The Heart Sutra is a very important chant in Mahayana Buddhism, chanted by millions of people, but only parts of it come from the original Pali sutras. The Theravada Buddhists don’t have a sutra as such, called the Heart Sutra. Because of historical changes, as described in “Freeing the Buddha” and the brief “Original and Later Buddhism” the Mahayana Heart Sutra has included a false deity called Avalokitesvara. The Mahayana chant is a condensation of the teachings contained in the entire volume of the Prajna-paramita (the ultimate wisdom) Sutra. This commentary refers to the succinct version of the Mahayana Heart Sutra translated by the Nalanda Translation Committee of the Tibetan master, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
‘Sutra’ literally means ‘from the mouth of the Buddha’. Not only does sutra mean the actual words of the Buddha but it also includes a wider scope. It includes the words of others involved in his discourses, and it can include a series of discourses of the Buddha with the stories of where he went and what he and others did at that time. But the Mahayanists have fabricated over 5000 pages of new discourses of the Buddha so a Mahayanist doesn’t know which words are the Buddha’s and which were put in his mouth later by others. This explains why the entire Mahayana Heart Sutra is a book long. The Avatamsaka ‘sutra’ is 39 books long. Only by cross-referencing with the authentic Pali sutras can any Mahayanist, in good conscience, claim to know what the Buddha said about anything.
Many of the bona fide sutras are known as ‘Sariputra sutras’ as the Buddha is not even present. The Buddha’s two chief disciples were Sariputra and Maha Moggallana, best friends since childhood. Sometimes Sariputra and Maha Moggallana would deliver a discourse to the monks and the sutra just refers to the Buddha as dwelling there in that particular monastery. Such a sutra would typically start off like “Thus have I heard. Once the blessed one was dwelling at Jetavana Monastery. At that time Sariputra addressed the monks…” Sariputra is regarded as having the greatest depth of wisdom, next to the Buddha himself. He was like a second Buddha during the Buddha’s ministry.
Some of the pith teachings in the Heart Sutra were chanted in the movie “The Little Buddha,” such as “…seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.” “There is no purity and no impurity, no ignorance and no end of ignorance.” This reflects the Mahayana view of non-duality which contradicts the Theravada view. The view of non-duality holds that there is some ultimate unity between samsara and nirvana such that they are inseparable. But from a Theravada view, this belief borders on the outrageous. In the Pali sutras the Buddha did not teach non-duality of any variety, nor is it implicit in his teachings. Bhikkhu Bodhi has an excellent essay elaborating upon this titled “Dhamma and Non-Duality” which can be found on the link to ‘Access to Insight.’
In the Heart Sutra the protagonist in the setting of this major Mahayana discourse is Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, also known as ‘the white Buddha’. Avalokitesvara is not supposed to be a real historical person, but a deity. The Tibetans call him Chenrezig and some Chinese schools have feminized this deity as Quan Yin. The justification for this is that Avalokitesvara is on such a high level that Avalokitesvara has transcended sexual identity and sexuality altogether. That is why some statues of this principal deity look confusingly half female and half male. In the Heart Sutra venerable Sariputra asks Avalokitesvara a question and this deity of compassion does the talking so this indicates how high up Avalokitesvara is, in their view. It suggests that Avalokitesvara is at a level between Sariputra and the Buddha himself.
This is a false view however because the cult of this deity was invented as a result of Mahayana Buddhism mixing with the Zoroastrian religion around 150 A.D. This was the Iranian connection that occurred in northwestern India during the time of the Kushana empire which bordered on India and Iran. This awkward mix resulted in Pure Land Buddhism which invented this false deity as well as other false deities such as Amitabha Buddha, the Medicine Buddha, Manjishuri bodhisattva, etc.
Devas exist. Deities do not exist.
The devas are angels, higher realm beings, which are not enlightened as a rule. The Mahayana teaches that deities are fully enlightened so they are better and more reliable than devas, they assert. In this way they put down the devas and they further put down the Buddha’s senior disciples by saying that those arahants are ‘less enlightened’ than the (fictional) bodhisattvas- in this case Avalokitesvara. This betrayal of the arahants goes back to the Second Council held 137 years after the Buddha when the precursors of the Mahayana made their first move by jealously turning against the arahants. This was the very conception of Mahayana Buddhism- jealousy against the legitimate representatives of the Buddha. Mahayana literature has been putting down the arahants ever since. The karmic ramifications of Mahayana countries not respecting arahants is explored in the 4th edition of “Freeing the Buddha” which is currently being published by Motilal Banarsidass Publishers in India. For historical evidence regarding the above, see chapters 3, 20 & 21 of “Freeing the Buddha.”
Let’s address the content of the message in this Mahayanasutra, presented as the words of Avalokitesvara. Anatta is the main message of Avalokitesvara’s discourse. Item by item ‘he’ goes through the five aggregates or skandhas of the self (non self) and he says that they are empty of nature. That means the nature of having a truly existing self. He emphasizes anatta, non self and he also puts a big emphasis on ‘emptiness’. The Buddha did teach emptiness in the Pali sutras but the Mahayanists really make a big deal out of it and they equate emptiness with non-duality, which is a wrong view.
The mantra, which is chanted many times in the Heart Sutra is:
OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA.
This literally translates as “Gone gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond, awake, so be it.”
The meaning of this mantra is that it refers to crossing the river of samsara on the raft of the buddhadharma to the other shore, which is enlightenment. ‘Awake, so be it’ is the moment that you step off the raft and abandon it. You don’t carry the raft around on your head. You don’t even cling and attach to Buddhism anymore because this is when you have attained to awakened mind. From that point on your every word and your every move is living dharma. You live every single present moment in the present moment. You are an arahant (or a living Buddha – in the Mahayana view) You can do no wrong!
A simile to understand this is that on this side of the shores of Georgia Straight we are lost and wandering up and down along the coast without a raft. We are wasting our lives going around in circles and getting older but we have heard about the wonderful liberation and emancipation that happy ones have over there, on Vancouver Island. The luminous enlightened land of Vancouver Island with gleaming shining mountains of diamond is like a dream to us because none of us has ever been to Vancouver Island and back so we wonder if it’s really true! Now, with the Buddha’s teaching we earnestly get on board the raft and we paddle with both hands in the cool salty water, to get ourselves and others across.
On the way we see the Pure Land Gulf Islands. We can stop and meditate there to build up our health but we must get back on the raft and paddle to the other shore, which is Vancouver Island. Sometimes fish bite us, sometimes dolphins, eagles and ravens help us along. Once there, we have made it! We have arrived at enlightenment and attained arahantship. We come back to help others and show them the way. An arahant is the most capable of teachers and as long as their life force continues they are there to teach and guide others.
In many of the Buddha’s discourses he delegated the talking to Sariputra. “Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Sariputra said…”, indicates that sometimes Sariputra, the Buddha’s number one chief disciple for 44 years, literally spoke the Buddha’s very thoughts. These two, and some of the other fully enlightened arahants at that time, could read each other’s minds, hundreds of miles apart. It must have been something to see them in operation. Fortunate it is to be born at a time when a Buddha is present. At the end of the Heart Sutra the Buddha speaks for the first time and he simply puts his rubber stamp on what Sariputra and the alleged Avalokitesvara had said. The Buddha invested a lot of trust and confidence in Sariputra, the Marshall of the dharma.