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Lions Roar : January 2013
philosophy and careful parsing of doctrine. (The title comes from a Tibetan Buddhist legend that some early Buddhists, on first hearing Buddha preach this sutra, went apoplectic and had heart attacks.) In Tibetan scholastic tradition, the emptiness teachings are a major topic for intellectual study, and Brunnhölzl has made this tradition completely his own, discussing the various treatises and doc- trines with ease and considerable wit. This text includes a sadhana (a visualization practice) of dazzling complexity that is an interesting supplement to the teachings. Thunderous Silence: A Practical Guide to the Heart Sutra is by the Won Buddhist teacher Dosung Yoo. A twen- tieth-century form of Korean Son (Zen) Buddhism, Won Buddhism now has a strong presence in the U.S., and Rev. Yoo is one of its most eloquent proponents. The Korean Buddhist tra- dition strikes me as admira- bly simple and clear, and this text shines brightly in those qualities. Like many other commentaries, it goes through the text line by line and in the process discusses basic Buddhist teachings thoroughly, with a delightful ease and lightness expressive of the emp- tiness teachings themselves. It features a wealth of charmingly told Korean folk stories and old Buddhist tales. Using such tales to illustrate, with humor and magical realism, the potentially abstract and phil- osophical teaching of the sutra is one of the strongest features of the Korean tradi- tion, and of this book. The key term in the Heart Sutra is the Sanskrit shunyata, usually translated into English as “emptiness.” As the sutra says in its opening lines, “all dharmas [things, phenomena] are empty.” Eyes, ears, noses, tongues, bodies, minds: all external objects—and all Buddhist teachings—are empty. In fact, the Heart Sutra is a brilliant one-page summary of the entire edifice of Buddhist psychological, epistemological, and soteriological teachings, which are enumerated and then denied. A devout and passionate Buddhist, seeing the text for the first time, may well read it as a dis- mantling of Buddhist orthodoxy (thus the heart attacks). Judging from the defen- siveness you find in other, longer texts of the shunyata literature, of which the Heart Sutra is said be the pith or “heart,” many early Buddhists probably did object to the sutra on exactly such grounds. But in fact, the Heart Sutra does not deny Buddhist teachings. It is merely shifting the ground on which the teachings stand—which changes everything. The word “emptiness” is a fair transla- tion of shunyata, but it has the drawback of sounding negative, even despairing. In English the words “empty” and “empti- ness” sound bleak. An empty life is not a happy life. It is flat, meaningless, hollow. Nothing inside. Alienated war-weary characters in Ernest Heming- way’s short stories often had “a hollow feeling.” T.S. Eliot, in the same period, wrote a poem called “The Hollow Men” describing the lost spirit of the times. Hollow is empty, lost. To be empty inside, to be empty of faith and values, is to be nihilistic and despairing. The emptiness of the Heart Sutra is something else entirely. It’s good news of joyful freedom and liberation. Commen- tators to the sutra often ask the question, “Empty of what?” and answer, “Empty of separate self, empty of weightiness, empty of burden, empty of boundary.” The Chinese, searching for a word that might translate shunyata, used the char- acter for sky. All dharmas are empty like the sky—blue, beautiful, expansive, and always ready to receive a bird, a wind, a cloud, the sun, the moon, or an airplane. The emptiness of the Heart Sutra isn’t the emptiness of despair; it’s the emptiness of all limitation and boundary. It is open, released. The Heart Sutra is not denying the exis- tence of the world we live in. It’s denying the basis of the world’s sticky intractabil- ity. It’s denying the ultimate reality of the basis of our suffering—our separate, bur- densome self and all that seems to exist SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2013 80