The Heart Sutra as a complete spiritual development project

version 1 and version 2.

  • The Heart Sutra can be understood as a description of the entire Buddhist development path up to awakening (Daniel P Brown)


  • The Heart Sutra describes 5 different meditative "views" or ways of looking


  • In each view, the mind liberates itself from one more thing



The Heart Sutra, Chinese calligraphy (Source: Wikipedia)


This post is entirely based on Daniel P Brown. His words are most suited to explain the mapping of the Heart Sutra´s concluding phrases to the "stages of meditation" that he describes in his 1981 dissertation, and in "Pointing out the Great Way".


In order to provide this overview, I have transcribed content of some of his YouTube videos.


The Heart Sutra describes a 5-step process

The Heart Sutra describes a 5-step process to awakening. This 5-step process involves a learnable sequence of particular meditative view, or perspectives, or "bases of operation".


Each view overcomes an additional limitation or illusion of the mind. Sequentially, what is negated is thought, the Self, time and space, and a localised consciousnes


The last view in this sequence is the "Ahhhh - THAT´show the awakening experience of the mind becoming fully aware of itself, of "self-knowing awareness-love" (Daniel P Brown).


The Heart Sutra concluding verse

These are the concluding verses of the Heart Sutra, which Daniel Brown uses for illustration.

The culminating verse of the Heart Sutra

Listen to the verses (this link does not start in the beginning but at the above verse)


Translation by Daniel P Brown

Gone, Gone, Gone Way Beyond, Gone Way Way Beyond: Uh what a Realisation!

Going beyond in 5 steps

Essentially, the content and sequencing of the retreat mirrored the 5 steps of "going beyond". These 5 steps represent the underlying structure of progressive levels of awareness, and specific views, that Daniel P Brown has distilled from many of the Buddhist traditions.

Gone

I get caught up in thought

I g​o beyond thought through learning how to use awareness

Gone

I get caught up in Self

​I go beyond Self through realising the emptiness of Self

​Gone way beyond

​I get caught up in space and time

​I go beyond space and time through realising space and time as fabrications

Gone way way beyond

​I get caught up in localisation and consciousness

I go beyond that. And now I am operating out of this limitless huge boundless bright awareness

​Ah - what a realisation!


The levels of gone as changes of the basis of operation

In the POGW retreats, the students learn to mentally adopt different perceptual "bases of operation".


This Tibetan term stands for a view, a viewpoint, a perspective or a vantage point from where the meditator mentally "operates". It is the perspective from which the meditation happens.


For example, our everyday basis of operation usually is that of our individual Self, the felt ego behind the eyes, with objects out there, existing entirely independently from our Self.


Another basis of operation is described by the non-dual metaphor of "the ocean (=awareness) watching its own waves (=all mental events occuring in awareness)".


1. Gone: Learning how to operate from awareness

This basis of operation requires to shift one's viewpoint away from the thinking, conceptualising, attention-directed Self. Instead, one first learns to recognise awareness as the space, the container in which all mental events seem to arise, stay and pass.


In order to get there, the students learns the technical skills of

  • Steering attention

  • Easing up and intensifying

  • Shifting between event-perspective and mind-perspective

  • Intentional use of meta-cognitive awareness.


Note: this definition of "awareness" is different from that of Culadasa. Culadasa would not say "operating from awaress". For him, awareness is - like attention - a specialised function of the mind, that is "used by" the meditator for specific purposes.


2. Gone: not operating from Self

As one operates from awareness, it is still contaminated with the sense of Self, for example in my case with Till-ness, the sense of being me. Through what is known as emptiness of the Self meditation, one learns to operate not as Self, but AS awareness. It is awareness meditating, not Till.


Learning goals

  • Learning about "search operations"

  • Experiencing to see Self as construct / empty

  • Meditate from awareness, not from Self


3. Gone beyond: Learning how to operate AS ocean/wave

Still, there is time and space as perceptual constraint, as contamination. Now the student learns to see time and space as constructs.


The is taught mainly through exercises to realise unboundedness (no edges, no corners) via the ocean and wave metaphor.


Initially, one will still experience the ocean and waves as somewhat external, perhaps through a visualisation. But any visualisation will reinforce the sense of being an observing Self.


Thus, the teacher gives an explicit instruction to not visualise the ocean "out there" , but instead, to "be" the ocean. When successful, the basis of operation is now the ocean observing its own waves.


Learning goals:

  • Realising the unboundedness of the inner space

  • Letting go of a localised point of view

  • Learning to operate as ocean seeing its own waves


4. Gone way beyond: Learning how to operate from the limitless changeless vast expanse

In the next step, awareness is still contaminated with time as construct. Now, the meditator learns how to operate from a vast boundless timeless changeless space. This means to recognise that all change happens within that timeless changeless space. The container/space itself is timeless and changeless.


Awareness itself is operating as a limitless huge boundless bright awareness-love.


Learning goals

  • Realising the timelessness and changelessness of the inner space

  • Operating from (being) that timeless changeless space.

This is described as crossing over :

"The practitioner's point of observation during meditation crosses over from seeming individual consciousness to the infinite ground of awareness-space known as the dharmakaya" (PoW, p461)

5. Ah... what a realisation!

And this "Ahh..." (which I actually felt coming up) comes as a moment of immediate realisation, of "coming home" after milennia, of wonder, sacredness, eternity, resolution, recognition. My own experience of it is described here.




Appendix 1: Dan Brown: transcription from "Dying in East and West" video (9/2020)


This conversation with Daniel P Brown is a bit unusual. It is the only instance I know where he is directly being attacked for what he says - in the manner of "I call bullshit all over you". The attacker makes the point, that Brown proposes concepts whilst just having deconstructed the idea of concepts.


Dan takes it calmly, although he is clearly not used to it. The attack is on his beliefs about what happens during and after death. One may or may not follow him here. I too have my difficulties to "go native with the Tibetans" with these very concrete ideas, just as I have doubts about Stan Grof's belief in astrology. But as he sais - he cannot please everyone, and what do I know!


Here the transcription.


"In Buddhism you see everything as empty that is as a mental construction of mind. We tend to make the world solid, we tend to make it as if it is out there.


And that is the view that is reinforced by science when there is a world out there : we measure constancies in that world. But for Buddhism that world is all mental constructions. What if we are seeing it as our mental constructions? And that's the view that's taken. So, if you see them as mental constructions, you can go beyond the mental constructions. So that they don't interfere. But we get caught in the mental constructions of our mind, we dwell in them, we get caught up in them.


Gate Gate paragate parasamgate bodhisattva


That's your entire path. It literally means


Gone gone gone, way beyond gone, way way beyond, uh - what a realisation


Thats the exact translation from the Sanskrit. This is what it means:


The first gate

In our everyday life we get so caught up in thought , we tend to take thought as real. We forget it's a mental construction. But if I look at it at a certain way, I see the thought just as mental construction. And I don't act on it so much, I start to operate from the field of awareness, cleaned up of thought. This is the first "gate": Awareness gone beyond thought.


The second gate

But I still get caught in my sense of Self. I get caught up in "John-Ness". A lot of the day I operate of the Self Mode. Through Emptiness of Self I see beyond that Self. Now I operate not out of thought but out of awareness that is cleaned up of Self. This is the second "Gate" - awareness itself. That is my basis of operation gone gone beyond


Paragate

But now get caught up in time. I tend to take time as real, and I take space as real . But now I look into a field of timeless boundless awareness. I go beyond that construction of time. Now I am operating out of that timeless field of awareness. It is huge. Limitless. And changeless. That is the "paragate".


Parasamgate

But I still tend to localise within that . And when I set up a view in a certain way, I can shift out of that localisation and become that unbounded wholeness. That's the point where we are opening up to awakening. That's a big shift. Parasamgate and


"Bhodisvaha oh what a realisation".


So what the Mantra means is


  • I get caught up in thought - I go beyond thought.

  • I get caught up in Self - I go beyond Self

  • I get caught up in space and time - I go beyond space and time.

  • I get caught up in localisation and consciousness I go beyond that.

  • And now I am operating out of this limitless huge boundless bright awareness love. That's my true nature. That's my way home.


So we say emptiness is the path. Because as long as I see everything as substantial and out there I don't look at it this way. But once I open up to the view that I get from this perspective I can go beyond all those seemingly substantial structures of the mind and all the reactivity involved in that and I am genuinely humanly free. "


Appendix 2: And yet another transcription

In another video, Dan Brown describes the learning sequence like this (not a literal transcription).

  1. Separate out thought from awareness. Calm thought by learning to work from awareness.

  2. But this is still contaminated with a sense of Self. "Dan-ness" . Emptiness meditation shifts the basis of operation. Now, it is cleaned up of thought AND of no sense of Self. Awareness meditates, not Self.

  3. Mixed up with time. Emptiness of time meditation, then basis of operation is timeless and changeless. Ocean-like changeless timelessness, boundless, vastness . (=Standard Milarepa meditation). No grab. Beginning of path of spacious freedom.

  4. But there is still a residual tendency to see it as "out there". Basis of operation: all the objects arising in the field of awareness AND the knowing of those objects is one single non-dual field. That's non-dual awareness.

  5. Still, non-dual awareness is packaged in individual consciousness. Localised. Cross-over instructions into awakening shift into a place that is no place and has no reference points. Become that ocean of infinite spacious awareness-love . = Awakened awareness. Unbounded wholeness of awareness-love . Whatever arises arises as liveliness of that awareness itself. Inseparable pair. Everything arises without reacting at all. Which is called "self-arising, self-liberating". No more karmic mental traces. Releases all karmic memory traces. Nothing sticks . (=stickiness in Goleman book


From awareness-wisdom to awareness-love

Dan Brown has apparently slightly but significantly changed one Tibetan term.


What is called "self-knowing awareness-wisdom" (rang rig ye shes), for example in "The Royal Seal of Mahamudra" (p. 226) is called "awareness-love" by Dan Brown. I have not met the term awareness-love elsewhere except with Greg Goode. Google does not find even a single entry for this specific term. But to me, it seems to be a more significant and all-encompassing translation.



Resources

I have chosen two recitations of the Heart Sutra from the innumerable recitations on Youtube.


Heart Sutra Meditation by MC Owens - rhythmic and fast

MC Owens is a meditation teacher who has very entertaining explanations of Buddhism. This recitation is fast paced and rhythmic, driving and energetic.



Heart Sutra Meditation by Samaneri Jayasara - elegic and slow

Samaneri Jayasara is a Buddhist non, she recites a very large number of classic mystical texts and meditations. This recitations is slow and melodic .




The Heart Sutra Text

PRAJÑAPARAMITA HEART SUTRA

Text as Recited by M.C. Owens, 2020


The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara,

while practicing the profound prajñaparamita,

clearly saw that the five aggregates are empty;

thus, overcoming all suffering.

Sariputra,

form is no different from empty;

empty no different from form.

Form is just empty;

empty just form.

Sensation, perception, conditioning, and consciousness are also like this.

Sariputra, this is the emptiness of all dharmas:

they neither arise nor cease;

are neither defiled nor pure,

and neither increase nor decrease.

For this reason, within emptiness there is no form.

No sensation, perception, conditioning or consciousness.

No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind.

No sight, sound, scent, taste, touch or thought.

No seeing,…not even thinking.

No ignorance nor end of ignorance,

Not even aging and death, nor end of aging and death.

No suffering, its origin, cessation or the path.

No wisdom and no attainment.

Since nothing is attained, bodhisattvas maintain prajnaparamita.

Then their heart is without hindrance,

and since without hindrance, without fear;

escaping upside-down, dream-like thinking

and completely realizing Nirvana.

All buddhas of all times maintain prajnaparamita,

thus attaining anuttara-samyak-sambhodi.

Hence know, prajnaparamita is the all-powerful mantra,

the great enlightening mantra,

the unexcelled mantra, the unequaled mantra,

able to dispel all suffering.

This is true, not false.

Therefore, proclaim the prajnaparamita mantra; recite the mantra thus:

Om Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!


Jay Garfield

The Heart of Wisdom

https://jaygarfield.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/the-heart-of-wisdom-succ84tra-with-commentary.pdf


Greg Goode

Standing as Awareness

https://www.amazon.de/Standing-Awareness-Direct-Path-English-ebook/dp/B01CKSMGG0/

"And sometimes awareness is called love. This is to emphasize its open, inviting, generous, intimate nature that is free from limitation and suffering" (Page 1)


Note 1

For comparison, here another translation by Jay Goldberg

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awakened existence.
Gone to practice, gone to wisdom, gone beyond conceptual thought, gone beyond all of conventional reality, to buddhahood.


A thought on...