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Living the Heart Sutra: What's an Ordinary Sentient Being to Do?

On Sunday, March 1, 2009, Harry Miller, who studied with Master Sheng Yen for over 30 years, gave a talk at CMC entitled, "Living the Heart Sutra: What's an Ordinary Sentient Being to Do?" Handouts on the structure of the Heart Sutra, a literal translation of the sutra based on the Chinese, and a commonly known version of the sutra were distributed to the audience.

Master Sheng Yen has said that the Heart Sutra should be considered a tool for practicing the path of the bodhisattva, which is that of compassion, developing the mind of bodhicitta, and helping all sentient beings.

There are many versions and translations of the sutra and a marked discrepancy between the Chinese and English versions. It is said that the sutra was originally told by Avalokitesvara when the bodhisattva is at an advanced stage of spiritual development.

The title, "Prajnaparamita" (Sanskrit) means "the highest" or "crossing over to the other shore". "Pra" means "before" and "jna" means "consciousness" or "knowledge".

The term "deep" can be interpreted in two ways—the spiritual level of the bodhisattva, or wisdom, not merely for self-liberation, but for the sake of all sentient beings. Thus, "parasamgate" implies that all beings together cross over to the other shore.

Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of compassion, appears only in this sutra and none of the other Prajna sutras. In the Chinese version, Avalokitesvara is referred only as "the Perceiver of Freedom". Avalokitesvara or Guan Yin is all beings who take the path of the bodhisattva. "When" implies the here and now.

"Form" or "rupa" (Sanskrit) means colors, visible materiality, or appearance. "Form" can be interchanged with any of the other skandhas but is especially emphasized in the sutra because it is the most accessible and apparent of all five skandhas. "Emptiness" means that entities are illusory. It is not a negation but an affirmation of infinite possibilities. As Nagarjuna said, because of emptiness, all things are possible.

The talk concluded with a question and answer session with the audience.

Reference: Master Sheng Yen, There is No Suffering.

(By Chang Jie)

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