question. It shows that you are ready to put your foot into the cold water of the sea of suffering! The best way to begin is just to examine your thoughts and try to see their substance. Imagine that your thoughts are like images on the face of a mirror. Now, try to see the mercury of the mirror! Try and distinguish the images from the mercury itself. In the same fashion, distinguish your thoughts from their pure content. See, in effect, what these thoughts and mental images are empty of. Eventually, over time, you will succeed, and maybe you will even discover who the mirror-maker is that creates and negates!