On the Heart Sutra Mantra Part 1

The Heart Sutra concludes with the mantra “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.” An ending like this can seem puzzling, especially since no other mantra appears in the six-hundred volumes of the Prajna Paramita canon. If this Sanskrit word is taken, as it often is, to mean ‘spell,’ the Heart Sutra might get mistakenly imputed to have magical uses, especially since the mantra is often left untranslated. Yet each word in it has a definite meaning. Gate is the past participle for ‘go,’ and so means ‘gone,’ para is ‘beyond,’ and parasam is ‘all the way beyond.’ Bodhi is ‘enlightenment’, as in bodhisattva ‘enlightened being’. Svaha, also at the end of Hindu incantations, if translatable, would be ‘all hail’ or ‘at last,’ or even ‘hallelujah.’ The mantra thus becomes ‘Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone all the way beyond. Hail enlightenment.’

In his Essence of the Heart Sutra,the Dalai Lama states that this mantra summarizes the content of the sutra. He also uses the present tense, or ‘go’, so that the mantra becomes ‘Go. Go. Go beyond. Go all the way beyond. Hail enlightenment’, and so is a guide to where practice takes us, while with the past participle ‘gone’ implies looking backward at what happens in Buddhist practice. A comparison here of a Dalai Lama-like reading of the Heart Sutra with a section in the Genjo Koan of the Japanese founder of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji, and with the Five Ranks of Dongshan, one of its two Chinese founders, will reveal these three to be in agreement with respect to the arch of the practice.

The longer version of the Heart Sutra begins with bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, who having experienced in deep samadhi “that all five skandhas are empty and thus relieves all suffering,” is asked by the Buddha to explain to his most intellectually astute disciple, Shariputra, how this was arrived at. Shakyamuni Buddha had taught that the five skandhas were the components in the process by which we are connected to the world: The first skandha is contact between a sense organ and an object; the second is this becoming a sensation; the third is its becoming a perception; the fourth is its being combined with previous information; and the fifth is our becoming conscious of it From the first skandha to the fifth being empty means that not only is the self empty but also the entire world. Having experienced that both the perceiver, the subject, and what is perceived, the object, are equally empty is what makes Avalokiteshvara qualified to speak about it. In Theravada Buddhism, it is the Never-Returners, those in the state prior to that of Arhanship, who have such an understanding.

Avalokiteshvara begins by stating that form and emptiness are related in two ways. The first one, “form is emptiness,” is the first of Dongshan’s Five Ranks. Most people, after beginning to practice Buddhism by meditating, experience some degree of emptiness, though their understanding of it remains intellectual. A result of sitting and perhaps taking on the precepts is to start looking more at daily life. The first gate represents this initial stage in practice.

The second relationship is “emptiness is form,” the second of the Five Ranks. It becomes clear to over time that though meditators seek enlightenment, where practice takes place is in everyday life. Their problems being right here, sitters work on being mindful of what is happening now. The second gate represents this second stage.

Dogen’s “To study Buddhism is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self” corresponds to these first two gates. “To study Buddhism is to study the self” refers to how in mediating and taking on what was taught by Buddha sitters find themselves studying themselves. “To study the self is to forget the self” refers to how becoming more aware of what is occurring in their life acts, if indirectly, to come to terms with the suffering caused by inner foolishness.

Avalokiteshvara continues, “All dharmas are marked with emptiness. They do not arise or cease, are not tainted nor pure, do not increase or decrease.” Red Pine says that though hard to see in translation, this is referring to Shakyamuni’s Second Noble Truth. Things, i.e. thoughts, do arise and cease, are tainted and pure, do increase and decease. That is, what appears disappears, so we suffer because of it and because we fall for liking and disliking, and because we think we have a self. Suzuki Roshi touched on such feelings of dissatisfaction with “Everything changes” or “As long as you have suffering, ‘you’ is here.” However, what is experienced in emptiness is that the above do not exist.

The Third Noble Truth is that not being held back by the circumstances of impermanence, suffering, and self is to be in Nirvana. ‘Go beyond’—paragate, in which the third gate appears—represents that there is in the absence of the frightened/ demanding self a deeper state of emptiness that must always have been there. This stage is referred to in the Five Ranks as “emptiness is emptiness.” The things of this world seem to matter very little upon arrival at the other shore.

The Buddhist figure for this stage is Manjusri, the bodhisattva of enlightenment. He is generally shown holding a sword overhead and sometimes with lotus plants growing up on each side of him. These respectively symbolize the qualities of an ‘enlightened being’: having wisdom to cut through delusion and having compassion. These two are inseparable: it is only when the needs of the self have ceased to dominate can the needs of others take precedence. No longer having to think about oneself opens space for this. Dogen’s subsequent “to forget the self is to be identified by all things” shows this connection between a lack of personal concern and being defined by whoever is looking to us for help.

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