HEART SUTRA COMMENTARY
An extract from The Heart of Understanding by Thich Nhat Hanh
Through mindfulness we experience Interbeing
which means everything is in everything else.
Therefore, one should know that Perfect Understanding
is a great mantra, is the highest mantra,
is the unequalled mantra, the destroyer of all suffering,
the incorruptible truth.
This is the mantra: "Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha."
A MANTRA IS something that you utter when your body, your mind and your breath are at one in deep concentration. When you dwell in that deep concentration, you look into things and see them as clearly as you see an orange that you hold in the palm of your hand. Looking deeply into the five skandhas, Avalokitesvara (the Buddha) saw the nature of inter-being and overcame all pain. He became completely liberated. It was in that state of deep concentration, of joy, of liberation, that he uttered something important. That is why his utterance is a mantra.
When two young people love each other, but the young man has not said so yet, the young lady may be waiting for three very important words. If the young man is a very responsible person, he probably wants to be sure of his feeling, and he may wait a long time before saying it. Then one day, sitting together in a park, when no one else is nearby and everything is quiet, after the two of them have been silent for a long time, he utters these three words. When the young lady hears this, she trembles, because it is such an important statement. When you say something like that with your whole being, not just with your mouth or your intellect, but with your whole being, it can transform the world. A statement that has such power of transformation is called a mantra. Alokitesvara's mantra is
"Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha."
Gate means gone. Gone from suffering to the liberation of suffering. Gone from forgetfulness to mindfulness. Gone from duality into non-duality. Gate gate means gone, gone. Paragate means gone all the way to the other shore. So this mantra is said in a very strong way. Gone, gone, gone all the way over. In Parasamgate sam means everyone, the sangha, the entire community of beings. Everyone gone over to the other shore. Bodhi is the light inside, enlightenment, or awakening. You see it and the vision of reality liberates you. And svaha is a cry of joy or excitement, like "Welcome!" or "Hallelujah!" "Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, svaha!"
That is what the bodhisattva uttered. When we listen to this mantra, we should bring ourselves into that state of attention, of concentration, so that we can receive the strength emanated by Avalokitesvara. We do not recite the Heart Sutra like singing a song, or with our intellect alone. If you practise the meditation on emptiness, if you penetrate the nature of interbeing with all your heart, your body, and your mind, you will realize a state that is quite concentrated. If you say the mantra then, with all your being, the mantra will have power and you will be able to have real communication, real communion with Avalokitesvara, and you will be able to transform yourself in the direction of enlightenment.
This text is not just for chanting, or to be put on an altar for worship. It is given to us as a tool to work for our liberation, for the liberation of all beings. It is like a tool for farming, given to us so that we may farm. This is the gift of Avalokita.
There are three kinds of gift. The first is the gift of material resources. The second is the gift of know-how, the gift of the Dharma. The third, the highest kind of gift, is the gift of non-fear. Avalokitesvara is someone who can help us liberate ourselves from fear.
The Heart Sutra gives us solid ground for making peace with ourselves, for transcending the fear of birth and death, the duality of this and that. In the light of emptiness, everything is everything else, we inter-are, everyone is responsible for everything that happens in life. When you produce peace and happiness in yourself, you begin to realize peace for the whole world. With the smile that you produce in yourself, with the conscious breathing you establish within yourself, you begin to work for peace in the world.
To smile is not to smile only for yourself, the world will change because of your smile. When you practise sitting meditation, if you enjoy even one moment of your sitting, if you establish serenity and happiness inside yourself, you provide the world with a solid base of peace. If you do not give yourself peace, how can you share it with others? If you do not begin your peace work with yourself, where will you go to begin it? To sit, to smile, to look at things and really see them, these are the basis of peace work.
Yesterday, we had a tangerine party. Everyone was offered one tangerine. We put the tangerine on the palm of our hand and looked at it, breathing in a way that the tangerine became real. Most of the time when we eat a tangerine, we do not look at it. We think about many other things. To look at a tangerine is to see the blossom forming into the fruit, to see the sunshine and the rain. The tangerine in our palm is the wonderful presence of life. We are able to really see that tangerine and smell its blossom and the warm, moist earth. As the tangerine becomes real, we become real. Life in that moment becomes real.
Mindfully we began to peel our tangerine and smell its fragrance. We carefully took each section of the tangerine and put in on our tongue, and we could feel that it was a real tangerine. We ate each section of the tangerine in perfect mindfulness until we finished the entire fruit. Eating a tangerine in this way is very important, because both the tangerine and the eater of the tangerine become real. This, too, is the basic work for peace.
In Buddhist meditation we do not struggle for the kind of enlightenment that will happen five or ten years from now. We practise so that each moment of our life becomes real life. And, therefore, when we meditate, we sit for sitting; we don't sit for something else. If we sit for twenty minutes, these twenty minutes should bring us joy, life. If we practise walking meditation, we walk just for walking, not to arrive. We have to be alive with each step, and if we are, each step brings real life back to us.
The same kind of mindfulness can be practised when we eat breakfast, or when we hold a child in our arms. Hugging is a Western custom, but we from the East would like to contribute the practice of conscious breathing to it. When you hold a child in your arms, or hug your mother, or your husband, or your friend, breathe in and out three times and your happiness will be multiplied by at least tenfold. And when you look at someone, really look at them with mindfulness, and practise conscious breathing.
At the beginning of each meal, I recommend that you look at your plate and silently recite, "My plate is empty now, but I know that it is going to be filled with delicious food in just a moment."While waiting to be served or to serve yourself, I suggest you breathe three times and look at it even more deeply, "At this very moment many, many people around the world are also holding a plate but their plate is going to be empty for a long time." Forty thousand children die each day because of the lack of food. Children alone. We can be very happy to have such wonderful food, but we also suffer because we are capable of seeing. But when we see in this way, it makes us sane, because the way in front ofus is clear - the way to live so that we can make peace with ourselves and with the world.
When we see the good and the bad, the wondrous and the deep suffering, we have to live in a way that we can make peace between ourselves and the world. Understanding is the fruit of meditation. Understanding is the basis of everything.
Each breath we take, each step we make, each smile we realize, is a positive contribution to peace, a necessary step in the direction of peace for the world. In the light of interbeing, peace and happiness in your daily life mean peace and happiness in the world.
Thank you for being so attentive. Thank you for listening to Avalokitesvara. Because you are there, the Heart Sutra has become very easy.
This extract is reprinted from The Heart of Understanding, published by Parallax Press, Berkeley.