The Heart of Zen

Excellent Books for Opening the Heart Sutra

There is a Zen saying: “Nothing is hidden.” However, I think when most of us first encounter the Heart Sutra, the one-page scripture frequently chanted at Zen temples, we have a sense that something is most certainly hidden. Although we can read it in a couple minutes, we are quickly aware that there is a lot behind each word. There is, in fact, a thousand years of Buddhist practice, teaching and study behind the whole text. Then we could add to that another 1500 years of study and interpretation of the text itself.

I was lucky that it only took a slim book, Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding, to give me enough clues to allow me to appreciate it and keep me intrigued even thirty years later. Recently reading Kaz Tanahashi’s new book on the Heart Sutra revealed more and reminded me again how fathomless the sutra is.

Find a translation of the Heart Sutra here >>

Fundamentally, the message of the sutra is that all things and all beings are boundless, to use Kaz’s word for it. When I really open to that message, my heart and mind open and meet the world joyfully. When I find myself closed up again, the sutra reminds me that closed is an optical illusion and some practice might again reveal  an opening. Openings often mean air, space, freedom and light.

These are some recommended texts I have found vital to understanding and enjoying the Heart Sutra, a work so dense it has inspired numerous volumes through the centuries since its appearance.  Each of the works will lead you to many other fine studies and insightful commentaries. But don’t forget, its central message is to lighten up.

The Heart Sutra, by Kazuaki Tanahashi

A loving work of scholarship, exploration, and interpretation. Kaz offers a concise history of the text, an overview of historical analysis of its origins, and personal stories of the author’s own journey into the multifaceted dimensions of practices. He also provides a line-by-line comparison of source texts and key translations.

After collecting scriptures, visiting various Buddhist sites, and giving discourses in the eastern, southern, and western kingdoms of India, Xuanzang continued to study with dharma masters in and out of Nalanda. When Xuanzang received permission from Shilabhadra to return to China, King Harshavardhana — ruler of the western part of northern India — eagerly invited Xuanzang to his court in Kanykubja on the Ganges. He was a supporter of Hinduism and Jainism, as well as various schools of Buddhism. In the twelfth month of 642, the monarch invited spiritual leaders from all over India to participate in an exceedingly extravagant philosophical debate contest. Representing Nalanda, Xuanzang (whose Indian name was Mahayanadeva) crushed all his opponents’ arguments and was announced the winner by the king. Harshavardhana then provided the homebound pilgrim with his best elephant as well as gold and silver, and organized a relayed escort for Xuanzang’s caravan all the way up to China. –from The Heart Sutra, by Kazuaki Tanahashi

Living by Vow, by Shohaku Okumura

In his chapter on the Heart Sutra, the eminent Zen priest and translator, Shohaku Okumura Roshi presents a translation and commentary grounded in over fifty years of intensive training, practice and study.

For us as practitioners, a mere understanding of this philosophy is not enough. We must apply this understanding in our everyday activities. We see that we cannot do anything completely by ourselves. We cannot live alone; we are always living with other people and other beings. To work together and live together with other people and beings, we have to negate ourselves. We have to negate this person to see what other people are doing or thinking. This means that we negate the five skandhas and see śūnyatā as it is. When we interact with our environment, we have to express the things happening inside us through our lives. We have to do something. We have to respond to situations and make choices. As Dōgen Zenji said in “Genjōkōan,” “To study the Buddha’s Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.” To forget the self means to negate this one. By negating this one we see others more clearly. When we negate our egocentricity or personal point of view, we can see things more objectively. We can see the situation as a part of ourselves, and at the same time we see ourselves as a part of the situation. We can choose what to do right now, right here, as this person who is a part of the total situation. That’s how we can be responsible to the situation. –from “The Sound of Emptiness,” in Living by Vow, by Shohaku Okumura

The Heart Sutra, by Red Pine

One of my favorites in a voluminous (emphasis on “luminous”) body of translations by Red Pine. I love his inclusion of choice selections of commentary from past and present teachers and scholars. Red Pine also gives us quirky and memorable stories and eccentric insights from his long journey into Chinese Buddhism, history, and culture.

Taken together, the paramitas are also likened to a boat that takes us across the sea of suffering. The paramita of generosity, according to this analogy, is the wood, light enough to float but not so light that it floats away. Thus bodhisattvas practice giving and renunciation but not so much that they have nothing left with which to work. The paramita of morality is the keel, deep enough to hold the boat upright but not so deep that it drags the shoals or holds it back. Thus bodhisattvas observe precepts but not so many that they have no freedom of choice. The paramita of forbearance is the hull, wide enough to hold a deck but not so wide that it can’t cut through waves. Thus bodhisattvas don’t confront what opposes them but find the place of least resistance. The paramita of vigor is the mast, high enough to hold a sail but not so high that it tips the boat over. Thus bodhisattvas work hard but not so hard that they don’t stop for tea. The paramita of meditation is the sail, flat enough to catch the wind of karma but not so flat that it holds no breeze or rips apart in a gale. Thus bodhisattvas still the mind but not so much that it withers and dies. And the paramita of wisdom is the helm, ingenious enough to give the boat direction but not so ingenious that it leads in circles. Thus bodhisattvas who practice the paramitas embark on the greatest of all voyages to the far shore of liberation. –from The Heart Sutra, by Red Pine

The Heart of Understanding, by Thich Nhat Hanh

This is where my own appreciation and understanding of the Heart Sutra began. The profound Vietnamese Zen teacher, activist, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh’s short commentary has guided my practice and understanding ever since reading it almost thirty years ago.

If I am holding a cup of water and I ask you, “Is this cup empty?” you will say, “No, it is full of water.” But if I pour out the water and ask you again, you may say, “Yes, it is empty.” But empty of what? Empty means empty of something. The cup cannot be empty of nothing. “Empty” doesn’t mean anything unless you know “empty of what?” My cup is empty of water, but it is not empty of air. To be empty is to be empty of something. This is quite a discovery. When Avalokita says that the five skandhas are equally empty, to help him be precise we must ask, “Mr. Avalokita, empty of what?”

The five skandhas, which may be translated into English as five heaps, or five aggregates, are the five elements that comprise a human being.These five elements flow like a river in every one of us. In fact, these are really five rivers flowing together in us: the river of form, which means our body; the river of feelings; the river of perceptions; the river of mental formations; and the river of consciousness. They are always flowing in us. So according to Avalokita, when he looked deeply into the nature of these five rivers, he suddenly saw that all five are empty.

And if we ask, “Empty of what?” he has to answer. And this is what he said. “They are empty of a separate self.” That means none of these five rivers can exist by itself alone. Each of the five rivers has to be made by the other four. It has to coexist; it has to inter-be with all the others. — from The Heart of Understanding, by Thich Nhat Hanh

In the Words of the Buddha, Edited and Introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi

To truly appreciate the Heart Sutra, one should be familiar with  the Buddha’s teachings as found in the Pali Canon. A very helpful one-volume anthology of foundational teachings of the Buddha.  Bhikkhu Bodhi, a western monk who trained and practiced for many years in Sri Lanka, offers superb introductions and commentary for each of the ten chapters into which he has organized his selections from a vast literature. Don’t leave home without it.

Perhaps in interpreting a body of ancient religious literature we can never fully avoid inserting ourselves and our own values into the subject we are interpreting. However, though we may never achieve perfect transparency, we can limit the impact of personal bias upon the process of interpretation by giving the words of the texts due respect. When we pay this act of homage to the Nikāyas, when we take seriously their own account of the background to the Buddha’s manifestation in the world, we will see that they ascribe to his mission nothing short of a cosmic scope. Against the background of a universe with no conceivable bounds in time, a universe within which living beings enveloped in the darkness of ignorance wander along bound to the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, the Buddha arrives as the “torchbearer of humankind” (ukkādhāro manussānaṃ) bringing the light of wisdom.  In the words of Text II.1, his arising in the world is “the manifestation of great vision, of great light, of great radiance.” Having discovered for himself the perfect peace of liberation, he kindles for us the light of knowledge, which reveals both the truths that we must see for ourselves and the path of practice that culminates in this liberating vision. –Bhikkhu Bodhi, from In the Words of the Buddha: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

Great Disciples of the Buddha, by Nyanaponika Thera and Hellmuth Hecker, edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Shariputra is central to the story of the Heart Sutra. Without his humble question, “How should we practice the perfection of wisdom?” we wouldn’t have Avalokiteshvara’s response. Shallow mahayanites like to disparage him as “Hinayana,” of the  “lesser vehicle.” This is a big mistake. Shariputra was one of the Buddha’s two chief disciples and one of the few to have his teachings included alongside the Buddha’s in the Pali Canon. For me, he is an exemplar of strong vow and someone willing to ask questions of his teacher. We owe him for much teaching. Find his story, and the astonishing accounts of many other of our ancestors, in this classic compendium.

The Venerable Sāriputta’s humility was as great as his patience. He was willing to receive correction from anyone, not only with submission but with gratitude. It is told in the commentary to the Susīma Sutta (SN 2: 29) that once, through momentary negligence, a corner of the elder’s under-robe was hanging down, and a seven-year-old novice, seeing this, pointed it out to him. Sāriputta stepped aside at once and arranged the garment in the proper way, and then he stood before the novice with folded hands, saying: “Now it is correct, teacher!” –from Great Disciples of the Buddha

In the neighborhood of the Jetavana monastery, where the Buddha was residing, a group of men were praising the noble qualities of Sāriputta. “Such great patience has our elder,” they said, “that even when people abuse him and strike him, he feels no trace of anger.”

“Who is this that never gets angry?” The question came from a brahmin…. And when they told him, “It is our elder, Sāriputta,” he retorted: “That must be because nobody has ever provoked him.” “That is not so, brahmin,” they replied. “Well, then, I will provoke him to anger.” “Provoke him to anger if you can!” “Leave it to me,” said the brahmin. “I know just what to do to him.” When the Venerable Sāriputta entered the city on his alms round, the brahmin approached him from behind and gave him a tremendous blow on the back. “What was that?” said Sāriputta; and without so much as turning to look, he continued on his way. The fire of remorse leapt up in every part of the brahmin’s body. Prostrating himself at the elder’s feet, he begged for pardon. “For what?” asked the elder, mildly. “To test your patience I struck you,” the penitent brahmin replied. “Very well, I pardon you.”

“Venerable sir,” the brahmin said, “if you are willing to pardon me, please take your food at my house.” When the elder silently consented, the brahmin took his bowl and led him to his house, where he served him a meal.

But those who saw the assault were enraged. They gathered at the brahmin’s house, armed with sticks and stones, ready to kill him. When Sāriputta emerged, accompanied by the brahmin carrying his bowl, they cried out: “Venerable sir, order this brahmin to turn back!” “Why, lay disciples?” asked the elder. They replied: “The man struck you, and we are going to give him what he deserves!” “But what do you mean? Was it you or me that he struck?” “It was you, venerable sir.” “Well, if it was me he struck, he has begged my pardon. Go your ways.” And so, dismissing the people and permitting the brahmin to return, the great elder calmly made his way back to the monastery. –from Great Disciples of the Buddha

A Biography of the Tripitaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty, translated by Li Rongxi

Xuanzhang, a 7th-century Chinese monk, snuck out of China to travel to India in search of teachings and texts. Seventeen years and ten thousand miles later, he brought numerous Buddhist scriptures to China. On his pilgrimage, he chanted the Heart Sutra for protection and guidance. His translation of the Heart Sutra became the most widespread and popular, and was carried to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Soon after his return to China, he recited his story to a student. The record Xuanzhang left became a cornerstone of Asian history: a pilgrimage, an adventure tale, and a richly detailed account of the places, fables and times of his travel.

Get this book as a free pdf file from the publisher, BDK America.

Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression, by Taigen Daniel Leighton

I owe much of my understanding of Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, to Taigen’s wondrous book. In addition to a concise history of Buddhism, the work explores ten classic bodhisattvas. He presents their history and scriptural associations, their imagery, and the qualities and virtues they represent. Taigen then takes it further in sincerely playful consideration of modern figures–buddhist and non-buddhist–as embodying specific bodhisattvas. Folks from Bob Dylan to Desmond Tutu are invoked to enhance our discernment of enlightening action in the world.

The third form, Thousand-Armed Avalokiteshvara (Sahasrabhuja in Sanskrit, Senju Kannon in Japanese). is perhaps the most renowned and metaphorically pregnant representation of Avalokiteshvara. This figure’s thousand arms are sometimes depicted symbolically, with twenty arms on each side, each of the forty representing arms in twenty-five realms. But many paintings and statues actually include one thousand arms, flowering like a nimbus fanning out on either side of the torso. In addition to the hands outstretched at his sides, one pair of hands usually is joined palm to palm at chest height in the gesture of respect (gassho in Japanese). Another pair of hands is often held together low at the abdomen, palms up in the meditation gesture or sometimes holding a medicine or begging bowl. In Japan, one can still see large, magnificent examples of such statues, some seated, some standing. Each of these thousand hands has an eye in its palm, so Senju Kannon has a thousand eyes as well as hands.

Many of the hands hold tools and implements, including dharma wheels, lotuses, buddhas, jewels embodying the sun and moon, as well as ropes, axes, swords, mirrors, rosaries, vases, conches, books, willow branches, bows, and arrows. These thousand hands and eyes represent Avalokiteshvara’s practice of skillful means, compassionately assisting beings by whatever methods would be effective, using whatever comes to hand as a tool. –from Faces of Compassion, by Taigen Leighton

Buddhist Goddesses of India, by Miranda Shaw

Prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom, embodied as a goddess was brought to life for me through Miranda Shaw’s scintillating prose and pulsating scholarship. In this text, Shaw introduces over twenty Buddhist deities. Some are well known, such as Tara, Sarasvati, and Prajnaparamita. The others should be better known. The injection of Buddhist spiritual imagination from Miranda’s and Taigen’s books could be the seed of a new cultural renaissance, just as the revival of the Olympic pantheon vitalized the Italian Renaissance.

The central importance and cosmic status of the wisdom mother at her earliest appearance are surprising given the apparent swiftness with which she rose on the Mahayana horizon. Nothing in the female figures who preceded her would foreshadow such a development. Her female forebears were divinities associated with nature and its fecundating powers, such as tree spirits (yakshini) Prithvi, and Lakshmi. There is little in these goddesses of earthly provenance, however benevolent and auspicious they might be, to foretell the radiant entity of pure spirit and wisdom that is Prajnaparamita. Even Edward Conze’s suggestion that she represents the “irruption” into Buddhism of the Paleolithic and Dravidian mother goddess does not explain the sudden transformation of the chthonic, fertile earth mother into the metaphysically sublime mother of wisdom. The goddess, like the philosophy with which she is associated, appears to represent a revolutionary shift in Buddhist consciousness. –from Buddhist Goddesses of India, by Miranda Shaw