The Heart Sutra


During his practice of contemplation and illumination the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara attained Truth. By means of his minutely subtle Dharma practice he penetrated the five skandhas, perceiving them as empty.

The five skandhas, namely form, feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness continually provide five occasions for craving and clinging. Two types of craving and clinging characterize the human mind: 1) Craving and clinging to form and 2) Craving and clinging to mind. Clinging to form is the domain of the form skandha; the remaining four skandhas constitute the domain of the mind and the clinging to mind is generated in those four realms. All our grasping, manifested in our attachments and aversions, is generated and developed due to the activity of these four skandhas. Craving and clinging emerge at birth, and the Buddhadharma aims to sever them.

The initial clinging is ego bound. Ego is the anchor of our volition to grasp and to possess, the root of our attachments and aversions, and via these, the root of our suffering. Clinging to the body as the true self begins to manifest in the early childhood: Normally, the six organs produce six types of data, six kinds of consciousness and the four skandhas along with them; jointly these constitute the delusory ego. Craving and clinging is spontaneous at birth; at that time, ego is formulated simultaneously with the form skandha. The rest of our existence is built up by our countless ego-affirming acts involving all the skandhas, but most prominently the skandha of feeling; its domain contains pleasant, unpleasant and neutral or indifferent types of feelings.

The body depends on the mind to be provided with pleasant occasions and protected from discomfort. There must be thinking, i.e., perceptions, followed by action, and action means volition. They, in turn, require established bases of knowledge, and that is the role of the consciousness skandha. Children are sent to school to learn, to acquire knowledge that prepares them for the future. When there is sufficient knowledge, there is action, invariably preceded by thinking as planning, imagining, remembering and so on. The body then receives the support it needs. There is ego–grasping, and confusion is generated by the five skandhas as the ego-notion imposes itself on the process of experience.

Once it has become clear beyond any doubt that this present body is not the self, that one can only say “mine”, or “my body”, all delusion regarding the five skandhas is broken off, and ignorance along with it. What a pity that worldlings get so deeply confused and completely fail to understand this brilliant doctrine; grasping the skandhas and the ego-notion, they twist the data to fit their own picture as to how reality should be. Actually, the body is not the self; it is like a house that I might call mine all right, but to consider it to be myself would be a ridiculous error. In the same way, I can’t say “this body is myself’ but I can say “this body is mine.”

What is the real self? Our Original Nature is our real self. It depends on the body temporarily; the body is not different from a house. A house is completed and then gradually deteriorates; similarly, the body has birth and death and the part in between. Our True Nature (real self), on the other hand, has neither birth nor death. It is enduring and unchanging. The teaching of Real Self and of illusory ego is basic to all Buddhadharma. When it is understood, clinging is easily broken off.

The teaching related to the five skandhas is referred to as the Dharma of Assemblage. Skandha is a Sanskrit term used by the Buddha in reference to the five components of human so-called entity. A skandha is a constituent of personality and it also means accumulation in the sense that we constantly accumulate good and bad in our mind. The Dharma of Five Skandhas is comparable to five kinds of material. The mountains, rivers and the entire universe, the buddhas and bodhisattvas in the three periods, even the six realms of existence and the four kinds of worthies-all are produced solely by the five skandhas.

Who are the four worthies? 1. The Arhat of Theravada, 2. The Middle Vehicle of Prayeka buddha, 3. The Mahayana Bodhisattva, 4. the Buddha, the ultimate fruit of the path. What are the six realms of existence? Three are good and three are evil. Devas, humans, and asuras inhabit the three good realms; animals, hungry ghosts and hell-dwellers belong to the three evil realms. It does not make any difference whether mundane or supramundane; they are all produced and completed by the five skandhas. By taking the right path, (the ultimate path) one may become an Arhat, Pratyeka-buddha, Bodhisattva, or Buddha.

A good action can be good in three different ways; likewise, an evil action can be so in three ways. Worldlings, confused because of not knowing or knowing wrongly get carried away and lose control over their actions; evil in the world increases, giving rise to five turbidities. There is the turbidity of kalpa in decay, turbidity of views, turbidity of passions, turbidity of living beings and turbidity of life (the result of turbidity of human beings). Turbidity means turmoil. The turmoil of kalpa in decay is the product of the form skandha; Sentient beings in the Saha world grasp form or material (body), misconstrue that as their True Self, not realizing that all dharmas are produced by the mind, and give rise to the skandha of feeling. The egocentric bias goes hand in hand with craving for gratification of the senses or body and the result,is turbidity of view. Turbidity of passions is generated by the perception skandha. Seeking gratification of the senses brings greed in its wake, manifesting as desire for wealth and subsequent strife for personal gain. Sooner or later, sound ethics are abandoned and volition to grasp and to possess is given free rein. At this point the worldlings become totally engulfed in self-delusion, generating unspeakable amount of defilements.

Turbidity of passions comprises family defilements, societal defilements, national defilements, world-defilements. While they are alive, human beings are the victims of turbidity in the realm of volition. The egocentric bias engenders the cyclic pattern of existence and perpetuates itself until the end of time. However, tirne is moving on; no matter how much of it we might have, still, we will die in the end. The confusion of worldlings as regards the real or True Self is the turbidity of living beings. Turbidity of life is caused by the consciousness skandha. The turbidity of living beings will eventually produce a decrease in the life span as well as in size of each individual body. The Agamas speak of a certain stage in the history of mankind, when the life span was eighty-four thousand years and the individual height was one-hundred-sixty feet. There was a gradual decrease in both the life span and the height. Presently, to live seventy or eighty years is considered long life, and the average height is five to six feet. Somewhere in the very distant future, claims the ancient text, the life span of humans will last ten years and the average height will be close to three feet. It will be the time of upheavals and disasters of all kinds.

Actions considered sound today may be viewed as unskillfal, even unethical tomorrow as a result of the ego inserting itself into the field of perception. Countless defilements develop when skillful or beneficial actions are re-evaluated, come to be viewed as lacking in expedience, and Buddhadharma is dismissed as irrelevant. Confusion resulting from ignorance is conducive to a lifestyle that has a detrimental effect on both the life span and the condition of the body. Turbidity first corrupts, then sooner or later takes over. Worldlings need to generate compassion for this declining world, resolve to uphold at least the basic code of ethics and, perhaps, study the BuddhaDharma; furthermore, they should refrain from taking the life of any living being and be mindful of their actions. These should be skillful and cause no harm to others. If that is accomplished, there may still be time to save this world.

In a few words, the five turbidities are completely within the realm of the five skandhas. The skandhas combined constitute the basis of all dharmas, of all sentient beings in the ten directions and of all worlds in all the universes. The skandhas are, furthermore, the substance of the incandescent True Existence, being at the same time the transcendental Void or Emptiness. (The relation of true existence to transcendental Emptiness will be discussed later). Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, relying on his luminous wisdom, “perceived that all five skandhas are empty.” The Bodhisattva practiced deep Prajnaparamita, i.e., the root of Ultimate Reality, and attained the supreme Tao, realizing that skandhas are empty of self. To arrive at that stage is enlightenment, the state completely clear of turbidity. From then on, all dharmas are understood as one’s True Nature. When that level is attained, the mind comprehends the universe as the Self, and the Self, as the universe; the grand view is boundless. In short, Void or Emptiness means the absence of duality, of accepting and rejecting. There are five categories of void: the obstinate void; the annihilation void; the void of analysis; the void of global comprehension; the void of true supramundane existence.

What is obstinate void? Clinging to the space in front of us. What is annihilation void? It is the kind grasped by those on the heterodox or outer path; the views that abounded in India, as well as the assorted philosophical positions based on cognitive patterns which neglect the Buddhist axiom stating that all is generated by the mind; claims to the effect that there is existence beyond one’s cognitive realm and that is where the dharmas are. Heading full speed into large-scale confusion, the supporters of such views choose to grasp that void, positing it as the prevalent characteristic of existence.

The remaining three kinds of void are introspectively oriented Buddhadharma and constitute the Dharma of Void or Emptiness as the true nature of the mind, in contrast with the teaching of the Small Vehicle that focuses on form (rupa skandha). The supramundane path of the Small Vehicle (Theravada) and that of Sravaka and bodhisattva of the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) are rooted in the last three kinds of void just mentioned. They are neither the obstinate void of worldlings nor the annihilating void of the outer or heterodox path. The concept or the doctrine of the void is sometimes called the nature of the void or the theory of nature: The meaning is the same.

I shall discuss presently the four subdivisions of Buddhadharma according to T’ien T’ai, and the three kinds of void relevant to Buddhadharma as they are understood and applied in each of the four subdivisions, to wit: 1. Tsang Jiao (Theravada teachings based on the Tripitaka), 2. Tung Jiao (Theravada and Mahayana interrelated), 3. Bie Jiao (particular or distinctive Mahayana, characterized as the bodhisattva path), 4. Yuan Jiao (original or complete Mahayana).

The mundane path of Theravada does not accommodate the radiant Truth at its fullest, although in some cases a Mahayana teaching may be perceived as Theravadin by a practitioner of the Small Vehicle. The mundane path is grounded in minute analysis of form (rupa) Dharma and mind (nama) Dharma, and how their interaction contributes to the illusion of a separate ego. The term dharma may be interpreted as meaning things, method, formula or standard; form is distinguished through shape and color, mind through its function of knowing. Our body is composed of four elements, i.e., earth, water, fire and wind; these have the character of solidity, viscosity, temperature and vibration, respectively.

The body is a mass of material and does not possess the faculty of knowing an object; matter changes under physical conditions and because of this feature it is called form. The element of earth is like the body, complete with skin, flesh, tendons, bones in terms of weight, softness and hardness. The element of water includes all bodily liquids, all that relates to fluidity and viscosity. The element of fire covers temperature in terms of warmth in varying degrees of intensity up to the absence of warmth. The element of air manifests as vibration in terms of movement. The body manifests the three characteristics of existence, i.e., impermanence, unsatisfactory condition and the absence of selfhood. Illness and death are caused by an imbalance of the elements, their scarcity or absence according to the Theravada teaching. Birth and death are the natural result of body being compounded from these four elements.

What is mind? Mind is knowing without form. What is form? Form is shape without the capacity for knowing. Uninstructed worldlings view their physical body (form), actually a collection of elements, as their self or ego and therefore cannot leave the ocean of birth and death. Deeply confused about truth, they feel oppressed because of wrong views. The only correct way to put it is to say “this body is my body; the mind is my real self.” The knowing consciousness is the master; the body, only a slave. Let us consider, for example, someone who, though interested in attending this lecture, initially did not want to make the effort because of feeling tired. But then he/she had the following thought: “Hearing the commentary on that sutra will increase my wisdom and reduce my defilement; I must go and listen to the Dharma.” Having persuaded him/herself, he/she got on the bus and came here to hear this Dharma. Where did the initiative originate? Clearly, it originated in the mind; the mind is the master and the body is the slave.

Unfortunately, a person of mundane concerns is very confused, mistaking the slave for the master, and consequently there is birth and death., To perceive the brilliant Dharma is to enlighten the mind to itself; originally the mind had neither birth nor death. Although the body dies and vanishes, the mind is imperishable and indestructible: Understanding this experientially marks the end of the cyclic pattern of existence, the exit from the ocean of suffering.

Mind is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing. The six natures or capacities for seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing are the nature of the mind. The Buddha spoke Dharma on numberless occasions for forty-nine years. All of his teachings were expedient means, and all his explanations and discourses were delivered for the purpose of helping sentient beings to be freed from attachment and delusion and to return to the Truth. He dealt predominantly with two dharmas: Form and mind. According to the teaching later formulated as the Small Vehicle, form and mind are two. The practitioner should know the mind while not abandoning the form (body). Where does mind dwell? According to physiology the heart is also the mind (the organ) but efforts to prove it have been inconclusive so far.

According to some religions, the mind resides in the brain; however, all attempts to find some proof to support such theory proved, again, negative. Whenever people tried to find the very source, to pinpoint the exact site where the mind is, the results were nil in each case. Since mind is neither form nor name, in the context of BuddhaDharma it is expediently termed “Emptiness” or “Void” (Sunyata in Sanskrit).

On that particular day, represented for us by the eighth of December, while he was absorbed in deep samadhi, the Buddha attained complete enlightenment. Noticing the bright morning star in the eastern sky, he observed that the nature of seeing can be a kind of connecting: He realized his own nature of seeing is boundless, and his first statement following his enlightenment was: “Wonderful, wonderful! All sentient beings have the same wisdom and virtue as the Tathagata, but because of the obstacle of illusion and grasping they cannot attain.”

The expression “sentient beings” means produced by, composed of many, not being just a separate “one”. The human body, for example, appears to be of one piece, yet it is composed of many concealed parts, such as the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, the lungs, the pores, even some parasites. This means that a person, even though being an entity, is also sentient beings. To reiterate, the Buddha’s view was that all sentient beings have the same virtue and the same wisdom as the Tathagata – the pure, luminous virtue of Dharma-dhatu. However, the sentient beings are confused, do not return to their Original Nature and do not purify the Dharma-kaya and therefore they are called sentient beings, or different from buddhas.

The Buddha saw a star in the eastern sky following his enlightenment, and the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practiced the three kinds of wisdom of the instructed ones, meditated on sound and attained the stage of Bodhi. When all conditions are generated by one’s own mind, that is the Original Mind. The ordinary person of mundane concerns looks at an object and considers that seeing, and from that moment on adheres to the view that a table is a table, a person is a person; taking the object of seeing he/she fails to realize its subject. The view prevents him/her from being able to abandon both subject and object (meaning duality); how can he/she ever understand original seeing? He/she twists the process of experience to fit his/her own concept of reality, intensifying the delusion. To perceive one’s Original Nature as shapeless and formless is to perceive the true Void. People’s potentials are dissimilar. Whoever can understand his/her Original Nature is clear-eyed; the one who takes the object of seeing and grasps the form is caught in turbidity.

Practitioners of the method promulgated by the Small Vehicle perceive mind as mind, form as form, and conceive them as distinct and different. That method focuses on observing the observer. The connection with one’s own nature is apparently not taken into consideration.

Seeing is the nature of the eye; hearing is the nature of the ear organ; smelling is the nature of the nose organ, tasting is the nature of the tongue organ; touching is the nature of the body and knowing is the nature of the mind. If the practice is based on this point of view, only partial Void can be attained, although it can also be termed “enlightenment” according to Buddhist understanding. Followers of Theravada hold that clothing, nourishment and lodging are deemed to result from conditioning causes and are not the concern of full-time practitioners. These have surpassed the worldlings and therefore are viewed as holy by the devotees sharing the same tradition.

The Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva attained enlightenment by perceiving his Original Nature; he abandoned the duality inherent in subject and object, whereupon he attained the Middle Way perfectly and completely. That is the pure, radiant Dharma-kaya, quite different from the accomplishments in the tradition of the Small Vehicle. At one point in history one thousand two hundred and fifty-five disciples of the Buddha became Arhats: Nonetheless, their attainment was not exhaustive regarding the Ultimate Truth, but merely the end of the birth and death allotment. The study and practice of the bodhisattva Path was their opportunity for expanding their practice by following the example of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva.

Comprehension of the immaterial substance of Reality marks the intermediate level of the bodhisattva career, sometimes referred to as the first gate of Mahayana and of the Middle Vehicle. It is considered to be a higher doctrinal accomplishment than that of the Small Vehicle. In the intermediate level the Void of the five skandhas is attained and, accordingly, obstinate view is abandoned.

The immaterial substance of Reality is perceived, but the perception of five skandhas as the superb existence is still lacking. It is not actually necessary to abandon the body after the attainment of the Void. Everyone has form (body) and knowing; having attained the Void does not mean one has to endeavor to abandon the body. Void means simply the absence of grasping.

True existence is Emptiness not of this world. The complete, perfect meaning of true existence is Void not of this world; containing neither partial existence nor partial Void, it is the Middle Way, also known as the Ultimate Reality. In short, a mind that does not discriminate by means of craving and clinging is the mind that understands the meaning of “not of this world”; though non-existent, it is the True Existence. There is no void, yet it is the supramundane, recondite Emptiness. The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, in his great wisdom, does not allow his mind to discriminate: Seeing is seeing, hearing is bearing, smelling is smelling, tasting is tasting, knowing is knowing, understanding is understanding; the six organs do not dwell on the six types of data. Enlightened by means of perceiving the sound of the tide, he comprehended the nature of hearing as non-abiding; mind freed of grasping attains the wonderful Dharma of the Inconceivable: That is the “True Existence in the supramundane Void.”