The Heart Sutra


He perceived that all five skandhas are void, thereby transcending all suffering. Of suffering there are two kinds: 1. The suffering of birth and death of allotment, 2. The suffering of birth and death of mortal changes. All ills and defilements mean suffering. According to the interpretation of the teachings, when it is fully understood that all five skandhas are empty five fundamental conditions of passions and delusion are severed and two kinds of birth and death are over. What are the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions? They are: 1) wrong view, very common in the Triloka (three realms); 2) clinging, or attachment in the realm of desire; 3) clinging or attachment in the realm of form; 4) clinging or attachment in the formless realm (mundane); 5) the state of un-enlightenment or ignorance in the Triloka, held to be the source of all the distress -generating delusions. The five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions depend on the five skandhas for their existence and when the skandhas are found to be empty the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusion vanish. Everyone is equipped with five skandhas, and those uninstructed in BuddhaDharma cannot eradicate the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions because they are unaware that these are originated by, and dwell in the mind. Such being the case, sentient beings have no other choice but to endure suffering in the present and turn in the cyclic pattern of existence until they recognize the cause of their suffering and enter the path to enlightenment.

What are the wrong views common in the Triloka? To see the object; to be confused by the object and to give rise to greed as the result of that confusion is the root of defilement. Let us suppose that someone who meets some wealthy, influential, high–ranking official and from that is given to envy, greed and jealousy. It is of no use, he/she cannot obtain what he/she wants. Greed becomes entrenched in the mind and as such is very difficult to extirpate. Defilements of this kind are most common. Those unexpectedly promoted and prosperous, those in humble circumstances or those destitute, those who enjoy long life and those who die young, even the smart and the dull ones, all are in that situation because of cause and effect. Good causes in previous life will produce good effects in the present. Good causes in the present will produce favorable effects in the future. The law of cause and effect is all-pervasive, excluding nothing and no one. The practice of this Dharma and the understanding of obstinate void sever eighty-eight wrong views in the three realms and lead to the attainment of the first fruit of the path, i.e., Stream Winner.

What is meant by attachment in the realm of desire? To recognize greed as objectionable and to relinquish it is expedient and noble: Not to see the object, not to give rise to clinging and not to be moved by outside things leads to great liberation. Poverty, wealth, success and failure can all be endured. The next rebirth will be in the heavenly realm of desire and when his/her blessings run out in that realm, he/she will be reborn a human. That cycle will be repeated four times and then the second fruit and the path will be attained, that of Once Returner. One more rebirth is required to attain the third fruit (Non Returner), which means the end of all delusion in the realm of desire. With the cessation of all desires at all levels in all three realms, the fourth path and fruit is attained, i.e. that of the Arhat, or saint. In the realm of desire, six layers are generated by the worldlings’ giving in to the attractions of the senses.

Attachment in the realm of form: Those who freed themselves from wrong views and clinging, but still hold on to the analysis of the theory of voidness will be reborn in the realm of form (rupa loka), which includes eighteen layers of heaven. These are divided into four dhyanas according to the depth of absorption: Each dhyana dissolves nine kinds of illusory thought, which means that thirty-six illusory thoughts are brought to a halt by the four dhyanas. If the one reborn in the realm of form still has a form-body, it would not be that of a woman: Those reborn in that realm have the form-body of a man. It is also called the Brahma sphere because the beings there have renounced sense desires and delight in meditation and dhyanic bliss. For that reason we speak of attachment in the realm of form. The beings in that realm have all necessities of existence attended to without any effort. The realm of form is beyond the reach of ordinary people with mundane concerns.

The nourishment in these realms is of four kinds: Solid nourishment, especially of the palatable variety; fragrant nourishment; the nourishment of delight in dhyana; the nourishment of delight in Dharma. The first kind, or the solid nourishment, is the same as what people eat every day: It is the manner of humans in the six realms of desires. The second kind, the fragrant nourishment, sustains devas (heaven-dwellers) and ghosts. The nourishment of delight in dhyana and Dharma is for those in formless realm.

Attachment in the formless realm: When wrong view with its concomitant grasping no longer contaminates the realm of desire and the realm of form, rebirth in the formless realm follows. That sphere is free from form (body); there is only the knowing consciousness and, therefore, we speak of clinging to the formless realm. Denizens of that realm are no longer preoccupied with matter or material. The Dhyanas and the Dharma are their repast and their bliss.

The formless realm is divided into attainment in meditation on the void; attainment in meditation on consciousness; attainment in meditation on nothingness; and attainment leading to a state of neither perception nor non-perception. Consider for a moment the difference between Dharma talk offered by an Arhat, as compared with that given by someone of lower attainment. The attachment to formless realm still manifests.

Vast differences are noticeable when the two traditions, namely the Theravada and the Mahayana, are viewed in juxtaposition. Why? Because meditation according to the Theravada does not single out wisdom, yet the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions require the practice of both activity and principle and equate meditation with wisdom; it is not comparable to the realm of form and the formless realm. Even the third stage of liberation according to Theravada, i.e. the Non Returner, does not imply liberation from the three realms.

The state of ignorance in the Triloka: Ignorance and delusory views still predominate, as countless as the atoms in the universe, although beings in that realm have relinquished some part of both. Their understanding as to action and principle is far from clear and therefore they cannot stop the conversion of their thoughts into the cycle of birth and death, although they were released from the four states or conditions found in mortality. The Arahat who completed the fourth and the highest stage, attaining the fruit and the path is, likewise, liberated from these four. Worldlings cannot escape the two kinds of birth and death no matter how long their earthly existence might last. Reborn in the formless realm, they still have birth and death, even after eighty-four thousand kalpas. That is a very long time.

One particular sutra teaches that a very, very long time ago, people lived eighty-four thousand years, but the life span gradually decreased, shortened by greed, hatred and delusion, and the process continues at a steadily accelerated pace. Thoughts of the past or future tend to make people uneasy or jittery. According to the T’ien T’ai method of counting kalpas, the life span of eighty-four thousand years is taken as the basis; it is reduced by one year a century till the life span has reached ten years, at which point the counting is reversed and years are added, one at a time, up to eighty-four thousand. Such full cycle is called small kalpa. Twenty of those produce one middle kalpa and four middle kalpas are called the great kalpa. Several different systems of calculating the kalpa exist, depending on the cosmology used as the point of departure. The heavenly existence in the realm of form is eighty-four thousand great kalpas long, yet these beings must die in the end if they do not understand the Buddha’s teaching and do not practice accordingly. They may be reborn in any circumstances and may suffer a great deal, depending on whether their causes were good or evil; it is quite reliable.

The preceding explanation dealt with the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions. We understand presently that neither the heaven-dwellers, nor the worldlings can escape the suffering in the wheel of birth and death unless they terminate the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions. There is, however, more happiness in heaven than in the world. To end the two kinds of birth and death and the five fundamental conditions of passions and delusions one must make the great vow to attain enlightenment; to be able to do that one must study and practice Buddhadharma. The passage we just concluded was related to the two kinds of birth and death and the five fundamental conditions of passions and illusions as dependent on the five skandhas, namely form, feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness. At the time of his attainment of the radiant wisdom, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara conquered all ills and suffering by means of apprehending beyond any doubt that all five skandhas are devoid of independent existence.