Explanation of The Heart Sutra
Riga, Latvia, August 2009
Session One: Prologue
This weekend I’m going to be speaking about The Heart Sutra. Actually, with a longer title, it’s The Essence of Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness, the Vanquishing Lady Surpassing All. So when we talk about far-reaching discriminating awareness – and this is the word prajnaparamita from the Sanskrit – and I mean it’s often translated as the “perfection of wisdom,” but that I don’t think really gives a good meaning, a full meaning, to the expression. “Perfection” sounds as though you have to be perfect, and how can I be perfect? So it gives a little bit of a strange meaning. But “far-reaching” is a much more literal translation of both the Sanskrit (paramita) and Tibetan (pha-rol-tu phyin-pa). And what we’re talking about is discriminating awareness (Skt. prajna): discriminate between reality and what is just impossible.
And the clear understanding of that is something which is far-reaching, will take us all the way to, literally, the other shore of samsara: in other words to liberation and enlightenment. And although we could have this discriminating awareness, this understanding of reality, with varying types of motivation, it becomes far-reaching – becomes a paramita in a sense – when it is together with a bodhichitta motivation. And bodhichitta is a mind that is focused on our own individual enlightenments which have not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors, the pure nature of the mind, and the ability of the mind to understand.
And so when we are able to discriminate reality correctly and we are aimed at reaching enlightenment with this understanding in order to benefit everyone, then it becomes a far-reaching attitude. And here the “heart” means the essence of it, so the kernel or the – what should we say: all the meaning of the extensive teachings that Buddha gave about this, all incorporated into a very abbreviated form that synthesizes all the main points. So it’s the heart. It’s the essence. And it’s called a “lady” or “mother” in the sense that with this it will give birth to liberation as – in the various classes – as a shravaka, as a pratyekabuddha, or to the enlightenment of a bodhisattva as a Buddha.
And “vanquishing lady surpassing all this” translating the word bhagavati, the female form of bhagavan. “Bhagavan” is usually translated as “blessed one” in many Western texts, but this is a completely Christian type of term. Blessed by whom? It doesn’t mean that at all. So if we look at each of the syllables: “Vanquishing,” this is either someone or something here in the teachings that will vanquish them, get rid of all the obscurations, all the suffering. And what’s implicit here by the word “lady” is masters who have gained all good qualities by means of this. And “surpassing all” means that it goes beyond any other type of attainment, or a person who has some type of spiritual realization.
So this weekend we’re going to speak about this text, and our time is very short. And so that’s why, instead of starting with some easy nice general words and how nice it is to be here and speaking in general, I have just gotten straight down to the point. So please excuse this manner of presenting this material, but it’s out of the wish to actually convey the meaning of it rather than just some nice words that make you feel good.
This is a very essential text. It’s quite interesting – interesting isn’t the proper word – it’s quite significant that when His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches these days, he usually will begin it by having this Heart Sutra recited and recited by all the various traditions. So have it recited by the Chinese, and the Vietnamese, and if there are Japanese monks there, or Korean monks, and Tibetan monks – have it recited in all the different languages. And when anybody teaches – if you do it in the proper traditional way – usually the teacher, if not the teacher plus the audience, recites this in order to overcome any type of ego-pride, “Oh I’m so wonderful! I’m up here on the throne and teaching.” And it’s often recommended that if we’re going to be doing serious daily meditation that we begin it also – I mean after the motivation and the seven-limb prayer – to have the Heart Sutra as well, so that again we don’t get into an ego trip of, you know, “I’m sitting here meditating. I’m so holy!”
Now as for what type of sutra this is, it is a particular type within what’s called the enlightening speech of a Buddha. Some of the sutras are the enlightening words that were actually spoken from Buddha’s own lips. And within sutras, some are what are called “permitted words” and these are the words that describe the audience, or starting with “Thus have I heard…” These are things that are added. Buddha didn’t say “Thus have I heard,” obviously. And then some are what’s called “enlightening words inspired by the Buddha.” In other words, Buddha didn’t actually say these himself, but in the presence of the Buddha someone was inspired in the audience to actually speak, and at the end Buddha said, "Well done." Buddha gave his approval.
And there are many divisions of such inspired words and this is the division known as the “enlightening words inspired by Buddha’s concentration.” Buddha was in deep absorbed concentration and inspired by this, then we have Shariputra and Avalokiteshvara getting up and giving this teaching in the form of question and answer. And this teaching is known as a teaching that has the five glorious features. There are glorious, fantastic (also, in a colloquial way, I translate it as “fantastic”) teachers; fantastic teachers: the Buddha, inspired by the Buddha. And a glorious place, Vulture’s Peak. And if you’ve ever been there – this is near Rajgir, you can actually go there – and it is an elevated hill that has: the top of it is sort of sticking out like the head of a vulture, and then there’s this big valley that you see from that vulture’s peak. So the top of it, you could imagine that there’s a throne there and this huge valley filled with all sorts of beings – so it’s a very wonderful place. Going there you can actually visualize what the teachings must have been like. It is very helpful, I find, to actually be at these places so that you can see exactly and imagine that this actually took place.
And there’s a glorious circle of disciples, so it was all arya lay people and arya bodhisattvas. And a glorious subject matter: the teachings on voidness. And a glorious time: it was twelve years after Buddha’s enlightenment, and not very many monastic vows or regulations had been set yet by the Buddha. You know the vows came about on the basis of difficulties that arose with the monastic community, and their relations among each other and their relations with the lay community. And when a problem came up, then Buddha made a certain vow in order to avoid that trouble in the future. So because there were very few vows that had been formulated at the time when this teaching was given, then nobody had broken any vows – so all of the monks were pure. That is the explanation of why it was a glorious time.
Okay, so the sutra begins These words have I heard.
It is very interesting, this phrase. Each syllable of it is explained with very deep meanings, many different levels of meaning, in the Guhyasamaja Tantra commentaries to it. Because the first word of it is evam (thus) and “e” and “vam” are representing method and wisdom, and there’s a tremendous amount of commentary on that. But this is not the occasion to go into that, but you should just be aware that this is actually a very significant phrase with which so many of the sutras begin.
At one time, the Vanquishing Master Surpassing All
That’s bhagavan. As I explained, that’s an epithet of Buddha and it was also an epithet used for the teachings itself in the female form. And as I explained, each of the three syllables has a specific meaning: bhagavan, cho-den-day in Tibetan (Tib. bcom-ldan-’das). There are so many different epithets of Buddha: Tathagata, Sugata, etc., and each of them have very full meanings so it’s important to – if we want to understand what the qualities of a Buddha are – to understand the various names with which a Buddha is referred to. So Buddha has “vanquished,” so gotten rid of, all the mental obscurations, emotional ones, cognitive ones; and “master”: has gained all – possesses all good qualities – and the Tibetans added “surpassing all,” the syllable “day” (Tib.’das), simply because bhagavan can be also used for various Hindu deities: Shiva, Vishnu, etc.
At one time, the Vanquishing Master Surpassing All was dwelling at Vulture Peak Mountain by the Royal City of Rajagriha (that was where one of his great patrons lived) together with a great assembly of the monastic Sangha and a great assembly of the bodhisattva Sangha.
And when the word “sangha” is used here, it’s referring to the gem, the jewel, the Sangha. In other words when we speak of The Three Gems – the three sources of safe direction or refuge – the Sangha one is referring to the Arya Sangha. That’s the community of those who have had nonconceptual cognition of the four noble truths, or if you want to be more specific, of voidness. There’s both a monastic one and a bodhisattva one. The bodhisattva one means, generally in Mahayana, Sangha and Arya Sangha; and both the monastic members and the lay members would be included in the bodhisattva one. So this indicates that one can attain enlightenment not only as a monastic but also as a lay person, although it is much easier as a monastic because you don’t have any other responsibilities, of a family etc.
And at that time the Vanquishing master Surpassing All (so that’s the Buddha) was totally absorbed in the absorbed concentration that expresses the multiplicity of phenomena known as “the appearance of the profound.”
Okay, multiplicity of phenomena. This is referring to the meditation on everything – so this is referring to the omniscient mind of a Buddha – and it’s known as the appearance of the profound. And “profound” is referring to voidness – voidness is the deepest truth of things – and the “appearance” is referring to the conventional truth of things. Now it’s only the mind of a Buddha, the omniscient mind of a Buddha, that can focus on the two truths of things simultaneously.
For our minds – the mind of a non-enlightened being – then when our mind makes the appearance of things, it makes an appearance of them as if they truly existed established from their own side. So let’s put it in simple language: it projects an appearance of things which is in an impossible way of existing. And when we focus on voidness, voidness is an absence of these impossible ways of existing – so the understanding of “there’s no such thing.” So we can’t have, at the same time, an appearance of something impossible and an absence of something impossible. But for a Buddha, for an omniscient mind that has gotten rid of what’s known as the cognitive obscurations – cognitive obscurations are what makes that appearance of what’s impossible – for that type of mind, it can make an appearance of things in the way that they actually exist, what is possible, which is known as a “dependent arising.”
And when the mind is making things appear in the way that actually is possible, then that can be simultaneous with an absence of what’s impossible: a voidness. In other words, you can’t have impossible and absence of impossible at the same time; but you can have, at the same time, possible and absence of impossible – and only a Buddha can do that. So this is what the Buddha was focused on: deep concentration. And multiplicity of phenomena: that means that everything is interconnected in terms of cause and effect, and parts and wholes, and so on. Nothing exists – this is what’s impossible, in very simple words – nothing exists by itself isolated from everything else, all on its own; which means it’s established there by itself, by its own power. That’s impossible. Everything is established in relation or dependent on everything else: causes, parts etc., mental labels. We’ll get into that in more detail as the weekend unfolds. This whole idea of the two truths: the accurate conventional truth and the deepest truth, voidness – these being together, that’s the basic theme of the whole sutra.
And so, in the presence of the Buddha deeply concentrated, totally absorbed in this, Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra were inspired to have this conversation. This whole presentation of something inspired by the realization or concentration of somebody else is actually a phenomenon that occurs. I’m saying this from my own experience. I remember being in the presence of Ling Rinpoche. Ling Rinpoche was the deceased Senior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so one of the most highly realized Tibetan practitioners. And I remember some of my meetings with him early on in my stay in India. You know I lived in India with the Tibetans for twenty-nine years and, in the early days of that, my spoken Tibetan was quite poor. Although I had learned the written language before I went to India, I had to learn the spoken language there. But being in his presence, I could understand: my mind was so much more clear than out of his presence. It was really a very marked type of experience. Although it sounds a little bit “New Age,” so excuse me, but it was almost as if the clarity and focus of his mind made the whole room, the whole environment, in focus; and being in that environment, your mind as well got in focus, it got very sharp and clear. It was a very remarkable experience. So anyway, these guys, Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra, were likewise inspired by the Buddha.
Also at that time, the bodhisattva great-minded mahasattva, the Arya Avalokiteshvara,
So bodhisattva is somebody with bodhichitta, and bodhichitta as I mentioned is – well there’s conventional and deepest bodhichitta. Conventional bodhichitta is focused on our own individual enlightenment that has not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors if we develop them. And deepest bodhichitta is the focus on voidness. Because of the voidness of the mind, and Buddha-nature, and so on – this makes it possible to achieve enlightenment. And the motivation that’s behind it is compassion and love for all beings, and the intention is to achieve that enlightenment and to help everybody else to achieve it as well. And when we have this state of mind as something which is – it’s called “unlabored,” which means that we don’t have to put any effort into it. We don’t have to build up this bodhichitta state going through the different stages of the meditation (you know, like everybody’s been my mother and has been so kind, etc.) and we just have it all the time – then you’re a bodhisattva. And great-minded being, that’s the translation of mahasattva, is just another term for bodhisattva. Bodhichitta mind is such a great incredible state of mind that it’s also referred to as – someone who has that is a great-minded one because it’s aimed at the greatest attainment, which is enlightenment for the sake of the greatest number of beings, which is everybody.
The Arya Avalokiteshvara, his name means the “Powerful Lord Beholding All Around” – that’s what “Avalokiteshvara” means. So he is a powerful lord; he has mastered all the various attainments – he’s like a lord (Skt. ishvara) – and powerful. He has all the abilities to be able to help others and behold all around. “Avalokita”: he sees all beings all around and helps everybody. The names of all these various figures actually have a lot of meaning to them; so the Tibetan commentaries, the Indian ones as well, always explain the meaning of the names.
So what was this Avalokiteshvara doing? He was conducting his behavior in profound and far-reaching discriminating awareness, and he was beholding all around, in detail,
Now conducting his behavior, that means that he was actually acting. He was bringing his understanding of voidness into action, into daily life. And he was conducting his behavior with profound and far-reaching – so, profound means that it was the fullest understanding of voidness, and far-reaching, as I explained, means that it was with bodhichitta. And he was beholding all around, so he was beholding everything: I mean on one level – all beings – because he’s Avalokiteshvara; so complete bodhichitta, wanting to help everybody; so with complete compassion. And in detail, so he was looking very profoundly at everything that he was observing, which is how we need to apply our understanding of voidness with compassion at everything that we are experiencing. And he’s beholding this, which means that not only was he looking at it, but he understood it.
And what was he looking at? He was looking at the five aggregate factors of his experience, his own five aggregates. And I always translate this as “aggregate factors of experience.” It is what comprises each moment of our existence, of what we are aware of – the experience. When we look at the definitions of happiness and unhappiness – with the aggregate of feeling: feeling a level of happiness – the definition is how we experience the ripening of our karma. So the ripening of our karma; what happens to us? Well it’s not just like information coming up on a computer screen. A computer doesn’t experience that information, we experience it. Like on a computer screen there are sights and sounds, and other information arises to the mind, doesn’t it, like a mental hologram. But “we experience it” means that the way that we cognize it, the way that we’re aware of it, is with some level of happiness or unhappiness. So having some level of happiness or unhappiness about that information means to experience it, even if it’s on a very low level of happy or unhappy.
So the computer doesn’t feel happy or unhappy about what appears on the screen, does it? We do! If there’s a mistake or it says “system failure” or something like that, we feel unhappy. The computer doesn’t care – not that the computer doesn’t care: the computer doesn’t feel anything. So these aggregate factors, the five aggregates, there’s always – in every single moment – there’s feeling of some sort of level of happiness or unhappiness, even if there isn’t a great deal of attention to that. For instance when we’re asleep, if we feel comfortable (which is like a happy feeling) we stay in that position. If we feel uncomfortable, we turn. Why do we turn? There’s some level of unhappiness, isn’t there? So Avalokiteshvara is focused here – in daily life as he’s sitting there, and so on – on what he is experiencing, what’s happening, every single moment according to his awareness; and the five aggregate factors make up what he is experiencing each moment.
And he’s experiencing these in detail (so, very carefully) and experiencing them, it says here and even those as devoid of a self-establishing nature. So it’s not as deep in absorption as what the Buddha has, as the Buddha’s omniscient mind, but Avalokiteshvara is here applying the understanding of voidness to each moment of what he is experiencing. And he is understanding that nothing of what he is experiencing has a self-establishing nature.
Now as I mentioned, our mind, when we’re not a Buddha, makes things appear in an impossible way. And when we focus on voidness, then what we are focusing on is a total absence: there is no such thing. In other words it’s like a mental hologram that appears. From the point of view of science there are all these – this energy, and photons, and stuff – come into the eye, and they’re translated into electric impulses and chemical things that go to brain; and actually, what we see is something like a mental hologram taken from all that chemical and electrical information. And this is true not only in terms of a visual hologram, but also sound hologram, smell, taste, physical sensation, abstract thoughts, etc. And that hologram, there are two aspects to it. There is an aspect of what something is, and that could be accurate or inaccurate. In other words, if I take my glasses off, I see a blur in this room. So there’s a mental hologram of a blur with a lot of colors, but that’s not accurate; it’s not that there are a lot of blurs sitting here in the room. So what something is – the appearance of what it is – can be accurate or inaccurate, and how it appears to exist can be accurate or inaccurate. So in terms of the appearance of what it is, what it refers to: okay, there are actual people sitting here, but in terms of the appearance of how it exists – when we talk about voidness, there’s no referent “thing.” There’s no “thing” out there that exists in some impossible way.
How does our mind make things appear? The analogy that I often use is either as a ping pong ball (really solid, separated from everything else around it) or a package wrapped in plastic. So I see you in front of me, for instance, this body; and it appears encapsulated in plastic just by itself. I’m not aware of your childhood, the entire life that you’ve lead. I’m not aware of your family and all the other things that you were involved with throughout your life, but obviously this is all involved with this person here; but all that I see is – blam! what’s right there in front of my eyes, as if you existed just totally by yourself, by your own power.
“Your own power” means that there’s just something inside you that establishes your appearance now and establishes your existence as it is, as it appears to me. But actually you are established by what’s called “dependent arising.” So, dependent upon many things: upon all the causes, your childhood, all your relationships with others etc., everything that’s happened to you – so all the causes – that has established your appearance. Your being here is dependent on all of that. It is arisen dependent on all of that. Not just “there you are!” And it’s also established by all your parts, all the different parts of your body: the digestive system, the circulatory system, your brain, everything. That doesn’t appear to me. I don’t think of your circulatory system when I look at you – the veins, and arteries. I mean, who thinks of that?
And also what establishes you is what’s called “mental labeling.” That’s quite difficult to understand. An example that His Holiness the Dalai Lama often uses is our fourth finger. It is long compared to the fifth finger, but it’s short compared to the third finger. So its being short or long is not established from itself; it’s established only in relation to how you label it in comparison to other things. So, I’m looking here at a woman, and the woman is young compared to older women, old compared to a younger woman; as a woman only compared to a man. The whole concept of “woman” arises dependently on the concept of “man,” doesn’t it? There’s woman, there’s man. And that we have decided to divide human beings into men and women. Well, it could have been possible that you divide human beings according to another conceptual scheme like the color of their eyes. Well, within that category of men and women there are some with brown eyes and some with blue eyes. So we could have divided that among those with brown eyes there are men and women, and among all those with blue eyes there are also men and women. It’s totally arbitrary, isn’t it? It’s a mental label.
So this is in a very basic level – I mean there are many more profound levels of how we explain mental labeling – but as our first level of understanding it, we can understand that things are established as what they are: a man, a woman, etc., a Latvian compared to – there had to be other countries, there had to be a whole concept of Latvia aside from the fact that it rose historically and so on. Somebody drew a line around a piece of land and said that’s Latvia. I mean, this is all mentally constructed. It’s not established from its own power, from something inside it. What makes you Latvian? Is it where you live? Well, if you lived on the other side of a line that somebody drew on the ground then you’re not Latvian? Is it the language that you speak? Is it some piece of paper in a little book that is labeled passport? What makes you Latvian? Is there something inside you that makes you Latvian? So there’s nothing inside you that by its own power establishes you, independent of absolutely everything else, as a Latvian. It’s that you are a Latvian dependent on a mental label, a concept, that some people made up and decided that this is what constitutes a Latvian. Okay? So nothing has this self-establishing nature. It’s devoid of that.
And in English – I don’t know if there are two different words in your language, Latvian – but in English I am very strongly pushing the word “voidness” rather than “emptiness.” “Emptiness” is used for a glass: a glass is empty, you know, if there’s nothing inside it. Well that’s talking about a container that doesn’t have something inside it. That’s not what voidness is talking about. The Sanskrit word shunya is also used for zero, nothing; and that means that there is a total absence of a referent thing. There’s this hologram of how it looks as though it exists, self-established as – you know, here’s a room full of Latvians – but there’s nothing that it refers to, it’s absent, nothing behind it. That’s voidness, that absence.
Another term that’s used is there’s no “focal support” (dmigs-rten). A focal support would be like: let’s say you have a piece of scenery or something like that in a play and there is a diagonal piece of wood, or something, behind it that supports it, that holds it up. That is called a focal support here by this technical language, and voidness is saying that there’s no support behind it. There’s nothing holding up this hologram, this mental hologram of what’s impossible. There’s nothing behind it, nothing supporting it. So that’s voidness, that absence. So in the discussion of voidness, Tsongkhapa says very, very strongly: if you have any focal support left to this appearance of what’s impossible, you haven’t gone deeply enough in your refutation. You have to get rid of all focal supports. There’s nothing behind this appearance of what’s impossible. It just doesn’t refer to anything.
Okay. The text goes on. Then, through the might of the Buddha – so this is the inspiration of the Buddha, the power of the inspiration of the Buddha – the Venerable Shariputra – venerable is a word, a title of respect – the Venerable Shariputra addressed these words to the bodhisattva great-minded mahasattva, the Arya Avalokiteshvara.
In Buddhism, the teacher is not supposed to teach unless asked, unless requested. It’s not that you go around as a Buddhist teacher: “Buddhist teacher for hire,” you have the sign out there and you stand up on a box outside and you teach! You have to be requested. What makes a teacher? What establishes somebody as a teacher? And the answer to that – this has been asked to His Holiness the Dalai Lama: he says that if there are those who want to learn from you, in other words if there are students who wish to learn from you and who ask you, establish you, as the teacher. Then, of course, you have to have the qualifications as well. You have to have some knowledge and experience to be able to teach. But just having that knowledge and experience is not enough. What establishes you as a teacher are those who want to learn from you. It’s a little bit like what establishes you as a mother is a child. If you didn’t have a child, you wouldn’t be a mother. If you didn’t have students, you wouldn’t be a teacher.
So this is what Shariputra asked. He says “How does any spiritual child with the Buddha family traits need to train, who wishes to conduct his or her behavior in profound and far-reaching discriminating awareness?”
Well first of all, Shariputra is saying: “Well, how do you train yourself in order to do like what you’re doing?” Which means that you don’t reach this level of attainment without training. It’s not that Avalokiteshvara was just – like that! – a great being by some nature inside, some self-establishing nature. So, Buddha-family trait – that’s usually translated as Buddha-nature. So, it’s not just that Avalokiteshvara has Buddha-nature and therefore Avalokiteshvara is able to have this profound far-reaching understanding. But together with Buddha-nature you need to train. That’s why he’s saying. How do you train if you have this Buddha-nature?
So first of all, what is Buddha-nature? There’s no word “Buddha-nature,” literally. The word is a “family trait.” “Family” means those who have the characteristics or the traits that will allow them to become a Buddha. So, belong to the family of Buddhas – which includes everybody. So this is a very broad topic. There are different explanations according to the different Buddhist philosophical tenets that you have, Mahayana tenets: there’s a Chittamatra explanation, there’s a Sautrantika explanation, there’s a Prasangika explanation.
There’s certainly no time to go into all of that. But these are – if we look at just the Prasangika point of view – these are the basic factors that will either transform into the various Corpuses (Bodies) of a Buddha, or which allow for them to be the case, when we have them. So the fact that we have body, speech, mind, good qualities, some type of activity, and so on – that’s something that can be developed and transformed so that we have the enlightening body, speech, mind, qualities, and activities of a Buddha. The fact that we have what’s called the “five types of deep awareness”: you know, the mirror-like takes in information, and equalizing puts things together so we see categories and so on – all of that allows for these unlimited factors in a Buddha’s mind.
And the fact that we have a network of positive force and of deep awareness – this is the so-called “two collections” – that also is what will transform into the Form and so-called Dharmakaya of a Buddha. It’s a little bit complicated, but no need to explain how that is so. These are the evolving factors: in other words, you have to build them up more and more to become the various aspects of a Buddha. And the abiding traits are: like the voidness of a Buddha’s mind, this type of thing is something which is responsible – because the mind, the mental continuum, is devoid of impossible ways of existing – that allows for the transformation to become a Buddha. If that weren’t the case, you couldn’t become a Buddha. That doesn’t change into anything.
Now what’s very interesting is to understand these family traits, these so-called Buddha-nature factors, in terms of the understanding of dependent arising and voidness. We speak of basis, path, and result very frequently in the Buddhist texts. This comes from the text by Maitreya called Uttaratantra in Sanskrit, The Furthest Everlasting Stream, Gyu lama (rGyud bla-ma) in Tibetan. A very famous text. And the basis is Buddha-nature, the path is all the practices that are involved in developing these Buddha-nature factors, and the result would be these various Corpuses or Bodies of a Buddha.
Now these various traits, these characteristics of a mental continuum (with body, speech, mind, etc.) are they established from their own side by their own power as a basis for becoming enlightened? No. They’re only established as a basis in relation to something else: the path and the result. If there were no path and result, it’s not a basis. Now if you think about that – and we don’t have time to spend now five minutes or five years thinking about it – do I have the basis to become a Buddha? Well, what does that mean? I only have a basis – you know, there’s body, speech and mind; there’s all these qualities – but I only have a basis for becoming a Buddha if I’m thinking in terms of the result. I’ve not yet attained enlightenment, but I’m aiming for it with bodhichitta and have, you know, I’ve taken bodhisattva vows and I’m engaged in bodhisattva behavior in order to reach that enlightened state of a Buddha. Then I have the basis, these Buddha-nature factors, as a basis for becoming a Buddha. So they only are a basis for becoming a Buddha in relation to doing practices, those type of practices, and aiming for the result. Otherwise they’re just qualities. So when we understand a little bit about dependent arising and voidness, it makes much more sense in terms of what are we talking about Buddha-nature. What does that actually mean? It’s the whole package of these factors and the practices and aiming for the result. It’s only within the context of that whole package can we really work with this idea of Buddha-nature.
So when we are looking at all beings with our compassion, it’s not just wanting them to be free from suffering, but it is seeing that they can be free from suffering; otherwise we’re wishing them something they can’t possibly attain. So when we’re seeing or focusing with compassion on others’ suffering, we’re also focusing on their Buddha-nature within the context of – if they follow the path, if they do practice – they can achieve the enlightenment that has not yet happened that can be imputed on their mental continuum. And so what we want to do is to help them to do those path practices to achieve that enlightenment. This not-yet-happened enlightenment is imputed on the basis of its causes – these Buddha-nature factors.
So the Buddha-nature factors… you know, a basis for labeling is only established as a basis for labeling in relation to something being labeled in terms of that. The enlightenment that’s not yet happened can be imputed on the basis of these causes, these factors; that the basis (together with practice) will make a presently-happening enlightenment, not just a not-yet-happened enlightenment. And that is very, very profound if you think about it; that nothing is established as a basis for labeling, independent – by its own power. It’s only in relation to a mental label and what a mental label refers to.
To make that perhaps a little bit more intelligible by using another example: parts. Parts are a basis for labeling the whole. Parts don’t exist as parts by their own power; they only exist as parts in relation to a whole. They have to be parts of a whole. They can’t just be parts, can they? Or a cause. Nothing exists as a cause by its own power; it only exists as a cause in relation to a possible result. I label this as a cause on the basis of, you know, because there’s the possibility of a result. Otherwise it’s not a cause at all.
So what’s one of the consequences of this whole discussion that I’ve been having – we’ve been having? No, not a discussion because I’ve just been talking by myself – is that it’s not inevitable. There are different views on this according to different tenet systems, but from the Prasangika point of view it’s not inevitable that everybody will become enlightened.
It’s not that everything is getting better and better, and every year more beings are getting enlightened, and eventually we’ll just be finished! We have qualities, that’s true, but that’s only if we actually do – you have the basis and the path and – you do practices, and so on, then you can become enlightened. It’s not that everybody definitely is going to do all these practices. We can try, try to teach everybody to do all these practices. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to do them. So it is possible for everybody to achieve enlightenment. It is not inevitable that they will, even given endless time. Does that mean we get discouraged with this bodhisattva ideal – I want to help everybody attain enlightenment? It’s not that we have this bodhisattva ideal with some idea that eventually our work will be finished and then we can relax. It may go on forever!
So, then it goes on. Addressed like that, the bodhisattva great-minded mahasattva, the Arya Avalokiteshvara, addressed these words to the venerable Son of Sharadvati – that’s just another name for Shariputra. Shariputra: “putra” means son, and he was the son of someone called Sharadvati.
Now, Avalokiteshvara speaks and says, “O Shariputra, any spiritual son with the family traits or spiritual daughter with the family traits, who wishes to conduct his or her behavior in profound and far-reaching discriminating awareness, needs to behold all around, in detail, like this:”
So here it’s very, very clear that this is not a sexist type of teaching. That it says, very specifically, sons with the family traits and daughters with the family traits – it didn’t say animals, but anyway. Now very interesting, this whole gender issue, because we’re talking about a mental continuum. There are a finite, a countless – “countless” just means an enormous finite number with sixty zeros after it – there’s a finite number of individual mental continuums. And just as we saw that there is nothing inherent inside that mental continuum that by its own power makes you Latvian, likewise, as a true identity, there is nothing inside or inherent in a mental continuum that makes it a male mental continuum or a female mental continuum.
In any particular lifetime, the form that the body in that lifetime will have is something which arises dependently on various karmic causes. And it’s very, very complex and not at all clear: what is the karma to be reborn as a cockroach or as a grasshopper or a chicken or a human or a ghost or whatever? That’s not so clear and easy. Or why you’re born in Latvia and not in Lithuania or in Zimbabwe. And similarly there are karmic causes for any particular lifetime to be one gender or the other gender, male or female. And there are various causes and it’s not so clear really what those causes might be in terms of – there are many different explanations of why a particular lifetime you are born as a male or a female. Obviously, the power of prayer is effective here because Tara, when she developed bodhichitta in some previous lifetime, prayed to be reborn as a female all the way to enlightenment in order to inspire women, so obviously the power of prayer has something to do with it. Nevertheless, we are either a male or a female – in some cases that is a little bit ambiguous, in-between – in any case, this is established by karma and the convention that divides people into gender categories. And conventionally it is accurate.
So there’s the conventional of: what it is, is accurate in terms of male and female. Is it established by its own power independently of anything else? No, that’s not accurate. But conventionally, just what it is: male or female – that is accurate and that is respected here, in terms of daughter with the family traits and son with the family traits. So this is the whole art that is involved here in terms of how to live, how to conduct yourself – in bodhisattva behavior, it says. In other words, to understand the conventional appearance of what I am, what you are, what everything is, but with an understanding of voidness – that it is not established by something inside itself, by its own power, as if it were encapsulated in plastic; but it’s established in terms of causes, conditions, parts, and concepts (mental labels).
So that brings us to the end of the portion of the text that is leading up to the main teachings: how Avalokiteshvara explains voidness, and how to meditate on voidness, in terms of the context of our everyday experience, and that we will leave for tomorrow. So do you have some questions about what we have been discussing? This is a very packed teaching. “Packed” means it’s packed with a lot of things in it. It is the essence. That’s what it says: the Heart Sutra. It is the heart of all this enormous Prajnaparamita literature, so one needs to be patient that there’s going to be a lot in here. It requires some time to digest what we have been speaking about.
Okay, so let’s end then with the dedication: And think whatever positive force, whatever understanding has built up from this, may it go deeper and deeper. In other words, may we think about it, and try to understand it, and try to familiarize ourselves with it more and more. Once we’ve understood it, through what’s called “meditation,” then do like Avalokiteshvara: try to apply it in our behavior, when we interact in life, and in that way the positive force and understanding builds more and more. Especially when we network it with everything else that we’ve understood, all the other positive force that we’ve built up. And may all of this act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Thank you very much.
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