Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Heart Sutra - Compassion and the Cessation of Suffering (Part 5 of 5)


Last week’s post left just two questions outstanding: One, what does the realization of emptiness have to do with the cessation of suffering; and, two, how is it that the realization of emptiness gives rise to compassionate action? In order to focus more completely on these questions, I’ll change the format of this final post in the Heart Sutra series just a little bit by concentrating on Rosan Yoshida roshi’s translation at the beginning and then presenting the three translations in full at the close of this post.



Recall that we left off last week with the realization that, with respect to ultimate reality, even the Four Noble Truths are empty; and there is nothing, not even knowledge, to be gained. After all, our conception of knowledge presupposes a knower and a known, and our conception of gain requires that something with a determinable identity enjoy some enhancement of some kind. Clearly this is all solidly in the mundane realm where qualitative and quantitative judgments still have meaning. The mundane realm, however, is precisely what we seek to transcend. Let’s begin again by examining the remainder of the Heart Sutra as translated by Yoshida (1979). Passage breakouts are those utilized by Conze (1959, p. 163) and are noted by the ‘+’ symbol:



“The concrete embodiment and practical basis of emptiness” +



Therefore, in no grasping one lives in no mind-hindrance,

relying on the Prajnaparamita of Bodhisattvas.

Because there is no mind hindrance, and no fear,

one settles in Nirvana,

transcending the perverted views.



“Full emptiness is the basis also of Buddhahood” +



All the Buddhas residing in the three times

are awakened to the unsurpassed right Awakening,

relying on the Prajnaparamita.



“The teaching brought within reach of the comparatively unenlightened” +



Therefore, know the Prajnaparamita,

the Great Mantra, the Great Wisdom Mantra,

the Unsurpassed Mantra, the Peerless Mantra,

which brings cessation of all sufferings;

which is true, as it is not false.

The Mantra in the Prajnaparamita is uttered thus:

Gate * Gate Para-Gate * Para-Sam-Gate Bodhi Svaha.

Thus ends the heart of Prajnaparamita.



Translated by Yoshida (1979)





The Realization of Emptiness Gives Rise to Compassion



Therefore, in no grasping one lives in no mind-hindrance,

relying on the Prajnaparamita of Bodhisattvas.



In other words, in relying on the perfection of insight – the realization of the emptiness of all phenomena – one lives in a state of wholeness and completeness, not desiring anything; and in this state without desire one is able to enjoy complete freedom of mind. Perhaps we can relate just a little bit to this state. There are times, aren’t there, when our appetites are perfectly sated, when we’re warm and dry and clothed and fed, when we’re neither bored nor over-stimulated, when we’re neither worried about the future nor ruminating over the past, when we’re neither longing to be with ‘someone else’ nor wishing to enjoy ‘our’ solitude, when thoughts of what we should be doing or could be doing have all fallen by the wayside and we’re simply attending wholeheartedly to that which we are doing? And isn’t it the case that when we’re enjoying such a state our minds have a seemingly limitless capacity for concentration, deep reflection, and penetrating insight? Usually, we’re expending such an incredible amount of psychic energy dealing with (or merely worrying about) all the myriad issues related to making sure this small self is safe and comfortable that we can’t help but remain mired in our own karmic mud.



So what happens, anyway, as we lift our heads up out of our karmic mud (even if only briefly) and experience the emptiness conveyed by the Heart Sutra? Those who are still thinking of emptiness in a nihilistic way might think of this experience as one characterized by complete freedom from rules, constraints, and social mores – freedom that would lead to the embrace of anarchy or chaos as the individual, finally unloosed from all restraining influences (gosh, even the most profound, guiding teachings of the wisest amongst us are empty!), begins to act as they and they alone see fit. Recall, however, that the experience of emptiness is one of wholeness and completeness, without desire for anything. This state of wholeness and completeness is one in which the small self has been transcended and reality is seen in all of its integrated, interconnected, and unified glory. Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) refers to this integration and interconnectedness as interbeing.



When we experience reality in this way – having relinquished the small-self separation of reality into subject and object – we become moved to act on behalf of the integrated whole which has now become more real to us than that tiny piece of the whole that we used to identify with (the small self). We see how harming another is merely harming the whole of which ‘we’ are but a part. Thus, harming another is merely harming ‘our’ self. We see the fleeting nature of ‘our’ lives; we see that ‘each of us’ is merely seeking to be happy; we see how ‘each of us’ is merely striving to actualize ‘our’ true nature – in whatever muddled fashion that karma nudges ‘us’ to adopt. Given this reality regarding the experience of emptiness, there is no longer any need for any rules or laws or mandates in order to ensure that we act in the greater good. There does not need to be a judging God at the end of ‘our’ road in order to keep us from doing harm; there does not need to be the threat of a lower birth in some reincarnated form in order to nudge us toward goodness. It’s not that we have risen above the mundane world (recall that nothing has been attained); it’s not that we can act with impunity (recall Hyakujo’s admonition that the enlightened individual “does not ignore causation” – Sekida, 1977, p. 31); rather, it is the case that our desire (now more accurately viewed as aspiration) has become perfectly in accord with the needs of the whole of reality. This is how the realization of emptiness gives rise to compassion.



The Realization of Emptiness Gives Rise to the Cessation of Suffering



Because there is no mind hindrance, and no fear,

one settles in Nirvana,  transcending the perverted views.



I think we’ve all enjoyed at least a little glimpse of the freedom of mind that arises when we’re in such a state of contentment or acceptance – without grasping for anything; it’s just that for most of us these states are, oh, so very brief! Imagine what it must be like to live in such a state of wholeness and completeness rather than merely briefly enjoying it. In such a state, this freedom of mind would remain even as circumstances change. After all, whatever new circumstances might present themselves would be accepted just as wholeheartedly and completely as the previous circumstances had been accepted – without any longing for what had been, nor yearning for something new.



What is fear, after all, but a concern that things will turn out in some ‘unacceptable’ way? But there is no longer any ‘unacceptable’ way; everything is accepted wholeheartedly and completely. Thus, with perfect freedom of mind, and fearlessness, one settles in Nirvana. Rosan Yoshida roshi refers to Nirvana as the “no wind” or “windless state”. In his teachings he often describes Nirvana as being like when a candle flame is burning straight and tall, without flickering – illuminating the entire world without shadow. Nivana can also be thought of as “unconditioned peace” – peace that does not depend on any particular conditions for its existence. (Please also see the blog post titled Unconditioned Peace.) So it is that the realization of emptiness gives rise to the cessation of suffering.



Oh, and just what are these perverted views, anyway? Conze (1967) notes that translators sometimes prefer to think of these views as being “inverted” or “upside-down” rather than perverted; perhaps “wrong notions” is more descriptive (p. 40). In Conze’s translation he refers to “transcending perverted views” as “overcoming what can upset” (1959, p. 163). Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this as being “[liberated] forever from illusion” (1988, p. 1). However we refer to these views, the first three of them are rooted in our failure to recognize the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering, and the emptiness of self. The fourth, essentially related to seeking pleasure in worldly things, might encompass sexual relations, the eating of flesh, or any other practices that stir up the senses, cause harm, and keep one from settling into that aforementioned peace beyond causes and conditions. This practitioner sees the inclusion of this fourth view as an attempt to provide specific behavioral guidance. I contend that complete comprehension of the three marks of existence would in and of itself provide guidance regarding the seeking of pleasure in worldly things. (Note: lay practitioners who have not chosen a celibate path are just going to have to come to grips with this one on their own!) Conze (1967) summarizes these perverted views as misguided attempts to find “(1) permanence in what is essentially nonpermanent, (2) ease in what is inseparable from suffering, (3) selfhood in what is not linked to any self, and (4) delight in what is essentially repulsive and disgusting” (p.40).



Now, lest we be tempted to narrowly interpret this fourth perverted view as speaking only to monastics, those who might need specific encouragement regarding how to deal with their naturally arising sexual urges, for instance, let’s consider it in a much broader way. Have you not been disgusted to learn that the running shoes and clothing that you wear were manufactured in some sweatshop with abysmal working conditions – perhaps utilizing child labor? Have you not been repulsed to learn of the harm caused to indigenous people in the course of the extraction of natural resources (so-called blood diamonds, crude oil extraction in Nigeria, mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, the so-called fracking method of natural gas extraction)? Have you not gotten queasy after reading what happens to our coveted computers and other personal electronics when they get recycled by individuals with little recourse working in wretched industrial encampments thick with the toxic stench of burned off plastics and insulation and the toxic soup of the extraction chemicals utilized? It would seem then that, notwithstanding how we might consider this fourth perverted view’s relevance to lay practitioners seeking guidance in our sexually liberated modern world, there are plenty of opportunities for us to examine how we take delight in that which is “essentially repulsive and disgusting.”





Emptiness is the Basis of Buddhahood



All the Buddhas residing in the three times

are awakened to the unsurpassed right Awakening,

relying on the Prajnaparamita.



This passage ensures us of the universality of the Awakening resulting from our understanding of this teaching. All the Buddhas that have ever been or will ever be have awakened to this truth of shunyata – emptiness.



The Mantra in the Prajnaparamita



Therefore, know the Prajnaparamita,

the Great Mantra, the Great Wisdom Mantra,

the Unsurpassed Mantra, the Peerless Mantra,

which brings cessation of all sufferings;

which is true, as it is not false.



A mantra serves as a centering device – a word or phrase that is intended to facilitate entrance into a meditative state. According to Schuhmacher & Woerner (1994), a mantra is “a power-laden syllable or series of syllables that manifests certain cosmic forces and aspects of the buddhas… Continuous repetition of mantras is practiced as a form of meditation in many Buddhist schools” (p. 220). This is why Conze (1959) refers to this passage as “the teaching brought within reach of the comparatively unenlightened” (p. 163). One need not be particularly well-versed in the teachings of Buddhism, or learned in any worldly way, or even literate, in order to become immersed in this most profound of teachings. It is almost certainly the case that many practitioners chanting the Heart Sutra have not yet grasped its full meaning, and yet the meditative aspects of reciting it are an important aspect of practice. Indeed, the rhythmic chanting, accompanied by the tock, tock, tocking of the wooden fish drum does tend to facilitate entrance into a deep meditative state.



The Mantra in the Prajnaparamita is uttered thus:

Gate * Gate Para-Gate * Para-Sam-Gate Bodhi Svaha.



Gate is Sanskrit for gone. Para is a Sanskrit word encompassing the concepts of: far, distant, remote, beyond, on the other or farther side of, final, last, exceeding (in number or degree), superior, highest, supreme, chief, remotest distance, and highest point or degree. Thus, it is clear that this mantra is intended to reference or serve as the path to Complete Awakening, or Buddhahood. “Gone, gone, gone beyond” as Conze translates.



Sam is a Sanskrit word that is as delightfully ambiguous in Sanskrit as it is in English, we shall see. On one hand we could read sam as referring to the thoroughness, intensity, or completeness of this awakening. On another level, however, we can read in sam the allusion to this awakening being together with or along with all beings. I asked Rosan Yoshida roshi about this ambiguity and he confirmed what I had suspected – that this awakening, in keeping with the bodhisattva vow and our understanding of emptiness, is together with all beings. “Gone, gone, gone beyond. Gone altogether beyond” as Conze (1959) translates (my added emphasis). How can we not close such a mantra with an exclamation as to its profundity? Bodhi (awakening) and svaha (an exclamation) thus complete the mantra with the inclusion of, in Conze’s translation, “O what an awakening. All Hail!”



Thus ends the heart of Prajnaparmita.

  

I sincerely hope that this exploration of the Heart Sutra is helpful at least in some small way toward your understanding of this important teaching. It certainly has furthered my understanding. Please recall that way back at the beginning of this series I had posed some possible interpretations of the meaning of the fish carved into the mokugyo (wooden fish drum) used in the chanting of the Heart Sutra. I had expressed my enjoyment of the interpretation that the fish symbolize ease of movement and an inability to drown in this ocean of suffering – samsara. I am even more convinced of the appropriateness of this symbolism as I contemplate the depths of fearlessness and compassion imparted by a true and complete understanding of the emptiness spoken of in this Heart Sutra. We truly can learn to navigate this samsaric existence as fish swimming freely in a great ocean. Thank you all for reading. Here are the complete translations of the texts that have been referenced only in part up until now. I am exceedingly grateful for the scholarship of these translators:



Rosan Yoshida’s translation via the Missouri Zen Center website:



The Sutra of the Heart of Great Perfection of Insight



The Venerable Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,

when carry’ng out the profound Prajnaparamita career,

penetrated through the five aggregates

and saw that they are Shunya in their nature.

Here, Shariputra, Form is Shunyata; Shunyata is Form.

Form does not differ from Shunyata;

Shunyata does not differ from Form.

That which is Form is Shunyata;

That which is Shunyata is Form.

The very same applies to feeling, idea,

formations and consciousness.

Here, Shariputra, all Dharmas are marked with Shunyata;

neither originated nor destroyed;

neither defiled nor undefiled;

neither decreased nor increased.

Therefore, Shariputra, in Shunyata,

no form, no feeling, no idea, no formation,

no consciousness;

no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind;

no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, mind-object;

no eye-realm and so forth

until no mind-consciousness-realm;

no nescience, no extinction of nescience,

and so forth until no old age and death;

no extinction of old age and death;

no suffering, origination, cessation, path;

no knowledge, no grasping.

Therefore, in no grasping one lives in no mind-hindrance,

relying on the Prajnaparamita of Bodhisattvas.

Because there is no mind hindrance, and no fear,

one settles in Nirvana,  transcending the perverted views.

All the Buddhas residing in the three times

are awakened to the unsurpassed right Awakening,

relying on the Prajnaparamita.

Therefore, know the Prajnaparamita,

the Great Mantra, the Great Wisdom Mantra,

the Unsurpassed Mantra, the Peerless Mantra,

which brings cessation of all sufferings;

which is true, as it is not false.

The Mantra in the Prajnaparamita is uttered thus:

Gate * Gate Para-Gate * Para-Sam-Gate Bodhi Svaha.

Thus ends the heart of Prajnaparamita.



Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation via The Heart of Understanding:



The Heart of the Prajnaparamita



The Bodhisattva Avalokita,

while moving in the deep course of Perfect Understanding,

shed light on the five skandhas

and found them equally empty.

After this penetration, he overcame all pain.

Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form,

form does not differ from emptiness,

emptiness does not differ from form.

The same is true with feelings, perceptions,

mental formations, and consciousness.

Hear, Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

they are neither produced nor destroyed,

neither defiled nor immaculate,

neither increasing nor decreasing.

Therefore, in emptiness

there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perception,

nor mental formations, nor consciousness;

no eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind,

no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,

no object of the mind;

no realms of elements (from eyes to mind-consciousness);

no interdependent origins and no extinction of them

(from ignorance to old age and death);

no suffering, no origination of suffering,

no extinction of suffering, no path;

no understanding, no attainment.

Because there is no attainment,

the bodhisattvas, supported by the Perfection of Understanding,

find no obstacles for their minds.

Having no obstacles, they overcome fear,

liberating themselves forever from illusion

and realizing perfect Nirvana.

All Buddhas in the past, present, and future,

thanks to this Perfect Understanding,

arrive at full, right, and universal Enlightenment.

Therefore, one should know that the Perfect Understanding

is a great mantra, is the highest mantra,

is the unequaled mantra, the destroyer of all suffering,

the incorruptible truth.

A mantra of Prajnaparamita should therefore be proclaimed.

This is the mantra:

“Gate gate paragate parsamgate bodhi svaha.”



Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:



Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the lovely, the holy!



Avalokita, the holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving

in the deep course of the wisdom which has gone beyond.

He looked down from on high, he beheld but five heaps,

and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.

Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness,

and the very emptiness is form;

emptiness does not differ from form,

form does not differ from emptiness;

whatever is form, that is emptiness,

whatever is emptiness, that is form.

The same is true of feelings, perceptions,

impulses, and consciousness.

Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

they are not produced nor stopped,

not defiled or immaculate,

not deficient or complete.

Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness

there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse

nor consciousness;

no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;

no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables,

or objects of the mind;

no sight-organ-element, and so forth,

until we come to: no mind-consciousness-element;

there is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance,

and so forth until we come to: there is no decay and death;

no extinction of decay and death;

there is no suffering, no origination,

no stopping, no path;

there is no cognition, no attainment, and no non-attainment.

Therefore, O Sariputra, it is because of his indifference

to any kind of personal attainment that a Bodhisattva,

through having relied on the perfection of wisdom,

dwells without thought-coverings.

In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble,

he has overcome what can upset,

and in the end he attains to Nirvana.

All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time

fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect enlightenment

because they have relied on the perfection of wisdom.

Therefore one should know the Prajnaparamita as the great spell,

the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell,

the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering,

in truth – for what could go wrong?

By the Prajnaparamita has this spell been delivered.

It runs like this:

Gone, Gone, Gone beyond, Gone altogether beyond.

O what an awakening. All Hail!

This completes the Heart of Perfect Wisdom.



_/|\_





References



Anguttara Nikaya 10.92. Vera sutta: animosity (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 4 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.092.than.html

Blum, M. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Conze, E. (1954). Buddhist texts through the ages (ed. Conze, E.). Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library.

Conze, E. (1959). Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India. Ann Arbor Paperbacks. University of Michigan Press.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988). The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Peacock (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Sekida, K. (1977). Two Zen classics – Mumonkan and Hekiganroku (ed. Grimstone, A. V.) Weatherhill, Inc.

Skilton, A. (1994). A concise history of Buddhism. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Windhorse Publications.

Snelling, J. (1991). The Buddhist handbook: A complete guide to Buddhist schools, teaching, practice, and history. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Inner Traditions International.

Trainor, K. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Watson, B. (1993). The Lotus Sutra (tr. Watson, B.). Columbia University Press, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1979). Sutra of the heart of great perfection of insight (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.



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Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Heart Sutra and the Two Levels of Truth (Part 4 of 5)

The previous post explored the nature of emptiness, shunyata, and closed with a few observations that could be thought of as either clarifying descriptions or logical conclusions, as the case may be. Essentially, when we’re experiencing emptiness we realize that our usual quantitative or qualitative judgments about things simply don’t make sense anymore. Ideas regarding young and old, small and big, bad and good, are just that – ideas; and ideas need not necessarily be grounded in reality.


Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) illustrates this quite well with his examination of the life cycle of one of our most beloved flowers, the rose. We normally think of a bunch of plump blossoms in full bloom as being the ultimate state of existence for roses. After due consideration, however, we can see that the subsequent wilting, dying, and decaying of those very blossoms creates ‘new’ soil that makes possible ‘new’ life – ‘new’ roses, ‘new’ food, ‘new’ habitat for animals. Thus, the wilting of flower blossoms in no way signifies the end of life; it is merely transformation. When we examine the entire life cycle of a rose – from soil and seed, to bushy green plant, to unfolding blossoms, to withering and wilting, to decay and apparent disappearance – we can see that when we think of any particular aspect of that cycle as being more beautiful than all of the others we are simply allowing our ideas to cloud our vision of reality. No aspect of the life cycle just described is inherently more important, more beautiful, or more meaningful than any other. In fact, by breaking that life cycle down into various aspects for separate consideration, I have already begun to see emptiness less clearly. And that is the reason for my use up above of single quotes around the word new. What does new even mean, after all, when everything is merely a seamless transition from moment to moment?


So, now that we’re warmed up once again to the depth of meaning of that word, shunyata, let’s continue our exploration of the Heart Sutra – beginning here with what Conze (1959) refers to as the 3rd Stage of the “dialectics of emptiness” (p. 162):


Rosan Yoshida’s translation via the Missouri Zen Center website:

D of E, 3rd Stage:        Therefore, Shariputra, in Shunyata,

                                    no form, no feeling, no idea, no formation,

                                    no consciousness;

                                    no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind;       

                                    no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, mind-object;

                                    no eye-realm and so forth

until no mind-consciousness-realm;

no nescience, no extinction of nescience,

and so forth until no old age and death;

no extinction of old age and death;

no suffering, origination, cessation, path;

no knowledge, no grasping.

                                          

Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation via The Heart of Understanding:

D of E, 3rd Stage:        Therefore, in emptiness

                                    there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perception,

nor mental formations, nor consciousness;

                                    no eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind,

                                    no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,

no object of the mind;

no realms of elements (from eyes to mind-consciousness);

no interdependent origins and no extinction of them

(from ignorance to old age and death);

no suffering, no origination of suffering,

no extinction of suffering, no path;

no understanding, no attainment.



Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:

D of E, 3rd Stage:        Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness

there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse,

nor consciousness;

no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;

                                    no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables,

or objects of the mind;

no sight-organ-element, and so forth,

until we come to: no mind-consciousness-element;

there is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance,

and so forth until we come to: there is no decay and death;

no extinction of decay and death;

there is no suffering, no origination,

no stopping, no path;

there is no cognition, no attainment, and no non-attainment.



This passage is essentially a ten-second sweep over vast swaths of the Buddha’s teaching, beginning with a reaffirmation of the emptiness of the five aggregates of form, feeling, idea, formations, and consciousness. From there the passage drills into the nature of consciousness – finding it empty at every turn. First of all, the six sense organs upon which the six respective consciousnesses rely are found to be empty. Our naming of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind is merely an arbitrary partitioning of an otherwise empty reality. Secondly, the objects that our sense organs might apprehend are empty. Perhaps worthy of special mention here is that mind-objects are those that are apprehended by the sense organ of the mind. Thirdly, given the emptiness of the various sense organs and their respective sense-objects, we find that the six consciousnesses resulting from contact between each pair are, likewise, empty. (Contact, phassa, is one of the links of the twelve-fold chain.)


From there we move on to the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination. It is referred to rather cryptically, but it’s there. The statement (as per Yoshida roshi’s translation) that there is “no nescience, no extinction of nescience, and so forth until no old age and death; no extinction of old age and death” refers to the first link, the last link, and every link in between – links in between being referred to by the “and so forth” phrase. The other translations convey this in slightly different ways, but there is no doubt as to the intent. Recall that the twelve-fold chain was devised to show us precisely how it is that suffering arises and how it can be stopped. It, too, is empty. (Please see Dependent Origination and the Teaching of No Self for a more complete treatment of the twelve-fold chain.)


And that brings us to the Four Noble Truths… Yes, they are there, as well! “No suffering, origination, cessation, path” refers to, respectively, the emptiness of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and even the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering. Is nothing sacred? How can it be that this most fundamental of Buddhist teachings is empty? But that’s not all. Even in this Heart of Prajnaparamita – a sutra that we might expect would afford us a modicum of wisdom – we find no knowledge, no understanding, no cognition; we find nothing to be attained and nothing to hold onto.


Of course, all of this simply begs the question: Why did the Buddha bother elucidating all of these various teachings – teachings that are considered central to the practice of Buddhism – if all we have to do in order to be released from our suffering is realize the true nature of shunyata?


Two Levels of Truth, and Expedient Means

In Mahayana Buddhism we have the recognition of both mundane truth and supramundane truth – conventional truth and the truth of ultimate reality – that which is agreed upon to be true in the course of our day-to-day lives and that which relates to the fundamental nature of reality even in the absence of the existence of our human lives and social structures. Snelling (1991) describes the two levels as follows;

  1. Conventional truth – everyday common-sense truth, basically distorted but open to skillful manipulation [expedient means] in order to point to
  2. Absolute truth – the way things really are, as buddhas behold with enlightened eyes: empty, beyond thought and description. (p. 87)

When the Buddha gave us such teachings as those related to consciousness, dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, etc. he was providing us with roadmaps to lead us away from our mundane way of viewing our lives and the world and towards the realization of supramundane truth. Of course we usually only need a roadmap when our destination is far outside our field of vision, when our journey is long and involved and we might easily lose our way. Isn’t that precisely how Buddhist practice is most often viewed? Perhaps, then, in addition to the various metaphors of the Buddha’s teachings being a roadmap to lead us to our destination or a raft on which to make our way across an ocean of samsara, we might also think of the teachings as star charts by which to navigate the seas on our long and arduous maritime journey. Compared to roadmaps and rafts and star charts, however, The Heart Sutra is more like a wormhole to the other side of the universe! (Readers who may not necessarily be all that familiar with developments in astrophysics or its associated science fiction writing should note that wormholes are like pinpricks in the spacetime continuum through which we might pass on our way to destinations far too distant for us to ever reach even if we could travel at the speed of light. But I digress.) Realize emptiness, shunyata, and you will have realized the destination. Right here, right now.



An artist's rendering of a wormhole showing shortcut (green path) and normal trajectory through spacetime (red). 


Practically speaking, however, our karma is so very strong that even after we’re led by the hand right up to the wormhole to ultimate truth we still can’t make adequate use of it. We might know of its existence in intellectual terms, we might like to make use of it, we might even stand on this side peering into it – perhaps catching a fleeting glimpse from time to time of the supramundane truth on the other side; but the strength of our karma – our habit energy – keeps us from stepping on through. And that is why we keep on practicing – making use of teachings that speak to us here on this level of mundane truth as well as those that reflect the more fundamental nature of reality.


Now, let’s not let all of this talk regarding mundane and supramundane truth go to our heads and have us thinking that some glimpse into the emptiness of all phenomena will somehow grant us a free pass from the consequences of our abuses of power; e.g. “There’s really no me and no you, so what actual harm would be done by me hitting you over the head and taking your money? All is emptiness, right?” The Mumonkan, a collection of Zen koans, contains a story that is pertinent to precisely that question: Chinese Zen master, Hyakujo Osho (720-814), was the abbot of a mountain monastery. For a time an old man would follow the monks to the main hall to hear Hyakujo deliver his talks, but the old man would quickly disappear after the talks had ended. One day, though, the old man remained behind and told Hyakujo his story (Sekida, 1977, pp. 31-34):

I am not a human being. In the old days of Kashyapa Buddha [the Buddha prior to Shakyamuni Buddha], I was a head monk, living here on this mountain. One day a student asked me, “Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation [is he still subject to the laws of karma] or not?” I answered, “No, he does not.” Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox. I beg you now to give the turning word [direction toward right understanding] to release me from my life as a fox. Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?” Hyakujo answered, “He does not ignore causation.” (p. 31) 

In other words, a wise person keeps in mind both levels of truth as he or she goes about living ‘his’ or ‘her’ life.


Regarding expedient means: In the passage of the Lotus Sutra that I referred to last week, Shariputra comes to the realization that “we failed to understand that the Buddha was employing expedient [skillful] means and preaching what was appropriate to the circumstances. So when we first heard The Law of the Buddha, we immediately believed and accepted it, supposing that we had gained something” (Watson, 1993, pp. 47-48). Shariputra realized the position that the Buddha was in. He had awakened to a truth that was previously unheard of – a truth of such depth and profundity that it is beyond the realm of words. How does one convey this truth to people of all different intelligence levels and karmic backgrounds? And so, over the course of his long career, the Buddha set about making his teaching understood in various ways, with analogies and stories and so forth, all pointing towards ultimate truth – even if they don’t reveal it with the directness of the Heart Sutra, for instance. These teachings constitute what Shariputra refers to as “expedient means” by which the Buddha inspires people to strive to reach and move towards a destination which is largely inconceivable.


Okay, I think we only have two outstanding questions remaining: One, what does the realization of emptiness have to do with the relinquishment of suffering; and, two, how is it that the realization of emptiness gives rise to compassionate action? Thank you all for reading, and I wish you a beautiful week!  




References


Anguttara Nikaya 10.92. Vera sutta: animosity (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 4 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.092.than.html

Blum, M. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Conze, E. (1954). Buddhist texts through the ages (ed. Conze, E.). Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library.

Conze, E. (1959). Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988). The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Peacock (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Sekida, K. (1977). Two Zen classics – Mumonkan and Hekiganroku (ed. Grimstone, A. V.). Weatherhill, Inc.

Skilton, A. (1994). A concise history of Buddhism. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Windhorse Publications.

Snelling, J. (1991). The Buddhist handbook: A complete guide to Buddhist schools, teaching, practice, and history. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Inner Traditions International.

Trainor, K. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Watson, B. (1993). The Lotus Sutra (tr. Watson, B.). Columbia University Press, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1979). Sutra of the heart of great perfection of insight (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.



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Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank