Essence of the Heart Sutra - Preface
The short Buddhist scripture entitled the Heart of Wisdom, the basis of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings presented in this book, is one of the most sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism that traditionally flourished in India, China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam, and many regions of central Asia, including what is today modern Afghanistan. For more than two millennia this scripture has played an extremely important role in the religious lives of millions of Buddhists. It has been memorized, chanted, studied, and meditated upon by those aspiring to attain what Mahayana Buddhism describes as the perfection of wisdom. Even today, the chanting of this sutra can be heard in Tibetan monasteries, where it is recited in the characteristically deep overtone voice, in Japanese Zen temples, where the chanting is done in tune with rhythmic beating of a drum, and in Chinese and the Vietnamese temples, where it is sung in melodious tunes.
Often referred to by its short title, the Heart Sutra, the interpretation of the subtle meaning of the various passages of this sacred text has produced numerous commentarial treatises over the centuries. In His Holiness’ discourse, we are brought face to face with the rich history of textual interpretation that exists in a great spiritual tradition like Buddhism. So richly textured is the Dalai Lama’s discourse presented here that this book effectively serves as a comprehensive introduction to the central teachings of Mahayana Buddhism.
Historically, the Heart of Wisdom belongs to a well-known class of Buddhist scriptures known as the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, which the noted European scholar Edward Conze, who dedicated much of his life in translating these scriptures, has suggested was composed some time between 100 B.C.E. to 600 C.E.1 On the surface, these scriptures deal with the topic of the perfection of wisdom, which articulates the deep insight into what Buddhists call emptiness. However, as can be seen from both the Dalai Lama’s discourse on the text and from the fifteenth-century Tibetan commentary provided in the appendix, there is a further, “hidden” level of meaning to the text that pertains to the progressive stages of spiritual development eventually culminating in the attainment of full enlightenment. Furthermore, these commentaries also demonstrate how the altruistic intention to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all beings, which is the fundamental motive behind a Mahayana Buddhist’s spiritual quest, is deeply embedded in the meaning of the Heart Sutra. In other words, the central theme of these Perfection of Wisdom sutras is found to be a profound union of compassion and wisdom.
Perhaps to a reader unfamiliar with the Mahayana tradition, it may seem perplexing that a text such as the Heart Sutra, whose core message is a string of negative statements, can be a source of such deep spiritual inspiration to so many people. To dissolve this perplexity it is necessary to have some understanding of the role the language of negation plays in these Buddhist scriptures. From its earliest evolution, one of the central teachings of Buddhism has been to gain freedom from our bondage to clinging, especially to a belief in some kind of enduring reality, whether it be the external world or the internal world of one’s own personal existence. According to Buddhism, the source of our suffering lies in a deeply embedded tendency to grasp at enduring realities where there are none, particularly the tendency to grasp at an enduring sense of self. It is this grasping that gives rise to dysfunction in our interaction with our fellow beings and with the world around us. Since this tendency is deeply rooted in the psyche, nothing short of a radical deconstruction of our naïve understanding of self and world can lead us to true spiritual freedom. The Heart Sutra’s categorical negation of the intrinsic existence of all things, especially the five personal aggregates, can be seen not only as an extension of this key Buddhist wisdom but in fact as a supreme example of such wisdom. This is the key to the overwhelming veneration of this short text in the Mahayana Buddhist world.
In addition to being utilized for deep meditative contemplation on emptiness, the sutra is often chanted as a means of overcoming various factors that obstruct spiritual progress. For example, it is customary in the Tibetan tradition to recite the sutra at the beginning of every teaching session. I remember with fondness the palpable sense of anticipation I used to feel as a teenager when the Heart Sutra was recited at the large congregation of monks and lay people attending the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Dharamsala, India in the early 1970s. The recitation concludes with the statement “May all obstacles be averted; may they be no more; may they be pacified,” which is recited while clapping three times. The idea is that much of what we perceive as obstacles actually stem from the deeply ingrained clinging to our own existence and to the self-centeredness this produces. By reflecting deeply upon the essentially empty nature of all things, we undercut any basis for the so-called obstacles to take root within us. Thus meditation on emptiness, undertaken often on the basis of reciting the Heart Sutra, is considered a powerful method for overcoming obstacles.
Today, I am deeply honored to serve as the translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s authoritative discourse on this sacred Buddhist text. I feel that, in my humble role as the Dalai Lama’s translator, I have been given a precious opportunity to be part of a noble initiative to help enable others, especially millions of fellow Buddhists worldwide, to appreciate the deep insights embodied in this short sacred text.
There are many others whose role has been critical for the success of this project. First and foremost, I would like to express my deep admiration to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for always being such a great exemplar of the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. I thank the Foundation for the Preservation of Mahayana Tradition (FPMT), especially its Spiritual Director, Ven. Zopa Rinpoche and his center, Land of Medicine Buddha, for organizing His Holiness’ teachings in Mountain View, California, the transcripts of which form the primary basis of this book. Supplemental material came from a talk on the Heart Sutra given by His Holiness in 1998 sponsored by Three Rivers Dharma in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I thank Patrick Lambelet for his initial editing, Gene Smith for locating the Tibetan text of Jamyang Galo’s commentary, and David Kittelstrom and Josh Bartok, editors at Wisdom Publications, whose help has been invaluable in making the English text of this book clear and readable. Whatever merits there might be in this endeavor, may they help alleviate the suffering of all beings; may they help us humans to create a more peaceful world.
Thupten Jinpa, Montreal, 2002
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© Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Essence of the Heart Sutra (Wisdom Publications, 2005)
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