Heart Sutra

I planned to blog about the Heart Sutra for quite some time, and now I am attending a seminar at my Faculty and there is a computer at the back so I got the opportunity to write about it now.

The key message of the Heart Sutra is nothing less than the key message of Buddhism itself. Let’s look at some of the most important passages from the Sutra:

Body is nothing more than emptiness,
emptiness is nothing more than body.
The body is exactly empty,
and emptiness is exactly body.

Volumes and volumes have been written on what the Sutra is supposed to mean, but the key here is that words alone are never enough. One will not be able to attain Nirvana through intellectual understanding alone. That is, attaining Nirvana is not something you can achieve by thinking and ratiocinating. One has to “see” reality, but it is not the kind of reality that we are accustomed to. It’s on the one hand the same reality, but on the other hand it’s completely different. It’s the kind of reality that one sees when one goes beyond all conceptual distinctions. This is not something that we can do just by deciding to do. It’s a highly advanced skill that requires a lot of effort and practice. The Buddha laid down the path toward realizing this skill through his teaching of morality, meditation and wisdom.

But the point I would like to emphasize here is the ultimately paradoxical character of the Buddha’s teaching: Emptiness is form; form is emptiness. What is there is exactly speaking what is not there, and what is not there is what is there. This way of speaking is not a play on words; it is the most direct expression of the core of the Buddha’s teaching. Some scholars try to interpret the paradox away, saying that the ultimate message beyond the paradoxical sentences is devoid of the paradox. But in fact the paradox is there, staring us at the face. Our task is not to shy away from it, but to face it and live with it and ultimately try to realize that the real truth is the paradox itself. The truth is what the Sutra says: Form (or the body in this translation) is emptiness and emptiness is form. We try to see the truth of the paradox, trying to realize its inevitably impossible and contradictory nature. It is through the contradiction that the point of the Buddha is carried through.

So this is all I can say about the Heart Sutra. So this is not quite a commentary because the point is that no commentary is possible. The Heart Sutra can also be used as a tool for those who meditate. You can memorize the whole text and when the mind is stilled within deep meditation, perhaps a breakthrough can happen. But that is not what we are looking for. The spirit of the Heart Sutra is that there is no goal while in fact there is a goal. It’s of course difficult, but one can certainly try.


One thought on “Heart Sutra

  1. E A M Harris May 7, 2012 / 3:30 pm

    As I understand it emptiness is the true nature of everything, so it must be the true nature of form. I agree that the way the sutra puts it is only apparently a play on words. It is really a pure statement of the teaching.

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