I’ve been listening to the Heart Sutra that the Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche sangha put together for Saga Dawa about a month ago. Saga Dawa is the celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
The Heart Sutra is practiced in many Mahayana Buddhist traditions in Asia and the West – in many translations and formats. It ranges from 21,000 pages in the Tibetan tradition down to a single syllable AH, as a expression of profound understanding.
The Shambhala Buddhist community has practiced a “medium length” version of the Heart Sutra since the early 1970s translated by the Nalanda Translation Committee. And in the shrine room at 1111 Pearl Street the mantra of the Heart Sutra, Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha was painted in gold lettering around the entire perimeter.
As such the Heart Sutra can be viewed as supreme protection – but protection against what? It is useful to examine the parts of the Heart Sutra more closely.
Sutras are some of the earliest recorded teachings of the Buddha, and traditionally are in a “story format.: In the Heart Sutra, the dialogue is between the Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, and Shariputra, who was one of the Buddha’s main disciplines. Avalokitesvara has an insight that profound emptiness can be understood through the insubstantiality of the five skandhas. Shariputra asks Avalokitesvara to expound upon this.
The skandhas are often translated as “heaps” – form / feeling / perception /formation / consciousness. As such, they make up “the body of experience” – how we construct ourselves and our world.
- Form refers to our sense organs and sense objects (resultant form). Our experience of form are predicated the four elements (earth, wind, fire, water, considered causal form.)
- Feelings are pleasant unpleasant neutral and based on the sense experiences.
- Perceptions are what arise from contact with the sense organs, what the senses perceive.
- Concepts include many motivational and mental events – for instance, faith determination emotions. In the Mahayana abidharma there are 51 events in this skandha.
- Consciousness is how we recognize and make sense of things.
So the skandhas can be considered the elements, the minute instances, of how we construct out MIND in general !!! Our experience is heaped up, or aggregated together moment to moment by different aspects of the skandhas.
The Heart Sutra challenges the solidity these heaps – and points that they are inherently empty. What does that mean? Experientially, the experience of the five skandhas is constantly changing. How any one moment or experience is formed is predicated by both the karmic causes and external conditions of that situation. So the skandhas are inherently empty of self nature, or any one solid, fixed sense of being. They are constantly changing.
How might we understand this? The cultivation of our awareness in shamatha and vipashyana meditation practice points specifically to this changing nature of our mind and experience, moment to moment. AThis is no where more evident than in our contemporary present, where there is great uncertainty regarding so many personal and social aspects of life.