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The heart sutra

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  • Has anyone read this, and what do you make of it?

    Hi and welcome. It would be helpful if you could be a bit more specific. It is a very complex Sutra and considered to be hard to comprehend from the western perspective. It is very popular in Asia and here in Japan is the mainstay of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism of which my Mother-in-Law is a practitioner.




  • What are the conclusions the sutra makes?(in your opinion)




  • What are the conclusions the sutra makes?(in your opinion)

    You sure ask tough questions:)
    I have never studied the Heart Sutra in depth, it is not the Sutra followed by my sect, we follow the Lotus Sutra.

    My limited understanding of it is that the Heart Sutra advocates that by letting go of our preconceived notions, opinions, and attachments, we can become open to all the wonders of our life. It states that all things are empty, referred to as the realization of nothingness. But that the emptiness or nothingness in this context does not just mean nothing. It means not being attached to anything, especially our own perceptions and ideas, and only by loosing these attractions can we gain the perfectly insight to see our life clearly.

    This emptiness refers to the fact that no thing -- including human existence -- has ultimate substantiality. That no thing is permanent and no thing is totally independent of everything else. (The use of the word "no thing," is not a typo for "nothing." No thing relates to things as we as an unenlightened person perceive them.) In other words, everything in this world is interconnected and in constant flux. If we can understand and accept this idea of emptiness we can then save ourselves from the suffering caused by our egos, our attachments, and our resistance to change and loss.

    The Heart Sutra is also known as the Sutra of Perfect Wisdom and is said to contain the entire secret of the truth of the universe and life. The Sutra is said to require intense meditation to grasp its full meaning. In layman terms, if you can grasp this Sutra, you have attained enlightenment. All of this is condensed down at the end of the Sutra in the one great Chant:

    Gone,
    gone,
    gone over,
    gone fully over.
    Awakened!
    So be it!


    Thats about my limit to an understanding of this Sutra. I believe one also needs to understand the Diamond Sutra to be able to grasp fully the meaning contained within the Heart Sutra

    In answer to your question "What are the conclusions the sutra makes?"
    If I could answer that I would be enlightened, and know I am not. The issue I think that needs to be really understood from the Sutra is an understanding of what exactly is meant by "ultimate substantiality" in the phrase "Emptiness refers to the fact that no thing -- including human existence -- has ultimate substantiality."




  • I think I came by this sutra by another route. When reading anthony de mello's book about awareness and trying to practice awareness, I think I had a glimpse into what this sutra's about.
    It was difficult to describe.




  • I think I came by this sutra by another route. When reading anthony de mello's book about awareness and trying to practice awareness, I think I had a glimpse into what this sutra's about.
    It was difficult to describe.
    Try to describe it, it helps all of us. I am sure there are many others here who also have insight into its meaning. The major difficulty with this Sutra is that it is so highly condensed that it is very difficult to grasp all the concepts in it. The Dali Lama also wrote a book on it trying to explain its meaning to western practitioners of Buddhism. He went on to explain that one of the major difficulties with it was in of giving names to concepts that do not exist in the English language or western canons. He considered the Sutra to be a valuable tool whereby a monk could gage his progress, via meditation, by his understanding of these concepts. No surprise then that it is a very hard Sutra to come to grips with.:)


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  • I think the sutra decribes how an awakened person sees the world, rather than describing how to become awakened.

    I began to see what I thought was me, was not me. That my mind, body, emotions were things I was aware of, but separate from the "real me". That the "real me" was just observing them.

    Anyway, I tried to find stuff on the net about my experience, and I found the heart sutra. I don't know much about Buddhism, but i guess De Mello knew plenty, him coming from India.




  • I think the sutra describes how an awakened person sees the world, rather than describing how to become awakened.
    Very well done with your observations, you are correct.
    I began to see what I thought was me, was not me. That my mind, body, emotions were things I was aware of, but separate from the "real me". That the "real me" was just observing them.
    Still correct, but the real me is not separate from the not real me. It does very much influence the way the not real me acts, and does very much affect how the not real me awakens. I'm sorry, that probably sounds very confusing. I will try to explain what I mean

    As I see it at this point in my life, your observations are correct in relation to yourself. The Sutra does describe to you how an awakened person sees the world. Surprised?
    You have hit on a very important aspect or concept of Buddhism and one that can be very difficult to comprehend. Unlike the western approach to religion, Buddhism has never said that every Buddhist must follow the same path to attain enlightenment, nor does it say that enlightenment is the same for each individual. It just states that achieving Buddhahood or enlightenment is our current ultimate goal.

    Lets take Christianity as an example since I know it best to look at some of the different concepts at work in Buddhism. Simplistically speaking, because it is far more complex than I make out to be here, Christianity defines where one comes from, how one should live a correct life by strictly following the rules put in place/passed down by God and administered by his body of representative here on earth, and where one will go or not go to if one follows the rules. It applies to everyone equally, and though you have free will (this bit I do not understand) it is pre-ordained where you will end up and is based on the one life you have led. It is what I will call a single-shot, one-plan-for-all approach. You either do it this way and make it to be with your God, or you reject the way and you don't make it. Please remember I am not knocking Christianity in any way. I respect many of its principles, disagree with much of its approaches, but at the end of the day, it is not my chosen path.

    In contrast, Buddhism as I see it in my current existence does not tell you where you came from, it sets down a series of guideline that encourage us to define or seek for ourselves an appropriate path to followed that will lead us to enlightenment over a period of time/lifetimes. It is a multi-shot, multi-plan-for-me approach, and every one makes it, the only differing factor is in the time period it takes for one to get there. The path to follow is custom tailored for you alone based on your current understanding and actions.

    Think of it this way. You life is like a diamond, the brilliance of your life is determined by the number of facets and the quality of each of the polished surfaces. Each surface represents a different perspective or understanding gained through our studies and experiences. These act to polish the current facet we are perceiving life through. Over time our perspective changes and we start to polish a different facet. This process continues on,as we polish the diamond gets smaller and smaller, till eventually we have polish the whole diamond away to a single point, then to nothing. We are now left with only the essence of the diamond that was always contained within in the diamond that was. You can relate this process directly to the Chant in the Heart Sutra. Gone, gone, gone over, gone fully over, awakened, so be it.

    That unfortunately is as far as I have currently got in working this out. Right now it seem good to me, later, I am sure I will see a different aspect. I will just keep on polishing. Thanks for your original post, I hope you can see how it encouraged me to dig deeper into the observations you raised. We can all learn a lot from one another. Each of us has within the seed of enlightenment. We never know where the next piece of the puzzle is going to come from. Each of us brings a different piece to the table. I am very curious to know which work of De Mello led you to these observation, I would like to read it.
    Anyway, I tried to find stuff on the net about my experience...
    And you did:) We have a nice little saying, you don't find Buddhism, it finds you.




  • I think its simpler that that, you can only be aware of what you are not, "the eye cannot see itself".
    The ego or mind are attachments that have been learned, they are not you. What causes suffering is that we believe we are our emotions, our egos and so we protect them or kill for them etc. But when we become aware, we see there is nothing to protect, nothing to worry about.

    Anyway, I can't explain it well but when I realised(or saw) what I was not , thats when I was "in" my true self. And my true self is the part of me that "sees", there was nothing there, only awareness of what I was not. It is very difficult to describe, it was utterly, utterly empty, an infinite void, but I wasn't afraid because the void was me. I think our true self is like a blind spot, we can only know it, by knowing what it is not. And I think, thats what the heart sutra is about.



    The book is "awareness" by anthony de mello.




  • Thanks for a very interesting reply. There is a lot I can agree with, some I do not yet agree with. I am curious, how did this all come about. Were you reading and it just came to you. Did you sit/meditate and think about it?

    What I would agree with is your comment "I think our true self is like a blind spot, we can only know it, by knowing what it is not." I think that is true up to a point. I also like your comment ""the eye cannot see itself". There is a similar one that I was given when I challenger a Buddhist teacher on a point he was trying to teach me "Your eyes can see everything, but they cannot see your own eyebrows and they are right in front of your face." I am sure the meaning of that is obvious to you too. The teacher went on to point out that the moment you look in a mirror, or more to the point here, you look at your reflection, you can then see your own eyebrows. His point was to use the tools given to me to perceive my own reflection.

    In my case the tools were meditation, study, practise in the real world and chanting. These tools would enable me to see through the Blind Spot to the nature within. I believe that with enough practice one will indeed both perceive and unlock one's own nature. That is the whole point of Buddhism.
    At least that is what I have experienced after 28 years of practice. I have also learned that what we believe today, we can just as easily not believe tomorrow.

    I will look forward to reading that book.
    Thanks again for your reply.:)




  • Thanks for listening, it is difficult to tell people about my experience.


    It might be tough to realise, but buddhism is also an attachment. Religion is just the finger that points at the moon. Cut away the rites and ceremonies, and remember the Budha sitting under the tree, observing his breath.

    When you observe your emotions or breathing or any body sensation for long enough, you will begin to notice a difference between the observer and the observed, there will be a shift or an "ohh" moment. Also, observe your thoughts, you are not your mind.

    For things like politics or religion or morality, you can use logic to see that these are learned, maybe from parents or society or the zeitgeist of the times, they are not you. Same for nationalism, property, money.

    In your physical body, cells are constantly dieing and being replaced, they say that all cells are entirely replaced every 7 years or something, yet a part of you never changed.

    But De mello says there should be no goal to your actions, no end result. The desire of such is also an attachment. Just try to be aware at all times.(which is very difficult)

    Anything you can observe, isn't you, you are the one who observes.


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  • by Pappy o' daniel...you are the one who observes.

    What you say is true to a point. To get to that point and practicing it continuously, is almost enough. Ultimately, though - as in enlightenment - saying "you are the one who observes" is also wrong. You are not even the one who observes.

    In the end there is a union of the observer and the observed that dissolves the last split of something to be observed and an observer. In this oneness you and anything that could possibly be observed, disappear completely for an infinite and eternal realization of I AM.

    Here You Are





  • In the end there is a union of the observer and the observed that dissolves the last split of something to be observed and an observer. In this oneness you and anything that could possibly be observed, disappear completely for an infinite and eternal realization of I AM.

    Here You Are


    Have you experienced this?




  • I am ("experiencing") this, now as I AM.

    Let me try to be more helpful, though.

    On October 21, 1987 - I say this as if it could have a date in the past, a beginning or an end - I experienced who I am beyond any doubt and beyond anything further that could be known. As a result "I" thought that "I" had had that experience; that "I" woke up. This also turned out not to be so.

    This "me" who "had" that experience still was not itself the "I AM" that "I" experienced. For that to come about, "enlightened me" had to still dissolve into the far more simple, elusive, total, infinite and eternal "I AM".

    You just remembered who you are, but now you are back as the one you have always known, who you now have to forget again and again and again no matter the circumstances, experiences, realizations etc. until this happens instantly at all times, and the forgetting of the false self and the remembering of the true self become one and the same in I AM.

    I like your blind spot idea. You have to become the blind spot itself, though.
    Non-identification is still identification in disguise and we have to be alert. I am this, or, I am not this, is still not the peaceful abiding in I AM.




  • Thanks, I think i understand. How did your original experience come about, was it from something you read, or from some moment of clarity?




  • Hi

    I don't want to side track this discussion, but many years ago DeMello's teachings on just this subject, of non-identification, helped me through some difficult times. However it seems to have left me in a pretty awful place. I wonder if any of you can shed light on what possible difference there is between the idea of non-identification and nihilism. I used to think that spiritual enlightenment came from non-idenification with anything, while nihilism was an identification with nothing. I'm no longer so sure there is any meaningful difference between them. I know that De Mello insists there is a difference, but I no longer see what that difference might be. The erasure of the ego may seem like a necessary step on the path to enliightenment, but if you're not a tree or a flower but an actually living human being with choices, with responsibilities, what practical use has it?




  • I don't think you are diverting the issue at all. This is quite an important area in the teachings on “emptiness.” The word “emptiness” is quoted because it's a word pointing towards true meaning and not a very accurate word used to translate “shunyata” which itself is again just a concept pointing towards true meaning. I for one do not have a realisation of truth of emptiness but have heard and read teachings on it. To understand and realise it fully means to go completely beyond the ordinary mind and its conception of reality. To realise the truth of emptiness is said to be like removing many mis-conceptions which have prevented us from seeing clearly the true nature of things and of ourselves. How we arrive there is through listening carefully to a qualified teacher and applying instructions to work on ourselves so that perception is purified. A teacher directs the student using concepts but also going beyond concepts to arrive at direct non-conceptual realisation of emptiness.

    Emptiness refers to things being empty of inherent existence. It doesn't mean that things don't exist at all. Something that exists inherently is said to be singular, independent and permenant. Singular means it is one thing as opposed to being a composition of many parts. Independent means that it doesn't interact with its surroundings as to interact requires change. Permanent means that it is always the same without any change. It is said that you will not find any apparently existing thing that meets these criteria. It is not just external things that are said to lack inherent existence but our bodies and our minds also – emptiness of self and of phenomena. So, things and minds exist but not as singular, independent, permenant entities. They are impermenant and inter-dependent. Phenomena and self are in reality free of inherent existence and not separate. They appear due to causes and conditions. There is an inter-relationship between phenomena and our minds. Karma, the law of cause and effect is about there being seeds or potentials for appearances and perceptions due to past actions which manifest when appropriate conditions are there. So not only are things appearing due to external conditions but there is also some contribution to the appearance of things due to our past perceptions and resulting actions.

    There is said to be “something” about our being which goes beyond the relative impermenant interdependent appearances that we experience. In Mahayana Buddhism this is referred to as our Buddha Nature. It is not an existing thing as such but an essential nature of being completely beyond conception and its qualities are said to be inconceivably marvelous. We just don't recognise it due to our habitual karmic habits of perceiving phenomena and ourselves as inherently existing entities. We grasp onto concepts of reality which are not correct and cause ourselves suffering as a result.

    It is not nihilisim. There is something about being which goes beyond concepts of self and other. Non-identification might mean to let go of concepts of self and other. It doesn't mean there isn't being at all. It is said that when we go beyond conceptual grasping mind, all appearances arise as an infinite blissful display which is not separate from the awareness which perceives it and there is great wisdom and compassion in that also. The wisdom recognises the nature of appearance and compassion sees the way sentient beings misapprehend appearance causing themselves suffering. Through compassion an enlightened being manifests in a multitude of ways to help sentient beings to correct their misapprehension of the nature of reality. Sounds like fun. I hope some day I can reach that kind of understanding.

    Note: This post turned out rather long. I hope it doesn't portray an incorrect or misleading representation of things. Maybe some bodhisattva can clear up any misunderstandings I've created.




  • by studs - many years ago DeMello's teachings on just this subject, of non-identification, helped me through some difficult times. However it seems to have left me in a pretty awful place. I wonder if any of you can shed light on what possible difference there is between the idea of non-identification and nihilism. I used to think that spiritual enlightenment came from non-idenification with anything, while nihilism was an identification with nothing. I'm no longer so sure there is any meaningful difference between them. I know that De Mello insists there is a difference, but I no longer see what that difference might be. The erasure of the ego may seem like a necessary step on the path to enliightenment, but if you're not a tree or a flower but an actually living human being with choices, with responsibilities, what practical use has it?

    There is no practical "use" for enlightenment."Usefulness" is a very human idea.

    Flowers will be flowers and human beings will be human beings. A human being will make human choices and flowers will make flower choices. A flower will turn towards the light and open to warmth, and retreat from coldness and darkness. Human beings are the same - until they get confused. They think too much.

    This distinction between "nihilism" and "emptiness" is very important.

    Nihilism is the result of thinking (philosophy) whereas Buddhist teachings about emptiness are a result of not-thinking (meditation). The mistake many people make is that they approach Buddhism as a philosophy. They try to grasp and understand Buddhist teachings through intellect, rather than confirming them through meditation.

    If a person studies Buddhism without meditating he or she will often end up a nihilist. Nihilism concludes that nothing matters and life is meaningless - so depression or insanity is a common side effect. Nihilism, as well as Buddhism emphasize non-attachment. This leads to arrogance and coldness - a false kind of detachment which avoids attachment and as such is nothing but attachment in disguise. A more experienced Buddhist teacher is often around to pull the student out of this blindness by demonstrating to him his attachment to the idea of non-attachment itself. The Nihilist usually has no such teachers.

    Genuine non-attachment, on the other hand, as a side effect of maturity developed through meditation, leads to warmth and compassion, even glad self-sacrifice and service. It does not avoid responsibility or making choices, at all.

    Nihilism - and even the teachings of non-attachment of Buddhism - are a great attraction for the young - because it helps with overcoming the heartbreak of failed romance. But only initially, because later it becomes an excuse for avoiding love altogether. Therefore, this so-called non-attachment creates suffering as it serves to protect the self rather than risk it.

    Meditation leads to the discovery of what is behind existence. Through it we encounter the source of all things. Everything is recognized as of no ultimate importance because of impermanence. At the same time everything becomes infinitely precious and miraculous, not because of its usefulness, but simply because of its very existence and interconnectedness.

    Attaching importance of meaning to things, ideas and people imprisons us, while deepest gratitude without attachment - frees us. The Buddhist goes about his daily tasks in gratitude valuing even the tiniest insect. The Nihilist, on the other hand, values nothing, and is only almost right. He is even a step ahead of others. Therefore Nihilism is dangerously deceiving.

    The infinite and eternal - manifests as something finite and impermanent - therefore pointing towards the eternal... in an inexhaustible variety of forms, endlessly appearing and disappearing - for our enjoyment, inspiration, and in-formation about the beyond. The Nihilist, attached to his intellect, ideas, and insights, does not go beyond - he stays here with nothing - dying of thirst while swimming in the river.

    So after the "dissolving" of the ego (every I-thought - all thoughts- imaginable), you claim fearlessness, boldness, strength, responsibility, care, love, peace as your birthright - without identification.




  • I wish I had more time right now to go into this also, but I can't as I am very occupied at present.
    MeditationMom, as always, great post and wonderful insight...you are a treasure:)
    I really like and agree with your comment
    "Genuine non-attachment, on the other hand, as a side effect of maturity developed through meditation, leads to warmth and compassion, even glad self-sacrifice and service. It does not avoid responsibility or making choices, at all."
    In my practice, which by the way is far behind yours, my teacher continually stresses the importance of taking responsibility (not avoiding) and making wise choices based on our own experiences. I have always felt that many misunderstand this point about non-attachment, and do in fact use it as an excuse to avoid or gloss over issues they have not taken the time to fully understand. For me, Buddhism is not about avoiding obstacles, it is about meeting them head on, challenging them, understanding their place in my life, making the right choice, and finally overcoming them.
    Thanks as always.

    @bou: Very nice post, I enjoyed reading that one a lot. Thank you for your thoughts.




  • I came across an relevant article, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/notself.html, arriving at it from the wikipedia page Three marks of existence.

    This is interesting as it presents a Theravada approach to teachings on emptiness and based on the Pali Canon whereas all the teachings I have heard/read come from a Mahayana perspective. The teachings in the sutras mentioned in the article seem to resonate considerably with the Heart Sutra, a Mahanyana text. The article talks about the understanding of no-self and how the teachings aim to counteract, weaken and remove our grasping onto concepts of reality. Only when all notions of self and existence have been cut through does the true experiential realisation arise. Concepts of self and existence are divided into 4 kinds of view:

    There is a something
    There is nothing
    There are both something and nothing
    There are neither something nor nothing

    According to teachings on the heart sutra, these 4 kinds of incorrect views are negated in the lines:
    Form is emptiness
    Emptiness is form
    Form is no other than emptiness
    Emptiness is no other than form
    (and likewise for the all 5 aggregates Form, Feeling, Formation and Consciousness)




  • by bou - There is a something
    There is nothing
    There are both something and nothing
    There are neither something nor nothing

    According to teachings on the heart sutra, these 4 kinds of incorrect views are negated in the lines:
    Form is emptiness
    Emptiness is form
    Form is no other than emptiness
    Emptiness is no other than form
    (and likewise for the all 5 aggregates Form, Feeling, Formation and Consciousness)

    That is very nice - thank you for that post. It instantly reminded me of "The Tao that can be named is not the Tao." Those last four lines, read as one statement of truth, point to it precisely. It cannot be named, but it can be pointed to from all directions.


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  • The lesson, I suppose, is that when the wise man points to the moon, all that the fool sees is the finger.

    Nevertheless, I’m still quite unclear about what if anything Buddhism has to say about ethics and politics. For example, a memory of some grainy footage of Buddhist monks armed with rifles defending a monastery (perhaps from the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950?) comes to mind. Is this to be understood as simply an instinctive reaction, an act of self-defence unrelated to Buddhism itself, or does Buddhism have something to say about how one should act in such a context? In any event, how does this fit with the image of the monk, robbed of all his possessions lamenting as his assailant walked away, “if only I could have given him the moon.”




  • About politics, I think the Buddha didn't say anything much except that he considered and treated all classes of people as equal. As long as someone could benefit from hearing Dharma, he taught them without distinction.

    See wikipedia on Buddhist ethics.
    There are 5 vows which are said to be beneficial for lay people to undertake:
    Abstain from killing (or harming, I think)
    Abstain from taking what is not given
    Abstain from sexual misconduct
    Abstain from false speech
    Abstain from drink or drugs (cause of heedlessness)
    These are it seems based on Sigalovada Sutta. One is also encouraged to undertake beneficial actions and spiritual development.

    Monks are expected follow these as well as a larger set of rules.

    Monks fighting or killing anyone would be contrary to their vows. In Mahayana Buddhism, while the same rules apply it is considered that a highly realized practitioner could act in seemingly negative ways due to seeing there is a greater benefit in that action.


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