Buddhism — the Heart Attack Sutra

The Craziness of the Heart Sutra

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Before specifically referring to Chapter 1, one should note that the difficulty of a Western mind readily understanding the tenets and nuances of Buddhist thought are made abundantly clear in reading Brunnholzl’s book. Epstein points out just such a problem when he explores the difficulty of translating Buddhist philosophy to workable 21st Century psychotherapy, for several reasons: differences in languages and thought processes (Epstein, 2007, p. 178); and modern psychotherapy’s orientation as an active seeker of remedies while Buddhist philosophy tends toward a gentler approach which may be too temperate and passive to treat tough modern problems such as narcissism (Epstein, 2007, p. 178).

As for Chapter 1 in particular, Brunnholzl addresses the apparent absurdity of the Heart Sutra in that it appears to negate all principles on which Buddhism is based, including conceptual frameworks, belief systems and reference points of the spiritual path (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 7). In fact, the Heart Sutra is the essence of Prajnaparamita, “the perfection of wisdom or insight” and a shortcut manual to emptiness and compassion (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 8). The vital emptiness to which Brunnholzl refers (repeated throughout his book) is also highly prized by Epstein in his book. Epstein speaks of importance of emptiness in modern psychotherapy because it with the patient’s achievement of an objective perspective on his/her thoughts and thought processes (Epstein, 2007, p. 77). Here, the emptiness achieved through Buddhist meditation allows the individual to experience a sublime state that differs from his/her usual experience of self (Epstein, 2007, p. 77).

Chapter 2 — Emptiness Means Letting Go

A basic tenet of Buddhism is being “grounded in groundlessness”: whatever we say, do or feel, we need not believe because there is really nothing to hold onto. Furthermore, even that teaching cannot necessarily be believed; that is how illusory our experience is (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 11-12). Emptiness is such a personal experience that Buddhism can Buddhism roughly points the way but we are free to explore the essence of our personal emptiness, importantly by being “in the now” within all phenomena (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 12). This coincides with Epstein’s belief that it is through the patient’s unique experience of everyday traumas and emotions become the source of the patient’s internal journey (Epstein, 2007, p. 200).

Brunnholzl also links Dependent Origination, the “infinite web of causes and conditions” explained by Buddha (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 14), to Quantum Physics’ reference to a sort of dependent origination in that a change in a particle on one end of the Universe causes a change in a particle on the other end of the Universe (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 14). However, the more deeply one looks in to Buddhism’s “causations and conditions” and Quantum Physics” interdependently changing particles, the fuzzier it becomes and the more difficult it is to describe the experience to others. (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 15). Epstein speaks of the subjective nature and difficulty of conveying individual experiences of some problems in modern therapy, which requires a personal journey of internal discovery (Epstein, 2007, p. 200).

Chapter 3 — The Buddha’s Three Cycles of Teaching

Buddha taught indirect instructions to the true nature of the mind, which is inexpressible and inconceivable, because he knew that it was nevertheless accessible (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 16). Buddha’s teachings were Scriptures in that it is part of the twofold aspect of the “dharma wheel” or teaching cycle in that they were written instructional materials used along with oral traditions and other methods of pointing the way (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 18-19). The other aspect of the teaching cycle is realization, which is when our mind becomes the mind of a Buddha (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 18-19). Epstein’s writing agrees with this approach to psychotherapy in that it uses various methods, including but not limited to meditation, as methods of pointing the way for patients on their personal journeys (Epstein, 2007, pp. 14, 41).

Chapter 4 – Prajnaparamita — Perfect Wisdom Gone Beyond

Chapter 4 extensively deals with Prajnaparamita aspects. Prajna is our inquisitiveness and curiosity of our mind, which leads us in honesty to find out about ourselves. It is symbolized by a because it is playful and compassionate but also cuts through the games we use to fool ourselves. As we travel on the path, Prajna becomes increasingly important because our self-delusional games become more sophisticated (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 23). Brunnholzl’s description of the double-edged flaming sword’s effectiveness in recognizing, and cutting through with Epstein’s appeal to the use of meditation for exploring and ultimately destroying or recognizing the weakness of the imaginary ego, thereby changing the experience of “I” (Epstein, 2007, p. 44).

Lady Prajnaparamita is the icon, a yellow, who holds text in one hand, the flaming sword in another, and holding the lower two arms in a meditation pose. Her arms represent the three types of prajna knowledge, through study, cutting through delusion, and insight into all phenomena’s true nature (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 23-24). This icon coincides with Epstein’s appeal to the use of study, assisting patients in overcoming delusion, facing reality and gaining insight into their true nature (Epstein, 2007, p. 48).

Prajnaparamita is also the ground of perfect wisdom, for we must have ground to have a working basis for enlightenment, the Path to perfect wisdom because we must follow a path to reach it, and the fruition of perfect wisdom because it is perfect wisdom itself. It is the basis, path and actuality of perfect wisdom (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 31-32).

Complicated simplicity is an ironic characteristic of emptiness. Emptiness itself is simple; yet the reference points and literature about it are complex, precisely because our minds are so complex. In reality, we already know many of those points because of our convoluted minds (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 35-6). Epstein is aware of the complexity of the mind, the difficulties it can create on a patient’s journey of self-discovery and promotes the use of the Middle Way of meditation to avoid the difficulties created by the mind’s complexity (Epstein, 2007, p. 71).

Groundless paths refers to the subjective journey to perfect wisdom, as each mind travels its own path at its own pace to reach its perfect nature (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 40). Dirt, soap and water refers to our confusion and ignorance about who we really are, which is why we use the water and soap of instruction and our own abilities to rid ourselves of the confusing dirt and attain perfect wisdom (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 43-44). Epstein also addresses confusion, disorientation and loss of one’s way as a path to the revelations that will come in our meditative state of mind (Epstein, 2007, p. 55).

Chapter 5 — The Commentary on the Heart Sutra — The Stage and the Main Actors

The Heart Sutra is the shortest of the sutras, consisting of 16 sentences in English translation and having an introduction and epilogue but the shorter version excludes even the mantra (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 51). It contains all 3 types of the words of Buddha: his direct words; his indirect words spoken by someone else by Buddha’s permission; and his indirect words by blessing someone else (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 53).

Chapter 6 — The Title

The title of the Heart Sutra means the sutra of the heart (or essence) of the Bhagavati Prajnaparamita, who possesses fortune, is prosperous, glorious, illustrious, divine, adorable or venerable. She is female because Buddhists associate wisdom with the feminine (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 53). Prajnaparamita is the mother of the 5 Buddha wisdoms: mirror-like wisdom reflecting what is there; discriminating wisdom, which reviews what is there (raw data) and can discern it without getting confused; wisdom of equality which looks at the data with nonjudgmental empathy and making no distinction between the seen and the one seeing; all-accomplishing wisdom which compels one to act on what is seen (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 57).

Chapter 7 — The Prologue

The prologue or introduction teaches the 5 excellencies of: time, indicated by “Thus have I heard … At that time”; teacher, the Baghavan; place, Rajagriha on Vulture’s Peak; retinue, a great assembly of 50 ordained monks and a great assembly of bonhisativas; and teaching of Prajnaparamita (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 60-65). Avalokitesvara is an enlightening being who embodies the compassion of Buddhas, gazing down on the world through emptiness with a heart of compassion (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 69) and is mighty, acting with compassion (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 72).

Chapter 8 — The Main Part of the Sutra

Sariputra, who is one of the leading monk disciples of the Buddha, asks whether from differs from emptiness. Avalokitesvara answers that form is not different from emptiness or vice versa. Form and emptiness are the same (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 77-80). The fourfold profound emptiness is feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 88). The Middle Way without a Middle is freedom from all reference points, thoughts and expressions, total emptiness (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 93). Interestingly, Epstein also discusses the benefits of the middle way of meditation through the complex paths of the mind to enhance psychotherapeutic benefits (Epstein, 2007, p. 71).

Chapter 9 — The Epilogue

The conclusion of the sutra, Buddha’s words by his permission (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 147).

Chapter 10 — Meditation on Prajnaparamita and the Heart Sutra

The author gives an example of meditation on Prajnaparamita and the Heart Sutra in which one: starts the meditation with imagining that from the syllable MAM standing on a lotus and sun disk in our heart, light radiates out and invites all buddhas and bodhisattvas to the space in front of us. We go for refuge to the 3 jewels, give rise to bodhicita, and cultivate the four immeasurables of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Then they say the emptiness mantra which means, “OM, all phenomena are pure by nature and pure by nature am I” referring to the emptiness of everything external and internal. Everything always has been and will be empty by nature (Brunnholzl, 2012, p. 149). This coincides with Epstein’s appeal to and examples of meditation. Epstein believes Buddhist meditation may be an effective way to deal with metaphysical issues in psychotherapy in the hope of solving modern problems, including but not limited to narcissism (Epstein, 2007, p. 38).

Chapter 11 — The Sutra of the Heart of the Glorious Lady Prajnaparamita

Here, the author sets forth an English translation of The Heart Sutra, including the vital mantra (Brunnholzl, 2012, pp. 153-154). I wanted to know the English translation of the untranslated mantra, so I cheated and looked to other sources: one translates the mantra as “Om, transcending, ever transcending, transcending even transcending, transcending even transcending of transcending, suchness, so be it.” Heavy. Epstein offers no mantra, though he speaks of the self as being empty of intrinsic reality, which touches on the theme of The Heart Attack Sutra’s mantra (Epstein, 2007, p. 212).

Works Cited

Brunnholzl, K. (2012). The Heart Attack Sutra: A new commentary on The Heart Sutra. Boston Massachusetts: Snow Lion, An Imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Epstein, M. (2007). Psychotherapy without the self: A Buddhist perspective. New York, NY: Basic Books.