The Heart Sutra is one of the most Buddhisty Buddhist texts, and it’s one of the cornerstones of Zen.
It’s one of the shortest Sutras ever written because it’s kind of a summary of all the various Prajnaparamita scriptures (including the Diamond Sutra). It’s a popular part of Zen liturgies and serves as a nice way to kick off a meditation session.
But I don’t really give much of a fuck about any of that, or the Sutra itself, really. All I care about is what the Sutra points to: our True Nature—-Suchness.
The most well-known part of the Sutra is:
“Form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness no other than form
Form is precisely emptiness,
emptiness precisely form
Sensation, perception, volition and consciousness are also like this.
Oh Shariputra, all things are appearances of emptiness.”
This takes some unpacking to prevent it from getting all nihilistic up in here. I first researched Buddhism when I was in high school, but negative terms like, “emptiness,” kinda turned me off the whole thing. I’d just finished penetrating Hinduism, so I was used to the idea that we’re all one, not we’re all none. See what I did there? Fun stuff.
Anyway, emptiness doesn’t mean that we don’t exist, it means that we don’t exist as ourselves; as stagnant, isolated individuals trapped in decaying flesh sacks that live off of ground hair, tree farts, roadkill, and cloud piss.
There aren’t any boxes. Everything that seems separate and divided is like a hallucination, and all the thoughts and views we form based on them are delusions. Really, nothing is self-contained, self-created, self-sustaining, or self-destroyed.
What we really are is dynamic and not bound by this hallucinating tube we call the body and mind for the same reason that the things we eat and drink aren’t tied to our bodies. They pass through, transformed into new forms. They lose themselves, but nothing is lost. We’re no different as we pass through the digestive tract of our lives.
How much of who you were yesterday is still you today? How much has departed, venturing back out into the wide open world it came from? With each evaporating bead of sweat or post-coital exhalation, there you go… into the great wide open. You might even get half of that exhale back someday, giving the ot her half to a plant. Maybe that sweat on your forehead will find its way back to you as rain.
So, the body is empty of isolation and stagnancy. We don’t own the body, but we also aren’t the body. If we look for ourselves in our bodies, we’re just going to find solids, liquids, gases, energy, space, and awareness. There’s nothing in the body to hang the I Am That hat on.
What about the mind? Where does the thought, “tree,” come from? It didn’t come some isolated mind. It came from the eyes making contact with some weird, ambiguous stimulus, and the brain turning that whatever into a manageable experience of what we call a tree. Since the idea, “tree,” depends on all that to exist, it isn’t ours—its creation is shared by all those steps in the process—its destruction too.
So even our internal, private worlds and experiences aren’t solely our own. If anything that contributes to an experience is absent, the whole experience is going to be absent.
The thoughts, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and even subjective experiences of the world that happen in our minds don’t belong to us. Okay, so then there’s the mind itself. Is that who we are?
Where is the mind? What is it? No, shut up. Don’t use logic to answer, ya silly fuck. We’re not talking about neurons anymore. Neurons are neurons, and electro-chemical energy is electro-chemical energy: not a mind. If ya go that route, we’ve just circled back around to form, which we’ve already covered.
Huike once asked Bodhidharma, “Please, pacify my mind!”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind and I’ll pacify it for you.”
I’m guessing that Huike sat with that direction for a bit, and then he said, “I can’t find my mind anywhere.”
“There,” Bodhidharma congratulated, “I’ve pacified your mind.” With that, Huike had an awakening.
One time, Buddha gave a Dharma teaching that consisted of him holding up a flower. The only person who got it was Mahakasyapa, who just smiled. In that moment, Siddhartha and Mahakasyapa were of one mind, the Buddha was sharing that mind.
If you can find your mind and show it to someone, then you’re a Buddha.
Here’s another way to phrase the Sutra:
“The dune is no other than the beach,
The beach no other than the dune…
Oh Shariputra, all dunes are expressions of the beach.”
It’s like there’s a beach, and everything we experience are dunes, sand castles, sand sculptures, etc. It’s all washed in and away by the waves; crafted and changed by the wind. Us too—inside and out.
Confused perception—which is what we live most of our lives caught up in—sees form as form. It’s like mistaking a sand castle for one made of stone. We expect stone to last, and we see it as something separate from us. But, when life proves us wrong, we suffer.
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form is another way to directly perceive day-to-day life. This isn’t mental masturbation we’re talking about here. If it’s a philosophy at all, it’s an applied philosophy. This is like someone realizing that the castle is made of sand, and that it’s part of and ultimately identical to the beach. There’s no actual line of delineation, there’s no precise point where the beach ends and the sand castle begins. It’s all sand.
This doesn’t apply just to the things we experience, but to ourselves as well. The realization isn’t just that we’re made of sand—that’d be nihilism. The realization is that since everything’s made of sand, then everything is part of everything. The beach is you.
The rest of the Sutra is about the beach as a whole. Or, I guess we could say, all the sand on the planet as a whole. That there’s really no coming or going, rise and fall, gain or loss for this global beach. The forms in the sand rise and fall, but that doesn’t increase or decrease the amount of sand that’s present.
That’s the insight, but the Sutra is also a detailed meditation guide to uncovering that insight. When we investigate form, sensation, perception, volition, and discriminating consciousness while meditating and see that they’re empty of themselves, we can take that emptiness as a meditation object.
Avalokitesvara, the speaker of this Sutra, was listening to waves on the beach. She realized that even though the sound of the waves comes and goes, listening doesn’t. That hearing-awareness doesn’t change with what’s heard. Even if we plugged up our ears, we’re still hearing silence.
So that just as the things we’re aware of are empty of permanence and independence, the nature of awareness is empty of impermanence and dependence. When we project that nature of awareness onto the things it’s aware of, that’s when confusion and suffering set in. That’s like wanting the sand castle to last as long as the beach.
The main difference between Zen and Advaita Vedanta, is that Advaita takes this beach, this wholeness or awareness as the True Self, as the real person or being. Rather than Buddhahood, this is profound egohood, and the only difference is that Zen says that everything is the self, whereas Advaita said that the self is everything. You’d think those two would be the same since they both bring us to oneness. But the latter is oneness with grasping.
I have an Advaitan friend, and we’re always giving each other shit. He says, “Why are you climbing the mountain when you can just take a helicopter to the top?” I say, “This is the top! Who needs a helicopter?” He’s still focused on letting go, on destroying the ego, which is one of the most egoic goals a person can have.
Zen and Advaita are both about nonduality, as is the Heart Sutra. My Advaitan friend is just focused on the first part: Form is emptiness, and doesn’t care much about the second: Emptiness is form. We’re not sacrificing ourselves to the Void here like we’re virgins and it’s some angry volcano god. We’re seeing that sacrificing and not sacrificing are both impossible. There is no independent, unstable self to let go of, and no interdependent, stable not-self to claim as ours. Self and not-self are both boxes.
Big picture, nothing has ever been gained or lost, so rejecting our existence as limited beings in favor of being unlimited Buddhas is just delusion, that’s still form is form thinking. The sand castle doesn’t have to fall apart to be part of the beach—it’s already part of the beach as it is, it just has to see that directly.