View Full Version : Heart Sutra and Sarvastivada

Kelly M.
12-10-2007, 06:35 PM
Hello All,

I have recently finished reading Red Pine’s translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra. If I understand correctly, the author of this sutra (whoever that may be) is writing a response to misconceptions surrounding of the Sarvastivada Abdhidharma, and is basically contrasting (or perhaps nullifying) all the main pillars of Sarvastivada knowledge by exposing them in the light of perfect wisdom (Prajnaparamita). I guess you could say the author (or Avalokiteshvara in the case of this dialogue) is exposing all the biggest fingers that point to the moon as only fingers, and the moon as being something far beyond the fingertip.

Anyways, I didn’t really understand who the Sarvastivadans were besides ‘an old mainstream sect of Buddhism’. But I noticed in the recent E-Sangha thread, in Jundo’s quotation of Malcom Smith’s email, Malcom refers to the Tibetan practice (what I had always considered Vajrayana) as “Mula-sarvastivada [Tibetan]”.

So this got me thinking, was the Heart Sutra written as a criticism of the practices of the Tibetan tradition (or at least Tibetan’s ancestral lineage)? Was it a sort of poke to say that wisdom should take precedence over the compilation of knowledge?

And whether aimed at them or not, how does the Tibetan tradition view the Heart Sutra?

Just some curiosity on my part. If anyone has any insights please share.

Cheers and Gassho,

PS- Thanks again Paige, I enjoyed the read!

12-10-2007, 07:59 PM
Dear Kelly,

I will have to do some research on this. Not exactly an everyday question! Let me look into it, and see what I find.

Any of our Heart Sutra scholars have an opinion?

I know that the Tibetans chant the Heart Sutra, and it is beautiful in the Tibetan language.

http://www.silcom.com/~eclarson/heartsutra/ (http://http://www.silcom.com/~eclarson/heartsutra/)

http://www.silcom.com/~eclarson/heartsu ... /hs01.html (http://http://www.silcom.com/~eclarson/heartsutra/hs-mp3/hs01.html)

Gassho, Jundo

12-11-2007, 06:02 AM
I've not read much on Heart Sutra, and I really should do some study on it.

But, I do happen to read the Heart Sutra quite often . . . a few times a day.

So my commentary on it only stems from my own opinion and perhaps misguided conceptions. However, I do think it is important for us to come to our own understanding of such things and not overly rely on the interpertations of others.

I think the Heart Sutra defines the utmost truth or wisdom behind Buddhist theory and practice. It points not just beyond worldly views and ego, but beyond sacred sutras, beyond enlightenment even. It shows that not only is there nothing to attain, it points to the indescribable nature of things that we only touch through our experience of practice and life. My words do not do it justice, they could never hope to.

12-11-2007, 06:37 AM
Hi Kelly,

Greg says it well: You must make these writings your own [and you them], and not worry so much on the interpretations of others.

That being said, a little history is interesting and helpful in doing so. (This will be the second time today I will have to give an overly long historical response to a question).

Kelly wrote:

Anyways, I didn’t really understand who the Sarvastivadans were besides ‘an old mainstream sect of Buddhism’. But I noticed in the recent E-Sangha thread, in Jundo’s quotation of Malcom Smith’s email, Malcom refers to the Tibetan practice (what I had always considered Vajrayana) as “Mula-sarvastivada [Tibetan]”.

So this got me thinking, was the Heart Sutra written as a criticism of the practices of the Tibetan tradition (or at least Tibetan’s ancestral lineage)? Was it a sort of poke to say that wisdom should take precedence over the compilation of knowledge?

And whether aimed at them or not, how does the Tibetan tradition view the Heart Sutra?

Here is the short answer: The Sarvastivadans are a vanished sect of early Buddhism that stood for the position "phenomena exist [in Buddhism, we say "Dharmas exist"]". The Heart Sutra [and related Prajnaparamita literature] held, among other points, that phenomena are empty and do not ultimately exist [or, maybe, we can say that phenomena, including Kelly, exist but do not exist]. An overly detailed discussion is at the bottom of this mail.

Sarvastivadans are not the Mulasarvastivadans, a different early sect [whose down the line branch is said to be the lineage in Tibet mentioned.] See,
http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/ar ... ation.html (http://http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/study/history_buddhism/buddhism_tibet/details_tibetan_history/history_mulasarvastivada_ordination.html)

The Heart Sutra was not a criticism of Tibetan practices, and Tibetans chant and study the Heart Sutra.

http://www.buddhistinformation.com/on_t ... _sutra.htm (http://http://www.buddhistinformation.com/on_the_heart_sutra.htm)

Now, for MUCH more information than you probably wanted on the Heart Sutra as a response to the Sarvastivadans [who should not be confused with the Mulasarvastivadans], you may read the following. :-)

Gassho, Jundo

First of all, let me say aword about the Abhidharma, in other words the tradition of which Sariputra was the
reputed founder. Early Buddhism classified, as we've seen, the whole of existence under the headings of the
five skandhas. Whatever you could find, anywhere, it could either be classified as rupa (form), or feelings
or perceptions, and so on. But the Abhidharma tradition rejected this five skandha classification. It wasn't
quite scientific enough for the Abhidharma. And the Abhidharma replaced the original five skandha
classification with a four-fold classification into: FORM, THOUGHT, MENTAL CONCOMITANTS and
MISCELLANEOUS. And each of these was sub-divided, again and again. And these ultimate sub-divisions ofthese four categories, these coincide withor these are the dharmas; in other words the irreducible elements beyond which analysis cannot go. [JUNDO COMMENT]

Now according to the Sarvastivada, one of the most important if not the most important school of the
Hinayana, there are seventy-two of these dharmas, seventy-two. And these are known as the Seventy-two
conditioned dharmas, the seventy-two ultimate irreducible elements to which the whole of phenomenal
conditioned existence can be reduced. And there's also a much shorter list of three unconditioned dharmas,
consistingof space and the two kinds of nirvana. So altogether you've gotseventy-fivedharmas. So these are
the famous, not to say celebrated seventy-fivedharmas of the Sarvastivada school. And theywere classified
in various ways. And we may say that the early abhidharmikas had a great deal of fun classifying and
cataloguing their dharmas in all sorts of different ways. First of all, as we've seen, they classified them into
conditionedand unconditioned: there were seventy-two which wereconditioned, whicharosebywayofcause
andcondition; andthree which were not conditioned, which wereeternal, in that wayseventy-fivealtogether.
Then they classified them into dharmas which were produced and dharmas which were stopped; and then
dharmas which were defiled and dharmas which were not defiled; and then dharmas which were complete
and dharmas which were not complete. I've no time to go into details. I just want to give you a general idea
of the whole thing, the whole field, for reasons which you shall understand in a minute.
Now Avalokitesvara, in his second great statement, asserts that all these dharmas are empty. All these
dharmas, that is to say the seventy-five dharmas of the Sarvastivada, the whole apparatus as it were of
scholasticism is empty. Now what does this mean? It means not ultimately real. It means that the whole
elaboratestructureof the seventy-five dharmas(andbelieve me, it was an elaborate structure- I'm sure you've
no idea how elaborate it was - there's volume upon volume upon volume of analysis and co-ordination of
dharmas, and all sorts of things like that; you can understand perhaps how complicated it did all become
when they worked out in some schools the scores upon scores of different types of relationship between
dharmas, and that gave them tens of thousands of permutations) but according to Avalokitesvara all this, all
thissystemrepresents onlya provisional intellectual structure.All the dharmasare empty,not ultimatelyreal,
must go beyond. So withthis statement, that all dharmas are empty,Avalokitesvara destroys as it were with
onestroke the entire edifice of Abhidharma scholasticism. He says it's all right as far as it goes. Yes, it carries you quite a long distance, it helps dispel this gross illusion that things are things and persons are persons. It enables you to get a bit deeper than that but the dharmas themselves are not really ultimate. The dharmas
themselves,this wholecomplex, elaboratesystem of analysis and classification is only aproduct of the subtle
mental activity, the subtle activity of the mind. And it represents a subtle veil and a subtle delusion which
must ultimately be transcended. So all dharmas are empty. There's a more general application of this great
statement: we can say, generalising, that perfect wisdom destroys all philosophies. It destroys all attempts to give a systematic, intellectual account of reality, whether philosophical or, we may say, scientific, whether
that of the Abhidharma or any other. So with this second great statement, 'all dharmas are empty',
Avalokitesvara representing perfect wisdom destroys, smashes, pulverises if you like, all systematic
intellectual constructions about reality. But this is the only way you can get to reality, by getting rid of, by
destroying your ideas about reality, however subtle, however sophisticated, however convincing they may
seem to be. All dharmas are empty.

Third statement:
This is the corollary of the previous statement. The more positive counterpart if you like of the previous
statement. It means, or rather it suggests that realityis quite bare as it were, quite pure as it were. It's devoid
of all our intellectual constructions, all our philosophies, all our concepts. Theyare ours. Theybelong to us.
They do not belong to reality. Reality knows nothing about them. Reality knows nothing about the
Abhidharma. It knows nothing about anyphilosophy of ours, nothing about any system, and soon. We might
evensay - anthropomorphizing a little - that realityrejects all our philosophies,rejectsall our systems, rejects
allour thoughts. In sunyatathere's no distinction whatsoever of conditioned and unconditioned dharmas, and
pure dharmas and defiled dharmas. In sunyata, in reality, all such dualisms are transcended. Soin this third
great statement, that in sunyata no dharmas exist, Avalokitesvara drives home, he reinforces his previous
statement and he makes it clear that reality, sunyata, voidness, is absolutely bare as it were, pure as it were,
of all these concepts, all these philosophies, all these systematic intellectual approaches. It's just like the sky
-this is a veryfavourite, a very famous image inMahayana Buddhism - it's just like the skywithout any cloud
whatsoever. The clouds may sometimes be very beautiful, especially at sunset; you may get beautiful red
clouds, golden clouds, but theyobscure the naked brilliance of the skyitself. The reality, sunyata, in its true
state, above and beyond all our thoughts about it, our systems, is just like the pure cloudless sky. So, in
sunyata no dharmas exist.

12-11-2007, 06:41 AM
Hi Kelly,

I'm almost positive that it's nothing to do with any Tibetan tradition.

The Sarvastivada were an Early Buddhist School that split after one of the Theravadin councils (the 2nd?) over the contents and interpretation of the Abhidharma (I think). The Sarvastivadin Abhidharma Pitaka was transmitted to India and China, and was very influential - it only exists now in Chinese and fragments of transliterated Sanskrit.

I believe that the Tibetan lineages (I think all of them, but I know less than nothing about Bon) trace themselves to the Indian Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school. This is Nagarjuna's famous "all things are empty of self-nature" idea, Nagarjuna was quite critical of some sections of the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma. Apparently the Sarvastivadins liked to make a lot of lists and break things down into component parts - ending in indestructible atoms (or some such thing... it's been a while since I studied this and I've lost most of my notes).

Nagarjuna was somewhere around 100CE. The 1st Prajnaparamitra sutras (8000 lines, I think) dates to around 100BCE. Nagarjuna's somehow given credit for some of the later Prajnaparamitra works, I'm not sure which ones. The story is that a giant snake taught it to him while he was sitting at the bottom of a lake (I'm not making that up!).

Madhyamaka teachings were very influential in China too. At some point, the Yogacara arose in response, the two schools went back and forth for quite a while, formed a lot of blended schools, and the Sarvastivada got pretty much forgotten.

...or something like that....

edit: whoops, crossed posts with Jundo. Now I sound repetitive.

12-11-2007, 01:41 PM
Hi Kelly,

If you're interested in learning more about the 18 original Hinayana schools and the subsequent Mahayana schools in some detail, you should have a look at 'Buddhist Thought in India' by Edward Conze. It deals with historical as well as philosophical aspects of the development of Buddhism and is IMHO a 'must read'.


Kelly M.
12-11-2007, 03:54 PM
Thank you all or your replies! Jundo, I enjoyed that quote.


12-12-2007, 08:54 PM

Thanks for sharing that quote, where did you get it from? I'm interested in reading the entire article.



12-12-2007, 09:06 PM
Sorry Greg. I should have put the URL.

http://chinese.freebuddhistaudio.com/te ... _Sutra.pdf (http://http://chinese.freebuddhistaudio.com/texts/lecturetexts/download/074_The_Heart_Sutra.pdf)

In HTML ... cd=1&gl=us (http:// dio.com/texts/lecturetexts/download/074_The_Heart_Sutra.pdf+%22of+all+our+intellectual +constructions,%22+all+our+philosophies,+all+our+c oncepts.+Theyare+ours.+Theybelong+to+us.&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=1&gl=us)

The author is the founder, Ven. Sangharakshita, is the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Gassho, J

12-13-2007, 12:30 AM
Thanks Jundo,

12-13-2007, 06:08 PM
Hello Kelly and to all others here:
I don't have time like I used to, being back at work and all....and it's a bit daunting, dropping by and seeing so many topics and comments in the forum (and by the way welcome welcome so many new leafs here at Treeleaf!!)--anyway, this topic prompted thoughts I wanted to share:
I think it is helpful to read as many translations as you can come across. For me, vast and subtle inklings of understanding glimmer for milliseconds when I read different texts--it feels like (for me) that the text(s) are like a net, trying to catch this essence, and then it gets conceptualized and ceases to be its living-ness.
But the mind is in the habit (of conceptualizing--isn't conceptualizing a fast-food method, the mind using short hand instead of cooking everything itself fresh from scratch?)
Anyway it is when I look at two different translations, side by side and the very subtle differences between the words chosen, that for a brief second, I can see in the space between the two concepts what the concepts are pointing to, for this reason, I really am very glad there are different schools and different lineages and different translations. In a way, just as eyesight requires two eyes (and the distance between them) to paralax, and thus arrive at depth perception, I believe also, it is helpful for mind to have two different conceptual 'stances' from which to arrive at an understanding which has 'depth'.
Sorry, if this ramble of mine is confusing or clouding what I perhaps should just leave alone...we all find our own way, ultimately--there is no one else to do it, and there is no other way.

gots to go now--I've spent too much, far too much time, but I've loved every moment!


12-14-2007, 12:21 AM
This has been a fascinating and informative thread. Thanks, all, for your contributions.



Kelly M.
12-14-2007, 02:03 PM
Thank you Keishin and Gassho.


12-20-2007, 01:29 AM
I get a big kick out of the heart sutra. All the contradictions and circular logic. I think its trying to tell us to quit approaching the dharma(s) in a reductionist way and quit intellectualizing the heck out of it. Look at the big picture and you'll see how empty and full it is. Love it! The "no attainment and no non-attainment" part reminds me of Jundo's talks. Good stuff, that there Heart Sutra. :wink: