The Gyalwang Karmapa Unlocks the Door to the Heart of Wisdom Sutra
August 15, 2016 – Gurgaon, Haryana, India.
Today’s teachings represent two major firsts for the Gyalwang Karmapa: it is the first time he has taught a sutra of the Buddha, and it is the first time that he has given a course of teachings in Chinese. This event is taking place in the large conference hall of the Hyatt Hotel in Gurgaon where the stage has a simple wide couch with a brocade laid down the middle. Displayed on the screen behind the Karmapa is a golden image of the Buddha known as the Incense Cloud Buddha since through reciting his invocation, clouds of numerous appear, so in the Chinese tradition, he is often supplicated before a teaching. Afterward everyone recited the Vajradhara lineage Prayer and the Heart Sutra.
At the start of this teaching, the Karmapa remarked, “Today is the day India celebrates its independence, and we Buddhists are especially grateful to India as the Buddha’s teachings first arose and spread from here. On this significant day for the country, I would like to offer my deep respect as well as make a vast aspiration for the well-being and prosperity of all Indians.”
He reminded the over 700 people in attendance, who were mostly Chinese speaking, how fortunate they were to hear teachings on the Heart of Wisdom Sutra. He remarked that for a long time, he had had the aspiration to teach a sutra like this because in Tibet it is the commentaries that are usually taught and not the sutras themselves. He hoped that this teaching would be a start for such teachings and that in the future, he could teach the Diamond Cutter Sutra (Vajrachhedika), as it is very important but too long for this occasion. After these introductory words in Tibetan, the Karmapa began his teaching in Chinese.
In addition to commenting on the translations and translators of the Prajna Paramita sutras into Tibetan and Chinese, the Karmapa discussed from the sutra itself these lines: “Thus have I heard. At one time the Bhagawan [the Victorious One] was dwelling at Rajgriha on the Mountain Like Vultures together with a great Sangha of bhikshus and a great Sangha of bodhisattvas.”
He first turned to the translations of the Heart of Wisdom Sutra in Tibetan and Chinese. There were three translations into Tibetan, the most common of which was by Yeshe De in the eighth century. Of the eleven translations into Chinese, nine are still existent, and the most common of these is the one by Master Xuanzang in 260 words. This and Yeshe De’s translation belong to the extensive versions of the Prajna Paramita Sutras. What is the difference between an extensive and condensed version? The later focuses on the meaning itself and the former includes an introduction to the sutra giving its background (time, place, teacher, teaching, and retinue) and also a concluding part that emphasizes the merits of the sutra so that it would be popular and spread widely.
The Tibetan tradition has maintained the explanation of eight Indian scholars, among them the most important and well known was Vimalamitra’s. The two most popular versions are extensive ones; however, recently an old, condensed version in Tibetan was discovered in the Dun Huang area.
The Karmapa then turned to the title of the text, Prajñāparamitā Hṛdaya, as found in the Dung Huang version, translated by Fa Chan from Tufan. Why do we need a title for every sutra? The Lankavatara Sutra states that without a title, people would be confused, so the title helps to grasp the sutra’s meaning, just as in general we name things so they can be understood. In the case of a sutra, the title can reflect its content, or the number of verses or the questioner. There are many ways to name a sutra, and this Heart Sutra is named after its content.
The next topic was an explanation of the meaning of the title word by word. The Chinese has eight characters and in Sanskrit, the title is Prajñāparamitā Hṛdaya. Pra means “accurate” and jñā means “realization” or “perfection” while paramita means “arrived at the other shore.” Hṛdaya points to “the essence” or “the core.” Usually Prajñā is translated as “wisdom” but the word has been so overused that it tends to be confused with mundane intelligence; therefore, we will use here the great tripitaka master Yijing’s translation, “accurate realization” or “accurate perception,” which is closer to the Tibetan word sherab (shes rab, knowing + higher or superior).
The Karmapa then looked deeper into the meaning of the title. Accurate perception can mean “to cognize” or “to know.” There are three types of perception: (1) the mistaken perception of mundane beings; (2) the perception of the Listeners (shravakas) and the Solitary Realizers (pratyekabuddhas), who transcend the mundane world, and (3) the incomparable perception of the tathagatas. Here, it is the third type of prajna that is meant as the first two are not ultimate.
“Accurate” means “the best,” This type of knowing is far better than all the perceptions of the mundane or supreme beings; it refers to the Buddhas’ perception. How then do we classify the perception of all the great sacred beings and bodhisattvas, who have attained the bhumis (bodhisattva levels)? Their perception is the accurate perception of the third type, because it is similar to that of the tathagatas’. Another explanation for accurate perception does not classify it into worldly or not, but speaks of it as the wisdom arising from realizing emptiness.
Paramita refers to having arrived at the other shore, which here means “parinirvana,” whereas this shore means “samsara and nirvana.” Prajna is like a boat that can take those who are struggling in samsara to the other shore of nirvana. We can speak of two explanations for reaching the other shore: (1) an instrument or method allowing us to reach the other shore and (2) already having reached the other shore. The first one refers to those on the path of learning—the bodhisattvas who are moving up the (bhūmis) levels to buddhahood—so such accurate perceiving can lead one to the other shore; it’s the ability to reach the other shore, which would mean the eleventh bodhisattva level (bhūmi), the final fruition, the attainment of buddhahood. This explanation follows Chandrakirti’s Entering the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra).
Usually, when we speak of prajna, we are talking about the realization of emptiness, but actually it can also mean the sutras on prajna, which refer to emptiness; the path of prajna, which is the Buddha’s wisdom; and the fruition of prajna, which refers to the Buddha’s vast omniscience. This one is the ultimate prajna, the ultimate other shore; the former two are not ultimate because one has not arrived at the other shore. This explanation comes from Dignaga’s Summary of the Meaning of the 8,000 Verses of the Prajnaparamita Sutra (Arya prajna paramita samgraha karika). To summarize, when we refer to prajna, we are mainly referring to the realization of emptiness, prajna as fruition.
The next topic concerned the translators of the sutra. Venerable Fa Chen from Tufan translated the sutra from Tibetan into Chinese using a sutra that was kept in the Dun Huang caves. Fa Chen was one of the rare masters who were fluent in Chinese and Sanskrit as well as Tibetan. He also translated texts, such as the Discourse on the Stages of Yogic Practice, Mahayana Mahaparamita Sutra, and others from Chinese into Tibetan as well as the important Commentary on the Explanation of the Profound Secrets by Master Xi Ming Yuan Che, which is the most essential text for Tibetans studying the the Mind Only School. It is also said that he translated Xuanzang’s Prajna Paramita sutras from Chinese to Tibetan. In brief, he was a rare and great scholar. One professor in the early years of the Republic of China, compared Fa Chen’s contribution to Tibet to that of Xuanzang’s to China.
The Karmapa then turned to the main text, which can be divided into eight sections: (1) the prologue, (2) the time, (3) the retinue, (4) the causes and conditions, (5) the question, (6) the answer, (7) the explanation, and (8) the rejoicing.
The prologue is the first line of the sutra, “Thus have I heard.” The Buddha has said that at the start of every sutra should be the words, “Thus have I heard.” “Thus” refers to the particular sutra, those who have assembled the sutra and heard all the content without adding anything or leaving anything out. “I” refers whoever has listened personally to the teachings and collected them.
Who is this person? Here we find different points of view. Many scholars believe that the Prajna Paramita Sutras were assembled by Manjushri. However, in a commentary on another sutra, Dignaga wrote that these sutras were collected by Vajrapani; and another point of view was expressed by Nagarjuna in his Fundamentals on the Middle Way, where he stated that all mahayana sutras were collected by Manjushri, Maitreya, and Ananda.
Another sutra quotes the Buddha as saying, “Ananda, you are my disciple who shows respect and makes offerings with your body, speech, and mind. If you respect me, you should also respect the Heart Sutra.” And the Buddha instructed Ananda to protect and take care of the Heart Sutra. According to the Tibetan tradition, the 28th and 32nd chapters of 8,000-verse version of the Prajna Paramita sutra record that the Buddha dictated the sutra to Ananda, and at least one scholar, Vimuktisena, agrees with this. Haribhadra also stated that Ananda assembled these teachings of the Buddha, while Bhāvaviveka in his Blaze of Reasoning (Tarkajvala) disagreed because he asserted that Ananda would have been unable to understand this [mahayana teaching].
However, we can consider Ananda to be the one, based on the reason cited earlier as well as on the text, the Great Dharma Drum, where the Buddhas requested Mahakashyapa to protect the mahayana sutras and Mahakashyapa put Ananda in charge of the first collection of Prajna Paramita sutras. In sum as one of those who heard the mahayana teachings, Ananda can be considered one of the people who assembled the mahayana sutras.
So there are different opinions as to who assembled the sutra: some say Vajrapani, some say Ananda, and others say Manjushri. Whom to ask? Perhaps they all together collected these sutras, so even if we find the name Manjushri, it does not mean that only he assembled the sutra.
The final opening word is “heard.” It refers to the teachings the disciples heard directly and reproduced verbatim. Important here is that these teachings were not related to them by someone else, but personally experienced. “Thus I have heard” actually refers to the entire teachings from “Thus have I heard” to the last lines of praise for the teaching.
The second of the eight sections of the sutra relates to time. “At one time the Bhagawan [the Victorious One] was dwelling at Rajgriha on the Mountain Like a Flock of Vultures.” Here “time” has two meanings: (1) Sutra has only been heard that one time and has not been repeated, so it shows the rarity of the event. In general about the number of times a teaching is given, it is said that if something is very important, the Buddha will say it three times. If someone still does not understand, then his guard, Vajrapani, will hit them with his vajra.
The collector of this teaching must have been very wise and have an excellent memory because only hearing the teaching once he remembered it in its entirety. (2) The time also refers to the perfect time that references also the perfect teacher, the perfect retinue, the perfect teaching, and the perfect place. These five are all present here.
As for the perfection of the teacher, the Bhagawan Buddha, Bhagawan has several meanings in Sanskrit, so the early translators left the word in the original. When there were multiple meanings, they did not translate the word. Bhagawan refers to (1) the Buddha, the perfection of the master; it also refers to (2) transcendence, meaning going beyond the two extremes of samsara and nirvana, and to (3) destruction, meaning destroying the four maras [the afflictions, fear of death, the aggregates, and attachment to pleasures]—what needs to be renounced or sent away.
Tibetan translates “Bhagawan” as chom den de (bcom ldan ‘das) and it refers to both transcendence and destruction. Bhagawan is also used widely in India to refer to different gods, and so the Tibetan has ‘das which gives the meaning of “passing beyond” the worldly gods.
Of the five perfections, the prefect place here is Rajgriha, which was the old capital of Magadha. In the olden days, they had trouble with fires and so the king proclaimed to all his subjects that if anyone should start a fire, that person would have to move to a remote and cold place in the kingdom. It so happened that the first fire started in the king’s own palace, so he had to move, and the new place was named Rajgriha, “the king’s sacrifice.”
In his treatise on Prajnaparamita (the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra), Nagarjuna gave two reasons for the name. The first refers to a king who had a son with a special appearance: he had one head, two faces, and four arms. When he grew up, he was very strong and a good fighter, so he overthrew 18,000 kings, who came under the rule of Magadha. This prince was called Rajgriha.
Another reason relates to the story of a king who supported the sacrifice of animals in debate with Brahmin priests, and due to this, his body slowly sunk beneath the ground. When the prince became king, he did not want to stay in the place where his father died, so he decided to move his capital to a place around five mountains and called it Rajgriha.
The Heart Sutra mentions both Rajgriha and the Mountain Like a Flock of Vultures so that both types of disciples lay and ordained, are included. They all gathered together there at the mountain. Further, Nagarjuna’s treatise gives two reasons for why the mountain is so named. Firstly the mountain is shaped like vultures, and secondly, south of Rajgriha is a cemetery, where many vultures go to feed on decomposing corpses and then fly back to the mountain. Other sutras explain that bodhisattvas from many different realms gathered on this mountain like a flock of vultures to listen to the Buddha teach the Heart Sutra.
The next of the five perfections treats the perfection of the retinue, which consists of bodhisattvas and mahasattvas. The 8,000-verse sutra relates that the great masters and the retinue all gathered together in great numbers and served as witnesses for the teaching of the sutra. Their presence makes believable what was explained and also makes the sutra more complete. The ordained Sangha that was present is not an ordinary fully ordained Sangha but one made of up Arhats who have attained realization, so they are called great beings or mahasattvas.
Sangha refers to the gathering of at least four bhikshus. In Sanskrit, Sangha means “a community that could not be spilt by an external force.” It is a harmonious group that is united and not easily split into schisms by external forces.
Bodhisattva means “enlightened beings,” and the Tibetan translation refers to their courage with the word dpa’ bo or “hero” since they have courageously gone in pursuit of the fruit of Buddhahood. Maha means “great.” One sutra mentions that the bodhisattvas are focused on the vast numbers of living beings and at the same time they have tremendous perseverance and seven special abilities, so they are considered great.
The next words are “having come together,” so the great masters and the retinue all have come together. Earlier we saw that in order for the sutra to be explained, many causes and conditions had to come together, so this occasion is rare and precious. It is also rare to find and be able to rely on a master. But I feel that if only the great masters are there, it is not enough, nor is it enough that the Buddha speaks perfectly on the sutra, because the audience is also important. If the audience is not perfect, what is the use of the perfect Buddha?
The time has to be perfect as well and it is not easy to find a perfect time, especially when people are so busy these days. To find the perfect time to listen to the Dharma is difficult. They say that the master is perfect and here we are at a five–star hotel, but perhaps Flock of Vultures Mountain is a better place. Usually when we go to a place of pilgrimage, we see it with our physical eyes, but actually the true place is the internal mountain, which is the perfect fruition of the Buddha. It is very beautiful but sadly we cannot see it.
In considering today’s explanation of the first part of the sutra, we should reflect on the idea that it is very rare to hear these teachings, so we need to cherish this opportunity. If not, we might miss it. We might think that we should experience mundane things first, such as our professional work or enjoying the riches of the world, and then later when we are older, we will practice. But this way of thinking is not correct, because death does not wait until you are old to arrive at your doorstep. You might die at any time.
If we cherish the Dharma and think of it as precious, we will immediately start training in it. The Kadampa masters have said that all Dharma is Dharma that should be practiced today; there is not one Dharma that is for tomorrow. We must not procrastinate but begin right away. Time will not wait for us; everything is impermanent.
In thinking of the five perfections, you might experience some feeling about them and cherish the Dharma. Otherwise you might have spent years studying but you have not been deeply touched by it. You might even think it’s useless. Therefore in many Tibetan aspiration sprayers, we find the line, “Right here and now as I’m meditating on this cushion, I want to become a Buddha.” You think that this is the only opportunity, and you are not waiting for another one in the future. You must practice immediately to become a Buddha in this lifetime.
A bodhisattva’s practice may seem vast, and the path may seem very long, but in actual fact we cannot use numbers to measure it. The accumulation of vast merit can happen in an instant. Infinite eons do not mean you have to practice and count eon after eon. Bodhisattvas can accumulate all kinds of merit, including infinite merit in a moment.
The session ended with everyone reciting the auspicious words of the Essence of the Moon (Chandragarbha), the Heart Sutra, and a dedication of merit in beautiful and cascading tones that filled the hall.