The Heart Sutra: What We Perceive Is Not What Is
One of the shortest, most profound, and beautiful of Buddhist texts speaks of the difference between reality and our perception of it.
To speak of the Heart Sutra (or any other Buddhist text), one must understand that Buddhism is a philosophy seeking liberation—a doctrine as philosophical as it is spiritual. It’s never merely a religion. Buddhist logic includes a set of precepts seeking emancipation from suffering, and enlightenment, that is, the experience of the divine. Two main branches of Buddhism need to be understood: Theravada (The School of the Elders) and Mahāyāna (The Great Vehicle). The Heart Sutra is one of the shortest, most mysterious and fascinating texts of this second branch, and probably one of its principle writings.
Also known as the Essence of Wisdom Sutra, for the title in Sanskrit, it’s one of the briefest—though not one of the least—texts of Buddhism. There are also multiple versions of the sutra, multiple extensions, and innumerable translations. It’s recited (and sometimes sung) in all countries where Buddhism is practiced: China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, and India, among others. The Heart Sutra is composed of fourteen shlokas, verses in Sanskrit.
Like many other sutras, this one, of the heart, is composed as a dialogue. It narrates conversations between two figures: Avalokiteshvara (a follower of Buddha who embodies compassion) and Shariputra (one of Gautama Buddha’s two main disciples). The theme of their conversation explores one of the most complex precepts of Buddhism: that of the fundamental emptiness (shunyatá) present in all individuals and characteristic of all phenomena.
Within the dialogue, this vacuum is stipulated to be present with the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas): form (rūpa), sensations or feelings (vedanā), mental activities (samskārā), perceptions (samjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna). Avalokiteshvara later makes one of the most well-known and mysterious phrases in the sutra: “Form is only empty, and the void is truly form.”
Avalokiteshvara speaks of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths —dukha (all existence is unsatisfactory), samudaya (suffering comes from desire, attachment, and ignorance), nirodha (suffering can be overcome) and magga (the noble eight-way path: a correction of understanding, thought, word, action, occupation, effort, attention and concentration). This ensures that in the vacuum, the fundamental vacuum, none of these notions can be applied.
According to experts, Avalokiteshvara expresses himself about teachings which, although they constitute a description of conventional truth, are only a reading of reality and don’t constitute reality in and of themselves. For this reason, doctrines and teachings can’t be applied to The Truth which cannot be fully understood by the mind. Thus, the disciple speaks of the perfection of a wisdom capable of perceiving The Truth without the need for attachment to the concepts of the mind. This is the only way to achieve nirvana or enlightenment, according to the text.
The sutra concludes with a prayer:
Start at the top.
Awaken. So be it.
For a Western person, the concepts of Buddhist philosophy can seem complex and opaque. Such emptiness may be a good example. It’s an ontological characteristic of reality and, at the same time, a phenomenological analysis of experience. In any case, in a simplified reading, fundamental emptiness or vacuous-ness (shunyatá) and its presence in the aggregates of human existence may invite us to the following reflection: if reality exists without our reading of it, such a reading is necessarily an interpretation. And if such an interpretation depends upon our attachment and our ego (other complex concepts), it’s highly likely that it’s tainted by perceptions that are not of the initial reality. Confronting this, there remains but one possible solution, and this is meditation, one of the paths proposed by Buddhism: introspection as a means toward union with the whole.
We grow up and live thinking that our perceptions of reality are precisely reality. We rely on our senses, instincts, and emotions to define the world around us, and in our own likeness. In Buddhism, and particularly in this text, the suggestion is not to trust the ego, a suggestion which invites us to rethink our perception of success, suffering and, in particular, pain.
Image: Public domain
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