The Heart of Understanding

The Heart Sutra is not an easy piece of work to understand. I have heard this sutra since I was young and all these while, the idea behind the sutra is at best a poetry to me and at worst, meaningless rhetoric.

Consider these sentences:

“Form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”

Sounds cool, ain’t it? Not only does it sound cool, it also sounds romantic.

But what exactly does it mean, I really have no real clue and no real understanding. It just felt cool, that’s all although when sometimes not so good things happens to me, I will just tell myself, “Ah…. have it is no different from not having it, so not having it is fine. Life goes on…”. Something along that line.

It is not till recently where I bought the book again, this time with commentaries by Thich Nhat Hanh that I gain some small insight into the real meaning of the Heart Sutra.

He started his commentary rather simply. He said that the paper that I am looking at now is not paper but is really cloud. Why is it cloud while it is obviously paper? Is that guy trying to pull some tricks and tries to be mysterious and vague? You see, one way to make people think you are greater than them is to say something that is very vague but very grand sounding. By doing so, you give an impression of greatness because your mind is so advanced, normal mortals can’t understand what you are saying. Better still, start to create your own vocabulary. Now, you will be immortal, maybe like Hegel.

What he was trying to put through is something not new, especially in this age of science and technology. What he merely said was that because of clouds, we have rain, because of rain, we have trees, because of trees, we have paper. And the cycle goes on and on and on. The form changes but it is actually the same thing. This is not nuclear science. I think anyone who has some education will understand this, no? In science class, the teacher taught us that energy cannot be created and cannot be destroyed. It merely changed from one form to another. Not too hard to understand that I think.

So it goes on to ask, “empty”, empty of what? When we say something is empty, it has to be empty of something, no? When we say the cup is empty, it is empty of water, perhaps, but it is not empty of air. It still contains air. So when we say form is emptiness, emptiness is form, then it has to be empty of something. It is not just pure talk and BS, spoken to impress.

So it is empty of what?

He goes on to explain the sutra, and the answer is it is empty of itself. What does it mean by it is empty of itself? That means that something cannot exist by itself alone, it’s existence contains the existence of other things (recall the paper-cloud analogy) and thus because it cannot exist by itself independent of other things, therefore it is empty of itself. In short, it has no “self”.

So then one goes on to ask, hey if you say that I have no self, that I am not myself, then who the hell is the person typing away at the keyboard now or reading this blog now? It has to be something right?

Wow, this is going to be tough but there is actually an answer to it and it is right there in the book. If I continue here, it will be a very long post.

Suffice to say that the sutra is getting clearer to me now thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh. If you are interested in it, please do get it. The beauty is that there is are logical answers and there is no forcing to believe based on blind faith. And if you still can’t get to understand it? Well, fine. Just simply that when you eat, be mindful that you are eating. When you work, be mindful that you are working. And just be a good person, mindful of what he is doing. And in that, lies the dharma in its simplest and most original form.

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3 Comments

Filed under Buddhism

3 responses to “The Heart of Understanding

  1. viento

    well, i still not clear about it … but i like your saying,

    “Ah…. have it is no different from not having it, so not having it is fine. Life goes on…”.

    this make it easier to understand a bit …

  2. papillion

    Writing this article is like not writing anything. So why write so many things? Just leave it empty, or perhaps leave it full on a white page. :)

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