The Secret Teachings of the Heart Sutra

The Secret Teachings of the Heart Sutra July 2, 2023


Heart Sutra




















When the Heart of Compassion walked through the gate of Wisdom, she looked into the body of the world and each of us, seeing that each of us and the world itself is boundless. And with this all suffering vanished.

Dear ones, all things are boundless; and the boundless is nothing other than all things. Everything in itself is boundlessness; boundlessness is all things. This is true of our bodies, feelings, experiences, perceptions, and of consciousness itself.

Dear ones, the stuff of the universe is boundless. It is not born and it does not die. It is not pure or impure. It neither increases nor diminishes. Within boundlessness there are no sense organs, no objects to sense, and no field of experience; no ignorance and thus no ending of ignorance; no old age and death and thus no ending of old age and death. There is no suffering and thus no causes of suffering; there is no path to follow and no wisdom to attain.

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

This is the pure and unexcelled Way.

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

This truth becomes the great mantra, supreme and unexcelled; and this truth removes all suffering.

Gone, gone, gone beyond! Completely gone beyond! Blessings and blessings!


“Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.”

The nub of the Zen text the Heart Sutra, and the nub our Zen way.

Our teachers claim if we get it, really get it as a bone and marrow understanding, troubled hearts are set at ease. And we are free.

At the same time, it can seem to be some sort of non sequitur. So, it can be good to approach the matter from different angles. Perhaps one touches us more deeply.

So, how about that saying “everything is nothing, with a twist.” It’s posted all over the interwebs, or at least in the corner of the metaverse where I generally hang out. Sometimes it’s even illustrated with a circle for “nothing” and then that infinity sign, a figure eight on its side for “everything.” Reality as a kind of mobius strip. Now – all the things we experience and think. Now – something else.

The phrase is always attributed to Kurt Vonnegut. Those who offer citations usually say it comes from his novel “Slaughterhouse Five.” However. I found a couple of searchable pdfs of the novel and, well, I’m pretty sure it’s not there.

Curious, I found another citation saying it’s in “Cat’s Cradle.” Again, a search through a pdf. And, well, again, it comes up empty. Perhaps this is not the good empty. But I’m not sure. Another said, “Breakfast of Champions.” Again, nada. As Kurt Vonnegut really did say, “So it goes…”

Me, I love that nothing with a twist becomes something. I actually double love that it probably wasn’t said by Kurt Vonnegut. What we’re left with in this observation about nothing twisting into everything is a whole lot of ambiguity. From where does it come? To where is it going? All as mysterious as twisting nothing.

And as pretty much any Zen student can quote at the mention of ambiguity, not knowing is most intimate. Kind of our trademark. All part of the investigation of the deep matters of our lives. Within our Zen teachings, those deep matters are caught up with those words: nothing and empty. Which are our more popular ways of translating Śūnyatā.

Buddhism has always noted the ephemeral nature of things. The fascicle “A Lump of Foam” in the Samyutta Nikaya, the Nikayas being the putative sayings and actions of the historic Buddha captured in Pali, offers a for instance:

Form is like a lump of foam,
Feeling like a water bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Volitions like a plantain trunk,
And consciousness like an illusion…

And then with the conclusion:

However one may ponder it
And carefully investigate it,
It appears but hollow and void
When one views it carefully

Of course, the Mahayana, and specifically, the Heart Sutra doesn’t let it conclude with an assertion about the insubstantiality of things. It all quickly gets messy. It’s all kind of like a black hole, the closer we get to what that word sunyata in all its versions is pointing toward, the weirder it all becomes. Even trying to use “it” in a sentence about sunyata, gets slippery. What it, after all?

Out of this sometimes we hear the assertion there is no self. As in the self is an illusion. More accurately, I think, is the Buddhist assertion there is no abiding self. I certainly have a sense of a self, an “I.” And I suspect you may, as well. What Buddhism points about that I is that it consists of a bundle of things, much of which we can name, like genetic coding and experiences. All coalescing in a moment. One of the catches is that it is a moment. That “I” is always changing, being recreated in smaller or larger ways with every encounter, every experience. There is a sense of a thread, but within Buddhism that thread is a bit of geography. That sense of location may be changing a bit more slowly than say our emotions do. But, like continents, even the geography of self shapes and reshapes over time. Change is the rule. We exist, of course we do. But.

It’s with that insight, that we might relate to “everything is nothing with a twist.” And its why, whoever actually said it, why that line feels to be a Zen thing. And. It certainly offers a delightful way to look at the heart of the Heart Sutra.

Anyone who visits any Zen center throughout North America has heard the Heart Sutra. Perhaps in Sino-Japanese, the liturgical language of Japanese Buddhism, basically Chinese pronounced as if it were Japanese. Or, if the center is from a Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese tradition, in that language, or sometimes an archaic version of that language. Or, and increasingly so, perhaps most commonly now, in English.

The Heart Sutra is very brief, 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. There is an assertion, after all, that just chanting it has some magical efficacy. Well, maybe it does. I actually kind of think so, myself. But, most of all, the real magic comes with inviting us to allow the heart of the message to enter our hearts as our own truths.

We well might find that as we listen to the words.

It’s all about emptiness. And how that emptiness and the world are not two. The form that is emptiness, exactly. And. The twist that is the everything of nothing.

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 some brief period of time, and then we are food for worms, is vastly too reductive. It misses too much, and focuses on too little. At least as the Heart Sutra suggests. So, let’s put aside the brown chair, which the master only means to use as an analogy to something, or, okay, nothing. That nothing with a twist.

For me it brings question like Athena springing from Zeus’ forehead. One of many. But this one like a goddess. An important question when we step beyond simple logical analysis and look at what this all means in our lived and experienced lives. In my life. In your life. What does it mean when nothing twists into everything?

This is about a lot more than brown chairs. It is about what is true about us. You and me. In the Zen way a koan is an assertion and an invitation. That assertion about insubstantiality, about nothing, comes with the invitation into that twist might best be engaged as a koan. Instead of being something somehow special and not of this world, we’re being invited into something rather glorious, a place of radical interdependence.

While we all are inherently temporary, there’s a deeper point. And that point is what we are at this moment, is connected to all other moments, directly and indirectly. The Western born Zen master Bernie Glassman says, “Emptiness is just everything, just as it is right now.” Another Western Zen master in a Chinese lineage, 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.”

I find this mysterious pregnant emptiness at the foundation point of Mahayana Buddhism. Not precisely one. Not exactly two. In religious studies this perspective is called nonduality. Nonduality is a current found within the world’s mystical traditions. It is expressed, sometimes implicitly, the quietest of whispers, and sometimes explicitly, a shout, a firm grabbing of one’s shoulders, a great shake, and an invitation for our own encounter.

Generally, I find the Zen way clearest in its approach to this whole thing. But I’ve also found within those mystical currents of the world’s religions, other pointers. Sometimes enormously helpful. For instance, a term from Western antiquity, pleroma, can be helpful as an alternative to what is misleading about emptiness.

Pleroma means fullness Rich, fascinating, and useful, if of course itself ultimately misleading as a term for that fundamental encounter of our hearts. Words. Joyful things. They point and misdirect at the same time. There are some very good words like that. I suggest Pregnant could be another good, if also as is always the case, misleading word. Empty. Full. Pregnant.

This is important because it’s about our lives, yours and mine. It’s about who and what we are. And it’s about the great quest that is the Zen way. I would suggest this is the heart of the whole of the spiritual life, in all traditions.

We approach this matter obliquely, through a glass darkly. Or, as I suggested earlier, like approaching a black hole. Swirling and swirling around.

That’s why I’ve thought it helpful to understand my actual lived encounter with sunyata on occasion is not unlike being possessed by the god. Athena springing forth. Goddess. God. More difficult words. Certainly, some wild otherness, a dark glass or a black hole, and being taken up by it, is a way many human beings name an encounter that precedes words. Not the only one. But a powerful way into that nothing with a twist.

Here we are in a time we’ve set aside to fully attend to the matter of the heart mind. Silence, liturgy, and words. It’s all about paying attention. Noticing. Being present. Empty. Full. Pregnant. And, well, birthing. All of it.

Let’s try a another image.

I find I’ve been invited into an intimate encounter with some very dark parts of my heart. Sometimes it’s shit. Plain and simple. And sometimes it is the rich soil that allows things to grow. And sometimes there is no way to sort these parts out. Layer upon layer intertwined, becoming. Each it. And each not quite it.

So. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. So. Everything is nothing, with a twist. I open my heart to experience where these assertions take me.

And where is that? What might this place where nothing twists, actually feel like?

When we’re surprised by that joy which passes all understanding, what is that like? How do we recognize it? When we feel it, what does it feel like, birthing this goddess? Seeing things as they are? Knowing for yourself that twist? I have my experiences. And I recognize them elsewhere. For instance, I sometimes think that the 92nd Psalm of the Jewish tradition is an expression from that place. In my paraphrase.

It is good to sing praise to you, my heart.
To give thanks for the blessings of life,
To notice love coursing through my body in the morning
And faithfulness through the night.
I hear our human voices as music,
And silence as melody.
I delight in your world;
You make my body sing with joy.
How great is your goodness.
How unfathomable your deep currents,
Not seen by eyes
Not grasped by mind
Everything united
Everything touching.
The mess of life
Shows everything connected
Everything the eternal dharma.
The wise heart flourishes like palm trees
Grows like the cedars of Lebanon
Planted in the deep dark soil of God,
Leaves relentlessly turning to the light
Bearing fruit into old age
Living the truth
Of perfect unity.

Here we are.

The Heart Sutra sings of a reality we can know for ourselves.

Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form.

Everything is nothing, with a twist.

And that twist.

The goddess birthing.

Intimacy upon intimacy…


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