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A commentary on the emptiness section of the Seven Point Mind Training text

Mirror of Wisdom includes commentaries on the emptiness section of Mind Training Like the Rays of the Sun and The Heart Sutra.

Mirror of Wisdom
Part One: Introduction
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Bodhicitta
Part One: Mind Training - Developing Emptiness
Part One: Learning to Become a Buddha
Part Two: Commentary on the Heart Sutra

Part One: Introduction


I personally feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity to teach the Heart Sutra, otherwise known as the Perfection of Wisdom or the Wisdom Gone Beyond. I also feel that you, too, as participants in this teaching, are very fortunate.

Why should we feel fortunate to be able to participate in this teaching? Firstly, this human life is extremely precious and very hard to achieve. Secondly, it is very rare that a buddha, an enlightened being, manifests as an emanation body in our world. Lastly, it is very difficult to come into contact with the Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle, teaching of Buddhism. Even though it is only under exceptional circumstances that all these factors come together, somehow we have been able to achieve it. We have this wonderful life with all its freedoms and potential for liberation and we also have the opportunity to follow the Greater Vehicle teaching of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni.

The Heart Sutra is special because by putting its teaching into practice it is possible for us to attain liberation from samsara, the cycle of existence, and to become enlightened within our own lifetime. Even though this is a short sutra, its meaning is extremely profound and we find a wealth of information within just a couple of pages. Take the time to reflect upon and contemplate the meaning. When we recite the HeartSutra, we shouldn't rush our recitation as if skating on ice. Instead, we should try to understand what each word means and should not be afraid to ask those who know more than we do when our understanding fails us.

We will not gain much from the teachings if we listen with the sense of being coerced by some external force or authority. Only if we listen with our own inner spiritual enthusiasm can we listen fully. This enthusiasm flows from our understanding of the true value of the Dharma. When we ask, from the depths of our minds and hearts, what it is that we are truly seeking, then we can begin to realize the enormous value of spiritual practice in our present and future lives. Remember that meditation practice is far more important than simply reading Dharma texts. We shouldn't spend too much time reading books, but should try to meditate as much as possible so that we can internalize and actualize the meaning of the teaching within our mind-stream. It is primarily through meditation that deep experiences and realizations come. A poor person doesn't gain much simply by knowing how much a rich person owns. In the same way, an intellectual understanding of emptiness does not benefit us much if we don't put it into practice and meditate on it.

Let us cultivate our altruistic intention, seeking enlightenment for the sake of liberating all sentient beings, who pervade limitless space. It is with this kind of motivation, the motivation of bodhicitta, that we should participate in this teaching.


We have within us two types of buddha nature, or buddha lineage- our "naturally abiding buddha nature" and our "developable buddha nature." The naturally abiding buddha nature refers to the emptiness of our mind. As we engage in Dharma practice, we purify our negativities and accumulate wisdom and positive energy. It is through this practice that each of us can become a buddha. It is the emptiness of our infinite, all-knowing, or omniscient, mind that becomes the natural truth body of a buddha. This occurs when our mind is completely pure, free from defilements such as anger and pride and even of the imprints, or seeds, of those defilements.

Our developable buddha nature is the infinite potential of our mind to grow and develop spiritually through listening to, contemplating and meditating on the teachings. When our mind is completely free of the two obscurations-the obscurations to liberation (deluded emotions, such as anger and desire) and the obscurations to knowledge (ignorance born from dualistic perceptions)-it transforms into the all-knowing mind of a buddha.


Shakyamuni Buddha was born in India over two thousand five hundred years ago. After generating bodhicitta-the altruistic mind of enlightenment-for three countless aeons, he then thoroughly perfected the two types of accumulation that constitute the fruition of the entire Mahayana path, the accumulations of merit, or positive energy, and wisdom, or insight. Eventually, he became an enlightened being-a fully awakened person.

Buddha performed twelve great deeds, but the most important deed of them all was turning the wheel of Dharma. Buddha gave the three great discourses that are known as the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. The first wheel was turned in Sarnath and concerned the Four Noble Truths (aryasatyas). This teaching was primarily aimed at those who have the mental dispositions of the Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, practitioner. The third turning of the wheel was at Shravasti and concerned the characteristics of buddha nature.

It was on Vulture's Peak, a mountain near Rajgir in the present day state of Bihar, where Buddha turned the second wheel of Dharma. His discourse concerned the Wisdom Gone Beyond (Prajnaparamita) sutras, which include the HeartSutra. Sutras and treatises deal with two types of subject matter-emptiness and the various levels of realization. The Heart Sutra explicitly presents emptiness as its subject matter and implicitly presents "the hidden levels of realization." The Heart Sutra is one of the most important of the Mahayana Prajnaparamita sutras. It is in the form of a dialogue between Shariputra, one of the Buddha's two closest disciples, and the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The most extensive version of the Prajnaparamita sutras contains one hundred thousand verses; another contains twenty-five thousand verses, and there's also an abbreviated version eight thousand verses long. But the most concise version of the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutras is the Heart Sutra, which contains the innermost essence of them all.


The sutras of Shakyamuni Buddha were not written down during his lifetime. However, when Buddha passed into parinirvana, final nirvana, there were many highly realized arhats and bodhisattvas who had great powers of mental retention, and they recorded everything the Buddha had taught about the Wisdom Gone Beyond.

Buddha passed into parinirvana, the state of solitary peace, during a spring full moon, on the fifteenth day of the fourth lunar month, according to the Tibetan calendar. It was later, during a summer retreat, that the great council was held, where as many as five hundred arhats assembled together to write down Buddha's teachings. During the great council, the three master narrators of Buddha's works collected all of the teachings together. They are now found in the three divisions of the Buddhist canon, called the Three Baskets (Tripitaka). Mahakashyapa recalled all Buddha's teachings on higher knowledge (abhidharma). Then Upali narrated all the teachings given by Buddha on moral, or ethical, discipline (vinaya). Finally, Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant, recalled and narrated all Buddha's teachings on the discourses (sutras).

When they had gathered for the great council, all the arhats folded their yellow robes (chö-gö) together and placed them one on top of the other to make a throne. The principal narrators sat on this throne of robes and recalled all the teachings given by Buddha. When it was Ananda's turn to sit upon the throne, he faced in the direction where Buddha had taught the Prajnaparamita and the other sutras. He remembered Buddha so deeply that he wept as he began to narrate the sutras. Thus, when you read the words at the beginning of sutras such as the Heart Sutra, in "Thus I have heard...," the "I" refers to Ananda.


In Sanskrit, the Heart Sutra is called Bhagavati Prajnaparamitahrdayam. The Tibetans retained Sanskrit titles in their translations for two reasons. Firstly, it is believed the buddhas of the past, present and future give their teachings in Sanskrit, so by reading the title in Sanskrit, we plant the seeds of the source language of Dharma in our minds. The second reason is to help us remember the great kindness of the lotsawas, whose name comes from the Sanskrit term meaning, "eye of the world"-the great translators who originally translated this and other sutras from Sanskrit into Tibetan.

In order to understand the meaning of the Sanskrit title it is also helpful to know the Tibetan translation: Chom-den-de-ma she-rab kyi pa-rol-tu chin-pay nying-po. This line is actually an extremely concise statement of the doctrine of emptiness. It is regarded as the heart essence of the vast Prajnaparamita literature. Chom-den-de-ma relates to the word bhagavati in the title. Chom literally means "to destroy"; den means "to be in possession of remarkable qualities and realizations"; and de means "to go beyond." The Tibetan suffix -ma also relates to bhagavati and denotes that of the two aspects of Buddha's teaching, method (upaya) and wisdom (jnana), the Heart Sutra belongs to the mother-like, wisdom aspect.

The first part of the title signifies the state of nirvana beyond the two types of obscuration, which I mentioned before. Prajna means "wisdom" and paramita means "perfection" or "gone beyond." Thus Bhagavati Prajnaparamita can be translated as "the possession of the wisdom gone beyond." The Sanskrit word hrdayam relates to the Tibetan nying-po, which means "essence," translated here as "heart." So, the meaning of the title suggests that this sutra is the heart of all other Wisdom Gone Beyondsutras.


There are many kinds of wisdom but the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutra refers to the essential wisdom. This wisdom perceives the emptiness of true existence and thus the ultimate nature of all phenomena. It is with this wisdom that we can transcend ordinary levels of reality. Some other forms of wisdom include that arising from listening to teachings, the wisdom that arises from contemplating the teachings and the wisdom that arises from meditating on the teachings. These wisdoms can themselves be divided even further, but they are all only complementary or auxiliary wisdoms to help us generate and cultivate the wisdom that perceives the emptiness of true existence. Buddha said that it is because sentient beings have not realized that emptiness is the true nature of phenomena that they wander in the various states of cyclic existence. It is our delusions, particularly our ignorance, that keep us here in samsara.

The root of all ignorance is our continual grasping at a self and it is this grasping that perpetuates our suffering. The wisdom that perceives emptiness is the direct antidote to this self-grasping and, as such, is essential in order for us to become liberated from the compulsive cycles of existence. Once we directly and nakedly realize the final and ultimate mode of existence of phenomena, we case to create new causes to return to samsara.

The great Indian master, Aryadeva, in his treatise the Four Hundred Stanzas, clearly stated that even if one is not able to gain direct insight into the emptiness of all phenomena, merely by developing some positive doubt about the nature of reality, one can create a state of mind so powerful that it can shatter samsara. At the very least, if we think about and meditate on the meaning of emptiness every day, it will be of tremendous help in our spiritual growth. So, the Wisdom Gone Beyond refers to the wisdom that perceives emptiness, which itself is the very heart of wisdom.


This teaching focuses on the profound view of emptiness (shunyata), which we find in the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutras. This kind of teaching is meant for both those who have not yet realized the emptiness of true existence and those who have, to help them further their understanding. It is difficult to fully understand emptiness, but we must make every effort to do so. It is only through gaining this understanding and experience that we can liberate ourselves from the suffering of samsara, particularly the suffering of the three bad migrations, the unfortunate realms of rebirth.

If anyone thinks that by merely reciting a mantra they can liberate themselves from samsara, they are very mistaken. Likewise, simply cultivating great love, compassion and bodhicitta is not enough to completely remove delusion. Certainly, by reciting mantras and cultivating bodhicitta we can temporarily overcome manifest forms of delusion, but in order to eradicate delusion entirely, we must realize emptiness.

The way to generate an unmistakable understanding of emptiness in our own mind is by studying and listening to teachings on emptiness from qualified spiritual masters. However, the text states that emptiness is beyond words, expression or thought. How can we study something that is beyond words, expression or thought? What this statement means is that emptiness cannot be explained or even talked about without taking into consideration conventional phenomena as a basis or reference. There is no way to speak about emptiness directly, so we speak about it through its relation to certain phenomena.

Emptiness cannot be taught in the way that it exists for aryas in a state of meditative equipoise. Even they themselves cannot explain their experience to others. In the Sutra of the Ten Spiritual Grounds of Bodhisattva Realization (Dashabhumisutra), it is written that when aryas watch a bird fly they can see and understand the trail that it leaves in the sky. Most people can see only the bird, but aryas can somehow see the path that the bird is following. Similarly, aryas can see the trail-like emptiness of all phenomena.

We cannot deal with emptiness in isolation. We have to talk about the basis upon which emptiness is established. For example, a wave is empty of true existence. When we focus our mind on the wave we see that the wave and the ocean cannot be differentiated. We see that they are dependent upon one another. The wave has no truly separate existence. In the same way, the experience of emptiness is non-dual, and in this state of non-duality our mind does not see the wave, only its emptiness. The wave then becomes the basis upon which emptiness as its ultimate characteristic is established.

Everything exists dependently upon everything else. Nothing exists independently in and of itself. Therefore, everything is empty of inherent existence. Every phenomenon is empty of true existence, therefore emptiness is the ultimate nature of everything that exists.

Emptiness is a characteristic that all phenomena share. Like the wave, the self, or "I," is also a basis, and emptiness is its characteristic. Emptiness is a very profound reality. We can understand this from the life story of the great master Lama Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug school of Buddhism. When he was in Central Tibet, he was deeply involved in intensive meditation. I mentioned before how once, while meditating on emptiness in the assembly of monks he was so absorbed that he didn't notice the other monks leave the assembly hall. I also explained how Lama Tsongkhapa reached such a high level of attainment that he was able to meet with the tantric deity of wisdom, Manjushri, and receive teachings directly from him. Remember how Manjushri informed Lama Tsongkhapa that he had not yet fully realized emptiness and that in order to do so he needed to accumulate more positive energy, so Lama Tsongkhapa went into retreat at Wölka and practiced intensive purification and accumulation, doing innumerable prostrations and mandala offerings.

Realizing emptiness is no easy task. Even if we spend our entire life practicing meditation and reciting mantras, if we do not understand emptiness we cannot be liberated. We must realize that all the suffering we experience comes from the delusions in our minds. To cut through these delusions, we need the weapon of the wisdom that perceives emptiness.

Lama Tsongkhapa has stated that when we have made ourselves suitable recipients through cultivating the common paths or practices, we will be able to enter confidently into the tantric vehicle-the point of entry for the achievement of enlightenment. Before we receive a tantric empowerment, there are three conditions that are required of us. First, we must have the sincere wish to be liberated. Second, we must have generated the altruistic mind of enlightenment. And third, we must have the wisdom that perceives emptiness.

Part Two: The Meaning of the Text


"Thus I have heard. At one time the Lord was sitting on Vulture's Peak near the city of Rajgir."

It was out of Buddha's own deep experiences and realizations and his infinite compassion for all sentient beings that he gave his teachings. Buddha is an incomparable master. His body, speech and mind are completely pure of defilements and even the imprints of defilements. His body, speech and mind are the result of completion and perfection in the process of the accumulation of excellence, that is, of positive energy and wisdom. It is our knowledge of Buddha's qualities and realizations that helps us develop unshakable faith, confidence and trust in him and his abilities.

The English translation of the text refers to the Buddha as "Lord." In the original Sanskrit this word is bhagavan, but it is more profound in the Tibetan translation, chom-den-de. As we mentioned earlier, the word chom literally means "to destroy." It is saying that Buddha has destroyed all defilements and the imprints of defilements. Den means "to possess excellent qualities and realizations"; de means to "go beyond" or "transcend." What this tells us is that in his enlightenment, Buddha has transcended the two extremes, which can refer to either the two types of obscurations or the two extremes of cyclic existence and solitary peace. This is why the Buddha is called chom-den-de. He is the destroyer of defilements, the possessor of excellent qualities and one who has gone beyond ordinary levels of reality.

The honorific term bhagavan is also used to refer to other holy people, so the translators added the word de to the original Sanskrit to indicate that this wasn't just an ordinary bhagavan but a truly transcendent one.

The city name of Rajgir literally means "the king's palace." This was where King Bimbisara, one of the Buddha's great royal patrons, lived. There are two interpretations given to the origin of the name of Vulture's Peak. Some people thought that the rock formations at the site looked like a flock of vultures. Others say that when Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching the Prajnaparamita sutras, the great bodhisattvas took the form of vultures when they came to receive the teaching.


"He was accompanied by a large community of monks as well as a large community of bodhisattvas."

This tells us something about the excellent assembly, those who were witnesses to Buddha's teaching. This teaching was explicitly intended for bodhisattvas and those with bodhisattva inclinations, even though there were also shravakas (pious hearers) as well as ordinary monks among the gathering.

Emptiness cannot be taught to everyone, simply because not everyone has the capacity to understand it. As we find mentioned in the great Indian master Chandrakirti's work, Supplement to the Middle Way, a suitable recipient of the teaching of emptiness is someone who has already acquainted himself or herself with emptiness or teachings on emptiness and who is especially enthusiastic. There is an inner sign, an inner joy of the heart, which is sometimes expressed by tears rolling down the cheeks or by goose-bumps on the skin. Such a person has the right kind of mind to be able to comprehend the emptiness of true existence. Furthermore, based on their acquaintance with the subject of emptiness, such persons can grow spiritually to understand even deeper levels of realization.

The English translation of the text simply refers to a large community of monks and bodhisattvas. "Monk" is the common translation of the Sanskrit word bhikshu, but bhikshu can refer to people of varying levels of spiritual accomplishment. It can mean a person who has received full ordination, who relies upon the food that is given in alms and who enthusiastically engages in the practices of abandonment and meditation. There are also arya, or superior, bhikshus- those who have gained direct experience of emptiness. This third kind of bhikshu is one who is already in a state of liberation and has become an arhat-a full destroyer of delusion. The core disseminators of Buddha's teaching were this third kind of member of the community of bhikshus-bhikshus who had already attained this profound realization.

In the eight thousand verses of the Wisdom Gone Beyond sutra, we find that in the last community of monks before Buddha's death, all except one were arhats-completely free from contamination, defilement and delusion. The one exception was Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant. Fortunately, Ananda achieved arhatship shortly before the great council was held.

The text states that the Buddha was also accompanied by "a large community of bodhisattvas." The Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word bodhisattva is jang-chub sem-pa." Jang literally means "pure of faults and defilements." Chub means "internally realized." Sem-pa is Tibetan for sattva. Sem means "to think" and pa means "to be brave." Taken together, the term literally translates to "hero." So a bodhisattva is a pure, realized person who thinks about the welfare of others and who works courageously towards the attainment of enlightenment for the sake of all, bravely cutting through the forces of negative actions.

Another interpretation of the word sattva is "one who is heroic, courageous and patient in contemplation of the two truths-the conventional truth and the ultimate truth." In his Abbreviated Sutra, Buddha himself explained that sattva means "one who is generous, has great wisdom, is full of energy, has entered the path of Greater Vehicle Buddhism and has put on the armor of patience and tolerance and thereby combats the defiled states of mind."

In the Tibetan text we find the phrase thab-chig-tu zhug-pa. This has been translated as "accompanied by" and refers to how people are seated or gathered together. Zhug-pa means "to sit" or "be together," while thab-chig-tumeans "a form of discipline." Thus, the termthabchig- tu zhug-pa means that the assembly was sitting together in the same disciplined state.


"On that occasion the Lord was absorbed in a particular concentration called the profound appearance."

The words "on that occasion" are not simply a casual reference to the time when this teaching was given. It means an auspicious confluence of events-a point in time when everyone's positive energy ripened and they became fully prepared to receive this teaching.

"Profound" refers to profound emptiness and "appearance" here refers to the wisdom that perceives emptiness. Therefore, Buddha was involved in single-pointed concentration on the ultimate nature of reality, which was free from both coarse and subtle forms of laxity (drowsiness) and excitement (distraction). There isn't a single moment when Buddha isn't absorbed in this kind of meditative state. Lama Tsongkhapa said that this is because Buddha is constantly aware of everything that exists. In him, mindfulness is ever-present.

However, Buddha is described as doing all sorts of other things such as eating, sleeping and so on. So, what is his state during these activities? It is said that a buddha doesn't need sleep. Nor is he ever hungry or thirsty. When a buddha appears thirsty, it is just because of the nature of our own perceptions. When Buddha went begging for alms, he wasn't really in need of food but was trying to inspire benefactors to create positive energy by giving and thus increase their own merit (punya). A buddha doesn't need to eat food because he already enjoys the food of concentration.


"Meanwhile the bodhisattva, the great being, the noble Avalokiteshvara was contemplating the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom. He came to see that the five aggregates were empty of any inherent nature of their own."

The sutras were not necessarily spoken word by word. There are different kinds of sutras-blessed sutras, permitted sutras and spoken sutras-composed of words blessed, permitted or spoken by Buddha. These three kinds of teaching are not seen as contradictory and are all considered as teachings of Buddha. The Four Noble Truths constitute actual words spoken by Buddha himself, as do most of the teachings in the Prajnaparamitasutras.

The Heart Sutra is generally considered to be a sutra presented through Buddha's permission and so it is a permitted sutra. But within the text we find passages that seem to dwell within the two other kinds, as when Buddha says, "well said, well said" to Avalokiteshvara. It is also a blessed sutra in the sense that Buddha blessed Shariputra and gave him the confidence to ask his question.

We find innumerable bodhisattvas among the ten levels of bodhisattva realization. There are the eight close bodhisattva disciples of Buddha, for example. But of them all, it is Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani and Manjushri who are considered to be the most important. Manjushri is the embodiment of the highest form of wisdom-that which perceives the emptiness of all phenomena. The unique quality of Vajrapani is that he is the embodiment of the enlightened power of all the buddhas.

The word "noble" used in reference to Avalokiteshvara is a translation of the Sanskrit word arya, which has often been translated as "superior" or "transcendental" being. Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of the compassion of all the buddhas, always keeps his eyes open to all sentient beings in order to liberate them from suffering and the causes of suffering and to endow them with happiness and the causes of happiness. Bodhicitta is the altruistic mind of enlightenment and the bodhicitta of Avalokiteshvara is said to be cowherd-like. Just as a cowherd doesn't rest until all the cows are safe in their shelter, so too has Avalokiteshvara promised that he will not rest until he has established all sentient beings in the mind of enlightenment. He is special because he represents compassion in its most intense and ultimate form.

Avalokiteshvara's compassion is extended infinitely to all sentient beings. To him, all are equal rather than being separated into friends, adversaries and strangers. He is able to manifest simultaneously in innumerable forms. His mind is omniscient, understanding precisely and distinctly each and every aspect of phenomena and the qualities and characteristics of the paths and grounds leading to liberation and enlightenment. The text demonstrates that Avalokiteshvara understands that the five aggregates-the principal faculties that make up a sentient being-are all empty of true existence.


"Through the power of the Buddha, the venerable Shariputra approached the noble Avalokiteshvara and asked him, 'How should a son of the noble lineage proceed when he wants to train in the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom?'"

Thus, absorbed in meditative concentration, Shakyamuni Buddha blessed and inspired his disciple Shariputra to ask Avalokiteshvara this question; that is, how should a person who wishes to follow the Mahayana path leading to enlightenment train his or her mind? "A child of the noble lineage" means someone who has the inclination of a bodhisattva or of Mahayana Buddhism. A Mahayana practitioner with keen intelligence and sharp mental faculties realizes emptiness first and then cultivates love, compassion and bodhicitta, the altruistic mind of enlightenment. One with slightly lower faculties cultivates love, compassion and bodhicitta first, and then studies and realizes emptiness.


"The noble Avalokiteshvara replied to the venerable Shariputra, 'Whatever son or daughter of the noble lineage wants to train in the profound discipline of the perfection of wisdom should consider things in the following way. First, he or she should clearly and thoroughly comprehend that the five aggregates are empty of any inherent nature of their own....'"

Avalokiteshvara's answer tells us that from the Buddhist point of view, men and women are equal in being able to follow spiritual practice and gain spiritual realizations. Furthermore, every phenomenon-the house in which we live, the environment, in fact everything around us-has two truths, conventional and ultimate. When we shift the focus to ourselves, we see that we also have conventional and ultimate aspects. Once we know about the emptiness of forms, we can apply the same reasoning to the other four aggregates that make up our psycho- physical personality-feeling, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness, which are also empty of true or inherent existence.

The crucial word here is "inherent." Of course the aggregates exist in a conventional sense but they do not exist in and of themselves. That is, they do not possess an objective existence. The line of philosophical reasoning is as follows. If a phenomenon were to exist in and of itself, it would not depend upon causes and conditions. If things did not depend upon causes and conditions, it would mean that results could occur without causes, which is impossible.


"Form is empty but emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form and form is not other than emptiness. Similarly, feelings, discernments, formative elements and consciousness are also empty. Likewise, Shariputra, are all phenomena empty. They have no defining characteristics; they are unproduced; they do not cease; they are undefiled, yet they are not separate from defilement; they do not decrease, yet they do not increase."

In the text we find that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. In other words, form is not different from emptiness and emptiness is not different from form. In his answer to Shariputra, Avalokiteshvara says that all phenomena are empty. This does not mean that nothing exists. What it does mean is that all phenomena are empty of something. That "something" is inherent, or objective, existence. The Heart Sutradoesn't explicitly mention inherent or objective existence-it simply states that "form is empty"-but this is the true meaning of emptiness.

The text describes eight characteristics of emptiness, one of these being that phenomena have no defining characteristics. What this means is that phenomena have no inherently existing defining characteristics. So, when we contemplate this section of the Heart Sutra, if we conclude that nothing is produced and nothing ceases to exist, we are mistaken. The reality of phenomena is created by our perceptions and consciousness. Phenomena do exist and we cannot deny them. It is only inherent existence that does not exist. We know this because inherent existence is not apprehended to exist by any valid perception or state of mind. It is from this point of view that we speak of the self of phenomena and the self of a person as not existing.

"They are undefiled" means that even afflictive emotions and the afflictions of delusions do not inherently exist. This is precisely the reason why we can rid ourselves of them. Everybody who is not free of defilements possesses delusions, which means that all of us are defiled. But where are these defilements? Do they have form or are they formless? If they had form it would be easy to take them out and remove them, but our defilements do not have form. We can't throw them away because they are a part of our consciousness. Yet these defilements cannot contaminate the absolute nature of our mind. If they did, then when we removed them we would also be removing our mind. Then, when we reached enlightenment, we would be without consciousness altogether.

Therefore, we must understand that our defilements and our consciousness are not inseparable. When our clothes get dirty, the dirt is not the same as the cloth. When we wash our clothes it is the dirt that comes out. Our clothes remain intact. So remember, when we get rid of defilements we are not getting rid of our mind. When we engage in the activities of accumulating positive energy and wisdom, thus purifying our defilements, what we are really doing is purifying defilements onthe mind rather than inthe mind.

In the line "yet they are not separate from defilement," we see how even the liberated side of phenomena, the freedom from defilements, does not inherently exist. Where it says "they do not decrease," we see that we have to work to develop qualities to decrease defilements or negativities. They do not diminish in and of themselves. The eight characteristics of emptiness presented here describe the "three doors to liberation." The first one presents emptiness as the door to liberation. The next five characteristics represent what we call "signlessness" (tsen-ma me-pa) as the door to liberation. The last two characteristics represent "aspirationlessness" (mön-pa me-pa) as the door to liberation.


In Mahayana Buddhism, we present five progressive levels, or paths, of spiritual realization by which an aspiring bodhisattva travels towards enlightenment-the paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing (insight), meditation and no more learning.

On the first two paths, those with bodhisattva inclinations are primarily engaged in listening to and contemplating the teachings on emptiness. As they progress along the paths of seeing and meditation, they begin cultivating the awareness of emptiness that arises through meditation. The obscurations to liberation and the obscurations to omniscience are the two main types of mental affliction that obstruct one's attainment of buddhahood and each of the five paths acts as an antidote to these obscurations.

The path of accumulation. Within the path of accumulation we find three levels-the great, the intermediate and the initial, or small. At first, practitioners simply listen to the teachings. They do contemplate to some degree, but mainly they just listen. On the great, or advanced, level of the path of accumulation, it is possible for certain practitioners to actually ascertain or realize emptiness, at least conceptually. It is on this path that one gains the two collections of merit (virtuous actions) and wisdom. Although one has not yet gained any real clarity in relation to emptiness, one is clearly accumulating the necessary causes for that clarity.

The path of preparation. There are four levels on this path-heat, peak, patience and supreme mundane qualities, or supreme Dharma. On these levels, practitioners comprehend emptiness conceptually. At the heat level, the meditator attains a clear conceptual awareness of emptiness within a meditative stabilization. The peak level marks a point at which the virtuous roots that have been cultivated previously will no longer decrease or be lost. At the patience level the meditator develops familiarity with the concept of emptiness and overcomes fear of it. When practitioners have reached this level and beyond, they are safe from falling into the three bad migrations, the unfortunate states of rebirth. At this stage, based upon their own valid reasoning, their conceptual understanding of emptiness is so powerful that they gain a deep understanding of the infallibility of the law of karmic actions and result. Even though they may have already-accumulated negativities, they cease to create fresh ones. At the level of supreme mundane qualities, the cognizing subject no longer appears while one is in meditative equipoise. Subject and object do appear, but the meditator no longer consciously perceives them. The path of preparation is also called the connecting path, as it connects us to the path of seeing.

The path of seeing. As one progresses on the four levels of the path of preparation, one moves onto the path of seeing. It is while the meditator is on this path that he or she directly experiences emptiness for the first time. Here, one does not create any new karmic actions to cause rebirth in samsara. There is a quote-"seeing the truth, there is no precipitation"-which means that when one sees the ultimate truth of emptiness, just as a person with good eyesight will not walk off a cliff, one does not create any new karmic action that will precipitate one to be reborn into cyclic existence. The path of seeing is the first of the ten spiritual grounds of the bodhisattva, the remaining nine of which lie within the path of meditation.

The path of meditation. On the path of meditation, when practitioners are in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness, they experience it directly, with no duality whatsoever.

The path of no more learning. This means that we literally have no more to learn. We have reached the state of perfection. We have reached enlightenment.


The first thing with which we have to deal in our meditation on emptiness is identification of what is called in Buddhism "the object of negation" or "the object of refutation." The object of negation is the concept of the inherent existence of phenomena and the subsequent grasping at the existence of phenomena. As we find in the great bodhisattva Shantideva's Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life, "Without coming into contact with the inherent thing, one cannot comprehend the absence of that thing." This means that without precisely identifying and recognizing the concept that you are refuting (the object of negation), you are not going to understand emptiness. After all, emptiness is established by way of refuting something. That something is inherent existence.

The main purpose of meditating on emptiness is to be able to counteract grasping at inherent existence. This grasping is the other object of negation. If we don't understand what is being refuted, then even if we try to meditate on emptiness, our meditation will not counteract our grasping. We will be shooting an arrow without knowing where the target is.

When we talk about the object of negation we are speaking of two kinds-one that exists and one that does not. To be able to identify the two types of object of negation, we have to check our perception and the habitual way we perceive things. For example, how do we perceive the self to exist? We perceive it to exist in and of itself. This idea of the inherent existence of the self is what we call a "non-existent object of negation"; our grasping at self is an "existent object of negation." We perceive and then we grasp. We use two different methods to deal with these two types of object of negation. We use authentic scriptural quotations to deal with the object of negation that does exist and valid reasoning to deal with the one that does not. Thus, we should try to imagine how we individually perceive the self to exist and where we perceive it as existing. Once we recognize the fallibility of the idea of a self, it is easy to recognize how we grasp at other phenomena. But in order to be able to understand the nonexistence of the self, we first have to know what we mean by the term "inherent existence." What are the criteria by which we judge whether something exists inherently? First, it should exist independently; second, it should not rely upon causes and conditions. Does the self exist this way? Upon analysis we can see that it does not. The self exists dependently. It is dependent upon the collection of our five physical and mental aggregates. This is the first level of how to meditate on emptiness.


"This being the case, Shariputra, in terms of emptiness there exist no forms, no feelings, no discernments, no formative elements, no consciousness..."

Remember that Avalokiteshvara is explaining how to train the mind in the perfection of wisdom. The key point is that while we are on the path of meditation, what exists for us in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness is just emptiness and nothing else. Conventional phenomena do not exist for that kind of wisdom. We do not even perceive the basis upon which emptiness is established. We perceive emptiness directly, nakedly and non-conceptually.

When one first begins to meditate on emptiness, one also perceives the conventional phenomena that are the basis upon which emptiness is established. Eventually, our perceptions become like "water poured into water"-undifferentiable from one another. We no longer experience any duality existing between our perceptions and they become of "one taste." This is why we say that all conventional phenomena have been exhausted for aryas in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness.

What Avalokiteshvara means when he says "in terms of emptiness there exist no forms" is that conventional forms do not exist in this state. It is common for people to fall into the extreme of nihilism and misinterpret this as meaning that forms do not exist at all. This is as mistaken a view as the extreme of absolutism, or eternalism. If a person is not receptive or "ripened" they can easily misconstrue the meaning of emptiness.

There is a story of a mahasiddha, a great Indian master, who took shelter from the midday heat in the carcass of an elephant. The elephant's insides had been eaten by worms and its body was empty like a cave. The mahasiddha meditated here and gained direct experience into emptiness. One day, the local king invited the mahasiddha to his palace and asked him to teach about emptiness. The mahasiddha entered a deep meditative state and started pointing at things saying, "That doesn't exist, this doesn't exist, they don't exist." He wasn't denying the existence of phenomena; what he meant was that nothing exists inherently, in and of itself. But his audience completely misunderstood him. The king became very angry and sentenced the mahasiddha to death.

Some time later, the king invited another great master to his palace. This master first spoke about basic things, such as the practice of refuge and the law of karma and its results. Eventually, he began to guide the king and his attendants into an understanding of emptiness. Because of his great merit, the king was able to gain direct insight into emptiness through these teachings. But when he entered into meditative equipoise on emptiness, he couldn't help repeating the first mahasiddha's statements, "That doesn't exist, this doesn't exist, they don't exist." It was then that he understood how truly realized the first mahasiddha had been. (Now, you might ask, if the mahasiddha was so realized why did he have to die in such a miserable way? This has something to do with the infallible law of karmic action and result. When unwanted problems come to us we must understand that this is the result of our own negative karmic actions, but we should not conclude that the practice of Dharma doesn't work.)

Just as forms do not exist for an arya's wisdom in meditative stabilization on emptiness, so the remaining aggregates-feelings, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness do not exist for such wisdom. When we read this statement we must understand that we are not denying the conventional existence of the five aggregates but just their inherent existence. We can see that the aggregates exist dependently, arising as they do from certain causes and conditions.


" eyes, no ears, no noses, no tongues, no bodies, no minds; no visual forms, no sounds, no smells, no tastes, no tactile sensations, no mental objects. There exist no visual elements, no mental elements, and no elements of mental consciousness."

As you recite the Heart Sutra and come across these lines, you must understand that what is being stated here is that none of these things exist for the wisdom of an arya in a state of meditative equipoise on emptiness-especially on the path of meditation. In the Heart Sutra, we find eighteen elements of phenomena. There are six objects, six faculties and six perceptions, all of which are empty of true existence. Emptiness pervades all phenomena. For example, when we are directly perceiving the emptiness of the true existence of eyes, we are only perceiving the basis upon which the eyes exist, but not the eyes themselves.

Visual forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations and mental objects are the six objects, or objective conditions, of the six faculties. The six faculties are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind. Visible form is an object of eye consciousness, sound is an object of ear consciousness, smell is an object of nose consciousness, taste is an object of tongue consciousness, touch is an object of tactile consciousness and thought is an object of mental consciousness. The six faculties are the basis for the arising of a particular consciousness. For example, the eyes are the basis for the consciousness that perceives visual forms.

Sometimes we speak of the twelve sources. These refer to the six objects and the six faculties combined. The twelve sources give rise to the six perceptions of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching, and thinking. "Source" is the English translation of the Tibetan word kyeche, meaning "that which gives rise to" and "door through which things are perceived," as well.


"There exist no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance, no aging and death and no exhaustion of aging and death."

This sentence refers to the chain of twelve dependent links, or the chain of dependent origination. This describes the process by which we are continually falling into cyclic existence. This chain or sequence of events begins with 1) ignorance and follows with 2) karmic formation, 3) consciousness, 4) name and form, 5) sensory fields, 6) contact, 7) feelings, 8) attachment, 9) grasping, 10) becoming, or existence, 11) birth and 12) aging and death.

Buddha has pointed out the need for us to understand and meditate on the twelve dependent links in both sequential and reverse order. In sequential order we are seeing the afflictive side of phenomena -that which pulls us into cyclic existence, or samsara. In reverse order we see the unafflictive side of phenomena-that which liberates us from cyclic existence. Contemplating the twelve links in sequential order, we gain insight into the limitations of cyclic existence; contemplating them in reverse order, we learn how to liberate ourselves from cyclic existence.

1) Ignorance. The first link is ignorance (ma-rig-pa). Ignorance is the root cause of cyclic existence. It misperceives the self of a person and the reality of all phenomena and causes us to grasp at ego and material things. But the wisdom that perceives selflessness sees the emptiness of the self and all other phenomena. Ignorance and selflessness contradict each other. It is very important to individually focus on our own ignorant grasping at self and to know that this root delusion gives rise to all others.

All problems stem from this root-the ignorant grasping at self, or I. This is the real troublemaker in our lives. To be able to fight the tendency to grasp at a self we have to prepare our minds through study and practice of the three higher trainings-training in higher ethics, higher concentration and higher wisdom.

Training in higher ethics lays a firm, solid foundation on which to build our other practices. Monks and nuns have their own ethics to keep, but even people who haven't taken any vows should refrain from engaging in negative actions, particularly the ten negative actions.

Having laid a foundation of ethics, one can then practice in the higher training of concentration. Just as a woodcarver needs strong arms to cut wood, we need to develop the strong arm of concentration through mindfulness and introspection. Without mindfulness and introspection, our meditation will be very weak and ineffectual. Once we have cultivated concentration, we need to cultivate wisdom, particularly the wisdom perceiving emptiness. This is our superior weapon; with it we can cut through the grasping at self. It is our woodcutter's ax, with which we can chop through our dense forest of ignorance. All of our spiritual activities, no matter what they may be, should be geared towards destroying our habitual grasping at self and cultivating the wisdom perceiving emptiness so that we can experience ultimate reality.

In the pictorial representation of the wheel of life, ignorance is depicted as a blind man, walking without any guide. Such a person is always uncomfortable and confused wherever he or she goes. Ignorance prompts us to create karmic actions that then become the cause of all our problems and suffering. Just as a blind person moving towards a precipice is certain to fall, whatever actions spring from ignorance are bound to bring about problematic results. Buddha made the statement, "Because this exists, that arises." In the same way, because ignorance exists, karmic formation naturally follows.

2) Karmic formation. The second link is karmic formation (du-che kyi lä). Karmic actions arise out of ignorance and are capable of precipitating our rebirth into samsara. There are two kinds of ignorance, that pertaining to the infallibility of the law of karmic actions and result and that pertaining to the ultimate reality of phenomena. Ignorance of the law of karma motivates us to do negative, or nonmeritorious, actions. These actions ripen in cyclic existence, especially in the three unfortunate states of rebirth-the hell, hungry ghost and animal realms.

Ignorance related to misunderstanding the ultimate nature of reality can make us do karmically positive or neutral actions. Positive actions stemming from this type of ignorance can ripen within fortunate states of rebirth-in the human, demigod or deva realms. In the drawing of the wheel of life, this link is depicted as a potter rotating his wheel. It is karma that spins and molds us in cyclic existence.

3) Consciousness. The third link is consciousness (nam-she). There are two kinds of consciousness-causal and resultant. Causal consciousness exists with the performance of a karmic action. As that action- good or bad-comes to an end, it leaves an imprint on our consciousness. The consciousness that receives that imprint is the causal consciousness. Resultant consciousness is activated by an imprint, or latency, that was deposited earlier on. The consciousness that enters the womb of a mother is an example of this. It is the consciousness that arises as a result of certain karmic actions in the past.

Say, for example, that out of ignorance we kill someone and don't purify that action. The action leaves an imprint on our consciousness, which thus becomes a causal consciousness. Some day this imprint will precipitate an unfortunate rebirth; the consciousness that goes towards that conception is the resultant consciousness.

In the wheel of life, consciousness is shown as a monkey. When a monkey inside a house with windows on all four sides looks out each window it sees different views, but it is still the same monkey.

Similarly, it is our single consciousness upon which imprints of our karmic actions are deposited and then activated at different times to bring about certain results. This is how we are born into various states in cyclic existence.

4) Name and form. The fourth link is called "name and form" (mingzug). Those born from the womb (as opposed to those born through miraculous power) possess the five aggregates that constitute the psycho-physical personality. The first aggregate is "form." The remaining four-feelings, discriminative awareness, compositional factors and consciousness-are called "name" because they do not have the concrete quality of form. Form is considered to begin when the consciousness enters the womb and absorbs into the mixture of sperm and egg. In the wheel of life, the dependent link of name and form is depicted as a boat. Just as we need a boat to cross a river, in order to cross over into a physical being in cyclic existence we depend on name and form.

5) Sensory fields. The fifth link is called "origination" or "sources" (kyeche). As I mentioned before, there are twelve sense fields altogether- one for each of the six senses and one for each of the objects of the six senses, including mind. There are eye and visual forms seen, ear and sounds heard and so forth. In the wheel of life, this dependent link is represented by a fortress because our senses encompass and concretize our experience of the world.

6) Contact. The sixth link is called "contact" or "touch" (reg-pa). It refers to the interaction of an object, a sense faculty and a consciousness. Before this contact, although our faculties are fully developed, we cannot perceive anything or distinguish one thing from another. Only when there is a union of these three things can perception or discriminative awareness occur. When there is a meeting of attractive object, sense faculty and consciousness, a pleasant feeling arises. Similarly, when there is a contact of unattractive object, sense faculty and consciousness, an unpleasant feeling is experienced. In the wheel of life, contact is depicted iconographically by a man and woman in sexual union.

7) Feelings. Contact naturally gives rise to the seventh link of feeling (tsor-wa). We talk about three types of feelings-pleasant, unpleasant and neutral-all of which arise from some kind of contact. When we see something, there follows a sense of attraction or aversion and a value judgment about what we are seeing, which stimulates these feelings further. In the wheel of life, feelings are represented by a man with an arrow stuck in his eye. This describes our sensitivity and how, when feelings arise, we notice them immediately.

8) Attachment. Feelings precipitate the eighth link, attachment, craving or desire (se-pa). When we experience a pleasant feeling, we desire to not be separated from it. When we feel trapped in a problem, we experience the desire to be free from it. In our everyday life we experience all sorts of feelings. It is possible to have feelings without attachment, but the feelings we are talking about here are the kind that stem from ignorance. If we eliminate ignorance, we will experience feelings without attachment. Not surprisingly, attachment is depicted in the wheel of life as a person indulging in intoxicating liquor. In some treatises, attachment is likened to someone scratching an itchy skin irritation-it feels pleasant at first, but it is actually creating the conditions for more and more itching.

9) Grasping. Attachment gives rise to the ninth link, grasping (len-pa), which is an intensified form of attachment. There are four kinds of grasping-grasping at sense objects (forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile objects); grasping at wrong, or distorted, views; grasping at improper ethics and disciplines, seeing them as worthy; and grasping at the inherent existence of the five aggregates. In the wheel of life this dependent link is depicted as a person picking fruit.

10) Becoming, or existence. Grasping gives rise to the tenth link, becoming, or existence (si-pa). A karmic action leaves an imprint on our mental consciousness. At the time of death, that imprint is activated by craving and grasping. In this way, the karma becomes fully prepared to precipitate the next rebirth and a being about to be reborn feels a powerful attraction towards its future parents, who are about to engage in sexual union.

11) Birth. The eleventh link is rebirth (kye-wa). It occurs from this fully ripened karmic action. In Buddhism, rebirth is considered to have taken place when the consciousness enters the womb of the mother at conception and later culminates in the act of physical birth.

12) Aging and death. The final link is aging and death (ga-shi). Aging begins from the moment of conception. Death is technically defined as the complete exhaustion of the aggregates, when the life energy, or life force, comes to an end. The dependent link of birth necessarily gives rise to aging and death, and if one dies under the power of karmic actions and delusions one is necessarily born under their influence. Yet, if someone born from delusions and contaminated karmic actions becomes an arhat and attains liberation, such a person does not die under the influence of delusion, and his or her rebirth is not influenced by them.

Summary: Ignorance is the cause of all karmic formation, which gives rise to consciousness. Consciousness allows for name and form and the sensory fields, which prepare the way for contact. Contact elicits feelings that stimulate attachment and create grasping. Grasping is the condition that brings about existence, which in turn precipitates rebirth and leads to aging and death. The twelve dependent links can be brought under four headings:

  • Precipitating causes—ignorance, karmic formation and causal consciousness. These are the links that instigate our rebirth into cyclic existence. Ignorance is like a farmer, karmic formation is the seed sowed by the formation of ignorance and causal consciousness is likened to a field.
  • Accomplishing causes—craving, grasping and becoming. Just as water, manure and sunlight prepare the seed for growth, in the same way, craving, grasping and becoming activate the karmic action and prepare it to bring about its result.
  • Precipitated results—resultant consciousness, name and form, sources, contact and feelings are brought about by the accomplishing causes.
  • Accomplished result—aging and death. When we study the twelve dependent links in reverse order we are really trying to reverse the entire process. We are trying to put an end to aging and death by preventing birth and trying to put an end to ignorance, which stops the whole cycle from repeating. What uproots ignorance is the wisdom realizing emptiness, and when ignorance is eliminated, karmic formation does not arise. The whole purpose of studying and meditating on emptiness is to break this chain of twelve dependent links.


"In the same way there exist no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation, no path, no wisdom, no attainment and no lack of attainment."

Neither suffering, the path, attainment nor the lack of these things truly exist for an arya's wisdom in the state of meditative equipoise on emptiness. Even the wisdom that realizes the Four Noble Truths does not exist for this wisdom. We must not misinterpret "no attainment" to mean that we cannot attain buddhahood or the qualities of a buddha. We can. It simply means that this attainment does not exist for an arya who is in a state of meditative stabilization because in this state he or she sees only emptiness and not conventional phenomena. There also exists no lack of attainment, so neither does failure appear for this kind of wisdom.


"Therefore, Shariputra, since bodhisattvas have no attainment, they depend upon and dwell in the perfection of wisdom; their minds are unobstructed and unafraid. They transcend all error and finally reach the end point: nirvana."

This passage deals with the path of meditation in general and the meditative stabilization of a bodhisattva on the final stage of the tenth ground in particular. This vajra-like state of meditation becomes an antidote to the last obstacle to enlightenment. What is meant by "they depend upon and dwell in the perfection of wisdom" is that bodhisattvas are completely free from any fabrications when absorbed in the nature of emptiness, being completely engaged in that state. When we talk about purifying negativity, we find two kinds of defilement-coarse, or gross, and subtle. Just as the coarse dirt on our clothes is easier to wash away, coarse defilements are easier to get rid of. Subtle stains penetrate our clothes more deeply and are harder to clean away; the final obscurations to omniscience, even though the smallest in magnitude, are the toughest to eradicate. We need the most powerful weapon to destroy them. This weapon is the vajra-like meditative state.

"Their minds are unobstructed and unafraid" tells us that such bodhisattvas, having trained their mind in stages, from the path of accumulation all the way up to the final stage of the tenth bodhisattva ground, have abandoned many of the obscurations along the way, including fear.

Then comes the phrase, "They transcend all error." We talk about four kinds of error, sometimes called the "four distortions"-perceiving that which is impure as pure; perceiving that which is painful as pleasurable; perceiving impermanent phenomena as permanent; and perceiving that which is selfless as having self. Bodhisattvas are free from these errors and also from the error of the two extremes-solitary peace and cyclic existence.

When we emerge from the vajra-like meditative state, we achieve the liberated path and attain the final enlightenment of buddhahood. This state is described by the Sanskrit word nirvana, which means, "beyond distress" or " beyond sorrow." These are the sorrow and distress of the solitary peace of personal liberation and the sorrow and distress of cyclic existence. Nirvana refers not just to personal liberation but to complete enlightenment as well.

Buddha's great compassion prevents him from falling into the extreme of solitary peace. If he did, he wouldn't be able to work continuously for the benefit of other beings. Like the bodhisattvas, he also has the fully developed perfection of wisdom and is thus free from cyclic existence. Foe destroyers, arhats of the Lesser Vehicle, who have liberated just themselves from samsara, are still trapped in solitary peace and, unlike bodhisattvas, cannot work for the welfare of other sentient beings.


"All the buddhas of the past, present and future have depended, do and will depend upon the perfection of wisdom. Thereby they became, are becoming and will become unsurpassably, perfectly and completely awakened buddhas."

From this we understand that the perfection of wisdom is the universal path trod by all the buddhas of the past, present and future. The perfection of wisdom is also referred to as the Great Mother because it gives birth to the buddhas of the three times. In both Buddha's sutras and tantras we find skillful means, or method (upaya), referred to as father-like and wisdom (jnana) as mother-like. This wisdom gives birth, metaphorically speaking, to the three different states of liberation-those of the hearers, solitary realizers and bodhisattvas.


"Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of wisdom is a mantra of great knowledge; it is an unsurpassable mantra; it is a mantra that is comparable to the incomparable; it is a mantra that totally pacifies all suffering. It will not deceive you, therefore know it to be true!"

In both sutra and tantra, the word mantra has the same connotation -protecting the mind. Practitioners who practice mantra are protecting their minds from fears and danger. The perfection of wisdom fulfills the same purpose. It is called a mantra here because when we cultivate the wisdom gone beyond, this practice also works to protect us from fear and danger.

The perfection of wisdom is "a mantra of great knowledge" in the sense that of all the various kinds of wisdom, it is the greatest-the real antidote to ignorance. The mode of apprehension of ignorance is incompatible with the mode of apprehension of the wisdom of emptiness, which directly contradicts the grasping at self. It is "unsurpassable" inasmuch as we cannot find any other wisdom that has such power to free us from both suffering and its causes. The perfection of wisdom leads us to the non-abiding state of enlightenment, and because of this it "is comparable to the incomparable."

Another interpretation of this passage can be related to the five paths. "Therefore the mantra of the perfection of wisdom" relates to the path of accumulation; "Is a mantra of great knowledge" relates to the path of preparation; "It is an unsurpassable mantra" relates to the path of seeing; "It is a mantra that is comparable to the incomparable" relates to the path of meditation; and "It is a mantra that totally pacifies all suffering" relates to the path of no more learning, or enlightenment. The five paths of the Greater Vehicle are differentiated from one another from the point of view of wisdom, or insight, not from the point of view of method, or skillful means. The way in which everything actually exists-the ultimate nature of phenomena -is the way that it is perceived by the perfection of wisdom. It is this perception that can take us to the state of enlightenment. As we train our minds in the perfection of wisdom, we should do so together with the practices of the other five perfections, or the skillful means of method. We should not isolate wisdom from method or method from wisdom. If we do not practice the two together, we will never achieve enlightenment. The integration of method and wisdom is essential.

The importance of this was expressed well by the first Dalai Lama in his praise to Lama Tsongkhapa when he said, "Integrating method and wisdom together, you have actualized the three enlightened bodies. Most glorious spiritual master, please bless me." By practicing method and wisdom on the five paths, we can abandon all obstacles and finally reach the state of non-abiding enlightenment.


"I proclaim the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, TAYATHA GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA. Shariputra, it is in this way that the great bodhisattvas train themselves in the profound perfection of wisdom."

The Heart Sutra can be condensed from a Mantrayana or tantric Buddhist point of view into the one-line mantra, TAYATHA GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA.

The word TAYATHA means, "it is like this." GATE means "go" as an exhortation. So GATE GATE means "go, go," meaning that we should go onto the path of accumulation and then go further onto the path of preparation. PARAGATE literally means "go beyond" and PARASAMGATE means "go thoroughly beyond." It is telling us to go beyond the paths of accumulation and preparation and onto the paths of seeing and meditation towards supreme enlightenment.

The first GATE or "go" is for beginners with Mahayana inclinations, those practitioners who haven't yet entered the Mahayana path but who are cultivating compassion and the perfection of wisdom. It means go to the path of accumulation of the Greater Vehicle. When practitioners spontaneously and naturally experience bodhicitta, they have already entered the Mahayana path of accumulation.

The second GATE also means "go." When practitioners have gone to the path of accumulation they should go on to the next path, which is the path of preparation. It is on this path that practitioners can conceptually understand emptiness. Practitioners who have traversed the paths of hearers or solitary realizers may have already realized emptiness directly when they enter the path of Mahayana. When we have reached the path of preparation we should go beyond to the path of seeing. When we reach the path of seeing we are already on the first spiritual ground of bodhisattvas. We are then told to "go thoroughly beyond." We should not get stuck on the path of seeing but go higher up onto the path of meditation. BODHI is enlightenment and SVAHA means to become stabilized in the state of enlightenment. So the meaning of the entire mantra is, "It is this way: Go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, go to enlightenment and become stabilized there."


"At that moment the Lord arose from his concentration and said to the noble Avalokiteshvara, 'Well said, well said. That is just how it is, my son, just how it is. The profound perfection of wisdom should be practiced exactly as you have explained it. Then the tathagatas will be truly delighted.' When the Lord had spoken these words, the venerable Shariputra and the bodhisattva, the great being, the noble Avalokiteshvara, and the entire gathering of gods, humans, asuras and gandharvas were overjoyed, and they praised what the Lord had said."

When Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra finish their dialogue, Buddha rises from his meditative state. He authenticates the words of Avalokiteshvara and congratulates him on his presentation of the perfection of wisdom. His explanation delights not only Buddha himself but all the enlightened beings of the ten directions and the buddhas of the three times. After the teaching, everybody in the gathering committed themselves to following the perfection of wisdom, while others who were not yet ready made fervent prayers that they would soon be able to do so.

Part Three: Great Compassion

The life stories of Buddha and other enlightened teachers shouldn't be regarded as just interesting tales but should be seen as practices for us to follow and paths by which we can grow spiritually. Buddha stated that compassion is the core of his teachings. This compassion should be all-pervasive and non-discriminatory. We should minimize harmful actions towards others and try to increase the scope of our compassion to bring more and more people and sentient beings into its fold. We also need to cultivate the determined wish to be liberated and develop a true aspiration for enlightenment.

It is not so hard to aspire to be liberated from the problems of cyclic existence, but we need also to have the same wish in reference to samsara's prosperity and happiness. Pain in cyclic existence does not last but neither does pleasure, so we should not cling to samsara's temporary marvels. To be true Dharma practitioners, we must consider our future lives to be more important than the present one. We should consider others to be more important than ourselves and spiritual activity to be more important than worldly activity. Of course, all these things will come to us gradually. We need to train our mind in stages before we can experience this kind of change in attitude. Remember that all good things happen to us through the kindness of others. It is only in relation to other sentient beings that we can do our practice. If sentient beings didn't exist, we couldn't practice at all or create the positive energy and positive actions through which we receive peace and happiness. Thinking in this way, we can see the kindness of all sentient beings.

As Dharma practitioners, our practice involves two things- purifying our negativities and accumulating positive energy and wisdom. You can do these things in relation to the Three Jewels, sentient beings or both. Therefore, experienced lineage masters who have deep spiritual understanding tell us that sentient beings are as kind to us as Buddha himself. This might seem inconceivable at first, but in terms of the inspiration for our practice there is little difference between them. Normally, although we may accept certain sentient beings as being kind to us, we also become selective. We exclude those who have been bad to us and include only those whom we consider worthy. But if we exclude some beings, then logically all others should be excluded as well. We must create a sense of equanimity, a balanced attitude, in relation to all sentient beings-friends, adversaries and strangers.

If we really want to work for the benefit of others, it is essential to cultivate great compassion. For those who wish to pursue the path of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, it is as important to cultivate great compassion and altruism as it is to cultivate the perfection of wisdom. It is not very difficult to generate compassion for ourselves, but it is a great deal harder to cultivate the same compassion for others. Yet this should be our goal, however hard it may be.

Part Four: Dedication

Let us dedicate our positive energy to the flourishing of Buddhadharma throughout the world.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. May his sacred mandalas of body, speech and mind be unharmed by negative intentions and actions. May he and other great masters be successful in fulfilling their dreams and visions for benefiting all sentient beings.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to all spiritual communities throughout the world, so that they may flourish in their study, contemplation and meditation.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to the elimination of the problems in our world, such as famine and war. May everyone in this and other world systems experience peace, happiness and harmony. Let us dedicate our positive energy to ourselves and to other Dharma practitioners, so that we may overcome all obstacles to spiritual development.

Let us dedicate our positive energy to ourselves and to all sentient beings, so that we can purify the obscurations to liberation and omniscience and quickly reach enlightenment.

By Geshe Lama Konchog in Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore

This commentary on the Heart Sutra was given by Geshe Lama Konchog at Amitabha Buddhist Centre, Singapore on May 7, 1995. Transcribed and edited by Ven. Thubten Konchog, who accepts responsibility for all errors and omissions. Second edit by Sandra Smith, February 2013.

See also the Heart Sutra Retreat (Audio and Unedited Transcripts) and The Benefits of Studying the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and the Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Geshe Jampa Tegchok.

The subject we are going to discuss today is the most essential point of the 84,000 sets of teachings that the Buddha gave—the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sutra). This sutra has various levels which are called the extensive, the intermediate and the short levels. It is called the most essential point because it contains the condensed meaning of all three levels of the Prajnaparamita sutras.

We will begin with a discussion of the two categories of this sutra—the common and the uncommon. The common category explains the four excellent qualities, which are the explanations of the excellent times, the excellent teaching, the excellent teacher and the excellent disciple.

The root text begins: “Thus have I heard ... at that time.” This indicates the excellent time. The place where this teaching was given was Rajagriha on Vulture’s Peak, which was considered to be an excellent place. When Buddha taught this particular discourse, infinite bodhisattvas descended into this world system to receive these teachings. They were the disciples of the buddhas from the ten directions and this shows the excellent retinues that were there at that time.

While the Buddha was teaching the bodhisattvas, they emanated infinite light from their bodies, which illuminated the darkness of the three world systems. The three universal world systems are comprised of billions of other world systems and this was the place where Shakyamuni Buddha performed the twelve holy deeds. We might think that Shakyamuni Buddha only performed these holy deeds in this world and nowhere else, however, in reality Buddha performed all the twelve holy deeds to many world systems — particularly the deeds of providing Dharma teachings.

Since the topic of the discourse on the Prajnaparamita (the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra) is so precious and so unique, the infinite bodhisattvas asked if they could also attend the teachings that Buddha was giving to the different worlds.

The buddhas gave their permission to their disciple bodhisattvas because they made so many offerings to Shakyamuni Buddha while he was teaching them. In fact, the buddhas recommended that while the bodhisattvas were listening to the teachings they were to be seen as good examples and therefore must act correctly. The reason why they were given this advice was because human beings in this world system were not conducting themselves well at all and needed to be shown by example.

So not only was the Buddha giving the discourse on Vulture’s Peak to countless bodhisattvas from the ten directions, at the same time he was able to train and subdue many more disciples. This was a most extraordinary time. It was extraordinarily fortunate to have all these extraordinary and supreme disciples in one place at one time, and they were being taught the extraordinary teachings on the Prajnaparamita, The Wisdom Gone Beyond by the Buddha himself.

At that time Buddha was teaching in the aspect of being absorbed into the concentration of profound illumination. It was while he was showing the aspect of being absorbed into this particular concentration, that a discussion occurred between Avalokiteshvara and Shariputra.

It was due to the power of the blessing that was given to Avalokiteshvara by Shakyamuni Buddha that Avalokiteshvara was able to look perfectly at the practice of the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates. He was then able to engage in an investigation of all phenomena.

Then through the power of the Buddha, the Venerable Shariputra said to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being: “How should a child of the lineage train, who wishes to train in the practice of the profound wisdom gone beyond?”

Now, there are many questions within this question, for instance, how did the initial bodhisattvas train on the meditational path of accumulation, the path of preparation, the path of seeing, and so forth? That question comprised many different kinds of questions relating to how the practitioner— whether a beginner, middle or superior being—should train on the path.

There are two categories of beings who should follow the practices of the Prajnaparamita—those who are of less intelligence and those of greater intelligence. For those of less intelligence, Avalokiteshvara asked how he should investigate and analyse the profound view of those who hold the lineage of this particular tradition.

Then the noble Avalokiteshvara replied to the venerable Shariputra as follows: “Shariputra, whatever son or daughter of the lineage wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of the wisdom gone beyond, should do it exactly like this. Analyse perfectly and correctly the nature of the five aggregates, which are by nature empty."

This is the short answer. Initially he gave this brief answer, then later on, he elaborated on it by saying: “Form is empty, emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form and form is no other than emptiness.”

Our physical body is composed of the four elements, the twelve constituents and so forth, and due to the aggregation of all these elements, we are able to label this body “physical”. We are able to say that it is form. However, there is nothing inherently existing in that form from its own side. It is said that the physical form or the form aggregate, lacks inherent existence, but we appear as a physical form. Therefore, the nature of form is equal to the nature of emptiness and emptiness is equal to the nature of form.

These two are considered to be of one nature, yet different in the sense that they are conceptually isolated. This also shows how existence is free from permanence. This is because although the physical form appears, it is empty.

Who posited this physical existence? This physical form was posited by the consciousness. The mind or consciousness posited this physical form, and because the physical form appears to the mind, it therefore lacks inherent, or true, existence.

Due to gaining some understanding of emptiness, we can then eliminate the belief in inherent existence and also by having an understanding of the impermanence of physical form, we can eliminate the thought of eternalism. When we talk about a lack of inherent existence, or say that things do not exist inherently, this itself shows the nominal existence of conventional existence.

From now on the root text describes the practices on the paths of accumulation and preparation. These discussions are based on the fact that we have already generated bodhicitta and we are training in an understanding of emptiness.

The Heart Sutra tells us how we should first understand the importance of having a realization of emptiness, and then generate bodhicitta. This is necessary because initially we meditate on the seven instructions of cause and effect to generate bodhicitta. We start to recognise that all sentient beings are our mother and by remembering this kindness, we then want to repay that love, compassion and that extraordinary attitude.

When we generate this extraordinary attitude, the unusual thought of leading all sentient beings to the state of everlasting happiness by ourselves alone is generated. At this time, we then investigate whether it is possible to achieve the state of enlightenment. The reason for doing this is so that we, alone, can lead others out of the state of suffering. But first of all we must be freed from that state ourselves.

Then we investigate whether or not it is possible to be completely freed from all suffering. We need to come to the understanding that when we are able to remove all defilements and delusions from our mental continuum, it is possible to get out of cyclic existence, the state of suffering.

Delusions are caused by the self-grasping attitude. When we realize that we can eliminate this self-grasping attitude, we can get out of the state of suffering. We then come to know that defilements are removable and that the state of liberation or enlightenment is attainable.

In the tradition of Lama Tsongkhapa and his teaching on the graduated path to enlightenment, the lam-rim, he says that first of all we need to generate bodhicitta, then follow this with the realization of emptiness. However, Lama Tsongkhapa also says that we must keep the doctrine secret, so initially in this tradition, this topic was hidden until the practitioner generated bodhicitta.

In our case, we feel this sense of I and on that basis we designate the five aggregates. However, the I or the self is merely labelled and is only imputed on the basis of the five aggregates. There is no independent I that arises from the five aggregates.

Upon investigation, we find that there is no I arising independently from the five aggregates, yet we cherish the I and cling to it more and more, even though it is unfindable. We cherish that I as if it were solid and permanent.

We have this attachment to the I, therefore we accumulate friends who support and benefit us and we generate attachment towards them. We consider those who harm us and provide us with difficult situations our enemies, and we generate anger towards them. This keeps us in samsara, in the state of suffering.

The self-grasping attitude does not recognise the emptiness of the I and cannot realize that it is merely labelled. It grasps at something that is completely non-inherently existent and because of this self-grasping attitude, the object is misconceived. This self-grasping attitude is known as ignorance. This attitude is also called the changeable view or the transient view. As long as we have this self-grasping ignorance, we shall remain in samsara.

When we replace this self-grasping ignorance with the correct wisdom, this is generated initially through the path of accumulation. During this training, we generate the wisdom of hearing the subject. We also generate the wisdom of contemplation on the subject, then due to generating this wisdom, we can identify selflessness. Due to having the right identification, we should try to become habituated with that concept. During the path of preparation, we contemplate and meditate on this.

“Form is empty, emptiness is form. Emptiness is no other than form and form is no other than emptiness.” This refers to the aggregate of form alone. The same reference is then made to feeling, recognition, karmic formations and so forth.

After the part “Form is empty ... consciousness are all empty,” the sutra shows how to train on the paths of accumulation and preparation. At this point, emptiness is understood or recognized by applying these antidotes. When we train in emptiness on the path of seeing, the other antidotes, such as the eight antidotes and so on, are applied.

Shariputra was told that all phenomena are empty, without characteristics. They have no defilements and no separation from defilements; they have no increase and no decrease, and so forth. This indicates that those who are training on the path of seeing eliminate the eight types of object negation.

In “true” or inherent, there is no decrease and no increase. The whole eight objects are negated during the path of seeing and we train in developing the wisdom that is required during the path of seeing.

So by telling Shariputra that in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no discrimination, down to no eye and so forth, this indicates how we should train ourselves on the path of meditation. On this path, the consciousness is one with the object, emptiness—like water being poured into water. There is complete oneness, without duality.

If this non-dual wisdom that only perceives emptiness could also see physical form, then this would be inherently existing or truly existing. Therefore, for those who are absorbed in meditation on emptiness, in that wisdom, conventional existence cannot be seen. If conventional existence is seen by that wisdom, then the lack of inherent existence does not apply. This would mean that there should be inherent or true existence.

Therefore, the practitioner who resides on the path of meditation needs to abandon all obscurations by applying the direct antidote found on the ten bhumis or grounds. For those who observe the meditation on emptiness, all conventional phenomena cease to exist.

At the end of the paragraph it says: “There is no attainment and no non-attainment.” At this point the practitioner who is on the path of meditation absorbs into the vajra-like concentration. Bodhisattvas rely on and abide in the perfection of wisdom. Their minds have no obstructions and no fear, because they have attained the final state beyond sorrow.

At this point the sutra is talking about the different categories of emptiness. Up to this point it is about how the less intelligent practitioners train in the wisdom gone beyond.

By the power of mantra alone, the most intelligent practitioners are able to train in the perfection of wisdom. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom, the mantra of unsurpassed knowledge does not refer to the mantras we find in tantra. It is, however, called “mantra” because it has the same power as tantric mantras. Profound emptiness has the same power and potential to destroy all wrong concepts.

So all these mantras—the mantras that pacify all sufferings, that pass beyond all falsity, should be known as the truth. They have the same power as we find in secret mantras, therefore they are all labelled “mantra”.

By this mantra alone, the most intelligent ones can understand the entire practice:


TADYATHA is “thus” or “it is like this”.

GATE GATE means “go, go”. So, go to the path of accumulation, go to the path of preparation. This refers to the two initial paths.

PARAGATE refers to going to the path of seeing.

PARASAMGATE refers to the path of meditation.

BODHI refers to the Buddha. It means going towards buddhahood.

“Go, go to the path of accumulation, to the path of preparation, to the path of seeing, to the path of meditation—go towards buddhahood.”

So, the entire discussion between Noble Avalokiteshvara and the Venerable Shariputra, in condensed form, is included within this mantra.

Shariputra was told to train in the perfection of wisdom, which is the instruction known as the power of the blessings of the buddhas. The instruction or teaching on rejoicing is given with permission to allow others to compose.

“Then the Blessed One arose from that concentration...” This part is said to be a direct verbal instruction. This is to encourage us to follow the practice as it is described in this text. Then we should rejoice, to increase the virtues [merit].

There are two ways to carry on the recitation of the Heart Sutra—one is the normal recitation and the other is the particular recitation done by the Kadampas.

Visualization for the recitation of the Heart Sutra

The procedure for recitation done by the Kadampa masters is to visualize the wisdom mother at the heart of Shakyamuni Buddha. At her heart, visualize the syllable AH, and surrounding this is the Heart Sutra mantra. While reciting the mantra, infinite light emanates from the mantra. Then imagine oneself and all other sentient beings gaining a realization of emptiness.

Another method is to visualize oneself and others arising in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha, then offer praises to Shakyamuni Buddha, make offerings and so forth. However, it is still alright to follow the normal way of recitation.

Just by having the conviction that this prayer contains the entire collection of excellent qualities, you can follow the simple recitation.

It is said that if we are able to recite this Perfection of Wisdom sutra, there is a type of substance we can gain that will protect us from being harmed by animals such as snakes, as well as giving protection from spirits and other interferers. They will not come near us.

Verses at the beginning of teachings:

I prostrate to the gatherings of dakinis in the three chakras, who abide in the holy yoga of using space.
By your powers of clairvoyance and magical emanation,
Look after practitioners like a mother looks after her child.



By the truth of the existence of the Three Jewels,
May all inner and outer hindrances and adversities be overcome.
May they become non-existent! (CLAP)
May they be pacified! (CLAP)
May they be completely pacified! (CLAP)
May all negative forces opposed to the Dharma be completely pacified.
May the eighty-four thousand kinds of hindrances be pacified.
May all sentient beings be separated from discordant, harmful conditions.
May all be harmonious, excellent and auspicious in the future.