How to Live Forever: a Meditation on the Heart Sutra

How to Live Forever: a Meditation on the Heart Sutra December 4, 2014


I love the Heart Sutra.

I adore the Heart Sutra.

Among those many books and poems and spiritual texts that have informed my life, the one which I find at the very center of my understanding of the way things are, is the Heart Sutra.

Anyone who visits any Zen center throughout North America has heard it. The Heart Sutra is very short and its message is telegraphed so fast the subtlety and depth of its teaching can easily be missed. The fact that it ends with a mantra, a sacred phrase can be a bit of misdirection for some, thinking just chanting it has some magical efficacy. Well, maybe it does. But, mainly by inviting us to allow the Heart of it to enter our hearts.

And, of course, it is the product of human minds and hearts, and human made pens put to human made paper.

It is part of a collection of texts written in Sanskrit over many years starting roughly in the first century before our common era, called the Prajnaparamitas, or Perfection of Wisdom texts. The Heart Sutra stands out as an epitome or summary of the whole body of the Prajnaparamita cycle, reducing a very large library of teachings to fourteen stanzas or shlokas of thirty-two syllables each, or two hundred and sixty Chinese characters. Its exact date of composition is hotly debated, some scholars even suggesting it was originally composed in Chinese and translated back into Sanskrit. The earliest dates attributed for its composition is between the first and second centuries of our common era, the latest somewhere in the eighth century.

The first version to appear in English was in 1881 in Max Muller’s Sacred Books of the East. Ever since it has been translated and adapted over and over again.

The independent scholar Red Pine’s rendition of the Heart Sutra goes:

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita, looked upon the five skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds for sensation and perception,
memory and consciousness.
Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness not birth or destruction, purity or defilement,
completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind; no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling
and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death; no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita, the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.”

To understand what it points to we need to understand two terms. The first skandha, or heap, or, maybe stuff is meant to stand for the parts of which we are all composed. The traditional list is form or matter, sensations or feeling, mental formations or impulses, and consciousness, discernment. It’s an attempt to describe how we’re put together, what the critical bits are, what form is.

The second is emptiness. In Sanskrit the term is sunyata, translated most commonly as emptiness, but also can be rendered by void, open, spacious. I personally find the term boundless a bit less misleading. At the heart of the Heart is a radical assertion about reality. Using the most common translations it goes, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

The Korean Zen missionary master Seung Sahn tries to explain what it means by way of an example. “(H)ere is a wooden chair. It is brown. It is solid and heavy. It looks like it could last a long time. You sit in the chair, and it holds up your weight. You can place things on it. But then you light the chair on fire and leave. When you come back later, the chair is no longer there! This thing that seemed so solid and strong and real is now just a pile of cinder and ash, which the wind blows around. This example shows how the chair is empty: it is not a permanent, abiding thing. It is always changing. It has no independent existence. Over a long or short time, the chair will eventually change and become something other than what it appears. So this brown chair is complete emptiness. But though it always has the quality of emptiness, this emptiness is form: you can sit in the chair, and it will still hold you up.”

We are real, you and I. Pinch me, and I guarantee it hurts. And at the same time we exist only within causal relationships. The me that is real, is also very temporary. I’m the product, as you are, of many different situations coming together in a glorious moment. I exist, as a moment, which, in a heartbeat will shift, and I, the part that thinks “I,” will be gone.

But to think this means we live for a brief period of time and then we are food for worms is vastly too reductive; it is a parody of a vastly more wonderful truth. So, let’s put aside the brown chair, which the master only means to use as an analogy to something, something very important for all us.

This is about a lot more than brown chairs. It is about you, and it is about me. And it is about what is true about us. A first and critical point here is that there is no part of us that has an existence outside of the phenomenal world. There is no special bit, no “I,” no soul that is untouched by the vagaries of life, or escapes death. Instead of being something somehow special and not of this world, we’re being invited into a place of radical interdependence.

While we are all are inherently temporary, there’s a deeper point, that that temporary also runs right through what we are at this moment. The Western born Zen master Bernie Glassman says “Emptiness is just everything, just as it is right now.” Another Western Zen master John Crook tells us, when we catch this, our “…notion of everything as empty now expands and expands until everything you can think of, the vast cosmos itself is seen as Vast Emptiness. Vastness unlimited, unbounded spaciousness, timeless presence.”

Here’s my paraphrase of the text, perhaps it will be helpful.

When the heart of compassion walked through the gate of wisdom, she looked into the body of the world and each of us, seeing each of us and the world itself is boundless. And with this all suffering vanished.

Dear one, all things are boundless; the boundless is nothing other than all things. Everything in itself is boundless; Boundlessness is all things. This is true of us and our feelings, experiences, and consciousness itself.

Dear one, the stuff of the world is boundless. It is not born, it does not die. It is not impure, nor is it pure. It neither increases nor diminishes. And so within boundlessness there is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, sound, smell, taste, objects of touch; no field of existence; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance; no old age and death and no ending of old age and death. There is no suffering, no gain, no loss, no path, and no wisdom or attaining of wisdom.

Understanding this boundlessness, the pure hearted one is free. Without entanglements the true person of the way is not afraid.

The pure and unexcelled way.

All the sages of past and present and future attain to this truth and find freedom.

And so this becomes the great mantra, supreme and unexcelled, it removes all suffering.

Gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha!
Going, going, always going on beyond. Always going on beyond. Blessings!
Gone, gone, gone beyond. Completely gone beyond. Blessing and blessing!

You want to live forever?

Well, here’s some good news. In a very real sense, in a sense you can apprehend with your own body and mind, you were never born. And you will never die.

We are parts of a great play of things.




The reality is a dance.

And we, each of us, just as we are, in our temporariness, in our momentariness, are one hundred percent part of it.

Just this.

You are boundless.

And the boundless is you.

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