Theravada Heart Sutra

Hi folks, scripture study time again! It’s going to be a long post and feel free to revisit it a few times, contemplate it and meditate on it.

The famous Heart Sutra is a Mahayana Scripture, recited by Mahayana Buddhist all over the world. It is a Mahayana text expounded by Avalokitesvara to Sariputta.

It is classified as a Wisdom cultivating scripture because of its profound messages about emptiness or Sunyata. The verse “emptiness is form and form is emptiness” had induced many people to scratch their head in bewilderment.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a sermon by Arhat Sariputta that reminded me of the Heart Sutra while researching the life story of Sariputta.

As we had learnt previously, Sariputta was like a teaching assistant to Shakyamuni Buddha and the Maha-hatthipadopama Sutta was expounded by Sariputta to a group of monks. This sutta is also known as The Great Elephant Footprint Simile. (linked to source where I am referencing)

In this sermon, Sariputta examined the 4 elements as observed in our body and our physical surroundings. (Solid matter, liquid matter, heat element and wind element.) He reminded us that all these elements that made up our body are constantly changing and impermanent. Even the Earth will not be spared from impermanence, not to mention our insignificant physical body. ( Which is so so small when compared with the Earth)

“Now there comes a time, friends, when the external liquid property is provoked, and at that time the external earth property vanishes. So when even in the external earth property — so vast — inconstancy will be discerned, destructibility will be discerned, a tendency to decay will be discerned, changeability will be discerned, then what in this short-lasting body(referring to our physical body), sustained by clinging, is ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘what I am’? It has here only a ‘no.’

Maha-hatthipadopama Sutta

The verses are quite long as Arhat Sariputta walks us through the various elements that we are attached to. In the Heart Sutra, “Form is Emptiness” sums up everything!


Sariputta reminded us that it is pointless to be attached to our physical self since it is made up of impermanent elements that is beyond our control. If one can let go of the attachments and concerns with the physical body, then one will not experience mental stress even if the physical body is suffering.

This verse also invoke a sense of oneness with nature for me. If we examine our physical body in this manner, we are part of our surroundings. Like a drop of water in the vast ocean or a speck of dust on the great Earth. Just as we accept the occurrence of destruction and upheaval in nature, we should also accept the same impermanence with our physical body.

“Now if other people insult, malign, exasperate, & harass a monk [who has discerned this], he discerns that ‘A painful feeling, born of ear-contact, has arisen within me. And that is dependent, not independent. Dependent on what? Dependent on contact.’ And he sees that contact is inconstant, feeling is inconstant, perception is inconstant, consciousness is inconstant. His mind, with the [wind] property as its object/support, leaps up, grows confident, steadfast, & released.

“And if other people attack the monk in ways that are undesirable, displeasing, & disagreeable — through contact with fists, contact with stones, contact with sticks, or contact with knives — the monk discerns that ‘This body is of such a nature that contacts with fists come, contacts with stones come, contacts with sticks come, & contacts with knives come. Now the Blessed One has said, in his exhortation of the simile of the saw, “Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding.” So my persistence will be aroused & untiring, my mindfulness established & unconfused, my body calm & unaroused, my mind centered & unified. And now let contact with fists come to this body, let contact with stones, with sticks, with knives come to this body, for this is how the Buddha’s bidding is done.’

The above verses are repeated 4 times for each elements by Arhat Sariputta. Somehow, it reminds me of the following verse in the Heart sutra.

The Bodhisattva through reliance on Prajna Paramita is unimpeded in his mind. Because there is no impediment, he is not afraid, 
and he leaves distorted dream-thinking far behind. 
Ultimately Nirvana! 

When we perceive our physical self with wisdom, we reduce the mental stress that is created by attachment and desire.

When we accept the inevitable process of aging, we learn to be comfortable in our wrinkled skin.


Sariputta also reminded us of how different elements assemble together to form a new entity.

The Space Property

“Friends, just as when — in dependence on timber, vines, grass, & clay — space is enclosed and is gathered under the term ‘house,’

in the same way, when space is enclosed in dependence on bones, tendons, muscle, & skin, it is gathered under the term, ‘form.’ (our physical body)

The above logic can be applied on all conditioned things. It is interesting to note the logic of how, things arises from an emptiness or space when, the contributing factors are present. In Sariputta’sexample, a space becomes a house when the walls and roof are set.

We then mistakenly believe that things are self existing and become deluded that they are “permanent”. When we look at a house, we see a house (Delusion). We do not perceive it as an assembly of bricks and roof. (wisdom)

This caused an attachment to the house. Whereas, in reality, it is just empty space enclosed by walls and roof. (which is made up of stone, metal and timer etc). To make it worse, people add extra label like, bungalow, condominium, cabin etc. If a house is jus enclosed space, then there will not be envy of another person’s bungalow?

Wisdom in Buddhism, means that we look beyond the surface value of things. When we examine our body, we also break it down into elements.Like what we did to the house.

Once we discern and adopt the reality in our perception, we become dispassionate with things. We accept that things created by assembly of elements will ultimately be disassembled and return to their original elements. They are not truly existing. Phew!

The reason for all this mental exercise, is to achieve a state of non attachment to “Illusion” (Aka emptiness) . The reason why we want that is because it is conducive to our mind development to perceive the Ultimate Truth.

It is also interesting to note that the house simile is being used in the lotus sutra too. (Will discuss that in another post)

P.S. We have to be careful not to fall into nihilistic view. That will be another lengthy post that co-relates to the warning in Surangama Sutra.

Anyway, the Heart sutra also kept it short with “Emptiness is form”

In short, we can appreciate that things arises and destruct in an endless cycle. When we are deluded, we perceive a form whereas the enlightened ones see emptiness.


In the Heart Sutra, we found the following verse.

Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, feeling, cognition, formation, or consciousness; 
no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind; 
no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, objects of touch, or Dharmas; 
no field of the eyes up to and including no field of mind consciousness; 

The following verses taught by Sariputta reminded me strongly of the above verse.

Dependent Co-arising

“Now if internally the eye is intact but externally forms do not come into range, nor is there a corresponding engagement, then there is no appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness. If internally the eye is intact and externally forms come into range, but there is no corresponding engagement, then there is no appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness. But when internally the eye is intact and externally forms come into range, and there is a corresponding engagement, then there is the appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness.

Put simply, in our biology class, we learnt how sight is derived when light enters our eyeballs etc. So we see something. Here, there is a special mention, that we must have the correct mental engagement to see. For example, when we are deepin thoughts, we may see something without the sight registering in our mind.

“The form of what has thus come into being is gathered under the form clinging-aggregate. The feeling of what has thus come into being is gathered under the feeling clinging-aggregate. The perception of what has thus come into being is gathered under the perception clinging-aggregate. The fabrications of what has thus come into being are gathered under the fabrication clinging-aggregate. The consciousness of what has thus come into being is gathered under the consciousness clinging-aggregate. One discerns, ‘This, it seems, is how there is the gathering, meeting, & convergence of these five clinging-aggregates. Now, the Blessed One has said, “Whoever sees dependent co-arising sees the Dhamma; whoever sees the Dhamma sees dependent co-arising.” And these things — the five clinging-aggregates — are dependently co-arisen. Any desire, embracing, grasping, & holding-on to these five clinging-aggregates is the origination of stress. Any subduing of desire & passion, any abandoning of desire & passion for these five clinging-aggregates is the cessation of stress.’ And even to this extent, friends, the monk has accomplished a great deal.

“Now if internally the ear is intact… (repeat above)

“Now if internally the nose is intact…(repeat above)

“Now if internally the tongue is intact…(repeat above)

“Now if internally the body is intact…(repeat above)

“Now if internally the intellect is intact but externally ideas do not come into range, nor is there a corresponding engagement, then there is no appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness. If internally the intellect is intact and externally ideas come into range, but there is no corresponding engagement, then there is no appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness. But when internally the intellect is intact and externally ideas come into range, and there is a corresponding engagement, then there is the appearing of the corresponding type of consciousness.

“The form of what has thus come into being is gathered under the form clinging-aggregate. The feeling of what has thus come into being is gathered under the feeling clinging-aggregate. The perception of what has thus come into being is gathered under the perception clinging-aggregate. The fabrications of what has thus come into being are gathered under the fabrication clinging-aggregate

For me, Sariputta’s version is a detail explanation. The Heart Sutra on the other hand summarised everything with key words. If one is already familiar with Sariputta’s version, reciting the Heart sutra will be like training the mind to revise the concept at nano second!

You can try contemplating the above passages if you want. I hope you enjoyed reconciling the 2 scriptures as much as I do.

May all be well and happy!

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