The Heart Sutra: An Oral Teaching by Geshe Sonam Rinchen

The following article is from the Autumn, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Photo by Peter Aronson

This short gem of a book shows how distorted perceptions and disturbing emotions―arising from our misunderstanding of reality―can be completely uprooted, resulting in a freedom from suffering. Understanding the nature of reality is the key to liberation. The wonderfully concise Heart Sutra is considered the essence of the Buddhas' teachings.

The author's long experience in teaching Western students at the Dalai Lama's Library of Tibetan Works and Archives makes The Heart Sutra an ideal introduction for Westerners to this important subject.

A short excerpt from a chapter of the The Heart Sutra titled The Mantra follows.

Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of wisdom is a mantra of great knowledge. It is an unsurpassable mantra, a mantra comparable to the incomparable. It is a mantra that totally pacifies all suffering. It will not deceive you, therefore know that it is true! I proclaim the mantra of the perfection of wisdom: DAY AT A (OM) GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SWAH A.

Because the Heart Sutra contains a mantra there has been extensive discussion by the commentators about whether it should be classified as a sutra teaching or as a teaching of secret mantra. In both sutra and tantra the final object is the same to attain the body, speech, and mind of an enlightened being. Although the complete path to enlightenment is laid out from a sutra point of view in the Heart Sutra, the introduction of the mantra indicates that when the essential realizations have been gained, it is necessary to engage in tantric practice in order to attain enlightenment. Tendar Lharampa states that it is difficult to decide how the Heart Sutra should be classified, while Gungtang Jampelyang says it should be considered as a sutra teaching because the practice of secret mantra is merely indicated.

A mantra is that which protects the mind. Through this mantra, which is the perfection of wisdom itself, we can overcome the demon of ignorance that possesses us and find unsurpassable happiness. It protects the minds of those who practice it from all fears and describes how to make the transition from worldly existence to the supreme state beyond sorrow. It is a mantra of great knowledge because it saves us from the poison of ignorance and its imprints. It is an unsurpassable mantra because it frees us from suffering and its causes as no other path of insight can. The incomparable is the state beyond suffering. Since it helps us to attain that state, it is comparable to the incomparable. It totally pacifies suffering because it rids us of all the troubles of the world and their causes. The world here refers to ordinary beings like us. Our troubles are many but foremost are birth, aging, sickness, and death. This mantra does not deceive us and it is true because wisdom sees things as they actually are without any error or deception. It is therefore transcendent.

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A mantra is that which protects the mind. Through this mantra, which is the perfection of wisdom itself, we can overcome the demon of ignorance that possesses us and find unsurpassable happiness.

This description of the mantra also sets out the five paths. Thus the mantra of the perfection of wisdom refers to the path of accumulation; a mantra of great knowledge to the path of preparation; an unsurpassable mantra to the path of seeing; a mantra comparable to the incomparable to the path of meditation; and a mantra that totally pacifies all suffering to the path of no more learning. When we have actualized these five paths, we are totally protected.

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