When I was a child growing up in Japan, I would often help my mother in the kitchen, drying the dishes as she washed them. Occasionally, my concentration would lapse and I would drop a dish and break it. I always felt bad about breaking dishes, but my mother never berated or punished me. Instead, she quoted a line from the Heart Sutra: “All that is form is emptiness; all that is emptiness is form.” I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about, but I was glad to escape punishment.
Many years later, as I prepared to take the acupuncture licensing exam in California, my mother embarked on a 1,400 kilometer walking pilgrimage on the Japanese island of Shikoku. At each of the eighty-eight temples on this most famous of Japan’s Buddhist pilgrimages, she prayed for (among other things) my success on this exam and in my chosen profession. I think it was at around this point in her life that my mother started to take a great interest in the Heart Sutra. She chanted it daily on her pilgrimage, and wrote it down in black Chinese ink for shakyo – the religious practice of copying sacred texts. She sent me several versions of these handwritten sutras, including one with furigana (phonetic Japanese transliterations of each Chinese character), and even one with romaji (English transliteration) just in case my Japanese had deteriorated to the point that I couldn’t read the furigana. It was obvious she wanted me to chant the Heart Sutra.
I wasn’t raised in a religious household, and, being an atheist since childhood, I rejected most religion. But I reserved a special place in my heart for Buddhism and the native Japanese religion Shinto, perhaps because they had always been for me religions of place rather than of belief, religions that I inherited by virtue of ethnicity and which I always associated with local temples and shrines and seasonal celebrations like New Year’s Day. And, as I got older and read more about Buddhism, I was impressed with what seemed more like a razor-sharp assessment of the human condition than a religion per se. This “religion” that prescribed meditation for its practitioners so that they could see more clearly into their self-nature seemed so different from most religions. But I held a negative bias towards those sects of Buddhism whose central practice was chanting. Observing my grandmother and other relatives chanting, it seemed to me they were essentially praying – for the souls of the dead, for my cousin’s acceptance into the college of her choice, etc. For an atheist like me, prayer – even Buddhist prayer – didn’t make any sense. Also, there was in Japan at that time a strong association between chanting and certain sects of Buddhism that were rather militant and political, which I found distasteful. So, as you can imagine, I was reluctant to chant. But I love my mother and want to make her happy, so I thought heck, it wouldn’t hurt to read the sutra out loud. It would be my way of thanking her (I passed my acupuncture exam).
I unfolded one of her hand-written copies, and started reading in a loud voice:
“MA KA HAN NYA HA RA MITTA SHIN GYO”
I was surprised. Just reading the title out loud, I felt each syllable resonate in my skull, my chest, my throat. I chanted slowly, and felt the sounds massage my insides. It was actually quite pleasant. I read through the entire text, and then did it again. Much to my embarrassment, I became a semi-regular chanter. In the act of chanting, my intellect would disengage, I would lose the educated human being persona that I usually identify with, and I would feel happy – happy and alive as I imagine a singing bird must feel on a sunny morning. I have come to believe that chanting is a skillful means, a way to use speech – almost always used in the service of the ego – to temporarily bypass the ego and experience one’s existence as part of the vast unfolding moment rather than as the isolated self that we usually take so seriously.
I no longer think of the chanting-centered Buddhist groups as deluded or necessarily unsavory (although I’m still against aggressive proselytizing by anyone, religious or otherwise). I have come to see that chanting has been for centuries the mechanism by which the Dharma has been transmitted from one generation to the next, in all sects of Buddhism. It is no wonder that its value as a practice in and of itself was recognized early on and embraced by large numbers of people. I am convinced that human beings, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them, are designed by evolution to have religious experiences. Chanting is one way of eliciting such experiences, which are almost always perceived as positive. I believe that my original disdain for chanting is shared by many non-Asian Buddhists, who have placed a much greater emphasis on meditation than on chanting and other traditional Buddhist practices. This attitude, which may stem historically from a perception that the meditation practices of the Buddhist “pros” (monks/nuns) were superior to the devotional practices of the laity, is in my opinion a big mistake. If a practice brings you to a place of non-duality, it shouldn’t matter so much how it got you there.
I sometimes chant in my clinic, while driving, when alone outdoors. Most of all, I enjoy chanting on mountains. There’s something special about walking the ridge of a mountain range, your voice chanting syllables in cadence with your steps. Chanting in the beauty of nature, I feel a connection to the gyoja mountain ascetics of old Japan, and even further back to the yogis and shamans who’ve been singing and chanting in the wild ever since human beings figured out they could string sounds together for dramatic, magical, and practical effect.
One evening a couple of summers ago, I read the Heart Sutra while backpacking in Big Sur. As the sun went down and Venus got brighter and brighter and the sky turned shades of red, orange, and purple, I developed a new appreciation for these wise and ancient words. The central phrase of the sutra, “SHIKI SOKU ZE KU, KU SOKU ZE SHIKI” is usually translated as something like, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” But the character for “form,” SHIKI, also means “color.” And the character for “emptiness,” KU, also means “sky.” Standing there under the brilliant and ever-changing sky, I got a sense of the ancient Buddhists as astronomers and naturalists, contemplating our ephemeral existence on this earth ball. Colors in the sky: that’s what this – us, life, existence – is.
The Heart Sutra functions as a summary of a much larger body of literature: the Prajnaparamita or “Perfection of Wisdom” texts of Mahayana Buddhism. As a summary, it essentially consists of lists of various sorts, all designed to show that when the things on the list are logically broken down (e.g., the five skandhas or “aggregates” that describe human experience – material form, feeling, perception, impulse, and consciousness), there is only emptiness – no Self is hidden in there somewhere. This radical notion, so contrary to our self-important nature, is the “heart” of Buddhist teaching. I believe that it is also what sets Buddhism apart from the other world religions, in that it does not ask us to add anything (God, Heaven, etc.) to what we see, hear, experience; it invites us instead to strip away what we take for granted, and see what is left.
Yet, the emptiness of Buddhism is not nihilistic or purely intellectual and philosophical. Buddhism is rooted in a tradition of practices that are designed to bring the practitioner beyond the non-existent self to a religious experience, a transcendent non-duality, the realm “beyond the beyond.” In the words of Buddhist scholar and historian Edward Conze, the Prajnaparamita is “nothing but the Absolute, over and over again.” Because of the luminous clarity and power of the unconditioned world that it describes, or perhaps because it mimicked for early converts the magical chants of the religions they were already familiar with, the Heart Sutra has been considered from the earliest times to be a magical text, a spell or dharani that protects against all manner of bad luck and encourages the chanter’s (and audience’s) entry into the Buddha-realms. The fact that it is simultaneously rational, religious, and magical attests to the Buddhist understanding of human nature, which is surely a combination of all these elements.
The Heart Sutra is structured as a kind of sermon by the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who at the beginning of the text sits in deep meditation and has the insight that emptiness is the true nature of our existence. The bulk of the sutra is an explanation of this insight to the disciple Sariputra. Towards the end, Avalokitesvara reveals that the way to the Perfection of Wisdom is to chant. And he gives us a mantra, meticulously preserved in a close approximation of the Sanskrit in which it was originally chanted some two thousand years ago. Millions of Buddhists around the world take Avalokitesvara’s teaching to heart, and they chant. Whether they are highly educated Buddhist priests or regular folks with little knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings, they chant the Heart Sutra as an expression and embodiment of the Dharma. Whether you chant with faith, with understanding, with curiosity or with skepticism, the Heart Sutra will have you thrumming along as part of a vast chord of humanity, one node in a vibrant wisdom-tradition that endures and spreads by voice, by breath, and ringing bone.
The word sutra means literally, “thread” (interestingly, the early Chinese translators rendered it as "jing," the same word that is used in medicine to mean "channel" or "meridian," the threads that run through our bodies). As you chant with singlemindedness, you are absorbed by the sounds emanating from you, and eventually there is no more subject or object, no chanter or chant, just the universe expressing itself as sound. Freed of the illusion that there is a “you” running the show, you sit as the paradox that is simultaneously form and emptiness. From this timeless place of simple existence, you hear the words reminding you that this is just how it is, and you appreciate the sutra, an ongoing pulse in a pulsing universe, a living thread that connects you to the past, holds you in the present, and guides you into the future.