Lectures on the Heart Sutra
By Sojun Weitsman, Roshi

The full title for the Heart Sutra is the Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom Heart Sutra. Wisdom here is not our ordinary knowledge; it is innate knowledge, or our innate, intuitive connection with the fundamental principle, which is called prajña in Sanskrit. In the prologue, Shariputra asks Buddha how one courses in perfect wisdom, and Buddha, in turn, asks Avalokitesvara to explain it for him. Avalokitesvara is practicing deeply, one of the translations says, "coursing," actually...coursing deeply in the prajña paramita. So practicing is a good word for coursing. He is not just thinking about it, he is actually one with it. When we sit zazen we are practicing deeply prajña paramita, and, hopefully, when we leave the cushion, we are still practicing deeply prajña paramita. So, there are two aspects of this. One is that there is an Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva who is doing all this, and we are watching the scene.
But, actually, each one of us is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, and each one of us is Shariputra as well. This is the kind of dialogue between two aspects of ourselves. The one who inquires and the one who responds. "Practicing deeply" means to be able to see beneath the surface.
In Sanskrit, the five skandhas are forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These are called the five streams of existence...Usually, when we talk about "me" and "mine," and when we talk about "myself" and "who I am," we are talking about some idea we have, some concept of "a being." When we look at ourselves, our mind creates some image through either hearing or seeing-through one of the five senses-and then we decide what that is that we see or hear, etc. We have a kind of partial view of what this person is. But, really, do we see something in its total reality? In Buddha Dharma we say there is no self, no permanent self-nature. This being that we encounter as ourselves, or someone else, is a "confection," something "put together," consisting of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations (which means thoughts of various kinds), and consciousness or awareness. Within these five categories, what we call a human being is to be found. But there is no permanent self, or no inherent self, within the five skandhas.
"Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the prajña paramita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty, and was saved from all suffering." The important word or phrase here is "own being." Nothing, no entity, has its own being. Emptiness means interdependence. It means other things too, but, for this purpose, it means nothing stands by itself. If we make a cake, we have flour, eggs, sugar and salt, etc. We beat them all up and we bake it, and then we say we have a cake. We eat the cake and it is a real cake eaten by a real mouth. But the cake is empty and the mouth is empty of its own being. What makes the cake is the mouth, and what makes the mouth is the cake. What makes the cake are all the ingredients. So we have a real cake, but the cake is illusory. It looks like a real cake. Today it is a real cake, but, if you leave it on the table until tomorrow, or next week, it's not a real cake anymore. So it only has momentary existence as a cake. Not only the ingredients, but the oven makes the cake, the table makes the cake, the spoon makes the cake, the sky makes the cake. The cake is dependent on everything in the universe for its existence, and it is one expression of universal life. In the same way, a human being is one expression of life.
We can use the analogy of the water and the wave. The water is life itself, and the wave is an expression of the water. The wave is no other than the water, and the water is no other than the wave, but the wave doesn't have own being: its own being is the water. A wave is dependent on wind and weather conditions for its existence, and, of course, it is dependent on a great body of water. So, each wave is an expression of a body of water just like each one of us is an expression of life itself. This is called "being empty," and "being empty" also means being full. I think it is important to remember that, whenever we say something in Buddhism, its opposite is also included. This is called the non-duality of duality. If you say, "I am alive," "I am dead" is also included. If you say, "I am dead," "I am alive" is also included. Otherwise, you fall into duality and you only see in a partial way.
To see things as they are completely is to end suffering. Not that there is not some pain; life is painful. Even though we may be saved from suffering, it doesn't mean that there is no suffering, or that we won't suffer, but we should know how to accept that suffering and know how to accept our pain, and know how to accept our joy. Whatever arises, this is our life. True life is more important than any one aspect of life. Fundamental life is more important than any one aspect of life. If we understand this, then we can appreciate our life no matter what happens. This is maturity and this is what we experience in zazen. In zazen we say, well what was it like? Well, it was painful, and it was joyful, and it was whatever you want to say. But each one of those aspects we accept equally. This is what zazen is. Whatever comes up, this is it. When it is painful, it is just painful. When it is joyful, it is just joyful. We just accept each moment as it is, with what it is, with deep appreciation. This view is the aspect of enlightenment. So we say zazen is enlightenment/practice. The practice is not discriminating, not picking and choosing.
"O Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form; that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form." Whatever form arises is empty of its own being even though there it is. You may have a glass of water and, when the glass is full, you say, the glass is full. After you drink the water, the glass is empty. Actually, the glass is empty whether it is full or not. The glass gives form to the water. Water has no special shape. When it drops from the sky we call it a drop; and when it hits the earth, it falls in rivulets and pools and puddles; and rivers and streams flow to the ocean. When we drink it, its form takes shape within our bodies. It takes shapes within bottles and myriads of "containers." It is in everything, but it has no special shape; whatever form it encounters, it takes that shape. This is the secret of zazen. Even though we have the most confining form for zazen, our feelings come up, consciousness comes up, thoughts come up, perceptions come up. Whatever comes up, takes that shape. Our body takes that shape our consciousness takes that shape. Our zazen is quite empty, quite open, just like water.
"The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness." You apply the same formula: feelings do not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from feelings; that which is feeling is emptiness, and that which is emptiness is feelings. The same is true of mental formations and consciousness. In the sutra he first uses form as an example, but the others conform to the same formula. Consciousness does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from consciousness. Each one of the skandhas is explained in the same way, and each one of them is empty in its own being. Then the sutra goes on the talk about dharmas: "All dharmas are marked with emptiness." Not only are all skandhas marked with emptiness, but all dharmas are marked with emptiness. "Dharmas" means things or objects. Technically, dharmas means thought formations like greed, anger, and delusion or happiness; all the thoughts and feelings and emotions that are associated with the mind and feelings. But, in a wider sense, "dharmas" means "all things." This is with a small "d." Dharma with a capital "D" means "Buddhist teaching," the "truth" or "law." "Marks" means their characteristics. For example, the characteristic of fire is heat; so, the mark of fire is heat. The mark of water is wetness, and the mark of dharmas is emptiness. The true mark of all things is emptiness.
"All dharmas are marked with emptiness, they do not appear nor disappear, are not tainted nor pure, do not increase nor decrease." Although everything has an appearance, there is nothing that appears or disappears. That's the point. What appears and disappears is empty. With all dharmas, although they seem to appear and disappear, there is no real "thing" that appears and no real "thing" that disappears. If something could appear and disappear, it couldn't be real in that sense. So all things that appear are real, but their reality is their emptiness. If we understand that all dharmas and all skandhas are empty of their own being, then we can call them real in the sense of non-substantial. Substantiality is an aspect of non-substantiality; substantiality only exists within non-substantiality. Everything only exits because of its opposite. Everything is dependent on something else. Although things seem to appear and disappear, ultimately, nothing has appeared or disappeared because things don't come and go. We talk about waves in the water, "Oh that wave was a great roller and it smashed on the beach." But, actually, waves just go up and down. I think this is a scientific fact. Energy moves. When we see things on the surface, we say, "Oh this is moving and that is moving," but energy is moving, and even energy is empty of its own being.
Tainted and pure-people are always looking for the form of purity. We look at garbage, and, then, when we look at food we say, "this is pure." It does have a certain kind of purity. When we look at garbage we say, "that's impure," and, compared with what is pure, it is impure, but only by comparison. Ultimately, everything is garbage. Sorry to say so, but, as you know, everything is garbage and everything is pure. There is nothing that is not really pure, and there is nothing that is not really garbage because everything is decomposing and everything is coming to life and decomposing. It's composing and decomposing at the same time.
We are always measuring in terms of more or less. But more or less aren't just comparative terms. We say a mouse is small and an elephant is big, but an ant is even smaller than a mouse. So, we can say a mouse is small and an elephant is big, but it is not necessarily so. It is just a comparative way of speaking about things because of our position. So we are always looking at things in terms of our position, and we are trying to figure everything out from the point of view of our position. The only way we can really know is to get off our position. It is very difficult to get off our position. As soon as we start to think, then the mind starts to discriminate and to discriminate is to separate and to "dualize." We are continually confronted with discriminating and dualizing our world. The duality is important, but we also have to be able to see the other side.
The sutra is talking from the other side that is why it seems so strange.