Inside The Heart Sutra
By Carlton Carr

The "Heart Sutra" is a remarkable document. It is a concise definition of the Buddha's teaching on emptiness. The sutra begins by telling us that the Buddha was staying at the ancient city of Rajagriha and that this teaching was given at "Eagle Peak," or "Mount Sacred Eagle." "Eagle Peak" is a real place that anyone can visit and it is a frequent stop for tourists who visit modern day India.
This sutra is somewhat unusual because the Buddha sits quietly nearby as two of his advanced students discuss the concept of ultimate reality. We are told that the Buddha was immersed in a meditative state called "profound illumination." From the textual clues we realize that he was dwelling on the empty nature of all phenomena.
Next we are told that the Bodhisattva student, Avalokiteshvara was also engaged in this same meditation practice. From this we can assume that Shakyamuni and Avalokiteshvara had been discussing the subject just prior to this teaching or that this was a practice the Buddha had already taught to the Bodhisattva.
At this point we are told that Shariputra, "through the power of the Buddha" asks Avalokiteshvara how "a son of the lineage" should train his mind if he wishes to "practice this wisdom."
"Through the power of the Buddha" simply means that Shakyamuni was Shariputra's teacher. He had already spent years training Shariputra's mind so the power we're referring to is the power of his teachings to influence his students mind.
"A son of the lineage" is any person who follows the guidance of the Buddha and wants to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. The final part of this question, how a student should "practice this wisdom" is very important. Notice that he did not ask, "How can I acquire this wisdom," he asked how to 'practice' this insight because he already understood that this meditation is a lifelong commitment to personal growth.
Please observe that the Buddha was engaged in this meditation and he was already enlightened, so this is clearly a practice that should be continued no matter what state of realization you have attained.
At this point Avalokiteshvara answers Shariputra's question by giving a succinct definition of emptiness that is treasured by all dharma students to this day. The bodhisattva begins his definition by telling us that all existence is empty and that your five aggregates are empty as well.
When Avalokiteshvara says that emptiness is the true nature of all existence he means that everything is dependent on causes and conditions. There is nothing in the universe that exists inherently. Avalokiteshvara adds the part about your five aggregates because it is more difficult to realize that these laws apply to you as well.
It is fairly easy to realize that the universe works by cause and effect but it is much more difficult to fully comprehend that these same laws always apply to you as an individual. We are always getting into situations that we have created and then praying for the circumstances to change. It is so easy to see that cause and effect works in the lives of others but we want things to be different for ourselves. This is part of the mental sickness that keeps us from finding liberation.
Avalokiteshvara continues by saying that 'emptiness is form', form is emptiness', and he makes clear that there is never a situation where this is not the case. Again, he brings this teaching home to us directly by saying that this truth also applies to the components that make up our bodies.
Avalokiteshvara is not telling us that form does not exist because this is obviously not the case. He is saying that form does not inherently exist because anything you can think of is dependent on the causes that created them, the proper circumstances, and the correct environment. If any of these factors are absent then the phenomena will not be manifested.
The next point to consider is that all things 'are not produced and do not cease.' This means that there is no birth or death. Again, Avalokiteshvara is not saying that you were not born or that you will not die, he is talking about the eternal nature of all sentient beings. Yes, you were born, but the energy that is you has always existed and can never die.
Avalokiteshvara adds that the energy that is 'you' has no taints or separation from taint, this means that we are not born 'evil or 'holy.' The way we behave is the result of decisions we make every day. We choose to behave badly and so we embrace evil but this does not make us inherently immoral. The same is true of 'holiness' or what is perceived as good behavior.
The bodhisattva finishes this verse by saying that phenomena do not increase or decrease. This means that the energy that is the phenomena in question does not really alter in spite of appearances. To make this easier to understand, let us examine the life of an 'average' person. The energy of a human being does not alter with their life stage. The true entity of that person is the same whether he is an infant or an old man.
The next paragraph assures us that everything is empty and that includes the twelve-link chain of dependent origination as well as the four noble truths. This is telling us that all of the Buddhas teachings are not somehow outside the system of rules that govern everything. Everything is empty because everything is dependent.
There is "no attainment" but also no "non-attainment" means that this kind of dualistic thinking is not real. We are always attempting to place things into categories but this does not ever reflect reality. A Buddha has learned to see things just the way they are.
When we attain just a little of this kind of clarity our life condition improves a great deal. As we continue to practice our wisdom develops and we become happy individuals. As the sutra says, we become filled with positive energy and our minds are freed from the fear of death. When we attain Nirvana we are enlightened to the truth and thus completely free from suffering.
At this point in the sutra the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara pronounces a dharani, which is quite common to advanced Mahayana teachings. To properly understand the concept of dharanis please read "Inside The Lotus Sutra" (free from BIONA books).
The sutra concludes with the statement that any one who wishes to train as a bodhisattva should follow these guidelines. The Buddha sat and listened to this discourse and approved of what Avalokiteshvara taught.
I hope this commentary brings benefit to as many beings as possible. May all beings reach the freedom of Nirvana.
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
May all beings benefit.
Thank You.