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Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form

The Heart Sutra
in four parts

Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
or Quan Yin 
(Notice the bowl in his hand)

1. Introduction to Avalokiteshvara, Philosopher, Discoverer and Inventor

One of the oldest Eastern writings that mention the name Avalokiteshvara (1) is the Heart Sutra, an ancient text that goes right to the heart of the nature of existence, the nature of consciousness, the question of matter and non-matter, the elements, the faculties of perception and the functionality of those sense faculties.

The tribal chief Avalokita who thousands of years later also came to be known as the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (2) or Quan Yin, was not only a wise, astute and courageous leader of his people, he was also a philosopher, discoverer and inventor. When he - it may have been about thirteen thousand years ago - moulded his first clay vessel from a lump of clay, he became the inventor of pottery, thus he single-handedly set the stage for many early technological advances, the products of which are still benefiting us now.

We know about him through the Heart Sutra, a short ancient scripture (the English translation from either the Sanskrit or the 7th century CE Chinese version of Xuan Zang contains no more than about 500 words) but this sutra, in spite of its brevity, is still a rich compilation of mantra like oral segments, commentary texts from sometimes misunderstanding followers, fragments of highbrow discussions, pieces of sometimes confused dialog and expressions of veneration. 

2. Introduction to the story - a different approach

I want to tell Avalokiteshvara's story, but instead of adding yet another one to the thousands of already available commentaries, myths and legends about him, I will use a different and rather unique approach, an approach that might lead to quite a different but novel understanding of Avalokiteshvara and the Heart Sutra, a less philosophical one to be sure and seemingly also a less (at first sight at least) spiritual one.

A new aspect - at first glance perhaps rather far fetched, maybe even absurd - will become clear in the story that I'll be telling about the origin of Avalokiteshvara's account in the Heart Sutra. This aspect (about form and emptiness) is actually quite a soteriological one, although soteriologic in a very practical and utilitarian sense. (3)

I will tell the story of how Avalokita, a tribal chief (hence 'lord' or 'ishvara')made a discovery that eventually delivered his people - and humankind - from the thirst and starvation that had been caused by the repeated periods of drought that were characteristic of the climate in the populated tropical zones of the planet throughout the end of the last ice age.

What follows is a reconstructive fantasy of a sequence of historical events that took place some thirteen thousand years ago when Avalokita had to find ways to help his people overcome a severe shortage of drinking water.
I have also attempted to reconstruct the moment, the environment and the mindset of those who were present when one of the first dualistic abstractions - form and emptiness - was being made and explained but… almost immediately integrated back into the non-dualist reality of the concrete sensorially observable world.
The story then that follows here is about how, why and when these two words: 'form' and 'emptiness', were first uttered and how far reaching the consequences were. Note in the reaction of the tribal audience to Avalokita’s words, how their understanding was very practical and utilitarian, while Avalokita's understanding shows us the beginnings of a deep abstract understanding concerning concrete observations that lies at the birth of philosophy as well as technology. 

3. The Story of the Bowl

One day, a very long time ago, close to the dawn of the emergence of 'modern' humankind, the tribal leader Avalokita had finally figured it out. For days he had been sitting by the dried-out riverbed, a former stream that was now only the littlest of a trickle compared to what it used to be so many years ago when the rains had been more abundant.
The frown on his forehead had become deeper and deeper, his mind more and more preoccupied with trying to find a way to deal with the thirst of his people. For a long time he had been trying to find a new source of drinking water, but although a new source he had not found, what he had found though was... a solution.

But it hadn’t come easy.

As he had been sitting there on his hunches, looking for ways of how and where to lead his people to water, he knew that in order to find a solution, that he first had to clear his mind from the worries he had about feeding his tribe. And as he succeeded - now with a mind less disturbed - all the while gazing at a peculiar rock in that now dried-up riverbed, he suddenly realized how in the past the force of the once wild stream must have hollowed out that rock. He then remembered how water tended to puddle in those kind of hollowed out rocks and boulders.

He suddenly cupped the palms of his hands to mimic the hollow shape that he saw in that rock and he wondered why he had never considered that a hollow shape could hold stuff, contain something... water for instance.
Suddenly he became aware of the sound that a few drops of water made that still slowly trickled down the rock wall behind him.

And all of a sudden he knew it.

"Aha!" he exclaimed, and although he could hardly find the right words to express what he had just discovered, he somehow blurted out, "Form is Emptiness!"
And while he rushed to his people, he kept shouting, "Form is Emptiness, Form is Emptiness!"
But just as he was doing that, he became acutely aware that what he was saying could easily be taken the wrong way, something like…: form had no substance, or that stuff could be thought of as no more than an illusion. So he quickly added, "and Emptiness is Form!"

"Huh?... What?" the tribal members wondered as they watched him running madly down the hill towards them, "He must be as delirious as all of us are!" (You see, by this time extreme dehydration had pretty well affected everybody and it resulted in rather erratic and unpredictable behavior.)

"… and Emptiness is Form!" Avalokita shouted once more and he muttered to himself, "Good thing I added that. If stuff were just empty-by-nature, people could easily conclude that they would not have to take responsibility for stuff." As it was, he had concluded, they had already become too apathetic.

He was surprised though that the reaction of his people to the discovery he had just made was quite lacklustre. But he could understand why his own exhilaration did not make any sense to them. So he returned to the river bed and pondered deeply about how he could make this "Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form" business clear to them.

Eventually, as though mesmerized by his memories of how the stream's water had once played so wildly with the rocks, sand, mud and clay, and had created so many hollows and water filled pockets in the rocks, he came up with a way to demonstrate his discovery. He would show them how his discovery of form and emptiness could also deliver them from thirst and starvation...
He looked hard for a still moist part of the riverbed to see if he could find some clay that was still soft enough so that he could shape it with his hands. After he found some, he gathered his people around him and he took the lump of clay and carefully kneaded it into a round shape.

"Form!" he shouted, proudly showing the round lump to the crowd.
"A boulder!" someone in the crowd shouted, mumbling that there was nothing special about such a round shape - there were after all plenty such round stones and pebbles to be found. But some of the others were amazed, they realized that their leader had been able to produce that shape * by himself... with his own hands... he had just formed a ball from a handful of clay.

Then Avalokita surprised them even more. With his fist he punched a deep dimple ** into the ball of clay and he as he held it up, pointing at the hollowed out shape, he said elatedly, "Emptiness!"
"Hollow!" someone shouted back, but clearly not as elated as he was.

But then, in order to make his point really clear, Avalokita reached with this hollow lump of clay for that trickle of water that was dripping from the rock behind him, letting the hollow ball fill itself slowly with water.
"Drink!" he said, while he offered them the water that it now contained, "Drink from this eh... hollow ball... eh... bowl!"
"A bowl?" some in the crowd wondered, "What's a bowl? Drinking from a ball of clay?!"

But surprise and admiration followed soon after they saw how Avalokita himself proceeded to drink water from it himself; water from a ball of clay that now, astonishingly, was holding water.

But as no one came forward yet to drink, Avalokita was not sure if the gathering really fully appreciated the importance and the extent of his demonstration, so he urged them on, and slowly and reluctantly - something like this had never ever happened before - they came to drink.

When the bowl was empty, Avalokita demonstrated it again, again filling it from the trickle of water that dripped from the rock. And then, one by one, they came to drink from the bowl.

Eventually the bowl lost its shape so Avalokita moulded it back into a ball shape and again he punched a deep dimple into it and again he turned it into a bowl.
He then picked up another lump of clay and while he put the previously made bowl aside, he repeated the process, and eventually all of the tribal members came to have a drink.

Some time later he got the idea that if he would let the bowls sit to dry and let them bake in the sun, that the bowls would keep their shape longer, and so he proceeded to make more bowls, even some large ones.
Eventually some of the tribal members began to copy him and a little while later someone found that after he burnt one of the pots, that it would keep its shape. Now they could collect and keep large quantities of water from their meagre sources. In the past they would have run out of water altogether. They also discovered how they could keep large quantities of fresh water in clay pits in order to save it for later use.

Avalokita did not stop with his keen observations, over time he figured out how rock, clay, water, clouds and even fire formed. He discovered the principle of what he called skandhas. (4) (Something we nowadays call aggregates or phase states.)
He would explain his discoveries and insight this to his people. He discerned how there are five distinct gradations between the very hard and concrete such as the rocky earth, and the very subtle such as the skies and its clouds. He formulated how form can turn into emptiness through five stages: from earth to water, to fire, to air, to open space: from the gross to the subtle through a sequence of five in-between steps or (the way we say it nowadays) from solid to liquid, to plasma, to vapor and to vacuousness (6).
He also discovered the correlation between these five elemental or aggregate states and the five senses:
. human touch had mostly to do with solids,
. taste with liquids,
. sight had to do with light and fire,
. smell concerned vapors and gas, and
. hearing involved space and the vibrations through it - like drumbeats.

Although he must have been aware that much of what he said went over the heads of the ones he tried to explain it to, he knew that the practical applications of his insights would keep everyone healthier, happier and freer. They would drink fresher water, collected from cleaner sources rather than murky pools. They would be able to store food in lidded vessels and keep it from going bad. They could now save it for times when supplies would not be plenty. There was no end to this.

With his insight into the five elements and the five senses he would teach everyone how to use them to a better advantage.

He helped his people to use their faculties more sensibly and acutely so that they could distinguish between reality and imagination, especially the fearful imaginations and illusions that were instilled into them in the past, illusions that had kept them trapped into subservience through trickery by fear and misinformation... but that is another story.

Thus Avalokita, helped them to reclaim their original free nature and retain it rather than falling back into subservience. 

* Rupa
** Sunyata

4. The Heart Sutra - The Text  (7)

Please note for yourself in the following translated version of the Heart Sutra, where some of the notions, touched upon in the above story, fit. See if you can find breaks in the text where the text does not follow seamlessly. You might be able to find out for yourself which parts could likely be later inclusions. You might be able to identify which words could have been margin notes that became copied into the text. You might even find some places where the commentary and the original core text do not match or even contradict each other due to misunderstanding and or mistranslation by later commentators.

"The venerable Shariputra asked the noble Avalokiteshvara, (1) the bodhisattva mahasattva, "How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?"
Addressed in this way, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Shariputra,
"O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas (3) to be empty of nature.
Form is emptiness; (4)
Emptiness also is form.
Emptiness is no other than form;
Form is no other than emptiness.

In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. (5)
Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness.
There are no characteristics.
There is no birth and no cessation.
There is no impurity and no purity.
There is no decrease and no increase.

Therefore, (6) Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas, no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.
Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana.
All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment.
Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception.
The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:


(1) It is interesting to note that the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara literally means 'The (tribal) lord (ishvara) who from above overlooks or observes (ava) the world (Skt. loka world);  definitely a lord who did 'dig' this world and observed it with a keen eye, consciously and compassionately looking with understanding. 
It may be no coincidence that the title 'bishop', which comes from the Greek 'episkopos' (a watcher, overseer having an all-round overseeing view) has a similar meaning as 'avalokiteshvara'.

(2) 'Bodhisattva' (Sanskrit), a human being whose essence is enlightenment. From 'bodhi' (knowledge, wisdom, lucid insight) and 'sattva', essence, being ('sat' is existence).

(3)  The five skandhas: 
  1.  five elements: earth, water, fire, air, space,
  2.  five aggregates: solid, liquid, plasmic, vapor, sound,
  3. five attributes: rupa, samskara, sanjna, vedana, vijnana - five from a range of twelve nidanas. 
  4. five senses: touching, tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing,
  5. five organs of perception: hands, mouth, eyes, nose, ears.
Notice the vertical and horizontal order in the five series of skandhas listed above. These five series can be divided into two groups
  • The top three series represent the observable (form) and are thus the material skandhas that we perceive.
  • The bottom two series are the psycho-physical skandhas that are initially without observations (hence their emptiness), but that fill themselves up, so to speak, with data. Thus the bottom two series of skandhas are used to perceive with.
The ancient non-dual sages (amongst whom Nagarjuna) spoke of co-dependent arisings or inter-dependent origination (that's how pratitya-samutpada usually gets translated). Their notion of mutual, reciprocal, inter-dependent arisings always included more than just two linked dependencies. Pratitya-samutpada was seen as a complex web of interferences.

Overall, the early sutras that talk about the 'twelve nidanas' (the twelve factors) that factor-in in the mutual play (leela) of inter-relating have been interpreted wrongly and thus... translated wrongly. Causation and relating is not a one-way linear one-dimensional dynamic.

If anything, early pure Advaita acknowledged the existence of an experienceble world for humans through the five senses. These five senses enabled humans (the sages first of course) to categorize ALL the characteristics of experienced reality under five headings: the five skandhas... 'heaps' or 'groupings', the ones we tend to call 'the five elements'.

Here in the Heart Sutra, these groupings were not seen as separate, distinct, non-related 'things' or 'characteristics' EVEN if they could be labeled as such:

1. earth/solid/touch/hands-skin,
2. water/fluid/taste/tongue,
3. fire/plasmic/sight/eyes,
4. air/wave/smell/nose,
5. space/radiation/sound/ears.

The ancient wise Indian people saw that the world was a seamless multi-dimensional continuity, but that it nevertheless could be 'broken down', categorized and analyzed for a better understanding. It helped them to come up with inventions - as they were needed:

1. Solid foodstuff (e.g. grains, roots), tools, statuary (e.g. figurines, toys), pottery (e.g. bowls, jars), weapons (e.g. the club, axe, arrows) mortar and pestle, etc.
2. Liquid foodstuff, e.g. fruit, honey, milk, mead, etc.
3. Fire, kilns, cooking, smelting, torches, cave drawings, etc.
4. Perfumes, fragrances
5. Language (e.g. phonetic sounds, words, grammar), melodies (music, songs), etc., and eventually we invented machines (radio, tv, x ray machines, etc.) to pick up radiation from outer and inner space and made it visible and audible.

(4) Rupa is sunyata. Sunyata is rupa. The principle of non-duality is introduced.

(5) Inserted comment by later editors or scribes.

(6) The following major insertion clouds the understanding of the first part of this Sutra, illustrating how ancient scripts in their subsequent transmission, oral as well as written, did not pass through history unscathed to stay true to their original wisdom.

(7) There are many versions of the Heart Sutra, her is a different one:

(8) The Heart Sutra finishes with the Sanskrit mantra
गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा
gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā (9)

My interpretation and translation:
 "Go, going, gone... gone all the way - we made it."

I like to interpret this mantra like the use of the song We shall overcome, the anthem of the US civil rights movement of the nineteen-sixties when this song was so enthusiastically sung, helping to successfully overcome the racial challenges of that age.
Dealing with challenges involves four stages:
1. Recognizing to overcome a challenge: 'gate' 'go' (imperative or infinitive),
2. Practicing (tapasya) overcoming that challenge: 'gāte' 'going' (present participle),
3. Success! Having overcome the challenge: 'paragate' 'gone' (past participle),
4. The challenge is fully behind us: 'pārasaṃgate': 'having gone all the way, we made it.'
(9) "Bodhi" is enlightened insight, while "svāhā" is an expression of success, victory.

1 comment:

Pratibha said...

Pratibha said: Thank you so much for your post. I have been trying to find out about heart sutra in sanskrit and the understanding. By knowing the whole story it just became quite clear. Thank you so much for spreading this over the net. Wish I could read the sanskrit text. Thank you again.