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The Heart Sutra as a complete spiritual development project and stage model of Mahamudra

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.


I get caught up in thought

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


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


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".


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 beyon