pali scriptures

the prologue ch 3




    Thus did I hear at one time

   In Sanskrit, evam maya srutam or Thus have I heard or Thus did I hear means that someone actually heard the words of that sutra being spoken. This is the common phrase that opens the sutra text, and is consistent in the Pali Suttas and in the Mahayana Sutras.  The highest probability of who it was who heard and recorded the discourses originally is Ananda. Some scholars have presumed perhaps someone other than Ananda heard this Heart Sutra and set it to record, and that may be a possibility since usually there is no definite attribution as to whom the exact hearer was.   But it was Ananda who was given charge to hear and remember what was said, and to later accurately record the text of each discourse — so the texts themselves proclaim.  The Prajnaparamita Sutras record the Buddha as saying,

“Therefore, Ananda, I entrust you with this deep perfection of wisdom. . . . and that if you forget even one verse of it that would be a serious offense. When it has been learned it should be remembered, spoken and studied, analyzed in each letter, syllable, and word.  With infinite bestowal I entrust you again with this perfection of wisdom that you may not abandon it or forget even a single word”. (paraphrased)

  The debate over who actually heard and recorded the Heart Sutra or any other sutra is of little consequence since we still have every word of the texts.   When a sutra tells who was present at the discourse it is obvious that all present would have heard the sutra.   Although this sutra says that there was a great gathering of monks and a great gathering of bodisattvas present, only Ananda had been entrusted with the task of preserving the teaching.  In the context of what the Heart Sutra offers, the name of the hearer-recorder is insignificant and there is no reason why it should not be Ananda as in so many other instances.

. . .at one time . . . .

    This refers simply to the very instance and occasion when the words of the sutra were spoken and heard.

    The Conqueror was sitting on Vulture Mountain in Rajagriha with a great gathering of monks and a great gathering of bodhisattvas.

    Conqueror is a name given to the Buddha because he has conquered all ills and suffering, all mental disturbances, all defilements.  A conqueror has completely overcome unwholesome mental factors such as delusion, wrong views, greed, hatred, conceit, worry, envy, anger, and many others.   He also has the ability to conquer ignorance in the errant minds of others who can learn to reason and see truth.

. . .was sitting on Vulture Mountain in Rajagriha . . . .

    This mountain was so named because at its top was, and still is, a huge rock that resembles the profile of a vulture.   It is found in Rajagriha in India.

. . .with a great gathering of monks and a great gathering of bodhisattvas.

     In many of the sutras such gatherings were described as huge, numbering thousands of monks and nuns, hundreds of thousands and millions of bodhisattvas, buddhas from billions of world systems, countless devas and innumerable other beings from various planes and dimensions of existence. The descriptions of these gatherings is fantastic and beautiful, promoting the transcendence of limited and constricted mental fabrications and suggesting a gathering of cosmic proportions instead of a small meeting on a mountain top.

     In stating that this particular gathering was attended specifically by monks and bodhisattvas, there is indication that the message being given was suitable for both groups.   In Buddhism a monk (bhikshu) is one who has taken up the official training precepts.  For a monk there are five precepts and a bodhisattva usually has ten.  A bodhisattva is an enlightenment being. The term bodhi means enlightenment.   Sattva means a being with a high or great intention to achieve, a being who is concerned with nirvana for all beings.  The sutras define many different levels and varieties of bodhisattvas according to which stages of the path (bhumi) they have attained. The Prajnaparamita Sutras persistently suggest that one should become a bodhisattva filled with effort to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment while engaging in and promoting compassion throughout all existence.  This bodhisattva aspect is the essential difference between the Mahayana and the non-Mahayana schools of Buddhism.   Paradoxically these sutras also stress that there is actually no such thing as a bhikshu or a bodhisattva, a person or a self.  The solution to this paradox is the understanding of the deep meaning of sunyata, emptiness. The result of understanding ensures the right behavior and activities of a bodhisattva, who knows how to maintain a balance between samsara and nirvana, between the relative and the absolute, this balance being the Buddhist Middle Way — detached from both extremes while realizing the reality of both.

At that time the Conqueror was absorbed in a samadhi on the enumeration of phenomena called “perception of the profound.”

   The phrase At that time denotes the same occasion of the gathering on Vulture Mountain.  . .the Conqueror was absorbed in a samadhi. . .  speaks to the fact that the Buddha had entered into a highly concentrated state of mental focus and remained unwavering in it.  Absorbed means absorption, or a non-distracted applied thought with vigilantly sustained focus.  Samadhi is the resultant state of consciousness that occurs when a contemplative is purposefully and intently stabilized in focus upon one thing.  When buddhas enter into samadhi all those nearby are also greatly effected in their consciousness, and their understanding is heightened through this association.

. . .on the enumeration of phenomena called “perception of the profound ”.

  In the Abhidamma Pitaka, the Pali scriptures which describe in minute detail the Buddhist philosophical psychology, the first of seven books of this “third basket” (pitaka) set of teachings is named the Dhammasanghani.   The meaning of the title of this first book means “Enumeration of Phenomena”.  It lists the categories of the elements of existence, states of consciousness, types of different material phenomena, an explanation of all terms used in the sutta (sutra) and Abhidamma (Abhidharma) texts, and condensed explanations of the Abhidhamma system.  In this context a phenomenon (dhamma/dharma) is that which is really existent, as well as any object of perception.  Since Sariputra plays a crucial part in the Heart Sutra, and the fact that he was the Buddha’s Abhidhamma expert, gives a clue as to why this Sutra records that Avalokitesvara explains the Perfection of Wisdom to Sariputra.   Sariputra was the greatest protagonist of the wisdom of the Abhidhamma in Buddha’s time, and he was a bit perplexed at Prajnaparamita doctrines and its deeper revelation of emptiness.

. . .“perception of the profound ”.

   Something that can only be understood with difficulty is profound, and its perception is that which understands something profoundly, that is, prajna-wisdom.  What is inferred here is the understanding of the meaning of emptiness. The Buddha simultaneously perceives all phenomena as empty in his samadhi and this “perception of the profound” indicates the capability of perceiving directly and simultaneously all the categories of phenomena. Those who are as yet unaccomplished cannot do this. And here this sort of perception refers to the omniscient perception of mahasattva bodhisattvas and buddhas.

      A mahasattva, or great being, is one with very great (maha) intention or mind of aspiration to achieve the highest, as a distinct quality which other bodhisattvas might not as yet possess, having not reached the higher bhumis, the higher stages of spiritual development.

Also at that time, the Bodhisattva, the Mahasattva Avalokitesvara was contemplating the deep meaning of the Profound Perfection of Wisdom and he saw that the five skandhas were all empty of inherent existence.

      Avalokitesvara.  The name means “one who is highly capable of great perception and compassionate conduct to those below.” The Bodhisattva, Mahasattva Avalokitesvara is here on the tenth and highest bhumi, and his capability is to dispel the suffering of others below this stage by teaching and removing ignorance, ignorance being the first cause of the twelve steps of interdependent origination leading always to suffering and rebirth.   This Mahasattva’s compassion is directed efficiently to help remove obstructions and errors and to rend the net of delusion.

. . .was contemplating the deep meaning of the Profound Perfection of Wisdom . . . .

    When studying and thoughtfully reflecting upon specific subjects with intensity of focus, this practice is called contemplation.   The Prajnaparamita has deep meaning concerning emptiness.    Indeed, the whole of the Buddha’s work was explaining the deep meaning surrounding the fact of emptiness and the effects of ignorance regarding the truth of the beginning of suffering.

. . .and he saw that the five skandhas were all empty of inherent existence.

    When the Sutra says that Avalokitesvara saw, it means that he correctly perceived and understood. The five skandhas (the constituents that make up conscious personhood, or presumed individuality) are form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (samjna), mental formations (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana). These skandhas, and all phenomena whatsoever, are all empty (sunya) of inherent existence, which doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but does mean they don’t exist absolutely.  The skandhas, as well as all other objective phenomena do not have ultimacy; they do not exist exclusively as themselves because they arise according to associated conditions that are inclusive of their existence.

    Inherent existence connotes something that exists on its own, comes from itself and is no other, but there is no object, no thing, no person, and no set of skandhas (that are taken to be a person) which can self-exist simply because all that can be perceived arises from some set of previous other conditions. Even the previous other conditions arise from their previous other conditions, ad infinitum, and these are not inherently existent either.   As such, all things are temporary appearances, but because they are perceived through conceptual delusion they are mistaken for absolute entities, essential realities unto themselves.  When emptiness is applied to the errors of perception then pure understanding can arise.  This is the function of prajna. When Avalokitesvara saw that the five skandhas were all empty of inherent existence, he understood and comprehended correctly the teaching of anatman, no-self.   The notion of a self based on a collection of skandhas is a suffering-ridden errant notion.   In the shorter version of the Heart Sutra there is added here a phrase,

. . .thus he overcame all ills and suffering.

   This phrase is a proclamation that the ego-notion, identification with the skandhas, is a root of the origin of suffering.  In Buddhism, two of the most difficult subjects to understand correctly are anatman (selflessness of person) and sunyata (emptiness of phenomena).  Primarily they are both the same doctrine.   The apparent difference lies in the fact that anatman refers only to the selflessness of a merely conceptually designated person.   The fact that a “person” exists only as an errant conceptual designation based on the dependently functioning skandhas is part of the “perception of the profound”, and as few ever perceive this truth in its fullness, it is therefore called profound.

   This completes the comments on The Prologue.


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