Hakuin on the Heart Sutra

November 4, 2012 § 3 Comments



What is wide and vast?  What is it that is great?  How can it compare?  Can wisdom be small?  These are some questions Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku asked in his discourse on the Heart Sutra, perhaps the best known Mahāyāna Buddhist writing.

To the casual reader the Heart Sutra appears to negate all of the Buddha’s teaching.  But commentaries written on it assert it takes the teachings of Buddhism to a level the Buddha intended but felt his followers of the time could not grasp.   In asserting ‘form does not differ from emptiness and emptiness does not differ from form’ the Heart Sutra declares all form to be empty, not in a nihilistic sense but in the manner of transcendence of all form.

We are not thought, feelings, perceptions or ego-consciousness states the Heart Sutra.  Individual essence comprehends these and all forms.  We are identical with emptiness that is paradoxically also fullness.  As Hakuin writes, emptiness is:

Ten million Mount Sumerus in a dewdrop on a hair-tip

The billions of space-time worlds in a fleck of foam on the sea;

Yet in spite of this identification of emptiness with fullness Hakuin states that those who think their true nature is “wide and vast” are wrong!  Why is this?

Over the centuries Buddhism has renewed itself by stripping away false interpretations that have obscured its core message.  Buddha’s original teachings were renewed by the Heart Sutra’s “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”.  Centuries latter Dogen renewed the teachings by asserting, “form is form and emptiness is emptiness”.  When Buddhism began to stagnate under Dogen’s interpretation it was again renewed through the teachings of Hakuin.

Hakuin saw that people were interpreting emptiness as a subtle concept.  In doing so he knew they would never understand their true nature as absolute emptiness and would subsequently fail to achieve enlightenment.  To counteract this tendency Hakuin negated all interpretations of emptiness.  He asked how it could be called great if there were nothing in the universe to which it could be compared.  He said that those who called it wide and vast were wrong because as a description it leaves emptiness as no more than a concept that exists relative to something else.  He stated that even though a Superior Man has a love of wealth (i.e., desires enlightenment), the Superior Man knew the proper way to get it.  And that is by abandoning all subtle conceptualizations of emptiness that leave it as a ‘this” or ‘that’.

The intent of Hakuin’s question and assertions was to have us abandon subtle errors of thought that turn true nature into a subtle object.  The intent was to have us abandon the false images or idols that we have placed before true nature.  The intent is to have us realize that prajna paramita, the perfection of wisdom that “sees” true reality, cannot be measured in relative terms as big or small because the reality such wisdom sees is, Itself, neither relative nor absolute.

Drop all expectations of what Enlightenment is, states Hakuin.  Uproot all concepts as you’d uproot weeds in a garden.  Abandon all notions of it, even those of love, if you want to Know.  Stop everything then drop even that stopping.  And don’t say these words are cold and indifferent or that they are not to your taste for as Hakuin wrote, “One bellyful eliminates hunger for all time.”


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