From an ordinary Buddhist point of view, we could even say that the Heart Sutra is not only crazy, but it is iconoclastic or even heretical. Many people have complained about the Prajnaparamita Sutras because they also trash all the hallmarks of Buddhism itself, such as the four noble truths, the Buddhist path, and nirvana. These sutras not only say that our ordinary thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are invalid and that they do not really exist as they seem to, but that the same goes for all the concepts and frameworks of philosophical schools—non- Buddhist schools, Buddhist schools, and even the Mahayana, the tradition to which the Prajnaparamita Sutras belong.
Is there any other spiritual tradition that says, “Everything that we teach, just forget about it”? It is somewhat similar to the boss of Microsoft recently having publicly recommended that PC users should not buy Windows Vista any more, but instead go straight from Windows XP to Windows 7. Basically, he was advertising against his own product. The Heart Sutra is similar to that, except that it tells us only what not to buy, but not what to buy instead.
No, No, No
In brief, if we have never seen the Heart Sutra and we read it, it sounds crazy because it just keeps saying “no, no, no.” If we are trained in Buddhism, it also sounds crazy (maybe even more so) because it negates everything that we have learned and try to cultivate.
How does our mind feel when we are not grasping at anything, when we are not trying to entertain ourselves, and when our mind is not going outside (or not going anywhere at all), when there is no place left to go?
The Heart Sutra and the other Prajnaparamita Sutras talk about a lot of things, but their most fundamental theme is the basic groundlessness of our experience. They say that no matter what we do, no matter what we say, and no matter what we feel, we need not believe any of it. There is nothing whatsoever to hold on to, and even that is not sure. So these sutras pull the rug out from under us all the time and take away all our favorite toys.
Finding New Mental Toys
Usually when someone takes away one of our mental toys we just find new toys. That is one of the reasons why many of the Prajnaparamita Sutras are so long—they list all the toys we can think of and even more, but our mind still keeps grasping at new ones. The basic point is to get to a place where we actually stop searching for and grasping at the next toy.
Then we need to see how that state of mind feels. How does our mind feel when we are not grasping at anything, when we are not trying to entertain ourselves, and when our mind is not going outside (or not going anywhere at all), when there is no place left to go?
Usually we think that if a given phenomenon is not something, it must be nothing, and if it is not nothing, it must be something. But emptiness is just a word for pointing out the fact that no matter what we say or think about something, it does not really correctly characterize that something because our dualistic mind just gets stuck in one extreme or the other. Thus, we could say that emptiness is like thinking outside of the box, that is, the box of black-and-white thinking or dualistic thinking.
As long as we stay within the ballpark of dualistic thinking, there is always existence, nonexistence, permanence, extinction, good, and bad. Within that frame of reference, we will never get beyond it, no matter if we are religious, a scientist, a Buddhist, an agnostic, or whatever. Emptiness tells us that we have to step out of that ballpark altogether. Emptiness points to the most radical transformation of our entire outlook with regard to ourselves and the world. Emptiness not only means the end of the world as we know it, but that this world never really existed in the first place.
Without developing a soft heart and compassion, which like water softens our mental rigidity, there is a danger that the teachings on emptiness can make our hearts even harder.