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Emptiness and the Heart Sutra

A Home Retreat with Tejananda and Friends
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About the retreat

🧘🏽‍♀️ 🧘🏽‍♂️ Seven days of meditation, lively exploration, and strong, supportive friendship: a space to explore why the wisdom of emptiness is, precisely, compassion.

Led by Tejananda and Prasadavajri

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The Heart Sutra is one of the most familiar of all Buddhist texts and, inevitably, there are innumerable takes on ‘what it means’. How do we square the opening statement that the skandhas (our psycho–physical constituents) are ‘empty’ with the following one that ‘in emptiness’ there are no skandhas, no senses, no conditioned–arising? Early western commentators saw the sutra as full of paradox – but what if it is not an attempt to bamboozle our minds, but a hands–on method of practice and realisation?

getting ready for the retreat

additional resources

📖 Read “The Complete Works of Sangharakshita Volume 14: The Eternal Legacy / Wisdom Beyond Words” (containing Sangharakshita’s much-loved commentary on several Perfection of Wisdom texts)

Parallel versions of the Heart Sutra (from the Triratna Puja book)

The Bodhisattva of Compassion,
When he meditated deeply,
Saw the emptiness of all five skandhas
And sundered the bonds that caused him suffering.

Here then,
Form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form,
Form is only emptiness,
Emptiness only form.
Feeling, thought, and choice,
Consciousness itself,
Are the same as this.

All things are by nature void,
They are not born or destroyed;
Nor are they stained or pure,
Nor do they wax or wane.

So, in emptiness, no form,
No feeling, thought, or choice,
Nor is there consciousness.
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
No colour, sound, smell, taste, touch,
Or what the mind takes hold of,
Nor even act of sensing.

No ignorance or end of it,
Nor all that comes of ignorance;
No withering, no death,
No end of them.
Nor is there pain, or cause of pain,
Or cease in pain, or noble path
To lead from pain;
Not even wisdom to attain.
Attainment too is emptiness.

So know that the Bodhisattva
Holding to nothing whatever,
But dwelling in Prajna wisdom,
Is freed of delusive hindrance,
Rid of the fear bred by it,
And reaches clearest Nirvana.

All Buddhas of past and present,
Buddhas of future time,
Using this Prajna wisdom,
Come to full and perfect vision.

Hear then the great dharani,
The radiant peerless mantra,
The Prajnaparamita
Whose words allay all pain;
Hear and believe its truth:
gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

 

OM homage to the Illustrious Noble Perfection of Wisdom

Noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, practising the profound way of the perfection of wisdom, observed with penetrating analysis and saw five skandhas empty of intrinsic existence.

Regarding these [skandhas], Shariputra: form is emptiness, emptiness itself is form. Emptiness does not exist separately from form; form does not exist separately from emptiness, That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness is form. Likewise: feeling, determinative perception, volition and consciousness.

In these [skandhas], Shariputra, all phenomena (dharmas) are characterised by emptiness. They are not arisen, not ceased; not stained, not stainless; not deficient, not complete.

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, form does not exist, nor feeling, nor determinative perception, nor volition, nor consciousness. There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. No form, sound, smell, taste, touchable, or mental object. No eye-element, up to and including no mind-consciousness element. No ignorance, no destruction of ignorance, up to and including no old age-and-death, no destruction of old age-and-death. No suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path. No Knowledge. No attainment, no non-attainment.

Therefore, Shariputra, because Bodhisattvas have no attainment, they rely on the perfection of wisdom and dwell without mind-obscurations. Because their minds are without obscurations, they are unafraid. Going beyond confused views, they attain complete nirvana.

All Buddhas of the three times, relying on the perfection of wisdom, are fully awakened to the utmost, perfect awakening.

Therefore, one should know the perfection of wisdom to be the great mantra, the mantra of great knowledge, the unsurpassed mantra, the most unequalled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering; one should know it to be real because it is not false. In the perfection of wisdom, the mantra is recited thus: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

The Bodhisattva of Compassion,
When he meditated deeply,
Saw the emptiness of all five skandhas
And sundered the bonds that caused him suffering.

Here then,
Form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form,
Form is only emptiness,
Emptiness only form.
Feeling, thought, and choice,
Consciousness itself,
Are the same as this.

All things are by nature void,
They are not born or destroyed;
Nor are they stained or pure,
Nor do they wax or wane.

So, in emptiness, no form,
No feeling, thought, or choice,
Nor is there consciousness.
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;
No colour, sound, smell, taste, touch,
Or what the mind takes hold of,
Nor even act of sensing.
No ignorance or end of it,
Nor all that comes of ignorance;
No withering, no death,
No end of them.
Nor is there pain, or cause of pain,
Or cease in pain, or noble path
To lead from pain;
Not even wisdom to attain.
Attainment too is emptiness.

So know that the Bodhisattva
Holding to nothing whatever,
But dwelling in Prajna wisdom,
Is freed of delusive hindrance,
Rid of the fear bred by it,
And reaches clearest Nirvana.

All Buddhas of past and present,
Buddhas of future time,
Using this Prajna wisdom,
Come to full and perfect vision.

Hear then the great dharani,
The radiant peerless mantra,
The Prajnaparamita
Whose words allay all pain;
Hear and believe its truth:
gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

OM homage to the Illustrious Noble Perfection of Wisdom

Noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, practising the profound way of the perfection of wisdom, observed with penetrating analysis and saw five skandhas empty of intrinsic existence.

Regarding these [skandhas], Shariputra: form is emptiness, emptiness itself is form. Emptiness does not exist separately from form; form does not exist separately from emptiness, That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness is form. Likewise: feeling, determinative perception, volition and consciousness.

In these [skandhas], Shariputra, all phenomena (dharmas) are characterised by emptiness. They are not arisen, not ceased; not stained, not stainless; not deficient, not complete.

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, form does not exist, nor feeling, nor determinative perception, nor volition, nor consciousness. There is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind. No form, sound, smell, taste, touchable, or mental object. No eye-element, up to and including no mind-consciousness element. No ignorance, no destruction of ignorance, up to and including no old age-and-death, no destruction of old age-and-death. No suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path. No Knowledge. No attainment, no non-attainment.

Therefore, Shariputra, because Bodhisattvas have no attainment, they rely on the perfection of wisdom and dwell without mind-obscurations. Because their minds are without obscurations, they are unafraid. Going beyond confused views, they attain complete nirvana.

All Buddhas of the three times, relying on the perfection of wisdom, are fully awakened to the utmost, perfect awakening.

Therefore, one should know the perfection of wisdom to be the great mantra, the mantra of great knowledge, the unsurpassed mantra, the most unequalled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering; one should know it to be real because it is not false. In the perfection of wisdom, the mantra is recited thus: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.


Re-watch the Live PRACTICE sessions

 

Day 1: Compassion

Day 1, Session 1

Our retreat begins with a meditation contacting the benevolent intention around love and compassion which is itself present in the desire to meditate. We then move on to establishing body-based awareness – can we just inhabit our bodies?

Tejananda also gives an introduction to the theme of The Heart Sutra and what we’ll be covering over the next 7 days. Covering the significance of Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of compassion) giving this teaching, and introducing the figure of Prajnaparamita.

Finally, we have another somatic (body-based) awareness meditation, focusing on space…

Day 1, Session 2

The session begins with a meditation. First connecting with the heart centre and opening to compassion. Then moving into a kindly awareness of sensations in the energy centres and the whole body.

We are encouraged to sit in the open ocean of awareness and notice the rise and fall of experience, the shunya nature of all experience, including any arising kleshas. And in this awareness recognising that we are all connected.

The meditation ends with the Prajnaparamita mantra and a short dedication to all beings.

Day 1, Session 3

The session begins with a recap of the first session and explores how the Heart Sutra approaches emptiness, and how it is mentioned in different translations and versions. Tejananda answers some questions about the subject and later guides us in a body-awareness practice cultivating samatha, focusing on a cloud of sensations permeated by space.

In the second meditation, Tejananda guides us in expanding this body awareness, first focusing on our sense spheres and later expanding beyond the limits of our own bodies.

Day 2: Empty Forms

Day 2, Session 1

Tejananda sets up our practice today by chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese style with drumming. Then guides us in a meditation, exploring form and the boundless nature of perception through the sense gates. This is followed by a Q & A, with a shorter meditation to close the session.

Day 2, Session 2

Prasadavajri starts this session with a meditation exploring śūnyatā (‘the nature of reality experienced as empty of all fixed essence’). First, focusing on our sensations and our body awareness, then on the compassionate quality of Amitābha; we then meditate on the blue sky of śūnyatā, reflecting on interconnectedness with all beings and ending with the śūnyatā mantra.

Day 2, Session 3

 

The practice begins with chanting the Heart Sutra in the Japanese style. Tejananda then guides us in a meditation focusing on the subtle energy of the body, sometimes referred to as the central channel. A Q & A session follows, exploring what we noticed during this practice.

We finish with a second short meditation focused on the sense spheres, with an additional short Q & A session.

Day 3: Empty Feelings

Day 3, Session 1

The session starts with chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese style, accompanied by drumming. Tejananda then guides a meditation with an emphasis on just sitting, and all-pervading awareness, followed by a Q & A exploring what we noticed during this practice.

Tejananda then discusses vedana (feeling) as mentioned on the Heart Sutra in the section on form as emptiness, emptiness as form. Tejananda explores this throught the four levels of śūnyatā as discussed by Sangharakshita.

We finish this session with a short meditation focused on vedanas.

Day 3, Session 2

Prasadavajri starts this session by explaining where the chakras are located in the body, then guides a meditation exploring sensations and vedanas in relation to the content of, and responses to, everything that comes in through our senses.

Day 3, Session 3

Tejananda starts this practice session by chanting the Heart Sutra in the Japanese style, followed by discussion of the four śūnyatās. To end the day’s meditation, Tejananda guides us in exploring the emptiness of self via consideration of vedana, inquiring into the relationship between vedana and our sense of identity.

The session ends with a session of just sitting.

Day 4: Empty Recognitions

Day 4, Session 1

Today begins with Tejananda chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese style, followed by a short practice of just sitting.

Tejananda explores the phrase: “Then the Bodhisattva of compassion meditated deeply and sundered the bonds that caused him suffering”. This suffering comes from the fact that we separate ourselves from others and the world. This session focuses on saṃjñā or recognition, followed by a Q & A.

We end the session with a period of just sitting, with an emphasis on observing the arising and passing away of recognitions, or the lack of them. Tejananda guides us into inquiring into the nature of the ‘me’ doing the recognition…

Day 4, Session 2

This session starts with a meditation led by Prasadavajri, focusing on the shimmering sensations in our sense spheres, and the awareness that comes from them.

Day 4, Session 3

Our practice begins with Tejananda chanting the Heart Sutra in the Japanese style.

We’re then guided in a meditation exploring the three different energy centres in the body.

This session ends with a meditation about saṃjñā (‘recognition’, ‘perception’) leading us to inquire about the nature of our sense of ‘self’. The session concludes with a Q & A.

Day 5: Empty Proliferations

Day 5, Session 1

Tejananda starts the session with a chanting of the Heart Sutra, followed by a brief practice of just sitting.

Today’s practice focuses on the next of the five skandhas, which is saṃskāra. Tejananda starts by exploring the next section of the sutra, where it reads, “in emptiness, form does not exist” and the section that talks about the senses. he mentions that it can easily be misunderstood as nihilism, which is not what the sutra wants to convey. 

Throughout we are encouraged not to take concepts literally, as in Buddhism they are more like the proverbial ‘finger pointing at the moon’. The five skandhas may all, ultimately, be illusory, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t experiencing them!

Tejananda further introduces the saṃskāras, followed by a meditation in which he guides us in asking: “Am I having these thoughts?”

Day 5, Session 2

The session begins with Prasadavajri exploring how we usually perceive self, observing that whenever we perceive thoughts we tend to think as Descartes: “I think, therefore I am”. She encourages to focus on the “am”, but to take out the “I” from that!

We are then guided on a meditation focusing on sensations and the body chakras in relation to the arising of thoughts, all against the background of the śūnyatā nature of reality.

Day 5, Session 3

The session begins with a chanting of the Heart Sutra. Tejananda talks about the kleśas: delusion, craving and aversion, jealousy and pride. The main kleśa is delusion or avidyā, as all others emerge from this. We explore the three main pieces of training to work with the kleśas in Buddhism, which are the practice of ethics, the practice of meditation with samadhi and the dhyānas, and the development of wisdom or prajñā.  

Tejananda guides in a contemplation of the saṃskāras and kleśas, looking at self-view and vedana (feeling), separating the somatic (body-based) aspect from the mental aspect. This is followed by a Q & A.
 
Finally, Tejananda guides us in a practice “bringing the kleśas to the path”, which is a valuable method of working with all unskillful emotions.

Day 6: Empty Knowings

Day 6, Session 1

The session starts with a chanting of the Heart Sutra. Our practice focuses on consciousness or vijñāna, with Tejananda discussing the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ or prajñāpāramitā as presented in the Heart Sutra: “attainment too is emptiness”.

Enlightenment isn’t an “attainment”, but rather a seeing through our delusion of fixed and separate selfhood. We are introduced to a distinction between consciousness and the kinds of awareness we have been exploring in previous sessions.

Tejananda guides us in a meditation to focus on the heart as a gateway into non-separateness, followed by a Q & A. The session ends with a short second session of meditation.

Day 6, Session 2

The session starts with Prasadavajri chanting the Prajñāpāramitā mantra and a brief discussion about vijñāna in relation to the sense spheres, and how they have the quality of śūnyatā.

Our meditation focuses on vijñāna in the body, considering all the sense spheres and our own experience in the context of its śūnyatā nature.

Day 6, Session 3

Tejananda starts the session with a chanting of the Heart Sutra, followed by a brief practice of just sitting.

The Tejananda guides a meditation paving our way for tomorrow’s session by exploring all five skandhas and their arising through mental or physical conditions, guiding us though our self-view. Then, a Q & A follows

The session ends with a short session of just sitting.

Day 7: Prajñāpāramitā

Day 7, Session 1

Tejananda starts the session with a chanting of the Heart Sutra, and then he encourages us to go on a walk later today, but without an agenda, without any particular intention with where you are going. He invites us to notice whether there is an ‘I’ making decisions, noticing the flow of conditions around us, which shape our experience.

This session has a strong emphasis on ‘just sitting’, after investigating into the five skandhas and noticing that they are empty of a fix and seperate self, we need to sit back an just experience our deepest nature, which is that of Prajñāpāramitā.

Day 7, Session 2

Prasadavajri starts the session chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese style. She leads into a chanting of the Prajñāpāramitā mantra and then she guides us on a meditation and invites us “just being with whatever is, just go into that deathless, luminous, self-aware state”.

Day 7, Session 3

Tejananda starts this last session of the retreat by chanting the Heart Sutra in Japanese style. Here we explore the Prajñāpāramitā dhāraṇī, which embodies the essence of the Perfection of Wisdom, and the meaning it has around the emptiness of the conditioned and unconditioned.

Tejananda takes each element of the dhāraṇī and discusses what it means for us in terms of the four levels of śūnyatā as taught by Sangharakshita.

We then close the retreat in a final meditation, followed by a Q & A.

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