Friday, November 4, 2011

The Heart Sutra and the Five Aggregates (Part 2 of 5)

I'll dive right into this second installment on the Heart Sutra by quoting once again from the invocation and prologue of the three selected translations:


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

Invocation:      The Sutra of the Heart of Great Perfection of Insight

Prologue:         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.
                                                 

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

Invocation:      The Heart of the Prajnaparamita

Prologue:        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.


Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:

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

Prologue:         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.


The three variations on the invocation alone provide a glimpse into the types of decisions to be made during the process of translation. In Rosan Yoshida roshi’s version, as with Thich Nhat Hanh’s, hrdaya (heart) has been translated in such a way as to convey more of a “getting to the heart of the matter” sort of meaning. Edward Conze, on the other hand, chose to interpret hrdaya in a way that clearly conveys the beloved quality of the sutra, i.e. “the lovely, the holy.” The Sanskrit-English Dictionary does reveal that both interpretations of hrdaya are within the scope of ordinary usage. Perhaps, then, we would be well-served to keep both qualities in mind as we reflect upon the Heart Sutra. Note, also, that Thich Nhat Hanh’s version is the only one of the three to leave Prajnaparamita untranslated so as to steer clear of any sense that the prajna being referred to is something that can be accumulated and clung to. Additionally, the final sentence of the prologue in Thich Nhat Hanh's translation seems a little bit out of place when compared to the other two versions. Of course, I'm not arguing against the Bodhisattva Avalokita having overcome all pain, because by the end of the sutra it is clear that that is precisely the nature of the realization that is available to us, I'm just wondering whether the inclusion of this sentence in the prologue might be an editorial addition intended to bring the prologue to greater closure perhaps. 



 The Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva

Okay, so who is/was the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva? In order to answer this question we must delve further into the evolution of Buddhism. Early devotees did not necessarily see the Buddha as a figure of cosmic importance. He was, says Blum (2001), “a compassionate teacher revered for having destroyed all anxieties and sufferings within himself, thereby reaching the end of his participation in the cycle of rebirth” (p. 134). With the advent of the Mahayana, however, “faith in the power, omniscience, and eternal spiritual assistance of the Buddha assumed a new sense of importance and Buddhism now took on a decidedly more devotional form” (Blum, 2001, p. 133). In fact, there is not just one buddha. There is the Buddha – Shakyamuni Buddha – the historical Buddha, but there is also the Amitabha Buddha, the Vairochana Buddha, etc. Edward Conze (1959) notes that “‘Buddha’ is not the name of a person, but designates a type. ‘Buddha’ is Sanskrit for someone who is ‘fully enlightened’ about the nature and meaning of life. Numerous ‘Buddhas’ appear successively at suitable intervals” (p. 19). Recall that a bodhisattva is one who forgoes departing this samsaric world until such time as all beings have been saved. Bodhisattvas, therefore, are beings on the path toward buddhahood. And that brings us back to the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva.


Avalokiteshvara is what Skilton (1994) refers to as an archetypal bodhisattva. Such bodhisattvas “are no longer identifiable with ordinary human beings, since they have been practicing the Path for many lifetimes, and have been reborn in more refined mundane realms incalculable times” (p. 112). Other such archetypal bodhisattvas include Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and Maitreya, the future Buddha, the fifth and final Earthly Buddha (Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, being the fourth) (Skilton, 1994, p. 112; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 217, 219).


One interpretation of the name, Avalokiteshvara, is “Lord Who Looks Down” (with ishvara interpreted as lord). Another is “He Who Hears the Sounds [Outcries] of the World” (with svara meaning sound) (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 24). Yoshida roshi also points out that Avalokita-svara can be interpreted as "looking-down the sounds" (観世音 in Chinese), whereas Avalokita-ishvara can be interpreted as "competent on looking-down" (観自在 in Chinese). Thank you, Roshi! So, we can see how these various interpretations fit into our prevailing understanding of the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva as one who, out of a sense of profound compassion, remains vigilant for signs of suffering in the world and is fully prepared to take action in order to alleviate it. It is for this reason that some depictions of the Avalokiteshvara show him with many arms and hands – the more with which to be of service, of course.


Now, depending upon what understanding of emptiness (shunyata) you bring to your reading of this post, you may find it more or less intriguing that it would be within the purview of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara) to hold forth on such matters. After all, one might wonder where compassion could possibly reside in a world defined by the utter and absolute emptiness of all phenomena. How can compassion spring forth from the barren (it might seem) soil of such a desolately nihilistic landscape? And why isn’t it the Manjushri Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, who is elucidating this wisdom of the Prajnaparamita – the wisdom that takes us to the other shore? Please keep these questions in mind as you read on.


Prologue, Line Two

Okay, we’re rolling now. Can you hear the mokugyo going tock, tock, tock in the background? Both Thich Nhat Hanh and Edward Conze have chosen to translate this second line in similar ways, i.e. “moving in the deep course of…” This line has the feel of some kind of understanding that arose in a fairly localized time and space – while in deep meditation perhaps. Yoshida roshi’s translation, on the other hand, describes this insight coming to the Avalokiteshvara over the course of his career. The word career clearly conveys a longer period of time than just a single deep meditation. In fact, career, when used in regards to bodhisattvas, refers to the many lifetimes over which diligent effort has been applied. So, how long did it take the Avalokiteshvara to arrive at this understanding – lifetimes, or the time it takes a stick of incense to burn down? Perhaps this is one of those instances that Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) refers to (see The Heart Sutra, an Introduction) where wisdom or knowledge might actually block our understanding (p. 8). If we know how long something takes then we begin to treat it as a known commodity – perhaps generated by following a very specific recipe.


The Five Aggregates

The Sanskrit word skandha is often used interchangeably with aggregate or heap. According to Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994), the five aggregates, sometimes called the “aggregates of attachment”, “constitute the entirety of what is generally known as ‘personality’” (p. 335).  Hopefully as you examine the following table, you will be reminded of some of the links in the Twelve-Fold Chain of Dependent Origination (see Dependent Origination and the Teaching of No Self). They are those very same entities.





(Yoshida, 1994, pp. 65-67; Rahula, 1959, pp. 20-23; and previously cited sutra texts.)


A few words about these five aggregates: Rupa was at one time thought to be comprised of earth, water, fire, and wind. However, it does not appear that any philosophical meaning is lost in thinking of rupa in the way that we presently think of form.


Vedana, according to Rahula (1959), relates to the positive, negative, and neutral sensations of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind (p. 23). Recall that the mind is considered a sense organ in the Buddhist way of thinking about such things.


Sanna relates to the recognition of the sense-objects that the sense organs come in contact with. However, Rosan Yoshida roshi (1994) also notes that there is an aspect of sanna that relates to the identification of the sense-object with its name or symbolic representation (p. 67). Thus, he has chosen to use the word idea rather than perception as the other translators have.


With respect to sankhara, Rahula (1959) discusses the karmic ramifications of positive and negative volitional activities “such as attention…, will…, determination…, confidence…, concentration…, wisdom…, energy…, desire…, repugnance or hate…, ignorance…, conceit…, idea of self…, etc.” (p. 22). A close reading of this list reveals a few more links of the twelve-fold chain buried therein (avijja, tanha, and upadana, for instance - or nescience, craving, and appropriation, respectively). Yoshida roshi, on the other hand, does not see sankhara as being limited to the mental sphere; he considers all bodily, verbal, and mental formations as being part of sankhara. Thus, he simply uses the word formation here.   


Finally, we come to vinnana, consciousness. Recall that the Buddhist definition of consciousness is different than our usual Western conception. Consciousness, from a Buddhist standpoint, is merely the result of contact (a link in the twelve-fold chain) between sense organ and sense-object; no contact, no consciousness; no sense organ, no consciousness.


The Dialectics of Emptiness – D of E (Conze, 1959, p. 162)

We now have enough background to make it deep into the heart of the Heart Sutra (pun intended).


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

Invocation:                 The Sutra of the Heart of Great Perfection of Insight

Prologue:                    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.

D of E, 1st Stage:        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.

D of E, 2nd Stage:       Here, Shariputra, all Dharmas are marked with Shunyata;

neither originated nor destroyed;

                                    neither defiled nor undefiled;

neither decreased nor increased.
                                            

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

Invocation:                 The Heart of the Prajnaparamita

Prologue:                    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.

D of E, 1st Stage:        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.

D of E, 2nd Stage:       Hear, Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

they are neither produced nor destroyed,

                                    neither defiled nor immaculate,

neither increasing nor decreasing.


Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:

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

Prologue:                     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.

D of E, 1st Stage:        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.

D of E, 2nd Stage:        Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness;

they are not produced nor stopped,

                                    not defiled or immaculate,

not deficient or complete.


Why don’t I stop here for now? I realize that I haven’t yet addressed those questions I’ve asked you to consider regarding wisdom and compassion, but how about I ask a couple of additional ones just for good measure? Who is this Shariputra, anyway? And why is he the one to be visited by the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva himself and given this teaching first hand?




References


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

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

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

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.

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.

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.
    

Photo credit:

Image of Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.




Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

3 comments:

  1. Another great post, Maku! Unfortunately, I really should've been working on my rakusu!

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  2. This is a great post! I love that you've included several translations. Looking forward to the next installment!

    Kristen

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  3. Hey Bob! I'm sorry to have hindered your progress toward taking the precepts. I guess this means we're all going to have to be here just that much longer! Sigh... ;D

    Kristen, I am not saying that this is the case with any of these translations, but I think even a poor translation can be beneficial to consider. Just thinking about why someone might have chosen such a word or phrase can nudge us toward deeper understanding. Thanks!

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