Sunday, June 26, 2022

nifty: the Heart Sutra in Chinese, with translation

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translation, but it's cool that I found this site showing the Heart Sutra—one of the shortest and most metaphysical sutras in Buddhism—in Chinese, with concise English translations. The site itself warns that one-to-one translations aren't always possible, which only makes sense, but that does mean the reader should approach the translation with a measure of skepticism and his or her own scholarly resources at the ready (for me, that's primarily the Naver hanja online dictionary). Two of my favorites phrases from the sutra are pregnant with metaphysical meaning:

1. 諸法空相: all-dharmas-emptiness-character
2. 色即是空 空即是色: form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form

To me, these two phrases sum up the central concept of the Heart Sutra. The term dharmas in the first phrase can be translated, in this context, as "phenomena," i.e., things, so all-dharmas-emptiness-character means that all things have the character of emptiness. This basically means that nothing is permanent; everything is in a constant state of flux or process, and nothing can ever define itself in terms of itself: all existence is relational. Who am I? You know me by my relationships: a son, a brother, a friend, an employee. You know me by my activities: writing, walking, drawing, eating, cooking. There's no "me" floating out in space, a monad separate from everything: I am who I am thanks to context, thanks to circumstances. I am inextricably a part of the world around me. Shifting gears a bit, but still focusing on relationality: there are strong hints of this relational thinking in Western culture, as when Ferdinand de Saussure states that, when we define a thing, then by implication, we define what it is not. For example: the moment I say "cat," you know I'm not talking about a dog, a house, the sky, etc. The word cat implies an infinity of things that the cat is not, and thus a cat exists in a semantic or conceptual relationship with those things (an oppositional relationship, to be sure, but still a relationship). Also: the concept of a cat, as I contended years ago, automatically implies the rest of the universe: a cat has lungs, ears, eyes, feet, a stomach, and a mouth, so it must exist in a place with air, sounds, sights, ground, and food. You can deduce a universe in which cats make sense, and you can do this mental exercise with anything—not just cats. Anyway, for the cosmos, for existence, to be empty means that it is empty of something. What is that something? I've already indirectly said what it is, but I'll spell it out: empty of permanence, empty of aseity (from the Latin a se, in-itself, so self-being or in-itself-ness). This is philosophically meaty stuff, and those four Chinese characters encapsulate that.

The second phrase is just as meaty, but maybe it's easier to explain. Stare at waves long enough, and you'll get the idea that the waves are constantly changing in form, but because you're able to see the waves as they change in form, you intuit an underlying principle: impermanence. Through the shifting, impermanent waves you see, you intuit the principle of impermanence which, paradoxically, is a constant principle (in the West, we have the proverb that the only thing that is constant is change). And if you were to start from the principle that physical things are impermanent, you'd expect the world of concrete forms to be constantly shifting and changing according to rhythms and seasons, accidents and urges, harmonies and conflicts, pushing and pulling, etc. Form allows you to see emptiness in action; emptiness allows you to expect form to be impermanent.

Psychologically and morally, all of this is important for what it means about how we face the world. It's sad when people die, or when fun events end, or when something good starts to sour or mundane. But it is the way of things constantly to change, and deeply recognizing this allows us a sort of deep comfort and serenity. This is why I take comfort in the Heart Sutra. It's an important sacred scripture that makes a fundamental metaphysical point—a point that echoes into the moral and the emotional. It lacks what Karen Armstrong has called "the drama of monotheism," with its loving rays of divine light and booming, heavenly voices; the sutra may seem dry and overly intellectual at first, but give it time, contemplate its meaning, and you'll start to feel something more than just dry, apodictic thought.

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