The Heart Sutra, Harada Sekkei Roshi

Kwan Yin (Kanzeon) with thanks to Maurice AshThe Heart of Wisdom Sutra (the Heart Sutra) is the sutra we are most familiar with. It is a sutra in which Avalokiteshvara (Jap. Kanjizai) Bodhisattva, in place of Shakyamuni Buddha, clearly expounds Emptiness to his disciple Shariputra. In terms of compassion, Kanzeon is the Japanese name for this Bodhisattva and in terms of wisdom, Kanjizai is the Japanese name. In either case, this Bodhisattva is actually we ourselves.

The name Kanjizai (Seeing Freely) is derived from the sense function of sight and by being able to use this sense function freely and completely, it represents the freedom to use the other five func­tions in the same way. Shariputra was the leader of a group of more than one hundred people, and after Shakyamuni Buddha realised the Way, all of them took ref­uge in the Buddha. Shariputra was one of the ten main disciples of the Buddha and because he was reputed to have the deepest wisdom was known as Shariputra Sonja.

Emptiness is not something where things that exist disappear by means of practice. There is the expression ‘turning delusion around and awakening to satori’, yet we are always living within Emptiness. It is because we create a separation from the life within Emptiness and think ‘Is that really so?’ that delusion arises. One person recently came to me lamenting, ‘My greatest suffering is to see things separately.’ This is what is said to be hell. This all arises, however, from the function of the ego (the viewpoint of the ego). In terms of our Zen practice and everyday life, the Heart Sutra in which the essence of Emptiness (being one with things) is expounded, is the most important instruction.

The paramita [perfection] of wisdom is the greatest Wisdom. There is the Sutra of Great Wisdom, but as it is ex­tremely long, we abbreviate reading it by simply turning the pages. When the pages are turned, we chant the words, ‘All things arise because of condi­tions. Because everything arises from conditions, there is no coming or going. Because there is no coming or going, there is no stopping. Because there is no stopping, essentially everything is Empty. This is called the paramita [perfection] of Wisdom.’ However, wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Regardless of whether we prac­tise or do not practise, whether we know or do not know, ‘this thing’ (yourself) is perfect. To realise that this is so is Wisdom and to attain true Wisdom is called Enlight­enment (Bodhi).

In the Heart Sutra, there is the phrase: ‘The five skand­has are completely empty.’ The five skandhas are aggre­gates of form, sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness. Form is the physical body and the other four are the mind and things that cannot be seen. These five skandhas mutually merge together. Many people say ‘I think’ or ‘I practise,’ but this ‘I’ does not exist any­where. As it doesn’t exist, it isn’t possible for only the eye to be deluded or only the ear. Even if all sorts of conditions were to swarm in at once, everything is always entrusted to conditions. Even without using conscious­ness to entrust yourself to conditions, there is never a mistake made between a dog’s bark and the sound of a bird. It can only be said that this is something truly mys­terious, something that cannot be grasped by thought.

In the Heart Sutra, the word ‘not’ as in ‘not born, not dying’ and so on isn’t simply a negation. If there is dif­ference, there is sameness. If there is sameness, there is difference. Certainly, these are two sides of the same thing, front and back, and they are always kept in har­mony. This is expressed in the word ‘not’. To see this phenomenally is the world of matter. Then, in order to have you feel intuitively that there is no Emptiness apart from matter, the words ‘not different from’ are used. Consequently, ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form’ is a way of emphasising by repeating that form is no differ­ent from Emptiness. All dharmas or all things are born of the five skandhas.

‘Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by Emptiness. They neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.’ Shakyamuni Buddha was the first human being to realise the nature of causality (that there is no substance to things) and as a result became completely free. This is referred to as the Dharma. And the Dharma (teaching) expounded by him was called the Buddha-dharma. This is to say that the Dharma doesn’t belong to any one person. Rather, it belongs to anyone who grasps it.

Monk reading sutra. © Marcelle HanselaarWhat is the source of delusion and anxiety? We must become delusion and anxiety. There is no other way to dissolve them. Anxiety has no substance. But because we are confused by the idea of trying to be free of anxiety, not only does anxiety not disappear, it only grows larger and larger. At one moment we cry and in the next moment we laugh. This constant change is expressed in the Heart Sutra as ‘not born, not dying’. No one can remember his or her own birth, nor is it possible to be aware of our own death. It is because we were not born that we will never die. This condition where if something is born, it is born as-it-is, and if it dies, it dies as-it-is is ex­pressed in the Heart Sutra with ‘not’ or ‘does not differ from’.

‘Impurity’ is the deluding passions. ‘Neither increase nor decrease’ means that even if there is enlightenment, there is no gain, and even if a person is a common mortal, there is no loss. This is the same, finally, as in the well-known koan of Joshu’s in which he sometimes replied, ‘No’ and sometimes ‘Yes.’ In this way, everything is without form and everything is resolved as-it-is, this is Buddhism. Consequently, in Buddhism there are no sacred scriptures. This is because people who have awak­ened to themselves stretch out their hands to show others how to awaken. If you see into yourself by awakening, it is then no longer possible to compare. So, there are no longer two things—self and other. This condition where there is no self and no other we call ‘Emptiness.’ The forty-nine years of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching were all for the pur­pose of getting others to understand that the self is completely empty.

In our everyday lives, we are always thinking and thinking. But all thought is without substance. At this point, we have the words, ‘A Bodhisattva relies on Prajna Paramita [Perfection of Wisdom], and thus the mind is without hindrance.’ All things that exist in the universe are created through conditions and so there is no central substance. It is to that degree that in our lives we are completely free of any restriction and are able to respond flexibly and resourcefully to any situation. And yet, it is because of the activity of the ego, ‘me’, we think and think, thinking so that thoughts get piled up on top of other thoughts. I would like you to memorise the Heart Sutra, a sutra that com­pletely expounds Emptiness. And then, at some time, you will suddenly think, ‘Ah! To think like this is because there is an ego.’ Once you realise that, I would like you to endeavour at practise-within-activity.

There are the words ‘No knowledge and no attain­ments. With nothing to attain . . . ‘ A person who is able to think in a way that is free of the ego-self viewpoint knows this. If you simply become free of the ego-self viewpoint, then a self is born that is pure and clean, without any dirt or impurity just as when a baby is born. However, if once you do not hold onto confusion and anxiety to the extent that you die, then it is difficult to ascertain the essence for which Shakyamuni Buddha and the Patriarchs made so much effort to attain. And no mat­ter how much you only think about this, the ego view­point will not disappear. This is to say that to bring an end to the ego is truly difficult, but it is a fact that if you practise according to the teachings of Shakyamuni Bud­dha and the Patriarchs, then certainly it will disappear.

Our purpose for living is to become No-mind/No-self, and a person who has become No-mind/No-self is called a Buddha. Each action we make is completely Empty, it is Nothingness, and if we express this using words, this is the ‘Buddha-dharma’. It is not possible for the ego to intervene in the Dharma. This means it is enough to be­come the Dharma. In order to become the Dharma, you must forget the ego. In order to forget the ego, you must sit. That is all there is to it.

When it is hot, it is hot. When something is unpleasant, it is unpleasant. Half believing and half doubting—it is all the Dharma. As there is nothing to compare, there really should be no Dharma, but inevitably there is something remaining that thinks it isn’t possible to let go of the Dharma. Thus, it is necessary to resolutely let go of that thing which doesn’t want to let go. Where will you let it go? Essentially, it doesn’t exist and so there is nowhere to let it go. Already we are within Emptiness, so please notice that there is a self that tries to be empty. Please, I would like you to sit in zazen, to study, and to work freely, without holding onto anything.

At the very end of the Heart Sutra, there are the words ‘Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi! Svaha!’ ‘Re­joice! It has been accomplished together with all things.’ If you can memorise just these words, then in accordance with some condition, there will come a time when sud­denly you will understand the whole Heart Sutra. In this way, then, I would like you to always be empty.

The Heart Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practising profound Prajna Paramita [Perfection of Wisdom]; clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty and thus relieved all suffering.

‘Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form; sensations, perceptions, formations, and conscious­ness are also like this.

‘Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness. They neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.

‘Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sen­sation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind, no realm of sight . . . no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither igno­rance nor extinction of ignorance, neither old age and death nor extinction of old age and death. No suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path. No knowledge and no attainments. With nothing to attain a Bodhisattva relies on Prajna Paramita [Perfection of Wisdom], and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hin­drance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, this is Nirvana.

‘All Buddhas of past, present, and future rely on Prajna Paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.

‘Therefore know Prajna Paramita as the great miraculous mantra, as the great bright mantra, as the supreme mantra, as the incom­parable man­tra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false, therefore, we proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, the mantra that says:

Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!’

Harada Roshi is the Head Priest of Hosshinji in Japan, is the author of The Essence of Zen, and General Director of the Soto Zen sect’s European Office for Administration and Teaching in Italy where he is based. This article is taken from the Fall 2003 issue of Hosshinji Newsletter and reprinted with their kind permission.

Other articles from Harada Sekkei Roshi

Harada Sekkei Roshi

Categories: Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, Harada Sekkei Roshi, Mahayana

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1 reply

  1. A beautiful version of the Heart Sutra. Everytime I read a different one, I get a little more.


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