Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Heart of the Universe - Introduction

Exploring the Heart Sutra

Introduction

At the heart of each of us, whatever our imperfections, there exists a silent pulse of perfect rhythm, a complex of wave-forms and resonances, which is absolutely individual and unique, and yet which connects us to everything in the universe. The act of getting in touch with this pulse can transform our personal experience and in some way alter the world around us.
—George Leonard

The convergence between science and mysticism, between Eastern thought and Western pragmatism and empiricism, and the consequent emergence of a new paradigm in recent times, offers a renewed hope that we can transform ourselves and the world around us. The dangers of failing to do so are readily apparent, mostly in the near destruction of the ecological system of the planet. There are many tools of transformation, but the only place where transformation really takes place is in the human heart. The ancient traditions of the East have sought to understand the nature of reality within one’s own heart. It is not an accident that the Chinese word hsin stands for heart-mind, rather than just one of those two concepts. In the Eastern way of looking at things, the thinking-feeling process is a unified field, in contrast to Cartesian dualism and Western science’s separation of mind and body.

The Buddha spoke of nama-rupa (mind-body) as a continuum. Human experience has shown that the heart-mind, being deeply conditioned, is not an easy place for conflicts to be resolved. Deep meditative insights are just as difficult to be accepted by our conditioned emotional frameworks as the findings of contemporary scientific research. We humans are still guided deeply, perhaps unconsciously, by our emotions, despite our claims to be rational beings. This was brought out most vividly in the intense emotional and even existential crisis that the pioneers of quantum physics (the post-Einsteinian branch of physics that deals with the molecular structure of organisms at the subatmonic or the quantum level) underwent before they could accept the intellectual findings of their own experiments. Einstein reportedly said that “God does not play dice with the universe” on the findings of randomness in quantum mechanics and the uncertainty it generated. To accept that the universe is random or that uncertainty is its prime operating principle requires a huge emotional adjustment.

The Heart Sutra, an ancient scripture from the Mahayana wisdom school of Buddhism, offers us insight into the nature of an ultimate reality through intuitive wisdom. The spaciousness of this insight allows the heart to beat in its naturalness, beyond disputations and ideological arguments. Now that quantum physics has found some interesting parallels to the basic insights of the Heart Sutra, perhaps the intellectual and the intuitive can meet.

Although this commentary intends to view the insights of Mahayana Buddhism in the light of quantum physics, it carries no suggestion that the two are complementary or interchangeable. They are, at best, two entirely different orders of looking at “reality,” each reflecting completely different underlying processes. That these underlying processes happen to converge at some point is the source of a new paradigm. In his pioneering book The Tao of Physics, Fritjof Capra has observed:

The conception of physical things and phenomena as transient manifestations of an underlying fundamental entity is not only a basic element of quantum field theory, but also a basic element of the Eastern world view… The intuition behind the physicist’s interpretation of the subatomic world, in terms of the quantum field, is closely paralleled by that of the Eastern mystic who interprets his or her experience of the world in terms of an ultimately underlying reality.

Buddhists express the same idea when they call the ultimate reality shunyata—“Emptiness” or “the void”—and affirm that it is a living Void which gives birth to all forms in the phenomenal world… Thus the Void of the Eastern mystic can easily be compared to the quantum field of subatomic physics. Like the quantum field, it gives birth to an infinite variety of forms which it sustains and, eventually, reabsorbs.

The effort in this commentary is to see this convergence in a creative light, knowing full well that after convergence the two understandings of reality separate again and their underlying processes take a different turn.

Above all, this commentary on the Heart Sutra is offered in the spirit of a Zen practitioner. It is not intended to be a definitive statement about Mahayana philosophy to be dissected by academic philosophers. This commentary arose out of my own need, and presumably the need of likeminded Zen students, to understand the historical and doctrinal background of this seminal document. But I did not want to get caught in the minutiae of academic analysis and turn this commentary into yet another doctrinal point of view. My focus is not on doctrinal orthodoxy but rather on a radically new understanding of an ancient teaching: the model of the universe set forth in quantum physics.

Since the teaching of the Heart Sutra is centered on insight into “emptiness,” the Sanskrit word shunyata (Pali: suññata) is used here throughout, rather than its quite inadequate English translation. It is thus hoped that the inherent vibrancy of shunyata teachings, which have infused the spirit of Mahayana for the last two thousand years, will emerge in the following commentary. Since the developed tradition of Zen bears the imprint of shunyata throughout, it is hoped as well that readers will approach this commentary through the prism of their own meditation practice, and that the vibrancy of their practice will find resonance in the insights of the sutra. As the pioneering scholar Edward Conze has remarked, “It cannot be the purpose of a commentary to convey directly to the reader the spiritual experiences which a sutra describes. They only reveal themselves to persistent meditation. A commentary must be content to explain the words used.”

A note on the English translation of the sutra: There are many translations of the Maha Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra (Heart Sutra) now being used by various Zen communities in the United States and Europe. The translation used here is claimed to be based on Kumarajiva’s Chinese translation from the early fifth century. It is used by the Kwan Um school of Zen, where I did my own formal Zen training. I am most at home in chanting this version. Other English translations from the same Kumarajiva original may have different renderings. There are difficulties in certain words translated into English from Chinese or Sanskrit. A generation or two of Zen practitioners in the West have become used to chanting their own particular English version, and it’s quite hard to change these habits. I hope that these chanting habits can be momentarily set aside to investigate the spirit of the sutra through its textuality.

 

How to cite this document:
© Mu Soeng, The Heart of the Universe (Wisdom Publications, 2010)

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