The Heart Sūtra

Part of the Perfection of Wisdom Scriptures of early Mahayana

The Heart Sūtra is part of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñaparamitā) literature, a collection of early Mahāyāna Scriptures. There are a number of Perfection of Wisdom collections, both long and short, and there are a number of Heart Sūtras, both long and short.

The Perfection of Wisdom collection was originally written in Buddhist Sanskrit, which is slightly different from classical Sanskrit, and in a number of Sanskrit-related languages and dialects that existed on the Silk Road.
It is quite possible that the long version of the Heart Sūtra that has been translated and published by the office of the Gyalwa Karmapa ( is a most accomplished and correct rendering of one of the long versions.
Sir Leon Hurvitz, one of the early highly esteemed Sinologists discovered a short version of the Heart Sūtra that the monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (or Hsuan-tsang) transcribed from a wall in a cave in Loyang, Northern China. What Xuanzang, who died in 664 discovered must have been an transliterated version of a Sanskrit original. Transliteration means that you write down the heard syllables as faithfully as possible in the script in which your own language is expressed. To give an example of transliteration: an Anglosaxon might transliterate the French word “boutique” as “booteec”, and “pois” as “pooah”. Imagine the misunderstandings that arose in later ages when researchers tried to figure out the Sanskrit words hidden in Chinese characters.

Since Hurvitz’ discovery the short version of the Heart Sūtra has been retranslated into Buddhist Sanskrit first, and after that into English. Now (2009) a version of this Sanskrit → Chinese → Sanskrit → English text floats around in the virtual World Wide Web.
Translating such a text into English was a brave enterprise, especially in the early days of Buddhism in the West. As both the knowledge of Buddhism grew and more and more dictionaries and Sanskrit Grammars appeared, it has become possible to attempt a revised English translation of Xuanzang’s short version of the Heart Sūtra.

On the title:

“Heart” here refers to the essence of the Perfection of Wisdom-texts, being the emptiness of all phenomena. A few words are said in the observations in line 3. The stock phrase “emptiness is form, form is emptiness” is not found in this text, at least not verbatim. Instead line 5, where this phrase appears in other manuscripts, shows influences of Huayen-thinking where it emphasises the fundamental identity of forms in their being empty of “ens”, substance.

1. Prajñaparamitā hrdaya sūtra

2. arayāvalokiteshvaro bodhisattvo

3. gambhīram prajñaparamitā caryam caramano vyavalokāyati
sma panca skandhas tams ca sva bhāva sunyam

1. Sūtra on the heart of the perfection of wisdom

2. The noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
3. coursed in the profound perfection of wisdom; he uninterruptedly coursed (in such a way that he had a fixed view on) the empty world (,namely the emptiness of) that which has arisen, (i.e.) the five skandhas.

4. pasyati sma iha sariputra

5. rūpam sunyatā vā rūpam rūpan na prthak
sūnyatā sūnyatāya na prthak rūpam
yad rūpam sa sūnyatā ya sūnyatā sa rūpam

4. O, Sariputra, he saw uninteruptedly:
5. that which is emptied is none other than (a single) form and/or forms (plur.); those forms do not distinguish (fundamentally) among themselves; they are empty.

6. evam eva vedanā samjñā samskāra vijñānam
7. iha sariputra sarva dharma sunyatā
8. lakshana anutpanna anuruddha av(i)māla anuna aparpūna.

6. The same goes for physical feeling, the active process of understanding, establishing and maintaining of thought-stream, and consciousness as such.

7. O Sariputra, all phenomena are empty,

8. (therefore their) characteristics (too) are unarisen, (therefore there is no need for) pacifying, (and they cannot be said to be) impure, (or) inferior; (in this sense they are) certainly complete, one.

9a. ta (tada) sariputra sunyatāyam
b. na rūpam na vedanā na samjñā na samskāra na vijñāna
c. na caksuh srotam na ghrāna jihva-kaya manah
d. na rūpa sabda gandha rasa spistavya (sprstavya) dharmah
e. na caksur dhātur yā van (yāva) na mano vijñānam dhātur
f. na vidya na vidya na vidya ksayo vā vidya ksayo
g. yā van (yāva) jaramaranam na jaramana ksayo
h. na duhkha samudaya nirodha mārgajnā
i. na jñānam na prapti na (a)bhis(a)maya tamai (tasmat) na prapti.

9a. In that case, Sariputra, (in) that all encompassing emptiness
b. (is) no materiality; there is no physical feeling, no active process of understanding, no establishing and maintaining of thought-stream, no consciousness
c. (nothing belonging to the sphere of the) eye; it has no faculty of hearing, no smell, no tongue, nothing material.
d. (There is) no form, no sound, smell, taste, touching — nothing phenomenal.
e. There is no sphere in which the eye is operative, upto thinking, or a sphere in which consciousness is operative.
f. (There is) no knowing, no exhaustion of knowing or knowing that knowing has been exhausted.
g. This (holds true upto) old age and death and the extincion of old age and death.
h. There is no origin of affliction (or) extinction of the search.
i. (This all encompassing emptiness has) no supreme knowledge; there is nothing to be gained, nothing to be clearly understood; therefore there is nothing to be attained.

10. tvad bodhisattva prajñaparamitā asritya (srutya)
11. viha ratya (vihāratya) citta varano vidya ksayo na vidya ksayo

10. You, bodhisattva, heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom (thus:)

11. (it) is to be dwelt in (thus:), he chooses this (line of) thought: nor is knowing exhausted, nor is it not exhausted.

12. na duhkha-samudaya nirodha-mārgajnā
na jñānam na prapti na (a)bhis(a)maya tamai (tasmat) na prapti.
13. tvad bodhisattvanam prajñaparamitā asritya (srutya)
14. vihāratya citta varano | citta varano
na siddhitvad (nāstitvat) atrasto viparyasa ti kranto (tikranto)
15. ni sthā (nisthā) nirvāna | tya dhā vyāva stitah.

12. There is no origin of affliction, there is no extinction of the search.
(It has) no supreme knowledge; there is nothing to be gained, nothing to be clearly understood; therefore there is nothing to be attained.

13. You who (now) belong to (the line of) bodhisattvas heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom (thus:)

14. It is to be dwelt in (thus:); he chooses this line of thought | this way of thinking:
Because of non-existence of the hindrances of the mind, he is not frightened, he has crossed over distortions; |

15. indeed he will be firmly established in nirvāna.

16. sarva buddhah prajñaparamitam asritya (srutya)
17. anuttaram samyaksambodhim abisambuddhah

16 – 17. All unexcelled, perfectly enlightened, highest Buddhas heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom.

18. tasmat jñatavyam
19. prajñaparamitā-mahā-mantram mahā-vidya-mantram
anuttara-mantram asamasama-mantram.

18. Therefore they knew this.

19. The Perfection of Wisdom is a great utterance, an utterance of great knowing,
an on all levels unexcelled utterance.

20. sarva duhkha prasa manam satyam amithyātvat
21. prajñaparamitayam ukto mantrah tadhyathā

20. All afflictions are cast aside as the mind does away with falsety, unreality.

21. Thus has been declared the utterance on the perfection of wisdom.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha

(Is) gone, (is) gone, gone to the other shore, altogether gone to the other shore; a salute to bodhi, enlightenment.


Line 2.: — Arayāvalokiteshvaro. Āvalokiteshvara (he who reaches down (aval) to listen to voice/sound (svāra) of the earth (loka)) is Buddha’s Compassion aspect; a bodhisattva is an enlightening being, according to the Mahāyāna philosophy.

Line 3.: — sma: uninterruptedly, fixed

vyavalokāyati. Vyava in classical Sanskrit is a prefix indicating action: to fix, to do etc. Lokāyati (gramm.: infin.) = the world. Vyava-lokāyati ought to be read in conjunction with caryam and sunyam: to course/coursing (caryam) in empty/the empty (sunyam) world (lokāyati) of …

caryam caramano indicates the dynamic though wordless Buddhist meditation.

sva bhāva (svabhāva) = that which has arisen, that which has been born, the existent. In classical Hindu-thought it is often given as “the self-existent”. This, however, would not be the correct interpretation here.

Skandhas are enumerated in lines 5 and 6 as: materiality (form), physical feeling, the active process of understanding (samñjā), establishing and maintaining of thought-stream (samskāra), and consciousness as such (vijñāna).

Sūnyam here is clearly understood in the Southern Buddhist sense of absence of an unchanging, ever abiding self, soul. It indicates the ever changing nature of all phenomena including the self or the soul. It should be understood that the Perfection of Wisdom-collection is one of the first, if not the first long manuscript that expouses the early Mahāyāna philosophy.

Line 4.: — Sariputra, a contemporary of Sakyamuni Buddha, was one of the Arhats, enlightened monks, having, according to Southern or early Buddhism, the same enlightenment as Buddha, yet standing a step below him. Sariputra used to be the trainer of novices. In later ages he therefore is projected as one of Buddha’s most important partners in discussion, and is here, in the Heart Sūtra, presented as one who understood this teaching, and therefore now has joined the ranks of the bodhisattvas, enlightening beings.

Line 5.: — Following the rule that verb and object have to agree in number, sūnyatāya, “is emptied”, should be considered the verb, and sa, a “pleonasm” here used in the sense of “this here” has been given the role of subject.

— There is an interplay of singular and plural in the use of rūpam (acc. sing. 3rd. masc.) and rūpan (acc. plur. 3rd. masc.).

prthak, in the original given as prithak and prithag, has the meaning of widely apart, separately, differently, singly, severally, one by one. In conjunction with na, not, it has been rendered as “none other than”, and “do not distinguish”.

Line 7.: — sarva. Lokesh Chandra (the 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara) is of the opinion that this should be read as sarpa: come.

Line 8.: — This line lacks object. The object has to be found in the word “phenomena” in line 7. Lakshana therefore has been chosen as the adjective of dharma, phenomena.

Aparpūrna does not occur in either Classical Sanskrit or in Hybrid or Buddhist Sanskrit. Hence “certainly complete, one” has been chosen as a composite of the Hybr. Sanskr. apara, “a certain”, and pūrna, “full, one”. I.e. the absence of ens, substance in both the phenomena and their characteristics IS the characteristic of the phenomena and their characteristics as we perceive them with our senses.

Line 9.: — One has tried to respect the adjectives, gerund, and datives where they occurred.
— a. sūnyatāyam has been rendered as if the adjective sunyatā were a pronoun with the additional 3rd (= we) form -tāyam.
— c. caksuh should be understood as an ablativus, just as manah.
— d. sprstavya. –tavya is a gerund.
— e. and g. van. In classical Sanskrit should be understood as moving, and van as acquiring. However, yāva in Pali should be understood as “upto” or “down to”.
Tasmai in classical Sanskrit generally means “unto Him”, and occasionally “therefore”. The latter interpretation is chosen since the first does not make sense in this line.
— d. “… upto old age and death” refers to the 12-fold chain of dependent origination (pratitya samutpāda) that starts with ignorance and ends with old age and death, after which the cycle starts again.
— h. Affliction and origin of affliction: duhkha, resp. duhkha-samudaya.

Especially this line speaks of the meditatively experienced eternal moment of now, the non-moving or timelessness. Again here Buddhist philosophy cannot be divorced from Buddhist meditation and vice versa without seriously distorting the one or the other.

— In Hybrid or Buddhist Sanskrit mārganā is “act of searching, seeking”. –jñā here should be understood as a transliteratory error, although classical Sanskrit has rasajñā, “having a taste for”, and suyajñā, “sacrificing well”. The pronounciation of – (n-dot) and –jñā is practically identical.
— i. “Nothing is clearly understood”: na abhisamaya; the original has a slight error. “Nothing to be attained” is a stock phrase of zen.

— In line 9. philosophy and meditative practice merge. It is furthermore a rephrasing of the abhidharmic teaching on the senses. It describes the senses, e.g. the eye, as a/ the physical organ, b/ as a faculty, i.e. its functioning, and c/ the field in which it is operative.
The earliest strand of Buddhism says of the senses and all that belongs to materiality and mentality: “all this is not me, myself (na me so atta)”. The later strands say: they are empty (sunya), there is emptiness (sunyatā). The Perfection of Wisdom-collection to which the Heart Sūtra belongs does not yet say that emptiness of substance equals illusoriness, though this particular Chinese manuscript leans very much towards it.

Line 11.: — Vihāratya: is to be dwelt in.
Varano from varana: choosing: he chooses / the chooser.

Line 14.: — Part of line 14. plus the first 2 words of line 15, delineated by | |, occur in a different manuscript that bears both similarities and differences. It has been translated by a Pali class of Taiwan University as: citta-avarana-na-astitvat a-trastah viparyāsa-atikrantah nisthā-nirvāna-praptah. It is rendered as: “Because of non-existence of the hindrances of the mind, he is not frightened, he has crossed over distortions, at the end he will attain Nirvana.”
Both a Sino-Korean recitation book on the 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara and the Lotus Sūtra have the compound viparyāsa-tikranta, not viparyāsātikranta. I.e. there is no negation here.

Line 15.: — It may well be that the last part of this line: tya dhā vyāva sthitah is a distortion that occurred as a result of initial rendering of Sanskrit into Chinese and retranslation into Sanskrit. Should we try to understand the line as it stands, then tya should be tyad, indeed; dhā should be understood as “holding (in place)”; and vyāva should be understood as in line 3.

Line 19.b. : — asamasama. In Classical Sanskrit sama has a number of renderings, among others “homogeneous”. Hence asamasama is translated as “on all levels”, ignoring the possibility that the initial “a” could be a negative.

Line 20.: — prasa should be prāsa: casting, throwing. Amithyātvat ought to be understood in the line of the Cl. Sanskrit mithyātva: falsety, unreality.

Line 19 – 21.: — mantrah is rendered as “utterance” since a mantra is not in all instances a spell or a short saying without meaning; in fact, it is never without meaning.

gate in the final line is the passive form as in “is done”, “is seen”, in this case “is gone”. The popular interpretation “let’s go together” cannot hold. What is given here is a salute to Avalokiteshvara, he has gone to the other shore (enlightenment).


The One

The Bukhan mountain range is not too far from South-Korea’s capital city, and cool enough to spend the summer. Bhukhan is furthermore known as the seat of the monk Seongga (or Seonga) who lived during the Tang dynasty of China, the era of emperor Gaozong. Seongga went to China and came back as a Línjì chan monk. (chan = zen, and línjì = rinzai in Japanese)

Part 3 of Korean Jogye Anthology describes Seongga’s monkhood and how he penned down his Seongga gwigam (his ‘guide to seon’ [chan/zen]). In this guide Seongga shows himself as a proponent of both “Patriarchal Teacher Seon” and “Ganhwa Seon”. The latter, Ganhwa Seon, is about what the West knows as koan, and what China and Korea know as huatou, respectively hwadu.

Seongga sunim (sunim = monastic) introduced this hwadu: “What is the single thing?” As many western zennists have scant knowledge of the Buddhist philosophy, this “What is the single thing?” came to be abbreviated to “What is it?” leaving “the single thing” out — and leaving thousands of zen-pupils in the woods. Nevertheless, this “single thing” is at the heart of the most important refutation as the historic Buddha had it. “The One” is in early Buddhist philosophy an unthinkable something.

We find the probably oldest and most historically “true” instance of the discussion around “The One [thing]” in the Pali canon of the Southern Buddhism, the Songs of the Elder Bhikkhuni (Théri-gāta. 5.9 ——; a bhikkhuni = a fully ordained Buddhist nun; a théri = an elderly nun with at least 12 years standing).
This occurred somewhere between the 6th and 5th Cent. aD, somewhere in Northern India. In this Théri-gāta we read the conversation between the bhikkhu (monk) Sariputta and the bhikkhuni Bhadda Kúndalakésa. Bhikkhu Sariputta asks: “What is the One”, and bhikkhuni Bhadda remains silent. Much later she will find the answer all by herself and will Awaken to the Truth of Buddhism.

Why did Bhadda remain silent? Some commentators state that she used to be a Jain nun before she came to the Buddhist sangha. But the mention that she was a Kúndalakésa, someone with dreadlocks, makes that hard to believe. The unclothed Naga sadhus in this part of the world have dreadlocks, but there never have been female naga sadhus. It is furthermore hard to conceive the naga sadhus as being hindu, let alone brahmin. This was and is a religious movement in and out of itself. There were and are Saiva ascetics; they wear dreadlocks. Saivists are devotees of the Hindu god Shiva who receives the name The One, as being one of the manifestations of the ultimate in Hinduïsm. Could there have been Saiva nuns, in those days? Possibly, possibly not.

Nevertheless Bhadda(1) could have been raised in this belief of The One, and in becoming a Buddhist nun she must have received the information that this precisely was what Buddha refuted. Hence, in conversation with bhikkhu Sariputta (the son [putta] of the woman Sari) she doesn’t dare to speak for fear of making a serious mistake — in the eyes of Buddhists, that is. Deïsms, in whatever shape or form they appear, think higly of The One.

Let’s assume that this conversation is the first instance where there is mention of The One, and that scribe-monks, shortly after Buddha’s demise, picked up on this theme and used it twice more, after which these two more instances became part of the early Pali canon. That is, it is highly likely that the conversation between the monk and the nun actually took place, but whether the next two instances in the Pali canon are historically true is less evident.

Whatever the case may be, the theme of The One returned once more in the form of a meeting between a Brahmin monk and a Buddhist bhikkhuni: “The One, what is it?” the monk asks. And she, according to the Pali canon: “Sabbé-sattá áhára thítika — all things subsist on food.”

We might say that this is one of the first huatou / hwadu / koan: What is … (nonsense question)? Answer: …. (nonsense in the eyes and ears of outsiders).
Nevertheless, this refutation of The One is not nonsense. It’s an ultimate truth in Buddhism: there is not such a thing as “a first instance”, a One as Creator/Destroyer, or a One “tout court”. Underlying all things are multiple causes and conditions. It never occurs that óne thing arises on the basis of óne prior thing or óne instance. Multiplicity is the answer, not a One.

(1): in Pali language Bhadda = auspicious; she received this name upon taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma (dharma) and the Sangha.

The sword in Buddhism

One might conclude that the word “sword” in Buddhist scriptures appeared for the first time in a Song of the Brethren (Theragāta 1, 757). There we find asattha (n. adj.) [a = negating particle + sattha] “absence of a sword or knife”, which indicates a characteristic of the monk: he is non-violent.
The word sword, however, is more often given als asi, a vedic expression, i.e. belonging to the Sanskrit lore that shaped Hinduism.

It is therefore remarkable that Buddha-ghosa (“Buddha-voice”), a fifth-century native of Bodhgaya in northern India, who migrated to Sri Lanka where he penned his large commentary on the Pali canon under the title Visuddhi-magga, mixed Sanskrit-elements with his newly acquired command of the Pali language. We find another example in Cittā’s gātā.

In his Visuddhimagga Buddhaghosa speaks of ñānāsi which by most translators is translated as “the sword of knowledge“. The paragraph in one of the translation runs as follows (Vism.II, ch, xii):
6. And these enemies (ari), these defilements, are destroyed (hata) by the path. / Because the enemies are thus destroyed he is thus accomplished (arahanta)./ The enemies (ari) that were deployed / [i.e.] greed and the rest, have been destroyed (hata) / by his, the Helper’s, wisdom’s sword (ñānāsi), / So he is “accomplished” (arahanta), all agree on that.

We might say that here, in ñānāsi, we do not encounter a combination of subject and object. Therefore we might translate it as “the sword (āsi) which is knowledge (ñānā).” Ñānā in Buddhist philosophical thinking is generally given a somewhat subordinate place in comparison with paññā, and especially with bodhi. Bodhi (or buddh) is invariably given as “wisdom”. When at the end of his First Exposition of his dharma (or dhamma) Buddha exclaims: “Aññā Kondañña“, he says: “Kondañña knows!”, not “Kondañña has attained to supreme wisdom [buddhi] or insight [pañña]”.

As Buddhaghosa’s family belonged to the upper stratum of Indian society he must have had discussions with brahmin priests who cited the famous Bhagavad Gīta verse (ch.4, 42):
“Therefore, with the sword of knowledge, cut asunder the doubts that have arisen in your heart. O scion of Bharat (India), establish yourself in karm[a] yog[a]. Arise, stand up, and take action!” (“Karma yoga” being the religious cultivation through action.)

Certainly this verse speaks of knowledge that cuts through doubts (or ignorance in other translations) just as a sword cuts through matter. Why later on Arjuna, the main character of the Gīta yet saw the need for using the sword in cutting through matter, Buddhaghosa may not have gotten a satisfactory answer to. Nevertheless, this use of the word sword in connection with knowledge (or wisdom in other translations) must have stuck in his mind, and once in Sri Lanka he jotted the ñānāsi down at the appropriate place, in the passage that describes how the arahan (the enlightened who has almost attained to Buddhahood) cut through the defilements of the mind, so liberating himself. In doing so Buddhaghosa led the reader back to the original meaning of the word: the monk, or arahan (arhat) does not use a sword, and certainly not in the literal sense. His “sword” is his knowledge/wisdom.

Many centuries later when the 13th century Vietnamese zenmonk Tue Trung apparently spoke in riddles when answering questions by his disciples he too refers to the sword, but hardly in combination with knowledge or wisdom.
He says (Les Propos de l’Éveillé Tue Trung, Paris 2015, p.63/64)

Kiém truóc Long Tuyén hiêu
A marvelous sword called Dragon’s Source (Une épée merveilleuse appelée Source de Dragons)


Kiém xung xuát hap cáu khói phuc,
The sword is drawn out of its sheat to re-establish peace (L’épée sort du fourreau pour rétablir la paix),

The Vietnamese word for sword is kiẽm.

Where did Tue Trung got this concept of sword from? Was he inspired by Buddhaghosa? That is highly unlikely since his first utterance “A marvellous sword called Dragon’s Source” rather belongs to East-Asian religio-philosophical iconography, and not to the Indian lore.
In the Chinese language one of the translations for sword is jiàn. Is the Vietnamese kiẽm a degeneration of the Chinese jiàn? This seems to be the case. Where did Buddhist China the concept of “the sword called Dragon’s Source” get from? From the Serindian Buddhist canon as it had been carried over the border at Dunhuang? Not so sure.

In Tibetan Buddhist parlance, taught and brought back from the earliest university of Nalanda — a Buddhist(ic) interpretation that did not come to the fore before the 6th/7th century — we find: “flaming ‘sword of wisdom’ “, given as “shes rab ral gri“. Gri meaning “sword”. Tibetan translators even came up with a Sanskrit(ic) source: chūrikā as in prajñā-chūrikā: “knife of wisdom” which they eventually altered into ‘sword of wisdom’, in line with Buddhaghosa’s ñānāsi but a tad different because ‘we’re no theravādin, we’re sarvastivādin if not vajra-yānin. Hence we don’t employ the dictionary of the theravādin.’

It’s therefore not the Tibetan prajñā-chūrikā (wisdom-sword) that Tue Trung had come across. Was he inspired by monks that accompanied Mongolian invadors into Vietnam and Korea? The Mongolian word for sword is ildü (or ildy(n) in the first English-Mongolian dictionary by the hand of Ferdinand D Lessing). No, ildü and kiẽm are in no way comparable.
The only conclusion is therefore that Vietnam obtained the concept of flaming sword out of China, and that China used this concept in the most literal form possible — as all concepts that China uses are to be understood in the literal sense of the word.

The sequence is therefore as follows:
In the earliest period of Buddhism the monk did not carry a sword, i.e. he was by nature and praxis non-violent;
In Buddhaghosa’s 5th century wisdom had become a symbol that, as a sword, cut through mental defilements;
In the next Chinese and Mongolian period of Buddhism one employed a literal flaming sword in ceremonies that were designed to establish the opinion that (evil and/or) ignorance had to be forcefully destroyed — stamp it out!;
In the Vietnamese 13th century the king-monk used the sword wisely (in his opinion) to literally re-establish peace, not to cut through ignorance of defilements.

Brain, mind and consciousness

Recently work of the artists Antoni Tapiès (1923 – 2012) and Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) came into auction, respectively were brought together in a dedicated exhibition.
That allows us to dwell on the concepts of the brain in connection with physical feelings and that of consciousness and unconsciousness/the subconscious.

Tapiès’ biography (on “Fundacio Tapiès”) states: “The works of the last years are, most of all, a reflection on pain – both physical and spiritual – understood as an integral part of life. Influenced by Buddhist thought, Tàpies believes that a better knowledge of pain allows us to soften its effects and therefore improve our quality of life.

antoni-tàpies-ondulacions-i-brac 2009

Modern science says that at any one moment our brain is receiving about 100 million pieces of information which are fed into the nervous system through the ears, eyes, nose, tongue and touch receptors in the skin. This enumeration, and nothing more than the enumeration, by the way, is taken from the Abhidharmic Buddhist teachings, particularly where it deals with the concept of (Skr./Pali) vedanā, physical feelings. Well done, we might say; the scientific world is learning fast.

There is however a little snag, because in cases of Tapiès’ pains, for example, it’s not the brain that receives information and sends it through to the sense-organs. Rather it’s a malfunction of the body somewhere that sends it’s information “up” to the brain where it is processed as “arm hurts”, to give an example.
Now we must deal with the question of where this pain is located. Where is it sensed? Is there a sensing part of the brains’ functioning in that painful arm? No, actually, there is no proof of the presence of brain-matter anywhere else but in the head.
Well then, is the pain located inside the brain, in the head? No, in the case of a hurting arm or a broken leg the (physical) brain is without pain, it merely processes information.
So where is pain? What is pain?
In the mind of a meditator these questions might lead to a particular insight into the concept of pain — without however solving the scientific question, that’s not the task and function of meditation.

All this is not to say that Mr. Tapiès had a little meditative breakthrough; we don’t know what his “knowledge of pain” consisted of. It merely shows that the scientific labour of love on concepts such as physical sensations and their connections with the brain is only halfway through. More has to be figured out.

Salvador Dali gained fame with his dreamlike paintings: warped watches, dreamlike landscapes, etc.
No doubt the scientific worlds of psychiatry and psychology will be more than happy in suggesting that here the subconscious came into action — subconscious in the sense De Quincey gave it in 1823: “not wholly conscious” ( As of 1874 subconscious morphed into something like ‘consciousness on a deeper level’, to emerge suddenly and without manifesting itself as “sub-“; i.e. in the person’s perception it’s seen as real, physically existing, or on an artistic level not to be denied.

Western writers on Buddhism used this Romantic and post-Romantic concept of subconscious when treating the word/concept of (Skr./Pali) Citta: consciousness, as it appears in almost all canonical works of Buddhism.
However, as Buddhism did not arise in the Western world, but in the East, the word subconsciousness cannot be found in any of the canonical treaties of Eastern religion and philosophy. Subconsciousness is foreign to the Eastern thinking.

What we dó find in Eastern thinking is the concept of “unprompted consciousness”, and “consciousness” here is not cittá, but the above-mentioned physical experience called vedanā: feeling with the body.
In that case there is mention of ansankharika vedanā (speak: asan khá rika). Len Rek interprets it as “an attribute of an intention”. A ninth-century Pali-Abhidhamma compiler uses it in a citation that begins with “Vedanā-ñāna-[a]sankhāra …”: knowing that there is an unprompted ([a]sankhāra) feeling (vedanā).
This in apposition with “prompted feeling” as in (Pali) “itthā kantā manāpā piyarūpā kāma rajaniyā“: … endowed with pleasantness, prompting desires. (D i.245=M i.85; 504; D ii.265; M iii.267; VvA 127.)

“Unprompted” seen as “suddenly” has become an important subject in Eastern Buddhist thought when contrasted to, or compared with Daoist thinking. In his translation of Asvaghosa’s Sraddhotpāda shastra (The Awakening of Faith) Yoshito S. Hakeda points to the Chinese concept of hu-jan as in “Suddenly, a deluded thought arises; this state is called ignorance.” His dwelling on the concept is no longer extant in the online Heidelberg translation, but it is referred to in Whalen Lai’s treatment of the scripture called Hu-Jan Nien-Ch’i: Suddenly a Thought Rose; Chinese understanding of Mind and Consciousness. (The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 1980, Vol. 3, Nr 2)
The Chinese understanding of “suddenly”, hu-jan, is that actually this particular piece of consciousness did not arise (out of nothing or out of the subconscious) but was there all along, though not realised. Now when it is suddenly there this non-arisen present mind (i.e. a piece of memory) has in the East never been called subconscious. It is “unconsciousness” and as such a source of embarrassment. Hence it is called ignorance — how stupid could I be, not to see this before! Had I been conscious of it, had I been smarter, I would have had more wisdom; there’s work to be done.

Vasubandhu -1

Th. Stcherbatsky (1866 – 18 March 1942; see pronounciation of the name), says “Mountainman”, was a Russian scholar of Oriental Studies, and a world renowned specialist of Buddhist studies; he wrote a detailed analysis of Vasubandu’s Abhidharmakosha or Abhidharmakosa-bhāsya (bhāsya denotes “spoken word”, utterance”, or “poem/song”; abhidharma is a body of texts describing the interaction between body, mind, and ethics).

Vasubandhu lived during the 4th to 5th Cent., when the Gupta Empire ruled in (Ser-)India. He and his disciple Sthiramati (c.510-570) produced the Madhyānta-Vibhanga, a discourse, they pretended, uttered by Bodhisattva Maitreya (the next Buddha on earth).

Th. Stcherbatsky has been the first to translate this vibhanga (distribution, division, distinction, classification) on the Middle (Way: Madhyānta), first published in 1978, in Delhi.

Unfortunately later generations of scholars in Buddhism didn’t take the pains to review Stcherbatsky’s laudable but not yet fully acceptable attempts. Therefore, as far as faculties of Buddhology go this text with the, in its time, unavoidable mis-interpretations on several points is transmitted without a thourough review along the lines of what we now know of the Yogacara philosophy that bridged the very late Small Vehicle Teachings and those of the full-flung Mahāyāna.

It is remarkable that Vasubandhu and Sthiramati in their first Stanza on The Middle Path (stanza 1.2) refer to the thinking of Nāgārjuna where in one of the latter’s gatha (songs) in his Mūla-madhyāmaka-kārika he writes:

1. na sūnyam nāpi casū
2. tasmāt sarvam vidhīyate,
3. sattvād assattvāt satvāc ca
4. madhyamā pratipat ca sā.

The following are Vasubandhu’s seven-line stanza ending with Nāgārjuna’s four-line above-mentioned gatha. Stcherbatsky translates (p. 24):

Neither is it asserted
That all (the Elements) are unreal,
Nor are they all realities;
1. Because there is existence,
2. And also non-existence,
3. And (again) existence:
4. This is the Middle Path!

The neither-nor discussion with regard to existence as it arose in the monastic circles of in particular the Yogacara is totally foreign to Western thinking. Therefore it is natural that Stcherbatsky struggled with this concepts and desperately introduced the word “elements” in his translation (something must exist!) in a move to maintain the Greco-western philosophy about Being, Is, Existence Is.

Might we now retranslate Vasubandhu’s stanza in the Yogacara philosophical mood of those days, heavilly influenced by the utter neither-nor philosophy of Nāgārjuna, the translation of Vasubandhu’s Stanza 1.2 in Chapter 2 ought to run as follows:

Reality is not denied
Unreality is not denied.
Existence and non-existence
both exist
and do not exist.
This is the Middle Way.

Vasubandhu – 2

Vasubandhu’s and Sthiramati’s treatment of Chapter 3 is near-impossible to treat without long and meditative-philosophical introductions. However, on the subject of imagination we might show Stcherbatsky’s struggle with the neither-nor philosophy with regards to existence. He translates Vasubandhu’s stanza 19.27 (p.38) as follows:

Imagination (is the Mind),
T’ is not itself created by imagination.
But by another mental act.
T’ is split in two, (object and subject).
No ultimate reality obtains
In this dichotomized form.

With Nāgārjuna’s rigorous neither-nor philosophy in mind it would be possible to translate the stanza as follows:

Imagination is not imagined
There is no imaginer nor an imagined
This is the own-essence
which exists nor does not exist.
Not (a) by-another imagined, nor (a) other imaginator.

I.e. since the undivided pure mind, which is neither existent nor non-existent, does not dichotomize into imaginer and imagined, it is impossible to speak of imaginer in contrast to the imagined.

Lines as these are the product of objectless meditation; they cannot be considered from the point of view of philosophy. Objectless meditation was unknown in Stcherbatsky’s time, and still is to a large extent.

More gender

To continue the entry of January 20th on gender, it seems necessary to explain the (Hybrid) Sanskrit and Pali word bhiksunī, resp. bhikkhunī.
On page 128 Beata Grant (“Eminent Nuns; Women Chan Masters of Seventeenth-Century China”) laments the fact that Linji Master Jizong Xingche in several 19th-century publications is not recognizable as “the nun Jizong Xingche” but is rather referred to either as Jizong or as Xingchue, without “absolutely no indication of her gender … without the usual character ni [nun] that is usually appended to the names of female monastics.”

The character -ni stands for the last syllable of the Sanskrit/Pali name “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“. It translates as “fully ordained female monk”, more precisely “female alms gatherer”. The male version = bhikshu, resp. bhikkhu.

Where at all -ni is added to the name of a Chinese female monk it is the last syllable of this “bhiksunī/bhikkhunī“, an appellation that in Chinese is approximately pronounced as “bishunii“. Therefore, if at all ni is added to the name of a chinese female monk such as Jizong Xingche one would expect something like Jizong Xingche Ni.
However, especially the Linji Chan tradition would consider it highly improper to designate a realized Master as a female being – or a male being for that matter. Therefore none of the Linji Masters in Beata Grant’s book will ever have been described as Master xx-xx-ni. This would be unthinkable if not an insult.