The Heart Sutra Session Three: How to Truly Practice the Heart Sutra?
August 16, 2016 – Gurgaon, HY, India
This afternoon, the Karmapa continued to discuss the eight sections and focused on the fifth point, the question Shariputra posed:
Son of a noble family, how should any son or daughter of a noble family train when they wish to practice the profound perfection of wisdom?
The Karmapa narrowed his discussion to two phrases from this sentence: “son or daughter of a noble family” and the “wish to practice.” From the first, “son or daughter of a noble family” (in Sanskrit kulaputra and kuladuhitā), he selected the word family, which actually means “caste” in Sanskrit, while in a Buddhist context, it refers to those born into the mahayana who have become the Buddha’s child, hence son or daughter of the Buddha’s family or lineage. In a commentary on the Heart Sutras, Haribhadra states that “family” here indicates the qualities of being able to be enlightened, so “caste” refers to a person who can perfectly engage and practice that potential.
Even now it is an Indian custom to emphasize the cast system. Among themselves, members of certain castes will address each other as “Son or daughter of a noble family.” Since this type of polite address is part of an ancient Indian custom, Atisha states in his commentary on the Heart of Wisdom Sutra that “son or daughter of a family” refers to those who are focused on enlightenment: These individuals “wish to practice the profound perfection of wisdom” with the goal of becoming fully awakened. They have the aspiration to practice, but are not on the mahayana path as yet, though they have great respect for it and an aspiration to benefit living beings with a connection to the mahayana. Most of the commentators on this text believe that “noble family” or “caste” in this text refer to those born in the Buddha’s family or the mahayana family.
Different lineages define caste in different ways. There are also discussions of the four different types of noble beings—the Listeners, the Solitary Realizers, the Bodhisattvas, and the Buddhas. Further the mahayana, madhyadmaka, and mind-only schools define caste differently. There are also two basic ways of looking at caste through (1) the qualities we are born with and (2) the qualities that we develop.
The Karmapa then looked at the word desire, which he defined as “having hope for” or “wanting to do something.” What we usually know as desire and the desire referred to here in the sutra represent two different emotions or states of mind. In Buddhism, there is a special term for what is understood as an insatiable desire or covetousness. In the abhidharma, desire is set apart and defined differently from covetousness. Desire is a simple wanting, a wish for something but covetousness is a strong clinging to worldly things that cannot be released or given up. Nevertheless we are often unable to differentiate between these two and meld them together. The object of desire is vast and not limited to worldly things or even to the Dharma. The object of covetousness is solely for worldly things, the various kinds of enjoyments related to the senses or between two people.
Merely wanting the Dharma, therefore, would not be covetousness and to want something might not bring suffering either. For example, wanting to benefit others will not bring pain or suffering. On the other hand, covetousness is guaranteed to produce suffering. In brief, desire is more neutral, it can be good or bad, and covetousness is definitely an affliction. Desire is more pure and covetousness is negative. We should not, however, think about desire in too complicated a way, for then it can transform into covetousness, so just think of it simply.
The Karmapa then brought up the term practice. The sutra states: “…practice the profound perfection of wisdom.” Most Buddhists this word a lot. What does it mean? It is hard for us to grasp its true meaning and there are a number of ways to define it. Some writers interpret the term based on the characters themselves and say practice means, “to correct one’s conduct.” Others say it refers to spiritual practice and others think of it as a way to communicate with gods, ghosts, and bodhisattvas.
To look into the meaning, we need to divide the Chinese word into its two characters: Xiu meaning “to repair, correct,” or “to make right,” and Xing meaning “practice, conduct,” or “walk.” Xing comes first in Tibetan (cho pa, spyod pa) and is followed by Xiu (che pa, spyad pa), so the order is reversed from the Chinese. What does this important word Xing mean? It means, “to use prajna (wisdom) to realize profound emptiness.”
The mahayana sutras often speak of three aspects to the Dharma: the ground, path, and fruition. “Ground” refers to the theoretical foundation or the view; “path” refers to the wisdom that recognizes the foundation; and “result” points to the result of this wisdom.
The key point explicated in the Heart Sutra is emptiness, which is the ground of the sutra. But if we look at the text of the sutra, we will see that Shariputra did not ask about emptiness; rather, he asked how does someone practice who wants to practice the profound prajna paramita? His question comes from the point of view of the path; it is based on the path, rather than on the ground or theory.
Why does Shariputra not ask directly about emptiness? Many people come to ask me such direct questions. “What is the nature of our mind?” “What is pointing out the nature of mind?” “Can you point it out to us directly?” They do not ask how to train in or how to realize the nature of mind. They just want me to point it out to them directly. They say, “I do not have enough time to practice. Can you just show it to me?”
Why does Shariputra not ask directly about emptiness but how to train in it? The first reason is that the ground, which is the essence of the mahayana, and the practice of mahayana are intimately connected. As a mahayana practitioner, we need to practice mahayana theory or thought. In other words, we must use the mahayana path to experience the mahayana ground. This means that theory and practice cannot be separated. Often we think that theory is theory and practice is practice and they are not linked at all. We should not think, however, that the Buddha’s theory is a kind of thinking, something conceptual.
Mahayana practice is to experience and realize mahayana emptiness. So Shariputra asked Avalokiteshvara how to train in mahayana method, how to develop and allow mahayana wisdom to manifest. Avalokiteshvara responded from emptiness itself. This indicates that for this wisdom to manifest, one has to completely realize emptiness.
Many students ask me, “I want to have my wisdom manifest.” Or “I’m very stupid, can you make me wiser?” People think that I can do a surgery, open up their brain and insert something like a memory card so they will become very smart. For our wisdom to manifest, the most important thing is our view. If you have the right view, then wisdom will gradually manifest. Without an accurate view or ground, wisdom is not likely to come forth. And we cannot use our mundane intelligence, because it does not resemble true wisdom and does not go deep enough. For true wisdom to manifest, you need the right view.
Here, Shariputra is asking from the point of view of wisdom and Avalokiteshvara is answering from the point of view of emptiness. The emptiness is the object and the subject is consciousness; it is similar to the relationship of a pillar (the object) and the eye consciousness (the subject) that perceives it.
In the first session, we mentioned different kinds of prajna or wisdom. The path prajna refers to the question posed by Shariputra and the nature prajna refers to Avalokiteshvara’s response in explaining profound emptiness. This concludes the discussion of the first reason why Shariputra did not ask about emptiness but wanted to know how to train in prajna.
The second reason relates to the relationship of theory and practice. As a disciple of Buddha Shakyamuni, our focus should not emphasize theory too much, but place more emphasis on how to put theory into practice. When we’re too focused on theory, our brains can get a little strange; slowly a gap will develop between the Dharma and our practice. Questions will crowd our mind. So we have to use the theories and put them in to practice, not just keep them in our heads. We need to use our mind to truly experience the philosophy and then we can clarify our doubts. Putting these ideas in to practice is the best way to clear away our doubts. Therefore, Shariputra asked how to practice and not for an explanation of emptiness.
In the Heart Sutra, we are taught a method to help us work on our mind. What is important is whether or not your mind has been worked on. If we have read many sutras and yet our minds have not changed at all or improved some, then that is a real pity. It is so sad that it makes you want to cry. In another sutra, it is said that theory and thought are but methods that allow us to develop or manifest our wisdom.
The third reason for Shariputra’s question relates to a text of Maitreya, the Ornament of Clear Realization which is highly regarded in Tibet and which treats topics such as the eighteen types of emptiness and so forth. It suggests various ways to analyze emptiness and reveal what is not seen. There are numerous prajna paramita sutras in India; the longest is over three million words long, and then there are those with one hundred thousand verses, twenty thousand verses, eighteen thousand verses, eight thousand verses and many others. In China the longest and most complete Prajna Paramita sutra is the one in 600 fascicles or volumes translated by Xuanzang; there are also the sutras in one hundred thousand and twenty-five thousand verses plus others.
All the sutras present emptiness; they show the stages of realizing it, beginning with an ordinary mind and going all the way to buddhahood. There are many different sutras, different levels of detail and different numbers of verses. The complete stages leading to emptiness can only be found in the longer sutras, such as those in ten or eight thousand verses. The Diamond Sutra and Heart Sutra are shorter, and although they do suggest how to practice emptiness and develop wisdom, they do not relate the process in detail; there is no blueprint on how to become a buddha.
In brief, what we need to know is that the word Xiu means that we need to correctly train our mind. How do we redress or correct our mind? We continue to understand the theory of emptiness but we do not stop there; the theory has to have some effect on our mind. Xing means that we need to train our mind with the method of understanding emptiness. We use the wisdom from understanding emptiness to train our mind. Emptiness is not just theory; we have to make the understanding of emptiness part of our daily lives.
Maitreya outlines three different activities of a bodhisattva but these would be difficult for a beginner, so someone starting out on the bodhisattva path can practice the ten Dharma activities: (1) writing out the letters of the Dharma; (2) making offerings; (3) listening to the Dharma; (4) being generous, (5) reading the Dharma; (6) memorizing the Dharma; (7) explaining the Dharma; (8) reciting the Dharma; (9) contemplating the Dharma; and (10) meditating on the meaning of the Dharma. Tonight we will start together with practicing the first one, writing out the letters, and write out a copy of the Heart Sutra.
Buddhism has many different methods of practice, but if we do not practice diligently, then they are useless. As was mentioned earlier, the Kadampa masters said that all Dharma needs to be practiced today. We need the attitude of, “Right now is my chance. This very moment I will create my future.” If we do not work hard to understand the mahayana way of thinking, then even if the Dharma is very effective, it will have no impact on us at all.
Following the meaning of the term Xiu Xing, we now know that we should diligently try to understand emptiness. You have come from far and spent money to be here and receive this explanation of the Heart Sutra. The most important thing is that when you return home, you must continue to work hard on getting to know emptiness. This is the true way to practice the Heart Sutra.