The Heart Sutra
Commentary by Master Sheng-yen
This is the fifth article in a lecture series spoken by Shih-fu to students attending a special class at the Ch'an Center.
The next line of the sutra reads, "thereby transcending all sufferings." "Suffering" is actually a composite of two Chinese characters. The meanings are somewhat different, so I wish to elaborate on them.
The first Chinese term roughly translates as suffering, but the second term translates as a kind of harmful danger or calamity. We might think that in every case where there is suffering there need not be calamity, and where there is calamity there need not be suffering. For ordinary sentient beings, however, calamity always causes suffering. Where sages are concerned, this is not the case.
What is this danger, both in our daily lives and in our practice? Danger in practice refers to the obstructions that arise in your body and mind. Physically, your energy could get blocked or flow in the wrong direction. Mentally, there are all kinds of obstructions practitioners conjure. The belly of one of my students began to grow bigger while she was practicing. At first she thought that, somehow, she had gotten pregnant. She went to the hospital and they found nothing inside. It turned out to be a manifestation of her chi (energy). Actually, it was gas, not in her belly but in her skin and muscles. As a result, her belly got bigger. Eventually, she decided to get an operation to release the air, like a balloon being deflated. If she had sought my advice instead, we could have solved the problems with methods and massage.
A man practicing with a different teacher saw a gigantic spider every time he meditated. He was a frightened and angry man. This spider was a mental manifestation of his extreme emotions, but he thought it was a demon coming to torment him. When he could no longer put up with the situation, he decided to hide a large, sharp knife by his side so he could stab the spider when it came to him. His teacher told him such an action would not be compassionate. Instead, he told him to use a calligraphy brush to put a mark on the spider. When the spider came, the man marked it and it instantly disappeared. Afterward, his teacher told him to look at his own body and the man found a calligraphy mark on his belly. The man understood how close he had come to killing himself. This is an extreme story to show how the mind, in practice, can sometimes bring danger.
I need not elaborate on the dangers in our daily lives. They are everywhere. Some we call to us, others seem to come of their own accord. I'm sure all of us can relate life-threatening situations we've been in.
Now let's talk about suffering. Suffering need not be pains or aches, and pains and aches don't always cause suffering. Take pain in the legs, for instance. If it bothers you, or you try to avoid or resist it, then that is suffering. Suffering is how one reacts psychologically to life situations. Physical pain or danger often leads to suffering, but it doesn't have to. Pain is always pain, but it is not always suffering. It depends on your state of mind.
Many people suffer because they are poor (or think they are poor) and feel they don't have enough to be satisfied or happy. On the other hand, Sangha members have taken vows of poverty for centuries and they do not suffer. You can say that Sangha members choose to be poor, whereas poor people have no choice. The point is that poverty in and of itself does not automatically cause suffering. Suffering can come from many causes, but it always depends on one's mental state. If you are not at ease or your mind is unstable, there will be suffering. Conversely, if you are calm and clear, there usually will be no suffering.
There is a story in one sutra of wealthy parents who were separated from their baby boy. The boy grew under adverse conditions as a homeless, frightened beggar. When he was a young man he was reunited with his family. They took him in, loved him, fed and clothed and cared for him. Yet he never felt secure or happy. He didn't trust the turn of fortune in his life. He thought it must be a horrible trick, that they would treat him like a king for a while and then when he became comfortable with his new life, they would turn him out again or sacrifice him in some barbaric ritual. So, although he lived in lavish conditions, he suffered.
If your mind is filled with fear and doubt, then you will suffer no matter what you have or do. It isn't the environment, it's your state of mind. For some, New York City is paradise, for others it's hell. Yes, it depends on your karma whether you'll be in good conditions or not, but it's your mind that chooses to suffer.
Suffering can arise from two sources, namely, the physical and psychological. As far as the body is concerned, there are four sources of suffering: birth, aging, sickness and death. Almost no one remembers the trauma of birth, but it was a source of suffering. From the warm, comforting, floating existence of the womb we enter a world of bright lights, harsh sounds, sudden movements, where we have to feel hunger and thirst and are separated from our mothers. It's cause for suffering. However, the Buddhist concept of birth extends beyond the physical body. Every moment of existence comes into being and then vanishes. We experience birth and death all the time. Our bodies go through the process of birth and death every second we are alive.
Whether you care to admit it or not, aging begins immediately after birth. In fact, we are aging the moment after we are conceived. The birth and death of all dharmas is a fundamental principle of the universe. Our bodies and lives are not exempt from this law. The moment we come into physical being, we are already approaching death. That is clear. Aging, therefore, is not relegated to old people. It encompasses everything.
The second category is suffering of the mind. Not getting what you want, being forced to be with people and things you don't like, being separated from people and things you do like. These three situations cover just about every kind of mental suffering.
One can speak of a third source of suffering, but in actuality the other two types of suffering arise from it. This is the suffering of the five skandhas. The five skandhas forever come together, life after life.
So, it's simple. If you can recognize that all five skandhas are empty, there is no such thing as suffering. Wisdom will make clear that there is no such thing as suffering of the mind or body, because the five skandhas are empty.
When suffering is transcended, can we say that danger still exists? A person who feels no sense of suffering experiences no sense of danger. To an outsider, it may look like danger and suffering, but to the enlightened being it is not. There are numerous stories of Sakyamuni Buddha when he was still a bodhisattva. He often sacrificed his life for the sake of other beings or to learn the Dharma. In none of these stories did he consider such actions to be dangerous or a cause of suffering.
For one who sees the emptiness of the five skandhas, there is no danger or suffering. It does not mean that there is no body, no environment and no pain. That is why I tell practitioners to forget about their bodies when they meditate. If you can forget your body's problems, you will have fewer vexations. If you can forget about the problems in your mind, it would even be better. But it's a step-by-step process. The body comes first because it is easier to deal with. Next comes the mind. It is good practice when you can see your problems as illusions. You may not get enlightened, but you will certainly experience dhyana joy and Dharma happiness.
The next line begins with the name of Sariputra, the person that the Buddha is talking to. Remember, the Heart Sutra is part of the much larger Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, which for the most part addresses the nature of emptiness. In most sutras, the Buddha addresses the questions of one or more bodhisattvas, disciples, or arhats. In the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, it is Subhuti, one of the Buddha's greatest disciples, who is most often addressed. The Heart Sutra is a unique part of the larger sutra, and is addressed, instead, to Sariputra. Among the Buddha's disciples, Sariputra was considered preeminent in the understanding of wisdom, whereas Subhuti was considered foremost in the understanding of emptiness. Obviously, to understand wisdom, one must also have a thorough understanding of emptiness.
The next section repeats that the five skandhas are empty in a more detailed manner. This is so because, if the Buddha were to stop after his first few sentences, people might misunderstand the meaning of emptiness. With further clarification, they would understand that the Buddha is speaking about ultimate emptiness - - emptiness as reality -- and not illusory emptiness or emptiness derived from analysis.