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This sutra or scripture is one of the most important sutras in our tradition.  We chant this sutra every Saturday morning in our service.  It is a great chant that focuses on the teachings of Buddhism.  As a beginner it can be very confusing and sometimes mind boggling so in this new series of mine I will attempt to unwind the mystery of the Heart Sutra.   I am helped by the authors of two wonderful books Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts written by Shohaku Okumura and The Heart Sutra Translation and Commentary by Red Pine.  So let’s begin this wonderful adventure!

The first four verses are as follows:

 Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
Doing deep Prajna Paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.

Wow, that sounds like a big promise to all of us who take many opportunities to spend a significant portion of our lives focusing on “misfortune and pain.” So these lines are significant they are letting us know that what will be shared in this sutra could help keep us from focusing our attention, time, and energy in that direction.  The majority of the world would like to do this and those who enjoy wallowing in their “misfortune and pain” might just as well stop reading now and move on with their day.

Who is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Red Pine says in some Sanskrit texts bodhisattva’s name “was translated into Chinese as Kuan-yin, meaning “He/She Who Looks Down Upon Sound (Cries).  . . .For the sound of this bodhisattva’s name has the power to echo through the universe and to make visible all who hear it, recite it, or recollect it.  And as Avalokitesvara becomes aware of them, they are graced by this bodhisattva’s infinite compassion (pages 44- 45).”[1]

Thus, Avalokitesvara has become known for the one who gives compassion to the world, which is a beautiful reason to name this the “Heart Sutra.”  For me all compassion comes from the heart, often times our compassion makes no sense to others.  It is beyond logic, reason, or knowledge, but streams forth from the wisdom of the heart.  As Shohaku Okumura writes, “Prajna means “wisdom.” Wisdom and compassion are the two main aspects of Buddhism and must always go together.  Without wisdom, compassion doesn’t work, and without compassion wisdom has no meaning; it’s not alive (page 134).”[2]

I am sure that everyone reading this has experienced from another or given to someone compassion under the most unique situation, one where others were saying—are you nuts!  Maybe the person did something unthinkable, or incomprehensible, or unkind, or even criminal, but yet you saw in his or her heart goodness beyond the act or the moment and you were overwhelmed with compassion.  That is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva alive in you as you. Although this may not have “completely” relieved the misfortune or pain it may have helped in minimizing its affects, future actions, or negative thoughts and allowed you to maintain compassion for the person or for yourself.

I had a student many years ago that had a most unspeakable crime committed against herself and her person and after much prayer and meditation on forgiveness was able to completely forgive her assailant and move on with her life in a loving and compassionate way to him and all others. That is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva alive and well on planet earth.

As we move through this sutra we will slowly take each section and examine how we can benefit by chanting it and incorporating the teachings into our lives.  Our ultimate goal in Buddhism is “to save all sentient beings.”  To do this we must think and act with compassion and wisdom like Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva today and every day.

I have given you plenty to do and plenty to think about so we will focus on “the emptiness of all five conditions” next time.  See you then!

Things to focus on this week:

1.  I will begin each day like Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva offering compassion to all sentient beings.

2.  I will remind myself that wisdom and compassion must go together.

3.  I will remember that wisdom is not knowledge, wisdom comes from above—it does not reside in the brain.

4.  Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.


[1] Red Pine (2004) The Heart Sutra Translation and Commentary. Counterpoint: Berkeley, CA

[2] Okumura, S (2012) Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Text. Wisdom Publications.: Somerville, MA

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