Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Chinese Calligraphy: Writing the Heart (Prajñāpāramitā) Sutra Title

"...the heart sutra, which is one of my favorite texts in the Zen tradition... said, "There's no place to go. There's nothing to do. And there's nothing to attain." So when you sit in that way or when you cultivate mindfulness in everyday life in that way, it's not like you become some kind of shirker or lazy good-for-nothing. It's that you're actually rotating consciousness so that you're not caught by the usual things that will just hold us in a certain kind of conventional framework that does not allow us to be free to be who are already are." - Mindfulness Teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, SoundsTrue.com Podcast Interview: Insights at the Edge with Tami Simon.
"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, The Heart Sutra (2004), p5
"This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra [Heart Sutra]." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p41
"prajña paramita, the perfection of understanding. This is the highest kind of understanding, free from all knowledge, concepts, ideas, and views. Prajña is the substance of Buddhahood in us. It is the kind of understanding that has the power to carry us to the other shore of freedom, emancipation, and peace. In Mahayana Buddhism, prajña paramita is described as the Mother of All Buddhas. Everything that is good, beautiful, and true is born from our mother, prajña paramita. She is in us; we only need to touch her to help her manifest herself. Right View is prajña paramita." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), p210.

The Heart Sutra carved on bamboo strips.
The Heart Sutra, dating back to around the 7th Century AD, encourages us to let go of conceptual understanding and give up on all views -to give up even the idea of wisdom itself. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this in his book The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, p5:
"Perfect Understanding is prajnaparamita. The word "wisdom" is usually used to translate prajna, but I think that wisdom is somehow not able to convey the meaning. Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block our understanding. In Buddhism knowledge is regarded as an obstacle for understanding. If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won't want to let it in. We have to be able to transcend our previous knowledge the way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think that we are very high, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views. Understanding, like water, can flow, can penetrate. Views, knowledge, and even wisdom are solid, and can block the way of understanding."
A statue of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva sat in meditation posture.

The Heart Sutra text, translated by Red Pine in his book The Heart Sutra, reads as follows, p2:
"The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita,
looked upon the five skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.
Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness
not birth or destruction, purity or defilement, completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form,
no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;
no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feelingand no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness;
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death;
no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,
the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:
“Gate, gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.”
Here is a video of the above text being sung in Mandarin Chinese:


Even though the Heart Sutra was written in Sanskrit - an Indian language, there is a popular theory that the Heart Sutra was first constructed in Chinese, and then back-translated into the traditional Indian language for Buddhist scriptures. The Buddhism scholar Jan Nattier wrote in The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol 15:2.1992, p172-173:
"the Sanskrit Heart Sutra offers us exactly the kind of synonym-shift that we would expect if it were a back-translation from the Chinese.[...] while the sequence of ideas found in the Sanskrit Heart Sutra matches that of the Sanskrit Large Sutra exactly, virtually every word in these two texts... is different. Such a striking similarity in content, combined with an equally striking difference in vocabulary, can only 'be explained as the result of a back-translation - that is, by the translation of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra from the Chinese."
I have been learning how to write the Heart Sutra in the ancient cursive zhāngcǎo (章草) Chinese calligraphy script with Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang. Here is a video of the title written out on practice paper by myself:

 This is the practice sheet written in the above video:

The Heart Sutra title written in old cursive Chinese calligraphy by the author.

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