The Heart Sutra Session Five: The Nature of Everything Is Emptiness
August 17, 2016 – Gurgaon.
This afternoon the Karmapa continued to examine some of the points that he had talked about in the morning, when he focused on the lines of the sutra: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form. Emptiness is none other than form; form is none other than emptiness.” Continuing from here, the sutra names the other four skandhas:
Likewise sensation, perception, formation, and consciousness are empty.
When Avalokiteshvara explained emptiness, he started with the five skandhas: form, sensation, perception, formation, and consciousness. Using modern terms, we can classify these into two categories: matter, the first skandha of form, and mind (or psychology), the remaining four. All phenomena fall into the categories of these five skandhas. In our daily lives, we focus on material things and also what is in our mind, so the five skandhas are related to our body (the physical) and mind (the mental).
The purpose of practicing emptiness is to remove our ignorance, or misunderstanding, based on our body and mind. And therefore, Avalokiteshvara explained to Shariputra that a practitioner needs to begin by analyzing their body and mind to see that both are indeed empty. Practice, therefore, is not something that we look for outside but we turn our minds inward to observe and analyze.
In the morning, we looked at Shariputra’s question in which was embedded five questions on how a bodhisattva should train. With the subcategories, these five were expanded to eleven, and Avalokiteshvara replied to them all.
With the lines, “Shariputra, any son or daughter of a noble family, when they wish to practice the profound perfection of wisdom, should look at it in this way…” Avalokiteshvara expresses how beginning bodhisattvas should train on the paths of accumulation and joining.
“They should see accurately that all skandhas are empty by nature,” shows that those on the path of seeing will see all phenomena as empty. There is not one phenomenon they do not see as empty. There is not one phenomenon for which they cannot recognize its empty nature.
From that line, through most of the sutra, up to “completely transcending all error, they reach the ultimate nirvana,” indicates that through this path, bodhisattvas gradually remove their intellectual obscurations and reach nirvana.
The following line is: “By relying on the perfection of wisdom, all the buddhas dwelling in the three times come to the unsurpassable, authentic, and complete awakening of manifest, perfect buddhahood.” This expresses the path of no more learning.
The Karmapa then turned back to look at Avalokiteshvara’s key lines that follow the explanation of the emptiness of the individual skandhas: “Therefore, Shariputra, all phenomena are emptiness, without characteristics, unborn, unceasing, without stains and without freedom from stains, without decrease and without increase.” This line shows how emptiness manifests itself, how it comes to the surface.
Avalokiteshvara explains to Shariputra how to make use of the five skandhas to see the true nature, as a lead into seeing emptiness. This is why Avalokiteshvara first speaks of the four-fold emptiness (“Form is emptiness,” etc.) of the five skandhas. It introduces us to emptiness in a complete way. Now, however, there is a problem: How do we come to understand this emptiness? How can we recognize it through the five skandhas? How do we practice and cultivate this wisdom?
We need to know why the Buddha first talked about emptiness. The main reason is to remove our clinging, so first we must recognize how we cling to things. Then we can solve the problem: once we clear away our clinging, we will be able to see emptiness. In the morning we spoke about the path of seeing, which is seeing emptiness. In our confusion, we take the world to be solid and real; we do not experience the empty nature of what appears due to our mistaken understanding. Seeing emptiness refers to a time when we are not entrapped by concepts. We do not see anything that is mistakenly manifested in our minds, nor do we see anything we take to be truly existent.
What the sutra is saying is that not seeing is the best type of seeing. In the morning we emphasized that emptiness does not mean to be completely without something, a kind of void or lack. It means emptiness is not what we think it is. What does that mean? Emptiness does not contain what we think exists. What we think exists, does not; however, this does not mean that something completely does not exist. This means that what we know now from our experience is basically wrong. Why? Because we strongly think that things truly exist on their own. Since this attachment is wrong, all that we see is an illusion, a fantasy. Emptiness is telling us that these illusions are not real. They are fake, and that is why the Buddha calls them empty.
Usually people understand “empty” to mean an absence, a complete nonexistence. But actually, empty refers to the fact that what we now know is an illusion and, therefore, does not exist. This does not mean, however, that the thing itself does not exist. This point is extremely important.
This recalls what Tilopa told his disciple Naropa: “Son, it is not things that entrap you but your attachment to them.” Tilopa means that things in themselves cannot imprison us; it is our own attachment that serves as an obstacle.
There is a key point here: Emptiness is not built on nothing; something that existent is the foundation for emptiness. In other words, because things exist, you can say that they are empty. Due to our attachment and misunderstanding, we do not know the true nature of things. If all the things outside did not exist, then we could not talk about emptiness. If nothing existed, then nothing could be empty, and you could not talk about emptiness at all. It is due to existence that there is emptiness, and not to nonexistence.
In his text Entering the Middle Way, Chandrakirti writes that an ordinary being’s knowledge is based on misunderstanding. How would we know that our knowledge is wrong? Chandrakirti further states that if what we see manifesting is the truth as it is, then we all would be noble beings, not ordinary, and would know the actual nature of things. But the situation is not like this: what we ordinary people see manifesting is an illusion; we do not see the truth of phenomena. In brief, what we see is mistaken and what noble beings see is accurate.
In our lives we often meet with setbacks or pressure, and the Buddhist teachings as well as modern psychologists say that the stress people feel mostly comes from a wrong understanding of things. This can also happen because we think too much. In brief our basic confusion is the source of our suffering and problems.
The above explanation shows that what we know is subjective and does not match with the way things truly are, and in this way we can see that our way of knowing is fundamentally flawed. In other words, it is rubbish.
There are different types of attachment. The practice of emptiness is to dissolve our basic attachment, ignorance, or confusion. What do you think when you hear the word ignorance? Usually we think of it as an object.
The Dakpo Kagyu master Gampopa had four great disciples who held his lineage and through whom his teachings descended. One of these was Phagmodrukpa, who had traveled widely asking many masters about the causes of being trapped in samsara and the causes of life and death. Most of them answered that ignorance was the cause. None of these answers, however, inspired or touched Phagmodrukpa.
When the future lineage holder first met Gampopa, he was eating tsampa (roasted barley flour). Gampopa showed the heap of tsampa to Phagmodrukpa in a way that told him, “My tsampa is more valuable than your realization.” Phagmodrukpa asked the great teacher, “What are the causes of cycling in samsara?” Gampopa replied, “Thought remains in samsara.” This made an instant connection with Phagmodrukpa and he was inspired. Before he had heard a lot about ignorance and attachment, but he did not see how our mind could connect with ignorance. He thought that ignorance is ignorance and mind is mind.
There are three main types of attachment: to the thing itself, to the causes, and to the results. Through these three types of attachment, we are led toward what is good or bad, to the origin of suffering or its cessation, to holding someone or something far or near, and so forth. All the afflictions come from this. Clearly we need to dissolve these three types of attachment, and if we can manage to dissolve their root, they all can be extinguished.
For this purpose, the Buddha taught the three doors or openings to liberation: emptiness, the absence of signs, and being without any wishes. The first opening, emptiness, dissolves attachment to the cause or origin of things; the second opening, the absence of signs, dissolves attachment to the things themselves; and the third opening, being without any wishes, dissolves attachment to the result or fruition.
This third door relates to all our thoughts and plans for the future. In Buddhism, the word wish is understood to mean “hope” or “expectation,” so being wishless is a way to eliminate attachment to a future result.
After the skandhas, the sutra speaks of emptiness again: “…all phenomena are emptiness, without characteristics, unborn, unceasing, without stains and without freedom from stains, without decrease and without increase.”
The first opening is the “emptiness” here, which works with attachment to the cause. The second opening relates to being “without characteristics, unborn, unceasing, without stains and without freedom from stains,” and this works with attachment to thing itself. And the third opening, being without any wishes, relates to the phrase “without decrease and without increase,” and this works with attachment to the future. This discussion is more detailed than the earlier one on the emptiness of the five skandhas.
All attachment is subsumed in these three types, so if we can dissolve these three, we will be able to see emptiness. In sum, this part of the sutra teaches us how we can come to see emptiness.
This same section of the text can be looked at under the rubric of the eight profound meanings: “(1) emptiness, (2) without characteristics, (3) unborn, (4) unceasing, (5) without stains and (6) without freedom from stains, (7) without decrease and (8) without increase.”
The first point of emptiness points out the true nature of things, which is different from what we think it is. Taking (2) without characteristics as the result, (3) unborn and (4) unceasing function as its causes. Usually we think of things as real, and further, that these real things are born and cease, so these two points work to dissolve that confusion. We are also attached to classifying things into what is pure and what causes afflictions, what is polluted and not, bad and good, etc., so (5) without stains and (6) without freedom from stains eliminate this misunderstanding. (7) Without decrease and (8) without increase mitigate against attachment to results. Usually we are mistaken about a result and hope that it will be better than we expect, and (8) without increase clears this away. Or perhaps we do not have expectations or hopes and maintain a kind of rigid objectivity, which is also mistaken, so (7) without decrease works with this.
These eight profound meanings show the way to eliminate our mistaken attachment to every little thing. So (1) emptiness is key since what we think exists does not. For an ordinary being to efface attachment, they have to start at its home base. The eight profound meanings are a kind of reverse psychology, showing what is the case through negation, so that we can recognize emptiness.
Most people think that emptiness is difficult to understand, but if you compare it to bodhichitta, emptiness is much easier to understand. Although emptiness sounds profound and difficult, the logic of emptiness is always the same. It is hard for us to understand because of the discrepancy between what we are thinking and what emptiness is; so we need to change the way we are thinking and the sutra gives us many ways to comprehend emptiness and to shift our minds. Once we have some recognition of emptiness, it will become stable because emptiness never changes. It is a truth.
Bodhichitta is much harder to understand than emptiness because bodhichitta is for all living beings; we have to take note of every one, and each one has their own special qualities and differences. There are also complicated causes and conditions in their relations with us, and some people are nice to us, and others, not. Both lay and ordained people can understand this.
In an aside, the Karmapa notes that a commentary states that to be ordained, one has to leave home, and there are big and small homes to leave. Leaving one’s own home is a minor renunciation. However, if one renounces fame, fortune, and all such things of samsara, when you do not like them any more, that is renouncing the vast home—the major and real renunciation.
Returning to the topic of bodhichitta, he said that it is difficult to feel compassion for all living beings. Most of the time we think that having a small wish to help others is bodhichitta, but bodhichitta is not that easy to achieve. This is the first reason why bodhichitta is more difficult than emptiness. The second reason is that emptiness is understood through logic, but bodhichitta is a practice that works with emotions. Analyzing with logic can be done in a more straightforward, confident manner: what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong. When it comes to emotions, there are many things that shift them around, and it is also very hard to say what is right and what is wrong emotionally so it is very complicated.
We often think that bodhicitta is easier, and all we have to do is go and receive bodhisattva vows, but we think understanding emptiness is very hard and we have to wait for the lama to give us blessings. But in fact it is not like that. To rouse true bodhichitta requires a lot of practice and we have to accumulate a lot of merit. Of course, understanding emptiness also requires these, but the amount of merit rousing bodhichitta requires ten or a hundred times more than understanding emptiness. We also need extensive practice and training like that of a special squad, which has to deal not with an ordinary country, but with the entire galaxy, and that is not so easy. You have to watch all living beings, keep thinking of others, and put yourself in their place.
We could summarize this discussion by referring to the old masters, who have said that to deeply understand the truth of all phenomena, there are two aspects: profound emptiness and vast bodhichitta.
To continue looking at emptiness in different ways, the Karmapa turned back to the sutra and the lines:
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation and no consciousness, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no body and no mind, no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, and no dharmas (phenomena). There is no dhatu of the eyes, no dhatu of the mind, up to no dhatu of consciousness. There is no ignorance and no extinction of ignorance, up to no aging and death and no extinction of aging and death. Likewise there is no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation, and no path. There is no wisdom, no attainment and no nonattainment. Therefore, Shariputra, since bodhisattvas have nothing to attain, they abide relying on the perfection of wisdom. Since their mind is free of obscuration, they have no fear….
To eliminate our wrong understanding of emptiness, Avalokiteshvara names many things that we might not understand correctly as being empty. He started out with the five skandhas, which are most intimate to us as they relate to our body and mind. These are the foundation on which Avalokiteshvara tells us that other things are empty, which the Heart Sutra classifies into six types: (1) the five skandhas, (2) the twelve sense bases, (3) the 18 elements or dhatus, (4) the twelve links of dependent arising, (5) the four noble truths, and (6) the merit of practice. These again can be divided into the ordinary or basic foundation, the first three, and the special foundation, the last three.
The Karmapa then read from “Therefore, Shariputra…” to “no dhatu of the mind…” when he paused to relate a story.
In China, he said, there are many mahayana practitioners who know the Heart Sutra and in past Tibet all the ordained Sangha knew the Heart Sutra. In the early days of Buddhism there, the monks and nuns would recite every day after lunch the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 8,000 verses for the benefit of their sponsors. The Tibetans do try very hard. Then a great master came from India and said this was too much and very hard, not only on them but on the sutra as well, which was becoming worn from being passed around so much. It would be best, therefore, for them to chant the essence, the Heart Sutra. There was also the custom in Tibet of memorizing the Prajna Paramita Sutra in 10,000 verses.
The Karmapa added that there was once someone listening to these recitations of the Prajna Paramita sutras and hearing, “no ears, no eyes, no nose, no tongue,” said, “Why don’t they just say ‘No head’?” [Laughter.]
Returning to the quotation above, the Karmapa continued to explain that the first five are the skandhas; the next six are the inner sense bases (ayatanas) or the sense faculties and the six outer sense bases or their objects. Then adding the six types of consciousnesses, we have the eighteen dhatus or elements, through which ordinary beings pursue the various sense objects. Consciousness coming into contact with these objects creates a condition for attachment to arise.
So we can see that the five skandhas and the eighteen dhatus cover all material things as well as our mind. They give us different ways to categorize and analyze them. The sutra provides such complex topics because people have different abilities and levels of understanding. Some can hear a discussion of the five skandhas and see the link between the mind and material things, the outer objects. They can experience, recognize, and understand the connection between the mind and outer objects. For others, however, this is not enough; they need further explanation and more details, such as the eighteen dhatus.
In his Treasury of Abhidharma, Vasubhandu writes that living beings have diverse capacities of understanding the relation between the mind and outer things, so all the categories are a way to help them. The five skandhas, the twelve sense bases, and the eighteen dhatus are directly related to us ordinary beings, whether we practice or not. These first three are part of samsara and the basic things to which we are attached. Tomorrow morning we will look at the special foundations beginning with the twelve links of dependent arising.