Dharma Talks on the Heart Sutra

given by Sensei Deirdre Eisho Peterson

Red Rocks Zen Circle, Sedona, AZ

May 2017

In preparing dharma talks on the Heart Sutra for our spring meditation retreat, I found much wisdom, insight and historical perspective on the Sutra from three primary sources:

– my teacher, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara of Village Zendo in New York;

– Norman Fischer of the Everyday Zen Foundation;

– and Thich Naht Hanh, who has written extensively on the Heart Sutra with his characteristic simplicity and grace.

Their commentaries were inspiring and illuminating for all of us on the retreat.


First Talk:

So on our retreat this year I’m going to be talking about the Heart Sutra — the Maha Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra.  We chant it every Sunday during our morning program at the zendo.

Do you recall the first times that you heard the Heart Sutra chanted?  What did you think of it?  To me, the sutra seemed quite profound and mysterious … and what in the world did it mean?  Unlike other religious texts, it didn’t spell out a creed or tell us what to believe.  The Heart Sutra is something quite different.

Since we are going to focus on the Heart Sutra, and since we chant it every Sunday morning, I suggest that you try to memorize it — it really helps us to internalize it.  In addition, if there is a phrase or line that speaks to you — such as form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form — please consider working with it like a koan:  in my life, without intellectual or philosophical descriptions, how do I actually live emptiness is exactly form?   ~

Some teachers and scholars have suggested that the Heart Sutra is really a mantra.  That rather than try to understand it intellectually, we should just fully chant it, let it sink into our bones.  Although we’re going to look at the Sutra closely on this retreat, it’s important to see that the Heart Sutra really doesn’t make sense to the intellect since it is essentially speaking to something experiential, to our experience in zazen, to that open space of awareness.  The Sutra, as it is said, is dark to the mind, radiant to the heart.  So if you have felt that you don’t understand all the lines in the Heart Sutra, don’t be discouraged.  Something happens just from chanting it, and on this retreat we’ll have several mornings together for that chanting.  So even though the Sutra may not be fully graspable by the intellect, it has an unmistakable power.  I think that power is there because it comes out of the truth of our own experience sitting. 

So a little about the Heart Sutra.  It is perhaps the best-known, most influential and most revered of the Mahayana sutras.  It is chanted daily in monasteries, temples and Zen centers all over the world.  So when we chant it, we are joining our voices with those all over the world who are setting forth this great teaching on form and emptiness, on how we can see clearly and live wisely in this world.   It has been said that Buddhas become Buddhas through their ability to be transformed by its teaching.   The Heart Sutra is considered the basis of the non-dual teaching of Zen. 

The Heart Sutra’s full title is the Maja Pranja Paramita Heart Sutra.  The Great Wisdom Beyond Wisdom.  So it belongs within a whole category of wisdom scriptures, called the Prajna Paramita literature, which were written in the years 300 – 500 Common Era.  So they were written 800 – 1000 years after the historical Buddha.  The Diamond Sutra which we studied earlier is also part of this same time period and tradition. 

These sutras are about emptiness, about wise seeing as ultimate wisdom.  So what is this wisdom?  It’s not the usual way we use this word.  Wisdom not as something we accumulate or something passed down in dusty books, but rather wisdom as the development of insight into the fundamental nature of the self and nature of reality:  that all things are impermanent, lack a fixed self, and inter-connect with each other.   The clear seeing into this nature is said to correct our view, so that we can live more in accord with how things are and be relieved of psychological suffering.

So let’s look a moment at the title:  Maja Prajna Paramita Heart SutraMaha means great.  The same as in MahaSattvas, great beings.  We are also reminded that the maja in the title is not great as opposed to small.  It is great as in boundless like the open sky.  Nothing is outside of it.  Maja is also a kind of synonym for emptiness — the vast un-nameable.  The mysterious nature of being.

Norman Fischer makes a comment on “the nature of being”:  “What we usually think of as “being” has a limit.  But the being of this word Maha includes non-being too.  It includes life and death, not as opposites, but as bound-up in one endless and undefinable continuum.  The Heart Sutra is really a great shout of joy and mystery.”

The next word in the title, Prajna, is wisdom, the wisdom of clear seeing. To see life as it is, not distorted by our confusion, projections, desires and aversions.  Prajna is the eye of wisdom, the faculty to see clearly.  We practice zazen to develop this — to get to know the ways we do distort this great reality, so that we can see more clearly.

To actually see impermanence — we say that we get that, but do we really?  From our perspective, the world seems to have a lot of permanent things in it.  We may recognize that we are aging, but in some ways we seem permanent too.  We’ve never known a world that didn’t include ourselves.  This is why it is still a shock to us when great change suddenly happens, or a death or illness.  The early Buddhists associated prajna with a deep seeing into this impermanence.

Then this word Paramita — often translated as perfection.  The Perfection of Wisdom.  Another translation is “going beyond.”  Wisdom beyond our concepts of wisdom, beyond boundaries.

So the Heart Sutra is this sutra of  boundless clear-seeing wisdom.

In terms of the structure of the Sutra:  after the title, we have a few lines that set the stage …. and then we have a teaching on emptiness …. and then there is a mantra in Sanskrit at the end.   That’s the basic structure of it.

So when the Heart Sutra begins, what is the first thing we have?  Avalokitesvara.  The great bodhisattva of compassion.   Also known as KwanYin or Kannon or Kanzeon, sometimes portrayed as male or as female or as androgynous, often shown as a figure with many arms and hands.  Avalo is she who hears the cries of the world and comes with her many arms and hands to help.  So the fact that Avalo is the first word in the sutra raises an interesting question:  what is the bodhisattva of compassion doing in this sutra?  This is a sutra on wisdom — so why is Avalo the key character?  We’ll come back to that.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions, thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.    This sets the stage. 

Avalo is doing deep prajna paramita.  Some translations say he is practicing deep prajna paramita, just as we are doing today.  Another well-known translator says Avalo is coursing through deep prajna paramita.  Coursing through.  Like a dolphin effortlessly gliding in the water.  Inseparable from the water, and also coursing through it.   That’s the sense of this. 

And through this practice of Prajna Paramita, Avalo comes to clearly see the emptiness of all the five conditions.  A few verses later on he will lay out what those five conditions are, but they are basically the elements that were thought to make up a human being.  And Avalo, from looking deeply into his moment-to-moment experience, comes to realize the fluid nature of existence.  The inter-connected nature. He realizes that he himself, whatever he is, is not solid.  There is not a fixed unchangeable Avalo somewhere in there.  And he realizes that this is actually pretty marvelous!  To see the fleeting, fluid and interconnected nature of things is to see things simply as they are.  It is to see that it is only our judging dualistic mind that characterizes and defines these fleeting phenomena in ways that cause us suffering, such our characterizations of gain/loss and good/bad when truly it just things as-they-are.

Completely relieving misfortune and pain.  So does Avalo’s discovery mean that people never have pain?  Never have back pain or knee pain on sesshin, never have a headache, grief, depression, anger, sickness?  Never suffer wars and famines and natural disasters?  No.  Of course not.  These aspects of life don’t disappear, and we don’t transcend them in a cloud of emptiness.  The Buddha well understood that pain and loss is a part of life, largely outside of our control, and so the question became, is there a way to live and experience our life with less mental suffering?  Could we hold our experience in a way that is more wise and free?

So that’s how this sutra begins, with a statement of Avalo’s experience, that the wisdom of clear seeing relieves our suffering.

What comes next?  “Oh Shariputra.”  This next part, the main body of the sutra is actually a monologue, in which Avalo is giving a teaching to Shariputra.  Now in Buddhist cosmology, Shariputra was one of the Buddha’s original disciples, and he was known as being foremost in wisdom.  So let’s come back to the question:  why is Avalo, the bodhisattva of compassion, giving instruction on wisdom to the disciple of the Buddha who is known for his wisdom?

Here we have to have a little sidebar, which is to say that the Heart Sutra is a somewhat political document.  We have seen this with other Buddhist texts as well.  It isn’t just laying out points, it is making points against another view.  In this case, Shariputra represents the old body of Buddhist teaching known as the Abhidharma.  This represents the pre-Mahayana Buddhist teachings. Shariputra, we could say, is the analyzer of the Abidharma.   Avalo is trying to break through the more rigid, analytical, point-by-point way of approaching the dharma that characterized some of earlier Indian Buddhism.  And we are now in the Mahayana period, when the focus was not just on one’s own individual salvation and getting off the wheel of suffering, but was on saving all beings, bringing all beings to awakening — and Avalo is the deliverer of this message.  He’s like the new generation, talking about how it really is, to the old order.  He’s saying that we do not have to trudge, slowly and painfully through multiple lives, towards goodness and getting it right — Avalo is saying, it’s all empty, it’s all here right now, and we need only wake up to it!

Avalo is here in the Heart Sutra because, in the Mahayana vision, compassion lies at the heart of this fluid, interconnected, mutually dependent life.  So the essence of the Heart Sutra is this union of emptiness, or wisdom, and compassion.

So what does Avalo say?  Oh, Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness. There are other translations of this word oh that I like a lot.  One translation says:  Here Shariputra.  Another says that oh is really like WowWow Shariputra.

And the next line is the most fundamental in the sutra:  Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.  Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.  So Avalo is saying:  “Wow, Shari, check this out:  Form is emptiness.”  Or even better:  “Here, Shariputra, right here and now, take a look, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” 

Avalokitesvara then goes on to list that other things, like sensation and conception, are like this too.  These, in ancient times, were considered to be the make-up of a human being, the five conditions, the five skandas.  Today that particular framework is a little hard for us to relate to.  We might use a framework that a human is composed of elements such as memories, emotions, personality, conditioning, consciousness.  But whatever we use, these skandas, or elements of a human, are said to flow like a river in each one of us.  So they are not solid, they are in flow:  the river of form (our bodies), the river of perceptions, the river of mental formations, the river of consciousness. 

And regardless of which words we use, Avalo says:  the river of mental formations is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than the flow of mental formations.  Memories are exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly memories.  Even our most fundamental aspect, which we could call awareness — sometimes when we sit we can feel that we are just a field of awareness — Avalo says even this awareness is empty in that it does not have a permanent unchanging separate existence.  So you can see why Avalo might well say, “Wow Shariputra!”   It’s an astonishing, exhilarating vision of ourselves and all life and each moment. 

So we’ll pause for the day here, and continue to look at the Heart Sutra tomorrow.  You may want to pick up a copy of the handout on the Heart Sutra out on the foyer table, with some different translations.  Let the wisdom and vision of the Heart Sutra really sink into your bones this sesshin.   ###


Second Talk

So we’re here on our second full day of the retreat.  I hope you are settling in to the schedule, just experiencing the flow as we move through all the aspects of the day.  Settling into the flow and into simplicity.  It’s a great gift to be able to slow down, drop our usual constant busyness and distractions, and just be with our experience, breath by breath.

So yesterday we were starting to look at the teaching that Avalokitesvara is giving Shariputra.  As Avalo is practicing deep prajna paramita, this practice of moment to moment clear seeing, you’ll recall he exclaims, “Wow Shariputra,” or “Right here, Shariputa — form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.”  He is pointing to the fact that all aspects of our life are like this. 

One of the clearest and most beautiful ways of talking about form and emptiness, as described in the Heart Sutra, comes from some commentary on the sutra by Thich Naht Hanh.   I’d like to take a few minutes to read some of his commentary, because it illuminates the Heart Sutra in a very special way.

 So he starts with the example of a sheet of paper:  “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.”  He goes on to describe how in something quite ordinary, such as a piece of paper, we could find the whole world:  clouds and rain, leaves and trees, sunshine, loggers, the loggers’ parents and ancestors.  His term for this is  “inter-being” — that all things are fundamentally and deeply connected with each other, and dependent on each other.  The cloud and rain are essential for the sheet of paper to exist — as is the logger, the truck driver, and the truck-stop sandwich the driver might eat on the way to deliver the reams of paper.  So this is a beautiful vision of inter-connection, inter-dependence, in which nothing is left out.  The things that we  judge as good, such as the rain and sunshine that allow the tree to grow from which the paper will be made, along with things that we judge as bad, such as the fossil fuels that power the delivery trucks and the waste products from the paper processing.  All are there in the sheet of paper, nothing left out.

Thich Naht Hanh goes on to say this:  “Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in the sheet of paper too.  The sheet of paper is part of our perception.  You mind is in here and mine is also, so we can say that everything is here in this sheet of paper.  You can not point out one thing that is not here:  space, time, the earth, the rain, the sunshine, the rivers.”  It is a boundless vision of this sheet of paper, just like that first word Maha in the Heart Sutra — boundless, limitless, fluid, inter-connected.

Then Thich Naht Hanh goes on to make a very important point as it relates to the Heart Sutra:  “So according to our analysis, this sheet of paper is full of everything.  But according to Avalo in the Heart Sutra, it is empty.  He says all dharmas are forms of emptiness.  So there seems to be a contradiction between our observation and his. Or is there? To be empty is to be empty of some thing.  And what things are empty of is a separate self.  Nothing can exist alone.  Everything has to co-exist, to inter-be with all the others.  So empty of a separate self means full of everything, full of life. Our observation and Avalo’s are really are not contradictory at all.  We should not let the word “emptiness” scare us.  Empty does not mean to be non-existent. Quite the contrary:  Emptiness is the fundamental ground of everything.   So emptiness is a wonderful word. “

The Zen teacher Norman Fischer also has a valuable insight for us on this emptiness teaching of the Heart Sutra.  He says this:  “Impermanence and emptiness are just two ways of talking about the same thing.  When we focus on impermanence, we emphasize a certain detachment, a letting go of things that are by their nature subject to change.  When we talk about emptiness, we’re talking about connection.  Emptiness says there isn’t a “thing” — that there is only connection between things, an endless flow.  The nature of reality is this flow and connection and mingling, and that very nature, that flow and connection, is compassion.  Is joy!”

So much of our sitting, on a retreat like this, is to let go of our usual busyness and strong sense of self and ego that we have to function in the world — and to open our hearts to who we truly are, which is this emptiness.  To feel a part of all of it.  Sometimes when we sit we can feel very full.  The dharma is full of paradox!  To be empty is to also feel very full.

In the next part of the Sutra, Avalo says that dharmas are not stained and not pure, without loss and without gain.    In other words, in the moment-to- moment arising, each thing is absolute, there is not a reference point or comparison point.  In sitting zazen, in coursing through deep prajna paramita, we hear the bird call, and it’s just the sound in that moment, with no sense of a separate me who hears it.  The sound is absolute, it is full of everything, it’s not louder or softer than what came before, it’s not better or worse.

Without loss and without gain.  A useful analogy given with this is the moon.  From our limited perspective we see the moon wax and wane each month.  The moon seems to gain and lose.  But that is just our perception from earth.  The moon is always just the moon.  Things are just as they are.

From here the Heart Sutra continues its drumbeat of negations.  It seems a shame to do too analysis of the Sutra, because in some ways it is really like poetry and doesn’t benefit from over analysis.  But it is also illuminating to understand a little more clearly what the Sutra is addressing, and why it is such a profound and radical teaching.  And what is really remarkable, really incredible, is that it addresses three of the most fundamental teachings in Buddhism — and it addresses them only to negate them. 

The first of the areas that the Heart Sutra addresses has to do with sensory perception.  The Sutra says:  So in emptiness there is no eye ears nose tongue body mind.  No color sound smell taste touch phenomena.  No realm of sight, no realm of consciousness.

I have eyes and ears and so do you.   We all have the senses that see, taste, touch, hear.  So what is the Sutra talking about?

One of the important early Buddhist texts was called the Abhidharma, from not long after the time of the Buddha, dealing with mental processes and mental formations.  Among other things,  the early Buddhists spent quite a bit of time trying to deeply understand the sense organs, how we experience the world through them and how we establish and sustain our own unique world through them.  In their analysis, each of the sense organs has its object and its functioning.  So there is the ear, there is the sound, and there is the hearing.  There is the eye, there is the red tile on the floor in this room, and there is the seeing.  There is much analysis of matters like this in the Abdhidharma, as a way to understand the mental impressions created in the mind.  But the Heart Sutra is saying:  forget it!  Forget all this detailed, analytical categorization.  The Heart Sutra is saying, through the negations, that you can’t separate out the eye from what it sees nor separate it from the seeing function.  That these are not separate components.  That’s why the Sutra negates them … no eye, no ear.  “No” to our concepts of them as separate things, fixed self-entities.  Because in fact all are inter-connected and all happening in the now.

There’s the classic koan:  “Does the ear go to the sound or the sound go to the ear?”  How would you answer?  CLAP!  No duality, just CLAP!  That’s what the Sutra is pointing to when it negates our ideas of the separate eye  and seeing.

The 12th Century Japanese poet Daito wrote:

No form, no sound, but here I am.

White clouds fringing the peaks, river cutting through the valley.   ~

So I mentioned that there were three major teachings that the Heart Sutra addresses.  We get to the second of these when the Sutra says  no ignorance and no end to ignorance.  No old age and death and no end to old age and death.

So some of you may be familiar with something from early Indian Buddhism called the Wheel of Causation, or Dependent Origination.  It attempts to explain the steps by which human beings distort reality and create great suffering for themselves and others. It is a 12-step process that is imagined as a great wheel that starts with ignorance, with one thing leading to another and another. Ignorance, this lack of understanding of the true nature of things, leads to acts which are harmful, and the wheel continues on from there, ending in death before ignorance starts up again. So it is a chain of causality.  The Heart Sutra does not list all the twelve steps on the Wheel — it uses the first one, ignorance … and the last one, old age and death …. as a kind of shorthand.  What’s important about this is not the Wheel of Causation itself but that the Heart Sutra negates all of it, the whole elaborate step-by-step chain that early Buddhism took as a founding schema.  The Heart Sutra says:  No ignorance and no end to ignorance.  No old and death and no end to old age and death. 

So in our lives, we know there is cause and effect.  Our actions have consequences, and this is one of the reasons so much attention is put on the Precepts and our ethical conduct in the world.  But in emptiness, or in the Absolute, where Avalo is coming from:  there is no chain, no cause and effect. There is just this moment as it is.  It is very freeing to taste this side! 

The third area that the Sutra addresses — and negates — is the biggest of all.  So far we have negated the perceived dualities of gain/loss.  We have negated the analytical and detailed psychological maps of the Abidharma, with its emphasis on sense organs and mental formations.  We have negated The Wheel of Causation.  Now we turn to the biggest of them all:  The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path.   Avalo says: “No suffering, no cause of suffering, no path, no wisdom and no gain.”

As you all know, the Buddha’s Noble Truths start with the truth of suffering … that suffering is baked into existence.  The Buddha identifies that there is a cause of this, and that the cause of this suffering is desire and its opposite, aversion.  That we desire things to be other than how they are, that we cling to some things and push away others.  The Buddha goes on to say that there is a path out of this, and that this is the Eight-fold Path.  So even though this is the very foundation of Buddhism, coming from no less a personage than Shakyamuni himself — the Heart Sutra says ‘no’.  No suffering.  No causes of that suffering.  No path out of that suffering.  No wisdom to be gained from following the Eight-fold path, in fact nothing to be gained. 

Why does the Heart Sutra say this?  Again, from the perspective of emptiness, this linear chain of the Four Truths and the Path is just more conceptual fodder for our minds that must be pushed away in order to get to …. just this moment.

Can you imagine the paradox here:  The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhism.  The Heart Sutra is a core Buddhist sutra, one of the most influential and popular in the world, yet it negates everything about  the most fundamental teaching!!  This is perhaps why we appreciate Zen 🙂

At the same time, we have to be careful with this.  Is the Heart Sutra saying that the Buddha’s formulation is wrong?  Or has no value?  No, it isn’t.  Clearly, the Buddha’s path is very insightful and very beneficial for us.  In the world of the relative, the world of form, the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Path are very skillful.  But the Heart Sutra is speaking us to from a different place.  It is speaking to us from the standpoint of emptiness.  You might say from the standing point of coursing through prajna paramita.  It’s the mind that we can most readily access through zazen, when we are just fluid and open to the moment.  And when we are in that space, then we can intuit what the Heart Sutra is telling us.  There are no causes of suffering, there is just this moment.  There are no steps to guide us, there is just this moment, which already is full and complete.  Again:  proclaiming that there is no linear route, no cause and effect, no explanations, there is just this moment of clear seeing, of coursing through prajna paramita.  It’s extraordinary, isn’t it?

So if some of this sounds a little familiar from other Zen teachings and stories …. it is.  Perhaps you remember the story of  Zen ancestor Tokusan.  He originally comes to Zen carrying his big satchel full of written commentaries on the Diamond Sutra, determined to teach those other Buddhists a thing or two.  Instead an encounter with a Zen master leads him to a remarkable taste of emptiness …. and he decides to burn all his detailed commentaries.  Or perhaps you remember the story of the 6th ancestor and his poem?  In this story the head monk at a monastery has written a verse on the importance of practice, of working hard to remove the dust and clear the mirror.  This is the equivalent of the Abhidharma, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight-Fold Path.  HuiNeng, the illiterate newcomer to the monastery,  prepares a verse in which he says there is no mirror to polish and no dust to remove.  Because of this insight the 5th ancestor will name HuiNeng as successor.  So Zen treasures these stories, but it is important that we don’t overlook that both sides are important, the form and the emptiness.  We do need to polish the mirror.  And at the same time, we can sometimes intuitively feel that there is no dust nor a mirror that needs cleaning … that everything is just as it is, and we can be filled with that.  So let’s enjoy our opportunity to appreciate that on sesshin, to let ourselves be full with the richness, the fullness of each moment.

Third Talk 

Many years ago, there was a woman in the New York sangha that I was part of who was dying.  I was new to the sangha, and I didn’t know this woman well, but I heard a story about her from other sangha members who were visiting her in her final days of life.  Apparently as death was approaching, she was in the hospital, not really conscious, and hooked up to various machines.  She was not responsive and did not seem to be aware of people in the room.  The two sangha members who went to visit her began to chant.  They had taken the mokugyo, the wooden drum, and they began to chant the Heart Sutra, the mokugyo like a heartbeat.  (Eisho begins to chant and drum here.) 

And they said that they were amazed to see, as they were chanting, that there was a quickening and strengthening in her vital signs, which they could see on the monitor.  She did not regain consciousness, but her pulse and respiration picked up.  That’s quite a thing.  Can you imagine yourself in this situation … confused, perhaps in pain, the life force ebbing, medication dulling your awareness, perhaps unable to speak …. but hearing that chant, recognizing the chant, recognizing the profound truth that it speaks to.  The body, of its own volition, responding to that.  The Heart Sutra and the deep truths that it speaks to, compassionately accompanying someone through the end of life.  This Insight That Brings Us To the Other Shore, as Thich Naht Hanh has titled the Heart Sutra.  

It is interesting that the words of the Heart Sutra don’t seem comforting or consoling, but somehow chanting it is that way.  And again, it comes back to the importance of Avalo as the giver of these teachings, Avalo as the embodiment of loving-kindness.  So unlike other parts of the Prajna Paramita literature on emptiness, in the Heart Sutra the teachings on emptiness or the Absolute are given through this embodiment of compassion.  If we just read all the negations, all the “no’s” in the Heart Sutra, it could feel nihilistic, or rigid.  So it’s really important that we don’t forget this union of emptiness and compassion that is the heart of the Mahayana teachings.

So today we will look at the last section of the Heart Sutra, which begins:  “No gain and thus the Bodhisattva lives Prajna Paramita, with no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance therefore no fear.”  Another translation says that “with nothing to attain, the mind is without hindrance.”

To drop our ideas of gaining would mean to drop our agenda, our self-centered way of relating to the world.  When we drop that, even for a moment, we as Bodhisattvas are living Prajna Paramita, the deepest wisdom, the wisdom of being with the moment as it is, seeing it clearly and without distortion.  When the moment is just as it is, no agenda on our part, then there is no hindrance — there’s nothing to be figured out, nothing that is lacking or must be manipulated to our advantage.  In that moment we don’t experience fear.  So even if the circumstances are difficult or unpleasant, we can meet difficult and unpleasant, breath by breath.

This part of the Sutra, which introduces fear, is a very important part.  And again, it comes back to why Avalo is offering this teaching.  Avalo is the one who hears and responds to the cries of the world.  She represents compassion, and she also represents no-fear. The teachings of the Heart Sutra are part of this gift of no-fear that Avalo offers.

Some of you may be familiar with one of the Buddha’s mudras, or hand positions.  This is the mudra of No-Fear.  (Eisho raises right hand, palm open and facing the sangha.)  We sometimes see statues of the Buddha with this hand position.  So on a very basic level, this might be the equivalent of our culture’s handshake, which began as a way for two people to show that they were empty-handed, that they were not carrying a weapon.  But in Buddhist iconography, this hand position is one of the many teachings the Buddha gave that directly addressed our fear.  So the Buddha’s hand gesture in some ways says no-weapons, in some ways it seems to offer a blessing, and in other ways it encourages and reminds us to release our fear and open our hearts.  It has often been said that the opposite of love is not hate, but is fear.  This is why the Buddha taught his fearful monks the practice of metta — the practice of well-wishing for others.  We don’t know if metta is beneficial to others — it certainly could be — but we know that practicing the metta phrases is beneficial to us, it helps us to connect with our heart and softens our fear of the other.  This is a great gift to us.

So the sutra goes on:  Far beyond deluded thoughts this is nirvana.  Like the “wow Shariputra“, or “here Shriputra”, we could say wow, right here, THIS is nirvana.  Not a heavenly realm in the afterlife.  To be here, awake, in this mysterious incredible inter-connected fluid realm with everything else — is “wow”.  Is Nirvana.  Is the cessation of craving.  Instead of  the craving that the mind can experience when it wants things to be others than how they are, we find ourselves feeling very full.

Here, Shariputra!  Here.  Nirvana is sometimes translated as “cessation” (the end of craving for things to be different) and as “not obstructed.”  So nirvana is this samsaric life, our ordinary life, when we are not obstructed, we are simply present.    This is a Mahayana view of nirvana:  it’s a state of mind, a total at-one-ment with things just as they are.

And what about this word “deluded” ?   Scholars tell us that if we translated the literal words from the Sanskrit, that “deluded” is “upside-down thoughts.”  Have you ever experienced that?  I’m sure we all have. Particularly when we are taken over by strong emotions, by anger or fear,  our thoughts can get upside down.  It’s very helpful if we can see our patterns of reactivity and know that this tendency exists and how it manifests for us. 

 I read a fascinating book, The Soul of an Octopus, and these are such amazing creatures.  Among other remarkable things, some of the species change color with various emotional states.  Calm is one color, fear is another, curious and engaged yet another.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if we changed color depending on the emotional or mood make-up of the moment.  In a way we might be less confused.  “Oh, look, I’m purple, I guess I’m more anxious than I realized…..”

Traditionally there are said to be four upside-down views, or views that can upset our ability to see clearly.  So the starting point is that it’s not the situation that is so upsetting as it is our view, our interpretation that upsets us.  Let’s take a moment to look at these traditional upside down views, as they have been described by Roshi Enkyo O’Hara.

The first upside down view is taking the impermanent to be permanent.  If we  reflect on this, we can see how much we have suffered because of this one.  Even though we have good intellectual understanding of impermanence, we still may not be willing to accept it when the change is personal and unwelcome.  A positive change, something we wanted?  Great.    But the real test of impermanence is the unwanted.  A serious health issue, a major financial loss, the death of dear ones ….   very difficult for us to accept this impermanence and maintain a wise view.

A second view is taking the self to be separate.  How easy it is to feel like I’m a permanent self, watching life go by “out there”.  Instead of recognizing that we are part of it all, inseparable.   This is where our zazen practice is so invaluable, to enter into a more intimate connection with our experience.

A third upside down view is said to be taking delight in that which is painful.  An alcoholic may be eager for that drink … but alcoholism is a lot of suffering.  Addictions of any kind quickly turn into great suffering. Those who inflict pain on others, such as bullies, are taking delight in something that is not only painful for others but that is painful for their own minds as well, although they may not realize it at the time.  Any desire to hurt or kill is painful for our own minds.  On a different level, we could also add that spending our life lost in a daydream, continually lost in our thoughts, unaware, is a kind of suffering of the mind.  But sometimes we don’t initially recognize the pain, the painful masked as something that seems innocent or even pleasurable.  Like a child who has gotten used to drinking muddy water, we sometimes have to train ourselves to value and appreciate clean water.

And the last upside down view is a bit similar to the third:  taking suffering to be happiness.  We could think of someone caught up in greed, in making more money. Caught in worldly pursuits, following the consumerism trail.  Worldly values tell us that this a great life.  But when we practice the dharma, we can see that these values are in fact not happiness at all, but just a lot of suffering.

So far beyond these deluded thoughts or distorted views, when we are present, intimate, agenda-less — this is nirvana.  The great master Krishnamurti used to call the open meditation practice “choiceless awareness.”  Choiceless because it is without agenda or preference or gaining ideas.  Just sitting, being present to whatever arises, without wishing for something else to happen or wishing something would stay or leave.  Agenda-less, seeing it all arise and pass away.

So having told us that nirvana is to be found right here, when we are not caught in inside-out thinking, the Heart Sutra then says:   All Budhas of all ages and all times, including ourselves, live this clear boundless seeing.  And  attain Annutara Samyak Sambodh, a Sanskit phrase that mean ultimate awakening.

So these teachings, these Insights That Bring Us To The Other Shore (as Thich Naht Hanh has titled the Sutra in his translation) are why the Heart Sutra is “the great mantra, that it is the vivid, the best, unsurpassable” …. and that Avalokitesvara speaks only the truth, nothing false.  So we set forth this teaching and we celebrate it with a mantra to praise its insight:    gate gate paragate parasamgate.

– gone, gone, have gone, altogether have gone!

– gone, gone, gone completely beyond.

And the last word is svaha — like “hooray!”    

Writing about this Sutra, Zen Master Hakuin tells us to cherish the great mantra of our own nature.  As he says, we only live for a moment in the vast universe of time.    That we may be joyful, chanting and being one with this mantra of our true nature.  This is our life.  Hooray!

So our Heart Sutra is really quite a profound treasure.  Although it is brief, just the very heart or essence of the Prajna Paramita teachings, it is treasure trove of wisdom, the wisdom of clear seeing.  It is a poem, it is a teaching, it is a mantra, it is a comfort, it is an incantation, it is a proclamation of the joyful and mysterious moment, it is a liberating doctrine that reminds us, here, now … wow.

We’ll close this morning with a poem written by the ancient master Hannyatara, who was the teacher of Bodhidharma.  He wrote something very simple and wonderful, that is so much in the spirit of the Heart Sutra:

When I inhale,

I don’t dwell upon things.

When I exhale,

I don’t pursue thoughts.

Thus I breathe the sutra,


Hundreds of thousands of times.

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