The Heart Sutra


The opening words introduce the one practicing the Dharma. The Prajna teachings were spoken by the Buddha during the fourth stage, his purpose being to guide those practicing what later became the approach of the Theravadins toward the practice of Mahayana Dharma. Whoever practices according to the Small Vehicle practices virtuous conduct and Dharma primarily to benefit self. The Mahayana practice, on the other hand, is aimed to benefit self and others. To liberate all sentient beings implies concern for the well-being of all people. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was chosen to demonstrate to the person of the Small Vehicle mentality the full dimension of Mahayana teaching. The name Avalokitesvara lends itself to several interpretations: The Chinese version, i.e. Guan Zi Zai, means the attainment of the bodhisattva stage and the cause-ground for practicing Dharma.

Why did we, the Chinese, choose to call the Bodhisattva Guan Zi Zai? Because he has attained the fruition of the path. Visualizing and contemplating the name we come to understand its meaning. Guan means to observe and to illuminate: The one who practices the bodhisattva path not only illuminates own mind, but the world as well; practicing in that manner one can be sure to obtain liberation. That is what Guan Zi Zai means.

What is the meaning of Zi Zai? The one who is able to halt the two kinds of birth and death and the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions can be called Zi Zai. To observe own self is to discover body and mind bound by five skandhas and six organs with their corresponding six data; we are not free, and therefore, not Zi Zai.

The name Avalokitesvara comes from the ground causes of the Bodhisattva’s Dharma practice while on an island, perceiving the sounds of the world, rooted in time as they are, rising and failing with the ebb and flow of the ocean. From the sound of the tide rising and falling, the Bodhisattva attained enlightenment, perfectly and completely comprehending the Dharma of birth and non-birth.

Someone asked how and why did the Bodhisattva attain the Tao and became enlightened by observing the ebb tide? The Bodhisattva, while practicing by the sea, contemplated the sound as it increased, decreased and then came to full stop, occurring simultaneously with the ebb tide. He pondered the root of causes and finally attained enlightenment by understanding that all existence is subject to birth and death and, therefore, is impermanent. Yet the hearing is timeless, hence beyond birth and death. Those without practice can hear, but do not listen. While hearing the sounds they only think of “outside”; the sound of the tide has birth and death, but the nature of hearing does not. Why? Because even when the sound of the tide stops, our capacity or nature for hearing does not. We can still hear the wind in the branches of a tree, the songs of birds and the shrill sound of the cicadas. Had our capacity for hearing vanished with the sound, we should not be able to hear ever again. Even when all is quiet late at night, we are aware of silence or non-sound, because of our capacity for hearing. There are two kinds of hearing: One comes and goes in response to stimulation, the other functions independently of it. Thus we can safely say that although sounds have birth and death, the hearing capacity does not. It actually never vanishes. All existence, including dharmas, is impermanent and therefore subject to birth and death – just like magic, like bubbles or like shadows. The nature of hearing, on the other hand, can never be destroyed.

In that manner we come to know the bright and accomplished nature of hearing. Our mind accords with whatever we observe: If we observe birth and death, there is birth and death. If we observe non-birth and non-death, there is no birth and no death. All things are produced by the mind; they are completed through contemplation. Everyone has a mind and consequently a potential to formulate the world according to own intentions, but without effort he/she will not succeed. Nature is the substance, mind, the function. The function never separates from the substance, nor the substance from the function. Function and substance, though separate, are causally connected. Nature governs the mind and the mind is the nature’s function; they mesh. Although both retain their own character, they are inseparable. Dharma practice can start right at this point. One needs to understand one’s mind, see one’s True Nature and following that, attain the Tao.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practice makes one listen to, and be mindful of one’s own nature and by means of listening attain the wonderful function. Listening to own nature has no boundaries and it can accommodate all sentient beings while saving them. We worldlings only react or become concerned about what we construe to be external or outside sound. Negligent of our True Nature, we hardly ever try to listen to it and our hearing is partial as a result of it. When we listen to own nature, our listening is not delimited by time. Perceiving one’s nature thus, one’s listening is complete and continual and one’s joy and happiness are permanent.

When phonetically transliterated into Chinese, the Sanskrit word “Bodhisattva” produces two characters: Pu Sa or Bo Sa. Bodhi (Pu or Bo in Chinese) means perfect knowledge or wisdom by which person becomes buddha. Sattva (Sa in Chinese) stands for an enlightened and enlightening being, which is to say that person has already enlightened his own nature by freeing him/herself from birth and death, and helps other sentient beings to do likewise. Worldlings, however, hold on to feelings and disregard or oppose the doctrine. Confusion and frustration take them through the samsaric suffering in the cycle of existence. To perceive one’s Self-Nature by listening is the bodhisattva’s way out of the round of birth and death.

The first line of the sutra informs us of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as the appointed practice leader of the Prajna Assembly. He is going to teach us how to follow his Dharma practice and establish mindfulness by listening to Self Nature.