The Heart Sutra Paperback – Aug 10 2005
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The Heart Sutra, a mere 35 lines, is one of Buddhism's best-known teachings, "Buddhism in a nutshell," according to Red Pine, an award-winning translator of Chinese poetry and religious writings. But when he was asked to prepare a fresh translation, he found himself reconsidering its origins, reexamining every word, and reassessing every nuance. The result is a meticulous line-by-line interpretation that will radically deepen readers' understanding of not only the sutra but also Buddhism's underlying structure, Abhidharma, or the Matrix of Reality. Red Pine begins by noting that while no one knows where the Heart Sutra came from or who composed it, he has come to believe that its roots are in Northern India, and that "the noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva" named in the first line is none other than an incarnation of Maya, the Buddha's mother. Red Pine then proceeds to explicate the Heart Sutra in its concentrated entirety, including its most cited pronouncement, "form is emptiness, emptiness is form," a feat that will engage and enlighten every serious student of the Dharma. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Red Pine is the pseudonym of Bill Porter, a non-academic author who lives in Port Townsend, Washington. He has spent the majority of his adult life in Asia, where he went after dropping out of graduate school at Columbia in 1972. During his stay in Asia he lived at times in Buddhist monasteries, and went on several long retreats into the mountains. His style of writing is an interesting and somewhat quirky combination of academic rigor and humorous, and quite orthodox, Buddhist commentary. He is obviously in earnest about the texts that he discusses. Unlike a traditional academic, he takes the texts literally, and clearly believes in the literal truthfulness of the text and the historical background from which it emerged. His commentary may be overly detailed and overly rigorous from the point of some readers, but there is little doubt that he is a sincere seeker who delves into the text in a personal search for revelation. In other words, this is not a cold, academic analysis, but a detailed analysis inspired by faith.
The Heart Sutra itself is an extremely difficult text, at least from the point of view of most westerners. Red Pine says of it, "The Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell. It covers more of the Buddha's teachings in a shorter span than any other scripture, and it does so without being superficial or commonplace."
Red Pine states that The Heart Sutra is a critical commentary on the philosophy of a popular early Buddhist sect called the Sarvastivadins. The author states that the Sarvastivadins understood that people tend to claim that "something is permanent that is not permanent, ... pleasurable that is not pleasurable, ... self-existent that is not self-existent, and ...pure that is not pure." The author of The Heart Sutra agrees with this analysis. However, The Heart Sutra goes further, and states that Nirvana itself is a delusion. The Heart Sutra also states that "form is emptiness, emptiness form," and that "all dharmas are defined by emptiness." Much of the book is a commentary on the importance and meaning of these and similar assertions which the Sarvastivadins failed to grasp.
Unless you have an unusually academic or abstract turn of mind, I would not recommend a detailed commentary on such esoteric subject matter to a new comer to Buddhism. Instead, I would recommend the works of Pema Chodron, Jack Kornfield (A Path with Heart) or Thich Naht Hanh (The Miracle of Mindfulness). However, if you want to broaden your understanding of Buddhism, or want some profound subject matter to help inspire your practice, then you should find this excellent book very rewarding. Red Pine is an unusual character who writes intelligently, and sincerely, about an interesting and important text.
Red Pine's translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra is a worthy successor to Pine's earlier translation and commentary on the Diamond Sutra, a work emanating from the same "Perfection of Wisdom" group of Buddhist teachings as does the Heart Sutra. Both of Pine's studies work carefully and closely with the text, and both helped me in my approach to these difficult teachings.
Pine's study opens with his own translation of the text of the Heart Sutra. This is followed by an introduction in which Pine discusses what is known about the composition, date, and original language of the work. He reviews some of the scholarly controversies over these matters and places the origin of the Sutra in Nortwest India in about 150 A.D. He believes that the work was originally written in Sanskrit, in contrast to some recent scholars who believe it of Chinese origin.
Pine follows his historical review with an overview of the text and its purpose. Fundamentally, the Heart Sutra is concerned with teaching wisdom rather than mere knowledge. Specifically, the Sutra is concerned with transcendent wisdom which, as Pine explains it, "is based on the insight that all things, both objects and dharmas, are empty of anything self-existent. Thus, nothing can be characterized as permanent, pure or having a self. And yet, neither can anything be characterized as impermanent, impure, or lacking a self." (p. 21) The wisdom of the Heart Sutra lies beyond mere reasoning and is in the realm of insight and sustained meditation and ethical practice. Pine makes this point eloquently, and it is basic to approaching the Heart Sutra.
Pine divides the Heart Sutra into four sections each of which are explored in the four commentarial sections of his book. Each section includes a line-by-line discussion of the text of the Heart Sutra, beginning with Pine's own comments followed by the comments of other students of the work, both ancient and modern.
The first part of the work (lines 1-11) set the backdrop of the Heart Sutra in the philosophical commentary of earlier Buddhist tradition known as the Abhidharma. Pine finds the Heart Sutra was written to correct the overly rationalistic approach of certain Abhidharmic texts. In this section, Pine describes briefly the nature of Abhidharmic thought and relates it to the protagonists of the Heart Sutra: Avalokiteshvara, the principle bohdisattva of Mahayana Buddhism who is usually seen as the figure of universal compassion, Prajnaparamita, a name both for the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and of the goddess who personifies these teachings, and Shariputra, the Buddha's chief disciple who receives the teaching of Prajnaparamita from Avalokiteshvara in the Heart Sutra.
The second part of the Heart Sutra, (lines 12-20) consists of a discussion of the conceptual categories of the Abhidharma, which the teachings of the Heart Sutra reject (or transform). Pine's commentary expands upon the nature of these categories, allowing the reader a means of approaching the key teaching of the Sutra that "form is emptiness emptiness is form."
The third part of the Heart Sutra in Pine's study, lines 21-28, discuss the bodhisattva path to wisdom and to the realization of Buddhahood, constrasting these goals with the goals of Arahantship and Nirvana in earlier Buddhist teachings. These lines teach that bodhisattvas are "without attainment" and that they live "without walls of the mind". Pine's commentary casts light on this difficult and suggestive teaching and way of understanding.
The fourth and final part of Pine's analysis deal with lines 29-35 of the Heart Sutra including the obscure mantra with which it concludes: "Gate, gate, paragate,parsangate, bodhi svaha." In his commentary, Pine discusses the meaning and significance of this mantra and its relationship to the rest of the text. According to Pine, this mantra "reminds and empowers us to go beyond all conceptual categories. ... With this incantation ringing in our minds, we thus enter the goddess Prajnaparamita, and await our rebirth as Buddhas". (p. 7)
The study concludes with a useful glossary of terms and of people mentioned in the text and with a translation of a slightly later and longer version of the Heart Sutra.
In its detail and concentration, this book would not be the best choice for the beginning student of Buddhism. But for those readers with some basic grounding in the earlier forms of Buddhism which the Heart Sutra critiques and with the Mahayana tradition this book is invaluable. It is a book to be read and studied. Pine gives a thoughtful, well-organized, and learned account of the Heart Sutra that will help the reader approach this seminal text.
This book is a good read for philosophers (especially existentialists), psychologists (especially those interested in meta-cognition), historians, and, of course, Buddhists or anyone interested in Buddhism. This book is a great introduction to Buddhism, with more substance than any "for dummies" book could offer, but the depth of this book will also appeal to Buddhist scholars. The reading can be abstract-sometimes too abstract. There are few concrete examples, so the reader needs to be comfortable with abstract concepts. Pine makes a good faith effort at citing sources, which is helpful for further research. I wish he included more content about the concept of dharma matrixes, which Pine only mentions in passing.
After reading this book, the reader will have gained, first, a deeper appreciation overall for the Heart Sutra, and second, a fresh perspective and a new way of looking at things, perhaps viewing the world "in the light of prajnaparamita" and even expanding one's worldview.
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