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Reservations Contents  

Introduction about Emptiness and the One Who Perceives It

Sunyata is a key theme of the Heart Sutra. Sunyata is often understood as "emptiness", but may also be understood differently, as in Mahayana scriptures.

Sunyata is a Sanskrit noun derived from 'void'. Over time, many different philosophical schools or tenet-systems developed in order to explain the meaning of sunyata. The exact definition and extent of sunyata varies within the different Buddhist schools of philosophy. In Tibetan Buddhism, detailed dialogues between the perspectives of the various schools are preserved in order to train students.

In the Cittamatra school it is said that the mind itself ultimately exists. In the Tathagatagarbha sutras the Buddha and Nirvana are stated to be real, eternal and filled with inconceivable, enduring virtues. Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra also indicates that to view everything as empty is an unbalanced approach. The Tibetan version of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra says that the attainment of nirvanic Liberation ("moksha") opens up a realm of utter bliss, joy, permanence, stability, and eternity (Dharmakshema "Southern" version).

The Lotus Sutra (chapter 4) states that seeing all phenomena as empty (sunya) is not the highest Buddhic attainment, not the final "gain" or "advantage": the bliss of total Buddha-Wisdom supersedes even the vision of complete "emptiness", and Buddha-Wisdom transcends the perception of emptiness.

The Angulimaliya Sutra explains further that "Liberation is not empty [of existence]" and "Buddha is eternal."

Some others on the Void and Self

According to Dr. Daizetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966), the total self-identity of "I am I" is the state of non-time and is equivalent to the emptiness of Buddhist philosophy. [◦Link]

You must have been there during the void to be able to say that you experienced a void. To be fixed in that 'you' is the quest from start to finish. [. . .] It is the mind that sees objects and has experiences and that finds a void when it ceases to see and experience, but that is not 'you'. You are the constant illumination that lights up both the experience and the void. [. . . Illustration:] In complete darkness we do not see [. . .] and we say: "I see nothing." In the same way, you are there even in the void you mention. - Ramana Maharsi [in Osborne 1971:132]

"Many people are afraid to empty their minds lest they should plunge into the Void. They do not know that their own mind [contains] the Void." (Huang-po, in Blofeld 1959:48)

Dogen [1200-53] says things similar to it:

He denies that sunyata (emptiness), is "nothingness, non-existence, or non-reality." "Sunyata is not non-existence." In Master Dogen's teaching sunyata is not the denial of real existence - it expresses the absence of anything other than real existence." (See Nishijima and Cross, 1996,, ch "Bussho")

The teachings of anatta (Skt: an-atman, non-atman, non-self) and void seem to have been added in the course of time in some schools of Buddhism. In What the Buddha Thought (2009), Dr Richard Gombrich thinks that non-self teachings that were added in Buddhism, stem from a misunderstanding, and holds that a current Buddhist doctrine - that there is no Atman (Self, soul, spirit) - is rooted in a mistranslation of "Things are impermanent, i.e., ever-changing, and by that token they are not satisfactory, and by that token they cannot be the atman [spirit]." Later Buddhists came to interpret the third hallmark in that old doctrine as 'not having a self or essence', but that was not its original meaning, says Gombrich. He finds that both Pali grammar and a comparison with the Vedanta show that the true meaning is 'is not atman' rather than 'does not have atman'. Comparison with the Vedanta further shows that the translation 'self' is appropriate, he sums up (p. 69-70).

Buddha divided answers to questions into four classes:

  • Straight yes or no answers;
  • Analytical answers, defining and qualifying the terms of the question;
  • Counter-questions;
  • Those to be put aside, at least for the time being.

Buddha also warns against drawing inferences from statements that should not have inferences drawn from them, and advocates drawing inferences from those that should . . . It is also well to remember that relevant Buddhist practice hardly calls for more than a loose kind of belief, much like that of working hypotheses [Link].

From these statements and many others it follows that what is called the Great Void (sunyata) is not really vacant, and that is Mahayana doctrine in the matter. Significant Mahayana texts, including the Nirvana Sutra, tell so.


Heart Sutra, or Prajnaparamita Hridaya: Two Versions

The Heart Sutra is of Mahayana Buddhism, and is often cited as a most popular Buddhist scripture. Its Sanskrit name is Prajnaparamita Hridaya - the word "sutra" is not present in known Sanskrit manuscripts. The Sanskrit name literally means "The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom".

The sutra belongs to the Perfection of Wisdom group of Mahayana literature, and in English the short version (the following one) is composed of sixteen sentences. A longer versions exists too, and the short version is the core of it, in Chinese.

When? Recent scholarship is unable to verify any date earlier than the 600s CE. Available evidence points towards it being composed in 500s and 600s.

Where? There are differences of opinion among scholars. The scholar Jan Nattier has suggested that the earliest (shortest) version of the Heart Sutra was first assembled or composed in China in the Chinese language based on a Chinese translation of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra along with new composition. Evidence supports a Chinese version at least a century before a Sanskrit version. Her theory is supported among some other prominent scholars of Buddhism, but is not universally accepted. In short: The composition might be assembled or composed in China and is not taken to be the words of Buddha either.

What does the text say? The sutra describes liberation by meditation-won insight, or deep wisdom. The insight refers to "emptiness" by a contradiction that is loosedly rendered into "All is empty - except this statement". To elaborate a little: Leonard Cohen sings: "There a crack in everything", and it follows too that "There's a crack in the statement that there's a crack in everything."

In the light of the foregoing or the heart-felt wisdom, refrain from buying a silly notion of sunyata as emptiness, for it is not true that "Form is empty. Emptiness is form." The ultimate truth is by definition beyond such comprehending . . . but should be experienced directly. It is awakening, and Edward Conze renders the Heart Sutra mantra into English as: "Gone gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!"

The Diamond Sutra belongs to the same class of Mahayana Buddhist literature.

(Wikipedia, "Heart Sutra")

Heart Sutra, Dr Moriarty's transliteration

deep perfect wisdom action perform luminously
saw five bundles them own nature empty
? saw oh Sariputra

form emptiness evidently form form not different
emptiness emptiness not different form
this form that emptiness this emptiness that form
like this feeling thought choice consiousness

oh Sariputra all dharmas emptiness
mark not born not pure not increase not decrease?
therefore Sariputra in the middle of emptiness

no form no feeling no thought no choice no consciousness
no eye ear no nose tongue body mind
no form sound smell taste touch dharmas
no eye-area up to no mind-consciousness area

no clarity no clarity no clarity exhaustion no clarity exhaustion
up to old age no old age exhaustion
no suffering end of suffering path
no knowledge no ownership no witnessing no thing to own

therefore bodhisattva perfect wisdom dwells
in dwell thought no obstacle clarity exhaustion not clairty exhaustion
up to old age no old age exhaustion
no suffering end of suffering path

no knowledge no property no witnessing no thing to own
therefore bodhisattva perfect wisdom dwells
in dwell thought no obstacle thought no obstacle
no existence fear fright inverse reverse ? separate
perfectly stands nirvana three worlds thing experiences

all buddhas perfect wisdom dwell
unexcelled ultimate perfect insight together? buddhas
therefore should know ? perfect wisdom great charm great clear charm

unexcelled charm unequalled equal charm
all suffering stop terminate genuine real not vain
perfect wisdom declaired charm saying

gone gone totally gone totally completely gone enlightened so be it (gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond the beyond, o bodhi hail!)

[Prepared by Dr. Michael E. Moriarty, Communication Arts Department, Valley City State University, Valley City, North Dakota. Redistribution permitted.]

Who was Sariputra?

Sariputra was one of the foremost disciples of Buddha. He was praised for his wisdom.


The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit and English (Edward Conze)

"There have been several critical editions of the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, but to date the definitive edition is Conze's, originally published in 1948, and then again in 1967. Conze had access to 12 Nepalese manuscripts; seven mss. [manuscripts] and inscriptions from China; two mss. from Japan; as well as several translations from the Chinese Canon and one from the Tibetan. There is a great deal of variation across the manuscripts in the title, the mangala verses, and within the text itself. Many of the manuscripts are corrupt or simply carelessly copied." [Wikipedia, s.v. "Heart Sutra"]

The Heart Sutra

Translated from the Sanskrit by Edward Conze

Om namo Bhagavatyai Arya-Prajnaparamitayai!

Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the Lovely, the Holy!

Arya-Avalokitesvaro bodhisattvo gambhiram prajnaparamitacaryam caramano vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhas tams ca svabhavasunyan pasyati sma.

Avalokita, The Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.

Iha Sariputra rupam sunyata sunyataiva rupam, rupan na prithak sunyata sunyataya na prithag rupam, yad rupam sa sunyata ya sunyata tad rupam; evam eva vedana-samjna-samskara-vijnanam.

Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

Iha Sariputra sarva-dharmah sunyata-laksana, anutpanna aniruddha, amala aviamala, anuna aparipurnah.

Here, Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete.

Tasmac Chariputra sunyatayam na rupam na vedana na samjna na samskarah na vijnanam. Na caksuh-srotra-ghranajihva-kaya-manamsi. Na rupa-sabda-gandha-rasa-sprastavaya-dharmah. Na caksur-dhatur yavan na manovjnana-dhatuh. Na-avidya na-avidya-ksayo yavan na jara-maranam na jara-marana-ksayo. Na duhkha-samudaya-nirodha-marga. Na jnanam, na praptir na-apraptih.

Therefore, Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to: No mind-consciousness element; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment.

Tasmac Chariputra apraptitvad bodhisattvasya prajnaparamitam asritya viharaty acittavaranah. Cittavarana-nastitvad atrastro viparyasa-atikranto nishtha-nirvana-praptah.

Therefore, Sariputra, it is because of his non-attainmentness that a Bodhisattva, through having relied on the Perfection of Wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana.

Tryadhva-vyavasthitah sarva-buddhah prajnaparamitam-asritya-anuttaram samyaksambodhim abhisambuddhah.

All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect Enlightenment because they have relied on the Perfection of Wisdom.

Tasmaj jnatavyam: prajnaparamita maha-mantro maha-vidya-mantro "nuttara-mantro" samasama-mantrah, sarva-duhkha-prasamanah, satyam amithyatvat. Prajnaparamitayam ukto mantrah. Tadyatha: Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhisvaha. Iti prajnaparamita-hridayam samaptam.

Therefore one should know the prajnaparamita as the great spell, the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering, in truth - for what could go wrong? By the prajnaparamita has this spell been delivered. It runs like this:

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!

A NOTE: All is as in Conze's translation, with one exception: "O Sariputra" is "Sariputra" here, as a matter of stylistic preference.


Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, Heart Sutra in two versions, Edward Conze, Mahayana Buddhist Literature  

Blofeld, John. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind. Being the Teaching of the Zen Master Huang Po as Recorded by the Scholar P'ei Hsi of the T'ang Dynasty. Evergreen ed. New York: Grove Press, 1959.

Conze, Edward. Buddhist Scriptures. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.

Gombrich, Richard F. What the Buddha Thought. London: Equinox, 2009.

Nishijima, Gudo Wafo and Cross, Chodo, trs.: Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 2. Windbell Publications. London, 1996.

Osborne, Arthur ed. The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharsi in His Own Words. New ed. London: Rider, 1971.

Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, Heart Sutra in two versions, Edward Conze, Mahayana Buddhism, To top Section Set Next

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