Saturday, June 1, 2019

Essence of the Heart Sutra (Book Review-ish)

Dalai Lama and Geshe Thupten Jinpa
When I read Buddhist sutras and commentaries, they are mostly Mahayana. And of those, an increasing number fall in the category of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras. Perhaps the most meaningful of all to me was the "Large Sutra on Perfect of Wisdom" translated by Edward Conze.

After much searching for the "right" copy of the Heart Sutra, perhaps one of the most famous of all sutras, and part of the Prajnaparamita cannon, I settled on a copy that includes a discourse and commentary by the current Dalai Lama, "Essence of the Heart Sutra."

As with all sutras, there are frequently versions in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese, and while all similar, not all necessarily agree exactly. From that, I only speak English, so I need a further translation. This makes the choice of which version I buy all the more important - which language tradition did it start from and how is it being translated into English?

For while the Buddha, himself, has made clear that the words in the sutras should not be mistaken for the actual Dharma, they are part of the pathway that people use to bring their understanding closer to the Dharma. Hence, a translation can ease that understanding or obscure it. I am proud to say that the English translation of the Heart Sutra by Geshe Thupten Jinpa used in this volume, "Essence of the Heart Sutra - The Dalai Lama's Heart of Wisdom Teachings", is extraordinary. Also delightful was the Dalai Lama's commentary. Not only was it profoundly revealing of this text's meaning, but it rang with his voice, even through the English translation of his original writing.

I'll leave reading this extraordinary, and very readable, book to you for the full understanding which I could never hope to convey. But as a starting point for those who may not be familiar with the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita), it is considered the deepest level of understanding the Dharma. The perfection of wisdom is expounded in many sutras, often referred to by their line numbers, some supremely long. The Heart Sutra, is one of the shortest of them, and yet contains the full perfection of wisdom in its several short paragraphs. "Essence of the Heart Sutra" also provides a history of the schools of Buddhism, the central tenets of Buddhism, and the place of the perfection of wisdom in all that (as explained by the Dalai Lama). It then includes the full text of the Heart Sutra as translated from the Tibetan by Thupten Jinpa (who also translated the Dalai Lama's portions of the book), and then the Dalai Lama's exposition and commentary on the sutra.

The perfection of wisdom holds dear two key beliefs, the first is in the emptiness of intrinsic (absolute, inherent) existence. The second is in the profound path of the boddhisatva, who is pursuing the Dharma, by means of the perfection of wisdom, for the benefit of all sentient beings to help all sentient beings achieve full understanding of the Dharma themselves.

Here's my best quick attempt to unpack that: Emptiness of intrinsic existence is often mistakenly taken to mean that nothing really exists. That couldn't be further from the truth the Buddha is expounding. Instead, the two truths doctrine explains there is a conventional reality, the reality that we taste, touch, smell etc... where things come and go, are born and die, break and are made, etc... But there is also a second reality, the "ultimate" reality. And in that ultimate reality, there is no intrinsic existence. Things and sensations and thoughts and ways of being "exist" only in relation and dependence on each other. Nothing came into being out of nowhere and nothing ceased with an absolute end to its existence. This is the culmination of understanding dependent origination at its deepest levels.

The principle of emptiness here is about recognizing that there is no everlasting, unchangeable, "essence" of a thing or feeling of thought. The Buddha is saying that there is no inherent existence, no intrinsic existence of a thing independent of anything else. Another way of saying this, is that somethings "own-being" is emptiness/no-self (or lack of inherent existence). When we come to accept the intrinsic emptiness of all things in ultimate reality and see that emptiness at the same time we touch and feel and think in conventional reality, then we can truly experience the Dharma. Early in our practice, a person may be able to accept the emptiness of intrinsic existence at one point (say, during meditation) but then when they notice something (perhaps touch their own skin as they shift position) they lose the ability to hold both thoughts simultaneously. And yet, holding those two thoughts simultaneously is only the beginning, we must work to end the cognitive dissonance between ultimate and conventional reality see how they are one and the same, not two truths, but a single truth. But please don't take this explanation from me. This of course, is only my fabulously mangled summary of a beautiful level of wisdom. That's why you are supposed to read these sutras and commentaries!

In the Dalai Lama's writing in "Essence of the Heart Sutra," he begins by working through the schools and beliefs of Buddhism, ultimately finding a path of reconciliation between them and a warning not to judge others by which school they work through. His heart and kindness, his magnanimity shines through so clearly in embracing all parts of Buddhism but also all other faiths. This section also serves as a pretty good primer on the basics of the first two turnings of the wheel of dharma. However, no brief introduction, as this is, should be seen as sufficient.

I would say the same thing about his commentary on the sutra itself. Having read the Large Sutra and some of the middle length Prajnaparamita sutras, the Dalai Lama's commentary here was perfect and valuable. I could read it and compare and contrast against the thousands of other pages I had read. Had this been my first foray into the Prajnaparamita, I think I would have liked it and recognized its significance, but not necessarily understood it well given that it doesn't spend time going into much depth. However, this short commentary would likely have started me on the journey just fine if it was my introduction. And as an introduction, he does a marvelous job. Basically, either read this to further your knowledge and thinking about the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) because the Dalai Lama has some key nuance in his commentary, or use it to start down a deeper exploration of other texts that you can compare and contrast with his nuance here. The order in which you read these is really inconsequential.

Either way you go at this, at any point in your studies and thinking, this is a profound sutra, beautiful really, as well as a clear, well written, and lovely commentary. As the Buddha also said, you cannot read or learn or think to arrive at the Dharma, the Dharma is a lived experience. The more you surround yourself with it whether through reading the sutra or commentaries, or just puzzling over it in your own life, acting on it where you can, then the more you will begin to be the Dharma - realize your buddha-nature (Tathagatagharba), and develop, live, and cultivate your bodhicitta.

At first I wanted to give you the entirety of Thupten Jinpa's Heart Sutra Translation because for me, it was far more beautiful, far clearer, and far more meaningful than others I have found. However, I also really want you to buy this book. So I will leave you with just the middle passages, the ones that expound the "essence" (pun intended) of the prajnaparamita as contained in the Heart Sutra, to whet your appetite:

When this had been said, the holy Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, spoke to the venerable Shariputra and said, "Shariputra, any noble son or noble daughter who so wishes to engage in the practices of the profound perfection of wisdom should clearly see this way: they should see perfectly that even the five aggregates are empty of intrinsic existence. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not other than form, form too is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty. Therefore Shariputra, all phenomena are emptiness; they are without defining characteristics; they are not born, they do not cease, they are not defiled, they are not undefiled; they are not deficient, and they are not complete. 

"Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, and no mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental objects. There is no eye-element, and so on up to no mind-element including up to no element of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance, there is no extinction of ignorance, and so on up to no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation, or path; there is no wisdom, no attainment, and even no non-attainment.

Please, no matter where you are in your studies, or even if you have no interest in Buddhism at all, no matter what your faith, no matter who you are, buy yourself a copy of "Essence of the Heart Sutra" by the Dalai Lama.

tadyatha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!

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