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The Heart Sutra (I)

A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Dilkusha, Forest Hill, London on 14th February 1970


This transcript is currently incomplete — it will be continued in a future issue of our newsletter

I would like to go into ‘The Heart Sutra’, the hṛdaya sutra, as it is called, of the Prajñāpāramitā, which is one of the supreme texts of Buddhism and particularly of Mahayana Buddhism.

We must bear in mind that the meaning of the word ‘heart’ should be understood first. I would like to translate it for our purpose as the essence of mind, mind in its essential nature. It had nothing to do with the physical heart of course, and it hasn’t anything to do with that type of psychical functioning which we ascribe to the heart in the emotional sense, or in the sense of that which is the core of the intellectual aspect of what one may be considering.

Mind in its own essential nature is practically synonymous with awareness, not discriminative consciousness but awareness. Discriminative consciousness comes into play and is always at play with us, as long as there is the knowing subject as a separate entity observing the object about which he wants to gather knowledge.

Now this word hṛdaya gives me that sort of feeling. You see, in almost any language we have phrases to suggest this meaning, the heart of the matter, the very essence of the matter, the very core of the matter. But when we get to the realm of essence, to the very core of the matter, do I separate from the matter, or is the separation between the matter and what I commonly call myself, completely bridged, so that in reality there is only the whole present? If I am aware in that sense, then I am not aware, I am not conscious, in the separative sense. Your logical intellect will immediately flare up and say “This is just a lot of words, what are you talking about?” Well, I don’t offer any defence, because there is no need for defence. If a person has realized, through living experience, and another person has not realized similarly through living experience, it is no good trying to argue about the form in which you attempt to communicate the Transcendent. One just has to remain silent. But if a person is willing to investigate, and he is willing to let the critical, discriminative consciousness be at rest, and allow himself to take the first steps through his feeling mind, then one can converse, talk together.

Distorting is in reality a talking by both people simultaneously, the one loudly, audibly, the other silently, because in these matters we enter the realm of communication which I have sometimes spoken of as spiritual induction, just as we have magnetic or electromagnetic induction in ordinary physics. Similarly between two living beings there is this extraordinary thing which I call ‘spiritual induction’. It has to use certain forms in order to introduce the two to each other in right relationship, but as one proceeds, as one enters into it, one goes right beyond the forms, and in that going completely beyond the forms one leaves discriminative consciousness behind and one is aware. One has become ‘it’.

If you can get the feel of this right now of what I am trying to suggest, you will see, just like that, the truth of that statement which I have made so often, during the last year: particularly, that, in the Transcendent sphere, which is right here not ‘out there’, awareness and being are identical, two words but the same reality. Two words just to help us where communication is concerned — that is all.

Now, hṛdaya then has brought out all this.

This Prajñāpāramitā means: Prajñā is ‘unerring insight’, insight in the sense of seeing transcendentally, which again means no separation between the observing subject and the observed subject. It is essential for us to understand all this as the background to looking at the sutra itself, otherwise we always miss the main road, we get turned off down some alley or other. Prajñā is unerring insight, that seeing which is faultless seeing, and that faultless seeing, remember, is the same as being.

One meaning of Pāramitā is ‘excellence’. Another meaning is obtained by splitting the word into its two parts, pāram-itā, ‘beyond this which is the ordinary’, the wisdom or insight which is beyond the ordinary, the wisdom that has gone beyond, or if you like, Transcendental wisdom. Bearing in mind what we have considered together these few minutes, this Transcendental wisdom therefore is not some wonderful piece of knowledge. Knowledge consists of intellectual formulations, verbal formulations ultimately. Knowledge is acquired. Knowledge always remains the separate something which we put into our mental luggage. All acquired knowledge can be put under one heading — science. Science is that which is made known in the ordinary way, the ordinary way being the use of our senses and the analysing and synthesizing process which this computer brain indulges in. It’s indispensable. We can’t escape it at any time, in fact. Nevertheless, that is knowledge. And it is the put together after our sense activity by the brain which is conditioned by, and which is subjected to, its abilities on the one hand, its confusions and disabilities on the other. It’s what we commonly describe as virtues on the one hand, and greed and resentment and delusion and so forth, on the other. And on the purely intellectual level, the strongest, the most powerful obstructions are our biases, our prejudices, our preconceptions and our assumptions. But where there is Transcendental wisdom, none of those conceptions or ideas exist. And when we come to the stage where we want some intellectual expression and a verbal formulation of what is true Transcendental wisdom, then we have to recognise this extraordinary fact, that to each and every single, logical proposition as well as to its converse, we have to say “yes” as well as “no”. Otherwise we are in the realm of untruth, in the Transcendental sense.

In a way, you can appreciate that the time is ripe for this sort of brain smashing — not brain washing; that’s mere wish-wash. In the world of things, we have our cyclotrons and bevatrons and what-not, and marvellous machines by which we can smash up the atom. We can send back matter to its eternal home of primordial energy — it may be that its twin brother in the mental sphere also has to make his appearance now.

So bear in mind that to each and every single logical statement and to its converse, one says “Yea” as well as “Nay”, and takes no sides whatsoever. The significance of this is that we must each recognise that I as the I can never know the truth. There is no such thing as knowing the truth. I can be the whole truth provided I have — let me use the common phrase — developed spiritually, sufficiently far to enable the I, the separate, limited I, to disappear altogether, in terms of consciousness. When discriminative consciousness has at last found its Sabbath, which is its eternal home in God’s Own Being, then that Transcendent awareness, which is what the mystic calls God-consciousness, is working.

God the Perpetually Awake is also the Perpetually Resting, the Perpetually Slumbering. I as an ‘I’, with discriminative consciousness can never know the truth. If I really see that, I will never attempt to grasp or cling to this, that or the other idea, teaching, extraordinary experience, or anything whatsoever. In that total freedom from grasping in any way or at any level, on any plane, is Man’s fulfilment. Man — let me use the Judeo-Christian terminology — Man who exists today as the fallen, sinful Adam is once more completely at one, completely reabsorbed, completely restored to his pristine condition of Man who is God’s own living image and therefore God’s own living being. The split in being which occurred when Adam sinned is healed; the wound is healed.

Now, be awake to this as we look into this Heart Sutra. It starts off in the usual way with an obeisance:

Om, Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom the Lovely, the Holy!

Avalokita, the Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond.

He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and He saw that in their own being they were empty.

The name Avalokita means the ‘one who looks down’.

Avalokitśvara the Boddhisattva ‘was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond’. What sort of a movement is this and where does it take place? He has translated it as ‘deep course’ — ghambhira means ‘deep’. But it means ‘deep’ in the finest sense of the word ‘serious’. This is a serious matter. In Gujarati we would say ghambhir binā, ‘it’s quite a serious thing’. The deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond.

He was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond. But what sort of movement was this, when you’re in that state of awareness? It is no movement in space, there is no spatial sense, there is no time sense about it, there is no sense of activity in the way in which we understand the word ‘activity’, no mental activity of any sort whatsoever, because all these are disturbances to that transcendental action which is just being. This is the mystery which can never be spoken about, can never be expounded or explained. Being, action, love, truth, beauty, goodness, wisdom; all these words are one and the same thing. Why? That we can answer, because in terms of Transcendence all differentiation has vanished. This is something we must realise.

If you look at all the teachings in the great religions of the emergence of the primordial, undifferentiated Deity into manifestation, you will find that in that primordial state that there is no differentiation whatsoever. The question is asked, how did the first movement start? We don’t know, and we never can know.

You might ask how on earth it was possible for any man to put out such teachings. Because after all, these teachings in the great religions were put out by you and I, people like you and I, no-one else. There was no Lord God who came down and studied Greek or Hebrew or Sanskrit and who went to China to get his parchment and quill pens and goodness knows what to write out the Scriptures — nothing of the sort. A human being, you or I, and not so very long ago, a bare 23 to 25 centuries ago only, wrote. How did he manage to write? Because it was his realisation, that is all. The extraordinary thing is that the formulations, whether they were made in China (Lao Tzu for example), or whether they were made in India or Iran or in the Semitic lands, are almost identical, with certain very interesting and enriching variations, that is all.

But a man did it, don’t forget that. Therefore it is a state which any one of us, if we have that urge, if it is our natural inner nature to be like that, can experience for ourselves. So, this movement is no movement. Yet everything vibrates doesn’t it? And if it vibrates, as for instance the way atoms and molecules vibrate, we, looking at them, say they are perfectly still.

That is a silence. So, whoever wrote this, himself had entered that state, and then tried to convey it in these terms. He looked down from on high — that means in that state of Transcendental awareness. You can’t look down or up or sideways or anywhere in the state of Transcendental awareness. And you might question, is this true then? Is this an accurate statement? Of course not. And yet of course it is. Don’t forget all the opposites apply simultaneously — this is important. What are you looking at? If one has entered that state where the separative, discriminating consciousness has become completely restful, how do you look at something? To look down means of course you are looking at something, but you cannot; this is the only possible way, or maybe there are two or three other possible ways similar to this, by which you can attempt to convey the impression, an impression, of what that Transcendence is like. We have no other tool but words.

You can draw or paint pictures of matter Transcendent but then you know what happens — you can get lovely art, but if we are concerned with the inner reality which this art is representing, re-presenting, then that inner reality is certainly not grasped, not understood, and you can’t become that inner reality through the medium of the expression, the art. You can’t do it, it is the same with words.

‘He beheld but five heaps’, and these five heaps in the Buddhist sense of course refer to the Buddhist analysis of the empirical man. Empirical man. And empirical man in Buddhist analysis, as you know already, is presented in a five-fold form with the parents, the feelings, i.e. sensations (vedanā literally means ‘sensations’), so it includes physical sensations which means the functioning of the nervous organism and the nervous system of the body and so forth. It also includes our feelings in the sense of emotion and all that aspect of our intellectual functioning which are just mental feelings.

If you observe carefully the way people talk, “I think so-and-so”, they don’t think anything of the sort, they have no grounds for thinking it whatsoever, no grounds whatsoever. They just have the feeling about it, that is all, all just in the air. And ninety-nine point nine percent of all those feelings are sheer nonsense, rubbish. So many illusions and delusions, if you look carefully into them all. You see, this is quite like nature isn’t it? Nature is prodigal and very wasteful. Nature will throw away two hundred and twenty millions in order that just the one out of those two hundred and twenty millions may come to fruition and flourish. This is nature’s way and this is exactly what we do in terms of our so-called thinking. Prodigal, wasteful, we squander. We are natural squanderers, natural wasters. But if we really understand it then we can be at peace about it because there is love, there is compassion. Understanding and compassion are inevitably together; you can’t separate them.

Vedanā sensations, saññā, the ideas, the ideas of clear thoughts, clear conceptions, are based upon proper observation and reasonably true. For example, what we call a statement of the laws of nature, or anything like that, those are saññā, those are at least relatively true perceptions; those are saññā, ideas. Or if you plan out something, you think out something which is actually practicable and can be put into operation, those are saññā. That is the third element — Rūpa, Vedanā, Saññā, then the sankhārā as they are called, the mental formations, that is to say, a whole lot of thoughts in a system as such or a whole lot of thoughts and feelings put together, or when we describe somebody’s character — that’s sankhārā. What we call complexes are also sankhārā. What are excellences and capacities of the mind are all sankhārā. All the philosophies, the systems of thought, the doctrines, the explanations, they are all sankhārā, they all come under the term sankhārā  — ‘that which is put together’, that is the essential meaning.

And the fifth element, viññāṇa, the discriminative consciousness, is discriminative by virtue of the fact that we have our five physical senses and in Indian thinking the mind as such is also called a sense — it is the sixth sense, the mind itself; thought, imagination, all that constitutes a sixth sense, not something of a different order of reality from the functioning of our eyes, ears, nose and so forth.

Now these which in the ordinary way for us are very real, substantial things, facts, from the point of view of transcendental wisdom are but empty heaps. They have no substantial reality. Now remember, it is going to be ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the statement, and it is going to be ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to the opposite statement, that they are not insubstantial heaps, they are not empty, they are also the fullness. This is the trouble when we enter into things like the Heart Sutra and into the realms of the Transcendent. It makes it very difficult! The Prajñāpāramitā itself says different things, in other sutras, and you will find precisely this sort of thing through several of the Yoga Upaniṣads.

So many statements are made, a hundred statements we’ll say, and the whole lot of those statements are afterwards negated and both are presented as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You may wonder why. Is this sheer madness? Is this complete craziness or what? Approach it this way: Do we, in the ordinary way, ever challenge ourselves? If we see a car in the street we say, “Of course that is a car.” We are quite convinced that what our eyes convey to us is true, and we have this attitude with respect to all our functioning throughout the day in all respects. We are always right of course. Isn’t that so? It never occurs to us that we may be un-whole creatures, creatures who are just a bundle of things somehow thrown together in a miserable old heap inside this box of the skin which holds all this bundle together, including mind and brain and what-not. It never occurs to us. We are always convinced we are right, whatever we do, whatever we think, whatever we see. Sometimes we get into an anxious state. “I wonder if this is the best thing to do.” But secretly we know, we do think it’s the best thing to do, because despite all the best advice in the world against it, we will do just what we wanted to do.

So it never occurs to us that we are anything but right, it never occurs to us that we cannot, we always have the feeling, “of course I can.” But I cannot, I am incapable and ignorant. Then only, Transcendental wisdom will function through me, the living organism, and I won’t know how.

This transcript will be continued in a future issue of our newsletter


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