The Epitome of Compassion

Why is it called the “Heart Sutra”? It has that name because it teaches the heart of the Mahayana, primarily in terms of the view. However, the basic motivation of the Mahayana is also implicitly contained in this sutra in the form of Avalokiteshvara, the great bodhisattva who is the embodiment of the loving-kindness and compassion of all buddhas. It is actually the only Prajnaparamita Sutra in which Avalokiteshvara appears at all, and in it he is even the main speaker. Thus, the Heart Sutra teaches emptiness through the epitome of compassion.

It is often said that, in a sense, emptiness is the heart of the Mahayana, but the heart of emptiness is compassion. The scriptures even use the phrase “emptiness with a heart of compassion.” It is crucial to never forget that. The main reason for Avalokitesvara’s presence here is to symbolize the aspect of compassion and to emphasize that we should not miss out on it. If we just read all the “nos” and then get hooked on the “no path” of “no self” and “no attainment,” it gets a little dreary or depressing and we may wonder, “Why are we doing this?” or “Why are we not doing this?” In fact, the heart essence of the Prajnaparamita teachings and the Mahayana is the union of emptiness and compassion.

Compassion
The epitome of compassion

Reading with a Soft Heart

If we look at the larger Prajnaparamita Sutras, we see that they teach both aspects extensively. In addition to teaching about emptiness, they also speak about the path in great detail, such as how to cultivate loving-kindness and compassion, how to do certain meditations, and how to progress through the paths. They do not always say “no,” but also sometimes present things in a more positive light. Even the Heart Sutra, toward the end, comes up with a few phrases without “no.”

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. If we think we understand emptiness, but our compassion does not increase, or even lessens, we are on the wrong track. Therefore, for those of us who are Buddhists, it is good and necessary to give rise to compassion and bodhichitta before we study, recite, and contemplate this sutra. All others may connect with any spot of compassion that they can find in their hearts.

Soft Heart before Reading
Finding a soft heart before we read the sutras

Let Go and Relax

In yet another way, we could say that the Heart Sutra is an invitation to just let go and relax. We can replace all the words in this sutra that go with “no,” such as “no eye,” “no ear,” with all our problems, such as “no depression,” “no fear,” “no unemployment,” “no war,” and so on. That might sound simplistic, but if we do that and actually make it into a contemplation on what all those things such as depression, fear, war, and economic crisis actually are, it can become very powerful, maybe even more powerful than the original words in the sutra.

Usually we are not that interested in, for example, our ears and whether they really exist or not, so with regard to contemplating what emptiness means, one of the basic principles of the Prajnaparamita Sutras is to make the examination as personal as possible. It is not about reciting some stereotypical formula or the Heart Sutra without ever getting to the core of our own clinging to real existence with regard to those phenomena to which we obviously do cling, or our own egoclinging.