does the Heart Sutra have any heart?Posted: December 28, 2012
One of the creative endeavours I have established for myself in 2013 is to do an intensive study of the Heart Sutra, one of the most revered, and perhaps the most studied, of all the sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. It is short, very punchy, and very readable, especially when read out loud (and I suspect the sutra was designed to be read out loud for maximum effect, echoing the original oral culture of Buddha’s own time, nearly 1,000 years before the sutra was written). The sutra flows, is easily memorised, and has a very direct, personal, earthy style, free from rhetorical flourishes and technical wizardry. But precisely because the sutra is short and sweet, it is enigmatic, mysterious, revelling in paradox and ambiguity, and in flouting the conventions of logic and reasoned argument. Hence the numerous commentaries on the sutra, most of which strive to pin down the sutra, attempting an exhaustive and comprehensive definition of its meaning and attempting to fit the sutra seamlessly into the overall logical structure of Buddhist teachings and praxis as laid out by the tradition in which the commentary is written. The commentaries are often indeed very useful in helping to explicate the sutra, especially when they provide some of the background context within which the sutra was written (and there is a huge context that needs to be understood and appreciated), but none of the commentaries can truly provide the definitive reading precisely because the sutra is itself designed to undercut any such definitive reading Why? Because, for me anyway, the sutra points towards the indefinable openness of direct experience itself in all its raw, sensual, wild immediacy. The sutra is playfully but deliberately subversive, rebellious, teasing and provocative. Yes, one can read anything one likes into the sutra and impose on it any logical structure you like, but it can always be read afresh by each new generation of students of the sutra precisely because it can have such a powerful effect upon the reader, an effect that has to be understood and assimilated by the reader himself/herself through a deeper understanding of the reader’s self rather than through consulting supposedly authoritative commentaries on the sutra. Appealing to authority is no use ultimately in gaining a true understanding for oneself of the power of the sutra when it becomes a living reality in one’s awareness, just as appealing to authority is no use in gaining an ultimate appreciation of what the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings is for oneself.
I suspect the writer of the Heart Sutra understood the essentially private, personal nature of dharma realisations, and therefore the impossibility of ever translating that mystery into a definitive conceptual explication of the meaning of Dharma itself. The Heart Sutra contains a multiplicity of meanings, on a multitude of levels, precisely because it plays with, and subverts, the very idea of anything containing an essential meaning at all. Direct, unmediated experience itself, within the here and now, is open to infinite meanings, and that openness defies all attempts at closure by conceptual explanations that are created after the initial moment of experience itself. The heart of the Heart Sutra is empty of all meaning precisely because it is so full of meanings. The form of the Heart Sutra points towards what is not within its form, towards what is not in any form, just as any form contains everything that appears not to be in that form. The emptiness of a form allows it to contain everything, to be full in a way that it may not initially appear to be. A form may appear to be just a part of the world, but it can be experienced as containing all the parts of the world; it is, to ‘enlightened’ vision the world appearing as that form. William Blake himself would, I think, have understood the sutra and these words of his are, for me, a perfect commentary on the mystical vision at the heart of the sutra:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.