Preface and Introduction to the Heart Sutra

In the following series of posts I will introduce the Heart Sutra and proceed to explain its key points. At the same time I will address the issues likely to be raised by a skeptical, or critical reader. In certain instances, the issues may be of a historical nature, in others they may be more philosophical. Likewise, I will also share my particular understanding of the topics.

I have chosen to use the Heart Sutra as a means of exploring many of the topics proposed in the original outline. This is partly a time-saving gesture on my part - but it also serves to provide a vivid context for those subjects set out in the original outline. For example, included in the sutra are the Four Noble Truths, dependent origination, the basis for imputing a self, the two Truths, epistemology and ontology. The reason those topics were included in the original outline was because they discussed topics, such as consciousness, the way in which we impute a self, the nature of mind and so on - which are ideas that have been discussed somewhat on the FACTS board. My impetus, again, was to present a fresh view of those concepts. The point here, is not to have a religious discussion, nor even a discussion about religion.

Along those lines a couple of ideas arise. The first is that the Dharma, to borrow the words of Stephan Batchelor, is "not something to believe in, but something to do". That being said, the main thing to do is meditate. But we will not do that. The fact that we won't meditate will substantially limit the discussion - but we're not here to bring anyone around to the Path of the Buddha (if anyone would like to discuss how to meditate, however, they can contact me off the board). Therefore, this discussion will be less for the skeptic, (unless the skeptic wants to take up meditation and resume this discussion after stabilizing his/her practice a few months down the road), and more for the critical thinker.

I expect this to be time consuming to produce - and hopefully time consuming to read. If it is, I hope it because of the amount of thought being given to the topic. I will try to be very thorough in explaining new terms as they arise without disrupting the flow of information too much. In some instances end notes may suffice. Otherwise, I may include a glossary of terms.

The outer topic, the Heart Sutra, is very complex and quite sophisticated. It is one of several prajnaparamita sutras.
The longest is in 100,000 lines. There's a 25,000 line prajnaparamita sutra, an 18,000 line sutra, a 10,000 line sutra and an 8,000 line version as well. All of the ideas in those sutras have been distilled down into the forty lines that appear down below. The sutra can be even further reduced into the mantra OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA, or just to the syllable AH. The point here is that a lot of information is being compressed into a very small amount of words. Indeed, this is sutra is the quintessential Mahayana text. The entire Mahayana and Hinayana paths are contained within this sutra. Therefore, please treat the contents with proper respect. Not religious respect - but respect for the efforts and intellect of its composer(s) and commentators.

The inner topics, concerning epistemology, ontology, the explanations of a conceptual or a nonconceptual mind and external phenomena, are also somewhat sophisticated. Much of what I present is not immediately intuitive from a Western point of view. It would be a mistake to presume therefore, that since its meaning isn't immediately obvious, that it is flawed - or just in need of the lamp of Western reasoning. My guess is that a lot of misunderstanding will arise over language and its cultural components. Language because of the difficulty not just of translation, but especially because of the difficulty of giving name to concepts that do not exist in the English language or western canon. And,
cultural biases will also be an obstacle. For example, the whole pathetic history of the gap between science and philosophy since the time of Descartes has strongly colored the way we regard mind; i.e. as nothing more than a function of an activated brain. I'll do my best to provide guidance and encouragement so that we can sail through the hazards of our biases.

And, just to give you a taste of where we're going, we will follow in the footsteps of Christopher deCharms, who, in his book Two Views of Mind: the Abhidharma and Brain Science offered this little brain teaser i to acclimate his readers to the difference in ways we and the Tibetans regard phenomena.
1. A phenomenon exists (has individual existence)
2. The phenomenon does not exist.
These two possibilities pretty much sum up the western view with regards to relevant possibilities. Either an object exists, or it does not exist. From the Buddhist perspective there are two other possibilities.
3. The phenomenon both exists and does not exist.
4. The phenomenon neither exists nor does not exist.

Assume now that the phenomena in question is the chair you're sitting on. Which of these four possibilities would be correct? Again, the Western answer is probably (1). That is the intuitively correct answer. What if the object is Santa Claus? Maybe (2) is correct - but (3) might also be correct - because he at least exists in the minds of children, on Christmas cards and cartoons and so on. What if the object in question is our own "self"? From a Mahayana perspective, none of the four possibilities stated above is correct. This philosophically "proven" view avoids the extremes of eternalism and nihilism, as well as the extremes of Cartesian dualism and monist/materialism. And while I will not go into further explanation here, the above should serve as evidence that the logic we are familiar with may not be easily applied to this system of thought. This is not, however, a plea for special consideration. A very extensive system of logic and hermeneutics has evolved over the millennia and we shall explore it. My advice is to listen - to
hear - to get the contents of the package and then to contemplate its meaning.

Introductionto the Sutra
As for the sutra itself, it is perhaps the most popular sutra in the world. It is chanted daily in China (where Buddhists practice) Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal, Bhutan, Vietnam (where Buddhism is practiced), Taiwan, Korea and Japan.
Likewise, it is chanted in all Mahayana sanghas outside of Asia. Furthermore, scores of commentaries on the sutra have come out of those countries. It's popularity can be attributed to the profundity of its contents and to its brevity.

It is one of the Prajnaparamita sutras which distinguish the Mahayna Buddhism from Hinayana Buddhism.
Prajñaparamita has been translated to English as 'Transcendent Wisdom'. Jña means consciousness, knowledge or understanding. Pra is an intensifier. Hence, Prajna means wisdom. ii There are two etymologies for the word paramita.iii The first comes from the word parama meaning "highest", "most distant", "most excellent". Thus "that of which there is nothing superior in this world is said to be excellent (parama); the excellence of wisdom is the perfection of wisdom". iv In the second etymology, paramita is divided into para and mita. Para means "beyond" or "the other shore", and mita means "that which has arrived", or "that which goes". So, generally then, prajnaparamita means the unsurpassed wisdom which goes to the other shore. Thus it is the highest wisdom in Buddhism because of its ability to deliver one to the other shore; i.e. realization, by means of the contemplating and meditating on it.

In particular, what is unique about prajnaparamita is its view of twofold egolessness which understands the emptiness of inherent existence of self and of other phenomena. The experience of this is known as shunyata. Shunyata "is an awareness that apparent phenomena are without origination or basis; it is freedom from conceptuality. In particular, it is the realization of threefold purity: that there is no "I" as actor, no action, and no "other" to be acted upon. It is very important to understand that shunyata is not the nihilistic idea of nothing, or voidness. As the sutra says, it is inseparable from the appearance of perceived objects such as forms." v This view departs from the Hinayana views which see the egolessness of self, but which nonetheless believe that objects exist from their own side. Another key
divergence is the role of the Bodhisattva and of compassion. Compassion is inseparable from emptiness. It is perhaps for this reason that Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion plays the main role in this sutra."

Throughout the prajnaparamita sutras' existence, several commentaries (Skt. shastras) have been written. I am most familiar with the Indian and Tibetan commentaries on the Heart Sutra. It should be pointed out that as the Mahayana tenets evolved in India, so too did the commentaries on the sutras. Likewise, after the Tibetans translated the Indian texts, the Sanskrit originals gradually disappeared in Tibet, and inevitably, commentaries based on the etymology of Tibetan words began to appear as well. So, there are disagreements amongst the commentaries on various points, which reflect the contemporary view bumping up against older views. In a certain way, it is this process of continual refinement which kept the dharma viable. On the other hand, it has also led to low-grade sectarianism. As for the substance of these disagreements, as far as I can tell, none reflect any fundamental conflict. Perhaps the differences
are like intra-discipline spats amongst biologists or other researchers. There is consensus regarding the theory itself, but there's some disagreement as to the actual mechanisms involved. In any event, I do not mean to present a comprehensive, nor necessarily even a balanced view of the disparate shastras. For additional information about the sutra or its topic, I've made a small list of books which you will find below.

In the next installment I will post the sutra and we will discuss the meaning of its title and the common and uncommon prologues.
Recommended Readings on Prajnaparamita and Shunyata/Emptiness Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, pp. 187-206. A discussion of shunyata.
Echoes of Voidness by Geshe Rabten (Wisdom Publications, 1983), pp. 20-45. A commentary in the traditional Tibetan style.
Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom, translated by Edward Conze. A useful anthology arranged by topic.
The Heart Sutra Explained by Donald Lopez (SUNY Press, 1988). Compendium of Indian and Tibetan
commentaries on the Heart Sutra
Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso A commentary in the traditional Tibetan style.
Mother of the Buddhas: Meditation on the Prajnaparamita Sutra Lex Hixon

End Notes
i This is known as the Four Cornered Negation, or catush koti. It is the basis of Buddhist logic, for it avoids the extremes of eternalism and of nihilism. Likewise, it avoids the extremes of monism/materialism and Cartesian dualism.
It is fundamental to, and pervades Mahayana philosophy.
ii Note, there are two types of prajna; worldly and transcendent prajna. The former is a sort of discriminating intelligence, such as was referred to in the first chapter. Transcendent prajna generally refers to the intelligence which transcends conceptual mind, hence it is synonymous with wisdom.
iii The Heart Sutra Explained; Lopez, Donald; p. 21
iv bid.
v Nalanda Translation Committee.
Tim A