Commentary on the Heart Sutra
Commentary on the Heart Sutra
Part of a series of teachings from a three-day retreat on the four seals of Buddhism and the Heart Sutra held at Sravasti Abbey from September 5-7, 2009.
- The emptiness of the aggregates and the emptiness of the person
- The five bodhisattva paths
- The four profundities
- How the two truths are the same nature
- The object or field of experience of emptiness
Commentary on the Heart Sutra. (download)
Let’s cultivate our motivation and recall our human potential, our Buddha nature, remembering that we have access to the cooperative conditions to develop this Buddha nature. Let’s really endeavor to do so for the purpose of spreading wellbeing in this world, for the purpose of transcending the ignorance that binds us, and for leading all other beings to be able to transcend that ignorance, its seeds and stains as well—so that everyone may become fully enlightened.
Commentary on the Heart Sutra
There are many different commentaries on the Heart Sutra. When I was in Delhi the March before this last one, His Holiness the Dalai Lama taught on the Heart Sutra, probably in as much time as we’re going to have. I’m using the outline he used at that time, which is Jnanamitra’s outline. It divides the Heart Sutra into sections. I’ll also comment a little bit on some of the sections and what’s going on in them. That’s the sheet of paper that you have.
This sutra was spoken for the benefit of Mahayana practitioners, in other words, those who have the aspiration to become fully enlightened Buddhas for the benefit of all beings. This was so that these Mahayana practitioners who wanted to engage in the perfection of wisdom would be able to do so. The perfection of wisdom, the realization of emptiness, is what leads you to the state of liberation, and in the case of Mahayana practitioners to full enlightenment. So it’s spoken for them.
It was divided into seven outlines (although it seems to me there should be an eighth outline too).
- The setting of the stage, or the preamble
- The entry into wisdom
- The characteristic of emptiness
- The object or field of experience of emptiness
- The benefits or qualities of wisdom
- The fruits of wisdom
- The mantra of wisdom
Lastly, there’s a bit at the end that’s the rejoicing part. There’s not a special outline for that but it indicates the Buddha’s approval of what Avalokiteshvara said.
1. The setting of the stage—the preamble
Thus I have heard: at one time, the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagriha on Vulture’s Mountain together in one method with a great assembly of monastics and a great assembly of bodhisattvas. At that time, the Blessed One was absorbed in the concentration of the countless aspects of phenomena called Profound Illumination.
The setting of the stage or the preamble: it says, “Thus I have heard…” Ananda is the one who is speaking. He was the Buddha’s attendant. After the Buddha’s parinirvana when the 500 arhats gathered to recite and collect together all the teachings of the Buddha, Ananda was the one appointed to speak the sutras because he had listened to them all. So, “at one time, the Blessed One”—in other words, the Buddha—“was dwelling in Rajagriha on Vulture’s Mountain…” This is a place in India not too far from Bodhgaya.
So they’re sitting “together in one method”—with a harmonious mind—“with a great assembly of monastics and a great assembly of bodhisattvas.” If you’ve ever been to Rajgir and to Vulture’s Peak where the sutra was spoken, it’s actually a small place. I think the monastics were small in number but they say the bodhisattvas filled the whole sky. So this was a teaching that went beyond just the human beings on the planet but where the bodhisattvas from the pure land attended as well. So that’s setting the stage.
2. The entry into wisdom
Then, to enter into wisdom, “At that time, the Buddha was absorbed in the concentration of the countless aspects of phenomena called Profound Illumination.” So the Buddha was meditating on emptiness. It was called profound illumination because at that time when he was meditating there was a great light that radiated forth from his body and spread throughout the universe. Of course, only the high bodhisattvas could see this. This light purified the minds of sentient beings; and it helped to ripen their minds so that whatever seeds they had implanted in previous times to understand the far-reaching wisdom—those seeds were able to ripen and mature at that time. He also radiated light to subdue the arrogance of some of the devas, the gods who came, because their bodies also radiate light. The devas are a little bit arrogant. But the Buddha’s body radiated more so it subdued their arrogance.
At that time also Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, was looking perfectly at the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom, perfectly looking at the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates also.
At that time also the noble one, the Arya Avalokiteshvara—or Chenrezig—“the bodhisattva, the great being”—who was a bodhisattva and a great being, a Mahayana arya—“was looking perfectly at the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom”—he was also meditating on the perfection of wisdom.
Here the Tibetan expression is “pha-rol-tu phyin-pa” and it’s often translated as “perfection.” But actually “paro” means “far-reaching” or “to cross over.” That’s why we often translate it as “far-reaching wisdom” instead of “perfection of wisdom.” It’s far-reaching because when this wisdom is developed in the mind it helps us cross over the ocean of samsara—where we’re drowning in our ignorance, afflictions, karma, and dukkha.
3. The characteristic of emptiness
So he was meditating on emptiness, “perfectly looking at the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates also.” “Also” can mean that he was also meditating on emptiness. It can also mean that, in addition to looking at the emptiness of the five aggregates, he was looking at the emptiness of the person. The emptiness of the five aggregates—remember yesterday I was talking about the two kinds of selflessness: the selflessness of phenomena and selflessness of person. The aggregates, which are the components of the self—the five aggregates: form or our body, feeling, discriminations, conditioning factors, and then consciousness (or primary consciousness). These are the five aggregates. The collection of them acts as the basis of designation upon which a person is designated or imputed. When we meditate on the emptiness of the five aggregates—that’s the selflessness of phenomena. When we meditate on the emptiness of the person (which is imputed in dependence upon them)—that’s the selflessness of persons. So the “also” here could also include the selflessness of persons.
Then, through the power of the Buddha, Venerable Shariputra said to Superior Avalokitveshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, “How should a child of the lineage train who wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom?”
“Then, through the power of the Buddha, Venerable Shariputra said to Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being…” The Buddha’s sitting here meditating through this whole sutra. But he blessed or inspired Shariputra’s mind; and inspired Avalokiteshvara’s mind, so that they would have this dialogue for the benefit of all the people who were listening.
Shariputra was one of the Buddha’s senior disciples and was expert in wisdom. With his mind blessed he said to Avalokiteshvara, “How should a child of the lineage train who wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom?”
He’s asking that question. We really have to thank Shariputra for asking this question. He wasn’t sitting there in the back of the room thinking, “Oh, everybody’s going to think I’m so dumb if I ask this question, so I’d better be quiet,” or, “I’ll ask it after the teaching is over.” No, Shariputra just put it right out there and we have to thank him for doing that.
His question was, “How should a child of the lineage”—that refers to a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is like a child of the Buddha because they’re going to grow up to be a Buddha. So how should a bodhisattva who wishes to train in this profound perfection of wisdom go about doing it? You know, you don’t just sit there and say, “Empty, empty, empty,” and realize emptiness. And you don’t just sit there and cross your legs and wait for emptiness to appear. You have to really know what to do.
Thus he spoke, and Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, replied to Venerable Shariputra as follows, “Shariputra, whatever son or daughter of the lineage wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should look perfectly like this: subsequently looking perfectly and correctly at the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates also.”
So, “Thus he spoke, and Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, replied to Venerable Shariputra as follows” and this is what he said. He said, “Shariputra, whatever son or daughter of the lineage”—so whatever male or female practitioner who is a bodhisattva who “wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should perfectly look like this…” Here he is giving a brief explanation.
These particular two paragraphs that start with, “Thus he spoke…” going to the end of the next paragraph ending “…five aggregates also.” These two paragraphs are a brief explanation of how to practice the perfection of wisdom on the path of accumulation and the path of preparation.
When we speak of the bodhisattva’s path, there are five paths that you go through to get to the path of no more learning. (I’m not even on the first one.) The first one is where you have spontaneous bodhicitta, where you have a realization of bodhicitta that is firm and stable. And so when you see a sentient being, this is your reaction, “I want to become a Buddha in order to benefit them.” That marks entering into the bodhisattva path, the beginning of the path of accumulation. The path of accumulation is so called because you’re accumulating merit at that time; and you’re also developing your wisdom at that time.
When you’ve developed enough merit and wisdom such that you have the union of serenity (or shamatha) and insight (or vipassana) on the object of emptiness—but this is a conceptual, not a direct, realization; it’s an inference. That’s the point where you enter into the second path, the path of preparation. During the path of preparation you are preparing to have the direct realization of emptiness. This is said because right now your realization is still a conceptual realization. Conceptual realization of emptiness means that there’s the veil of what’s called a meaning generality [or conceptual appearance]—some general image of emptiness. So you’re again collecting merit that will support your realization of emptiness.
When you get to the point where your understanding of emptiness, where that veil has now fallen away, then the direct perception of emptiness happens. At this point you have the unity of serenity and insight with the direct realization of emptiness. That marks the beginning of the path of seeing—or the third bodhisattva path. And that’s called “seeing” because it’s your first direct experience of seeing emptiness. Then, on the path of seeing what starts is what’s called the ten bodhisattva grounds. You often hear the expression of the ten levels, or stages, or bhumis of a bodhisattva. They start on the path of seeing and they go through the fourth path, the path of meditation.
“Meditation” is so called because it’s from the same verbal root as “to familiarize.” On the path of meditation, on all these ten bodhisattva bhumis, what you’re doing is familiarizing yourself with the realization of emptiness and using it to gradually shed different layers of obscurations. When you get to the eighth bodhisattva level or bhumi, at that point you have shed all the afflictive obscurations that keep you bound in samsara. But it’s only when you complete all ten bodhisattva stages [or bhumis or grounds] and you arrive at the fifth path, the path of no more learning, that at that time you’ve also shed all the cognitive obscurations that prevent you from becoming fully enlightened. The fifth path is the path of no more learning; it’s the path of a buddha. It’s called “no more learning” because you’ve accomplished everything. The first four paths are learning paths.
Here, these two paragraphs, we’re talking about the initial bodhisattva who’s on the path of accumulation and path of preparation. They’re first really working on establishing a correct view and perfecting their concentration and their insight. This is so they can have an inferential realization of emptiness—which is the union of serenity and insight. This [i.e., these two paragraphs] is a summary for that person.
Where he says “subsequently”—subsequently refers to inference. The Tibetan term for inference is related to subsequent. One is “subsequently looking perfectly and correctly”—so one has the right view but it’s an inferential understanding—”at the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates also.” Again, [we have] the five aggregates [referring to] the selflessness of phenomena; and “also” meaning the selflessness of person.
The four profundities
Now with the next paragraph we start the extensive explanation.
Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness. Likewise, feeling, discrimination, compositional factors and consciousness are empty.
Here’s the quintessence: “Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness. Likewise: feeling, discrimination, compositional factors, and consciousness are empty.” This speaks of the four profundities here. Sometimes people translate it as “form is emptiness,” but that’s not actually a correct translation. It’s “form is empty.”
Form is a conventional truth. It’s a conditioned phenomenon, a composite, something that’s produced. Emptiness is its ultimate nature. So form is empty; and then emptiness is an attribute or a quality of form. But form is not the same thing as emptiness. So, “form is empty.” Here, the first profundity is talking about how form is empty. And it’s taking form because that’s the first aggregate. Form here refers to our body. It’s the first of the five aggregates that we’re labeled in dependence upon.
In “form is empty,” emptiness doesn’t mean non-existence. Emptiness means that it’s lacking a certain type of incorrect existence that we have, in our confusion, projected upon it and think that it has. To give a very rough analogy, it’s as if you were born with sunglasses on. Everything you’re seeing is dark. You don’t realize that what you’re seeing is not reality because it’s all you’ve ever known.
That’s kind of like us. We have this ignorance. We see things as inherently existent or they appear to us as inherently existent. We assent to that appearance; and apprehend and grasp them as inherently existent—and we never even see that as a problem because that is what we have always done. However, things do not exist inherently. In other words, they don’t have their own essential nature that makes them, them. They don’t exist independent of any other factors, meaning independent of their causes and conditions—because our body depends on causes and conditions. The body doesn’t exist independent of its parts. It has many parts. It depends on the parts. You can’t have a body without having the parts of the body. The body also depends on the term and concept. Our mind taking those parts and putting them together and saying, “Oh, this is a body,”—giving it the label “body.” So the body is dependent in all these different ways. But we don’t see it as being dependent. We think it has this own essence that makes it stand on its own.
So here Shariputra is talking about the ultimate nature of form: “Form is empty”—it lacks that inherent existence that we think it has.
Then, the second profundity is “emptiness is form.” What this is saying is that we understand that form is a mere appearance and exists by being merely labeled—by mere name. This understanding of dependent arising helps us to understand that form is a manifestation of emptiness. In other words, form exists within being empty. So the ultimate nature of form is emptiness—form is empty. But emptiness doesn’t exist in some other universe somewhere—within emptiness form arises.
Here we’re talking about the conventional nature of form. Actually the last three of the four profundities are dealing with conventional nature of form. Here we’re understanding that within emptiness form arises. So form is a manifestation of emptiness in that respect, in the sense that it arises within emptiness. But don’t think that it’s a manifestation of emptiness in the sense that emptiness is some positive substance that then reappears as form. No, that’s not it. That’s a wrong view.
The third profundity and the fourth profundity are actually stated in the next two sentences. “Emptiness is not other than form; form also is not other than emptiness.” Here what we’re looking at is this: the two truths are the same nature, but they aren’t completely identical. So emptiness is not other than form, meaning it’s the same nature as form. We may tend to think, “Oh, the ultimate truth. It exists somewhere, you know, in some other universe. Here we are in samsara, in our crazy world with our crazy mind; and emptiness, the nature of reality, exists in some other transcendental place that we have to go to.” Wrong! Emptiness is here right now in everything—because emptiness is the ultimate nature of everything. Emptiness does not exist separate from everything else; so emptiness is form. It’s not separate from form. But it’s not exactly the same as form either—because emptiness is an ultimate truth and form is a conventional truth. They’re what we call “one nature but nominally different.” That means the two truths are very close. They’re one nature. They cannot exist without each other. (When we have the direct perception as a Buddha has, these two—the ultimate truth and the conventional truth—don’t appear separately.) So they have the same nature but they aren’t identical. That’s the third of the four profundities.
The fourth of the four profundities, which is also expressed by “emptiness is not other than form, form also is not other than emptiness,” is implied here. This is that the two truths, conventional and ultimate truths, are the same entity but they are nominally distinct. They can’t exist without each other but they’re not exactly the same. To understand this, we must realize both the ultimate nature and the conventional nature of form, and be able to distinguish between the ultimate and conventional natures. So it’s not just realizing emptiness. It’s also realizing that existing as dependent arising and emptiness come to the same point; they aren’t contradictory. If you have that kind of understanding then you don’t fall to the two extremes. One extreme is absolutism—thinking that things exist inherently. The other, the extreme of nihilism, is mistaking emptiness for total nonexistence. Emptiness is emptiness of inherent existence—we may abbreviate saying “emptiness,” but it’s emptiness of inherent existence. It’s not emptiness of existence. Existence and inherent existence are different because existence exists, [whereas] inherent existence has never existed.
Then we move on. The next paragraph is how to practice the perfection of wisdom on the path of seeing. This is when you have your first direct insight if you’re a new bodhisattva, not [a practitioner] transferring from the arhat vehicle [to the bodhisattva vehicle]. This is when you have your first direct perception of emptiness.
Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics. They are not produced and do not cease. They have no defilement and no separation from defilement. They have no decrease and no increase.
Here Avalokiteshvara says, “Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics.” You may say, “But they do have characteristics. This cloth is green and it’s a rectangle and it has texture. It has characteristics.” But what this means is that it doesn’t exist by way of its own characteristics. It doesn’t have inherently existing characteristics. Although it doesn’t say, “having no inherently existent characteristics,” that is implied. Remember earlier in this sutra, we were mentioning the emptiness of inherent existence, that you don’t say it every time. We’re going to come to the part of “no form, no feeling, no discrimination…” You don’t say every time: “no inherently existent form, no inherently existent feeling, no inherently existent discrimination, no inherently existent…” You know what I mean. You’d never get it done! It’s just assumed and carried over from where it’s said earlier in the sutra. It has more impact sometimes this way.
Shariputra, like this all phenomena are merely empty, having no characteristics.
Form has no inherently existent characteristics but it does have conventional characteristics.
They are not produced and do not cease.
A form … well, all phenomena we’re talking about here, they’re not produced. But you’ll say, “They are produced. Flowers grow from seeds.” They are not inherently produced. They don’t arise independent of other things. They do not independently or inherently cease—because something that is not inherently produced can’t inherently cease.
They have no defilement and no separation from defilement.
“They have no defilement…” You’re going to say, “But wait a minute! We just got done talking about yesterday that everything that is contaminated by ignorance is in the nature of dukkha. So wait a minute! Sure they have defilement.” There’s no inherently existent defilement. In other words, defilement is not the inherent nature of anything. But they also have no inherently existent “separation from defilement.”
The separation from defilement refers to the true cessations—what we try to actualize. Those aren’t inherently existent either. Yet sometimes our minds says, “Okay, all these compounded things, the composite things, all the things I see in the world, they’re not inherently existent. But nirvana is the one absolute truth; the separation from defilement—that inherently exists independent of everything else. Emptiness inherently exists. It doesn’t depend on anything.” Wrong! That’s a big mistake, a big mistake. All these things, although they are negations, they still exist dependent on other factors. They still exist dependent on other factors; and they still especially exist due to conception and label.
They have no decrease and no increase.
They have no inherently existent decrease and no inherently existent increase. They do conventionally decrease—your bank account goes down, your bank account goes up. Things decrease and increase, but not inherently.
Then the next paragraph starts the section on how you practice on the path of meditation.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional factors, no consciousness. There is no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no tactile object, no phenomenon. There is no eye element and so forth up to no mind element and also up to no element of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance, and so forth up to no aging and death and no exhaustion of aging and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation or path; no exalted wisdom, no attainment and also no non-attainment.
So, “Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness…” Here, when you are realizing emptiness directly, there is no appearance of any conventional phenomena and there’s no appearance of inherent existence at all. When you meditate on emptiness and have that direct perception, the only thing that appears to the mind is emptiness—nothing else. There’s not even a sense of me who is realizing emptiness. This is what’s meant by non-duality. There’s no sense of me that is realizing emptiness.
Sometimes you hear people say, “I realized I was one with everything.” One and non-duality are very different. This is because one is a positive thing, and to have one, you have to have two, three—you have to have more than one. Non-duality is, you saying, “That’s it.” We’re negating. When you think, “I’m one with everything,” already there’s duality—because there’s I and there’s everything. Here in the direct perception of emptiness the only thing that appears is emptiness. There’s no appearance to the mind of a mind or a consciousness or a person who is knowing emptiness. The subject and object are completely fused. That’s what’s meant by non-duality.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, it’s hard for me to even conceptualize what it must be like to perceive emptiness non-dually. This is because there’s always this feeling of a subject perceiving an object—always. Together with that is the appearance of a truly existent subject and a truly existent object. And we assent to that, we grasp at that. But when you’re having a direct perception of emptiness, there’s no appearance of any conventional phenomena. So when we say, “No form, no feeling, no discrimination…” you have to put “inherently existent” before all of these—so that this whole list of things to come you imply inherently existent before all of them.
When we say, “No form, no feeling, no discrimination, no compositional (or conditioning) factors, no consciousness”—those are the five aggregates. They don’t exist truly. “No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind”—those are the six sense faculties through which we apprehend objects. Then the objects they apprehend, “No form (no sight), no sound, no smell, no taste, no tactile objects, no phenomena.” The faculty, the object, and (we’re coming up to) the consciousness, none of these things exist inherently. They all exist dependently. So, “There’s no eye element and so forth up to no mind element and also up to no element of mental consciousness”—here we’re negating the eighteen elements or the eighteen constituents. That includes the six objects, the six sense faculties, and the six consciousnesses. So it’s saying that everything, our mind, the sense faculty, the object, all these things arise dependently. None of them exist inherently. “There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance, and so forth up to no aging and death and no exhaustion of aging and death”—this is talking about the twelve links of dependent origination which begin with ignorance and end with aging and death. These twelve links talk about how we take rebirth in samsara. These twelve links are also empty of inherent existence; and their cessation or exhaustion is also empty of inherent existence.
Everything our mind is trying to grab onto as existing, Avalokiteshvara is saying, “Forget it! Forget it! None of this inherently exists. Forget it.” Our mind is always, “Well, if I can’t cling to that, I’ll cling to this.”
“Likewise, there is no suffering, origin, cessation or path…” What are those? The Four Noble Truths; and they don’t truly exist either. They don’t have any of their own nature.
“No exalted wisdom”—the wisdom that’s going to liberate us, it also isn’t a truly existent phenomena.
“No attainment and also no non-attainment.” The “attainment” of liberation or enlightenment—that also doesn’t truly exist. And until we’ve gotten there, the “non-attainment”—that also doesn’t truly exist. So everything our mind is definitely trying to clutch onto doesn’t exist in the way it appears to us.
That was the characteristic of emptiness; really explaining what emptiness is.
4. The object or field of experience of emptiness
Now it’s the object or field of experience of emptiness. From now until the end of point five this is also talking about the way to attain the path of no more learning. You can see that here we’re also going through the five Mahayana paths.
Therefore Shariputra, because there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on and abide in the perfection of wisdom; their minds have no obstructions and no fear. Passing utterly beyond perversity, they attain the final state beyond sorrow. Also, all the Buddhas who perfectly reside in the three times, relying upon the perfection of wisdom, become manifest and complete Buddhas in the state of unsurpassed, perfect and complete awakening.
So the object or field of experience, “Therefore Shariputra, because there is no (inherently existent) attainment, bodhisattvas rely on and abide in the perfection of wisdom.” What is the ultimate object of refuge for a bodhisattva? It’s the wisdom that realizes emptiness. Sometimes emptiness of inherent existence itself is called the perfection of wisdom because it’s the object of that wisdom. That’s the object or field of experience of the wisdom.
5. The benefits or qualities of wisdom
Then point five is the benefits or qualities of this wisdom. Because bodhisattvas rely on them what benefits do they get? “Their minds have no obstruction and no fear.” They don’t fear samsara and they aren’t stuck in their self-complacent peace of a hearer’s nirvana. They don’t have that fear either. They have what’s called a non-abiding nirvana.
“Passing utterly beyond perversity”—so no more wrong conceptions, no more ignorance, no more wrong grasping—”they attain the final state beyond sorrow.” The final state beyond sorrow is full enlightenment, this non-abiding nirvana. It’s called non-abiding because it doesn’t abide in samsara. [This is akin to or] like the arhat’s nirvana [which also doesn’t abide in samsara]. But it also doesn’t abide in the arhat’s nirvana which is a state of personal peace. Instead it’s gone all the way to full enlightenment where even the cognitive obscurations have been eliminated. This enables a bodhisattva to become a Buddha and work for the benefit of sentient beings without any impediment whatsoever until samsara is over.
6. The fruits of wisdom
Then the fruit of wisdom is next. This is talking about how you attain enlightenment through relying on the perfection of wisdom in the five paths.
So “Also, all the Buddhas who perfectly reside in the three times (past, present, and future) relying upon the perfection of wisdom, become manifest and complete Buddhas”—they’ve eliminated all obscurations and developed all qualities—”in the state of unsurpassed, perfect and complete enlightenment.” So they’ve been able to transverse all the paths and arrive at full enlightenment, the path of no more learning.
7. The mantra of wisdom
Point seven is the mantra of wisdom. What we had before was the “more extensive” explanation for those who were of more modest faculties. Now Shariputra is going to give the answer for those of the really advanced and high faculties. He does this in terms of the mantra. Mantra means to protect the mind from defilements.
Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the mantra of great knowledge, the unsurpassed mantra, the equal-to-the-unequalled mantra, the mantra that thoroughly pacifies all suffering, since it is not false, should be known as the truth. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is proclaimed: tayata gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha.1
Shariputra, a bodhisattva, a great being, should train in the profound perfection of wisdom like this.
So, “the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the mantra of great knowledge”—because it knows the great seal, the great object emptiness. So it’s the great knowledge. It knows that object. “…the unsurpassed mantra”—so called because there is no mantra that is higher and more superior—”the-equal-to-the-unequalled mantra”—in other words, there’s no mantra that equals this mantra. “…the mantra that thoroughly pacifies all suffering”—so it frees us from samsara and also from self-complacent nirvana.
“The mantra,” the wisdom actually, it’s not the words of the mantra. It means the wisdom because it’s the wisdom that actually protects the mind—”since it is not false should be known as the truth”—what it’s saying is completely non-deceptive and we can trust it.
“The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is proclaimed: tayata gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha.”
tayata: “it is like this”
gate: means “go.” It means “gone,” actually. His Holiness explains it in the past tense, “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond”
soha: “So be it,” or, “May this come about”
The first gate is the path of accumulation; second gate—path of preparation; paragate—path of seeing; parasamgate—path of meditation; bodhi—path of no more learning.
You see how earlier Avalokiteshvara gave this answer that talked about how you meditate on emptiness through these five paths; how you develop your understanding of emptiness starting from nothing and going through to the completion. That whole process of: What is emptiness, how you realize it, how you use it to cleanse your mind and attain enlightenment, is summarized in that mantra tayata gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi soha. You can think of the five paths when you say the mantra.
“Shariputra, a bodhisattva, a great being, should train in the profound perfection of wisdom like this”—if you’re a bodhisattva and you want to train in the profound perfection of wisdom, this is what you’ve got to do.
Now the next part is the approval of the answer given by Avalokiteshvara [to Shariputra’s question.] Can you imagine speaking about emptiness in the presence of the Buddha, while the Buddha’s sitting there? Buddha’s in meditation and you’re the one explaining it? Some people may say, “Oh well, you know, the Buddha’s not teaching. It’s just Avalokiteshvara. What does he know? He’s just like me. I don’t need to listen to what he’s saying.” So to overcome that you have the Buddha coming out of his meditation and saying, “Good, good,” and affirming what Avalokiteshvara said.
Then the Blessed One arose from that concentration and said to Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, that he had spoken well. “Good, good, O child of the lineage. It is like that. Since it is like that, just as you have revealed, the profound perfection of wisdom should be practiced in that way, and the tathagatas will also rejoice.
When the Blessed One had said this, Venerable Shariputra, Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, and that entire assembly of disciples as well as the worldly beings—gods, humans, demi-gods and spirits—were delighted and highly praised what had been spoken by the Blessed One.”
So, “Then the Blessed One arose from that concentration and said to Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, that he had spoken well. “Good, good.” So you said it exactly spot on. He’s not praising Avalokiteshvara. He’s telling everyone else in the audience, “Listen to what he said because he spoke it right.”
And he called him “child of the lineage” because he’s a bodhisattva about to become a Buddha. “It is like that”—like you said. And, “Since it is like that, just as you have revealed, the profound perfection of wisdom should be practiced in that way”—we should practice according to how Avalokiteshvara explained, and if we do, “the tathagatas (the Buddhas) will also rejoice.” Why will the Buddhas rejoice? Because their whole purpose in becoming Buddhas was to benefit us and to help us attain liberation and enlightenment, and finally we’re practicing and doing it. So then the Buddhas and bodhisattvas were so happy. We’re happy when people give us a present; they’re happy when we’re enlightened.
Then the next part is talking about how the followers, the rest of the audience, how they’re pleased and how they take these teachings to heart.
So, “When the Blessed One had said this, Venerable Shariputra, Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, and that entire assembly of disciples”—so all the hearers and solitary realizers also—”as well as the worldly beings”—so the devas, the human beings, the demi-gods, the spirits, probably the ants that were on Vulture’s Peak, and the spiders, and all those beings. Everybody was “delighted and highly praised what had been spoken by the Blessed One.” So at that point they realized that this whole dialogue was actually done under the inspiration of the Buddha and in that way was spoken by the Blessed One—by then Buddha.
We DID IT!!! [applause] Now we just have to actualize it.
Audience: Would you repeat the translation of the mantra?
Venerable Thubten Chodron: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, enlightened (or awakened). So be it.” (Or, “May this come about” or, “May these blessings sink in.”)
While we chant this, there’s a lot to think about, isn’t there? What I really like about this is that there’s a whole scene to it. You can sit there and imagine the whole thing happening. On Vulture’s Peak—they’re all sitting there, and this dialogue’s happening, and what they’re saying. It’s really quite inspiring. It’s like you’re reliving it or re-enacting it when you recite the sutra.
It’s very fortunate to be able to hear this kind of teaching. We should really think about it, and remember it, and put it into practice as much as we can. Even though we don’t understand everything, I certainly don’t—we’re all in the process of training. We all keep on listening and contemplating and meditating and then slowly, slowly, our understanding will deepen. Then we’ll actually be able to enter the first path, second, third, fourth, and then attain Buddhahood.
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awakened, so be it! ↩
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.