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There is no suffering (Heart Sutra) part 1

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 In Sanskrit, sutra means ‘thread’ as in a string of pearls forming one complete necklace. Sutras are thus pearls of the Buddha’ s wisdom (prajna) threaded to form a vast, cohesive body of recorded teachings known as the tripitaka, that also includes the vinaya (rules of conduct) and the abhidharma (analysis of reality). Many sutras are discourses that supposedly derive directly from the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni; only one, the Platform Sutra by Huineng (638-713), the sixth patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism, is openly ascribed to someone other than Shakyamuni.

Most sutras begin with the phrase “Thus have I heard.” Whether historically accurate or not, the “I” refers to Ananda, one of Shakyamuni’ s principal disciples, who had the monumental task of remembering and reciting the Buddha’ s many discourses. Following this customary phrase, the time, place, and reasons for the discourse are usually stated. Then the discourse begins, sometimes before an assembly of thousands. Often the form of a sutra is a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciples, or between the Buddha and a bodhisattva. The style is usually didactic and repetitive, most likely to ensure that the concepts sink into the minds of the readers.

Opening with the line “Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, while coursing in deep prajnaparamita,” the Heart Sutra, at least in the Chinese version, departs from the usual “Thus have I heard.” The Heart Sutra also departs from the typical sutra format in other ways, and for good reason. The Heart Sutra appears to have been excerpted from the much larger Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, the Great Sutra of Liberating Wisdom. This vast sutra of more than six hundred volumes is actually a collection of some forty smaller sutras focusing on the realization of prajna, or wisdom. Both the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra are found within the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, which actually contains the text of the Heart Sutra in three different places.Most Buddhist scholars agree that the Heart Sutra and the Mahaprajnapramita-sutra as we know them were translated from independent Indian texts. However, it is uncertain whether the Heart Sutra was incorporated into the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, or if it was distilled from the larger sutra. Nonetheless, apart from the larger sutra, the Heart Sutra has a life of its own.

The present Heart Sutra differs from its appearance in the larger sutra. One obvious difference is that the mantra that concludes the Heart Sutra—“Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha”—does not appear in the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra. Generally, scholars agree that the narrator is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, who speaks to Sariputra, a disciple of the Buddha. On the other hand, the paragraphs in the Mahaprajnaparamita-sutra, which comprise what we call the Heart Sutra make no reference to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva “coursing in deep prajnaparamita,” suggesting that it is Shakyamuni speaking directly to Sariputra. In my commentary, I will regard the Heart Sutra as if it were the Buddha’ s words.

This book derives from lectures given to my students of Chan. Although some people may believe that Chan is a spiritual doctrine and discipline separate from Buddhist teachings, I want to emphasize that Chan is a school of Buddhism. Of the five Chan sub-schools or ‘houses’ that once existed, two still exist—the Linji (Japanese: Rinzai) and Caodong (Japanese: Soto) schools. Although different in their approaches to the Dharma and practice, all the schools adhere to the core principles of Buddhadharma as espoused by Shakyamuni. Since Buddhism recognizes different affinities and capabilities in people, the many sects, and sub-sects of Buddhism offer different ways someone can absorb and practice the teachings of the Buddha. Chan is simply one such path.

I will speak on the Heart Sutra from the Chan point of view. First, I will draw upon my knowledge of Buddhadharma from a lifetime of study, practice, and experience as a Buddhist scholar, monk, and teacher. I do not claim to have the most correct or profound understanding of this or any other Buddhist text, but I am confident that my interpretation does not stray from the Buddhadharma. Second, Chan encourages us to experience the Dharma directly through meditation and in daily life. I am therefore presenting the sutra as a series of contemplation methods. In this way, reading the Heart Sutra becomes more than just an intellectual exercise; it becomes a method of practice by which one can reveal the fundamental wisdom inherent within each of us. As such, it exemplifies the second of the three refuges, “I take refuge in Dharma.” Hence, whether you want to understand Buddhist concepts better, or to deepen and widen your meditative practice, I hope this commentary on the Heart Sutra will satisfy your needs. Please enjoy this offering and may it be of service.

Master Sheng-yen

New York City, 2001