The Maha Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, or Heart Sutra has been a focus of my study for the past couple of weeks. Last Saturday, I took a class called Understanding the Heart Sutra. I didn't take many notes, I mostly just listened to the talk and tried to absorb the teaching. I can't say I walked away from the class with the ability to explain each verse of the sutra in depth. That wasn't the point of the class anyway. What I did walk away with was a sense of happiness, even peace.
The Heart Sutra has a great deal of information packed into a few verses. The class I attended, a short chapter in Hardcore Zen, and another book called There Is No Suffering are uncovering the mystery of the sutra for me. A big piece of the puzzle is a concept called shunyata, or emptiness.
Shunyata is one of those vague concepts. You can point to it but you can't really put your finger on it. A few articles on the web offer explanations. My purpose here is to catalog some of these explanations and post a few snippets and reflections.
An article by Thanissaro Bikkhu begins:
Emptiness is a mode of perception, a way of looking at experience. It adds nothing to and takes nothing away from the raw data of physical and mental events. You look at events in the mind and the senses with no thought of whether there's anything lying behind them.
This mode is called emptiness because it's empty of the presuppositions we usually add to experience to make sense of it: the stories and world-views we fashion to explain who we are and the world we live in. Although these stories and views have their uses, the Buddha found that some of the more abstract questions they raise -- of our true identity and the reality of the world outside -- pull attention away from a direct experience of how events influence one another in the immediate present. Thus they get in the way when we try to understand and solve the problem of suffering.
This reminds me of something they teach in Landmark Education about the nature of suffering. They say that the source of suffering is that human beings live in un-reality, and that all suffering (from mild resignation to total despair) happens because of the collapse of what happened with a story we tell about what happened. In reality, there is only what happened. This un-messed-around-with "reality" is what Thanissaro Bikkhu is pointing to when he talks about emptiness as a mode of perception empty of the presuppositions we usually add to experience to make sense of it.
Another article out there appears on several websites but I cannot seem to find the source. It suggests that teachings on emptiness find their most articulate development in the Kadampa branch of Mahayana Buddhism:
To Kadampa Buddhists all things are totally empty of any defining essence. Consequently all things have no fixed identity ('inherent existence') and are are in a state of impermanence - change and flux - constantly becoming and decaying. Not only are all things constantly changing, but if we analyse any phenomenon in enough detail we come to the conclusion that it is ultimately unfindable, and exists purely by definitions in terms of other things - and one of those other things is always the mind which generates those definitions.
So, if we extend emptiness as a mode of perception to everything around us, the suggestion is that we cannot find the "eye-ness" in an eye any more than we can't find the "I-ness" in ourselves.
This is what Thich Nhat Hanh points to when he talks about Interbeing. In a talk on the Heart Sutra, he says that if we look deeply enough we can see a cloud, the sun, the tree, a logger, the wheat that makes the bread that the logger eats, the logger's grandfather, and everything else that exists in a sheet of paper. He says that if you send all of these "non-paper" elements back to their source... the rain back to the cloud, the tree back to the ground, etc. then the paper cannot exist.
The paper is empty. Empty of what? Empty of a separate self. Empty of a separate entity. That means, the sheet of paper cannot exist by itself. It exists because of the existence of non-paper elements.
Thanks to emptiness, everything is there. Thanks to emptiness, everything is possible.
The final online source I'm quoting tonight provides a good summary:
Buddhism teaches that things are:
- Dependent on their parts
- Interrelated, not isolated
- Merely labelled
To prevent misunderstanding, we must avoid the "two extremes", that is, believing that:
- Things are permanent, independent of their parts, and independent of our labelling
- Things do not exist at all (nihilism).
I'm going to stop for now but I plan to continue this inquiry. If you know of articles, books, dharma talks or other teachings on emptiness I can review, please let me know.