The Heart Sutra 心經 xīnjīng
The Ch’an Meditation.London Discussion group is studying the Heart sutra over five meeting on successive Wednesdays once a month. Our first meeting was a general introduction to the sutra with a brief talk on the history and meaning of the sutra. There were 10 members in attendance who each were able to contribute, bringing their own impressions of the sutra to the discussion.
Although the series has begun, all newcomers are welcome to join us on the second meeting when the study of the sutra will begin in earnest. We are following Shen-yen’s commentary called, There is No suffering, a Commentary on the Heart sutra. No prior knowledge of the sutra will be needed and copies of the portion of the commentary used will be given at the end of each session for you to read afterward.
This title is available from the Amazon Marketplace for about £5 and takes a week for delivery:
To get you started, below is a summary of the first meeting. We hope to see you at the second discussion group, held at SOAS, Russell Square, Thornhaugh street, London WC1E 0XG on Wednesday December 14th from 7-9pm. Please contact Orca at firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
Many of us will have visited a temple or belong to a Ch’an or Zen group where part of the liturgy is to chant this little sutra and yet how many of us, although aware of how important it is, understand what the sutra speaks of? Our exposure to it may be in a foreign language but even in English the language used seems mysterious, referencing mnemonic systems of sensing the world only to negate them. Further, this sutra also negates the very path of Buddhism that we are seeking to follow.
The Heart sutra one of the prajna sutras, a number of sutras that speak about the Perfection of Wisdom. These began to appear in the 1st century BCE, beginning with the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 lines and included a number of sutras that increased in length up to 100,000 lines. In addition to these, the Diamond and Heart sutras were shorter and more manageable prajna sutras. The Heart sutra first appeared in the 1st century CE but was called a dharani, a mnemonic device which encapsulates the meaning of a section or chapter of a sutra. The first translation into Chinese from Sanskrit was by Chi Qian in the 2nd century CE. He was a monk who came to China from Kushan, a powerful country who occupied Gandhara (Afganistan and part of Pakistan) and northern India. In the early 7th century CE, Hsuan-Tsang, the eminent monk who sought the Dharma in India, gave it the name that we know it by today – the Heart sutra.
Importance of the sutra
This sutra is a short highly concentrated exposition of the fundamental principles of prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom. Where the longer prajna sutras use dialogue to illustrate these principles in addition to stating them, the Heart sutra simply states these. The importance of the sutra is in the merit derived from its recitation and memorisation. This is made clear in its longer sister, the Diamond sutra in no fewer than 4 places, as the two examples below demonstrate:
Ch. 11: the body of merit of a noble son or daughter grasping one gatha of this sutra and explaining it to others is immeasurably, infinitely greater than the body of merit accumulated from an immeasurable gift of the seven jewels given as a gift to the Tathagatas.
Ch. 12: wherever even one gatha of this teaching is spoken or explained, that place shall be venerated as if it were a stupa containing the relics of the Buddha
In addition, Hsuan-Tsang recited it as a protection against the many perils of his journey to and from India and so this sutra is recited as a protection against danger. Finally, the practical value of memorising and reciting this sutra is as a reminder of the important principles that are encapsulated in it in a world where it is so easy to be drawn into the high emotion of day to day living. But the real power of recitation and memorisation comes from an understanding of the sutra.
Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita)
There are six perfections that the bodhisattva cultivates along the ten bhumis (stages) toward buddhahood. Although the fearless bodhisattva develops them all at the same time the Perfection of Wisdom guides the development of the other five and without it, these cannot be called perfections. The Perfection of Wisdom has many of the characteristics of full and perfect Enlightenment (anutara-samyak-sambodhi) and is the point of entry to what is Real. Specifically, there are three levels of Wisdom that are recognised in Buddhism. The first is Mundane Wisdom where what is impermanent is seen as permanent, what is impure is seen as pure and what is ‘no self’ is seen as ‘self’ . The second level is called Metaphysical Wisdom where what is permanent is seen as impermanent, what is pure is seen as impure and what is ‘self’ is seen as ‘no self’. The last level is called Transcendental Wisdom where dharmas are seen as neither permanent nor impermanent, dharmas are seen as neither pure nor impure and there is neither a ‘self’ nor a ‘non self’.
Mundane Wisdom is cultivated by most in the world today and the cause of suffering. Metaphysical Wisdom is represents an advanced cultivation but where the belief in the reality of the dharmas leads to the perception of subject and object. Transcendental Wisdom is the highest cultivation where dharmas are experienced as neither existing nor non-existing. It is this level that the Perfection of Wisdom is accessed.