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I am very interested in the concept of emptiness and freeing myself of all attachments. Naturally I gravitated towards the heart sutra, the chant in particular is very moving. However I am completely baffled by the text itself. Could someone help me understand the meaning, or purpose behind the story?

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The topic of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in 100'000 verses is (1) emptiness and (2) the mind that realizes emptiness. The Heart Sutra is its condensed version. All the Perfection of Wisdom sutras are called “mother sutras” because one achieves any of the three types of enlightenment (that of a sravaka, a pratyekabuddha or a bodhisattva) is obtained in dependence upon realizing emptiness: it's the mother that gives birth to all of them.

While emptiness is the explicit topic of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the mind realizing emptiness in the continuum of a Bodhisattva is the implicit topic. You will find that all Mahayana schools of tenets (i.e. Cittamatrin, Madhyamika-Svatantrika and Madhyamika-Prasangika) explain emptiness very differently.

There is a terminological division of the perfection of wisdom into four:

  1. the resultant perfection of wisdom
  2. the path perfection of wisdom
  3. the scriptures perfection of wisdom
  4. the nature of the perfection of wisdom.

The resultant refers to the omniscient mind of a buddha... the path refers to the exalted wisdom in the continuum of a bodhisattva superior... the scriptures refer to the Prajnaparamita Sutras... the nature refers to emptiness. Basically: The Perfection of Wisdom Sutras (scriptures) explain explicitly the nature perfection of wisdom (emptiness) and implicitly the path perfection of wisdom.

When the sutra says “Son and daughter of good lineage...” This does not merely refer to those who have the Mahayana lineage, but to those who have awakened the Mahayana linage. This shows the sutra is intended for disciples that are Mahayana in conduct.

When it says “those five aggregates also are empty”, this shows that it explains Mahayana tenets. Proponents of Mahayana tenets usually hold that so-called Hinayana tenets do not posit selflessness of phenomena but only that of person. Most proponents of so-called Hinayana tenets hold that Mahayana sutras are not the words of the Buddha, and so forth. (a kind of speech common on SE)

Although there is a lot to be said, I will jump to the essence of the explicit subject matter. What does “form is emptiness. Emptiness is form...” mean? My teacher commented on Tendar Lharampa, saying:

'Form is emptiness'. Although form is found by a conventional valid cognizer, it is not the object found by a mind of ultimate analysis. 'Emptiness is form', that emptiness is the emptiness of that form. 'Emptiness is not other than form' in that it is not separate from form. This is because emptiness is posited on its basis. Emptiness is always emptiness of something with which it is one entity. 'Form is also not other than emptiness' in the sense that there is no other form than the form that is empty of inherent existence. Although form and its emptiness are two different isolates, and two different objects [of two different cognizers], they are of one entity. If form and its emptiness were one [object], then when the eye-consciousness of an ordinary being sees form, it would see emptiness. If form and its emptiness were two different entities, then they would be causally related. This is because two related phenomena are either causally related, or related in terms of [being one] entity. Therefore, the emptiness of form would not be the ultimate nature of form; it would not be anymore related to form than it is to feelings and so forth.

To learn about emptiness, it is better to study tenets, special insight chapters, and Maitreya/Asanga's Ornament (AA) than the Heart sutra.

I recommend these books on the sutra, though:

  • Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama's Heart of Wisdom Teachings.
  • The Heart Sutra: An Oral Teaching, by Geshe Sonam Rinchen.
  • The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism, by Kazuaki Tanahashi.
  • Tendar Lharampa's commentary on the Heart Sutra.

I found Master Shengyen's commentary more superficial and didn't enjoy it that much.

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I've been practicing in a zen dôjô for the last year, and have been singing the haramita shingyo a lot of times without really understanding it. Your question made me look for a translation online, and I found this (for french readers only) whose introduction says,:

Ce texte, très court, qui se présente comme le "cœur" des sûtra bouddhistes indiens de la Perfection de Sagesse (prajñâ pâramitâ) est devenu en Chine, puis au Japon, une sorte de credo aux vertus magiques. Au nom de la vacuité, il met à mal les anciennes doctrines des quatre nobles vérités et de coproduction conditionnée.

(my translation):

This text, very short, which presents itself as the "heart" of the Indian Buddhist sutras of the perfection of wisom, has become in China and then in Japan a sort of credo (creed) with magical properties. In the name of voidness it breaks from the ancient doctrines of the four noble truths and of conditioned co-arising.

From what I've understood, this sutra is about putting the 4 noble truths in a vacuity perspective. Considering this, there is no Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha nor Magga as they are mental constructions themselves and, thus, you should free yourself from the 5 aggregates.

Here is a humble translation from French to English of the 5th paragraph that seems meaningful to me :

There is no ignorance and no cessation of ignorance and so forth there is no aging nor death and no cessation of aging and death.
There is no suffering, origin, extinction nor path.
There is no knowledge and no obtaining for there is nothing to obtain.

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