The Heart Sutra

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Jean Fournell
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The Heart Sutra

Post by Jean Fournell » Mon Dec 09, 2019 1:12 am

The Heart (of Wisdom) Sutra

In zen practice, the Heart Sutra is considered the most important text. It is chanted after each meditation.
The term "heart", in this context, should be understood as in Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song":
Please understand, I never had a secret chart
to get me to the heart
of this or any other matter

The "heart" as the core of the matter at hand, of the teaching, of the understanding, of the practice.

Here is what Wikipedia says about the Heart Sutra:

Here two introductions to its meaning: ... ou-forever

Here the text and a word-by-word translation, plus explanations of different terms:

And here several English translations:

For the western mind, it might be useful to remember a few notions:

We cannot determine whether the world is real or illusory.
This is old knowledge, and it can be found wherever humans think about what can be known.
What's more, if we say "It's all an illusion", this judgement would be an illusion too, since "all" includes the judgement itself just as well as everything else (Epimenides paradox). We have no access to some absolute place logically above the world, from where we would be able judge the world. We are inside and part of it.

According to ancient thought, a person's reality, or existence, was defined ("certified" as I will call it from now on) by profession, possession, uniform, caste, clan, and the like. These "certificates" in turn where certified by some authority. Such authorities were certified by higher authorities and this kind of system necessarily leads to an endless regression.
But since above the king or emperor or other kind of supreme ruler there is nobody left to certify them, either the system would sooner or later be perceived as flawed, or else this supreme ruler had to be certified by a different, absolute kind of authority God, or the gods.

This ancient concept was unhinged by René Descartes, who claimed that even if all of his mental content was illusory, he himself as the container must still be real: "I think, therefore I am."
René Descartes was very keenly aware of the logical consequence of this way of putting things, namely that he was replacing God with Ego. He knew that he might easily share the treatment Galileo Galilei suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, and he finally managed to get himself invited to the court of Protestant Sweden where he died shortly afterwards, presumably poisoned.

Modern thought is based on this idea of René Descartes'. The egos are seen as real by their own certificate; it is only their content that might be illusory. And these numerous self-certified egos require some self-certified and self-regulating administration. The "Checks and Balances" are such a self-regulating system, certified in a modern circular fashion, and no longer in an ancient linear fashion regressing into endlessness.

Postmodern thought, our own present-day thought, is different from this modern thought. The difference is nicely shown by Bob Dylan in "Talkin’ World War III Blues":

Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that

I can only exist if somebody dreams me up. Only such dreamers can certify me. And such dreamers can only exist if I dream them up. And so on.
It is no longer that I am a self-certified container for illusions that pop up inside me like soap bubbles. We know that soap bubbles like to float freely, and that they tend to burst if we try to put them into a container.

René Descartes' reasoning is flawed:
If I think "I", then this thought may well be an illusion already. Likewise "think" (any mental process), and "therefore" (the laws of logic), and "to be" (as a verb instead of auxiliary) may well be illusory concepts. All these things take place one step higher up in the logical hierarchy, they are comments on the basic mental content, but they are not necessarily any realer than the basic illusions René Descartes thinks of.
He doesn't prove anything at all.

Bob Dylan is mistaken, obviously, where his "I'll let you be in my dreams" implies that we have control over our own dreams. Our dreams just happen. If I say, "Tonight I'll dream of blue potatoes", that's pure nonsense. Even if tomorrow morning I should wake up and indeed have dreamt of blue potatoes, that won't have been due to my decision.

On a logically higher level, above such illusory decisions, we have a similar opposition of "free will" versus "predestination".
Of course there is no good reason to suppose that predestination exists. And even if such a Big Book with everything written in advance should exist, what would it be to me since I'll never see that book.
Likewise, there is no good reason to suppose that free will exists (even if this nasty realisation hurts my ego's self-importance). Why should there be anything beyond some haphazard chemistry going on in my brain?
But assuming the two of them exist: It would be an error to mis-take them as mutually exclusive.
If somebody, say, on his 80th birthday decides to smoke a cigarette, and he doesn't know whether the writing in the Big Book says he'll smoke that cigarette or whether it says he won't, then his decision is produced by free will. The fact that the result (the decision itself and success or failure) will be in keeping with what was written does not make any difference.
Free will and predestination can coexist without any problem.

This is seen correctly by Leonard Cohen in "The Night of Santiago":
I didn’t fall in love. Of course
It’s never up to you

and in "Come Healing":
Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space

There is no such thing as a reliable foundation on which to build our mental constructs from which to mastermind the world. Solutions come arbitrarily, a bit like mathematicians creating arbitrary space in their geometries.
Whether we find this disquieting or accept it as normal we have no solid ground under our feet, and we have no control over the world.
"Love calls you by your name" in the most incongruous places and it's not we who call Love by its name.
"Jane came by" out of her own volition (in "Famous Blue Raincoat").
(The given name "Jane" is derived from Hebrew Yehochanan, meaning "Yahweh is merciful": )
And in this situation of utter dependence, our "grocer of despair" informs us that "the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone".
That's all we've got. But then, methinks it's quite a lot, too.

I am not real by myself, by my own certificate. I cannot certify myself. The attempt would only produce a self-referential Epimenides paradox (I myself putting myself above myself).
My illusory existence needs to be certified by other illusory existences, whom only I can dream up, but who must be more then what I am.
The western term for this kind of "mutual other-certifying" is "alterity"; the eastern term is "interdependence".

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, says Aristotle.
Maybe let's try it this way:
A flower is more than a collection of atoms.

My hope is that these ideas might help making the Heart Sutra seem somewhat less exotic.
Therefore know that you must become one with the bow, and with the arrow, and with the target
to say nothing of the horse.

... for a while
... for a little while...

(Just a filthy beggar blessing / What happens to the heart)
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