Introduction to Heart Blossoms by S. R. Allen


   The Heart Sutra is the shortest sutra in the Mahayana Buddhist collection of writings known as Prajnaparamita.   There are about forty of these sutras still extant in the Sanskrit language in approximately six hundred volumes. The Prajnaparamita Sutra are all intimately related to each other because of the similarity of emphasis they put on the realization of awakening through the blossoming of prajna (supreme, unequaled wisdom), and how this process is essential to the activities of the bodhisattva idealism revealed and explained in Mahayana Buddhism.

     The Prajnaparamita texts belong to the genre of Buddhist writings called Vaipulya, scriptures originally written down in the Sanskrit language. But over time many of them have been preserved only in Tibetan or Chinese translations. These sutras were the first Mahayana scriptures to have become widely available in India. The records of their emergence date to around 100 B.C.E., about four hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.  The Prajnaparamita Sutras are the most extensive and voluminous of all the Mahayana Sutras and are somewhat similar in structure to the earlier Pali Suttas in their method of teaching and in the treatment of subject matter.

    Some of the most reliable scholars of Buddhism posit that unknown Buddhists groups composed the Mahayana Sutras directly from records of the teachings of the Buddha.   The old legends tell us that these texts were wisely hidden away by mysterious beings called nagas until humankind could achieve a higher ethics and morality suitable to receive such knowledge in an appropriate fashion. The Mahayana writings were then first introduced and confined to India by a monk named Nagarjuna. The Buddha had previously said that such a one would be born in the southern part of India about four hundred years later on, and that he would bear the name of the dragon.   In Sanskrit the word for a “dragon in human form” is naga.

   Nagarjuna had given a discourse at the Nalanda Monastery and was there told by nagas that they had kept vital sutras safe in their undersea city, and that these would be available for him to study.   And study them he did – for about fifty years – and then he took them and made them public in India.   Later on Nagarjuna wrote many commentaries on subjects of the Mahayana, the most highly regarded being his Mulamadhyamakakarika, or “Root Verses of the Middle Way”, an abstract exposition on the premier Mahayana doctrine of emptiness.  This became a core text of the later Madhyamaka School that Nagarjuna founded. Nagarjuna is said to have also discovered other texts concealed in towers and other places, and to have lived for more than six hundred years.

  The Prajnaparamita Sutras consistently maintain a determined focus on the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata), or the absence of any inherent or substantial self-existence of things. A Buddhist contemplative practitioner, by way of a progressively deeper understanding of emptiness, is then enabled to manifest prajna-wisdom as a bodhisattva on the Mahayana Path. The Prajnaparamita Sutras extensively use an abstract verbal methodology that is effective in promoting deep understanding in a student of these writings. This method induces the transcendence of the conditional and habitual verbal structures of a deluded individual mind-stream. This helps the contemplative to deconstruct his errant formats of perception and ideas that usually obstruct or hinder the realization of deeper insights. The Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, extensively describe in many detailed ways, both simple and complex, the proper way in which emptiness should be contemplated and understood in order that awakening (bodhi) can occur.

     Most students of Buddhism will probably have come across a famous statement concerning emptiness that comes from the Heart Sutra itself:  “. . .form is none other than emptiness and emptiness is none other than form. Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”   This somewhat mysterious statement will be clarified further on, and it is just this emptiness doctrine that imparts the highest wisdom.  It is widely agreed that only the Buddha taught emptiness, and it is found not just in Mahayana writings, but also in Pali scriptures, though with less emphasis there. The Prajnaparamita texts are essentially concerned with instructions for bodhisattvas who, through deep insight into emptiness, will correctly practice and perfect their skill in the six perfections (paramitas).      This idea marks the beginning of the “second turning of the wheel” of the Buddha’s teachings (dharmacakraparivartana) starting with the Prajnaparamita Sutras. The Pali scriptures containing the “Three Baskets” of the writings (tripitaka) represent the “first turning of the wheel”.   In Pali these are the Vinaya Pitaka, or rules of conduct for monks and nuns, the Sutta Pitaka, which are the recorded discourses of the Buddha, and finally the Abhidamma Pitaka which is the advanced and very detailed philosophical psychology of Buddhism.  The second turning presents a somewhat contrasting approach in the elucidation of the Two Truths compared with that of the fist turning.   These Two Truths are the relative truth (samvritisatya) and the ultimate truth (paramarthasatya), the meanings of which will be addressed in a later section of this commentary.

      In the first turning there were those who were having some difficulty overcoming their conditioned tendencies to regard things as ultimately real, so the Buddha began to expound the deeper implications and meanings of emptiness to them, and thus began the second turning which also depicts quite a contrast between the arhat of the Pali Suttas and the bodhisattva of the Mahayana Sutras.  The main purpose of the second turning is to further reveal the truth about the realities of existence by means of the thorough exposition on emptiness, which in turn reveals the obvious necessity of the paramitas by which the bodisattvas endeavor to move toward perfection and help others along the way.  The third turning of the wheel is represented by the rest of the Mahayana Sutras which also reveal aspects of emptiness as well as explaining such doctrines as the buddha-nature (tathagatagarbha), the mind doctrine (cittamatra), the three natures (trisvabhava), and other aspects of the Buddhadharma that complete and round out the Buddha’s highest teachings.

       In the generations since the Buddha began to elucidate the dharma there has been an unending effort to probe into the essence of these teachings.  Since the Heart Sutra first appeared there have been numerous commentaries written on it by some of the most scholarly Buddhist teachers using widely divergent approaches.  Among the most well-known commentaries are those written by Atisa, Jnanamitra, Kamalasila, Prasastrasena, Srisimha, Vajrapani, and Vimalamitra, all of India. From China, Fa-Tsang and Kukai stand out. From Tibetan tradition, Tendar Larampa, Kenchog Gromne, and the present Fourteenth Dalai Lama have produced noteworthy explanations.  Japan had Hakuin and several others.  Today we find interest in the Heart Sutra has not waned at all and many volumes may be found which are written on it in recent decades.   Most of the commentaries, both past and recent, are written with the idea that the Heart Sutra presents a concise and mature formula which condenses the fundamental Prajnaparamita doctrines in a valuable and useful way. The Heart Sutra seems to be the centerpiece of the vast corpus of Prajnaparamita Sutras, hence its title, “Heart” (hridaya), meaning center, essence, or basis. Since this Heart Sutra is such a centerpiece of the Mahayana emptiness doctrine, it seems auspicious to entitle this commentary according to the way this wisdom blossoms in the contemplative practitioner from his/her own real essence.

   Several commentators have equated the sections of the Heart Sutra with the progressive Five Paths of Buddhahood.   These Five Paths are the Path of Accumulation, Preparation, Vision, Meditation, and No More Learning. Although there are undeniable similarities in the structure of the Heart Sutra with these Five Paths, nowhere within the Sutra itself are they specifically mentioned.  There are also many other subjects covered in the Prajnaparamita Sutras that are not mentioned in the Heart Sutra, so when past commentators suggest that the Heart Sutra is a condensation of all the Prajnaparamita Sutras, it must perhaps be understood as qualifiedly and relatively true. Nevertheless, the subject with which the Heart Sutra is most concerned is the correct way to perceive emptiness and to incorporate that view and realization into daily experience.

   A detailed curriculum of systematized and detailed instruction was developed by Mahayana monastic organizations based on the format and formulas of Nagarjuna.  The students studied the texts assiduously and heard discourses upon them.   Then they reviewed and thoughtfully reflected on them and learned how to debate over the wisdom contained in the sutras and commentaries.  Next, in meditation they learned to apply the knowledge they had gained.  Further on it will be shown how the Heart Sutra indicates and encapsulates this same systematic procedure of study, reflection, and meditation.

      Upon rising from the samadhi “perception of the profound”, mentioned in the Heart Sutra prologue, the practitioner can, like the Buddha, clearly understand reality and existence and experience in a practical and perfectly holistic way instead of in the usual narrow perspective of automated, preconditioned egotistic delusion.  Then there can be a blossoming of prajna revealing bodhi, the awakening that gives freedom and creative potential for the liberation of all beings.

        The Heart Sutra is found in both a longer and in a shorter version.  This commentary refers mostly to the longer version, but both versions are substantially the same except for two differences. The first difference is that the shorter version excludes a prologue and an epilogue found in the longer versions. The second difference is that the shorter version, in some translations, adds a line in the first section, thus he overcame all ills and suffering.   The shorter version is found with and without this line. The only other differences between any versions must be attributed to previous translators of the Sutra who may have included or excluded a word, or of other translators who have used a clarifying creativity in their presentations. The shorter version has been chanted in monasteries, temples, congregations, homes, and gatherings of Buddhists daily for fifteen hundred years or more. It is held dear and esteemed with great loyalty and persistent devotion, memorized and chanted worldwide in many diverse languages still today.

    The Heart Sutra is usually divided into sections by most commentators. The sections in this commentary are called The Title, The Prologue, The Question and the Answer, The Negations, The Mantra, and The Epilogue.  These sections are easily discerned in a casual reading of the Sutra. The following are English language readings of the longer and shorter versions.


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