Wednesday, June 18, 2008

E-book Review: The Heart Sutra by Master Hua

“If you wish to cultivate the Way, don’t look outside yourself, for outside there is nothing to be sought. You should search within your own nature.” (‘The Heart Sutra by Master Hua’, page 36)

Master Xuan Hua, often given as Hsuan Hua, was a Chinese Zen monk who transplanted his tradition of Buddhism to America, setting up the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a temple in California. The temple not only hosts the training of monks, nuns, and laity, but also has a school and a university connected to it. As well as being the abbot of this very active monastery, the Master also instigated the translation into English of the major Mahayana Sutras, believing this was an important step in preserving what he considered to be ‘Orthodox Buddhism’.

Master Hua was well known and respected for his erudite commentaries on the Mahayana Sutras, which included the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Platform Sutra, and a monumental interpretation of the Shurangama Sutra, which is transcribed from a 96 day talk to an assembly of followers. This review focuses on Master Hua’s commentary on the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, or the Heart Sutra as it is generally known in the West, which is a pdf book 216 pages long, and downloadable for free from the Gold Buddha Monastery Website.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One is a translation of the Sutra into English, made by the Buddhist Text Translation Society (BTTS), the organization set up by the Master to render such scripture into English. Part Two is Master Hua’s verse commentary on the Sutra, whilst Part Three is a prose commentary on Parts One and Two. The Heart Sutra is essentially a summation of the Mahayana teachings known as the Prajna Paramita (‘Perfection of Wisdom’). Here’s a sample from the BTTS version of a famous section of the Sutra:

“Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness; emptiness is itself form.
So, too, are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.”
(The Heart of Prajna Paramita, page 31)

“Form does not differ from emptiness”:
“is” is like “is not”.
“Emptiness does not differ from form”:
the distinction is of substance and function.
“Form itself is emptiness”:
its true source is fathomed.
“Emptiness is itself form”:
the false flow has dried up.
Mountains, rivers, and the freat earth
are only manifestations of consciousness.
Be careful not to seek outside;
maintain the Middle Way.
To cast down stained threads of cause
is to come toward the Thus.
(ibid. page 85)

“What is form? That which has a perceptible characteristic is form. What is emptiness? That which is without characteristics is emptiness. Then why does the text say, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form; form is itself emptiness and emptiness is itself form? The sutra declares the ultimate meaning which penetrates clearly to the most fundamental principle.” (ibid. page 86)

It is this “most fundamental principle” that Master Hua is concerned to direct us to, and the combination of sutra, verse and prose comments are true skillful means that he employs to help us awaken to our true nature. The book contains pragmatic explanations of the Dharma also, as when describing the above relationship between form and emptiness in terms of a table occupying empty space. (The emptiness exists whether the table is there or not, and the form of the table has its being in the emptiness; relate this to the mind, and we just might have a glimpse of Nirvana!)

In his commentary, the Master also describes the basic Buddhist teaching of the Buddha’s first noble truth of suffering, describing the various kinds of suffering, using two different systems of classification. The first divides suffering into three main kinds, whilst the second cites eight types of suffering. Master Hua explains these two systems in lucid terms, leaving no doubt as to the universal nature of suffering, advising us to carefully reflect on the meaning of suffering:

“The three sufferings are also called the three kinds of feeling: the feeling of suffering, the feeling of happiness, and the feeling of neither happiness nor suffering. Therefore, the suffering of suffering itself is the feeling of suffering, and the suffering of decay is the feeling of happiness. Yo shouldn’t try to refute this by thinking that happiness is not caught up in suffering, because happiness can go bad.” (ibid. page 75)

The book also uses the Sutra as a starting point to explore various other essential teachings of the Buddha, including the Five Aggregates of being, Dependent Origination, the Four Noble Truths, and Nirvana. It also carefully explains the meaning of the important Mahayana Buddhist conception of the Bodhisattva, describing its etymology as deriving from the words “enlightenment” and “sentient beings”, indicating that the Bodhisattva is one who causes all beings to become enlightened. We will finish here with Master Hua elucidating the ultimate goal of Buddhism, Nirvana:

‘People who don’t understand the Buddhadharma say, “Nirvana is nothing but dying.” Yet that dying is not the same as death, because it is a voluntary dying; it is known and understood. What there was to be done is already done, and pure practice is already established, and so you undergo no further existence. Therefore, you wish to enter nirvana, the state in which there is no birth and death. You yourself know beforehand that you are going to enter nirvana: “At a certain time I will enter nirvana and perfect the stillness.” Thus this is dying which is voluntary and understood.’ (ibid. page 179)

‘The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra’ may be downloaded free of charge from the Gold Buddha Monastery’s website at the following address: Gold Buddha Monastery: Sutras.


JD said...


Nice review. Although I do not really delve into Mahayana sutras very much, I found this to be pretty interesting. Master Hua always seems to know exactly what he is talking about and one can sense his authority when reading his commentaries and talks.

Master Hua sure shattered my rather conceited view that Mahayana was "Buddhism lite" when you first mentioned him. It was a distorted view indeed, and I think I've softened up a bit. It never did anything but cause more suffering to belittle other Buddhists in my mind based on my own wrong and distorted views.

The Sutras, talks and commentaries are just as hard hitting as anything in the Theravada universe if one can step outside the conceit and see it for what it is. Thanks for the review, perhaps one day I will read this Sutra/commentary in full. Be well in your practice.

Gregor said...

Sounds great. I'll try to make the effort to download and read it.

G said...

Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen, has always had a strong influence on my practice, Justin. Even through the years of devoted Theravadin practice, I still referred to Mahayana Buddhist teachings on occasion. The Western Forest Sangha & the Sangha of Master Hua are in close contact, and despite some differences in their respective 'vehicles', they're using them to travel to the same destination!

It's well worth the download, Gregor. The Heart Sutra is a powerful teaching especially when commented on by a teacher of the caliber of Master Hua.

Thanks for the comments, guys;

Robin CHAN said...


Thanks for the review, this is one of favorite sutra.

G said...

You're welcome Robin.

Interesting opening line there - I'll contemplate that one...

puthujjana said...

Hi G,

Another wonderful review! Some may not realize that it is largely due to Master Hua's generosity and respect for all traditions that Ajahn Chah's followers were able to establish Abhayagiri Monastery in California. The story of how the name Abhayagiri was chosen, I think, is a valuable lesson for us all.
A bit of history can be found here:

Therevada remains the primary focus and inspiration for my own practice. It was never really a choice or preference. It's just the way it is. Kamma? Learning style? Who knows? :-) But it is always a gift to learn from any of the great teachers, which can only enrich one's practice and understanding of the Buddha's teachings.


G said...

Ajahn Brahm has talked of the fact that Buddhism is Buddhism, whether of one flavor or another. And along with Master Hua & the other senior disciples in their respective traditions, Ajahn Brahm's a great teacher too, isn't he?

Being true to one's Path while still open to learning from other ways shows some real wisdom, Kris.


Anonymous said...

This is the Heart Sutra with the Venerable Master's commentary: