The Heart of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

Translated by the Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick


Avalokiteshvara Bodhisatta
deeply practicing the perfection of wisdom at this time,
clearly sees that all five aggregates are empty
and delivered from all suffering and distress.
Shariputra!
Form is no other than emptiness.
Emptiness is no other than form.
Form is emptiness.
Emptiness is form.
Sensation, perception, volition and consciousness
are also like this.
Shariputra!
All phenomena are empty of characteristics.
They neither appear nor disappear.
They are neither defiled nor pure.
They neither increase nor decrease.
Thus, in emptiness there is no form,
nor is there sensation, perception, volition, or consciousness;
no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mental phenomena;
no realm of seeing
and so on until no realm of mental discrimination;
no ignorance,
no end of ignorance,
and so on until no old age and death;
no wisdom and no attainment.
Since there is nothing to attain
a bodhisattva
relies upon the perfection of wisdom, whereby
the mind is unhindered.
Because there is no hinderance
there is no fear.
Far removed from all inverted delusions
nirvana is realized at last.
The past, present and future Buddhas all
rely on the perfection of wisdom in
attaining the supreme perfect enlightenment.
Therefore, know that the perfection of wisdom
is the great sacred mantra,
the great illuminating mantra,
the unsurpassed mantra,
which is able to remove all suffering.
It is true and not false.
Therefore expound the perfection of wisdom mantra.
Now expound this mantra, saying:
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick, 2003

Openness and Compassion

A Heart Sutra Commentary

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This essay was based on a presentation I gave at a Unitarian Church in Philadelphia during the time when I was practicing with the Won Buddhists and before I joined the Nichiren Shu. Rev. Bokin Kim had asked me to go there to represent Buddhism at an interfaith meeting that was being held there. I would be given five minutes to speak about Buddhist spirituality there. I was quite dumbfounded by this request. How can you possibly condense Buddhist spirituality into a five minute talk? At the time, I was studying Zen and the Heart Sutra with Rev. Kim, so I ended up giving a talk which amounted to my understanding of the Heart Sutra. Today, I would do it by explaining the meaning and practice of Namu Myoho Renge Kyo. In fact, that is what I have done at the San Jose Nichiren Buddhist Temple's open houses. Another thing that has changed is that I doubt that any talk I give on Buddhism today would be quite so naively idealistic. In any case, I think this essay still stands as a fair enough introduction to the point of view of Heart Sutra.

Prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom, is the goal and the path of Mahayana Buddhism. In one manner or another the Buddhist sects and religous movements in China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet all seem to share the common goal of awakening the innate wisdom or buddha-nature which all beings are said to share. By doing this, we are freed from the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance and escape the painful round of birth and death. However, the Mahayana view is no mere escapism or world denying quietism, for perfect wisdom also comes to mean mahakaruna, great compassion. Just at the point where wisdom shows the way out, compassion causes one to delay the escape from suffering until all may share in awakening. On an even deeper level, one is also said to realize that there is nothing to escape from in the first place and therefore no escape to speak of.

How can this be? Why should this be? If this kaleidoscopic universe of constant change and transformation through the realms angelic, demonic, and mundane is so full of suffering, then why does the wisdom to escape it necessarily imply a commitment to remain within it? And why would it mean realizing that there is actually no suffering, no causes for suffering, no path, and no goal? These paradoxes are at the core of Mahayana spirituality.

The Mahayana scriptures assert that all things are sunyata, empty. The Heart of Wisdom Sutra asserts, "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form." Now this idea seems intimidating, even nihilistic. It is not. What it actually means is that the reality that we are living in is empty of static, self-existent, independent entities. Fundamentally, there is no self or other because there is no real ground or basis on which to say "I am here experiencing this, and that distinct thing over there is what I am experiencing." To say that there is a self or other is the product of conceptualizations with no basis in reality. Yet, here we are nevertheless! How can life be so colorful and dramatic if nothing exists? Perhaps another saying, this time from the Zen school, will point out the answer: "True emptiness, wonderful being!" Once the perfection of wisdom has broken down the static concepts with which we have cloaked reality we begin to see the dynamic relationality which is the world we live in. Beings exist because all other beings have provided the causes and conditions which allow them to be and vice versa. It is like a never-ending dance.

Here I'd like to mention an alternative translation for the word sunyata, openness. It is openness which characterizes existence. The reality of existence is openness to dynamic relationality. To shut oneself off from others, or to deny change would then be an attempt to thwart the very basis of living in the first place.

Sunyata, the keyword of Mahayana spirituality, characterizes life as empty of any self-existing, static entities, but filled with wondrous beings which arises through openness to change and mutual support. In Won Buddhism, this is taught in terms of the four graces of heaven and earth, parents, brethren, and law. Could any of us be here without the support of the natural world? The water we drink, the fruit and vegetables we eat, the air we breathe, the sun which gives us warmth and the ground we walk upon are all the grace of heaven and earth. Without parents to give birth to us and care for us through infancy we could not survive. This is the grace of parents, of caregivers and nurturers. Could we survive without animals, without a community to help us fill our various needs? This is the grace of brethren. Finally, without the laws which govern society, the laws of justice and morality, and even the laws of nature, would we be able to live? The grace of law provides the means by which order and harmony can be brought out of mere chaos and entropy, whether in nature or in society. The Won Buddhist teaching of the four graces is an attempt to show that life is a constant process of receiving support from others. Though sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes unwittingly, and sometimes half-heartedly, nevertheless, we are also a grace for others as well. With perfect wisdom we fully realize what we are and how we are. We see our emptiness, but we also see the wondrous being which is characterized by openness to others. Once we shift from seeing self to seeing openness, we become truly appreciative of life and fully become a grace for others.

In Mahayana Buddhism, there is an image called the Jewel Net of Indra which symbolizes this teaching of mutual support or grace. The Jewel Net is said to cover the entire universe, and at each intersection of the net is a jewel which reflects all the other jewels in the net and is in turn reflected by them. Each jewel, then, receives all the others and is received by all the others. Living in the Jewel Net of Indra, we realize that there is no such thing as a distinct being who can leave all else behind. Each is in all and all is in each. The perfection of wisdom becomes a one for all and all for one journey. While pefect wisdom reveals the reality which can be characterized by the four graces or the Jewel Net of Indra it also opens us up to the reality wherein one is intimately and inherently involved in the joys and sorrows of all other beings. Our life takes on a new scope. Concern for self is transformed into a universal concern for the grand event which is the life of all things. This is the reality of compassion.

In the deepest sense, there is the growing realization that the whole idea of trying to achieve perfect wisdom and transcend the painful world of birth and death was just a misguided notion in the first place. When one realizes that there is no self apart from the dynamic interplay of reality there is a shift away from self-preoccupation to the great compassion whose scope is an infinite openness. The fate of the self then becomes a non-issue, in a sense one's own suffering becomes insignificant when viewed from the perspective of "true emptiness, wondrous being." At that point, there is a realization that this is true of everyone else as well. A new horizon opens up, wherein we see that self and others are not suffering individuals, but a dynamic relationality. Suffering is no longer viewed as a horrific absolute; rather, it is a limited viewpoint, a self-induced hysteria within this grand process that is life. By shifting our stance from self to openness, we find that suffering is emptied of its horror; just as in becoming adults we leave behind our childhood fears. In the perfect wisdom that is openness, suffering and the cause of suffering, the extinction of suffering and the path to its extinction all fade away like the memories of a nightmare in the morning light. In a way, this is the last laugh enlightenment. We all struggle so hard to escape suffering and find true happiness, and all along reality has been open, graceful and wondrous. Now we just need to awaken the perfect wisdom and the great compassion to see this!

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick 1993. 2001.

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