|Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Tegchok gave this commentary on the Heart Sutra to Saraswati Buddhist Group, Somerset, England on August 17 -20, 2007. The commentary is edited by Andy Wistreich.
You may also download this teaching as a pdf.
Cutting the Root of Cyclic Existence
Khensur Rinpoche: When we say "cyclic existence", because we often talk about the ocean of samsara or the ocean of cyclic existence, what do you understand by that expression, "cyclic existence"?
Student: The process of birth, aging, sickness and death?
Khensur Rinpoche: So you are saying that cyclic existence is birth, aging, sickness and death?
Student: Yes, shaped by ignorance.
Khensur Rinpoche: Ignorance forces us to appropriate or take a set of aggregates. So, to be precise, cyclic existence refers to the aggregates which are taken under the control of ignorance. In more general terms the aggregates are taken under the control of karma and the mental afflictions.
The aggregates are characterised by birth, sickness, aging and death. Cyclic existence implies circling, and we are circling in the stream or continuity of the four or five aggregates.1 With the aggregates come birth, aging, sickness and death which occur under the influence or control of karma and afflictions.
This means that the only way to be free of cyclic existence and achieve liberation is through the wisdom realising emptiness. We are in cyclic existence because of karma and mental afflictions, in particular the latter. From amongst these mental afflictions the specific root cause compelling us to take birth again and again in cyclic existence is ignorance - self-grasping, true-grasping. The only way to be rid of that is by realising emptiness.
No matter how powerful one’s love, compassion and bodhicitta, without wisdom realising emptiness, there is no way to achieve liberation from cyclic existence. No matter how strong one’s altruistic attitudes are, without that wisdom one cannot sever the root of cyclic existence which is the true-grasping mind. What binds one to cyclic existence is ignorance. In order to sever that bondage one needs the wisdom realising emptiness.
Beyond such realising, one is tied to the peace of personal liberation by the self-cherishing mind. To cut through that bond the altruistic attitudes of love, compassion and bodhicitta are required.
The two types of mental obscurations are the afflictive obscurations and a subtler set of obscurations called knowledge obscurations. Hearer and Solitary Realiser Arhats, the Foe Destroyers2, are amazing because, through having thought about, understood and meditated on emptiness deeply, thereby realising it, they can destroy the foe - the mental afflictions. Of the two obscurations they can eliminate the afflictive obscurations.
However, they are not free of all faults. Not having overcome all obscurations, they still retain the knowledge obscurations. This is because they have not taken full responsibility for benefiting others. Not having developed a sufficiently powerful sense of love and compassion towards others, they still have that fault or obscuration in the mind.
Because they can improve themselves further the arhats have not yet completely accomplished their own welfare. Theirs is not the most perfect experience a person can achieve. This is because of the self-cherishing mind. They experience only their own liberation and have not accomplished the ability to perfect the welfare of others. They remain in their own peace. The peace of that freedom from cyclic existence is much like a person that has gone to sleep. They cannot accomplish the welfare of others, or benefit others greatly because of still having the self-cherishing mind. They have not generated the altruistic attitude.
Both extremes must be overcome. The extreme of cyclic existence is vanquished by meditating on and realising emptiness while the extreme of remaining in one’s personal peaceful liberation is defeated by generating the altruistic mind.
The Importance of the Wisdom Side
Wisdom without the method side of bodhicitta and compassion binds one to the peace of personal liberation. This is the situation of the Hinayana arhats - the Hearer and Solitary Realiser Foe Destroyers, who are bound to the peace of their own liberation because of not having engaged in the practice of the perfections based on bodhicitta, which is in turn based on the altruistic attitudes of love and compassion.
Depicting the position of the Hinayana arhats like that does not mean denigrating them. Nevertheless, when the arhats are compared with the Buddha it becomes evident that they have become sidelined in the extreme of personal peace. Thus they are unable to benefit others extensively as can bodhisattvas and enlightened beings. They have not reached even their full personal potential.
Furthermore, one is tied down, bound or fettered with either wisdom divorced from method or method divorced from wisdom. In the latter case one is bound to cyclic existence. practicing the method side without wisdom leaves one unable to escape from cyclic existence. With only the first five perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm, and concentration, but without the sixth perfection of wisdom, no matter how much one practises one cannot possibly achieve liberation.
A scriptural passage gives the example of a group of blind people who can reach their destination only with a sighted guide, whereas without one they are stuck. Similarly, the first five perfections can take one beyond cyclic existence to reach enlightenment only with the practice of wisdom. Without the practice of wisdom, which is like their eyes, the first five are unable to reach their destination.
To get somewhere you need legs to carry you and eyes to see where you are going. The first five perfections are like legs and the sixth perfection, wisdom, like eyes. [Walking is used to illustrate this point because when these scriptures were taught there were no cars and aeroplanes to travel by.]
With a complete set of eyes and legs operational one can go wherever one wishes and can even undertake a very long journey which would be impossible without them both. With all six perfections, one may handle the long journey to enlightenment. On the other hand, Hearers and Solitary Realisers with the practice of wisdom, but without the other perfections, lack the method side, like having no legs. Therefore they simply cannot manage the long journey to enlightenment which is too difficult for them.
These are some of the benefits of the practice of meditation on emptiness. It is very useful to reflect on these benefits because it gives one the energy to put into the practice of understanding, meditating on and thereby realising emptiness.
A sutra called, The Door of Entrance into Faith says that if a person were to provide each sentient being in the three realms - the desire, form and formless realms - everything needed for their whole life until death, there would certainly be a huge amount of merit or benefit. It is hard to grasp (if it were possible) how much merit there would be from that, yet there is even more merit in meditating on emptiness even for a short while. This does not mean even to have realised it.
Of course if one has realised it and meditates on it for one session, there is certainly far greater merit. However, even in the case of not having realised it but seriously thinking about, reflecting and meditating on it, there is far more merit than from providing all sentient beings of the three realms with everything they need for the rest of their lives.
To understand this it helps to look at another of Buddha’steachings which states that even though one kept pure morality and meditated one-pointedly for tens of thousands of eons, there is no way one could achieve liberation. This is because only with pure morality and stable concentration but without the realisation of emptiness, even meditating for tens of thousands of eons does nothing to harm ignorance, the root of cyclic existence. Despite having meditated with such stability for such a long period, one would finally have done nothing to harm ignorance, the true-grasping mind which is the root of cyclic existence. Hence, one would still be a samsaric being, meaning a person in cyclic existence just as before.
Although such a long period of meditation would not even touch that self-grasping mind of ignorance, it is said that even having doubts about self-existence in the sense of thinking "maybe things are empty of self-existence", completely undermines cyclic existence and inflicts very heavy damage on its root. The teachings use the image of reducing a piece of cloth to rags or tatters, making it very weak, so that were one to just pick it up it would fall to pieces.
The importance of practicing wisdom is illustrated towards the end of the three Mother Sutras where Buddha presented a section called "the complete entrustment". At that point in the Perfection of Wisdom teachings the Buddha said to Ananda that even if he were to forget everything else Buddha had taught, as long as Ananda could retain, memorise and remember all he had taught concerning the words, content and meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, he would not feel that Ananda in any way disrespected him as his teacher. However, were Ananda to remember absolutely everything else the Buddha had taught, but were to forget just one word or a single aspect of the meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the Buddha would not even consider Ananda to be his disciple. In that case, the Buddha said, Ananda should not consider himself to be his student, nor consider the Buddha to be his teacher. Furthermore, were he to forget any element of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, the samaya3 between Buddha Shakyamuni and Ananda would have been completely destroyed.
This underlines how important the Buddha himself considered the Perfection of Wisdom to be. Of course it is so important because without wisdom, there is absolutely no way of going beyond the suffering of cyclic existence.
We consider Ananda to be very important in Buddhism; such beings are considered to be most precious. Similarly the seventeen pandits of Nalanda, the six "ornaments" of India and the two sublime beings are considered to be highly important and precious. The reason for this is that it is due to them that the teachings the Buddha gave so many centuries ago still exist in a pure and complete form for us to use today.
In conclusion, the importance of wisdom is that none of us sentient beings could possibly gain liberation from cyclic existence without the wisdom realising emptiness. Therefore it is highly praised and many scriptures describe the importance of this practice in various ways. One scripture says that were one to seriously meditate on the actual meaning of emptiness for only a minute or two, again not necessarily having realised it, the merit would be far greater than spending eons either listening to teachings on or reciting the Perfection of Wisdom, or practicing the other five perfections of generosity, morality, patience, enthusiasm and concentration. Therefore, although practicing the first five perfections for eons would create a huge amount of merit, meditating on emptiness for just one or two minutes would make far more merit.
The main reason why there would be so much more merit is that even if you spent eons engaged in listening to or reciting the Perfection of Wisdom or practicing the first five perfections you would still be in cyclic existence. Being tied down in and bound to cyclic existence, you would still be compelled to take birth repeatedly in cyclic existence. You would not have escaped cyclic existence at all.
I am sure you know that you cannot expect to be able to practise perfectly right from the beginning. practicing in general and specifically here thinking about and trying to understand emptiness is something that will get better and better but only if you apply yourself to it. As Shantideva says, there is nothing that will not get easier with familiarity. Therefore, if one keeps trying, it will get more and more familiar, and as that happens it will become easier and easier.
Unlike in the past, we now have a great many texts translated into English. So much hard work by so many people has been done to make the teachings available in English. We are able to read. We have the intelligence to pick up these books, to read them through and to go back and forth to compare what it says earlier in the book with what it says later and so on. Thus we definitely have the means to improve our understanding.
It is well worth getting, and spending time on reliable books such as those written or based on teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Other books by certain extraordinary beings are also worth buying and reading and if one cannot judge for oneself it is worth asking around and finding out other people’srecommendations.
Having reflected on the advantages of emptiness, do not think it unimportant to meditate on love, compassion and bodhicitta and so on. On the contrary, you should also maintain efforts to understand and practise these.
1 Most sentient beings in cyclic existence have the five aggregates of form, feeling, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness. However, those in the formless realms have only four aggregates since they lack form. [Return to text]
2 The "foe" they have destroyed is the afflictions. [Return to text]
3 The bond or personal pledge of commitment. [Return to text]