17th Gyalwa Karmapa"Buddhism is a way of life through which we develop the qualities of our mind.
This way of life is very unusual, as it is a means to attain happiness without harming others.



The Heart Sutra

by Khenpo Chodrak Rinpoche

Virginia, July 1995


Today's school of thought is very different from "the mind only" school. (note 1) I will explain it on the basis of a sutra called the Heart Sutra. This sutra belongs to the teachings on the perfecting of insight or wisdom, sometimes referred to as the "mother of all Buddhas" in the sense that it is this insight or wisdom that brings about enlightened individuals, gives birth to Buddhas.

Insight or wisdom - ultimate wisdom, is the source of all enlightened individuals. Anyone striving to attain Buddhahood, the enlightened state, must develop ultimate wisdom. Bodhisattvas must also depend on insight, as well as the Shravakas who were the founders of the Theravada. They all base their study and practice of Buddhism on insight, or ultimate wisdom. Therefore, insight is said to be the "mother who gives birth," figuratively, to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Shravakas.

Insight, or ultimate wisdom, is the source of the different stages of attainment, or realization, that are found in the Buddhist tradition. There are Shravakas, and in their tradition, the ultimate attainment is called Arhathood. There are the Pratyekabuddhas, another type of practitioner, where the emphasis is mainly on practicing alone, in solitude; though at times these practitioners also practice in groups. These two belong to the Theravada. Then there is the Bodhisattva approach. And finally there are Buddhas - enlightened individuals. These are four stages of realization that anyone following the Buddhist path may attain. All of these attainments depend upon insight, or ultimate wisdom, and cannot come about without it.

This particular sutra is called the Heart Sutra in English. The word "heart" refers to the sutra that sums up the essence of the teachings found in other sutras that are much longer and present in more detail what insight or ultimate wisdom is, and how it is attained. This one sums up all the teachings of how one attains such insight.

Any sutra has an introductory part which mentions the particular time - when historically the teachings of that sutra were given, and who gave the particular teaching. Obviously, that always goes back to Buddha Shakyamuni. One should, however, be aware that he inspired some of his closest students, so that they presented particular teachings which originated from him. Then, there is mention of the place where the teaching was given, and also who was present, and what its subject was. These five things are always mentioned in the introductory part of any sutra.

The introduction in this particular Heart Sutra says that the teaching was given ten years after Buddha Shakyamuni attained Buddhahood. He only gave this teaching that one time and never repeated it. Therefore, that particular time is regarded as very auspicious. The teachings in the sutra were given by Buddha Shakyamuni, who throughout many lifetimes engaged in the Bohdisattva's way of life through which he attained Buddhahood, the final goal of the Bodhisattva path.

One should be aware that Buddha Shakyamuni was a regular human being like us. He started out in the same way as other people start on a spiritual path. He was not some sort of "other worldly being" who had conditions or capacities that other human beings do not have.

If one takes a day in Buddha Shakyamuni's life, his life style would be as follows. He always got up very early, at approximately 4 a.m. He would wash his face and mouth and then begin his morning practice of meditation for an hour or two. Then he would dress in his robes and go into a nearby village or city together with the monks who stayed with him. The Buddha would live in a place quite far from any village or city, so it would take quite some time to walk there to beg for their meal which they took at noon. The family who offered that day's meal to Buddha Shakyamuni would always receive a teaching from him in their home. Then, the Buddha would return to his dwelling, which often would be a monastic building, and in those days they were quite simple. He would then go and see if the shrine room had been swept by the monk or nun who was supposed to do it on that particular day. If not, the Buddha himself would sweep the floor and clean up. Then he would go back to his quarters and wash his feet, which was necessary since they all walked barefoot. Then he would take an afternoon nap, and after that he would shower. Then he would instruct the monks and nuns in the monastery and give them personal advice as well as advise regarding their practice.

There would always be people from the village and neighboring areas who would come to receive a teaching. After the teaching, he would go for a short walk to relax a bit. In the evening he would do his evening session of meditation, and by then it would probably be 9:30 p.m. or so. Then he would walk around in the grounds of the monastery because it was cool and refreshing in the evening. Then he would go back to his quarters to sleep. Buddha Shakyamuni did this every day of his life as a Buddha for 45 years. However, he traveled extensively. When I say travel, I mean by foot. There were no other forms of transportation in those days. For nine months of the year the Buddha would walk around India. During three months in the summer he would remain in one place. Through this he established the tradition of doing a three month summer retreat every year. When traveling on foot, he would cover approximately 15 or 20 kilometers (10-15 miles) a day, and wherever he was offered his noon meal he would give a teaching for the people of that village.

If one looks, one will realize he lived a very simple life in terms of his dwelling. There is a place called Kushinagara where part of his dwelling has been preserved. It has been found that Buddha's dwelling consisted of two rooms, a bedroom and a larger room where he taught. The bedroom was very small, 8 x 10 feet., the other, where he taught his students, was a bit larger. In terms of clothing he only had two robes, so that he would have a robe to wear while the other was being washed and dried.

Buddha Shakyamuni, since he was Enlightened, could teach those who sought his advice on the basis of their own individual capacity. He had full awareness of each and every individual's mental inclination toward one way of practice or another. He was able to teach in many unusual ways such as performing miracles for those who would benefit from it. Because of his heightened capacity to perceive the state of mind of any given individual, he was able to give advice suited to that particular person or being. It is said that not only human beings sought his instructions but also non-human beings.

Before passing away the Buddha gave the complete teachings of the Theravada to those inclined towards this approach, and to those inclined towards the Bodhisattva path, he gave the complete teachings of that path. Two months before he passed away, he told his students which day and month it would happen. It is said that he made five hundred different aspiration prayers before passing away.

When looking at his lifestyle, one becomes well aware that it was very simple. The traditional Indian dress for men consists of a white cotton cloth tied to the body - it is called dhoti in Hindi. Buddha Shakyamuni would ask someone who had worn out his dhoti to give it to him. When someone who had been wearing this piece for a couple of months was about to discard it, the Buddha would ask for it, die it in the color of a monastic robe - saffron, and he would wear it. That is how simple a life he led. Buddha Shakyamuni had many students who were extremely wealthy. Many of the kings of what is today known as India were his disciples, and they would at times, out of devotion for him, offer robes that were woven with golden thread and had a very high value. One piece of such clothing may have been worth $100,000. He would wear it for a few days, for the sake of the student who offered it to him, and then give it away. He wouldn't keep that type of clothing. This is the person who gave the teachings we are trying to follow.

The place where he gave the Heart Sutra was on top of a hill located near a small town, which at that time was called Rajgir; it was a small kingdom. Vulture Peak is the name of the hill where he gave the teaching. There was a small seat for the Buddha, a slab of stone, where he sat while he thought. In the sutra it is referred to as his "throne-like seat," but one should be aware that it was merely a slab of stone. The Buddha gave the teachings on the Heart Sutra to those who were present - followers of the Theravada and followers of the Bodhisattva path. Followers of this aspect of the Theravada are called Shravakas in Sanskrit. There were many present who received this teaching.

As we all know, the major part of today's India is flat land; only in the Northern part do you find mountains. Rajgir is located in the flat land. Vulture Peak is referred to as a great mountain, only because most people in India are not familiar with real mountains, since most of the country is flat. Therefore they refer to a hill as a "great mountain," like the "Sky Mountain" found in Denmark. It is a hill outside of Copenhagen, elevated only 200 meters (600 feet) above sea level. I am telling you this in case you go to Rajgir some day and are surprised to find just a hill, when the literal wording in the Sutra mentions a great mountain.

At this particular place, Buddha Shakyamuni gave all the teachings of the Prajnaparamita - the perfection of ultimate wisdom. For a period of seven years, during three months in the summer retreat, he stayed at this place and gave these teachings.

The great Sangha who was present was made up of a monastic community - those who had taken full monastic vows. Both monks and nuns were part of it. The sutra speaks first of the monastic community, the ordinary individuals who have not yet attained fruition in the Therevada approach, then about the great Sangha, great spiritual community, which is made up of those who had attained fruition in the Therevada - the state of an Arhat. Each of the three stages that occur prior to attaining the state of an Arhat involve a particular level of realization.

There are four levels of fruition (note 2) in the Theravada. All approaches in the Buddhist path (Theravada, Mahayana, etc.) are made up of five stages. (note 3) The third stage of the Buddhist path is called the path of seeing, and one who has attained this has a direct perception of the nature of reality, or has had a glimpse of it. On the first level of the four levels of fruition in the Theravada there is an initial glimpse of the true nature of reality - that is the path of seeing the nature of reality in this particular approach. It includes 16 successive instances (note 4) where the insight into the essences of the individual progressively expands to come to full fruition. The first of the four levels in the Shravaka approach is the stage where the person, for the first time, directly perceives the essencelessness of the individual - that there is no real person.

In general, samsara, or conditioned existence in which we are trapped according to Buddhism, is made up of three different kinds of existences called: the realm of desire, the realm of form, and the realm of no form. To be reborn in the desire realm, certain causes and conditions must come together. After an individual who practices the Theravada approach attains the second of the four levels of realization on that path, he has not yet completely eliminated all causes for rebirth in the desire realm, therefore he will again return to the desire realm. However, one should not misunderstand what it means when it is said that he will again be reborn in the desire realm. We all live in this realm, but the practitioner who has attained this level does not have the strong, obscuring states of mind like we do. These individuals, though they are reborn in the desire realm, are developed to the extent that they automatically continue the practice which will result in their attaining the state of an Arhat.

The amount of effort the practitioner at this level makes will determine how long it will take to attain the third stage of realization, at which point he no longer will be reborn in the desire realm. For those practitioners who are able to put a lot of effort into their practice, it takes only one more lifetime. For those of middling capacity, it may take seven or eight lifetimes. For those who are not able to make a lot of effort, who are by nature more lazy, it may take about fourteen lifetimes. But for the person who has attained the second level of realization, the time to attain the third stage will never be longer than 14 lifetimes. When referring to the person who does not make much of an effort, one should be aware that it is "lazy" speaking figuratively, not literally. Having attained the third stage of realization on the Shravaka path, the practitioner will never again be reborn in the desire realm. At this stage, he will have eliminated all causes that would produce that rebirth. However, it is possible that he may be reborn in either of the two other realms, which make up conditioned existence - the realm of form and the realm of no form.

The fourth level of realization, the state of an Arhat, is the ultimate goal of the Theravada path. At this point, the individual will never again be reborn into samsara. One may wonder how an Arhat awakens to the Mahayana path. Bodhisattvas and Buddhas come back to work for the benefit of others. How does the Arhat, having awakened to the Mahayana, come back to benefit others in this world? The answer is that they manifest an illusory form, in this or any other world where, beings are to be taught and trained but they are not able to be reborn into this world.

You have these two different Sanghas, so to speak. There is the Sangha at large, the ordinary Sangha. This sutra refers to them as the monastic Sangha. These are people who have not attained any of these levels of realization. Then there is the great Sangha, which is made up of people who have attained these levels of realization. Those people were present when the Buddha gave the teachings on the Heart Sutra.

The same two divisions exist among the students of the Buddha who were following the path of the Bodhisattva. There were ordinary Bodhisattvas and those who have attained one of the ten stages of a Bodhisattva. There were men and women in both groups. When speaking of the community of ordinary Bodhisattvas, one is speaking of people who have generated a state of mind determined to attain Buddhahood in order to benefit others. A Bodhisattva is someone who has developed what is called Bodhicitta. (note 5) This includes the first two of the five stages that make up the entire Buddhist path. The first two stages are the path of accumulation and the path of unification, and individuals on either of these paths are members of the community made up of ordinary Bodhisattvas. Then, there are great Bodhisattvas. This term always refers to those who have attained the third of the five paths - the path of seeing - direct perception of the nature of reality. Here one has insight into the essencelessness of both the individual and all other phenomena. In fact, when speaking of great Bodhisattvas, one refers to those on the three last stages of the Bodhisattva path, the 8th, 9th, and 10th stages. One example would be the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (in Sanskrit) or Chenrezig (in Tibetan). Then you have Bodhisattvas on the first seven of the ten stages, starting with those who have attained direct perception of reality. Those on the first seven stages are referred to as ordinary. When Buddha gave the Heart Sutra teachings, some of those who were present were of the Theravada and some were of the Mahayana schools.

In terms of the Buddhist community at large, there were four divisions at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni. The same principles are applied to today's Buddhist community. There is the group of lay practitioners who would have a lifestyle that may include a range of commitments. Traditionally, there are five vows that a lay practitioner can take, but he does not have to commit himself to all five. He could also commit himself to just one thing, for example not to lie. Within this group there are two groups - male and female lay practitioners. Then there are those who have taken full monastic ordination, a group of males and a group of females. In that respect, the Buddhist community is made up of four groups.

The Sutra mentions those members of the Buddhist community who were present, and one would find members of all four groups. These were people who had already developed insight to a great extent, had developed a lot of compassion, and had very good karmic potentials for receiving and understanding the particular teachings that were given, the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra expounds on the Prajnaparamita - the perfection of wisdom.

In terms of how teachings were given, there were two different aspects. Some teachings were spoken by the Buddha himself. Others were given through the Buddha's inspiration to one of his students, such as a great Bodhisattva or an Arhat. The Buddha, while resting in samadhi, a stable meditation state, would influence this disciple to give a teaching. This particular sutra came about on the basis of that type of inspiration generated by the Buddha. The particular samadhi - the meditation state he was resting in at this time - is referred to as the "dawn of the profound." The "profound" refers to the deep and profound nature of reality being emptiness. Through the power of his meditative state, the Buddha was able to inspire and influence the student who was giving the teaching to the point where the "profound", the meaning of emptiness, dawned in the mind of that student. The Buddha was able to give the teaching about emptiness in this way. Two students of the Buddha, inspired in this way by the power of Buddha's meditation, were the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig), and the great Arhat Shariputra. Through the inspiration of the Buddha, these two had a discussion about emptiness that would clarify the nature of emptiness to those present and listening.


Note 1
The "Mind Only School" belongs to the Mahayana approach. It is also called "Cittamatra" or "Yogacharya." The followers of the Cittamatra School believe in a truly existent consciousness, basing their understanding on one of Buddha's sutras in which is said that "all the three realms are just mind."
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Note 2
Four levels of fruition of the Theravada:
1: "The One who enters the Stream" or the ones who have entered the stream of moments which constitutes the path of seeing (they have reached a certain perfection).
2: "The Ones who will return" once again to the desire realm.
3: "The Ones who will not return" to the desire realm but will return once more to the form and formless realms.
4: "Arhat."
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Note 3
The five stages of the path are: path of accumulation, path of junction, path of seeing, path of cultivation, path of no more learning.
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Note 4
The sixteen instances: when attaining the path of seeing, the Four Noble Truths are realized in sixteen aspects (each Noble Truth is divided into four aspects: "forbearance" and "understanding" which involve the purification of obscurations of the desire realm; "subsequent forbearance" and "subsequent understanding" which involve the purification of the obscurations of the form- and formless realms).
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Note 5
Bodhicitta - lit. the mind of enlightenment. On the relative level, it is the wish to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all beings. On the absolute level, it is the direct insight into the ultimate nature.
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Reproduced here with kind permission.
Talk originally appeared in :

Kagyu Life International, Vol.4, 1995
Copyright ©1995 Kamtsang Choling USA

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