the vultures of the Heart SutraPosted: December 28, 2012
The action of the Heart Sutra, in some translations, occurs at a specific place, Massed Vultures Mountain in Rajagriha. This is deeply significant in a way that is hard for us urban sophisticates brought up within an alphabetic writing culture in which time and place – indeed, the whole of nature – can be abstracted completely from a philosophical text, something incomprehensible to people brought up in a purely oral culture, such as the original disciples of Buddha’s time were. The Heart Sutra, written long after the Buddha’s time, is harking back not only to the actual time of Buddha’s teaching but also to an actual place, a place which is wild, untamed, entirely natural, and containing animals that can evoke fear and/or disgust – namely, vultures. And just as vultures are an intrinsic part of those cultures that facilitate ‘sky-burials’, in which human corpses are fed to vultures in order to strip the decaying flesh from the bones, so the Heart Sutra is an attempt to strip the decaying flesh of the ossified conceptual framework of some abidhamma traditions of Buddhism from the bones of unmediated, direct perceptual experience of the here and now itself so that the raw, wild, completely spontaneous, open and creative nature of sensate experience can be reclaimed as the non-logical, ineffable phenomenon that it truly is. Normal experience is anything but ‘normal’; normality and conventionality is imposed on experience post hoc by a conceptual mind that seeks to ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ the original moment of experience, that seeks to establish the ‘reality’, the ‘truth’, or the ‘essential meaning’ of that original moment of experience. We are invited by the Heart Sutra to become vultures, to rip the decaying scales of our conceptuality from our eyes (especially those philosophical concepts acquired from a sclerotic abidhamma tradition), so that our perception is cleared and we once again see what Buddha in the Udana section of the Pali Canon, instructs Bahiya to see:
In the seen, there is only the seen,
in the heard, there is only the heard,
in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
in the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Thus you should see that
indeed there is no thing here;
this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.
Since, Bahiya, there is for you
in the seen, only the seen,
in the heard, only the heard,
in the sensed, only the sensed,
in the cognized, only the cognized,
and you see that there is no thing here,
you will therefore see that
indeed there is no thing there.
As you see that there is no thing there,
you will see that
you are therefore located neither in the world of this,
nor in the world of that,
nor in any place
betwixt the two.
This alone is the end of suffering.” (ud. 1.10)