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Reflections on/of the Heart Sūtra

I began formal Zen practice in 1993, in a tiny rural monastery in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico known as Bodhi Mandala (now Bodhi Manda — hippie era mistranslation finally corrected after 30-some years). They gave me a cot in a rickety old ex-Catholic dormitory, a black robe in two pieces called kimono and hakama that I had to learn to tie precisely, and a tiny book for chanting. The chants were printed in syllabic all caps, without translations, like this:

KAN JI ZAI BO SA GYO JIN HAN- NYA HA RA MI TA JI SHO KEN GO UN KAI KU DO IS- SAI KU YAKU SHA RI SHI SHIKI FU I KU KU FU I SHIKI SHIKI SOKU ZE KU KU SOKU ZE SHIKI JU SO GYO SHIKI YAKU BU NYO ZE

Heart Sūtra in transliterated Sino-Japanese

That’s the beginning of the text called The Heart of the Teachings on the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā hṛdaya), commonly called the Heart Sūtra, in the Sino-Japanese the Zen traditions use. It’s said to be a summary of the entire Perfection of Wisdom literature in just a couple dozen lines. It takes a few minutes to chant through, and we did it fast (240 BPM or so). Obviously its meaning was more in the doing than the understanding or savoring, and it turns out that’s accurate to how it’s been used historically.

Despite the popular name, the Heart Sūtra is actually what’s called a dhāranī, which means something like “magic spell”, not a sūtra, technically. One of its early uses was to ward off demons, which you can take psychologically or literally — both work. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang chanted it for protection as he walked from China around the Himalayas, through Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Kashmir into India. It’s the primary chant in a Tibetan exorcism ritual, but you might not get that from the words:

Noble Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, cultivating the profound discipline of the Perfection of Wisdom, examined the five aspects of experience, and saw them empty of independent existence. In this system, Śariputra, form is empty. Emptiness truly is the nature of form. Emptiness is inseparable from form, form inseparable from emptiness. Likewise affect, perception, choices, and consciousness.

The Heart Sūtra, new translation by Oakes & Wallis.

In the monastery we chanted it several times a day, in the twice-daily full chanting ceremonies, but also sprinkled throughout the schedule of sitting, work, and meals eaten too quickly in a Japanese choreography known as oryoki. The Zen training schedule, more about ritual, precision, and formality than meditation and mindfulness, though those are its reasons for being, in a way is the practice, and it shone like a bowl of wrought steel. Cold to the touch, but pretty indestructible. (Optional semicolon after “pretty” there.) I fell in love with the system, and soon found myself at Mt. Baldy, our main training monastery, at 8000 feet on the side of a rocky mountain in the San Gabriels.

One night when I walked out of the zendo after a long day of sitting and walking, pining for the five blessed hours in my cot before the morning bell rang at 3:30 (or if we were in the more relaxed practice period, at 4:30), I want to say that the pine trees under the moon shimmered with a kind of radiant suchness, and the quiet of the starry dark rang like a bell through a body that was neither mine nor not mine. That’s true. They did. But isn’t that also just fake Chinese nature mysticism, which was the house style of American Zen in the 90s? And maybe exhaustion, hunger, and disorientation just feel like that.

The only leeway in the schedule was that you could stay up late, after the formal end of the practice day, to meditate outside. So sometimes I would sit on a big flat rock out back and try to do more, though my knees ached from the 12 hours we’d already sat that day. As if another 20 minutes of trying to watch my breath would suddenly open into kensho, the breakthrough moment we were taught to expect. Did I ever have one? I’d walk quietly to the cabin, hang my robes on a wooden dowel, and collapse into my sleeping bag. Maybe tomorrow.

The morning bell was not only way too early. The monk who rang it would come around to each of the cabins where we slept in old metal bunkbeds, reach a black-sleeved hand in through the door, flip the lights on and continue on down the path. Ouch. 15 minutes from first bell sound outside in the night to sitting in the zendo, eyes stinging, robes tied, opening the day with incense, bowing, and this strange rhythmic song, a drone at the bottom of the voice, low and smooth.

MU KU SHU METSU DO MU CHI YAKU MU TOKU I MU SHO TOK KO BO DAI SAT- TA E HAN- NYA HA RA MI TA KO SHIN MU KE GE MU KE GE KO MU U KU FU ON RI IS SAI TEN DO MU SO KU GYO NE HAN

No dissatisfaction, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge, no attainment. Therefore, Śariputra, free from attainment, a bodhisattva, having taken refuge in Prajñāpāramitā, moves through the world with mind unbound. This one with mind unbound, unafraid, overcoming all misperceptions, realizes nirvāṇa.

(ibid.)

Sometimes the chanting would wake me up, which is its purpose, of course. Other days… let’s say I learned quickly how to sing this thing in my sleep (literally and metaphorically). We didn’t actually study the Heart Sūtra as much as intone it, so I didn’t read the translation for a while. When I did, I found a set of lists, the fundamental structures of Buddhist doctrine, and a claim that something about them wasn’t there.

Oh, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness not other than form.
Feelings, perceptions, formations, and consciousness all are like this.

The Heart Sūtra, in the 1950s translation I first learned. Here’s our new one:

In this system, Śariputra, form is empty. Emptiness truly is the nature of form. Emptiness is inseparable from form, form inseparable from emptiness. Likewise affect, perception, choices, and consciousness.

What could that mean? I knew enough to know that it was talking about the essential nature of things and beings, and that no solid, permanent essence could be found to correspond to terms like “me” or “mine.” But what to do with this in actual life? Elsewhere I’ve written about how I think misinterpretation of the emptiness teachings may be implicated in my Zen teacher’s ongoing sexual misconduct and that of many non-dual spiritual teachers. But even just as a guide for Mahāyāna Buddhist meditation practice these are difficult instructions. It seems to be telling us to perceive everything differently, in this specific, vast way. But how??

If I think about it as a protection spell, the way we used it makes more sense. We sang it several times a day in group unison, to the thumping beat of this huge wooden slit drum in the shape of a fish, embedding the syllables in our bodies, in our throats. No discussion of meaning. The schedule was unforgiving, the teacher dangerous, and the Great Matter of Birth and Death the only topic. What was I doing there, 23 years old, lost and deluded AF, but sensing something real here, even if barely discernible through the haze of incense smoke, unchecked orientalism, and lust for the kind, wounded, black-robed student in the row across from me?

“Form is emptiness, emptiness the nature of form.” That alone was supposed to teach us what to do with these crazy-making feelings? But we knew already that our teacher couldn’t keep his hands off her. In all traumatized hierarchies, toxicity tends to spread downward, and the general tone of the center was a little Wild West. The outside world felt so far away, and in the emptiness we mythologized there wasn’t much room, I can see now, for an outside perspective.

When word got around that a monk and student had hooked up, there was more eye rolling than serious concern. I got the message: things like that didn’t really matter, and even getting hung up about them was a sign of being stuck in thoughts of good and bad — which was the real misconduct. It was as if the hyper-formal practice structure had to be balanced by anarchy somewhere, and true perhaps to American Zen’s founding conditions in the bohemian left, it was in the relational. The student got pregnant accidentally, and they moved back East. I never saw either of them again, but heard that they’d broken up soon after. As far as I could tell, it barely even caught the community’s attention. Everybody was doing it. Which wasn’t true, but true enough to lose faith over. I dated someone for several months during my time there, and we did ok. But intimate relationships aren’t as empty as philosophy would have them, and I wasn’t mature enough to sustain one. Our supposedly enlightened Roshi himself didn’t just have a scandal, but turned out to be one of the most unrepentant sinners in the lineage. When was it that this “Perfection of Wisdom” thing started to ring hollow for me? The dhāranī, it turns out, doesn’t protect you from yourself… at least without some significant work on your part.

I left Zen, and made my home in the far more grounded (and safer) Theravāda lineage of Insight Meditation. When I ordained in Burma I was given the monastic name sīlarakkhita, Protected By Ethics, which now feels like the thing my entire religion — my entire culture, of course — needs. I’ve watched teacher after teacher, including friends and colleagues, fall. Unprotected from the demons. Maybe we need to revive exorcism in American Buddhism.

For those of us struggling to practice in the world as it is, thick with danger and trauma, burning exactly as the Buddha said it was — with lust, hatred, and delusion — something like an ancient magic spell may be not just a curious historical detail. Look at our country now. Look at the streams of people, displaced, walking across baked or flooded land to try to find safety. Xuanzang walked thousands of miles through danger any of us would tremble at, to find the heartland of his new faith, chanting all the way. It took years. “Form is emptiness.” Walking. Walking. Surviving. Walking. “Emptiness is also form.”

I’m not a refugee like so many right now, but I’m writing this the morning after we had a small ritual for the family of my son’s best friend, evicted from the home where both their kids were born — the third eviction among our close friends just this summer. Where are you and your people walking, from or to? How are you surviving? What do you sing for protection as you walk?

The strange ancient spell never left me, pounded into the hard soil of my body all those cold mornings ago. I set it to music for a shimmering puppet dance about Issan Dorsey in Seth Eisen’s Blackbird, learned a Tibetan version of the Goddess visualization associated with it from Lama Tsultrim Allione, and sat with it as a mysterious jewel through decades more of practice, past the death of my Roshi and his most famous low-voiced chanter, Leonard Cohen, past the death of my mother and the end of my season as a monk when I came home to be with her as she died. “Form is not other than emptiness. Emptiness not other than form.” The Great Matter.

Now I’m releasing a study course on this most enigmatic of prayers, maybe as a kind of protection for my own walking, or a plea to the Wisdom Mother at the heart of the text now that my own is gone beyond. Maybe it’s a warning to the demons that haunt the periphery of the circles where we sit in meditation and counsel under hazy fire-smoke skies. Stay back. We see you. Hear these ancient syllables and be gone.


Here is a bit of reflection that came out as I was preparing to record the course with The Sutra Project. Recorded while walking a sleeping toddler in a stroller around Temescal in July 2017. May we all be safe and protected from harm.

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