The Heart Sutra


In this part of the Heart Sutra the Buddha expounds the luminous Dharma of the Middle Way or “When coursing in the deep Prajna Paramita,” so the saints of three kinds have the occasion to relinquish their less-than-perfect views. The sutra was translated by the Tripitaka Master Hsuen Tsang who depended on the Buddha alone for its meaning and therefore we should consider this teaching to be spoken by the Buddha.

The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, while practicing deep Prajna Paramita, attained radiant wisdom through a full understanding of the ultimate Void of the five skandhas. The Dharma of Skandhas is a teaching of existence rather than of emptiness, but due to the depth of his Prajna contemplation, the Bodhisattva acquired full, complete understanding of True Reality. He ended simultaneously the two kinds of birth and death and the five fundamental conditions of passions and illusions and irreversibly overcame all suffering.

Turning once more to Sariputra, the Buddha reiterated the essential point for the benefit of those not understanding clearly. Sariputra was the best of the best, the most advanced Sravaka or “hearer”, renowned for his sagacity. According to an established Indian custom regarding personal names, a person may decide to use either his/her mother’s name, or father’s, or both. The word sariputra (Chiu Lu Tzu in Chinese) literally means certain species of waterfowl similar to an egret. Sariputra chose to use the name of his mother, who was said by those who knew her to have luminous eyes like that particular bird. She had the reputation to surpass her brothers in wisdom and keen spirit. Sariputra’s mother was an adept of the heterodox path and as her name suggests, she was a person of the highest wisdom.

“Form does not differ from the Void, and the Void does not differ from form; the same is true for feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness.” This statement highlights and expands the foregoing sentence of the Sutra, leading toward a deeper, sharper understanding of the Sutra’s essential teaching. This Dharma might not be clearly understood without some explanation.

I have already introduced the fivefold interpretation of the meaning of Void or Emptiness, i.e., the obstinate voidness of worldlings; the annihilation voidness of those travelling the outer or heterodox path; the voidness understood by means of analysis as practiced on the path of the two vehicles; the Void perceived by bodhisattvas as the true substance of the universe; the supramundane Void of True Existence. “Form does not differ from the Void”, is an observation of inconceivable wisdom rooted in deep practice of Prajna Paramita.

The sense-organ group produce three types of experience: Touching combined with seeing; one sense-organ door alone; activity of the mind alone. This point relates to the six kinds of data, i.e., sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and thought, and the corresponding six material-sense-organs, meaning eye, ear nose, tongue, body and mind. All our experiences, physical and mental, are generated and accumulated by this group. During their interaction with their objects the senses are affected or contaminated by earthly views. The result then is dust (attraction or aversion of the senses) which characterizes the sentient sphere or Kamaloka. Dust of that kind is one of the major hindrances to enlightenment.

Let us proceed with an analysis of these three types of experience. The first is experienced through contact with form, any form, by means of combining seeing and touching and includes mountains, rivers, houses, flowers, dogs, our body and all the other forms that have corporeality and can be touched as well as seen; the result of that contact is the dust of form.

The second quality is produced separately by one of the four based on touch, i.e., hearing, tasting, smelling and touching. Hearing is accomplished by the ear and produces sound-dust; smelling is accomplished by the nose and results in smell-dust; tasting is done with the tongue, generating taste-dust, and touch informs of bodily states thereby producing touch-dust.

The third quality is the mental activity alone. It engenders mind objects or thoughts or ideas and eludes both sight and touch. While each of the five organs has its own specialized field, the mind knows and receives all of them. Mind-object or mental formation is a shadow of the five kinds of dust; the mind knows all of them, but they do not know, cannot know one another.
The six kinds of dust generate three kinds of experience; but where do the six kinds of dust come from? With our five physical sense organs, we experience the material world. When a sense-organ relays information obtained through contact to its corresponding consciousness, the dust is produced. The six kinds of dust involve the participation and combination of numerous forms in the process of generating the three types of experience. How can form be considered the true existence of the supramundane Emptiness? How can we call void what our eyes can see and our hands can touch?

We may believe we see with our eyes but actually, it is our seeing nature that sees. A dead body, for example, though having eyes, cannot see, because its seeing nature is no longer there. The nature as substance has no specific residence. It is neither the brain nor the mind. It is vast and boundless, signless, unattainable. Despite the fact that we can see whatever is in front of us, we cannot see our own seeing nature. Because our seeing nature cannot be traced and cannot be fathomed, we assign to it the term Emptiness or Void.

We say, furthermore, that Emptiness is the substance of our nature. Speaking of the nature of seeing, the number of colors seen, as well as their characteristics, are of no relevance. To put it simply, form is nature is form. Nature being void, form is void also. What does it mean when we say that form is nature? Because our six sense-organs, namely eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind give rise to the six natures, i.e., seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing, countless forms combine and manifest themselves as three kinds of experience and in the process generate six kinds of dust. Yet form is not separable from nature and nature cannot separate from form. When it is separated from form, nature is non-form; form separated from nature is non-nature,

We have another example, in case some people are not completely clear regarding the doctrine. Ask yourself, which comes first: Form or nature? If you answer that the nature of seeing comes first, then consider how can it manifest itself in the absence of form? If, on the other hand, your answer is “form”, then ask yourself, how can you become aware of it without your seeing nature? There is really no difference between form and seeing – all of it is relative dharma. The nature of seeing, or the seeing consciousness is like this and the hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and knowing consciousness also.
The just concluded study of form and nature according to Yien Yai helped us to realize they are inseparable or nondual. Since Void is the substance of nature, it must be the substance of form as well. Accordingly, to perceive that “form does not differ from Void, Void does not differ from form”, is to understand that they are inseparable. It is the Dharma of Nonduality.

Let me give you another example: A mirror is made to reflect whatever is in front of it, The “whatever” may be near or far, round or square, green, yellow, red, white or all four. The mirror will reflect all with equal clarity. Facing clothes, the mirror will reflect clothes, facing a table the mirror will reflect a table, and when made to face the sky, the mirror will reflect it. Mirror always reflects something and, therefore, it is comparable to our Self Nature; the reflection can be compared to dust. A person of mundane concerns will misunderstand the situation, hold the reflection (dust) for the real thing, and struggle to grasp it. Who would believe that mountains, rivers, the earth, even the entire universe are a mere reflection or dust, and as such, they must all rise and vanish in the cyclic existence? What this means is that phenomena are the Dharma of Birth and Death. The mirror’s reflective capacity is like the True Nature of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching: being true Suchness, it is unmovable, and cyclic existence cannot touch it. But without a mirror, how can there be reflection?

Their relationship is immutable yet clearly defined in terms of sharp contrast. Similarly, form and mind-nature are one and the same. One can became enlightened and see one’s own True Nature practicing this dharma, The Surangama Sutra says: “When you see light, your seeing is not the light and when you see darkness, your seeing is not the darkness; when you see void, seeing it is not the void and when seeing a slab, the seeing is not the slab. When your absolute seeing perceives the essence of seeing, the former is not the latter; they still differ from one another; how can your affected seeing reach that absolute seeing?” In the part of the sutra we are presently studying, “seeing” applies in the first instance to subject seeing and in the second one to object seeing. This point should be cogitated and comprehended intuitively. Without form there is no nature – form and nature are of the same substance and there is no inside or outside. This is the stupendous Dharma of Suchness.

Let us return to the example of the bright mirror. The worldling, unlike the saint, is interested solely in the reflection, never giving as much as a thought to the mirror’s reflectivity. Clinging, grasping the reflection, the worldling grasps an incidental occurrence on the mirror’s surface and mistakes it for the original. The uninformed fail to understand that all that exists has its nature; earth has earth nature; fire has fire nature; water has water nature; wind has wind nature and consequently the mirror has mirror nature. Our True Nature is also like that and yet most people are confusing illusion with reality, quite unaware of their True Nature. They grasp and cling to reflections and dust. For them the Tao of Bodhi is difficult to attain. The Buddha made use of many expedients while teaching the Dharma of Truth. He repeated over and over again so those who listened could follow his example and attain enlightenment. Reflection in the mirror is impermanent, but the mirror-nature is constant. Reflections come and go, but the reflectivity of the mirror remains. However, the enlightened practitioner in the tradition of Theravada holds form and mind to be two, distinct and separate.

A bodhisattva who attained the intermediate level of practice views the reflection as the characteristic of the mirror’s nature, and the mirror’s capacity for reflecting is not held as separate from the reflection. There is a cohesive hold, meaning that form and mind are inseparable. It is the material entities that are unreal; that is what “immateriality of substance” means. Although it is true that a bodhisattva is enlightened and the Mahayana doctrine more accomplished then the Theravada one, there is still more that needs to be done. The only complete enlightenment is that of the buddha, and it is attainable only by means of mindfulness, by being observant and by awakening to the Ultimate Truth. Form is mind, mind is form and they are neither two nor one: That is the fundamental Buddhadharma. True Existence is the supramundane Void, and the True Void inconceivably exists.

In the forthcoming paragraph we will direct our attention to the interpretation of “he perceived that all Skandhas are empty, thus he overcame all ills and suffering.” The adherents of the Buddha needed to understand clearly that the form-skandha is the first one of the five. The question is, why? Why is form different from the Void, and why is the Void different from form? Form is one of the six dusts, and the first of the five skandhas. To consider form as having independent existence is one of the wrong views. Actually, form is not different from the Void. Someone asked why we talk only about the skandha of form; why not talk about all five?

Because form as shape is most confusing, particularly when applied to the materiality of the human body. Feeling or sensation, perception, volition and consciousness are the domain of mind. Sound, smell, taste, touch and mental formations are from the group of the six dusts also referred to as the six forms (to summarize the forgoing discussion of the three types of experience). The six dusts are generated by our five material -sense-organs, i.e., eye, ear, nose, tongue and body; each of these possesses both shape and form, being the first of the five skandhas. When we add the six dusts to the five skandhas, we arrive at eleven forms called collectively the Dharma of Form.

The remaining group of four skandhas is called the Dharma of Mind. The skandha of feeling and the skandha of perceptions jointly are amenable to fifty-one mental conditions; the skandha of volition has the form (or Dharma) of twenty-four non-interrelated actions. The skandha of consciousness is controlled by eight minds. The Dharma of Form and the Dharma of Mind jointly contain ninety-four Dharmas. In addition, there are six inactive supramundane dharmas (asamskrtas), which brings the number of Dharmas to one hundred, referred to as the Principal Sastras (commentaries). The Buddha’s teachings contained originally eighty-four thousand of them, but Maitreya Bodhisattva, by condensing them, arrived at six hundred and sixty Dharmas.

Vashubandhu, the Bodhisattva of non-attachment, distilled their content further to obtain one hundred sastras, simplifying it for future students. The domain of the mind is vast; it contains four skandhas out of five and its cultivation is the means to the attainment of the path. Returning to the analogy of the bright mirror, the reflection or image is composed of the ninety-four form and mind Dharmas, while the six inactive supramundane Dharmas (asamskrtas) constitute the mirrorness or True Nature of the mirror.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practiced the deep Prajna Paramita and perceived that all five skandhas are empty. The radiant, all-encompassing wisdom is the Dharma of Reality as Non-action. In terms of our analogy, the mirror’s True Nature is the Ultimate Reality. It reveals the five skandhas as essentially void. But without practice and study, how can we understand True Reality?

The skandha of form embodies eleven dharmas, all of which are “not different from Emptiness” therefore “form does not differ from the Void, and the Void does not differ from form.”

What is the true Void? True Void is the luminous wisdom of the enlightened mind; without wisdom, how could the Emptiness of the skandhas be disclosed? And, for that matter, how could anyone overcome all ills and suffering? In reality, to break off the eleven form Dharmas is far from easy. Nonduality of form has the inconceivable, brilliant form of supramundane Void – the True Existence. Such is the meaning of “form does not differ from the Void, and the Void does not differ from form.” The Buddha was aware that some of his disciples continued approaching form and Void as two, as left and right for instance, and therefore he elaborated further, in depth: “Form is Void, and Void is form.”

Form and Void initially are nondual. All present form empty of self is the supramundane Void of True Existence: It is the stupendous Dharma of Nonduality and Nongrasping. Merely by comprehending this concept the five skandhas are already broken off. That is the meaning of “the same is true for feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness.” Once the skandha of form was disclosed as void of separate, lasting self, the mind- skandhas, similarly, were found to be void. To break off one skandha is to break off all of them.

“The same is true of feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness”; feelings, perceptions, volitions and consciousness are, likewise, recognized as void of selfhood: The Void is their essence. The Dharma of the Five Skandhas is the teaching of things in general – one is all, all is one. Consequently, by understanding one skandha one understands all five. The Buddha continued to expand the scope of this teaching, once more turning to Arya Sariputra. First, the skandhas were revealed as void of self, and now Void is revealed to be their true essence.