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Heart Sutra and Emptiness (Part 3 of 5)

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Mar 31, 2004
In topic: Sutras and Commentaries
Third in a series of five talks on this central Mahayana teaching.
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(Transcribed and Abridged by Barbara Byrum)

The Heart Sutra
Lecture Three

The style or method of teaching in the Heart Sutra is actually deceptive because it looks like it is logical and something that you can philosophically unpack, but in fact the whole sutra is like a mantra. It works on you mantrically and gets into your bones when you chant it. In the beginning of my practice we chanted this sutra everyday for years before we had any idea of its philosophical background. The chanting itself is probably a truer message of what the Heart Sutra is saying than any philosophical discussion. So the Heart Sutra is a mantric, magic teaching. It is good to study it, but it is much better to feel it in your bones more as dharma poetry, as something that comes out of the experience of sitting.

The Heart Sutra is all about emptiness as a lived reality of our lives, so in all my talks I have been trying to express the meaning of this term shunyata, or emptiness. It means that everything in the world – objects, persons, thoughts, feelings, outer space – is empty of what is called “own being”, which means it is empty of a separate, fixed, independent existence. To say that something is empty is not to say that it does not exist. Things do exist, but not in the way that we think. Everything is empty of separateness, fixedness, and independence, so everything is radically connected, fluid, and interdependent. Everything depends on everything else. Nothing can be ripped out of the fabric of being because everything is interdependent.

We also are empty. It is not that we look around and see all those things that are empty. We are part of that emptiness. Isn’t this great, and aren’t you happy to hear this! You are empty of own being, and so therefore the pressure is off. You don’t need to feel alone and that you are bearing the weight of responsibility of your own life, not to mention the weight of the world. We all feel this crushing weight of the responsibility to be the person we are, but the good news is that we don’t have to worry about that, because we are not that kind of person and we don’t have that kind of responsibility. But also, the pressure is really on, because the empty nature of oneself and everything else means that all our actions, thoughts, and feelings are everywhere interconnected and cannot be ripped out of being. Everything matters. Every thought and feeling, even if we don’t think they are important, matter in making the world moment after moment. So we are participating in the world, and therefore the pressure is on. So we need to work toward the good, and we are not off in our own corner. But, on the other hand, this pressure is not so bad if we recognize that we are interdependent beings, and the pressure is not fixed on us alone. There is great joy in belonging to the world. We may be responsible for everything, but we have lots of helpers and are never apart from them.

An introductory remark I would like to make concerns the translation of the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit to Chinese. In translating the word for emptiness, the Chinese used the wonderful character “sky”. So when you are reading or chanting the Heart Sutra in Chinese, you use the word “sky”. This contributes to its mantra - like and poetic quality, because you are repeating over and over the word “sky”. Everything is sky. The whole world is sky. Thoughts, feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness are all sky. The whole world is not nailed down, heavy, or weighty. The whole world is sky – vast, clear, transparent, open, empty. So it might be good to forget the word “emptiness” and think, “sky life, sky world”. All our troubles are sky troubles.

The final introductory remarks I would like to make concern the examination of the nature of the self in the Heart Sutra. In order to talk about this, we backed up into pre Heart Sutra Buddhist psychology against which the Heart Sutra is arguing. The Buddha was concerned with suffering in human life. He wanted to know how we could see through suffering, and he realized the most obvious thing: that it is we who cause are own suffering, not the world. For example, if your car breaks down or your bank account disappears, there is no inherent problem in that if you weren’t there! Maybe you can’t do anything about your bank account, but you can do something about you. So the Buddha thought that he would not worry so much about things in the world that cause suffering, but he would worry about the person who finds these things to be the cause of suffering. Nothing that happens is inherently good or bad; it is a matter of how we feel about it. So, since you can’t fix the world or control what is going to happen, let’s look more deeply at the self.

The Buddha saw that the problem is that we are all deeply conditioned from early life to believe that we have a self that is fixed, separate, and independent. This is a self, by its very nature, which is extremely vulnerable in the world. The Buddha wanted a way that a person could train himself to see the self in another way. That is why he taught the practice of analysis of the five skandas, because that was an alternative to the fixed identity and separate self. The skandas are a practice of mental and emotional yoga. The Buddha said that instead of having the attitude “this is good for me and I like it, and this is bad for me and I don’t like it,” be more intimate with your experience and look at what is physical, look at the feelings that arise, look at the reactions to your experience, look at your perceptions, and look at the sky-like awareness in which all these things are taking place. Train your mind and your heart to look at your experience in this way, and don’t be so fixated on yourself as a separate, independent self. And if you do that, you will have less suffering.

This is really the truth. I recommend that you consider meditating in this way on your experience in this way. When you find yourself thinking, “This is good for me. This is bad for me,” realize that you do not have to think in this way. Look more intimately at the nature of your experience, and your life will be changed. This is how the early Buddhists were trained to experience what was happening to them on a moment by moment basis. They learned that idea of a fixed self was a cause of suffering, that it was not necessarily real, and that it could be dispensed with.

So the Buddhists pre Heart Sutra thought that the self was not real but that the experiences that arose were real. They defined the tiniest, most conceivable moment of real experience, as a dharma. One could categorize every dharma that arose in one of the five “heaps”. So the self was not real, but the dharmas were real. A dharma had its “own being” and was a fixed, real independent basis for experience.

There were two problems with asserting the own being of dharmas. First, anytime that you assert that something is fundamentally real, then you have to defend it. If it is something that can be attacked and something that you can cling to, you set suffering in motion. Another problem is that the analytical approach to working with mind tends to set up a world in which you become extremely self focused. Your main focus is on your own experiences. Even though the goal is to be liberated from self, the method puts so much emphasis on watching your experience that you might just miss the fact that the world is full of other beings, and that the most important thing is love. To be sure, the early teachings of Buddhism did teach about compassion and love, but if you consider the way in which it was taught, you realize that compassion and love were taught in the service of seeing through the self. Compassion and love were seen as antidotes to self clinging, but they weren’t ends in themselves in the early teachings.

In the Mahayana schools they were inspired by compassion, and they began with compassion as the fundamental principle. You can see that if you begin with compassion and love, you eventually are going to become very disgusted with these dharmas. You see that everyone is so fixated on analyzing their experiences that they don’t really have a warm hearted feeling toward others. Eventually one comes around to the fact that all dharmas are empty of own being, and that the whole world is connected, one thing flowing freely in and out to another. So, if you start from compassion, you are going to find your way to emptiness.

On the surface the Heart Sutra seems to be analytical: no eyes, no ears, etc. It actually goes though the whole map of Buddhist psychology in list form. But in reality the Heart Sutra is enthusiastic, incantatory, and poetic. It is the poetry of sky mind. This is why many commentators have not understood why the Heart Sutra can be so analytic and then end with a mantra. If you understand the Heart Sutra in the way I have been speaking, it makes sense that the whole thing is a mantra. The whole Heart Sutra is more mantric than it is philosophic or analytical. What is the point of analyzing things that are not really there in the sense in which you are analyzing them? So the Heart Sutra is really a mantra.

The next line in the Heart Sutra is:

O SHARIPUTRA ALL DHARMAS ARE MARKED WITH EMPTINESS THEY DO NOT APPEAR NOR DISAPPEAR ARE NOT TAINTED NOR PURE DO NOT INCREASE NOR DECREASE

This brings up another important point that we have not discussed. In the system of dharmas that I discussed, there were 75 types of dharmas, but there was one fundamental division between dharmas. On the one side were “conditioned” dharmas – that is, the world, including oneself: feelings, thoughts, and so on. Most of the 75 dharmas were conditioned. On the other side were the dharmas that are “unconditioned” dharmas, called “unworldly dharmas.” These are the dharmas of the liberated and religious life. There are only three unconditioned dharmas: space and two kinds of nirvana. One kind of nirvana is what the Buddha experienced in his lifetime when he completely lets go and enters the unconditioned; except that since he is still walking around and living his life, he has a remainder of dharmas from the past that will be exhausted at the end of his life. When he ends his life he then enters the second kind of nirvana which is called the nirvana of no remainder. This is the final and complete nirvana when his entire life force enters unconditioned peace and union.

So these are the three unconditioned dharmas: space, nirvana with remainder, and nirvana without remainder. The three unconditioned dharmas are pure by definition. All the conditioned dharmas by definition are impure. The three unconditioned dharmas have the characteristic of absolute peace and are always going on; therefore, do not appear. I am talking here in the context of the Heart Sutra that indicates dharmas that do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, and do not increase or decrease. If they do not increase, they are complete. Nirvana is complete and totally pure and total completion. The conditioned dharmas are impure, incomplete, and need ongoing restless energy. This explains the lines in the Heart Sutra. It says that dharmas do not appear nor disappear, are not tainted nor pure, and do not increase nor decrease. In other words, conditioned dharmas and unconditioned dharmas are not two different things. There are no conditioned dharmas as we have understood conditioned dharmas, and there are no unconditioned dharmas as we have understood unconditioned dharmas. Neither one of them as previously defined exists at all. It is all just one reality.

Nirvana is no more at rest than we are in our incompleteness and restlessness. There is rest at the heart of our seeming restlessness. Conditioned dharmas are also unconditioned, and unconditioned dharmas are also conditioned. The distinction between the two is spurious altogether. Nirvana and samsara are not two different entities. They are one.

This teaching of the Heart Sutra is the whole basis of the non dual teaching of Zen. That’s why the Heart Sutra is so important to Zen practitioners because it is the basis for the Zen approach to practice and life. There is fundamentally nothing that we can point to as enlightenment and nirvana, and there is nothing fundamentally real that we need to change as samsara. To recognize that this is so, and to live from this perspective, is the only enlightenment. And that enlightenment, of course, is not some fixed, independently existing thing.

This is important for us because we feel caught in the conditioned world, and we are longing spiritually for a respite from that conditioned world. Or maybe we like this conditioned world and wish it were improved. But the Heart Sutra teaches us that even that which is most troublesome to us in the conditioned world is itself already complete, at rest, and peaceful. Many of our Zen teachings hinge precisely on this point. When Zhaozhou says to the monk, “wash your bowls”, he is saying don’t seek some special, unconditioned world, just take care of your bowls. Nirvana is right there. All peace and all completion is right there if only you would see your bowls as they really are. It is the same thing when Nanchuan says that everyday mind is the way. He is saying don’t look for some special spiritual realm apart from the everyday. This is the fundamental basis for all Zen teachings.