John Blofeld on the Chan School and the Heart Sutra
Excerpts from The Jewel in the Lotus: An Outline of Present Day Buddhism in China, published by Sidgwick & Jackson for The Buddhist Society, 1948, and Gateway to Wisdom, published by Allen & Unwin, 1980, by John Blofeld.
Chapter X: The Meditation Sect
This sect, more generally known in Europe by its Japanese name of Zen, is called Ch’an Tsung in Chinese, Ch’an being the equivalent of the Sanskrit word dhyana (meditation) and tsung meaning a sect. It has for over a thousand years been one of the most influential sects in the country and has played a great part in the development of Chinese philosophy and art, as well as making a peculiar impression of the psychology of the Chinese people. The interest which its doctrines have aroused in certain circles in the West is partly due to the labours of Dr. D. T. Suzuki, but mainly to the extreme freshness of its doctrines and the attitude to life of its adherents, which is in such sharp contrast to that of other religious groups.
The principle doctrine of the sect is that Nirvana can be attained in this life as the result of an experience known as sudden Enlightenment, which connotes sudden apprehension of our real nature and of the fact that this nature is identical with that of the ultimate reality underlying the appearances of all phenomena. […]
The word ch’an (dhyana) can be rendered into English as “meditation” or “pure thought”. Adherents of the Meditation Sect emphasise the importance of attaining Enlightenment through carefully directed concentration of mind and certain mental exercises, holding that the study of the scriptures is a much more uncertain road to that goal. Having little belief in the efficacy of words and acquired knowledge, they call their doctrine “a teaching beyond teaching”. Their method is to practise the eradication of wayward thoughts by concentration and to open their minds to that intuitive knowledge, which, they believe, will come to them as the result of prolonged mental efforts to obtain it. They hope to be able to recognise and understand the “intrinsically pure essence of mind” which is the common possession of all, though few are aware of it. This “essence of mind” is said to be our Buddha-nature, our true nature, obscured by the darkness of desire, aversion and ignorance, but of unchanging and unchangeable purity in itself. By intuitive wisdom, the fruit of rightly performed meditation, we can grasp this nature and realise that the individual is in reality a Buddha, or looked at from a wider point of view, “one with Buddha” and, indeed, the whole Universe. This method is still practised today by millions of people throughout the Far East, but often accompanied by the methods for obtaining Enlightenment advocated by other Buddhist sects.
Moreover, though Ch’an is called a wordless teaching, several books are now popular with the adherents of the Meditation Sect, especially the Diamond Sutra (Vajrachedikka Sutra), the Heart Sutra (Smaller Prajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra), and the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the Exalted Teacher and Treasure of the Law. […]
The Heart Sutra contains the essence of the teachings of the Meditation Sect in a very few words, and is given here in full as an example of Ch’an philosophy. It runs as follows:
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When Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was practising the profound Prajnaparamita (1), he perceived that the five congregates (2) were all void; and by so perceiving liberated himself from all sorrows. (3)
Sariputra (he said), matter differs not from void, nor void from matter. Indeed, matter is void and void is matter. And such also is the case with sensation, perception, discrimination and consciousness. (4)
Sariputra, all of these are of the nature of void. They are neither existing nor non-existing; not impure nor pure; neither growing nor decaying. Therefore in the void there is no matter, neither is there sensation or perception, discrimination or consciousness. And in it there are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. There is no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch and no knowledge. There is no that which is seen by the eye, heard by the ear, etc. up to no that which is conceived by the mind; no ignorance nor ignorance exterminated; no decay and no death, nor are they extirpated; no sorrow nor cause of sorrow, nor extinction of sorrow nor way to its extinction. There is no wisdom, nor anything to be gained by it. Because nothing is gained, so one is a Bodhisattva. Because of the Prajnaparamita, the mind is liberated. Because the mind is liberated, so one is free from worry and ignorant thoughts and can attain to the supreme Nirvana. (5)
All the Buddhas of the three periods attained supreme Buddhahood by way of Prajnaparamita. Therefore it is known that Prajnaparamita is the most divine mantra, the unsurpassed mantra, the peerless mantra. It can assuage all sufferings and is the Truth. Therefore I teach you the mantra of the Prajnaparamita, thus:
“Gati gati paragati parasamgati bodhi svaha.”
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This translation is based on one made by the Teacher of the Dharma, Wei Huan (惟幻法師), a disciple of the Venerable T’ai Hsü (太虛法師). The meaning of the Sanskrit words of the mantra at the end is: “O wisdom, gone, gone to the other shore, arrived at the other shore, svaha,” but mantras are not supposed to be thought of in relation to the exact meaning of the words of which they are composed, some of them having no apparent meaning at all; they are valued and used for the sake of their esoteric meaning and particular sound, which, it is said, help to establish contact between human beings and the spiritual being to which the mantra employed is specially appropriate.
The Heart Sutra carries to extreme length the doctrine that not only form but the Dharma itself is void. Even the Four Noble Truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the existence of a way to end suffering and the Noble Eightfold Path, which are often considered the keystones of Buddhism, are denied, though they are, of course, considered to hold true in the relative sense that anything exists at all. Thus it will be seen how the Meditation Sect emphasises the fundamental voidness of everything, including the Buddhist teaching itself, and even postulates that the consciousness of the thinker himself is void. The Buddha is represented in this sutra as having pondered over the existence of sorrow, sickness, decay and death, prescribed as an antidote in the Four Noble Truths and then, speaking as from a higher plane, to have stated emphatically that sorrow, death and the Four Noble Truths do not exist, in order to emphasise that absolutely nothing exists except in a relative sense.
Notes: For the sake of clarity, John Blofeld’s notes on the Heart Sutra, originally inserted directly into the text, have been relegated to the end of this post and are as follows.
- Arriving at the further shore by means of wisdom.
- The five congregates are matter, sensation or the effect of on the senses of matter and or phenomena, perception or the mental awareness of having received these impressions, discrimination or the mental acts of liking or disliking the objects of these impressions, and consciousness.
- Sariputra was the disciple to whom Gautama Buddha is said to have delivered this lecture.
- “That which is seen by the eye” means that which results from the contact of the eye and the object which it perceives. So, also with the other sense organs and the objects which they apprehend.
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In a later work, ‘Gateway to Wisdom’ (1980), John Blofeld returned to the Heart Sutra and its teaching:
All the ordinary teachings of the Buddha are here transcended in the light of intuition of the void nature of existence. The five skandhas or components of an individual’s seeming personality are proclaimed to be void, as are the six sense organs (including mind), the six forms of sense perception, and the six types of consciousness to which they give rise. Even such fundamental teachings are negated as the twelvefold chain of causation leading from primordial ignorance, through becoming, etc., to decay, death and rebirth; the Four Noble Truths (that existence is inseparable from suffering/frustration; that the cause of suffering is inordinate desire; that the remedy is cessation of inordinate desire/aversion; and that this results from treading the Noble Eightfold Path requiring right attitudes and conduct of both body and mind); and the attainment of Nirvana through the exercise of wisdom. All these teachings, though absolutely valid at the level of relative truth apparent to us all, are found to have no pertinence once the void nature of reality has been fully realised and conceptualisation transcended. The reference at the end of the sutra to uttering the mantra of Highest Wisdom means not that the one just utters it, but that he lives the mantra by perceiving the voidness of all concepts, entities and beings without exception. The exoteric teachings of the Buddha must most certainly not be abandoned until the intuitive experience of voidness leads to brilliant, unwavering perception of the pure, boundless, shining void. The words to be recited are as follows:
Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, while engaged in deep practice of the highest wisdom, perceived that all the five aggregates are void, and thereby passed beyond all forms of suffering.
O Sariputra, form differs not from void, nor void from form. Form IS void; void IS form. With feelings, perceptions, conditionings and consciousness it is the same. Sariputra, all these are marked by emptiness, neither coming into being nor ceasing to be, neither foul nor pure, neither increasing nor diminishing.
Therefore within the void there is no form, no sensation, perception, discrimination or consciousness; no eyes, no ears, nose, tongue, body or mind; nor form, sound, smell, taste, touch or thought; nor any of the others from eye-consciousness to mind-consciousness.
There is neither ignorance, nor extinction of ignorance, nor any of the others [twelve links of causation] down to decay and death. There is no suffering, no cause, no remedy, no path [thereto]. There is no wisdom, no attainment. Because there is nothing to be attained, Bodhisattvas, relying on this highest wisdom, are free from hindrances of mind. Being rid of these hindrances, they have no fear, are free from all upsets and delusions, and in the end attain Nirvana. It is by relying on this highest wisdom that all Buddhas of the past, the present and the future achieve Supreme Enlightenment.
Therefore do we know that the highest wisdom is a great and sacred mantra, a great mantra of knowledge, a mantra unsurpassed, unequalled. It can terminate all suffering truly and unfailingly. Therefore utter this mantra of Highest Wisdom thus – Gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté, bodhi svāhā. [gone, gone, gone beyond, wholly gone beyond! Enlightenment! Svāhā!]
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Read another translation of the Heart Sutra by Red Pine (Bill Porter):