Skip to main content

Heart Sutra and Emptiness (Part 2 of 5)

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 03/31/2004
In Topics: Buddhist Sutras, Emptiness Teachings

Second in a series of five talks on this central Mahayana teaching.

(Transcribed and Abridged by Barbara Byrum)

The Heart Sutra
Lecture Number Two


As we discussed last week, prajna, the faculty that cognizes emptiness, is a word or term that stands on the side of the subject, and emptiness is a word or term that stands on the side of the object. The etymology of the word shunyata, which is the Sanskrit word for emptiness, implies something that is very large, but empty inside. Emptiness is like a big balloon, something that is large but empty inside; something that appears weighty, but actually is light as a feather. Thich Nhat Hanh likes to point out that shunyata is not nothingness, so “emptiness” might not be a good translation for this word, because it connotes voidness or nothing there. It is not so much voidness as boundlessness, fullness, or wholeness. We could say that phenomena are empty of substantiality and separateness, but full of boundlessness and connection. We could say that things are empty of the problems of living, but are full of flow and compassion. So, prajna is not cognizing some object in the sense that cognition implies analyzing some object, it is more a felt sense of things being empty in the way that I have been describing.

Emptiness is not that different than impermanence. It may be that emptiness is another way of speaking of impermanence, because impermanence implies that there is no separable thing that is substantial, weighty, or troublesome. Conventionally, we think that something is impermanent because it is here but then later goes away. But if you look more closely at impermanence in a radical way, you could ask at what point is it impermanent? At what point is it here and then when has it gone away? In life, this moment is here, but the next moment it is gone. We are impermanent not because we die later on, but because each moment of time is passing. There is no moment that you could find as being substantial, even though we have the illusion that this is so.

Emptiness defies our capacity to conceptualize things. We can master a kind of logic about emptiness, but to know emptiness as it really is, we have to go beyond conceptualization. In Tibetan Buddhism they extensively study the logic of emptiness. Even though they may spend twenty years on the study of the logic of emptiness, even in Tibetan Buddhism they say that this study is only preparation for the actual living of emptiness. In Zen, the logic of emptiness is studied to a much lesser degree, because the focus is on lived experience. We are paying a great deal of attention to the experiences in our lives in the hope that this ripens into a real feeling for emptiness over time.

Last week we discussed that compassion is the inescapable implication of impermanence and emptiness because things are completely bound up with each other, inseparable, with no boundaries between them. Everything is connection. Emptiness really means that there is nothing but connection. Of course the implication of this vision of reality as connection is compassion. So compassion in the emptiness teachings is not an emotional feeling of pity and affection; it is recognition and merging with the flow of reality, which is why we feel the human emotions of sympathy and love.

We also discussed how a bodhisattva is a practitioner that understands that one could not be awakened unless everyone else was awakened. How could I be awakened if others were not? So bodhisattvas are constantly working for the benefit and awakening of others, without paying heed to their own awakening. They have the capacity to work enthusiastically for a goal that seems impossibly off into the future, because they know that there is no other way to live.

So the first words of the sutra are:


Avalokiteshvara was practicing the prajna paramita, the perfection of this faculty that cognizes emptiness. This is already important information: the faculty of prajna is to be practiced. It is not an achievement; it is an ongoing practice. In our tradition, Dogen is famous for the thought that there is no enlightenment toward which we are practicing. Practice itself and enlightenment are identical, and they arise simultaneously. In this sutra Avalokiteshvara is going to set forth the deepest understanding of emptiness that comes from his ongoing practice of emptiness.

The first thing that Avalokiteshvara notices in this practice is that all five skandas in their own being are empty. Five skandas mean the world as we know it inside and outside, subjective world and objective world as one experience. Implied in the idea of “skandas” is that the world “out there” is irrelevant, except insofar as we experience it through our sense organs and consciousness. All we can know is what the world is to us. It is interesting that the early Buddhists were not interested in the world “out there”, because all we can ever know is through our experience; therefore, let’s look at the world as a function of our experience. The only world we know is dynamic and co-created by ourselves and what is outside of us. The five skandas are a map of the co-creation between the point where perceptual organs, thinking, and consciousness meet objects in the world. The skandas are a way of organizing an analysis of our everyday experience.

What does “own being” mean? There is a long debate in Buddhist philosophy whether anything at all has any “own being” – as defined as separate, real, and substantial existence. In the early sutras, the Buddha taught that what we call a self or person does not have own being. What we conventionally know as ourselves or others does not have own being. Of course it is not an illusion that we have an experience of our self. It is not an illusion, but we mistakenly define that experience as a separately independently existing entity. So we take an experience and impute a meaning that it does not have. So the Buddha was clear that a person does not have its own being. The self is a tentative experience which is contingent on many things: perceptions, feelings, thoughts, history. All these things arise together and we call that “myself”.

Avalokiteshvara says that everything, including the five skandas and everything that is in them, are absolutely empty. None of it has separate, substantial, concrete existence at all. It is all only connection and flow and movement, with nothing that is moving. Our experience is not illusory, it is all happening, but it isn’t the way it seems. Often the analogy is given of a snake and a rope. A rope is coiled up on the path, and you are scared, thinking it is a snake. But it is not what you think it is. It is a rope. So something is there, but you completely misunderstood what it is. That is the case with human experience: something is there, but it is empty, but we don’t know that.

So the world is empty of appearance and full of inconceivability, freedom, and beauty. Since Avalokiteshvara, through her practice of prajna paramita, sees the actual nature of the world, she is naturally free from suffering, because suffering is caused by mistaking the world for something that it is not. Avalokiteshvara does not need to do the laborious work of purification, practices, and studies that was done previously. She does not need to work on her emotions and develop positive qualities, because through practicing the empty nature of phenomena, she is already free of defilements. She does not need to make a special effort to cultivate good qualities, as seems to have been the case in early Buddhism.

Avalokiteshvara is practicing seeing the world as empty, boundless, perfect. Unfortunately, we do not see the world in this way. We are convinced that the rope is really a snake. We think that one thing is separate from another. We do not know that things are empty; otherwise, why would we fear death and illness? Why would we be attached to our desires? Why would we think that the unhappiness of others does not matter to us, or that the happiness of others is not our happiness?

The reason why Avalokiteshvara is relieved from all suffering when she practices emptiness is that seeing separateness is the cause of all human problems. We have a conviction from the bottom of our souls that we are not the world and the world is not us.
In terms of the subjective self, what would our world be without food, family, culture, friends, thoughts, experiences, or events? Who would we be? What we call “my self” is a focal point around which unique set of ever-changing influences coalesces. But with the practice of emptiness, the world of matter and the world of subjectivity are seen as empty of separation or solidity. Once you practice this, and not just think it, and integrate it as a whole way of living, then you are saved from suffering.

In actual practice, this is not some “aha” moment of seeing emptiness. There may be many such “aha” moments, but this is mainly cultivated over time. There are three kinds of prajna: the prajna that comes from hearing, teaching, and studying; the prajna that comes from your own thoughts about the empty nature of things; and the prajna that comes from a deep turning inside and having an experience of emptiness. We need to practice all three, regularly, over time, like polishing a jewel until it shines.

Our troubles and suffering are the most instructive study of all. The more that we study the direct relationship between suffering and seeing the world as separate, the more we train ourselves in living and feeling the empty nature of phenomena. Little by little, we have more confidence in this and begin to live in this way. This confidence is not conceptual; it is more a feeling about living. Over time there is a lightness in our living, and it becomes possible to feel ease and joy, even when things are difficult.


The rest of this sutra is a quotation in which Avalokiteshvara is speaking to Shariputra. Who is Shariputra? The Mahayana sutras are slightly satirical, and they were making fun of all these old guys going around analyzing the dharma. Shariputra is the leading expert of abhidharma. He represents the tradition of laborious analysis of dharmas that seem to have a big load of “own being”. The Heart Sutra is a kind of light hearted romp though the abhidharma. So Shariputra is the fall guy, and that is why the whole sutra is directed at him. In Buddhist psychology, there had been a shred of “own being,” as represented by Shariputra, but here Avalokiteshvara is trying to straighten him out.

Now we come to the naming of the five skandas. “Form does not differ from emptiness and emptiness does not differ from form.” Form just happens to be the first skanda named, but the same is true for the other skandas: feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. The whole world, all of our experiences, can be neatly categorized into these five heaps. It is actually a practice to view your experience as forms, feelings, perceptions, formations, or consciousness, instead of in terms of “me”.

I will briefly define these five. It is interesting that form is defined as “that which can be molested” – molested as meaning “pushed out of shape.” Think about it: you can’t take a feeling and break it or bend it. A feeling cannot be grabbed and pushed out of shape. The same is true of perceptions, formations, and consciousness. But form, or stuff in the world, can be bent or broken. This definition of form especially includes the body.

Feelings are deep, unconscious, gut reactions that we have as soon as there is cognition of anything that is inside or outside. This gut reaction comes from past conditioning – positive, negative, or neutral. What do we do next? We see it, perceive it, and then call it some object. Perception is a fairly complicated operation based on a form, an organ meeting that form, a feeling arising, and then an interpretation. Perception is an interpretation, and once we make that interpretation, we put it together in our personality or field of life, resulting in formations, or samskaras. We then have impulses and strategies for dealing with these formations that are added onto the identification of what something is. Consciousness is the field of awareness in which all this is happening.

According to the Abhidharmists, this is what constituted a personality – the flow of these five kinds of experiences. It was the arising and passing away, moment by moment, of a whole concatenation of experiences, which we fail to see in their complexity. What is really going on is form, feeling, perception, and formation of impulses in the field of awareness. Our way of experiencing our lives could change if we see ourselves in terms of the five skandas.

And now we are told in this sutra that even these experiences are empty of own being. They are not what they seem to be. In early Buddhism the goal was nirvana: to let go and to find peace. But now nirvana also is a kind of emptiness. In early Buddhism the idea was that the skandas still has a shred of “own being” that we could eliminate through laborious practices and purification, and then we would finally enter nirvana. With the Heart Sutra, the fact that all these skandas are empty to begin with tells us that no laborious transformation is necessary. Since the nature of dharmas is empty, it is already nirvana. Practices still may be necessary. Maybe you still practice meditation, but what is different is the attitude you have about it. You can see that you would have a more easygoing, lighthearted spirit. It’s a much better attitude than, “Oh I am so bad, and I am trudging toward goodness, and it is a lot of hard work!” It is a more light hearted spiritual practice when you start out with the good news of Avalokiteshvara.

So then, as Dogen says, your practice becomes the unfolding of enlightenment. It is a delight and a joy, even if it is hard work. So the attitude is different, even if to the outside eye the practice appears to be the same. We know that it is all emptiness and it is all an illusion, but still, what else is there to do?

Download file

Click to stream and listen immediately, right-click and pick "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to save to your hard drive.