A Commentary on the Heart Sutra
by Geshe Lama Konchog
The subject we are going to discuss today is the most essential point of the 84,000 sets of teachings that the Buddha gave — the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sutra). This sutra has various levels which are called the extensive, the intermediate and the short levels. It is called the most essential point because it contains the condensed meaning of all three levels of the Prajnaparamita sutras.
We will begin with a discussion of the two categories of this sutra — the common and the uncommon. The common category explains the four excellent qualities, which are the explanations of the excellent times, the excellent teaching, the excellent teacher and the excellent disciple.
The root text begins: “Thus have I heard … at that time.” This indicates the excellent time. The place where this teaching was given was Rajagriha on Vulture’s Peak, which was considered to be an excellent place. When Buddha taught this particular discourse, infinite bodhisattvas descended into this world system to receive these teachings. They were the disciples of the buddhas from the ten directions and this shows the excellent retinues that were there at that time.
While the Buddha was teaching the bodhisattvas, they emanated infinite light from their bodies, which illuminated the darkness of the three world systems. The three universal world systems are comprised of billions of other world systems and this was the place where Shakyamuni Buddha performed the twelve holy deeds. We might think that Shakyamuni Buddha only performed these holy deeds in this world and nowhere else, however, in reality Buddha performed all the twelve holy deeds to many world systems — particularly the deeds of providing Dharma teachings.
Since the topic of the discourse on the Prajnaparamita (the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra) is so precious and so unique, the infinite bodhisattvas asked if they could also attend the teachings that Buddha was giving to the different worlds.
The buddhas gave their permission to their disciple bodhisattvas because they made so many offerings to Shakyamuni Buddha while he was teaching them. In fact, the buddhas recommended that while the bodhisattvas were listening to the teachings they were to be seen as good examples and therefore must act correctly. The reason why they were given this advice was because human beings in this world system were not conducting themselves well at all and needed to be shown by example.
So not only was the Buddha giving the discourse on Vulture’s Peak to countless bodhisattvas from the ten directions, at the same time he was able to train and subdue many more disciples. This was a most extraordinary time. It was extraordinarily fortunate to have all these extraordinary and supreme disciples in one place at one time, and they were being taught the extraordinary teachings on the Prajnaparamita, The Wisdom Gone Beyond by the Buddha himself.
At that time Buddha was teaching in the aspect of being absorbed into the concentration of profound illumination. It was while he was showing the aspect of being absorbed into this particular concentration, that a discussion occurred between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra.
It was due to the power of the blessing that was given to Avalokiteshvara by Shakyamuni Buddha that Avalokiteshvara was able to look perfectly at the practice of the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates. He was then able to engage in an investigation of all phenomena.
Then through the power of the Buddha, the Venerable Shariputra said to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being: “How should a child of the lineage train, who wishes to train in the practice of the profound wisdom gone beyond?”
Now, there are many questions within this question, for instance, how did the initial bodhisattvas train on the meditational path of accumulation, the path of preparation, the path of seeing, and so forth? That question comprised many different kinds of questions relating to how the practitioner — whether a beginner, middle or superior being — should train on the path.
There are two categories of beings who should follow the practices of the Prajnaparamita — those who are of less intelligence and those of greater intelligence. For those of less intelligence, Avalokiteshvara asked how he should investigate and analyse the profound view of those who hold the lineage of this particular tradition.
Then the noble Avalokiteshvara replied to the venerable Shariputra as follows: “Shariputra, whatever son or daughter of the lineage wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of the wisdom gone beyond, should do it exactly like this. Analyse perfectly and correctly the nature of the five aggregates, which are by nature empty.”
This is the short answer. Initially he gave this brief answer, then later on, he elaborated on it by saying: “Form is empty, emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form and form is no other than emptiness.”
Our physical body is composed of the four elements, the twelve constituents and so forth, and due to the aggregation of all these elements, we are able to label this body “physical”. We are able to say that it is form. However, there is nothing inherently existing in that form from its own side. It is said that the physical form or the form aggregate, lacks inherent existence, but we appear as a physical form. Therefore, the nature of form is equal to the nature of emptiness and emptiness is equal to the nature of form.
These two are considered to be of one nature, yet different in the sense that they are conceptually isolated. This also shows how existence is free from permanence. This is because although the physical form appears, it is empty.
Who posited this physical existence? This physical form was posited by the consciousness. The mind or consciousness posited this physical form, and because the physical form appears to the mind, it therefore lacks inherent, or true, existence.
Due to gaining some understanding of emptiness, we can then eliminate the belief in inherent existence and also by having an understanding of the impermanence of physical form, we can eliminate the thought of eternalism. When we talk about a lack of inherent existence, or say that things do not exist inherently, this itself shows the nominal existence of conventional existence.
From now on the root text describes the practices on the paths of accumulation and preparation. These discussions are based on the fact that we have already generated bodhicitta and we are training in an understanding of emptiness.
The Heart Sutra tells us how we should first understand the importance of having a realisation of emptiness, and then generate bodhicitta. This is necessary because initially we meditate on the seven instructions of cause and effect to generate bodhicitta. We start to recognise that all sentient beings are our mother and by remembering this kindness, we then want to repay that love, compassion and that extraordinary attitude.
When we generate this extraordinary attitude, the unusual thought of leading all sentient beings to the state of everlasting happiness by ourselves alone is generated. At this time, we then investigate whether it is possible to achieve the state of enlightenment. The reason for doing this is so that we, alone, can lead others out of the state of suffering. But first of all we must be freed from that state ourselves.
Then we investigate whether or not it is possible to be completely freed from all suffering. We need to come to the understanding that when we are able to remove all defilements and delusions from our mental continuum, it is possible to get out of cyclic existence, the state of suffering.
Delusions are caused by the self-grasping attitude. When we realise that we can eliminate this self-grasping attitude, we can get out of the state of suffering. We then come to know that defilements are removable and that the state of liberation or enlightenment is attainable.
In the tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa and his teaching on the graduated path to enlightenment, the lam-rim, he says that first of all we need to generate bodhicitta, then follow this with the realisation of emptiness. However, Lama Tsongkhapa also says that we must keep the doctrine secret, so initially in this tradition, this topic was hidden until the practitioner generated bodhicitta.
In our case, we feel this sense of I and on that basis we designate the five aggregates. However, the I or the self is merely labelled and is only imputed on the basis of the five aggregates. There is no independent I that arises from the five aggregates.
Upon investigation, we find that there is no I arising independently from the five aggregates, yet we cherish the I and cling to it more and more, even though it is unfindable. We cherish that I as if it were solid and permanent.
We have this attachment to the I, therefore we accumulate friends who support and benefit us and we generate attachment towards them. We consider those who harm us and provide us with difficult situations our enemies, and we generate anger towards them. This keeps us in samsara, in the state of suffering.
The self-grasping attitude does not recognise the emptiness of the I and cannot realise that it is merely labelled. It grasps at something that is completely non-inherently existent and because of this self-grasping attitude, the object is misconceived. This self-grasping attitude is known as ignorance. This attitude is also called the changeable view or the transient view. As long as we have this self-grasping ignorance, we shall remain in samsara.
When we replace this self-grasping ignorance with the correct wisdom, this is generated initially through the path of accumulation. During this training, we generate the wisdom of hearing the subject. We also generate the wisdom of contemplation on the subject, then due to generating this wisdom, we can identify selflessness. Due to having the right identification, we should try to become habituated with that concept. During the path of preparation, we contemplate and meditate on this.
“Form is empty, emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form and form is no other than emptiness.” This refers to the aggregate of form alone. The same reference is then made to feeling, recognition, karmic formations and so forth.
After the part “Form is empty … consciousness are all empty,” the sutra shows how to train on the paths of accumulation and preparation. At this point, emptiness is understood or recognised by applying these antidotes. When we train in emptiness on the path of seeing, the other antidotes, such as the eight antidotes and so on, are applied.
Shariputra was told that all phenomena are empty, without characteristics. They have no defilements and no separation from defilements; they have no increase and no decrease, and so forth. This indicates that those who are training on the path of seeing eliminate the eight types of object negation.
In “true” or inherent, there is no decrease and no increase. The whole eight objects are negated during the path of seeing and we train in developing the wisdom that is required during the path of seeing.
So by telling Shariputra that in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, down to no eye and so forth, this indicates how we should train ourselves on the path of meditation. On this path, the consciousness is one with the object, emptiness — like water being poured into water. There is complete oneness, without duality.
If this non-dual wisdom that only perceives emptiness could also see physical form, then this would be inherently existing or truly existing. Therefore, for those who are absorbed in meditation on emptiness, in that wisdom, conventional existence cannot be seen. If conventional existence is seen by that wisdom, then the lack of inherent existence does not apply. This would mean that there should be inherent or true existence.
Therefore, the practitioner who resides on the path of meditation needs to abandon all obscurations by applying the direct antidote found on the ten bhumis or grounds. For those who observe the meditation on emptiness, all conventional phenomena cease to exist.
At the end of the paragraph it says: “There is no attainment and no non-attainment.” At this point the practitioner who is on the path of meditation absorbs into the vajra-like concentration. Bodhisattvas rely on and abide in the perfection of wisdom. Their minds have no obstructions and no fear, because they have attained the final state beyond sorrow.
At this point the sutra is talking about the different categories of emptiness. Up to this point it is about how the less intelligent practitioners train in the wisdom gone beyond.
By the power of mantra alone, the most intelligent practitioners are able to train in the perfection of wisdom. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the mantra of unsurpassed knowledge does not refer to the mantras we find in tantra. It is, however, called “mantra” because it has the same power as tantric mantras. Profound emptiness has the same power and potential to destroy all wrong concepts.
So all these mantras — the mantras that pacify all sufferings, that pass beyond all falsity, should be known as the truth. They have the same power as we find in secret mantras, therefore they are all labelled “mantra”.
By this mantra alone, the most intelligent ones can understand the entire practice:
TADYATHA OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA.
TADYATHA is “thus” or “it is like this”.
GATE GATE means “go, go”. So, go to the path of accumulation, go to the path of preparation. This refers to the two initial paths.
PARAGATE refers to going to the path of seeing.
PARASAMGATE refers to the path of meditation.
BODHI refers to the Buddha. It means going towards buddhahood.
“Go, go to the path of accumulation, to the path of preparation, to the path of seeing, to the path of meditation — go towards buddhahood.”
So, the entire discussion between Noble Avalokiteshvara and the Venerable Shariputra, in condensed form, is included within this mantra.
Shariputra was told to train in the perfection of wisdom, which is the instruction known as the power of the blessings of the buddhas. The instruction or teaching on rejoicing is given with permission to allow others to compose.
“Then the Blessed One arose from that concentration…” This part is said to be a direct verbal instruction. This is to encourage us to follow the practice as it is described in this text. Then we should rejoice, to increase the virtues [merit].
There are two ways to carry on the recitation of the Heart Sutra — one is the normal recitation and the other is the particular recitation done by the Kadampas.
Visualisation for the recitation of the Heart Sutra
The procedure for recitation done by the Kadampa masters is to visualise the wisdom mother at the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha. At her heart, visualise the syllable AH, and surrounding this is the Heart Sutra mantra. While reciting the mantra, infinite light emanates from the mantra. Then imagine oneself and all other sentient beings gaining a realisation of emptiness.
Another method is to visualise oneself and others arising in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha, then offer praises to Shakyamuni Buddha, make offerings and so forth. However, it is still alright to follow the normal way of recitation.
Just by having the conviction that this prayer contains the entire collection of excellent qualities, you can follow the simple recitation.
It is said that if we are able to recite this Perfection of Wisdom sutra, there is a type of substance we can gain that will protect us from being harmed by animals such as snakes, as well as giving protection from spirits and other interferers. They will not come near us.
Verses at the beginning of teachings:
I prostrate to the gatherings of dakinis in the three chakras, who abide in the holy yoga of using space.
By your powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,
Look after practitioners like a mother looks after her child.
AH KHA SAMA RAJA SADHA RASA MARAYA PHAT (21 times)
TADYATHA OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA.
By the truth of the existence of the Three Jewels,
May all inner and outer hindrances and adversities be overcome.
May they become non-existent! (CLAP)
May they be pacified! (CLAP)
May they be completely pacified! (CLAP)
May all negative forces opposed to the Dharma be completely pacified.
May the eighty-four thousand kinds of hindrances be pacified.
May all sentient beings be separated from discordant, harmful conditions.
May all be harmonious, excellent and auspicious in the future.