is the Heart Sutra real?

There are innumerable commentaries upon the Heart Sutra, which, although very short, nevertheless inspires countless people to add their gloss upon the sutra, sometimes at enormous length! The fact that the sutra keeps generating new commentaries is testament to the enduring charisma of the sutra. Some of the commentaries that I have studied and am still studying are:

the heart sutra: the womb of buddhas. Translation & commentary by Red Pine. Counterpoint, 2004.

An Arrow to the Heart: a commentary on the Heart Sutra, by Ken McLeod. Trafford Publishing, 2007.

Infinite Circle: teachings in Zen, by Bernie Glassman. Shambala, 2003.

The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian & Tibetan Commentaries. By Donald S.Lopez, Jr. University of New York, 1988.

Heart of Wisdom: an explanation of the Heart Sutra, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Tharpa, 2005.

All these commentaries use different approaches towards an explication of the sutra, and all of them are of great value, although it is clear to me that none should be venerated as containing a definitive reading of the text. Nor perhaps, in these post-modern times, should we seek such a definitive reading. After all, post-modern Western philosophy has, as one of its enduring themes, the notion that we should understand that no text is capable of a single definitive meaning anyway as each and every reading of a text is just an interpretation, a deconstruction limited by the perspective of the one deconstructing the text; a literal reading of a text is both absurd and impossible. The cultural, linguistic, and historical context within which a text is read is what helps to generate the meanings derived from that text. That does not make all interpretations equal and merely relative, just that it is more difficult to treat any particular reading as ‘authoritative’ relative to other readings. Generating a blind faith in one reading as being ‘authoritative’ without any critical comparison with any other readings, or any deep appreciation of the context in which that reading evolved,  just leads to dogmatism and a narrowing of view, and just doesn’t cut the mustard in the modern world of considered intellectual criticism.

And, from the point of view of one’s own Buddhist practice, which the Heart Sutra is supposed to facilitate, it is one’s own reading of the text that ultimately matters, a reading that inevitably is influenced by whatever other readings of the text one has studied; indeed, it could be argued that one’s own reading of the sutra is  influenced by all the other texts one has ever read, studied or listened to! One brings all of one’s life to the sutra, and, if the sutra comes alive in one’s consciousness, then the sutra bleeds out into all of one’s life, and into one’s readings of all other texts. Indeed, the Heart Sutra could perhaps be viewed as a meta-text, one that tries to say something about all texts and their relation to reality. The sutra could also be treated as a hyper-reality, trying to say something about all realities and the relationship they have with each other. Or perhaps the sutra is not trying to say anything at all but rather trying to evoke questions that each of us can try to answer from our own experience, questions about the paradoxical, ambiguous, nebulous dream-like nature of the relationship between our conscious experience of  reality and ‘reality’ itself, whatever that is! Perhaps the sutra is saying that nothing, or everything, is neither real, nor not-real; that what is most problematic of all is the notion of ‘reality’ itself. Go figure…


2 Comments on “is the Heart Sutra real?”

  1. bussokuseki says:

    My favorite commentary on the Heart Sutra is by Bernie Glassman in “Infinite Circle” – I had chanted it hundreds of times before reading it, and he really helped me to feel it more deeply.

    Thanks for sharing & posting – be well~

  2. DharmaForum says:

    It seems your description of Post-Modernism describes exactly the process by which you come to the Heart Sutra. Understanding that all things are based on your knowledge, experience and background is Prajna itself. If it is perfected it is Prajnaparamita. Prajnaparamita is seeing prajna once you have realised this.

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