Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality

Heart Sutra

Ancient Buddhist Wisdom
in the Light of Quantum Reality

Commentary by Mu Soeng Sunim

Primary Point Press Cumberland, Rhode Island
Copyright 1991 by Mu Soeng Sunim
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced without permission of
the publisher.
First edition, 1991 Second printing, 1992

Electronic edition 1993, distributed by DharmaNet
International with permission of publisher.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-publication data pending.
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Many thanks to Richard Shrobe, Adria Evans, Sam Rose, Kathy
Diehl and Richard Streitfeld for reading the manuscript and
their valuable comments. Special thanks to J.W. Harrington
for help with typesetting and production of this book.

Acknowledgement is made to the following for their kind
permission to use materials from their publications:

Selections from The Tao of Physics, Copyright 1975
Frithjof Capra. Reprinted by permission of the
Selections from The Silent Pulse, Copyright 1978 George
Leonard. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Selections from Creative Meditation and
Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, Copyright 1976 Lama
Angarika Govinda. Reprinted by permission of the
Selections from The Buddhist Teaching of Totality,
Copyright 1971 The Pennsylvania State University
Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Selections from Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science,
Copyright 1984 State University of New York Press.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Selections from The Heart of Understanding, Copyright
1988 Thich Nhat Hanh. Reprinted by permission of the

At the heart of each of us, whatever our
imperfections, there exists a silent pulse of
perfect rhythm, a complex of wave forms and
resonances, which is absolutely individual and
unique, and yet which connects us to everything in
the universe. The act of getting in touch with
this pulse can transform our personal experience
and in some way alter the world around us.[1]

The convergence between science and mysticism, between
Eastern thought and Western pragmatism, and the consequent
emergence of a new paradigm in recent times, offers a
renewed hope that we may yet be able to transform ourselves
and the world around us. The dangers of failing to do so are
readily apparent, mostly in the near-destruction of the
ecological system of the planet. There are many tools of
transformation but the only place where transformation
really takes place is in the human heart. The ancient
traditions of the East have always sought to understand the
nature of reality within one's own heart. It is not an
accident that the Chinese word hsin stands for Heart-Mind.
In the Eastern way of looking at things, the
thinking-feeling process is a unified field, in contrast to
the Cartesian dualism of the western scientific mind. Human
experience has shown that the heart-mind, being deeply
conditioned, is not an easy place for conflicts to be
resolved. This was brought out most vividly in the intense
emotional and even existential crisis which the pioneers of
quantum physics (the post-Einsteinian branch of physics that
deals with the molecular structure of organisms at the
subatomic level) underwent before they could accept the
intellectual findings of their own experiments.

The Heart Sutra, an ancient scripture from the Mahayana
wisdom schools of Buddhism, is an insight into the nature of
ultimate reality through intuitive wisdom. The spaciousness
of this insight allows the heart to beat in its naturalness,
beyond disputations and ideological arguments. Now that
quantum physics has found some very interesting parallels to
the basic insights of the Heart Sutra, perhaps the
intellectual and the intuitive can meet in the new paradigm.
At the same time, while this commentary offers to view the
insights of Mahayana Buddhism in the light of quantum
physics, it carries no suggestion that the two are
complementary or interchangeable. They are, at best, two
entirely different orders of reality, each reflecting
completely different underlying processes that happen to
converge. In his pioneering book, The Tao of Physics,
Frithjof Capra has observed:

The conception of physical things and phenomena as
transient manifestations of an underlying
fundamental entity is not only a basic element of
quantum field theory, but also a basic element of
the Eastern world view ... the intuition behind
the physicist's interpretation of the subatomic
world, in terms of the quantum field, is closely
paralleled by that of the Eastern mystic who
interprets his or her experience of the world in
terms of an ultimate underlying reality.

Buddhists express the same idea when they call the
ultimate reality Sunyata--"Emptiness" or "the
void"--and affirm that it is a living Void which
gives birth to all forms in the phenomenal world
.... Thus the Void of the Eastern mystic can
easily be compared to the quantum field of
subatomic physics. Like the quantum field, it
gives birth to an infinite variety of forms which
it sustains and, eventually, reabsorbs.[2]

The effort in this commentary is to see this convergence in
a creative light, knowing fully well that after convergence
the two orders of reality separate again and their
underlying processes take a different turn. Above all, this
commentary on the Heart Sutra is offered in the spirit of a
Zen practitioner. This commentary arose out of my own need,
and presumably the need of like-minded Zen students, to
understand the historical and doctrinal background of this
seminal document. At the same time, I wanted to be careful
not to get caught in the minutiae of academic analysis and
turn this commentary into yet another doctrinal point of
view. In the present approach, the focus is not on doctrinal
orthodoxy, but rather on creating a radical new
understanding of an ancient teaching, and to understand this
core teaching of Mahayana Buddhism in the light of new
perspectives on reality and a new model of the universe set
forth by quantum physics. Since the teaching of the Heart
Sutra is centered around an insight into "emptiness," the
Sanskrit word sunyata is used here throughout rather than
its quite inadequate English translation. It is thus hoped
that the inherent vibrancy of sunyata which has infused the
spirit of Mahayana for the last two thousand years will
emerge in the following commentary. Since the developed
tradition of Zen bears the imprint of sunyata throughout, it
is hoped as well that readers will approach this commentary
through the prism of their meditation practice, and that the
vibrancy of their practice will find resonance in the
insights of the sutra. As Edward Conze has remarked,

It cannot be the purpose of a commentary to convey
directly to the reader the spiritual experiences
which a sutra describes. They only reveal
themselves to persistent meditation. A commentary
must be content to explain the words used.[3]

A note on the English translation of the sutra:
There are many translations of the Heart Sutra now being
used by various Zen communities in the United States. The
translation used here is the one used by Kwan Um School of
Zen and its member groups, with its head temple at
Providence Zen Center.

The Heart Sutra

The Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the Prajna
Paramita perceives that all five skandhas are empty and is
saved from all suffering and distress.

Sariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness
does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness,
that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They do
not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, do not
increase or decrease. Therefore, in emptiness, no form, no
feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness. No eyes, no
ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no color, no
sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind, no
realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind
consciousness. No ignorance and also no extinction of it and
so forth until no old age and death and also no extinction
of them.

No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no
cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.

The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and the mind is
no hindrance. Without any hindrance, no fears exist. Far
apart from any perverted views, one dwells in Nirvana.

In the three worlds, all Buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita
and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.

Therefore, know that Prajna Paramita is the great
transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the
utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra which is able to
relieve all suffering and is true not false. So proclaim the
Prajna Paramita mantra, proclaim the mantra which says:

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha.

Historical Background Of The Sutra

The term Buddhism, used generically and rather loosely, is
best understood as an ever-evolving phenomenon with three
distinct aspects to its history:

1) the original teachings of the historical person
Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha, the Awakened One:
the Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path, and the
Chain of Dependent Origination. There is a fair historical
consensus on the authenticity of these teachings and the

2) the Buddhist Tradition, by which is meant the developed
doctrines such as the Abhidharma canon of the Hinayana
tradition, and the sutras (sermons attributed to the Buddha)
and sastras (commentaries on the sutras) of the Mahayana
tradition whose composition and compilation took place over
a period of a thousand years after the death of the Buddha,

3) the Buddhist Religion,which includes a smorgasbord of
bewildering and seemingly contradictory practices and
beliefs ranging from the marathoning monks of Mt. Hiei in
Japan to the devotees of Pure Land and Nichiren sects in
East Asia to the laity supporting the forest-monks in
Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The Heart Sutra, or the "Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra," to
give it its proper Sanskrit name, belongs to the Buddhist
tradition, and is probably the best known of the Mahayana
sutras. It is chanted daily in the Buddhist monasteries of
China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and in the West. This very short
sutra (containing about fourteen verses in Sanskrit and 260
characters in Chinese) is a basic text of Zen tradition and
is considered to contain the essence of all Mahayana wisdom

Zen (Ch'an) began in China as a meditation school of
Mahayana Buddhism and was partially shaped by its sutra
literature. These sutras capture the dramatic fervor and
religious aspirations of new movements in India that had
broken away from the earliest forms of Buddhism (Hinayana),
beginning, most likely, in the first century BCE. The
Mahayana doctrine developed, religiously and
philosophically, with the Bodhisattva ideal (which exhorted
a practitioner to work for the liberation of all beings,
however numberless, rather than striving just for one's own
liberation) at its center, and the teaching of sunyatya
(Emptiness) as its inspiration. D.T. Suzuki, the great
facilitator between Zen tradition and the West, finds, in
the psychology of the Bodhisattva, "one of the greatest
achievements in the life of the spirit."

Several of the schools of Mahayana Buddhism are based on a
group of sutras known as Prajnaparamita Sutras or the Sutras
of Transcendent Wisdom. The earliest portions of these
sutras go back to the period 100 BCE. to 100 CE; the Heart
Sutra itself has been dated by Edward Conze at 350 CE.

The great Mahayana sutras form the center of
Mahayana; in them the new religious inspiration is
crystallized. A massive and imposing body of
literature, the sutras differ greatly in content,
but each and every one of them breathes the spirit
of Mahayana. These widely scattered writings serve
many religious communities. While individual
sutras or groups of sutras take up particular
themes, they concur and overlap at many points.
Moreover, one and the same sutra can give rise to
different religious movements. They are often
accompanied by explanatory commentaries, or

When Buddhism first moved from India to China in its Mahyana
forms, it was known not as Buddhism but as the "Religion of
Prajnaparamita" or, since the sutras of the Prajnaparamita
centered around the teaching of sunyata (somewhat loosely
translated as emptiness or nothingness), as the "Religion of

The Heart Sutra is one of approximately 38 sutras in the
Prajnaparamita group, and its shortest. In it, the dynamic
vibrancy of sunyata and the cryptic delineation of its
meaning have been captured with a radical economy of
expression that has exercised a fascination over the minds
of countless generations of Buddhist thinkers in India,
China, Tibet and other lands where Mahayana Buddhism
flourished. Some of the greatest thinkers in Buddhist
history, among them Atisa, Fa-tsang, Kukai, and Hakuin have
written commentaries on the Heart Sutra.

While it celebrates sunyata as a timeless truth, the Heart
Sutra has also to be seen as a historical document, engaged
in rivalry with the rationalist-schematic approach taken by
earliest sects of Buddhism (designated as "Hinayana"--the
lower vehicle--by its rivals.) In the centuries after
Buddha's death, the Hinayana followers, with the
encyclopedic Abhidharma as their literature, had created
categories of analysis to the point where it became, in the
words of Heinrich Dumoulin, the Zen historian, "a
dishearteningly lifeless product without metaphysical
elan...." Mahayana sutras thunder again and again against
philosophers (Abhidharmists) who are disposed to freeze
reality into a categorical permanence and to discriminate
between subject and object.

In the still-solidifying tradition of Mahayana, the Heart
Sutra is a key document demolishing all these categories,
and pointing out that all categories are ultimately
dualistic and not leading to wisdom essential for
enlightenment. In the earliest stages of the formation of
Mahayana, there were schools of thought which proposed the
doctrine of the "five words" of the Buddha; meditations on
these words alone have transcendent significance and the
power to bring liberation (which, they claimed, was not the
case with the rest of his discourses.) These five words are:
non-soul (anatta), impermanence (anicca), unhappiness
(dukkha), extinction (nirvana) and emptiness (sunyata).

The first four of these words are shared by the early
Mahayanists commonly with the Hinayanists; it is with the
inclusion of sunyata (emptiness) as the last of these words
that early Mahayana asserts its difference with the Hinayana
schools. For the Hinayanists, "emptiness" may be synonymous
with the first word--non-self or non-soul--but its use was
restricted in describing a person. Mahayana invention was
not only to postulate sunyata (emptiness) as the essential
emptiness of the phenomenal world, including the world
within a person's mind; the thinkers of Mahayana took care
to deny the existence of sunyata as yet another category.
Thus we have the doctrine of sunyata-sunyata, the emptiness
of emptiness. Sunyata is experienced as intuitive wisdom,
and it is only through the intuitive wisdom of sunyata, the
theme of Mahayana wisdom schools, that one is ferried across
to the other shore of liberation.

The popularity of the Heart Sutra in

the Buddhist tradition lies not only in its brevity but also
in the elusiveness of its meaning. Distinguished
commentators over the ages have discovered in it widely
divergent interpretations which have led Edward Conze to
observe that, "they tell us more what the text meant to them
within their own culture than what the Indian original
intended to convey."[5]

If that be the case, the divergent interpretations seem
somehow quite appropriate since the elusive meaning of
sunyata demands that each generation of Buddhist thinkers
and practitioners in each culture come to grips with it
through the praxis of their own experience.

The Heart Sutra has two versions, the longer and the
shorter. The longer version has a prologue in which the
Buddha enters into samadhi and an epilogue in which he rises
from samadhi and praises the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. The
shorter version, used here, begins without the prologue and
has Avalokitesvara contemplating the meaning of the profound
perfection of wisdom.

The Setting
The Heart Sutra is preached on Vulture Peak, east of the
ancient Indian city of Rajagraha, the capital of the kingdom
of Magadha. Rajagraha, along with Sravasti, was one of the
two major cities of ancient India most frequently visited by
the Buddha during his forty-five year teaching career. The
Vulture Peak is said to have been a favorite site of the
Buddha, and here he gave a number of sermons to assemblies
of monks and laypeople.

The rather unique prologue (of the longer version)
introduces us to the leading characters of the sutra:
Shakyamuni Buddha, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and Sariputra.
The Buddha does not speak in the prologue, but enters into
samadhi and silently empowers Sariputra to ask and
Avalokitesvara to answer. The silence of the Buddha here is
characteristic of much of Mahayana literature, and supports
its classical view that the Buddha is "no longer simply the
teacher but is transformed into the principle of
enlightenment, a silent, eternal, numinous presence, the

The Heart Sutra is the only Prajnaparamita text in which the
Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara appears. His (or her) presence
here is significant on several counts: first, it attests to
the relatively late date of the sutra, a time when the cult
of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, textually associated with
the twenty-fourth chapter of the Lotus Sutra and the sutras
of the Pure Land School, had become well-established.
Secondly, the Heart Sutra is dedicated completely to the
teaching of sunyata without any reference whatever to the
other major theme of the Prajnaparamita sutras: compassion
(which traditionally includes upaya or the Skillful Means of
the bodhisattva.) The absence of this theme is countered,
implicity, by the fact that the wisdom essential for the
attainment of Buddhahood is proclaimed by a bodhisattva who
is said to be the embodiment of compassion.

The presence of Sariputra is equally significant. The Heart
Sutra does not inveigh against the Hinayana disciples of the
Buddha, as is characteristic of the longer Mahayana sutras,
in which the Hinayana disciples are considered inferior to
the Bodhisattvas, both in their wisdom and in their
aspiration to enlightenment. The presence of Sariputra here
fulfills that function; Sariputra, in the Hinayana
scriptures, is considered the wisest of the disciples of the
Buddha, but here he comes across as perplexed and uninformed
when asking Avalokitesvara how to practice the perfection of

The Title: Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra
Maha means great or large. Prajna means wisdom, more
specifically intuitive wisdom. Paramita is commonly
translated as "perfection" although, in a different
etymological usage, it can also mean "that which has gone
beyond" or "transcendent." Hridaya means "heart" but here,
in the title of the sutra, it is used in the sense of a
"core" or "essence" rather than a physical organ. Sutra is
the spoken word; more specifically, in the Buddhist
tradition, it is the sermon or the word spoken by the
Buddha. Thus the full meaning of the title can be "the Great
Heart of Perfect Wisdom" or "the Heart of Great Transcendent
Wisdom." Or we may use poetic licence to translate it as
"the Wisdom of the Great Heart of the Universe." That will
certainly be in keeping with the insight offered by the
sutra into sunyata as the core of the universe.

"Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva..."
Bodhi means being awake or enlightened; sattva means a
living being, so bodhisattva means an awakened, enlightened
being, a person who has diligently cultivated the qualities
necessary to become a Buddha. Avalokitesvara is one of the
celestial Bodhisattvas and an embodiment of compassion. In
the Mahayana tradition, Avalokitesvara and Manjushri, who is
the Bodhisattva of wisdom, represent the two core
qualities--wisdom and compassion--necessary in the
psychological life of a Bodhisattva.

"...when practicing deeply the Prajnapara-mita..."
In the prologue of the longer version of the sutra, this
line presents the Buddha as being immersed in deep samadhi
while the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara too is absorbed in
contemplating the meaning of the perfection of wisdom. The
statement is significant here in that the tradition insists
that "a looking into" the nature of reality is not a matter
of mere intellectual analysis (which the followers of
Mahayana at times accused the Hinayana Abhidharmists of
doing) but demands deep absorption so that awareness moves
from the merely superficial to the profoundly intuitive.
This is true for the celestial bodhisattva as it is for each
one of us. In the Mahayna cosmology, "Prajnaparamita" (the
perfection of wisdom) is a goddess who has been called "the
mother of the Buddhas"; her presence here can be interpreted
either cosmologically or etymologically.

"...perceives that all five skandhas are empty..."
It is in this state of intuitive awareness that the
bodhisattva perceives the five skandhas to be empty. Before
we look at the term skandhas, it might be useful to deal
first with the term "empty" since it is the central
teaching, not only of the Heart Sutra but also of the entire
Mahayana literature. A translation of the Sanskrit word
sunyata into western languages has always been problematic.
When translated as "void" or "emptiness," it has a
nihilistic undertone, which is how the orientialists of the
nineteenth century saw Buddhism and portrayed it
accordingly. Fortunately our understanding of the term (and
of Buddhism) has grown in recent decades and has outlasted
the earlier malformed interpretations. Our current
understanding of Buddhist meditative experiences has been
greatly faciliated by the findings of quantum physics into
the nature of ultimate reality; these findings have added a
new dimension to our efforts to understand the meaning of
the term sunyata and what it stands for.

For a very long time, the Newtonian/Cartesian scientific
view of the world rested on the notion of solid,
indestructible particles as the building blocks of matter
and all life, moving in space and influencing each other by
forces of gravitation and interacting according to fixed and
unchangeable laws. This myth disintegrated under the impact
of experimental and theoretical evidence produced by quantum
physicists in the early decades of this century. The
experiments of quantum physics showed that the atoms, the
presumed fundamental building blocks of the universe, were,
at their core, essentially empty. In experiments, subatomic
particles showed the same paradoxical nature as light,
manifesting either as particles or waves depending on how
the experiment was set up. Quantum physicists, confronting
the mysteries of the universe, were left facing Zen-like
koans of their own: the sound of a quark, the shape of a
resonance, the nature of strangeness!

Quantum physics has thus brought about a radical new
understanding both of the particles and the void. In
subatomic physics, mass is no longer seen as a material
substance but is recognized as a form of energy. When a
piece of seemingly solid matter--a rock or a human hand or
the limb of a tree--is placed under a powerful electronic

the electron-scanning microscope, with the power
to magnify several thousand times, takes us down
into a realm that has the look of the sea about
it... In the kingdom of corpuscles, there is
transfiguration and there is samsara, the endless
round of birth and death. Every passing second,
some 2-1/2 million red cells are born; every
second, the same number die. The typical cell
lives about 110 days, then becomes tired and
decrepit. There are no lingering deaths here, for
when a cell loses its vital force, it somehow
attracts the attention of macrophage.

As the magnification increases, the flesh does
begin to dissolve. Muscle fiber now takes on a
fully crystaline aspect. We can see that it is
made of long, spiral molecules in orderly array.
And all of these molecules are swaying like wheat
in the wind, connected with one another and held
in place by invisible waves that pulse many
trillions of times a second.

What are the molecules made of? As we move closer,
we see atoms, the tiny shadowy balls dancing
around their fixed locations in the molecules,
sometimes changing position with their partners in
perfect rhythms. And now we focus on one of the
atoms; its interior is lightly veiled by a cloud
of electrons. We come closer, increasing the
magnification. The shell dissolves and we look on
the inside to find...nothing.

Somewhere within that emptiness, we know is a
nucleus. We scan the space, and there it is, a
tiny dot. At last, we have discovered something
hard and solid, a reference point. But no! as we
move closer to the nucleus, it too begins to
dissolve. It too is nothing more than an
oscillating field, waves of rhythm. Inside the
nucleus are other organized fields: protons,
neutrons, even smaller "particles." Each of these,
upon our approach, also dissolve into pure rhythm.

These days they (the scientists) are looking for
quarks, strange subatomic entities, having
qualities which they describe with such words as
upness, downness, charm, strangeness, truth,
beauty, color, and flavor. But no matter. If we
could get close enough to these wondrous quarks,
they too would melt away. They too would have to
give up all pretense of solidity. Even their speed
and relationship would be unclear, leaving them
only relationship and pattern of vibration.

Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness
and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, at
the heart of the world, there is no solidity. Once
again, there is only the dance. (At) the
unimaginable heart of the atom, the compact
nucleus, we have found no solid object, but rather
a dynamic pattern of tightly confined energy
vibrating perhaps 1022 times a second: a dance...
The protons--the positively charged knots in the
pattern of the nucleus--are not only powerful;
they are very old. Along with the much lighter
electrons that spin and vibrate around the outer
regions of the atom, the protons constitute the
most ancient entities of matter in the universe,
going back to the first seconds after the birth of
space and time.[7]

It follows then that in the world of subatomic physics there
are no objects, only processes. Atoms consist of particles
and these particles are not made of any solid material
substance. When we observe them under a microscope, we never
see any substance; we rather observe dynamic patterns,
continually changing into one another--a continuous dance of
energy. This dance of energy, the underlying rhythm of the
universe, is again more intuited than seen. Jack Kornfield,
a contemporary teacher of meditation, finds a parallel
between the behavior of subatomic particles and meditational

When the mind becomes very silent, you can clearly
see that all that exists in the world are brief
moments of consciousness arising together with the
six sense objects. There is only sight and the
knowing of sight, sound and the knowing of sound,
smell, taste and the knowing of them, thoughts and
the knowing of thoughts. If you can make the mind
very focused, as you can in meditation, you see
that the whole world breaks down into these small
events of sight and the knowing, sound and the
knowing, thought and the knowing. No longer are
these houses, cars, bodies or even oneself. All
you see are particles of consciousness as
experience. Yet you can go deep in meditation in
another way and the mind becomes very still. You
will see differently that consciousness is like
waves, like a sea, an ocean. Now it is not
particles but instead every sight and every sound
is contained in this ocean of consciousness. From
this perspective, there is no sense of particles
at all.[8]

Energy, whether of wave or particle, is associated with
activity, with dynamic change. Thus the core of the
universe--whether we see it as the heart of the atom or our
own consciousness--is not static but in a state of constant
and dynamic change. This energy--now wave, now
particle--infuses each and every form at the cellular level.
No form exists without being infused by this universal
energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly
in an ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our
universe. This universal energy is itself a process, beyond
the confines of time and space; a form, on the other hand,
is an "event," existing momentarily in time and space. This
"moment" may last for seventy or eighty years in the case of
a human being, a thousand years in the case of a sequoia
tree, a few million years in the case of a mountain, but
internally, at the cellular level, each of these forms is in
a process of change at any given moment. In the paradigms of
quantum physics, there is ceaseless change at the core of
the universe; in the paradigms of Mahayana wisdom, there too
is ceaseless change at the core of our consciousness and of
the universe.

But change implies change from something to something else.
Without something to be changed, there would be no change.
Without forms, there would be no change; without the energy
of change, the forms would not be able to hold their balance
and would collapse. In meditation practice, we see this
dynamic, constant change in our own mind-body system.

It has been just as difficult for the human mind to accept
the existence of sunyata at the core of the universe as it
was for the early quantum physicists to accept the quantum
randomness of the universe. Einstein had even hoped that the
quantum theory he helped create was somehow flawed, hoping
desperately, even in the face of the evidence of his own
experiments, that there would be a hidden variable that
would establish order in the quantum world. Later
experiments, conducted at the University of California in
Berkeley on Bell's theorem, confirmed the absence of any
hidden variable, and showed that when either of two
correlated particles were observed, no matter how far
separated in space, the other was instantly affected by the
observation--as if the two particles were embedded in the
observing consciousness itself. Even before Bell's theorem,
Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum
theory, formulated in his Uncertainty Principle that it is
not possible to examine a situation or system without
altering the system by the very act of examination; in the
deepest experience of meditation, the object of
consciousness is embedded in the observing consciousness;
the two are fused together by the energy or sunyata out of
which both emerge.

A strange place is this world of the new
physicists, a world of ultimate connectedness,
where consciousness--or observership, as John
Wheeler calls it--coexisted with the creation, and
where it might be said that the vastness of space,
the nuclear conflagration of starts, the
explosions of galaxies are simply mechanisms for
producing that first glimmer of awareness in your
baby's eyes.[9]

Subatomic particles, then, are dynamic patterns, processes
rather than objects. Sunyata too is a dynamic pattern rather
than an entity. Henry Stapp, an atomic physicist, has
remarked, "An elementary particle is not an independently
existing unanalyzable entity. It is, in essence, a set of
relationships that reach outward to other things."[10]

Compare this to Nagarjuna (100-200 CE, the great Buddhist
thinker whose dialectic of Madhyamika--the Middle
Way--sought to define the experience of Mahayana wisdom):
"Things derive their being and nature by mutual dependence
and are nothing in themselves."[11]

Some commentators on Nagarjuna's formulation of the Middle
Way--between being and non-being, between realism and
nihilism--have translated sunyata as "devoidness" rather
than emptiness or nothingness. Nagarjuna's thesis holds that
despite the absence of all substance, qualities, or
essential characteristics in all existing things in this
changing world, there does remain the ineffable, final
reality which can be seen only with the eye of intuitive
wisdom (prajna). A quantum physicist may contend that this
Final Reality can be intuited at the other end of an
electronic microscope!

Thus our understanding of the word sunyata becomes a bit
more clear. All forms are momentary in time and space; while
the form lasts, it has validity (which is different from
reality), but this appearance is transitory and illusory.
Therefore, a more appropriate and accessible way to
understand sunyata may be to apprehend it as "momentariness"
or "transitoriness" rather than emptiness. Ancient Buddhism
recognized that all objects are fundamentally devoid of
independent lasting substance (Sanskrit: svabhava). Instead
the interplay of form and energy creates a transitory
phenomenon which appears in time and space. Nagarjuna
cautions us against the temptation to posit sunyata as a
category and reminds us again and again that sunyata itself
is empty (sunyata-sunyata). The only way to apprehend the
dynamic nature of sunyata is through the
transitory/momentary appearance of forms. If no forms were
to be manifested through it, sunyata would be a dead, static
mass but sunyata's function is to infuse the myriad forms.
Thus, while sunyata itself is a process, the forms are a
manifestation of that process and the process can be
understood only through the momentary existence of the
forms. It was in this sense of a dynamic, universal energy
that ancient Mahayana Buddhism used the term sunyata.

In The Tao of Physics, Frithjof Capra makes a similar

The phenomenal manifestations of the mystical
Void, like the subatomic particles, are not static
and permanent, but dynamic and transitory, coming
into being vanishing in one ceaseless dance of
movement and energy. Like the subatomic world of
the physicist, the phenomenal world of the Eastern
mystic is a world of samsara--of continuous birth
and death. Being transient manifestations of the
Void, the things in this world do not have any
fundamental identity. This is especially
emphasized in Buddhist philosophy which denies the
existence of any material substance and also holds
that the idea of a constant "self" undergoing
successive experiences is an illusion.[12]

In Sanskrit, sunya means cipher or zero. In the West, a
circle or a zero means nothingness. In Native American
usage, a circle means coming together, a sharing. In Indian
usage, a circle means totality, wholeness. As Garma C.C.
Chang, the noted Buddhist scholar, has remarked,

Zero itself contains nothing, yet it cannot be
held to be absolutely or nihilistically void. As a
mathematical concept and symbol, zero has a great
many functions and utilities, without which it
would be practically impossible to execute
business and scientific activities in this modern
age. If someone asked you, "Is zero nothingness?"
you would be hard pressed to give an appropriate
reply. Zero is both nothing and the possibility of
everything. It is definitely not something
nihilistically empty, rather it is dynamic and
vital to all manifestations. In the same way,
sunyata does not mean complete nothingness; being
"serenely vibrant," it has both negative and
positive facets.[13]

In the same vein, Masao Abe, another noted contemporary
Buddhist thinker, has remarked that for Nagarjuna emptiness
was not non-being but "wondrous Being,"

precisely because it is Emptiness which "empties"
even emptiness, true Emptiness (Absolute
Nothingness) is absolute Reality which makes all
phenomena, all existents, truly be.[14]

Sunyata, then, carries and permeates all phenomena and makes
their development possible. Sunyata is often equated with
the absolute in Mahayana, since it is without duality and
beyond empirical forms. In quantum physics, ultimate reality
is equated with formless energy at the core of the atom.
This energy (of physics) or sunyata (of Mahayana) is not a
state of mere nothingness but is the very source of all life
and the essence of all forms.

Another helpful way to undertand sunyata is through the Zen
term of "nowness," sometimes used interchangeably with
"momentariness." In the absence of a permanent, abiding
substance anywhere, there is only the nowness of things:
ephermeral, transitory, momentary. In traditional Buddhist
literature, the "nowness" of things is described as tathata
or "suchness." The concept of tathata was first formulated
by Asvaghosha, another great Buddhist thinker who probably
lived a hundred years before Nagarjuna, and influenced him
greatly. In Asvaghosha's formulation, when the futility of
all conceptual thinking is recognized, reality is
experienced as pure "suchness." What is realized in suchness
is the existence of form-as-itself (the treeness of the
tree, for instance), but that realization is suffused in
intuitive wisdom (prajna) so that the ultimate reality of
the form is seen as momentary and essentially devoid (sunya)
of any lasting substance. Masao Abe, among others, insists
that "Emptiness is Suchness."

Lama Angarika Govinda uses the word "transparency" to come
to a fuller understanding of sunyata:

If sunyata hints at the nonsubstantiality of the
world and the interrelationship of all beings and
things, then there can be no better word to
describe its meaning than transparency. This word
avoids the pitfalls of a pure negation and
replaces the concepts of substance, resistance,
impenetrability, limitation, and materiality with
something that can be experienced and is closely
related to the concepts of space and light.[15]

He goes on to elaborate,

Far from being the expression of a nihilistic
philosophy which denies all reality, it (sunyata)
is the logical consequence of the anatman
(non-self) doctrine of nonsubstantiality. Sunyata
is the emptiness of all conceptual designations
and at the same time the recognition of a higher,
incommensurable and indefinable reality, which can
be experienced only in the state of perfect
enlightenment. While we are able to come to an
understanding of relativity by way of reasoning,
the experience of universality and completeness
can be attained only when all conceptual thought,
all word-thinking, has come to rest. The
realization of the teachings of the
Prajna-paramita Sutra can come about only on the
path of meditative practice (yogacara), through a
transformation of our consciousness. Meditation in
this sense is, therefore, no more a search after
intellectual solutions or an analysis of worldly
phenomena with worldly means--which would merely
be moving around in circles--but a breaking out
from this circle, an abandoning of our
thought-habits in order to "reach the other shore"
(as it has been said not only in the
Prajna-paramita-hridaya, but also in the ancient
Sutta Nipata of the Pali Canon.) This requires a
complete reverseal of our outlook, a complete
spiritual transformation or, as the Lankavatara
Sutra expresses it, "a turning about in the
deepest seat of our consciousness." This reversal
brings about a new spiritual outlook, similar to
that which the Buddha experienced when returning
from the Tree of Enlightenment. A new dimension of
consciousness is being opened by this experience,
which transcends the limits of mundane

"...five skandhas are..."
The Sanskrit word skandha literally means a group, a heap,
or an aggregate. In Buddhist tradition, the five skandhas of
form, feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness are
taken to constitute the entirety of what is generally known
as "personality." These four words ("five skandhas are
empty") are the essence of the earliest Buddhist teachings.
The Buddha taught the three marks of existence (suffering,
non-self and impermanence) as the defining characteristics
of individual human existence; to these three marks, the
Mahayanists added the fourth mark of sunyata (emptiness) and
extended the concept to each and any existent in the
universe. A detailed look at the five skandhas will mean
understanding the very basis of Buddhist teachings and will
provide a solid foundation for an extended look into

The first and the most obvious of the skandhas is the
corporeal form (Sanskrit: nama-rupa) which comes into being
as a result of the energies of four elements (earth, air,
fire and water) coming together in a certain configuration;
when looked at by quantum physics, a form is seen to be
devoid of any solid, everlasting substance. The form is held
together in time and space by the interacting energies of
the four elements in a certain pattern and balance. The
characteristics which all skandhas, whether physical or
mental, share are: arising, stabilizing, decay and
dissolution. Decay and dissolution occur when the balance in
which the elements have been held together for a certain
period of time loses its inner tension and the organism is
left without the essential vitality to hold itself in time
and space.

The skandha called feeling (Sanskrit: vedana) is the general
concept for feelings and sensations. These feelings and
sensations can be classified into pleasant, unpleasant and
neutral. As with the skandha of corporeal form, feelings and
sensations also arise as a result of certain factors coming
together. They then gain an intensity, hold it for some
time, lose the intensity after some more time, and finally
disappear. A particular feeling or sensation may change into
another feeling or sensation which, in turn, will go through
the same process ad infinitum.

The skandha called perception (Sanskrit: samjna) includes
perception of form, sound, smell, taste, touch and bodily
impressions, and mental objects. Perception takes place only
in relation to an object (or thought) and does not exist
independently of an object of attention.

The skandha called impulse (Sanskrit: samskara) refers to
mental formations. In Abhidharma-pitaka, the traditional
compend-ium of Buddhist psychology, a total of fifty-two
impulses are listed, and include mental activities such as
volition, attention, discrimination, joy, happiness,
equanimity, resolve, effort, compulsion, concentration, and
so on; included in this skandha are all the volitional
impulses or intentions that precede an action. Since actions
can be either physical, verbal, or mental, impulses can
accordingly be physical, verbal or mental. This skandha
refers both to the activity of forming and the passive state
of being formed. The impulses thus are the impressions,
tendencies, and possibilities in one's consciousness, and
are the sum total of one's character. The impulses are the
result of the totality of one's actions and thoughts,
including those of earlier births, and their continuing
presence is the condition for a rebirth. If they are absent,
no karma is produced and no further birth takes place. Since
the impulses can be good, bad or neutral, they determine the
type of rebirth that will take place since their quality
conditions consciousness, and through them consciousness
seeks a form in rebirth to manifest those qualities.

The skandha called consciousness (Sanskrit: vijnana) is the
faculty of knowing. Consciousness is a reaction or response
which has one of the six organs (of eyes, ears, nose,
tongue, body and mind) as its basis and one of the six
corresponding external phenomena (visual form, sound, smell,
taste, touch and mental thoughts) as its object.
Consciousness arises out of contact between the object and
the corresponding organ, but consciousness does not
recognize an object itself. It is only a sort of awareness,
awareness of the presence of an object. For instance, when
eye comes into contact with a blue color, eye-consciousness
simply "sees" the presence of a color. The recognition that
the color is blue comes from the skandha of perception, the
third aggregate discussed above. Likewise, the
hearing-consciousness only hears the sound but does not
recognize the category of sound; this is done by the
perception-aggregate, and so on.

A commonly-made mistake about consciousness is to
misunderstand it as some sort of soul or permanent self or
continuum that proceeds through one life and onto the next.
The Buddha taught that consciousness arises only out of
conditions; without the presence of conditions there is no
consciousness. Consciousness depends on form, feelings,
perceptions and impulses for its arising and cannot exist
independently of them. It is essentially an observing

"...and is saved from all suffering and distress."
All suffering is caused by delusion--delusion as to the
nature of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality, in Buddhist
view, for which now some very interesting parallels have
been provided by quantum physics, is neither being
(particle) nor non-being (wave), neither solid nor abiding
in space-time continuum. .The qualities of non-self
(Sanskrit: Anatman) and impermanence (Sanskrit: Anitya) are
the hallmark of each individual existence; it is only the
ego which clings to the deluded view of a permanent self and
distorts the nature of reality. In meditation, one
apprehends on a direct, experiencial level that the five
skandhas are mere processes and that no self exists in the
sense of a permanent, eternal, integral, independent
substance; it is through this apprehension that a person is
saved from deluded views, and hence from pain and suffering
that ensue from such deluded views.

"Sariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness
does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness,
that which is emptiness form."
As noted above, like all phenomena, form is devoid of any
inherent self-abiding nature. This devoidness (emptiness) is
not a quality which a form gains in the course of its
(momentary) existence but is infused with it from the very
beginning. Quantum physics, as noted earlier, posits the
energy of silent pulsation at the core of everything in the
universe, thus defining for us emptiness or sunyata as the
"core energy"; in this light it is possible to see all forms
emerging out of this silent pulsation as in waves or
particles at the cellular level.

The sutra insists that form is emptiness. There is a
critical difference between form being empty and form being
emptiness. Sunyata, in Prajnaparamita sutras, is the
ultimate nature of reality; at the same time it does not
exist apart from the phenomena but permeates each
phenomenon. Therefore, sunyata cannot be sought apart from
the totality of all forms. And, although all forms are
qualified at their core by sunyata, its presence does not
negate the conventional appearance of form. In this sense,
emptiness is dependent upon the form it qualifies, as much
as form is dependent on emptiness for its qualification.
Thus form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. At its core
level, form does not differ from emptiness nor does
emptiness differ from form.

"The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses,
In much as it does with form, the presence of emptiness does
not negate the conventional appearance of feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness. All of these skandhas
are constantly arising and dissolving as a result of certain
conditions being present. These conditions are, in turn,
empty and conditioned by another set of conditions which,
too, are empty and so on, ad infinitum. All conditions
qualifying other conditions qualifying the skandhas are
momentary phenomena giving rise to momentary phenomena. None
of these has any inherent self-nature.

"Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness."
Dharma is a comprehensive term with a variety of meanings
and applications at multiple levels for both Hindus and
Buddhists. In the sutra here, the term is used in the sense
of a fundamental unit of existence, the building blocks of
the empirical personality and its world. In this sense, the
dharmas are something like the atoms of Democritus or the
monads of Leibniz. The term "point-instant" comes closest
perhaps to capturing the insight behind the term dharma
within the context of the Heart Sutra. These
"point-instants" have miniscule extension in space and have
practically no endurance. Again, the analogy of
wave-particle unpredictability best captures the drama of

It is out of these dharmas, the fundamental units, that the
skandhas are made. Since all existence is manifested through
one or another of the skandhas, it seems inevitable that all
existence is a conglomeration of dharmas. But the dharmas
themselves are not any solid objects positioned in time and
space, just as the waves and particles of quantum physics
are not. The dharmas make a momentary appearance and then
flicker out. They appear as a result of the interplay of
underlying sunyata, the core energy; hence they are
inherently empty. There is absolutely nothing one can hold
on to.

"They do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure,
do not increase or decrease."
The quality of appearing or disappearing is usually
attributed to (seemingly) solid objects. If the dharmas are
seen as a series of momentary flickerings, they cannot be
invested with having the quality of appearing or
disappearing precisely because flickerings are not solid
objects. A flickering, so swift in time and miniscule in
space, is not, in itself, tainted or pure, nor does it
increase or decrease. An appropriate analogy here is of the
waves in the ocean. A large wave is not a solid entity by
itself but is composed of a series of smaller waves which in
turn are composed of still smaller waves and so on. Even
while we get the illusion of a "wave," there is actually a
remarkably swift movement of water in certain patterns. A
wave does not exist out there in the ocean. Out of
ignorance, we may attribute these qualities (of
appearing/disappearing, taint/purity, increase/ decrease) to
conventional appearances (skandhas) but, since at the core
of conventional appearances, there are only unpredictable
flickerings (dharmas), our acceptance of these qualities as
real in themselves will be a deluded view. The only place
where our deluded view will find resolution is in the
reality of sunyata.

Also, the categories of arising and disappearing, pure and
impure, increasing or decreasing, belong to the realm of
affirmation and negation which are, in turn, produced by our
conceptual thinking. In pure experience, there is no
affirmation or negation. In the experience of sunyata there
is only emptiness, not its affirmation or negation as having
arisen or having disappeared, holy or unholy, etc. Here, it
would be wise to remind ourselves of Nagarjuna's caution
once again that as a concept sunyata too is empty. Any
affirmation or negation of sunyata would be conceptual, and
hence a deluded view.

"Therefore, in emptiness no form, no feelings, perceptions,
impulses, conscious-ness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no
tongue, no body, no mind, no color, no sound, no smell, no
taste, no touch, no object of mind, no realm of eyes and so
forth until no realm of mind-consciousness."
This passage is a further triangulation of the earlier
assertions by the Abhidharmists with regard to skandhas and
dharmas. Not wishing the hearer to somehow form the
misimpression that "emptiness is form," or any such category
of analysis, the sutra now employs the classical Indian
philosophical methodology of negation to rid the hearer of
any such possibility. This methodology is two-pronged; on
the one hand it denies any identification of emptiness with
the skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, impulses,
consciousness) or the six sense-objects (eyes, ears, nose,
tongue, body, mind) or the phenomena perceived by the six
sense-organs (shape, sound, smell, taste, touch or thought)
or the six consciounesses produced as a result of contact
between the sense-organs and the external phenomena (eye
consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue
consciousness, touch consciousness and mind consciounsess);
in this sense, this negation is a rejection of the Hinayana
predilection for numerous categories of analysis. On the
other hand, the sutra asserts that sunyata is ineffable and
inexpressible and is not to be confounded with eye, ear,
nose, tongue, and so on, until any and all categories are
denied as identifiable with sunyata.

Therefore, in sunyata there is nothing to hold on to.
Sunyata is complete absence of all identifiable phenomena,
yet it is not nihilistically void. What has ceased to
operate in sunyata are all categories of analysis. When the
rationality of the Hinayana thinking is transcended, and one
enters into the realm of intuitive truth, only then does one
experience the qualityless, valueless, ineffable sunyata of
the Mahayana tradition.

"No ignorance and also no extinction of it and so forth
until no old age and death and also no extinction of them."
This passage is a restatement of the insight contained in
Buddha's enlightenment experience as well as a further
negation of Hinayana rationality. The legend of Buddha's
enlightenment tells us that in the first watch of the night
of his great experience under the rose-apple tree, he
experienced all his past lives, one by one, as he had lived
them. In the second watch of the night, he witnessed the
death and rebirth of all cosmos and all being in them,
across the aeons. Still, to his credit, he was not satisfied
that he had discovered the root cause of human suffering as
he had set out to do when he took his great vow not to move
from his seat under the tree. Finally, at dawn, he saw the
Morning Star and, in a flash, understood what he had been
seeking. This insight has been articulated in later
tradition as the Chain of Dependent Origination (or the
Chain of Causation) and presented as a schema:

1) there is ignorance (as to the true nature of
2) ignorance leads to mental formations or impulses
(the skandha called samskara);
3) impulses or mental formations give rise to
consciousness (the skandha called vijnana), the
totality of thoughts, speech and actions;
4) consciousness determines the resulting mental and
physical phenomena (the skandha called nama-rupa or
the realm of name and form);
5) mental and physical phenomena condition the six
sense realms: the five physical sense-organs of eye,
ear, nose, tongue, body, and the mind;
6) the six sense-realms come into contact with
(sensorial and mental) phenomena;
7) contact gives rise to sensations or feelings (the
skandha called vedana);
8) feelings give rise to desire or thirst;
9) thirst gives rise to clinging;
10) clinging gives rise to the process of becoming;
11) the process of becoming leads to rebirth;
12) rebirth leads to suffering, old age and death.

Often this Chain of Dependent Origination is graphically
represented as a circle and variously called the Wheel of
Samsara, the Wheel of Becoming or the Wheel of Karma.
Through the preaching of his insights, the Buddha taught
people how to turn the wheel in the reverse order--through
the complete cessation of ignorance, mental formations are
eradicated; through the eradication of mental formations,
consciousness is eradicated and so forth until one arrives
at the cessation of conditioned rebirth and hence of
suffering, old age, and death. This reverse turning is often
called Turning the Wheel of Dharma and is called the path to
nirvana, the state of being in which all deluded views as to
anything in human personality being permanent or substantial
are eradicated. It is important to bear in mind that each of
the twelve factors in the Chain of Dependent Origination is
conditioned as well as conditioning. As such, they are all
interdependent and interconnected; in itself, no single
factor is absolute or independent. Each factor is inherently
empty. When the Wheel of Dharma is turned, all these factors
find their resolution in nirvana or sunyata.

In sunyata, as noted earlier, forms are only
flickerings--without any quality of solidity or
time-endurance--manifesting themselves momentarily. Knowing
this fundamental truth, we are spared the necessity of
choosing one over the other, of attachment to one and
aversion to another or both. Thus another occasion of
clinging is dissolved. We are also spared the necessity to
categorize the insight of the Buddha. Mahayana tradition
insists that it is enough for a believer to firmly hold on
to the thought of enlightenment and practice diligently. A
firm belief that in sunyata all things find their resolution
is therefore enough for a Mahayana believer. To know through
the eye of wisdom that all the twelve links in the Chain of
Dependent Origination are interconnections and
inter-relations is to echo the words of Werner Heisenberg,
one of the founders of quantum physics, "The world thus
appears as a complicated issue of events, in which
connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or
combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole."[17]

"No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no
cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain."
This is the most shocking rejection yet of the Hinayana
approach to Buddha's teaching which had insisted that the
totality of Buddha's teaching was contained in the first
teaching he gave to his five former colleagues soon after
his enlightenment. This teaching is called the First Sermon
or the Sermon of the Four Holy Truths. In this schema, the
four Noble Truths are:

1) existence is dukkha (pain, suffering, discomfort,
dis-ease, sense of incompletion);
2) dukkha is caused by "thirst" (Sanskrit:
tanha)--desire to be, desire to have;
3) the thirst can be stopped (nirvana);
4) it can be stopped by walking the eightfold path
(namely--right understanding, right thoughts, right
speech, right action, right livelihood, right
effort, right mindfulness, right concentration).

The Mahayana disciples had no quarrel with the insight
contained in any of these classifications but what
precipitated a conflict for them was the Hinayana insistence
on a monastic elitism which declared itself to be the sole
custodian of Buddha's teachings and their interpretation.
Through the innovation of sunyata, both as the ontological
and transcendent nature of reality, the Mahayana followers
declared all categories, and hence their interpretations, as
dualistic, thus null and void. By positing a simple faith in
the thought of enlightenment and diligent practice, they
sought to make the Buddha's enlightenment experience
available to any and all, laypersons and monastics alike.

This passage then is a declaration that suffering,
origination of suffering, and the stopping of suffering by
following a certain path are empty categories; at the same
time, it is an affirmation that in the pure experience of
sunyata, there are no dualities or distinctions between
suffering and its stopping, between suffering and the
so-called path to liberation. The sutra declares, almost
ruthlessly, that there is no cognition or attainment with
nothing to attain. Hinayana tradition had seen in the person
of the arhant an embodiment of great spiritual attainment,
and he was a model to be emulated. Historically, however,
soon after the death of the Buddha, a controversy emerged
over the status of the arhant and at the Second Council
(held about a hundred years after the death of the Buddha);
one of the key issues debated at the Council was whether or
not it was possible for an arhant to relapse. The consensus,
controversial though it was, was that an arhant can indeed
relapse. Subsequent Mahayana literature built upon this
limited capacity of the arhant and extended its belief
system to include the transience of all categories of
existence, including suffering, its cessation, and any
attainment to come out of such cessation.

"The Bodhisattva depends on Prajnaparamita and the mind is
no hindrance. Without any hindrance, no fears exists. Far
apart from any perverted view, one dwells in Nirvana."
The bodhisattva is steadfast in his/her trust in the wisdom
of sunyata and finds in it a sense of completion; he or she
is completely at peace with it and with himself. This is his
(her) support, and he knows there is nothing lacking in it.
Whatever the limitations of his or her conditioned mind may
be, he or she has a perfect understanding of, and trust in,
the truth of sunyata. No perverted or deluded views are
going to cloud his or her vision. In traditional Buddhism,
there are "four perverted views" from which liberation is

1) a view that anything existent can be permanent
even if it is compounded;
2) a view that satisfaction may be found in the world
of compounded entities;
3) a view that there is a permanent self or soul; and
4) a view that things are desirable and therefore worth
striving for and clinging to.

An investment in any of these "perverted" views is likely to
produce fear and confusion. Fear and confusion, by their
very nature, seek other things to cling to, and each
clinging brings about its own particular perverted view to
further cloud the vision. Rooted firmly in the wisdom of
sunyata, the bodhisattva has no such hindrance. S/he does
not mistake the unreal for the real, the conditioned for the
unconditioned, the relative for the absolute, etc.

For a contemporary reader of the sutra, the words, "no fears
exist" may be the most significant insight contained in the
sutra. Our century has been characterized by existential
angst and its concomitant despair and hopelessness. The late
twentieth century culture finds itself driven by the basic
fuel of fear even while the individual is really yearning
for love. Our conditioning has become such that we fear fear
and we fear love. Any resolution of the individual human
condition has to perforce deal with the basic fear of
duality, fear of the "other," fear of the world which one
finds to be hostile and threatening, and yet indispensable.
Unless this dichotomy, this sense of separation from the
world is resolved, all our efforts to find a "meaning" in
human life are going to be nothing more than manipulative
gestures. It is only in the pure experience of sunyata that
one transcends the manipulative gestures which societal
conditioning, in its ignorance, sees not as illusions but as
substantive. The training of the bodhisattiva is to see the
illusory nature of these manipulative gestures and transcend

Without a clouded vision, the bodhisattva "dwells in
nirvana." For the earlier Hinayana, nirvana was the state of
liberation resulting from the eradication of suffering
caused by desires and any notion of a permanent selfhood. As
happened with many other aspects of Buddha's teaching,
nirvana too came to be posited as a category in the
Abhidharma scheme of things. Mahayana response to this
position was that while the Hinayana follower had certainly
achieved a measure of peace, his understanding of liberation
was limited as long as he persisted in having a fear of
samsara (the world of desires and becoming) and felt that
samsara had to be overcome by attaining nirvana. This is a
dualistic approach and, according to Mahayana, cannot lead
to the Transcendent Wisdom which is essentially
non-dualistic and in which samsara and nirvana are not
distinct from each other. Nirvana is not to be considered as
"something," a category, which exists as a separate reality
apart from everything else; nirvana is not the result of
doing something or attaining something but of not-doing: the
not-doing of not discriminating. The bodhisattva does not
"attain" nirvana (since any attainment is empty of
time-endurance or self-nature) but having the unclouded
vision of non-discrimination, in other words, of sunyata, he
is always immersed in tranquility and is at peace with
himself or herself. Nirvana is sunyata and sunyata itself is
nirvana. Nirvana is sunyata because it has no graspable
nature; any thought of nirvana as an attainable object would
therefore be an error. Nirvana is not something to be
striven for but to be intuited in the unfolding of each
moment where sunyata plays itself out unceasingly. Through
his intuitive wisdom (prajna), the bodhisattva knows that in
sunyata all things are just as they really are i.e. full of
Thusness or Suchness (Sanskrit: Tathatha).

"In the three worlds all Buddhas depend on Prajnaparamita
and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi."
The "three worlds" are the worlds of past, present and
future (sometimes also referred to as the worlds of form,
formlessness, and desire.) The vehicle through which the
Buddhas attain their Buddhahood is the Transcendent Wisdom
of sunyata.

Anuttara Samyak Sambhodi means "Perfect Unexcelled
Awakening." It is the enlightenment of a perfect Buddha, one
who has by himself rediscovered the teaching that leads to
liberation. Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi also means possession
of the "ten powers" (Sanskrit: Dashabala) of a perfect

1) knowledge of discernment in any situation of
what's possible and what's not;
2) knowledge of ripening of deeds in oneself and
3) knowledge of superior and inferior abilities of
other beings;
4) knowledge of tendencies in other beings;
5) knowledge of the manifold constituents of the world;
6) knowledge of paths leading to rebirth in various
realms of existence;
7) knowledge of what will lead to purity and what to
8) knowledge of various meditations (dhyana) and
concentrations (samadhi);
9) knowledge of death and rebirth;
10) knowledge of when the defilements are completely

The "attainment" of these ten powers in Anuttara Samyak
Sambodhi may seem, on the surface, a logical contradiction
since the sutra has just declared that there is "no
attainment, with nothing to attain." The implicit message
here is that in and of itself Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi too
is empty but the ten powers arising out of deep
contemplation on the wisdom of sunyata can be used as
"skillful means" (Sanskrit: upaya) which, along with wisdom
and compassion, are the hallmark of a bodhisattva in the
Mahayana literature. Having these ten powers at his or her
disposal, the bodhisattva works tirelessly to save all
beings, knowing fully well that all is inherently empty. The
effort is directed toward helping individuals change their
karmic legacies and patterns rather than "saving" any
solidity called "being."

Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi changes the complexion of the sutra
from a mere negation of Hinayana categories to a positive
fullfillment of the bodhisattva vow ("Sentient beings are
numberless; I vow to save them all.") The bodhisattva treads
on this path immersed in the intuitive wisdom of sunyata
rather than the rational categories of the Hinayana model or
having the illusion that there is someone who can "save"
someone. The wisdom of sunyata is not an opinion or a
category but an experience; it is an experience in which
"sunyata is" rather than "sunyata is something." The
experiencer and the experienced are inseparable,
indistinguishable from each other. The bodhisattva and those
he or she is trying to "save" are inseparable from each

In the sense of celebrating the insight into sunyata, the
sutra ends here. Historically, however, by the time the
Heart Sutra was given its final shape, the influence of
Mantrayana (the vehicle of mantra practice) and Tantra was
clearly ascendent within Mahayana. The following passage is
to be seen, therefore, in historical context as an addendum
and proselytizing in nature. The assertions made here
clearly contradict the insights presented earlier in the
sutra. Commentators through the ages have taken opposite
positions on the inclusion of the mantra in the sutra;
perhaps the best way to sum up the place of the mantra in
the sutra is to note the historical context and leave it
entirely up to the reader--to use this mantra as an
incantation, as a tool of power; a more discerning inquirer
may see the mantra as a linguistic and symbolic summation of
the central teaching of the Mahayana wisdom schools.

A very positive view of this mantra is offered by Thich Nhat
Hanh, the contemporary Vietnamese Zen master:

When we listen to this mantra, we should bring
ourselves into that state of attention, of
concentration, so that we can receive the strength
emanated by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. We do not
recite the Heart Sutra like singing a song, or
with our intellect alone. If you practice the
meditation on emptiness, if you penetrate the
nature of interbeing with all your heart, your
body, and your mind, you will realize a state that
is quite concentrated. If you say the mantra then,
with all your being, the mantra will have power
and you will be able to have real communication,
real communion with Avalokitesvara, and you will
be able to transform yourself in the direction of
enlightenment. This text is not just for chanting,
or to be put on an altar for worship. It is given
to us as a tool to work for our liberation, for
the liberation of all beings.[18]

"Therefore, know that Pranjaparamita is the great
transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the
utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra which is able to
relieve all suffering and is true, not false."
Clearly this message is intended for the unconvinced and the
uninitiated. It asks for faith and trust in the efficacy of
the sutra (which was the hallmark of Mahayana methods of
veneration) rather than the critical-analytical faculty of
self-investigation which Hinayana demanded from its
followers. A faith in the power of a mantra is a further
development in Mahayana and complementary to the growing
popularity of the Lotus (Saddharam-pundarika) Sutra and
other sutras from the Pure Land School; this trend in
Mahayana would give rise to Tantra and become all-dominant
in Buddhist cultures in Tibet, China, Japan and Korea where
missionaries from India made remarkable gains in the course
of their religious adventure treks.

The magico-mantrik culture which these missionaries brought
with them found receptive soil in the countries of north and
east Asia and led to tremendous religious-social-cultural
realignments in these lands.

"So proclaim the Prajnaparamita mantra, proclaim the mantra
which says:

"Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha."
Gate, gate means gone, gone; paragate means gone over;
parasamgate means gone beyond (to the other shore of
suffering or the bondage of samsara); bodhi means the
Awakened Mind; svaha is the Sanskrit word for homage or
proclaimation. So, the mantra means "Homage to the Awakened
Mind which has gone over to the other shore (of suffering)."

Whatever perspective one may take on the inclusion of the
mantra at the end of the sutra, it does not put a blemish on
what the sutra has tried to convey earlier: the richness of
intuitive wisdom coming out of the pure experience of
complete stillness, of complete cessation, away from all
concepts and categories.

Zen masters, in echoing the theme of emptiness, like to
agree with existentialist thinkers that "life" has no
meaning or reason. The Heart Sutra uses the methodology of
negation as a way of pointing to this lack of any inherent
meaning or reason in the phenomenal world, including the
world of the mind. It takes each of the existents, holds it
up under an unflinching gaze and declares it to have no
sustaining self-nature. This is the wisdom teaching of
sunyata of the Mahayana tradition. But, at the same time,
compassion is the other and equally important teaching of
Mahayana. How do we then bridge the gap between sunyata as
ultimate reality and the conventionality of human condition?
The existentialist thinkers agonized over this problem and
were led to despair and anarchy. In Mahayana, compassion,
which is a natural, unforced by-product of a deep state of
meditation, supports the wisdom of emptiness, yet allows the
individual to have empathy with the conventional appearance
of the world without getting lost in it. It may be that
compassion works best as a post-enlightenment existential
crisis, but nontheless without compassion as a guiding
paradigm, the unrelenting precision of sunyata can make life

Zen masters insist that our true freedom lies in the choices
we make, and each one of us has the power to change "no
meaning" into Great Meaning, "no reason" into Great Reason.
This is possible because in the pure experience of sunyata,
one realizes that one is intrinsically endowed with
Buddha-nature and that this Buddha-nature in oneself is not
different from Buddha-nature in all living beings. To see
others as separate from oneself is to live in delusion and
deny one's own Buddha-nature; to see others as sharing in
one's own Buddha-nature is to affirm one's essential
humanity. In making the free choice of compassion for all
beings, we are doing no more than giving expression to our
own Buddha-nature. It is only in compassion (Sanskrit:
karuna) that wisdom (prajna) finds its fullest expression.

Graphically, this way of understanding the Heart Sutra in
the Zen and Mahayana traditions may be presented as a

Experience of Complete Stillness
of Cessation
Attainment of the Dry cognition;
ten powers of intellectual;
Anuttara Samyak 270-- --90 apprehension of
Sambodhi nature of

Turning the wheel of
Samsara/Karma through lust,
hatred & confusion
Turning the Wheel of Dharma
through compassion and wisdom;
seeing things just as they are

At 0 degree is samsara. Here the Wheel of Karma keeps
turning on and on, fueled by anger, greed and ignorance. An
urgency to change, to get out of the realm of suffering
leads one to

90 degrees. Here one has an intellectual awareness of the
Four Noble Truths and the Chain of Dependent Origination in
the Hinayana-Abhidharma sense, but this is dry cognition.
When one follows this dry cognition with a deep experience
of meditation samadhi, one reaches the experience of

180 degrees. This is the experience of Complete Stillness,
of sunyata, of cessation. Here the mind becomes completely
silent and personal and societal conditioning disappears. In
Zen terms, this is the realization of Buddha-Nature. A
thorough absorption in this samadhi leads to

270 degrees where one acquires the ten powers of Anuttara
Samyak Sambodhi. This is the attainment of Buddhahood in
traditional Buddhist sense. At the same time one understands
from one's wisdom-eye that in themselves these powers too
are empty; this wisdom leads one to

360 degrees. This is nirvana in action, Buddhahood
manifested in functioning in the world. Here the Wheel of
Dharma is turned by employing skillful means (upaya), rooted
in wisdom and compassion. Here one finds validation of one's
bodhisattva vows, which is a continuation of what Shakyamuni
Buddha did in his forty-five years' teaching career.

More than two centuries ago, Voltaire wrote, "Man makes his
own gods, forges forever new chains for himself." Today, we
live in a post-religious society; our psychological and
spiritual needs have transcended the making of gods and
forging of new chains for ourselves. Our need today is to
find a new paradigm in which the intellectual and the
intuitive meet, a paradigm which is rooted in the wisdom of
our own meditative experience. Today, researchers in the
field of consciousness use terms like "holographic" to
describe a new model of the universe in which an individual
is a "hologram" and exists in a state of "holonomy" in the
so-called "holographic" universe.

The idea of the universe as an overachieving unity
repeated somehow in each of its parts bears a
majesty and elegance all its own....The holonomic
formulation...resonates with one of the most
ancient intuitions of the race, expressed with
eloquence and force in Eastern philosophy. It
helps account for the essential meaningfulness of
existence, the coherent, repeated patterns that we
keep discovering at the deepest structure of
language, mathematics, and the physical world. It
is a necessary consequence of modern quantum
theory taken to its logical extreme.[19]

The "holographic" model of the universe cannot be replicated
in individuals by turning it into yet another ideology for
societal realignment. Without an experience of sunyata,
which allows us to get in touch with our basic humanity, it
will be just another concept, subject to disputations and
dissertations. But if we are wise enough to learn from the
experience of Mahayana mystics and the findings of quantum
theory, we can find that:

A world of connectedness, potential, and evolution
turns us toward a vivid sense of community along
with the acceptance of personal responsibility;
toward a de-emphasis on competing and winning
along with a re-emphasis on participating and
experiencing; from aggression toward gentleness
and enjoyment; from dominance of nature to
blending with nature; from exponential growth in
production and consumption to a more moderate,
more ecological standard of living along with a
powerful intentionality; toward social justice
throughout the world.[20]

Compare this to the sentiments echoed by a contemporary Zen
master in the context of the Heart Sutra:

The Prajnaparamita gives us a solid ground to
making peace with ourselves, for transcending the
fear of birth and death, the duality of this and
that. In the light of emptiness, everything is
everything else, we inter-are, everyone is
responsible for everything that happens in life.
When you produce peace and happiness in yourself,
you begin to realize peace for the whole world.
With the smile that you produce in yourself, with
the conscious breathing you establish within
yourself, you begin to work for peace in the
world. To smile is not to smile only for yourself;
the world will change because of your smile. When
you practice sitting meditation, if you enjoy even
one moment of your sitting, if you establish
serenity and happiness inside yourself, you
provide the world with a solid base of peace. If
you do not give yourself peace, how can you share
it with others? [21]


[1] Leonard, George, The Silent Pulse, p.xii.
[2] Capra, Frithjof, The Tao of Physics, pp.197-98.
[3] Conze, Edward, Buddhist Wisdom Books, p.18.
[4] Dumoulin, Heinrich., Zen Buddhism, A History, Vol.1,
p. 35.
[5] Conze, Edward quoted by Donald Lopez, Jr. in The Heart
Sutra Explained, p. 3.

[6] Lopez, Donald, Jr., The Heart Sutra Explained, p.7.
[7] Leonard, George, The Silent Pulse, pp.32-34.
[8] Kornfield, Jack, "The Smile of the Buddha," Ancient
Wisdom and Modern Science, p.101.
[9] Leonard, George, The Silent Pulse, p.176.
[10] Capra, Frithjof, "The New Vision of Reality," Ancient
Wisdom and Modern Science, p.138.
[11] Ibid, p.138.
[12] Capra, Frithjof. Tao of Physics, pp.198-99.
[13] Chang, Garma C.C., Buddhist Teaching of Totality,
[14] Abe, Masao, Zen and Western Thought, p. 94.
[15] Govinda, Lama Angarika,Creative Meditation and
Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, p.11.
[16] Ibid, pp. 60-61.
[17] Heisenberg Werner, quoted by Frithjof Capra, "The New
Vision of Reality," Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science,
p. 137.
[18] Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of Understanding, pp.
[19] Leonard, George, The Silent Pulse, p.89.
[20] Ibid, p.177.
[21] Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Heart of Understanding, pp.51-52.


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------"The New Vision of Reality: Toward a synthesis of
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Chang, Garma C.C. Buddhist Teaching of Totality.
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Conze, Edward. Buddhism: Its essence and development. New
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------Buddhist Thought in India. Ann Arbor: University of
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------Buddhist Wisdom Books. New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

------Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom.
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------Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies. Columbia:
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Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Buddhism: A History (Vol.1). New
York: Macmillian Publishing Co. 1988.

Fox, Douglas A. The Heart of Buddhist Wisdom. Lewiston, N.Y:
Edwin Mellen Press, 1985.

Govinda, Lama Angarika. Creative Meditation and
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Publishing House, 1976.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Heart of Understanding. Berkeley:
Parallax Press, 1988.

Kenney, Jim. "Particle, Wave, and Paradox" in Fireball and
the Lotus, edited by Ron Miller and Jim Kenney. Santa Fe:
Bear & Company, 1987.

Kornfield, Jack. "The Smile of the Buddha: Paradigms in
Perspective" in Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science, edited by
Stanislav Graf. Albany: State University of New York Press,

Kothari, D.S. "Atom and the Self" in The Evolution of
Consciousness, edited by Kishore Gandhi. New York: Paragon
House, 1983.

Leonard, George. The Silent Pulse. New York: E.P. Dutton,

Lopez, Donald S. The Heart Sutra Explained. Albany: State
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Murti, T.R.V. The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. London:
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Streng, Frederick. Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning.
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Talbot, Michael. Mysticism and the New Physics. New York:
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of Physics and the Mind. Boston: Shambala, 1989.

* * *

Primary Point Press isthe publications division of the Kwan
Um School of Zen. It has published Gathering of Spirit:
Women Teaching in American Buddhism, edited by Ellen Sidor
(1987) and Ten Gates: The Kong-an Teaching of Zen Master
Seung Sahn (1987). It has reprinted Only Don't Know: The
Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn (1982) and
Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen--Tradition and Teachers by Mu
Soeng Sunim (1987).

The Kwan Um School of Zen is a network of centers under the
spiritual direction of Zen Master Seung Sahn and senior
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international journal of Buddhism. More information about
the Kwan Um School of Zen, including a list of centers
worldwide, may be received by contacting the school at:

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