Fourth in a series of five talks on this central Mahayana teaching.
The Heart Sutra
Lecture Number Four – Zoketsu Norman Fischer
Edited and transcribed by Ryusen Barbara Byrum
O SHARIPUTRA ALL DHARMAS ARE MARKED WITH EMPTINESS THEY DO NOT APPEAR NOR DISAPPEAR ARE NOT TAINTED NOR PURE DO NOT INCREASE NOR DECREASE THEREFORE IN EMPTINESS NO FORM NO FEELINGS NO PERCEPTIONS NO FORMATIONS NO CONSCIOUSNESS NO EYES NO EARS NO NOSE NO TONGUE NO BODY NO MIND NO COLOR NO SOUND NO SMELL NO TASTE NO TOUCH NO OBJECT OF MIND NO REALM OF EYES UNTIL NO REALM OF MIND-CONSCIOUSNESS NO IGNORANCE AND ALSO NO EXTINCTION OF IT UNTIL NO OLD AGE AND DEATH AND ALSO NO EXTINCTION OF IT
In this sutra dharma is a technical term that means “the smallest conceivable real entity”, which could be either physical or mental. A dharma is a moment of experience and can last the time of a finger snap. So a dharma is a building block of experience that can be either physical or non physical.
It is interesting to note that in Buddhist thought there is no fundamental distinction between mind and matter as there is in the West. It is understood, of course, that there is a difference, but the difference is not that important. Buddhism starts from the principle that the Buddha himself started with – that everything flows out of a concern for suffering. And remember that in Buddhism suffering does not mean just anguish and pain. Of course it includes that, but it goes much deeper. It means the restless, trouble generating nature of all experience that is always going on, even when you think that you are happy. Beginning with the understanding that experience is this way, and finding a way to transform this experience, is the important distinction in Buddhism. Whether an unconditioned dharma is mental or physical, it is within the realm of restless experience. So the important distinction is not between mind and matter; it is between the conditioned and the unconditioned. Conditioned dharmas are the restless trouble generating sort of experiences, and the unconditioned dharmas are peaceful, liberated, and free. There are three kinds of unconditioned dharmas: space and the two kinds of nirvana – the nirvana with remainder in which you are still living, and the nirvana without remainder in which you no longer appear to be living. The whole point of Buddhism is to move from the conditioned dharmas to the unconditioned dharmas.
The Heart Sutra denies the primary distinction between the conditioned and the unconditioned dharmas. All dharmas – both the conditioned and the unconditioned – are equally empty. There is no real entity to be found among them. And remember, to be empty means not to be fixed, independent, or separate. Nirvana or enlightenment is not fixed, independent, or separate. Samsara or suffering is not fixed, independent, or separate. So in this sense the suffering world and the possibility of quiescence are identical. Nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and suffering, are words to describe the same phenomenon. This is the incredible assertion of the Heart Sutra which flies in the face of a thousand years of Buddhist practice.
This is a radical view. If samsara is the world, and nirvana is what by definition is transcendent and beyond the world, then the Heart Sutra defies our whole way of thinking about the world. It is saying that what “is” and what “is not” are identical. The concepts that are so fundamental to our thinking and being in the world don’t hold up. The Heart Sutra tells us that what we have been projecting as ourselves and the world does not exist, and the hope for relief from the world, whether it is God or Buddhism or Zen, is just a pernicious and erroneous concept. In fact, the whole implication of the thinking in the Heart Sutra is that whatever we conceptually project is by its very nature always wrong, because every conceptualization is of a fixed, separate, and independent entity. At the same time, all of our conceptualizations are right because all phenomena, including our conceptualizations, are empty, perfect, and not different from reality and truth.
So this is a very mind bending and paradoxical notion. It is not a matter of being right or wrong about things, but being wrong about things with a more cheerful attitude! Wrongness, rightness, and anything in between are empty of any fundamental reality, which is to say that everything is fluid and perfectly interdependently mixed up.
This is the passage we are discussing.
ALL DHARMAS ARE MARKED WITH EMPTINESS THEY DO NOT APPEAR NOR DISAPPEAR ARE NOT TAINTED NOR PURE DO NOT INCREASE NOR DECREASE
That would be enough to say, and in fact the Heart Sutra from then on gives more detail and does not say further than that. The next part, with the litany of no this and no that, is saying the same thing in more thorough detail. Everything without exception is empty; there are no loop holes. To make this point, the Heart Sutra enumerates every category of reality and says that this too is empty. It gives the entire Buddhist analysis of perception and consciousness in shorthand form for the purpose of saying that each one of these elements is empty.
We have to be careful in using the word emptiness, because it is just a term, and to use the term emptiness at all implies that there could be the opposite, non emptiness. That is the problem with using the word because in fact there is no alternative to emptiness. So it would be better not to have the term emptiness, but rather to say “things are and are not just as what they are and are not”. But the concept of emptiness is propounded because it is meant to be provocative and is meant to create a contrast to our usual view which is so deeply and tragically mistaken. The point of emptiness is that it destroys all views.
Here is the Buddhist analysis of perception that is now given. It begins: THEREFORE IN EMPTINESS. The word “therefore” is a bit wrong because it sounds logical, and it is not logical. The word “in emptiness” is wrong because it implies a container and things are inside it. Understanding that caveat, we now list the five skandas, or five “heaps”. This is a way of analyzing human experience, dividing our experiences into the categories or skandas of forms, feelings, perceptions, formations or impulses, and consciousness. Instead of seeing our experiences in terms of what we like or dislike, we can understand our experience in terms of the skandas.
The Heart Sutra says that no matter how useful we may have found the five skandas, they are empty of reality other than as designations. It says that the analysis of experience that we have been practicing is not necessary. You don’t need to analyze your experience; you need only to be intimately present with your experience to know its empty nature. So the five skandas are empty.
The next item on the list of analysis is perception. How does perception work? Perception is hugely important because without it there is no world. By our act of perception we co-create the world. If we could understand how we do this, maybe we could live in a world that is less restless and troublesome.
The analysis of perception is that there are six sense organs. This is striking because there are six and not five sense organs. Here the mind is considered as a sense organ. In the same way that an eye sees an object, the mind cognizes a non-physical object, which could be a thought, feeling, or emotion. So perception has six sense organs, six appropriate objects for each of the sense organs, and then for experience to be possible in the world, there has to be a third element: the organ of perception, the object, and the particular form of consciousness that arises out of the connection between the organ and the object, and out of that contact arises an awareness specific to that kind of perception. The reference in the sutra to “realm of eyes” and “realm of mind consciousness” refers to this consciousness.
This is how the early Buddhists figured out how the world is co-created on a moment to moment basis. The human world is created as a relationship. It is not a thing sitting over there. The world comes to be when organ, object, and contact consciousness arises. That is the world. So the world is a dynamic, constant creation which requires an organ and object of perception coming together at the same time.
The next on the list of how the world is constructed is the element of causality. Laws of causality propel this consciously created world forward. The traditional discussion of causality is the twelve-fold chain. The sutra says,
CONSCIOUSNESS NO IGNORANCE AND ALSO NO EXTINCTION OF IT UNTIL NO OLD AGE AND DEATH AND ALSO NO EXTINCTION OF IT
Ignorance is the first item in the chain of causation, and old age and death are the last items, so the sutra skips all the rest. I will explain the twelve of them….briefly! It’s like eating a big meal; it takes a long time and you are probably full at the end.
The first in the twelve fold chain of causation is ignorance or misapprehension. It means that within the total perfection of reality is a tiny stirring of unbalance that is a suggestion of the possibility of fixedness, separation, and independence, which disturbs the primordial unity or perfection. The second is karmic formations. This means that the initial stirring is approaching the feeling of otherness. The third is consciousness that now arises because of that sense of separation. There is no consciousness without a sense of separation, because consciousness arises when there is something to be conscious of. The fourth is name and form. Now we have full blown mind and matter. The fifth item is beings. There are no beings until the sixth item which is the senses. Now there are beings with capacity to differentiate in detail a world.
Now we have the whole world of beings and matter and mind. The next four items –six through ten – detail the whole tragic and mistaken way in which mind interacts with the stuff of experience. The sixth one is the contact between the organ and the object. Once there is contact, there is feeling which is always in a relative state of reactivity, and once there is reactivity, there is clinging. The reaction can also take the form of flight, trying to push away, which another form of the same energy. The clinging becomes more urgent and becomes grasping, which bears fruit as becoming. The eleventh is birth, and the twelfth is sickness, old age, and death, which is the consequence of birth. Without birth there can be no death, so birth is the cause of death. I have suggested this to my doctor friends. They should not write on the death certificate that the cause of death was cancer or heart disease. They should just write that the cause of death was birth!
The twelve fold chain of causation is meant to be seen from three different perspectives. On one level, a being is born as a result of all the steps or trouble that has gone before. It is also meant to be the process by which every moment is born and dies. It is also meant to be a cosmology or description of how things arise even if there weren’t beings. It is poetic and is not meant to be taken too literally.
When the sutra says there is no ignorance and no extinction of it, it means that ignorance is the conditioned world and the extinction of it is the unconditioned world. It is saying that the conditioned and unconditioned versions of the twelve fold chain do not exist as you think that they do. They are not two real, separate entities. They are empty and existing in identity and unity. So the twelve fold chain does not arise in the way that we think it does, and it does not pass away in the way that we think it does. The arising that we imagine is happening in this world and the extinction, or the peace that we might imaginatively long for, are both equally fantasies. They are fluid, and there is no way to separate out what is arising and what is being extinguished.
To conclude, what does this mean to us on a practical day to day level? A thought or emotion that was so strong and palpable before you sat down will dissolve and become quiescent just by sitting and being present. This happens sometimes. You then realize that the thought or emotion is empty. If I just sit with the thought, and be present with the thought, and give myself up to the presence of that thought, the empty nature of that thought will heal me from the pain of it. If we are really being present when we are sitting, we are giving ourselves to the empty nature of phenomena, and letting the empty nature heal what ails us. The nature of things is not only when we are sitting. The nature of things is all the time, but when we sit, we are sitting still for it. Normally we are thrashing around, but when we sit, we allow reality to do its work.
On an everyday level, emptiness means to practice with a flexible mind and not getting stuck on your point of view. Things are never the way that you think they are. Respect that. You make effort in your practice and living to do your best, but you make that effort with joy, cheerfulness, and always with some sense of humor. How could you not have a sense of humor in this world in which things are coming and going in this troublesome way, but are all empty?
And kindness. Practice with the kindness that arises when you realize that there is no separateness. Others cannot be separate from you, and you cannot be separate from others. We are all flowing in and out of each other in the soup of emptiness.