Love & Emptiness

A review of “The Heart Attack Sutra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sutra” and “Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra”.

Norman Fischer
15 November 2012

The Heart Attack Sutra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sutra
by Karl Brunnhölzl
Snow Lion Publications, 2012; 160 pp., $16.05 (paper)

Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra
by Dosung Yoo
Wisdom Publications, 2012; 254 pp., $17.95 (paper)

All dharmas are empty: no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form…

I was thunderstruck the first time I encountered the words of the Heart Sutra. Somehow, no eyes, no ears, no nose made sense to me in a way I couldn’t explain, and I felt great relief. As a child I had always suspected that the world I was raised in didn’t hold up to scrutiny, and on hearing the Heart Sutra for the first time, my childhood confusion was suddenly acknowledged and addressed, even if I couldn’t explain how. It seemed intuitively to me that the sutra was affirming that the world was indeed not the way I had been taught it was. “No, it isn’t like that. It’s like this,” the sutra seemed to be saying.

Shocking as it is on first hearing, the Heart Sutra won’t go away. You wonder and ponder, perplexed and fascinated. “No eyes, no ears… nothing to attain… no hindrance and no fear…” How? Why? It has taken me many years of practice and study to begin to appreciate and understand the Heart Sutra’s words and put them into practice in my life.

At one page, the Heart Sutra is probably the briefest of all Buddhist sacred texts, and the most influential. Foundational to Mahayana Buddhism, it is prized in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism and in Zen, where it is chanted every day in most temples and monasteries. But what does it mean? Can it really be denying the existence of the very nose on our face? And why is that so important to a religion that prizes compassion over all other virtues?

Because of its central importance to so many schools of Buddhism, the Heart Sutra has inspired a number of commentaries in English from scholars and teachers of almost every tradition. Both the Dalai Lama (Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings) and Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamitta Heart Sutra) have taught it, and a number of younger Western-trained teachers, probably many more than I know of, have also written commentaries.

Two recent books of note add some new perspectives and details to an already full picture of this great text. The Heart Attack Sutra, by Karl Brunnhölzl, a German Vajrayana teacher, enthusiastically discusses the sutra from the standpoint of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, with its rigorous logic and philosophy and careful parsing of doctrine. (The title comes from a Tibetan Buddhist legend that some early Buddhists, on first hearing Buddha preach this sutra, went apoplectic and had heart attacks.)

In Tibetan scholastic tradition, the emptiness teachings are a major topic for intellectual study, and Brunnhölzl has made this tradition completely his own, discussing the various treatises and doctrines with ease and considerable wit. This text includes a sadhana (a visualization practice) of dazzling complexity that is an interesting supplement to the teachings.

Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra is by the Won Buddhist teacher Dosung yoo. a twentieth-century form of Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism, Won Buddhism now has a strong presence in the U.s., and Rev. Yoo is one of its most eloquent proponents.

The Korean Buddhist tradition strikes me as admirably simple and clear, and this text shines brightly in those qualities. Like many other commentaries, it goes through the text line by line and in the process discusses basic Buddhist teachings thoroughly, with a delightful ease and lightness expressive of the emptiness teachings themselves. It features a wealth of charmingly told Korean folk stories and old Buddhist tales. Using such tales to illustrate, with humor and magical realism, the potentially abstract and philosophical teaching of the sutra is one of the strongest features of the Korean tradition, and of this book.

The key term in the Heart Sutra is the Sanskrit shunyata, usually translated into English as “emptiness.” As the sutra says in its opening lines, “All dharmas [things, phenomena] are empty.” Eyes, ears, noses, tongues, bodies, minds: all external objects—and all Buddhist teachings—are empty. In fact, the Heart Sutra is a brilliant one-page summary of the entire edifice of Buddhist psychological, epistemological, and soteriological teachings, which are enumerated and then denied. A devout and passionate Buddhist, seeing the text for the first time, may well read it as a dismantling of Buddhist Orthodoxy (thus the heart attacks). Judging from the defensiveness you find in other, longer texts of the shunyata literature, of which the Heart Sutra is said be the pith or “heart,” many early Buddhists probably did object to the sutra on exactly such grounds. But in fact, the Heart Sutra does not deny Buddhist teachings. It is merely shifting the ground on which the teachings stand—which changes everything.

The word “emptiness” is a fair translation of shunyata, but it has the drawback of sounding negative, even despairing. In English the words “empty” and “emptiness” sound bleak. An empty life is not a happy life. It is flat, meaningless, hollow. Nothing inside. Alienated war-weary characters in Ernest Hemingway’s short stories often had “a hollow feeling.” T.S. Eliot, in the same period, wrote a poem called “The Hollow Men” describing the lost spirit of the times. Hollow is empty, lost. To be empty inside, to be empty of faith and values, is to be nihilistic and despairing.

The emptiness of the Heart Sutra is something else entirely. It’s good news of joyful freedom and liberation. Commentators to the sutra often ask the question, “Empty of what?” and answer, “Empty of separate self, empty of weightiness, empty of burden, empty of boundary.”

The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata, used the character for sky. All dharmas are empty like the sky—blue, beautiful, expansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane. The emptiness of the Heart Sutra isn’t the emptiness of despair; it’s the emptiness of all limitation and boundary. It is open, released.

The Heart Sutra is not denying the existence of the world we live in. It’s denying the basis of the world’s sticky intractability. It’s denying the ultimate reality of the basis of our suffering—our separate, burdensome self and all that seems to exist apart from it, all that we think we need and do not have. No eyes, no ears, and so on doesn’t deny the physical; it redefines it. Things do exist—only not in the way we think they do. And when the sutra lists and negates basic Buddhist teachings, it doesn’t mean the teachings are false or unreal. It means they are true in a freer, more expansive, less literal and substantial way than we thought. The Heart Sutra showed me from the start that I could hold and practice the Buddhist teachings in a light, flexible, open-handed way. I didn’t have to become pious. Piety is empty, the Heart Sutra says. Buddhism is empty. And that is why it liberates us.

The other side of emptiness, or, one could say, its content, is connection, relationality. When I am bound inside my own skin and others are bound inside theirs, I have to defend and protect myself from them. And when I place myself among them, as I must, I better do that carefully, which is hard work, because I am often hurt, opposed, and thwarted by others. But when there’s openness, no boundary, between myself and others— when it turns out that I literally am others and others literally are me, then love and connection is easy and natural.

Nagarjuna, the most influential of all Buddhist thinkers, seized on the emptiness teachings as the cornerstone of his Madhyamika, or Middle Way, approach. It’s not that things “exist” (heavy, hard, and isolated) or “don’t exist” (in despairing nihilism). The truth is in the middle: things are empty of both existence and non-existence. There are no “things” at all and never were. There is only connection, only love. This, Nagarjuna argues, is not a new doctrine; it is what the Buddha was pointing to from the start.

This is why the emptiness teaching of the Heart Sutra, which seems to be rather philosophical and dour, is the necessary basis for compassion. Emptiness and compassion go hand in hand. Compassion as transaction—me over here, being compassionate to you over there—is simply too clunky and difficult. If I am going to be responsible to receive your suffering and do something about it, and if I am going to make this kind of compassion the cornerstone of my religious life, I will soon be exhausted. But if I see the boundarylessness of me and you, and recognize that my suffering and your suffering are one suffering, and that that suffering is empty of any separation, weightiness, or ultimate tragedy, then I can do it. I can be boundlessly compassionate and loving, without limit. To be sure, living this teaching takes time and effort, and maybe we never entirely arrive at it. But it’s a joyful, heartfelt path worth treading.

In Mahayana Buddhism, compassion is often discussed in terms of absolute and relative compassion. absolute compassion is compassion in the light of emptiness: all beings are empty, all beings are light, all beings are, by virtue of their empty nature, already liberated and pure. As the sutra says, suffering is empty, and relief from suffering is also empty. Everything is inherently all right and taken care of—even the pain. reality is inherently merciful. It’s okay to suffer, because through that very suffering we find release. The old adage “time heals all wounds” is more profound than it sounds: time, every moment, actually is release, freedom, and healing. in the light of absolute compassion, reality itself already is compassion. Nothing more is needed.

This point of view sounds nice at first but could also be quite monstrous. Carried to its logical conclusion, it might inspire us to ignore wars, natural disasters, illnesses, and deaths: since everything is perfect as it is in emptiness, what’s the point of grief, sorrow, or helping? But this would be one-sided and distorted. Relative compassion—human warmth and practical emotional support—completes the picture. Absolute compassion makes it possible for us to sustain, joyfully, the endless work of supporting and helping; relative compassion grounds our broad view of life’s empty nature in heart connection and engagement. Either view by itself would be impossible, but both together make for a wonderfully connected and sustainable life. Two sides of a coin, two wings of a bird.

This is what I sensed without knowing it on first hearing the Heart Sutra. And I am not the only one: many others have told me they too have experienced this uncanny sense on first hearing the sutra. Its matter-of-fact strangeness, even absurdity, seems to invite such a response. It’s what I sensed as a child was missing in the world around me. Life simply couldn’t be as small, as difficult, and as dull as it seemed. Somehow I was sure there must be another way.

But the Heart Sutra is more than an inspiring vision or understanding. It is also a practice, a course of action that relieves suffering and transforms lives. Practicing the Heart Sutra is training in the feeling for life that arises when we have fully internalized its teachings into our body and emotions. The emptiness/boundlessness of all dharmas is not only something we would like to believe; it is also a way we can hold our lives lightly and joyfully, a texture we can palpably feel at the center of our awareness.

Bodhidharma is the legendary founder of Zen. Once, his disciple Huike begged for his help: “My mind is in anguish, please help me find peace.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind.” After some time of practice Huike said, “I cannot find my mind.” Bodhidharma said, “Then your mind is at peace.” Once you feel in your bones and throughout your awareness the emptiness of your mind, you are at peace. Even when problems and difficulties arise, there’s still the thread of peace woven in at the heart of them.

In Zen practice, zazen (sitting meditation) is training in emptiness. The practice is simply resting alertly in the feeling of body and breath, letting everything come and go, without denying or latching on. Sitting this way day after day, retreat after retreat, year after year, Zen practitioners learn to hold things lightly: respecting them, appreciating them, attending to them when the time for that comes, but also letting them go as they naturally will— because they are empty. Everything exists in time; time is existence. Time is empty; everything comes and goes. In fact, coming/going is the reality of each moment. Sitting, you feel the truth of this as your own immediate experience of body and breath.

Emptiness teachings internalized become a way of being fully and easily present with what is—a passing, flowing, empty, ongoing stream of living and dying. At my first long Zen retreat, in the deep snows of Upstate New york, I wandered for hours in the woods above the retreat center as snow fell, my tracks disappearing as I made them, until everything disappeared into a soft uniform whiteness, the trees, the ground, the sky—no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind.

The Heart Sutra is also practiced by chanting. Since it’s so short, it’s easy to memorize, and anyone who has lived in a Zen temple for any length of time will automatically have memorized it. Having such a text, as they say, “by heart” is an experience increasingly rare in our culture, which makes it all the more precious. A mind that can, at any moment, begin vocalizing, in trance-like fashion (the syllables tumbling out of the mouth even before the brain registers them), the familiar words of the Heart Sutra is a mind that has at its disposal the means for its own pacification and expansion. I remember many dark moments of confusion or despair when I chanted the sutra over and over for comfort, the words lifting me out of the rut I was in, opening up new vistas.

Once, long ago, visiting my parents in a crisis moment when my life seemed vague and directionless and i didn’t know what to do, my mind raged with troubled thoughts I couldn’t share. It was autumn, and leaves were falling from the many oak and maple trees that lined the streets of the small Pennsylvania town where they lived. I walked through the leaves for miles, chanting the Heart Sutra over and over, until the thoughts dissolved and joy arose, my ears full of the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, my heart grateful for the strangeness of the passing of time.

Sutra chanting went in deepest of all at my mother’s hospital bedside, just after her death. Everyone had gone and I was alone with my poor bewildered mother’s body. Not knowing what else to do, I chanted and chanted the Heart Sutra as tears filled my eyes. I was sad and not sad at the same time. The words of the sutra never seemed truer or more comforting.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.