The Heart Sutra


This portion of the Sutra is the Teaching on Emptiness in connection with the eighteen worldly dharmas, or the eighteen realms; the uninstructed lack understanding of the Dharma, of Emptiness and repeatedly yield to the play of delusion as permanence and as independent existence. Ultimate Emptiness is not the obstinate void of the worldlings nor the annihilation view of those on the heterodox path; it is not the analysis of the Void as practiced by Theravadins, nor the Void of the present moment as perceived by the bodhisattva.

The supramundane Emptiness of True Existence is not possessed by buddhas alone: All of us are endowed with the same truth and would come to know it, if only we relinquished our discriminating mind; that is the supramundane Void of True Existence. In order to have correct practice it is not necessary to apply the method of Theravada, the Middle Vehicle or the Mahayana. Anyone can become buddha spontaneously by deeply comprehending that “all existence is Void.” The Arhat of Theravada is equal to a worldly person of great potential.

A worldling of superior potential can sharpen his/her wisdom and receive the radiant Dharma at any time. People of mundane concerns wear themselves out in the realm of the eighteen mundane dharmas that lead to confusion and craving; for them there can be no salvation. The six organs, i.e., eye, car, nose, tongue, body and mind, and the corresponding six sense- data or dust, i.e., form, sound, smell, taste, touch and mental formations generate the six kinds of consciousness, i.e., eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness and mind consciousness. The group is referred to as the eighteen realms or the eighteen mundane dharmas. To be conscious means to be conscious of something, to distinguish or to discriminate.

The average person works to make a living, eats and drinks every day always bound by the eighteen realms. He/she always sees with his/her eyes, hears with his/her ears, smells with his/her nose, tastes with his/her tongue, touches with his/her body and knows mental objects with his/her mind. The cognitive objects are discerned, produce sense data and from the six kinds of consciousness arise all the other functions.

People assume the reality of subject and object behind the process, unaware as they are of it being a mere assumption unverifiable by experience. To understand this doctrine means liberation, but getting confused about it means falling into the ocean of suffering. Six kinds of consciousness arise from the six organs and the six data. The six organs are useless to a dead body. How could the six kinds of consciousness receive the six data and act upon receiving them? Since Emptiness is the substance of the six organs and, consequently, of the six kinds of data, what do the six kinds of consciousness depend on for their existence? The sutra says: “No realm of the eye all the way up to no realm of consciousness,” meaning no realm of eye consciousness, no realm of ear consciousness, no realm of nose consciousness, no realm of tongue consciousness, no realm of body consciousness and no realm of mind consciousness.

The mundane Dharma of eighteen realms and their range is clear: Each of them has a character of its own. As a matter of fact, just as one hundred rivers merge into one ocean, all dharmas are contained in one teaching, the teaching of Emptiness. To attain enlightenment instantly, all one needs is to comprehensively understand the Dharma of Emptiness as the essence of reality. The uninformed majority submerge their True Nature in confusion resulting from misconception regarding the eighteen realms, a concept that has no counterpart in reality. Whenever mind touches a point, there is feeling; it may itch, hurt, feel numb, burn, or produce any of the countless sensations, and the knowing consciousness is alerted. When the taste buds are stimulated, there is the knowing of tasting. There is sweet, bitter, sour, etc. and the tasting nature becomes confused by the variety and the complexity. Similarly, the moment the eye makes contact, the eye consciousness engages in making distinctions in terms of light/dark, and the pristine seeing nature gets covered over by them. When the ear catches a sound, the hearing nature gets lost in judgments regarding it. These cognitive patterns are so deep it is difficult to trace and abandon them. And yet, it manifests complete misunderstanding of the original nature of consciousness. Looking at the city at night, we see the brilliant lights of ten-thousand households: Such is the form of light. During blackout we are able to observe the form of darkness. Light and darkness both have birth and death, yet the nature of seeing is free of cyclic existence. It is in the nature of seeing to perceive darkness in the absence of light and light in the absence of darkness. This should help us to understand the timeless nature of seeing. Our tendency to crave and grasp the object of seeing is a major obstacle to an understanding of the true nature of reality.

Attachment resulting from pleasurable eye contact, once established, is exceedingly difficult to relinquish. Most people do not have any understanding of the subject of seeing. The organ of the eye does not have the ability to see – only the nature of seeing does. The one who can enlighten himself/herself as to the subject of the nature of seeing can understand his/her own mind and see his/her own nature immediately. Whether a person is holy or worldly depends entirely on his/her ability (or the lack of it) to see his own Original Nature. This holds true for the nature of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and for the nature of knowing. The Surangama Sutra says: “When one organ has returned to its source all six of them are liberated.” Our study and practice should begin by looking inward in order to free ourselves from the effect of light and dark. It is truly important to turn our attention completely onto our nature of seeing. When it is accomplished it means a true awakening to the supreme Tao. At first we should learn the BuddhaDharma and try to understand the doctrine. When we start to practice we should apply what we have learned: Without practice there is no learning.

The World Honored One is said to have attained Buddhahood in the previous asamkhiya kalpa; nevertheless, he appeared in the world in order to save all sentient beings, manifesting himself as a worldling and a prince. The son of king Suddhodana of the Sakya clan, he renounced his regal status at the age of twenty-nine so he could dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the quest for liberation from suffering. He practiced ascetic meditation in the Himalayas, and at the age of thirty-five the former prince attained perfect and complete enlightenment while meditating beneath a Bodhi tree. Noticing a bright star in the eastern sky, the Buddha observed that the nature of seeing is boundless. He commented that all sentient beings have the same wisdom and virtue as the Tathagata, but since it is covered over with delusion, attachment and aversion, sentient beings do not attain enlightenment. All evidence affirms that the Buddha attained the Original Nature, but most people are confused regarding their own, mistaking the four elements for their bodies and the reflections of their six conditioned sense data for their minds. That is delusion and grasping, and these are major hindrances to attaining the Tao.

The preceding explanation dealt with the eighteen realms consisting of six sense organs, six sense data and six kinds of consciousness. Now I would like to sum up, using the eye organ for illustration:

There are two aspects to the eye: There is the organ of sensation and the faculty of sensation; the eye is the organ; the faculty of sensation has two parts – seeing and form. The capacity of the eye to see, or the subject of seeing, is called the nature of seeing. The form of seeing is related to the object of seeing: It is always connected to an object, and therefore the eye is always seeing something, whether a thing, a shape, a color or a size. The object of seeing is most confusing, and the uninstructed can easily fall into self-deception as to the independent existence of whatever they are looking at. The process of experience gets twisted so it suits the volition to grasp and to possess, thus changing into a source of suffering. The Buddha’s teaching is the path to liberation and whoever understands this, understands all the Mahayana sutras as well.

We return once more to the example of the mirror and the reflection. The mirror was made to reflect whatever it faces, including mountains, rivers, even the great earth; the problem arises when the reflection is mistaken for the object and when it is no longer realized that it may vanish at any time, it being part of the birth/death cycle. The susceptibility to reflect is the real self, the timeless characteristic of the mirror we are talking about, yet it is very seldom realized. There was a Ch’an master who said: “Always facing it, yet not knowing what it is!”, meaning that worldlings do not recognize the nature of seeing for what it is: Ignoring the clarity of the mirror they hold on to the reflection.

Time passes very quickly; even if we live for one-hundred years, it still is a very brief period of time. Those who inhabit heavens still worry about death although their lives last much longer. Things seen during one’s life are completely useless after one has died. The nature of seeing, however, is not amenable to birth or death, it is not dependent on the organ of the eye. To have eyes does not necessarily mean having seeing awareness. The nature of seeing is like the capacity of the mirror to reflect images, shapes or actions; after the images, shapes or actions vanish, the nature of seeing remains, unmovable and unchangeable. The same applies to the nature of hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing.

Simply stated, people should not hold reflections as permanent, clinging to them and grasping them. To perceive the reflectivity of the mirror as the True Self means quick release from defilement and an expeditious liberation. The remaining five sense doors can be inferred from the example of the eye organ; the six sense-organs with their corresponding six data and six kinds of consciousness collectively generate the eighteen realms or the eighteen worldly Dharmas: All of these are reflections, impermanent, subject to birth and death. Only the nature of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing, like the nature of the mirror, remains unchanged. Furthermore, that which reflects is the also reflection, and the reflection becomes that which reflects it: They complement one another.

Thus there is “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind: No form, sound, smell, taste, touch and no mind object. No eye realm until no realm of consciousness.” According to the phrase “all five skandhas are empty” the five skandhas are the true Void of the supramundane existence and the Dharma of the Five Skandhas is the fundamental Dharma. In the true Void of supramundane existence, when there are no more skandhas, there is nothing to be attained. The eighteen realms are void at this very moment. Without the mirror, how can there be reflection?