The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra

The Five Categories of Recondite Meaning

Now I will explain the text of the sutra by means of eight-line verses, which I wrote some time ago. I used them once before to lecture on this sutra. This is the first verse


Wonderful wisdom can reach the other shore right now;
The true mind itself can merge with enlightenment’s source.
Dharma and analogy comprise its title, which transcends the relative.
Empty of the characteristics of all dharmas is this substance beyond words.
Fundamental non-attainment is its purpose and intent,
And by using its power of eradication, the three obstacles are cleansed away.
The “butter division” is determined to be the meaning of this teaching,
A maha turning around: this is the prajna boat.


Each of the eight lines of the first verse speaks about the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra according to the five categories of recondite meaning.

1) Explanation of the Title. The first three lines of the verse explain the meaning of the title of the sutra in accordance with the first category of recondite meaning, the explanation of the title.

Wonderful wisdom can reach the other shore right now. Prajna is wonderful wisdom, and paramita means to reach the other shore. When you use the wonderful wisdom of prajna, you reach the other shore.

The true mind itself can merge with enlightenment’s source. To say “true mind” is to speak both of the mind and of prajna. When you have the wonderful wisdom of prajna, you have the true mind, and so you naturally merge with the source of enlightenment. You are united with the original enlightenment of the Buddha; you join with it; you flow into and become the substance of the original enlightenment. “Merge” implies uniting into a single substance.

Dharma and analogy comprise its title, which transcends the relative. The title, the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, is made up of references to both dharma and analogy. The phrase “which transcends the relative” indicates a dharma which reaches a state of non-relativity. Prajna paramita is that dharma, and heart is the analogy.

There are three types of prajna: the prajna of language, the prajna of contemplative illumination, and the prajna of the characteristic of actuality. The prajna of the characteristic of actuality is the ultimate wisdom, wonderful wisdom, and the wisdom which penetrates to the foundation. It can also be said to be the wisdom which arrives home and the wisdom of the Buddha.

What else can it be called? It is called the true heart (In Chinese, the character xin means both heart and mind. The word “heart” in the Sanskrit title of the sutra is translated as hrdaya. The usual Sanskrit word for mind or heart in the non-physical sense is citta.

The Chinese character xin is used as a translation for both hrdaya and citta.). The true heart is wisdom; wisdom is the true heart. Because prajna can be translated “true heart,” the two hundred fifty or so words of this sutra are the heart within the heart – the heart within the six hundred chapters of the prajna text of the Great Prajna Sutra. Yet in still another way it is the heart within the heart. The sutra is the heart of prajna, and since prajna is the heart, it is the heart of that heart. And therefore the text is called the Heart Sutra.

Since prajna can be translated as heart or mind, the Great Prajna Sutra can be called the Great True Heart Sutra. It’s not a false heart – not a false mind. The present sutra explains fully the wonderful principle of its actual use. The dharma in the title is prajna paramita, the dharma of reaching the other shore. “Heart” is the analogy, and it is used in the sutra to indicate that the heart (which is to say the mind) is the theme of one’s entire life and that it transcends all opposites.

2) Discernment of the Substance. Empty of the characteristics of all dharmas is this substance beyond words. What is the sutra’s substance? It is “empty of the characteristics of all dharmas,” a phrase which is different in wording but identical in meaning to the line in the sutra text, “All dharmas are empty of characteristics.” “Empty of characteristics” simply means that the substance of the sutra is without any characteristics, and “substance beyond words” means that nothing can be said about it. Since its substance is “empty of the characteristics of all dharmas,” there isn’t anything at all.

You ask, “Then what is there that is worth saying?” This “substance beyond words” has already passed beyond the characteristics of speech, the characteristics grasped by the mind, the characteristics of written language; it has passed beyond all characteristics. It is all dharmas.

3) Elucidation of its basic purpose. Fundamental non attainment is its purpose and intent. The fifth line of verse explains the third recondite meaning, elucidation of the sutra’s basic purpose: fundamental non-attainment. In one passage the sutra says, “There is… no understanding and no attaining.” Non-attainment is the sutra’s purpose and intent. Now I will make use of worldly dharmas to explain the Buddhadharma. The word “person” is an ordinary noun, the designation by which human beings are distinguished from other categories. Just as a person is simply called a person, analogously every sutra is called a sutra.

Now what is a certain person’s specific name? The name by which he is identified is perhaps Smith or Brown. To discuss the specific name is what is meant by explanation of the title. What does Smith look like? Is he tall or short, black or white, fat or thin? What about his body? (In Chinese the single character ti means both body and substance) Is it fully formed or not? Does he have eyes? Ears? A nose? That is what is meant by investigating the characteristics of his substance. After the substance has been revealed, then the basic purpose should be elucidated. What is meant by elucidation of the basic purpose? Smith is very learned he could be a secretary or a Ph.D. That is what is meant.

4) Discussion of the Function. Continuing the analogy, what does Smith do all day? What can he do? Observations of that sort reveal the person’s usefulness and capabilities.

And by using its power of eradication, the three obstacles are cleansed away. “Eradication” is what the sutra is capable of doing. What can the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra do? Its function is to cleanse away the three obstacles: the retribution-obstacle, the activity-obstacle, and the affliction-obstacle.

Of retribution-obstacles, the first of the three obstacles, there are two kinds: dependent retribution and primary retribution (In Chinese, the character bao means both reward and retribution). Primary retribution is the body, while dependent retribution refers to food, clothing, dwelling, and so forth – the material environment on which the body is dependent. Therefore, primary retribution is the retribution you are undergoing right now, the dependent retribution is your environment.

There are all sorts of primary retribution. Some bodies are good ones and some are not. Some are especially full and handsome in their appearance, so that everyone who sees them likes them. Merely by looking upon a particular body, everyone loves and respects the person as someone who is outstanding.

Perhaps a particular person really has wisdom, or another really has good roots. With respect to good roots and wisdom there are two types of people. First are those who have wisdom and no good roots. What are those people like? Most of them are weird ghosts and monstrous demons who have come into the world as people. They were mountain essences who after a long time as old spirits and ghosts became capable of eating people, and when they died, they were able to be reborn as people possessed of a little bit of intelligence.

Compared to most people they are intelligent, but they muddle up everything they do – their activities are not at all intelligent. They do whatever is harmful, and, without exception, they lack propriety. Everything that is most harmful to people and disruptive to the order of society is what they want to do. Such people, the ones who have some wisdom but no good roots, seem only to be afraid that the world won’t be in disorder.

The second kind, those who have good roots but no wisdom, are those who in their lives exclusively performed good deeds but did not study the sutras. As a consequence they don’t have much wisdom; in fact, they are very stupid.

Some people undergo the primary retribution of being especially ugly. Others have both a beautiful and full appearance and a long life full of wealth, honor, and respect. Still others have a very short life besides being ugly. There are all kinds of primary retributions, which are the fruitions of causes planted in the past.

Dependent retribution consists of one’s living conditions, clothes, food, and so forth. It too comes from causes in your previous lives. If in previous lives you planted seeds of good, the fruition in this life will be a good reward. If in former lives you planted the seeds of evil, they will reveal themselves in this life by their fruition in your retribution. Therefore, you should certainly be very cautious in everything you do! If you do not plant the causes of evil, then in the future you won’t undergo their fruition in evil retribution.

The second of the three obstacles is the activity-obstacle. Not only those who have left the home-life to become members of the Sangha (The Sangha is the community of Buddhist bhikshus (monks) and bhikshunis (nuns)), but also those at home should certainly have an occupational activity. While involved in a particular activity, many problems will arise, many difficult situations which will make you afflicted and unhappy. That is what is meant by the activity obstacle.

The third obstacle is the affliction-obstacle. Everybody has afflictions, yet where do they come from? Most are generated from thoughts of greed, of anger, and of stupidity. How can you acquire afflictions? Have greed in your mind, insatiable greed, and afflictions will arise. How else can you acquire afflictions? Have a temper. A situation isn’t right for you, and so you become afflicted with anger. Again, how do you give rise to afflictions? By being stupid. You misunderstand situations and so are afflicted.

Why do you become afflicted? Thoughts of contempt, of arrogance, and of condescension generate afflictions. Furthermore, you doubt everything, and because of your doubting you become afflicted.

Why are you still afflicted right now? Because you have deviant views and see situations incorrectly. If no matter what is happening, you have proper knowledge, proper views, and genuine wisdom, you will see very, very clearly and will understand completely. When clarity and understanding appear in the midst of circumstances, then there is no affliction. It is the deviant views of greed, hatred, stupidity, arrogance, and doubt that produce the affliction-obstacle.

The Heart Sutra can remove the three obstacles: the retribution-obstacle, the activity-obstacle, and the afflictionobstacle. How? It contains the genuine, wonderful wisdom which is the unmoving mind of true suchness, and so it removes and destroys the three obstacles. Wonderful wisdom: if we understand the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, then we can have that genuine wisdom; and with genuine wisdom, we can remove and destroy the three obstacles.

5) Determination of the Characteristics of the Teaching. The fifth recondite meaning is described by the seventh line of the verse. The “butter division”[1]i is determined to be the meaning of this teaching. The prajna paramita sutras belong to the “butter division.” “Butter” represents the fourth or prajna period of the five periods of the Buddha’s teaching.

A Maha turning around: this is the prajna-boat. Maha is the Sanskrit word for “great.” To turn the prajna-boat around doesn’t mean to turn it over. If you turn it over, there isn’t any prajna. You should turn your stupidity around, and that will be the prajna-boat; that is prajna. It can be compared to moving a boat up-stream. It is necessary to use a little effort, and it is not something that can be done easily. Although you don’t need to take three great asamkhyeya kalpas – three incalculably long ages – you must pass through at least one or two or perhaps three lifetimes before you can attain genuine wisdom.

“Oh,” you say, “even though it doesn’t require kalpas, it’s still a really long time, so I’m not going to cultivate.”

If you don’t want to cultivate, it’s not necessary; certainly no one will force you. Forcing is not the Way. Where my own disciples are concerned, I allow anyone who wants to fall to fall according to his own inclinations. If you don’t want to turn the prajna boat around, then you can follow the great flow, flow along with the current, and go downstream, go farther and farther down. If you turn around, you move upstream, and if you don’t turn around, you flow downstream. Take a look. Are you going upstream or downstream?

1] The “butter-division” refers to the milk-products analogy for the periods of the Buddha’s teaching. The analogy is found in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and was used by the Tian Tai School in conjunction with the five periods of the Buddha’s teaching. In the analogy, the original Dharma-nourishment is taken to be fresh milk. In each successive period it becomes richer and more purified. Yet it is all the same basic substance, the source-nourishment. Butter represents the prajna teachings of the fourth period, to which the Heart Sutra belongs. The five periods of the Buddha’s teaching and the milk-products analogy are these: 1. Avatamsaka (21 days) whole milk (ksira) 2. Agama or Mrgadava (12 years) coagulated milk (dadhi) 3. Vaipulya (8 years) curds (nevanita) 4. Prajna-paramita (22 years) butter (ghrta) 5. Saddharmapundarika-Mahaparinirvana (8 years) clarified butter (ghee).

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