The Heart Sutra: Therapeutic Commentary

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    Hanya Shin Gyo: The Heart Sutra

    in old Japanese with English translation

    Kanjizai Bosatsu
    gyo jin hanya haramita
    ji sho ken go un kai ku
    do issai ku yaku

    Quan Shi Yin Bodhisattva
    practises deeply “prajna paramita”,
    sees the five skandhas completely empty
    goes across all affliction.

    Sharishi
    shiki fu i ku
    ku fu i shiki
    shiki soku ze ku
    ku soku ze shiki
    ju so gyo shiki
    yaku bu nyo ze

    Oh Shariputra,
    Rupa [and] shunyata [are] not separate,
    shunyata [is] not apart from rupa.
    Rupa is shunyata,
    shunyata is rupa.
    vedana, samjna, samskara, vijnana:
    are also just the same.
    Sharishi
    ze sho ho ku so
    fu sho fu metsu
    fu ku fu jo
    fu zo fu gen

    Shariputra,
    this empty character in all dharmas
    is not born and does not die,
    is not defiled and is not purified,
    is not gained and is not lost.
    Ze ko ku chu
    mu shiki mu ju so gyo shiki
    mu gen ni bi zets shin ni
    mu shiki sho ko mi soku ho
    mu gen kai nai shi mu i shiki kai

    Therefore, in the middle of emptiness,
    no rupa, no vedana, samjna, samskara, vijnana:
    no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind senses
    no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, or mind objects
    no eye-world and so on to no mind-world.

    Mu mu myo
    yaku mu mu myo jin
    nai shi
    mu ro shi yaku mu ro shi jin
    mu ku shu metsu do
    mu chi yaku mu toku

    Radiance is not lacking,
    so no darkness to destroy,
    and so on to
    no old age and death and no need to destroy them.
    No dukkha, no samudaya, no nirodha, no marga,
    no wisdom and no attainment.

    I mu sho tokku bodaisatta e
    hannya haramita
    ko shin mu ke ge
    mu ke ge ko mu u ku fu
    on ri issai tendo mu so
    ku gyo nehan
    Having nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on the prajna paramita,
    so mind is no obstacle,
    as mind is no obstacle there is no fear;
    going across all troublesome states
    just practise nirvana.
    San ze sho butsu
    e hannya haramita
    ko toku a noku ta ra
    sanmyaku sambodai

    Buddhas, past, present and future,
    depend on prajna paramita other shore wisdom,
    thus arrive at supreme, perfect, enlightenment,
    samyak-sambodhi.
    Ko chi hannya haramita
    ze dai shin shu
    ze dai myo shu
    ze mu jo shu
    ze mu to do shu
    no jo issai ku
    shin jitsu fu ko
    Thus know other shore wisdom
    The great inexplicable mantra
    The great radiant mantra
    The unexcelled mantra
    Incomparable mantra
    able to cut through every affliction.
    It is true. It is not false.
    Ko setsu hannya haramita shu
    Soku setsu shu watsu
    gyate gyate hara gyate
    hara so gyate bodhi sowaka

    So, proclaim the prajna paramita mantra
    That is proclaimed and proclaimed like this:
    Going, going, going beyond,
    going completely beyond, awaken! Svaha!

    COMMENTARY

    This is a commentary on the sutra with the therapist in mind. We are looking at this teaching as a basis for helping those in need, not simply for our own personal practice. For clarity I have adopted the convention of referring to the therapist as “she” and the client as “he” but all the principles set out here apply in exactly the same manner whatever the sex of the therapist or client.
    Kanjizai Bosatsu
    Gyo jin hanya haramita
    ji sho ken go un kai ku
    do issai ku yaku

    Quan Shi Yin Bodhisattva

    This sutra starts with the name of the bodhisattva of love and compassion. This is, therefore, a text about the nature of love and compassion. The name Quan Shi Yin literally means one who hears the cries that come down through the generations. This kind of love, therefore, is full of sympathy for the pain and woe that people have inherited from their own past lives, from their ancestors, and from the culture they have been born into. The term bodhisattva means one who has the courage or spirit to live up to a great vision. Dhi means vision and the syllable bo means to be awake to that vision. Sattva refers to being or spirit. The bodhisattva lives in the spirit of awakening to a perception that goes beyond the ordinary. Compassion and wisdom need each other. Wisdom is not real wisdom unless it acts as compassion and compassion is not effective compassion unless it is wise. Quan Shi Yin is a kind of patron saint of therapists because her mission is to ease the spiritual pain of beings by bringing them to a place of greater wisdom.
    practises deeply

    To practise deeply is not to practise shallowly. To practice shallowly is to follow a technique in the mode of applying a treatment. The person who practises shallowly thinks that by accumulating a certain number of hours of meditation or prayer or by perfecting a certain visualisation or ritual, or by keeping rigidly a set of moral precepts, they will arrive at some kind of personal apotheosis. This does not work. To practise deeply is to enter into the spiritual life in the manner of a person entering into the water and swimming. It is immersion and requires one’s whole being. An actual form is needed but there are many that could be a vehicle for the expression of a pure heart. One does not become compassionate by doing a meditation on compassion three times a week. One becomes compassionate by being moved by the suffering of others and acting on that feeling, and doing so not because “This will make me more compassionate,” but because these people need help and nothing else than helping them would feel as compelling right now. So to practise deeply is to practise from the heart.

    This applies to the kind of practice that we call therapy. For therapy to be deep there has to be a heart to heart communication. The heart has been hurt many times and so has learnt to be well-guarded and always alert. To find one’s way to the heart of another requires one to pass by many obstacles and to give evidence of one’s genuineness each time one encounters a challenge along the way. The person that one would help wants to be sure of being in safe hands, for such hands are rare.
    prajna

    Prajna is wisdom. Especially it is the wisdom that sees beyond the immediate presentation of things. When there is defensiveness, it appreciates the pain that has given rise to the barrier. Prajna sees the longer term and the deeper meaning. Love and compassion need such wisdom. Love is action that is wisely helpful, and not just in a superficial way. It is not love to give a child sweets in order that the child stop screaming. It is love to be sincerely concerned about what the child needs in the long run and to do whatever is conducive to supporting such an outcome. Similarly, in therapy, anything that carries the smell of manipulation, even manipulation in what seems a good direction, is immediately suspect. There is a great difference between wisdom and cleverness.
    paramita

    This is the key word in the whole of this text. This sutra aims to give the core of prajna paramita. Ita means shore. Param means the other side. Paramita thus means the other shore. In other words, it is saying that the wisdom that we need does not come from here. It does not come from within ourselves. It comes from the other side. It is an “other power”. It is cosmic, transcendental, and ultimate. It comes to us through a spiritual opening. The therapist’s own knowledge, skill and experience must be put at the disposal of a wisdom that does not come from the therapist, but emerges from the implicate structure of the situation. In good therapy it feels as though the client and therapist are together following a thread that leads somewhere that is, as yet, unknown to either party. We do not know what will be revealed by the process. This means that the therapist, while using all her skill and knowledge, must nonetheless, and more importantly, remain in a state of not-knowing and allow herself to be guided by the emergent wisdom that only appears step by step, moment by moment, out of the empty space within the encounter.
    sees the five skandhas completely empty

    The term skandha refers to five factors recognised in Buddhist psychology as delineating the manner in which we aggregate experience, make sense of it, become attached to it, cling on to it, and generally build up an accumulation of mental formations that then constitute both our sense of who we are and the parameters within which we make decisions and choices in life. In short, the skandhas are the process by which we create an ego. The ego is the central mental constellation that operates largely unconsciously biassing all perceptions and judgements in a way that makes oneself out as a special case, more important than all other beings. From the perspective of prajna paramita, the ego is illusion. The idea that “I” am special, different, particularly to be privileged, and so on, is simply a false idea.

    Not only is the ego a constellation of delusion, the functioning of this constellation is an obstacle to love. Love values the other. The more one puts oneself first, the less capable one is of loving. Love, when pure, is empty of ego and this is the emptiness that the sutra is referring to.
    goes across all affliction.

    Affliction, dukkha, here means the afflictions of spirit, which is to say the times when one may be spiritually defeated, when one might fall into corruption, cynicism or self-pity. The times of crisis in our lives are such. Birth, disease, old age and death; failure, loss, bad company, humiliation; everything that is conducive to clinging to ego is a time of spiritual danger. At such times love can be lost and small-mindedness can enter in and take up residence in our heart.

    The client is suffering from the effects of such dukkha situations. Their effect is to build the ego structure as self-defence. The problem of the therapist is essentially the same as the problem of the client. They are, together, engaged in an ego-deconstruction project, which may proceed by piecemeal deconstruction or by wholesale re-inspiration, but either way, the path that the therapist is on and that along which the client needs to make progress are essentially the same. The client may not recognise this and does not even need to recognise it, but it may be useful for the therapist to be aware of it. We are all human beings struggling in the same samsaric world.

    To cross this ocean of suffering one needs to be able to float. To float one needs to carry little baggage. The more accumulation you try to take with you the more likely you are to sink. One might think that as soon as the client gets into one’s boat, with all their accumulation, the two of you are going to sink together and this does happen to some would-be therapists. However, this is a magic journey. If the therapist is inspired by the other shore wisdom, however much accumulation the client brings, it becomes light in the therapist’s little boat. Such is the power of faith.
    Sharishi
    shiki fu i ku
    ku fu i shiki
    shiki soku ze ku
    ku soku ze shiki
    ju so gyo shiki
    yaku bu nyo ze

    Shariputra

    Shariputra was the wisest disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha. He knew a lot. Knowing much does not, in itself, guarantee that a person will be loving and compassionate. The sutra is therefore addressing the Shariputra in each of us. The Shariputra in each of us is the part that is clever, that knows all the doctrines, that can answer many questions, that likes the sound of its own voice. However wise or learned one may be, something is still necessary. To be loving we may sometimes have to put our cleverness to one side. It will come in useful later, but it is no substitute for the kind-heartedness which is the core of the Dharma.
    Rupa [and] shunyata [are] not separate,
    shunyata [is] not apart from rupa.
    Rupa [is] shunyata,
    shunyata [is] rupa.

    Rupa refers to appearance. Shunyata is emptiness. Rupa is the world around us, the things we delight in or hate, worship and despise. Shunyata is that emptiness of ego that sees things as they are without the distortion added by self-centred bias. Such emptiness is the ground of love, but love needs expression. Love can only be expressed through the things of this world. Love takes place here, not somewhere else. Rupa and shunyata are both happening in the same place, therefore. They are not apart.

    Rupa originally meant that which is worshipped, like the statue or symbol on the altar. By extension it means anything that we worship in any way, like money or coffee or sex or status and so on. Then it means things that have an attraction for us, anything that holds or attracts or repels the mind. We live surrounded by things that affect us. Emptiness, on the other hand, is the quality of things in themselves, as they are from their own side, divested of our projections and needs.

    Emptiness is the ground of love. Love does not stand upon anything else; love is “for nothing”, it is its own reward. Other things happen because of love, but love is absolute, unconditioned, springing from emptiness.

    Therapy is a kind of love. It is love that heals, love that understands. The primary obstacle to therapy, therefore, is the ego of the therapist. A lack of skill may be a handicap, but nothing like so important as a lack of this kind of emptiness. It is therapeutic to be in that state of emptiness in which love can readily spring up.

    Rupa is, then, also the way that the client presents their problem and their self to the therapist. The client wants to create a particular kind of relationship, to make a particular impression, to hook the therapist in some way. The therapist may get hooked or might avoid the trap, but what is important is that the therapist see the empty quality. The hook is not just evil, the hook is the way into the client’s heart. This is the doorway where we start.
    vedana, samjna, samskara, vijnana:
    are also just the same.

    Rupa, vedana, samjna, samskara and vijnana are the five skandhas. Rupa is the form of things. It is things as we colour them. As we colour them, so we respond to them. If we colour them as friends we respond one way, if enemies, another; if as desirable, one way, if as loathsome, another. This colouring is our knowingness. Vedana is knowingness. It is our tendency towards attraction or repulsion, greed or hate. As soon as we know something in this way we go into a kind of trance, samjna. In the state of samjna we think and act according to routines, well-established in our mentality. These tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. If we know someone as an enemy and we go into our routine way of dealing with an enemy, we will soon see plenty more evidence that can be recruited into our fantasy about how evil this person is, and even if we do not find evidence, we will invent it. Thus we elaborate. This process of elaboration generates mental formations or confections, samskara. Thus we feed our mentality and enter into an attitude toward the world that colours our intentions and thus our attention, all of which then happens unconsciously (vijnana). The skandhas are thus the process whereby we create an unconscious deluded attitude toward the world. In this way all manner of things are recruited into being supports (lakshana) for our ego structure.

    However, here we read that the very skandhas that take us away from emptiness, are themselves empty. They too spring from the same absolute emptiness that is the ground of love. How can this be? In fact, everything is love. Even the most perverted ideas and acts are distorted forms of love. Love springs from absolute, unconditional emptiness, but love operating in the world of conditions inevitably generates conflicts and disappointments. To love one thing may be to oppose another. To enact love one has to use the very skandhas that distort and obstruct it. In therapy the task is, fundamentally, that of uncovering the love at the core of even the most unpromising initial presentation. Love touches the human spirit and that spirit is expressed through the skandhas. A therapist or teacher does not reject them, but uses them, appreciates them and finds the treasure hidden within them.

    This means to not take what happens in the therapy process personally, but to understand it as information that leads you to the heart of the client. If the therapist is a good therapist, generally in a state of empathy for the client, and suddenly finds herself feeling angry toward the client, or resentful, or bored, or any one of a wide range of other such feelings, she does not jump to the conclusion that this is an annoying, exploitative, boring, or whatever person, because she realises that what is happening is some kind of contagion or reaction and that what she is feeling is an indicator of something that is going on in the client. It probably has little or nothing to do with the person of the therapist. This ability to switch off one’s ego and see the phenomena – the skandhas – operating in oneself as information is a vital element in what it is to be a therapist.

    It is not that the therapist arrives at such a professional detachment that nothing happens within them in the course of the relationship. The therapist responds as the ordinary human being that she is, but she does not take these responses in the self-identifying way. She sees them as the source of the most useful information about what is happening. Taking them in this way, a different kind of empathy develops. When the emptiness of the skandha phenomena is seen, love springs up.
    Sharishi
    ze sho ho ku so
    fu sho fu metsu
    fu ku fu jo
    fu zo fu gen

    Shariputra,
    this empty character of all dharmas

    Dharmas are real things. They are fundamentals. Where rupa is things as we see them, dharma is things as they are. Dharma is what is true fundamentally. The sutra says that in all things that are fundamentally true there is emptiness, or, in fact, things as they fundamentally are are emptiness, for as they are is empty of our ego. Things in their fundamental state means things free from the colouring added by the ego. Often in trying to live a spiritual life people want to enhance certain qualities in themselves and diminish others. This is an honourable motivation if the things to be diminished are harmful and the things to be enhanced are beneficial. However, a more mature and better grounded life substantially comes not so much from working on our own qualities and more from relating to life and reality in a more straight-forward, unfiltered way. When we see things as they are we are already in an ego-free zone. In themselves all dharmas are empty of ego.

    An important aspect of therapy, therefore, sometimes called object related work, is about helping the client to explore the real nature of the significant rupas in their life. If the person can move from seeing the rupa to seeing the dharma, a step in the direction of greater sanity will have been accomplished. This is true for all of us. The same is true about the way that the therapist sees the client. If we can get beyond the presenting appearance and encounter the reality, the heart, of the client, then a great sanity enters into the relationship that cuts through many unnecessary complexities.
    is not born and does not die,
    is not defiled and is not purified,
    is not gained and is not lost.

    This emptiness does not increase or diminish, cannot be possessed or appropriated, and does not even really fit into our categories of good or bad, or pure or impure. We are not talking about something that can be earned or obtained, nor that can be lost. It is nobody’s possession, yet it is universally available. This is simply because the whole ego structure is illusion, a distortion that we introduce. From their own side, all dharmas are clean. At the same time, this simple fact also means that all things have the potential for being the ground of love. No matter what happens, it can be the spring-board for the arising of love and compassion. It can be the domain wherein Quan Shi Yin practises deeply.

    This being so, nobody is beyond salvation. It does not matter how much of a mess the client has got into, how evil or corrupt, how miserable or mad, at the core of it all is the same emptiness. This also means that sudden transformations are possible. Often we lack the skill or depth of compassion to find the means, but, in principle, great change is always possible at any time. In practice, the shifts that occur in therapy occur at points in time when what is genuine is touched in some way. It may then take time to work through the change that has occurred, but delusion is dispelled by apodictic evidence and this comes through experience in the relationship at those points when one heart touches another. Such points are rare and precious.

    Ze ko ku chu
    mu shiki mu ju so gyo shiki
    mu gen ni bi zets shin ni
    mu shiki sho ko mi soku ho
    mu gen kai nai shi mu i shiki kai

    Therefore, in the middle of emptiness,
    no rupa, no vedana, samjna, samskara, vijnana:

    This is the other side of the coin. We have seen that it is possible to find the emptiness of the skandhas and thus touch the heart of the other person. Now we see that in that emptiness, the distorting effects of the skandhas, the ego-builder, is not operating. In therapy we must feel passion and also see passion dispassionately. This is the trick of it. To be fully in the process and yet able to stand apart from it at the same time. To be fully human and yet to be able to reflect on the human condition. This is the middle way. If one goes to either extreme the therapeutic effect is lost. If one stands so much outside that one is not moved by the passion in the encounter, then one cannot reach the heart of the other. If one so enters into the passion that one becomes self-identified with it, one cannot be of any use: one simply becomes a protagonist oneself and no therapeutic effect is likely to be seen.
    no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind senses
    no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tangibles, or mind objects
    no eye-world and so on to no mind-world.
    We are normally bound up in the world of the senses. Buddhism has an analysis with eighteen categories consisting of the six senses and for each an organ, an object and a consciousness realm arising from the contact between the two. The other shore is other than this. We are not talking about something that belongs to the empirical world, even though it has palpable empirical effect. Psychological, which is to say spiritual, change, occurs through a metaphysical process. Everything physical is impermanent. Buddhism is about finding a refuge that is not impermanent. The term paramita means metaphysical, beyond the physics. To cure the soul one must rely upon something that comes from beyond, something that is not subject to the same impermanence that is the root of all our suffering. The therapist thus learns to operate in a realm where ordinary logic does not hold, where something can come out of nothing and great transformations can come out of tiny incidents. The something that comes out of nothing is love. Therapy is metaphysical.
    Mu mu myo yaku mu mu myo jin
    nai shi mu ro shi yaku mu ro shi jin
    mu ku shu metsu do
    mu chi yaku mu toku

    Radiance is not lacking, so no darkness to destroy,

    This line could also be translated: no ignorance and no getting rid of ignorance. This latter translation clarifies that there is here an intended contrast with the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination. Dependent origination is a formulation of the idea that all mental states arise in dependence upon conditions. The first condition is usually given as ignorance and this is translated into Sino-Japanese as mu-myo. Myo, however, is vidya, which means radiance. So the dependent origination formula could start with “lack of radiance”. The character of the other shore is great radiance. When a person is in touch with it you can see a radiance in them. It is this radiance that shines in a person’s eyes when they are in a state of love.

    The point is that the effect of the ego is to introduce a dulling or deadness, a lack of radiance, into our life. Such is ignorance: ignorance of the radiant possibility of life. We can live bright shining lives or our sparkle can be turned off. The defensive psychological structures that we create mechanise us, turning us into a kind of machine that does not fully experience life and so does not shine.

    This is a kind of anaesthetic. In order not to leave ourselves open to experiencing hurt and pain we reduce our vitality. The problem is that the anaesthetic screens out the good with the bad. We then notice that our life is dull. We become aware of our deadness. We might then think that the task is to combat our deadness. However this is too convoluted. What is required is not to fight against our own inner obstacles, but rather to start to relate more directly to what is before us. We do not have to create the radiance; it is already there. We simply have to wake up to it and let it in.

    If the client is out of touch with the radiance it may still be the case that the therapist sees the radiance in the client and in this way light may be restored. Even though the client’s life seems dull, bitter, contorted, or whatever, there is still love somewhere at the bottom of what is going on. It may be difficult to find but it is there. The therapist always has faith in the radiance in the heart of the client because she knows that both of them are standing in the same light.
    nor old age and death, no need to destroy them.

    Old age and death are usually the last items in the dependent origination formula. This, therefore, completes the sutra’s apparent overturning of a crucial Buddhist doctrine. Part of the significance here is that no doctrine is ultimate. The ultimate is beyond all formulations. The formulation tells us what happens here in this relative world. In the world of emptiness nothing of the kind takes place.

    Old age and death have both a literal and a symbolic significance. Old age and death are afflictions that come to us all. They are an essential part of life, though often an unwelcome one. Religion offers a path beyond them. Although the body decays, the spirit may, with increasing age, become more mature and refined. Although the body eventually dies, the spiritual path promises greater life beyond. Spiritual life transcends physical and animal life. The death of the body is natural and inevitable, but a spiritual person is in this world but not entirely of this world, because the light that they live by comes from the other shore. Such a person has a great acceptance.

    However jaramarana – literally decay-death-ness – is also a shorthand for the state of dullness when life lacks radiance, the abasement of spirit that is at the core of all states of mental disturbance in which the ego is consuming so much energy that there is little left over for anything else and the sources of replenishment beyond the self pass unregarded.
    No dukkha, no samudaya, no nirodha, no marga,

    Dukkha, samudaya, nirodha and marga are the four “truths for noble ones” enunciated by Shakyamuni soon after his enlightenment. When Shakyamuni gave this teaching it was a kind of Copernican revolution. By saying that dukkha is a truth for noble ones he was over-throwing the whole foundation of the then current yogic philosophy in which rigorous practice was supposed to lead to a state in which the practitioner was immune to all kinds of suffering. Dukkha is suffering and Buddha says that this is a truth for those who have attained spiritual awakening. What is different is not that they do not experience suffering, but that they use the energy that suffering generates in a noble way. Samudaya is the truth that with affliction or danger, energy is aroused. Nirodha is the truth that this energy does not have to be invested in unworthy ways but can be sublimated, which is to say, applied to a sublime purpose. The fourth truth for noble ones therefore, is marga, the sublime path.

    However, as soon as Shakyamuni had uttered these words, while some few understood, most, as is usually the way, only heard what they already thought they knew and wanted to have confirmed, and the four truths were quickly reformulated into a recipe for arriving at a state of immunity to all kinds of suffering. This was done by rearranging them in such a way that the sublime path was seen as the means, rather than the outcome.

    The people of India were focussed on the problem of suffering, which they hoped to be free from through union with God in the afterlife. Modern people are even more obsessed with eliminating not just suffering but even discomfort and a huge energy goes into the manufacture of convenience of all kinds that seem to offer at least relative freedom from suffering without one even having to make any spiritual effort.

    The path of pure love offered by Quan Shi Yin, however, cuts through all this. From the perspective of the other shore, one does not act in a particular way in order to free oneself of suffering, nor even because doing so is part of a spiritual path. One does so because it is simply what is needed at the time. Love is to do whatever sustains the love and faith of the other person and to do so for its own intrinsic excellence.
    no wisdom, no attainment.

    The ultimate wisdom is no wisdom. The ultimate attainment is no attainment. This alerts us to the difference between the spiritual and the absolute. At the spiritual level there are the four truths and there is revelation and meaning, and there is spiritual advancement and falling back, but at the absolute level everything is equal, all are equally worthy, the Buddhas smile on all beings, not just the good ones. All the scriptures can thus be understood either at a worldly or at a spiritual or at an absolute level. At a worldly level they are practical wisdom and even superstitious spells. At a spiritual level they delineate wisdom and attainment, the ways to advance, a methodology and inspiration. At the absolute level, however, there is no attainment, no relativity. This is not just a philosophical assertion.

    The point is that love is grounded in an awareness of the absolute level. The good therapist has unconditional acceptance of the client. This unconditionality is absolute. If it is not absolute then the love is not pure, which, in practice, may well be the case. We are human. Being human we are not perfect and our love is not entirely pure. But nonetheless, such love as we have, such love as we offer, only exists inasmuch as we are in contact with the absolute. Love is unconditional. It is not a function of attainment. The Buddha loves everybody, just as they are. Similarly, the therapist accepts and values the client just as they are. It is, in fact, precisely when this deep acceptance becomes apparent that the client is released and able to move forward again in whatever way is right for them.
    I mu sho tokku bodaisatta e hannya haramita
    ko shin mu ke ge
    mu ke ge ko mu u ku fu
    on ri issai tendo mu so ku gyo nehan

    Having nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on the prajna paramita,

    The bodhisattva is the perfect therapist. She is not trying to attain anything for herself. She is only concerned for the other. Yet this concern is also, in an important way, disinterested. Not only is she not engaged in trying to get something for herself, nor is she trying to get the client to attain something. This is the great paradox of therapy. It is when the client is accepted deeply just as he is that he changes in the most wholesome ways. Change is not attained by pursuing change. True growth comes out of love and love comes out of emptiness.

    Thus, even if the client says that there is an outcome that they desire, the therapist does not then take it that that goal defines the work that is to be done. It only defines the present state of the client. Neither therapist nor client actually know yet what the outcome should be or what the universe requires of them. Therefore the therapist relies upon the wisdom that will come from beyond, that is not yet revealed, but will become apparent, step by step, as the therapy unfolds.
    where mind is no obstacle so there is no fear

    The emptiness of ego is the radiance of the other power. When we turn toward it the wrinkles in our own minds become insignificant, just as when a strong light is shed upon creased paper, the creases become invisible because there is then no shadow. In ordinary life we create so many problems through small mindedness, which is a kind of darkness. When we turn toward the other shore, the shadows vanish and our mind is no longer an obstacle. This does not depend upon us ironing out all the wrinkles. Our power to correct ourselves is valuable and important, but it is puny in comparison to the power of love to cut through all our difficulties. Love takes away fear.

    The therapist may generate hypotheses and interpretations, but she needs to be careful not to let these get in the way. If the therapist starts to hold too tightly to a theory about what should happen or what might be right for the client, it can subvert the therapy process seriously. This does not mean that the therapist does not use her intelligence, but it means that she remains humble, always keeping open the possibility that she might be wrong. When this attitude is lost, therapy degenerates into a battle of wills and nothing useful is gained.
    going beyond all troublesome states

    Love is simply concern for the other in an uncomplicated way. Even at the trivial, everyday level there are many instances in which a person will do something for another person that they care about that they would not trouble to do for themselves. Living alone, a person might eat convenience food, yet when a guest comes, they make a well-prepared meal. Love is the great motivator and saviour. Concern for the other carries us beyond the troubles of our own mind. It is common to identify with the mind and put great store by it. But the mind easily becomes full of rubbish. This accumulation, Buddha called alaya. Of course, all this may be used by love, but too often it merely clutters up our space and eventually goes rotten.

    Most of our troublesome states have some sanity at their origin. We began to think a certain way or act a certain way in order to cope with difficulties of one kind or another that arose in the encounter between our own temperament and the world we inhabit. Although deep down we wanted to be loving, our love met with defeat or frustration and we developed some habit in order to cope. Habits persist, even into different circumstances. Years later we are still doing the same thing, even though it may now be completely anachronistic. There are two ways out of this problem. One is the slow self-power method of piece by piece deconstructing our folly. The other is the cutting through method of turning to the other shore and availing ourselves of its already achieved wisdom, the wisdom of those who are already Buddhas. The latter, however, requires the faith to entrust oneself to a process in which the outcome is unforeseeable.
    there is nothing but just practising nirvana.

    When we turn to the other shore wisdom, life is simplified. All the complications become empty. There is nothing to do except practise nirvana, which is to say, enjoy a loving engagement with life. Life is already sublime; all we have to do is allow ourselves to take part. We have to turn toward it. This is why the Buddhas say that they will come to anybody who calls their name. Unless we call them, they cannot help us. We have, at least, to invite them, then they happily enter into our life. Then we are filled with their radiance. Beyond our simple original prayer, it is nothing to do with ourselves. The Buddhas then do their work through us and we do not always even know anything about it, yet love spreads in the world in an unpretentious way.
    San ze sho butsu
    e hannya haramita
    ko toku a noku ta ra
    sanmyaku sambodai
    Buddhas, past, present and future,

    There is not just one Buddha. There have been Buddhas in many realms and there will be Buddhas in many realms to come. The sense of eternity is an important part of practice. The absolute emptiness is the eternal ground of love. It will always be so. These things are not impermanent. Yet love needs to appear in the midst of impermanent things. Religion is the relationship between the eternal and the impermanent. We, here, in this world of conditions, can inuit the eternal, and thus can have a sense of an endless succession of Buddhas, past, present and future, manifesting in this impermanent world. The Buddhas themselves are conscious of standing in such a line. In the end it is all just Buddhas together with Buddhas.
    depend on prajna paramita other shore wisdom,

    The prajna paramita is the other power that one can rely upon. We cannot always rely upon our bodies, as they are impermanent and dependant upon supportive conditions. We cannot always rely upon our minds because however clever we are we cannot know everything and, in any case, we are swayed by unpredictable passions. However, we can rely upon the other power, the wisdom that comes unseen from the other shore. Buddhas are Buddhas inasmuch as they do so intuitively.

    How do we do this? By abandoning our faith in our own cleverness and our idea of our own special place in the scheme of things. In the case of therapy, this means the therapist giving up knowing what is best for the client while still deeply caring for them. When the client is rupa, the therapist is in a state of reaction and acts from her own prejudices and needs. When the client becomes dharma, he has his own life and his own reasons, his own power and his own responsibility, and the therapist respects him for those. The client ceases to be rupa and becomes dharma when the therapist gives up attachment to ego-centred ideas.
    thus arrive at supreme, perfect, enlightenment,
    samyak-sambodhi

    Enlightenment is to dwell in that light. When that light shines upon us our lives become a mirror of it and love radiates in all directions. All acts in this world are love in some ultimate sense and the more direct the connection between the source and the manifestation the more apparent the enlightenment becomes. We ourselves are not supreme. We ourselves are not perfect. Nonetheless, it is humble, imperfect beings such as ourselves that dwell in the light and become its means of manifestation. It is only through beings such as ourselves that the light can show itself in the world. Thus the therapist, while having a passionate concern for the client and being deeply moved by the client’s story, also has a modesty about her own life. It is this modesty that makes her approachable and enables the client to open his heart to her and confess all the shame and difficulty that he finds himself in. The more disarming the therapist is the more readily the client will open up and the more they open up the deeper the light will penetrate. The words supreme and perfect may sound rather forbidding and distant, but what is meant is simply that this light is the most wonderful thing that we ever experience in our lives and it happens in the intimacy of those moments when human vulnerability is exposed and received in complete tenderness.
    Ko chi hannya haramita
    ze dai shin shu
    ze dai myo shu
    ze mu jo shu
    ze mu to do shu
    no jo issai ku
    shin jitsu fu ko
    ko setsu hannya haramita shu

    Thus to know other shore wisdom

    The purpose of this sutra is to help us to become acquainted with prajna paramita, the transcendent condition that cuts through all ordinary conditions. As we become familiar with this ultimate ground of love, we are able to dwell in the spiritual life in a state of great ease. In this place all troubles fall into a different perspective. In the bigger picture everything can have its place. All manner of life is here and there is nourishment for all.

    For the therapist, the experience of wisdom coming from the other shore is what occurs in therapy when there is genuine therapeutic transformation. This is not an emergence of something already true and existent, nor is it wholly a product of the dynamic of the relationship. The discerning therapist follows a thread that becomes apparent in spontaneous signs in the client which, if attended to in a non-judgemental way, lead on to other signs, eventually revealing a truth that neither party knew beforehand. For the client this is a matter of following the edge of feeling that we call felt-sense, and also of marshalling and rehearsing what is already known, not so much to confirm it as rather to establish the point from which it may be possible to take flight. Something divine occurs. It goes beyond the knowledge of either party and is actually the emergence of something that not only was not known, but was not even the case, before. When a client arrives at the realisation that he loves his mother, say, it may be cathartic and releasing, but this is not something that he has decided rationally, nor is it, perhaps, something that was true before the piece of therapy. Even though it has something of the feel of a revelation, it is not the case that therapy merely reveals what was already so. Rather it allows something new to be born, something that comes from a source that remains mysterious.
    The great inexplicable mantra

    Although we have this and many other wonderful sutras and although we may write innumerable commentaries we can never entirely reduce the meaning to words. Although we may share our experience and each give another pointers and indications, still each must make the acquaintance of other power in his or her own way. In fact there is nothing that one can know in this life as a certain fact because reality is always evolving and developing and what is apparent today was not apparent yesterday and what we think we know today will seem antiquated tomorrow. Nonetheless, there is something upon which we can rely, but it lies beyond this world of conditions. It is known through our deepest intuition, which is yet our simplest and most ordinary. For love is not really esoteric. We all know it, even though we could not fully expound or explain it in a million years.
    The great radiant mantra

    The prajna paramita is empty, yet radiant. Radiance means that there is an energy that we receive, a light and warmth, an experience. This is the energy of life and love. Quan Shi Yin is able to minister to all sentient beings because she is fed by this radiance. This is the glow and fire of faith that comes from acquaintance with what is beyond our ordinary life. She draws upon a source inexhaustible. When we allow this energy to warm our heart, it is as though our spirit can fly. Although the body and mind may sometimes be tired, here there is an energy that never runs flat. Sometimes we turn away from it, but as soon as we turn back it is there waiting for us to plug in. This is a radiance greater than the sun and the moon.
    The unexcelled mantra

    In the worldly mind everything is on a scale, hierarchically arranged. Some things are worth more than others, some actions are more worthy than others, some people are better, more popular, more skilful or more celebrated than others. Thus we take refuge in many things that we think will yield safety or advantage. These, however, are not reliable refuges. They function for a while and then impermanence overtakes them. The way indicated in this sutra is an awakening to the refuge that is reliable, that is not subject to impermanence, that does not fade. From the perspective of ordinary life this means that it is supreme. From its own side, there is no supremacy and no abasement. From the perspective of the complete absence of ego-investment, there is no hierarchy of values. All is equally wonderful. Thus, this is the unexcelled mantra.

    This sense of equality is important in therapy. The client fears to be judged and condemned. We all fear ostracism for revealing who and what we are. Such judgement and rejection rest upon our ingrained ideas about superiority. From the other shore perspective, however, it is reality that is unexcelled and the reality of the client no less. Insofar as what the client reveals leads the therapist to any degree of denigration, to that degree therapy is obstructed.
    Incomparable mantra

    All comparison is invidious. Each moment of faith stands alone, incomparable. Each moment of true meeting, of genuine encounter, is not comparable with anything else. It has a quality of uniqueness. At that moment there is eternity, as if time stopped. This is because at that moment we do participate in the absolute, wherein there is no time as we know it. These timeless moments impact upon us, stay with us, change and guide us.

    A mantra is protection for the mind. The mind cannot find an adequate protection within itself. It has to learn to accept its own vulnerable, limited, fallible nature. Yet this is easier to do knowing that there is a refuge that is beyond the ordinary, a proection that is eternally available, a wisdom that is greater than our wisdom. Then we can be servants in the great house.
    able to cut through every affliction.

    Affliction is a truth for noble ones. It is not something that disappears, but with spiritual help and faith it appears in a very different light and becomes the raw material for a fullness of life and a depth of compassion. There is thus a cutting through the ordinary reaction to suffering.

    The prajna paramita makes suffering empty. The noble spirit is not afraid of suffering. The bodhisattva is willing to do whatever is necessary, whether it involves suffering or not. The therapist is willing to experience the suffering of the client and vicariously suffers with him. We should not think that enlightenment is a matter of seeking comfort and ignoring the challenge of life. Spiritual awakening makes suffering lighter, easier to bear, because it provides a deeper meaning. The person who turns to the other shore power is not defeated by suffering. They take the ups and downs of life in their stride and the great sufferings they take on when they have to, undaunted.
    It is true. It is not false.

    We could say, it is truth, it is not falsity. To allow the prajna paramita into one’s life is simply to live in truth and to live in truth simply. The myriad circumstances of life present themselves and one responds. One calls, another replies. One Buddha speaks, another responds.

    Therapy is about truth. It is a special degree of honesty. Much of our day to day communication involves half truths and is designed more to obtain a favourable reaction from others than to enquire into what is really true. Social life is a life of collusion to maintain certain standards and conventions, judgements and norms. Therapy occurs in a special space in which these social rules are suspended for a time so that an enquiry into truth can be made without the interference of the kinds of defensive reactions that are necessary in social life. This, however, lays bare the fallible, vulnerable nature of what it is to be a human being and it is precisely this vulnerable nature that many of the social rules exist to cover up. A therapist thus needs to learn how to operate in a different way within the therapy space, a way in which truth has a higher priority and convention and judgement are set aside.
    Soku setsu shu watsu
    gyate gyate hara gyate
    hara so gyate bodhi sowaka
    hannya shin gyo
    Proclaim the prajna paramita mantra

    The truth is always true whether we speak or not, but yet it needs to be proclaimed. It is not enough to be completely passive. Although the Buddhas are always reaching out to us, they cannot be effective in our lives without our turning to them. Therefore, calling the Buddha’s name, whether it be Prajna Paramita or whichever, is the essential act by which we take refuge, by which we declare ourselves, and it is by such entrustment that we open a channel from the other shore to this world. The wisdom and compassion that then flows is beyond our understanding.

    Maturity is thus. Maturity brings an ability to stand on one’s own feet and make decisions responsibly while at the same time knowing full well one’s limitations. In the most mature state one is above selfish interest. The truly mature person makes the right judgement even if it goes against her personal interest. Therapy is a process that creates the conditions in which people can become more mature.

    Although the client may feel poor and bereft, the therapist sees the light in him. The client tells his story and in it the therapist hears the prajna paramita being declared. The client’s words of truth speak the whole human condition, which is not just his alone. Thus therapists are in the privileged position of hearing much wisdom in its more touching and human form.
    That is proclaimed and proclaimed like this:
    Going, going, going beyond,
    going completely beyond, awaken! Svaha!

    For us, the absolute is always unfolding, it is something that happens, and goes on happening, unceasingly. Whatever position we cling on to has to be left behind, whatever formulation we have arrived at, perfect as it may be at the time, becomes the spring-board for the next step. Life is always going forward. Love is thus, always helping beings to go forward. The work of the spiritual teacher is to help others to go forward, often by clearing obstacles out of the way. The way that each proceeds, however, is special and unique. Each step is a step into the unknown, into the emptiness from which love can rise up again ever new.

    Thus, the Heart Sutra is the teaching of love given to one already advanced in knowledge, that they may find the unconditional emptiness that is the real basis of love. Therapy is a kind of loving. In it two people enter into a space of emptiness. Both are required, at least to a degree, to leave their egos at the door, the therapist leaving her professional pride in order to enter into a non-judgemental empathy and the client leaving his natural personal pride, at least to an extent sufficient to enable him to divulge his fears, secrets, shame and defeats. In this empty space miracles can happen as a truth that transcends our own human knowledge erupts into our ordinary lives.

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  • #2021

    I love this commentary – its heart (!), and that it makes sense of a text which has always felt a bit impenetrable to me. Thank you Dharmavidya.

  • #2075

    Juline Smit
    Participant

    Wow! This has blown me away.  I have been reading the commentary and chanting the sutra in the morning over the last few days … can’t describe it in words but feels like I know it from somewhere.  What a gift, thank you Dharmavidya for your words.  I feel one can study the sutra and commentary for a life time and on rereading and reflecting still find something new.  The following sentences brought tears to my eyes as it speaks deeply to my personal koan and my experience of taking refuge:

    “Whatever position we cling on to has to be left behind, whatever formulation we have arrived at, perfect as it may be at the time, becomes the spring-board for the next step. Life is always going forward. Love is thus, always helping beings to go forward. The work of the spiritual teacher is to help others to go forward, often by clearing obstacles out of the way. The way that each proceeds, however, is special and unique. Each step is a step into the unknown, into the emptiness from which love can rise up again ever new.”

    Today I am feeling deeply grateful and moved for meeting the Buddha’s teachings, for Dharmavidya and the sangha’s support and guidance and the light of faith in me.

    Namo Amida Bu.

  • #2921

    Jason Harris
    Participant

    This is the best commentary I have read on the Heart Sutra. Thank you ever so much for this!

    Namo Amida Bu!

  • #2928

    Lots to come back to over and over. I will try to remember that this is here and how to find it. A few key points on the wall of the therapy room could be really useful. As your eyes scan the wall in contemplation of something, a chance encounter could change everything!

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