The Dalai Lama On The Heart Sutra Jun 5, 2017
In its enigmatic 25 lines, the Heart Sutra is one of the most difficult of Buddhist Scriptures but also one of the most rewarding. It is a basic text of Mahayana Buddhism and recited daily in monasteries and by practicing Buddhists throughout the world.
There are many commentaries, ancient and modern, on this text, but I found this recent book by the Dalai Lama, "Essence of the Heart Sutra" an outstanding place for the beginner to start. The Dalai Lama's book also will reward study by those having great prior familiarity with the text. The book is based on a series of lectures that the Dalai Lama gave at the Land of Medicine Buddhist center in California and at the Three Rivers Dharma in Pittsburg.
This work is much more than a commentary on the Heart Sutra. It is equally valuable as an introduction to Buddhism and as a compendium of the teachings of the Dalai Lama. It is instructive to see how the Dalai Lama weaves his broad material together into a coherent whole. Thus, in the first part of the book, the Dalai Lama offers broad-based comments on the spiritual dimension of life, of the relationship between Buddhism and other religions, and of the fundamentals of Buddhist teachings. It is inspiring to hear words of ecumenism, tolerance, and willingness to learn from others. It is also important to read the Dalai Lama's exposition of the basic Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination, which is, in later sections of the book, tied masterfully to the interpretation of the Heart Sutra.
The second part of the book offers a translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra. Consistent with his opening chapters, the Dalai Lama stresses the continuity between this Mahayana text and its earlier predecessors in Theravada Buddhism. (Many other commentaries emphasize how the Heart Sutra departs from and differs from its predecessors.) In addition, in a few brief pages the Dalai Lama offers great insight into the fundamental teaching of emptiness --- that reality is "empty of intrinsic existence." He points out clearly that the Sutra does not teach that nothing exists -- a nihilistic doctrine. Instead, the Dalai Lama relates the teaching of the Sutra to the doctrine of Dependent Origination -- stressing the lack of independent existence, substantiality, and ego. He discusses different ways in which various Buddhist schools interpret the doctrine of emptiness -- including the "mind-only" school and two variants of the "middle-way" school. This material is difficult but important and not stressed in various other commentaries that I have read.
The final part of the Dalai' Lama's study discusses the Bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism -- the decision to dedicate oneself to the welfare of others -- and relates it to the text of the Heart Sutra. There are teachings and practices here on learning to practice lovingkindness, also set forth in other writings of the Dalai Lama, but informed here by the discussion of emptiness and nonclinging in the Heart Sutra. This discussion, and the short epilogue, tie together the ecumenical material in the book with the elucidation and analysis of the Heart Sutra.
This book presents difficult, profound teachings in an accessible readable way. It is ideal for the beginning student or for those who want to explore the Heart Sutra to see what it might offer. It also presents an exposition of this text by the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. For those who want to read further and compare and contrast other approaches to this inexhaustible text, I recommend Red Pine's study "The Heart Sutra" and Donald Lopez' "Elaborations of Emptiness", a detailed and difficult analysis of the Heart Sutra in light of its earliest Indian and Tibetan commentaries.