On the Heart Sutra
Sesshin talk given
October, 1994
Camp New Hope, NC
Sojun Mel Weitsman

In Zen practice our understanding should be through our whole being. We say that we understand when we get Zen through our pores. But even though we may know what the Heart Sutra is talking about, complete understanding is always a little out of reach, which is OK. If Buddhism is something that we can understand completely, then we would not need to study it. So, understanding through our pores is to chant the sutra with our whole body and mind. What the sutra is really talking about is how to be completely present in reality moment by moment.
The Prajna Paramita Sutras appeared between 200 B.C.E and 400 C.E., and they are the beginning of the Mahayana literature. There are 600 volumes in the Prajna Paramita and the Heart Sutra is the condensation, or the "heart," of all the Prajna Paramita literature.
This succinct document touches on all aspects of Buddhism. It is a doctrine of emptiness and non-duality which is the basis for all the koans. This is what koans are about, the non-duality of form and emptiness.
Duality is important, but we also have to be able to see the other side. The Heart Sutra is talking from the other side. This is why it seems so strange, saying things like, "Therefore in emptiness, no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no formations, no consciousness." This is the sutra of "no," the sutra of negation. It puts forth the negative in order to point out the positive. It takes everything away in order to show you what there is.
Whenever we use a term in Buddhism, its opposite is also included. If you don't realize this, you will always get confused and think that Buddhism is nihilistic or screwy, always saying something to shock you. We have to use dualistic terms in order to express non-duality. You can't express non-duality in discriminating terms. The student has to understand the non-discriminating intention behind a discriminating term.
In a famous koan a monk asked, "Does a dog have Buddha Nature?" Joshu replied, "Mu" This means "No." But Joshu uses a discriminating term in a non-discriminating way. Another time, another monk asked Joshu, "Does the dog have Buddha nature?" and he replied "Yes." He can say anything he wants. Sometimes he just says "yes," sometimes he just says "no." But in his "yes," "no" is included; and in his "no," "yes" is included.
The Heart Sutra goes through the five skandhas: "Therefore in emptiness, no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no formations, no consciousness." Then the sutra goes through the senses: "No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind." In emptiness, there is no qualification which means noses are noses. A nose is only a nose because of the face. Without the face, there is no nose; without the face, there is no ear; without the face, there is no eye. Without an object, the eye doesn't work, and without consciousness, the eyes doesn't work. So in order to have awareness or consciousness, there needs to be an organ and an object, and all three are interdependent. The eye organ, the object of sight, and the consciousness all together create this book, and the book and consciousness are not separate. Although we call it an object, there are no objects. An object is not an object. An object is part of consciousness because consciousness creates the object. An ant crawling on this book does not cognize it is a book. Only human beings cognize it as a book. A dog comes up and licks your face. He doesn't read the words or even know it is a book. The cat crawls upon the book. For some reason cats always do that. You are reading a book, and to the cat that book is a bed. So consciousness creates objects.
I want to go back to the beginning of the sutra where it says, "Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering." The five skandhas, form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousnsess, are the five categories that constitute a human being. We call them the five streams because they are always changing. They are like running streams continually transforming. The Diamond Sutra says, "Past mind, future mind and present mind cannot be grasped." The past cannot be grasped, the future cannot be grasped, and actually the present also cannot be grasped. As soon as we say "now", it is already gone. Except that we can continuously say, "now." We are always saying "now," but the "now," as soon as we say "now," is already not-now. Another now takes the place of that now. So now is always now. Now is always now because all of our lives we have said "now," and it was right now, but all those "nows" are no longer now. So there is a now which is constant and a now which is ephemeral.
The ephemeral now, which we call our experience and which we mistake for the whole of our life, causes us a problem. When we say, "be present," that has no different meaning than just our experience. In Zen we say "present yourself." But what is myself? Just the sum of my experience. What is my "real" self? How do we express that-the Self which is always the Self, which we call Buddha Nature. So the self of experience is called the realm of delusion, and the now which is always the now, is called the realm of enlightenment. But these two are not different. What the sutra is talking about is that the eternal now and the ephemeral now are not two different things. "Empty" here means empty of own being. "Own being" means something like inherent existence. "Emptiness" means that things do not have a basis, they do not have a true basis, for existence, but only arise depending on perceptions, mental formation, and consciousness. They are always producing conditions for further causes, and the combination of causes and conditions plot a direction.
In Buddhism it is said that there is no beginning or end to the stream of life. It is continuous because, according to Buddha Dharma, life doesn't start here and end there. Rather, it is circular. In a circle you can pick out a beginning, and you can pick out an end, but it is arbitrary. If you say this is the beginning of the circle and this is the end of the circle, it is just arbitrary. We can do that and we do do that. In our life we say, I was born at such and such a time and I will die at such and such a time. This is picking out points on a circle or a cycle. We tend to think in a linear way because we see our birth and death from beginning to end in a kind of horizontal way. Infinity is way down there in the beginning or end. Actually, there is just constant change and constant transformation. This body-and-mind is called the transformation body, the body which is always transforming. This is how in Buddhism people can talk about rebirth. They also talk about reincarnation, which is open to all kinds of theorizing, and I won't talk about this.
If you think about energy, which is continually traveling, so to speak, and creating effects from a cause, we can see how rebirth is not an unusual idea. But reincarnation doesn't necessarily mean that this particular body-and-mind become reborn again in the same way. It means the transformation of energy into other forms, and I don't know how that happens. Sometimes it is explained as lighting one candle from another. When you light one candle from another candle, it looks like the same light, but it is not the same light. It is the same and not the same. There is a range of understanding or beliefs in Buddhism. There is something there in the fact that life is cyclical rather than linear. It is a continuous transformation in which nothing can really be grasped. Nothing can be solid in this ephemeral, non-repetitive world. We say nothing is really lost and nothing is really gained.
For example, the ocean is one big body and the waves are its expressions. Each one of us is an expression of Buddha Nature or Big Mind. But there is nothing constant about this process: it is constant transformation, rising and falling. If one understands this, then one is never lost because, even though the shapes change, one is never separate from Big Mind or Buddha Nature. No matter what is happening, one is always Buddha Nature. So enlightenment means to understand, or to be one with, Buddha Nature, to not feel separate from our true nature which is the eternal present.
We don't sit zazen to gain enlightenment. The reason we sit zazen is because we are enlightened. We sit zazen in order to enjoy Buddha Nature, even though it may be very painful to allow Buddha Nature to express itself in this way. We say "I am breathing," but actually "breathing" is breathing "I." We are being breathed. If you think about it, we really don't have much to do with it. Breathing just happens. It's a universal activity. To pay attention to breath is just being one with universal activity, enjoying breath. We say "I walk down the road," but, actually, we are walked just as much as we walk. The road is walking me. So we always look at everything from the point of view of I.
"Emptiness" also means being empty. "All five skandhas in their own being are empty," means that there is no person as such, that what we call our "self" is the five skandhas: forms, this body; my feelings, whether they are mental or physical; perceptions; mental formations, which is the various thoughts which lead to karmic activity; and consciousness, the various levels of consciousness. "Self" is a transformation. I was here last year, and I spoke and I said something, but this is not the same person. And yet it is the same person. It is the same person but not the same person at the same time.
The cause of suffering is the desire to hold on to something or to put something away. Suffering comes from desiring something too much. Of course we have to desire; desire is part of being human, but it also causes suffering because we want something to stay the way it is when it is changing. We don't want something to intrude because it is going to upset what we have. These are two forces we are dealing with constantly, and this is what we experience in zazen. We sit here and we may get a nice feeling, a pleasant feeling. We say, "this must be it...this is why are sitting here-I knew there must be a reason why I was sitting here!" And, as soon as we like it, it starts to fade into something we don't like, and then we start to suffer, or we have a very painful feeling, and we start to say, "I don't like this, I don't want it. This is not what I came here for." As soon as we assent to doing that, we start suffering. It's very easy to fall into suffering, really easy. All we have to do is discriminate. All we have to do is say, "I like this and I don't like that." In our usual life, there is plenty of leeway, but in zazen there is no leeway. It's very strict. Zazen itself is very strict. It is like the laws of aerodynamics: you make a little mistake and pohhh!

That is why zazen is a great teacher. Zazen, itself, is our teacher. It is life without pulling any punches. What we learn from zazen is that if we discriminate on the basis self-centeredness we suffer. It is possible to sit through a sesshin without suffering. That is possible, but it means that we have to immediately accept what is present. If we hesitate too long, then we fall into discrimination. But there is something that keeps us sitting even it is very painful, very difficult. There is something we keep coming back to. We say, "Surprising...I don't even remember the last sesshin." It's like having a baby: you know, you want another one because you forgot what it was like having the last one, fortunately. Our life is the same way. We can't get rid of bad things, and we can't always cultivate good things. So practice involves dealing with the difficulties of our lives, that's the heart of practice, not trying to get rid of the difficulties, but dealing with the difficulties right there. Wherever it comes up as a problem is where our practice is. That's zazen with nonselfcentered, nondiscriminating mind.

© Copyright 1998, Sojun Mel Weitsman