The Heart Sutra Commentary by Zen Master Seung Sahn

I found this randomly on the Internet today. I’m a student of Seung Sahn’s lineage and try to understand his perspective especially, as well as that of other teachers that I study. Given the role and importance of the Heart Sutra within Zen, I thought this teaching would be worth studying by others and wanted to share it.

seung sahn

The Heart Sutra

Maha Prajna Paramita Hridya Sutra

Commentary by Zen Master Seung Sahn

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita
perceives that all five skandhas are empty
and is saved from all suffering and distress.

form does not differ from emptiness,
emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness,
that which is emptiness form.
The same is true of feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

all dharmas are marked with emptiness;
they do not appear or disappear,
are not tainted or pure,
do not increase or decrease.
Therefore, in emptiness no form, no feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;
no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no object of mind;
no realm of eyes
and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.

No ignorance and also no extinction of it,
and so forth until no old age and death
and also no extinction of them.

No suffering, no origination,
no stopping, no path, no cognition,
also no attainment with nothing to attain.

The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita
and the mind is no hindrance;
without any hindrance no fears exist.
Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in Nirvana.

In the three worlds
all Buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita
and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.

Therefore know that Prajna Paramita
is the great transcendent mantra,
is the great bright mantra,
is the utmost mantra,
is the supreme mantra
which is able to relieve all suffering
and is true, not false.

So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra,
proclaim the mantra which says:

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.</blockquote>

The Heart Sutra has only two hundred seventy Chinese characters, yet it contains all of Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching. Inside this sutra is the essence of the Diamond Sutra, the Avatamsaka-sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. It contains the meaning of all the eighty-four thousand sutras. It is chanted in every Mahayana and Zen temple in the world. In Korean temples and in our Zen centers in the West, the Heart Sutra is chanted at least twice every day, in the morning and at night, and during retreats it is chanted more. Sometimes if you find that your mind is not clear, and meditation does not help so much, you must read this sutra. Then your mind will become clear.

Maha means big, great. Prajna means wisdom, and paramita means “going beyond,” or perfecting. Hridya means heart. And the Chinese characters for Heart Sutra are shim gyong, or “mind road.” So this sutra is the “great path for the perfection of wisdom.”

The word maha in the title of this sutra points to something of very great size. What is truly numberless in time and space? Someone may say that the ground is the biggest thing. When you really stop to think about it, the oceans seem to be the biggest thing — there is more water than land. Or is the sky the biggest thing? Maybe space is the greatest thing we know of. Perhaps sky and space together are the number one biggest thing! The universe is infinite in time and space, and contains infinite worlds — is that the biggest thing? Everybody probably thinks that this is so. But an eminent teacher said, “This whole universe covers my body, yet my mind can cover the whole universe.” This is a very important point. The universe covers and surrounds our world and everything inside it, so it must be truly big. But in the instant that you think of the universe—”universe”—you have already covered the whole universe with your mind. Therefore our mind is bigger than the infinite time and infinite space of this universe. How wonderful! The Heart Sutra points to this biggest thing: mind. It shows how we can discover and cultivate the proper use of the biggest thing, so that is why this little sutra is called maha.

Perceiving that all five skandhas are empty saves all beings from suffering and distress.

There is suffering everywhere we look in the world. All beings are in pain and distress. But where does suffering come from? People are struck with a hopeless love for somebody, or they pursue the desire to obtain some material things. People have ambition to become things that they feel will complete their life, or to be recognized and approved by others. But no matter how hard we struggle for these things, even when we get them, we cannot keep them. And this causes all our suffering. But originally this suffering does not exist. It all comes from our mind, as a mirage rises up from a hot road and appears real. If I am suffering over some matter, and then I die, my suffering also disappears. When we realize this — that suffering is merely the product of our minds, and does not have some independent existence — then there is no longer any suffering and distress.

So, what is this mind that is so great? If you are thinking, you cannot find your mind anywhere. If you cut off all thinking — which means if you cut off all attachment to your thinking — then your true nature appears everywhere. The Buddha first taught that what we call mind or “I” is only the five skandhas of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. These skandhas, or aggregates, are constantly changing; they are only heaps of mental energy. Since human beings are attached to form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness, then when they inevitably change, we get suffering. We never get out of the suffering world. This is because we believe that these things are real, and that they are the real “I.” This is a central teaching of Hinayana Buddhism.

However, the Heart Sutra’s opening line shows that these skandhas are originally empty. Since that is so, where is suffering? What can possibly suffer? Here is a cup of orange juice. If you have “cup,” then you can keep this orange juice here. But if this cup breaks, how can the orange juice remain? You cannot keep the juice there, yah? Suffering is the same as that. Where does suffering abide? If you are attached to the five skandhas of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, or consciousness, then suffering has a place to stay. But the Heart Sutra shows the view that these five skandhas are empty. Mind is completely empty: where can suffering possibly stay? So this teaching about emptiness is very, very important to attain. When you practice the way of the perfection of wisdom, you attain the view that all five skandhas are actually empty. Attaining this view saves us from all suffering and distress. Merely understanding these views cannot help you — you must attain something.

Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

The Heart Sutra teaches that “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.” Many people don’t know what this means — even some long-time students of meditation. But there is a very easy way to see this in our everyday lives. For example, here is a wooden chair. It is brown. It is solid and heavy. It looks like it could last a long time. You sit in the chair, and it holds up your weight. You can place things on it. But then you light the chair on fire and leave. When you come back later, the chair is no longer there! This thing that seemed so solid and strong and real is now just a pile of cinder and ash which the wind blows around. This example shows how the chair is empty: it is not a permanent, abiding thing. It is always changing. It has no independent existence. Over a long or short time, the chair will eventually change and become something other than what it appears. So this brown chair is complete emptiness. But though it always has the quality of emptiness, this emptiness is form: you can sit in the chair, and it will still hold you up. “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.”

But why is it necessary to understand this? The reason for this is that many human beings are attached to name and form, and this attachment to name and form is the cause of nearly all suffering. If we want to cure human beings of this attachment, then we must apply name-and-form medicine. We must begin by showing that names and forms are not real and permanent: they are always changing, changing, changing. If you are rich, you must see that the riches you covet are empty. If you are attached to fame and other people’s approval, you must see that these things that you struggle and suffer for are empty. Most people treasure their bodies; they use a lot of money to make their bodies strong or beautiful. But someday, soon, when you die, this body will disappear. You cannot take this empty body with you, however much you treasure it. You cannot carry fame with you. You cannot carry money. You cannot carry sex. You cannot carry anything!

Nowadays, many people are very attached to these things. They treasure names and empty appearances above nearly all else, harming themselves and others just to protect them. They want to get money, or a good reputation, or a good relationship. They struggle desperately to get high positions. People always subject their minds to the worst kind of abuse and suffering just to try to get and then keep these empty, impermanent things. Nowadays many humans are very attached to sex. But none of that is necessary. All form is empty, so thinking that you can get anything or keep anything is a fundamental delusion. This line teaches that point.

The most important thing is, what do you want in your life, right now? What you want in this very moment makes your mind, and that mind makes your life. It determines this life and your next life. By perceiving that all things are originally empty, you can put it all down and just live, without suffering over these impermanent things.

No appearing, no disappearing. No taint, no purity. No increase, no decrease.

The Heart Sutra is known for its very interesting way of describing our true nature. It uses “no” many times. When you attain true emptiness, there is no speech or words. Opening your mouth is already a big mistake. So words and speech cannot describe our original nature. But to teach people still caught in words-and-speech delusion, sometimes words-and-speech medicines are necessary. The Heart Sutra recognizes both these points. So it describes our true nature by completely describing what our true nature is not. You cannot say what it is, but you can give a sense of what our true nature is not like. “It’s not this or this or this or this or this. It’s not like that or that or that. Understand?” Ha ha ha ha! This is a very interesting technique. The Heart Sutra only says “no,” because this is perhaps the best that words and speech can do.

This line points right to the fact that, in our original nature, nothing ever appears or disappears. There is no such thing as taint or purity, because these are merely qualities created by the thinking-mind. And in original nature there is neither increase nor decrease. Our true nature is completely still and empty. It is the universal substance of which everything else is composed. How, then, could it ever appear or disappear, or be tainted or pure? More importantly, since our true nature is the same as the universe, how could it ever increase or decrease? Infinite in time and space, it has none of the characteristics that apply to things we can describe with speech and words.

All dharmas are marked with emptiness. No cognition, no attainment. Nirvana.

The Heart Sutra says, “All dharmas are marked with emptiness.” But all dharmas are already empty and nonexistent even before you say this. Name and form are already empty. How can you even mention dharma, and then say it’s empty? That is a big mistake! In the true experience of emptiness, there are no words and no speech, so there is also no dharma. When you open your mouth to say “All dharmas are marked with emptiness,” that is already no longer emptiness. So be careful. The point of this is that if you just understand words and speech, and keep only an intellectual understanding, this sutra and any other sutra cannot help your life. Some actual attainment of what these words point to is necessary.

So when we say that everything is empty, we are saying that therefore there is also no cognition and no attainment. This point of emptiness is the Absolute. There is nothing, so what could you possibly attain? These words in the Heart Sutra are only wonderful speech and words. But however interesting or wonderful the speech and words are, if you just understand them conceptually, they cannot help your life. Again, you must truly attain something. You must attain that there is actually nothing to attain. Everything is already truth, exactly as it is. You are already complete. But be careful! Merely understanding these beautiful words is one thing, and attaining them is quite another.

The Heart Sutra begins with the Hinayana experience of emptiness and takes it one more step. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Hinayana reflect a path which perceives that everything is suffering, and which then leads to stopping suffering, stopping birth and death. This is nirvana. There are no opposites: no coming or going, no high or low, good or bad, birth or death. So in the true experience of emptiness, you perceive that there is already no birth or death, no coming or going. How can you stop some thing that doesn’t even exist? There is already no suffering: how can it have an origin, and how can it possibly be extinguished? That is why the Heart Sutra talks about “no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path.” It completely “hits” the opposites-thinking of the Four Noble Truths that there is suffering, and an origination of it, and a stopping of it, and a path. So Mahayana Buddhism teaches that there is one more step from Hinayana teaching. If you only stop at this point, at complete emptiness, you only attain nirvana. Mahayana Buddhism’s view means taking another step.

Unexcelled perfect enlightenment — anuttara samyak sambodhi.

Anuttara samyak sambodhi is a Sanskrit phrase meaning “unexcelled perfect enlightenment.” It is simply another way of saying “truth.” When you see, when you hear, when you smell, when you taste, when you touch, when you think - everything, just-like-this, is the truth. Before, just at the point of nirvana, there is no cognition, and no attainment with nothing to attain. So the bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita, and attains nirvana. But then these three words appear: anuttara samyak sambodhi. Before, there is no attainment; now, all Buddhas attain anuttara samyak sambodhi. What does this mean?

If you just attain true emptiness, this is only nirvana. It is an experience of complete stillness and bliss: there is no subject or object, no good or bad, no coming or going, no life or death. There is nothing to attain. But Mahayana means your practice continues “beyond” this point, so that you attain no-attainment. You must find nirvana’s function in the world. The name for that is unexcelled perfect enlightenment. If you attain no-attainment, then you attain truth. Your mind is empty and clear like space. This means your mind is clear like a mirror: If a mountain appears before the mirror, there is only mountain; water appears, and there is only water; red comes, red; white comes, white. The sky is blue. The tree is green. A dog is barking, “Woof! Woof!” Sugar is sweet. Everything that you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and think is the truth, just as it is. Nirvana means attaining emptiness, which has nothing to attain. Anuttara samyak sambodhi means using the experience of emptiness to attain truth. With an empty mind, reflect this world, just as it is. That is Mahayana Buddhism and the Great Bodhisattva Way.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!

So there is yet one more step. If you attain emptiness, and then attain truth, how does this world’s truth function to help other beings? All Buddhas attain anuttara samyak sambodhi, or unexcelled perfect enlightenment. This means that they attain truth. They can see that the sky is blue, and the tree is green. At the end of the sutra we are told that there is a great transcendent mantra, a great bright mantra, an utmost mantra, a supreme mantra: Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha. It can be translated as “Gone, gone, gone to the other shore beyond.” So this mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra means only action. Up until this point, everything is just speech and words about attaining emptiness and truth. It is all a lot of very interesting description. But this mantra means you must just do it. Some kind of action is necessary if you want to help this world. For the bodhisattva, there is only bodhisattva action. When you attain unexcelled perfect enlightenment, you must attain the function of this enlightenment in the world. That is what we call moment world. From moment to moment, perceive suffering in this world and only help all beings. That is a very important point.

Attaining truth alone is not enough. If someone is thirsty, give them something to drink. If someone is hungry, give them food. When a suffering person appears before you, you only help, with no thinking or checking. The early part of this sutra has no “do-it,” just good speech about attainment and no-attainment. But if you attain something, you must do it. That is the meaning behind Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha. Step by step, we attain how to function compassionately for others, to use truth for others, spontaneously, from moment to moment. This is the whole point of the Heart Sutra.

From moment to moment, when you are doing something, just do it.