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The Heart Sutra

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by Sangharakshita

... which makes the succeeding stronger, as it were. So
prajna, we may say, is not just knowledge, it's supreme knowledge, or even superlative knowledge, or we
may say knowledge par excellence. Or we can say, again, Knowledge, with a capital 'K', this is prajna. But
knowledge of what? In knowledge of what does wisdom or prajna consist? And the answer to this question
in all Buddhist literature, in all Buddhist tradition and teaching, is quite straightforward, quite unambiguous:
knowledge in this sense, knowledge as prajna, means knowledge of Reality, knowledge of things as they
really are, knowledge of things if you like in their ultimate depths, their ultimate transcendental dimension.
But in what more precisely, one may ask, does this knowledge of Reality consist? Reality after all is only a
word. What sort of content can one give? To this question there are, within the context of Mahayana Buddhist
thought, principally two answers. And these two answers are not, or not necessarily, mutually exclusive.
According to Hinayana tradition, seeing things in reality, or knowing reality, or just knowing, just knowledge,
prajna, consists in seeing what we usually think of, or what we usually perceive as things, objects in the
external world, and persons, in terms of what are technically known as dharmas. Now dharma has many
meanings. It usually means teaching, doctrine, but here it means something quite different. Here, the dharmas
are the ultimate psycho-physical elements or events. According to general Buddhist teaching (this is
emphasises especially in the Hinayana) there is in reality no such objective existence, no such objective thing
as, for instance, house or tree or man or woman. If we look at them closely, if we examine them, if we analyse
them, they become as it were insubstantial. They tend to reduce themselves to a flux, to a flow, of impersonal,
non-substantial, psycho-physical processes which, in Buddhist tradition, are called dharmas. In a context of,
for instance, physics which speaks in terms of not only the atom but of the electron and the proton and the
neutron and so on, it's rather easier for us nowadays to understand this aspect of Buddhist teaching, of
so-called solid, objective material things
being resolved or dissolved into ultimate elements or processes. But Buddhism also applies this to the mind,
applies it to existence as a whole, and it, as I said, dissolves or resolves things which we usually think of as
objective, existing out there, dissolves people, persons, also into the psycho-physical processes, these ultimate
elements, which in Buddhism we call dharmas.
Now in different schools of Buddhism there are different lists of dharmas but all these schools, that is to say
all the Hinayana schools especially, agree that wisdom consists in reducing all the phenomena of existence
to a flux of what are called dharmas, these ultimate, irreducible elements. According to the Mahayana
however, wisdom consists in the knowledge of sunyata or voidness. Now voidness doesn't just mean
emptiness in a negative sense. It's not just something like empty space. Voidness, sunyata, is the usual or the
most usual Mahayana term for Ultimate Reality. And it consists in reducing the dharmas themselves, those
elements, those processes, which according to the Hinayana are ultimate, consists in reducing the dharmas
themselves to sunyata. When we see things in terms of objects, in terms of persons, this the Mahayana would
say is on account of our gross delusion. And this gross delusion is removed by learning to see these objects
and persons in terms of dharmas. But the Mahayana goes on to say that seeing things and persons in terms
of dharmas is not enough. To see things in terms of dharmas is not to see them in their Ultimate Reality. We
see them in terms of dharmas, according to the Mahayana, on account not of gross delusion but on account
of subtle delusion, and this subtle delusion too must be removed. And we remove it by seeing, by knowing
that the dharmas themselves are sunyata.
Now wisdom in this sense, in the Mahayana sense, is known as the perfection of wisdom, prajnaparamita.
Now this isn't a very good translation, perfection of wisdom. paramita means, literally, 'gone to the other
shore' or 'that which is transcendental'. So the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the Prajnaparamita literature,
the scriptures, these are concerned with wisdom, with prajna, in this sense, in the sense of Prajnaparamita
or perfection of wisdom or transcendental wisdom. And they are concerned above all with seeing all dharmas
as sunyata; in piercing, in penetrating not only beyond objects, beyond persons, but even beyond the
psycho-physical processes which make up those things and those persons. In other words, the perfection of
wisdom is concerned, we may say, with seeing
reality everywhere. Seeing it at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances. This is the perfection of
wisdom, seeing sunyata everywhere.
3. Now thirdly and lastly, the work with which we are dealing, the Heart Sutra, is the prajnaparamita
HRIDAYA sutra. So what does HRIDAYA mean? Hridaya means 'heart' and it also means 'essence'. So the
hridaya sutra is thus the heart or the essence of the perfection of wisdom. It's also the heart or the essence of
the texts, the sutras, the scriptures of that name. Now let us go into this a little. I've already mentioned that
The Heart Sutra - Page 3
there are about thirty-five independent perfection of wisdom texts in existence, and these thirty-five texts
didn't come into existence all at once. The entire tradition of course was originally an oral one and portions
of the oral tradition were written down only bit by bit. As literary documents, the composition of the
prajnaparamita literature extends over a period of about six hundred years, which is rather a long time, from
about 100 BC to about 500 AD. And within this period there are three as it were sub-periods, each lasting
roughly for about two hundred years.
(a) First of all there was the period of what we may describe as the elaboration of the basic texts. At this
time, in this period, two - these the most ancient prajnaparamita sutras - were produced. One is known as
the Ratnaguna-samcayagatha which means 'The Verses on the Collection of Precious Qualities', the precious
qualities being those, of course, of Enlightenment or Buddhahood, and this text, which isn't very long, is in
verse. And secondly, there is a work called the Astasahasrika prajnaparamita, and this means 'The Perfection
of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines', and this is in prose. Both of these texts are available in English and the
second of them especially, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, is very very rich indeed in
content. So the first period in the composition of the prajnaparamita literature saw the production of these
two most ancient texts.
(b) Now the second period is the period of the amplification of the basic texts. A number of works were
produced during this period, in which the earlier texts, the more ancient texts, were as it were spun out to an
ever greater and greater length by going into greater and greater detail. So the most famous work to be
produced in this period is 'The Perfection of Wisdom in A Hundred Thousand Lines'. There is an interesting
tradition connected with this text. It's a Tibetan tradition, and according to this tradition this particular text,
'The Perfection of Wisdom in A Hundred Thousand Lines', was presented to the great Mahayana sage,
Nagarjuna, by a dragon princess, a naga princess, and the tradition runs that the text had been preserved up
to that time in the depths of the ocean in the Naga or the Dragon Palace. Now in Tibetan art we find very
often a very charming representation of this episode. You see a great expanse of water and floating on the
water you see a raft and on the raft there is the figure of the sage, Nagarjuna; and coming up out of the water
there is figure which looks, we would say, rather like a mermaid, and she is carrying a big heavy book, and
this is 'The Perfection of Wisdom in A Hundred Thousand Lines', and she is handing it over to Nagarjuna.
The tradition being that when the Buddha had preached the sutra originally it was so profound and so difficult
that nobody could understand it, so he handed it over, after it had been written down, to the nagas to be kept
in the depths of the ocean until such time as somebody arose who could understand it and propagate and make
known its contents. So Nagarjuna was this person. Now it's rather easy to smile at these old legends but they
do have a significance. The ocean, after all, represents we may say the Unconscious with a capital 'U', the
Unconscious, in perhaps the Jungian sense, and the nagas, the dragons, these are the forces of the
unconscious, forces of inspiration if you like, emerging from the depths of the unconscious. So the fact that
the text, 'The Perfection of Wisdom in A Hundred Thousand Lines', is delivered to Nagarjuna by a dragon
princess, a naga princess, after being kept for centuries, for generations in the depths of the ocean, in the
palace of the naga king - this has a significance. It represents or it symbolises ...

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