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The Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra

Leader Resource 1: Background and Introduction

Basic Buddhist Teachings

According to traditional biographies of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama started

life as a privileged young prince of ancient India. Sheltered from the realities of
life outside the palace walls, he had never known aging, disease, or death.
However, as a young man, he left his palace to see the wider world. Traveling
amongst his subjects, he encountered what are known in Buddhist tradition as
the “four sights.” He saw an old man, a person afflicted with disease, a corpse,
and finally an ascetic, or a person practicing self-denial. The first three sights
disturbed the prince, but the fourth sight gave him hope that human suffering
might be overcome through diligence. He decided to devote himself to
meditation and become an ascetic.

During this time of seeking, Siddhartha left his home in the palace and lived very
austerely, denying himself material goods and even food. He became very weak,
collapsing in a river while bathing and nearly drowning. As a result of this
incident, the prince began to reconsider his path.

Realizing that meditation had value but that asceticism was not effective, the
prince settled on what Buddhists call the Middle Way, a path of moderation that
avoids the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial. During an extended
period of meditation (traditional accounts say 49 days), the prince finally broke
free of all mental and spiritual chains, coming to an absolute knowledge of the
cause of suffering and what must be done to eliminate it.

The basics of what the Buddha taught are contained in the Four Noble Truths
and the Eightfold Path.

Four Noble Truths

1. Life is suffering
o All humans face birth trauma, sickness, old age, fear of death,
having to deal with what we dislike, being separated from what we
2. The source of suffering is desire
3. The relief for suffering is to remove desire
4. To remove desire, follow the Eightfold path

Eightfold Path
1. Right Knowledge
o Understand the Four Noble Truths
2. Right Thinking
o Decide to set a life on the correct path
3. Right Speech
o Do not criticize others unjustly, use harsh language, or gossip
4. Right Conduct
o Follow the Five Precepts (do not kill, steal, commit sexual
misconduct, lie, or drink intoxicants)
5. Right Livelihood
o Earn a living that does not harm living things
6. Right Effort
o Conquer all evil thoughts and strive to maintain good thoughts
7. Right Mindfulness
o Become intensely aware of all the states in body, feeling, and mind
8. Right Concentration
o Enter into deep meditation to lead to a higher state of
consciousness (enlightenment)

There is a vast body of sacred literature within Buddhism. One major category
consists of discourses given by the Buddha and his disciples and other close
companions. The Heart Sutra and the Lotus Sutra both belong in this category.

The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra may be the best known of all Buddhist scriptures. It is an
example of a genre of Buddhist texts called “Perfection of Wisdom” literature.
While earlier Buddhist teachings focused on the rise and fall of phenomena in
order to emphasize the futility of attachment, “Perfection of Wisdom” texts go
beyond these teachings and state that there is no such rise and fall, because all
phenomena are essentially empty. While the Heart Sutra is very brief, many
Buddhist scholars have said that it successfully encapsulates the teachings of the
entire genre.

In the Heart Sutra, it is not the Buddha himself who is teaching. Instead, it is a
bodhisattva, a being who has chosen to stay on this plane of existence to help
liberate others. The bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is speaking to Shariputra, a
disciple of the Buddha. In the sutra, Avalokiteshvara describes a series of
insights concerning the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena. The sutra ends
with a mantra that is often interpreted as a description of steps along the path to
ultimate wisdom.
The Heart Sutra is thought to have been composed in the 1st century CE in the
area around Northern India, by a Sarvastivadin or ex-Sarvastivadin monk. The
Sarvastivadins were early Buddhists who took the idea that everything exists as
their central premise. The Heart Sutra subverts that idea by specifically listing
major concepts of Sarvastivadin teaching, including the elements that comprise
the self, the Four Noble Truths, and the attainment of nirvana, and declaring
these concepts empty.

The earliest record of the sutra is a reference to a translation from Sanskrit into
Chinese made between 200 and 250 CE, but it is a later translation by the
Chinese monk Xuanzang in 649 CE that became the basis for all Chinese
commentaries on the sutra, which in turn are the basis for other translations,
including the one we are using here.

The Heart Sutra is important to contemporary Zen Buddhists, who emphasize the
attainment of wisdom through meditation. Zen Buddhists throughout China,
Japan, Korea, and Vietnam chant the sutra during religious ceremonies. The
sutra is also significant to the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism in Japan, and
to Tibetan Buddhists, who study it extensively.

The Lotus Sutra

Within the vast body of Buddhist sacred texts, the Lotus Sutra has a place of
eminence: more commentaries have been written about it than about any other
sutra. In this sutra, the Buddha himself, here called the Shakyamuni Buddha
(meaning, “The Buddha of the clan of Shakya”) or the Thus Come One (one of
his many honorific titles), is teaching.

The Lotus Sutra is the main inspiration for the Buddhist denominations of
Nichiren and Tendai, as well as newer movements such as Soka Gakkai. We do
not know when or by whom it was first written, but it seems to have come from
India. By the 3rd century CE Chinese translations were being made; these would
prove to be the vehicles through which the sutra would become widely know.
The most influential translation, the one that is the basis for most modern
versions, was made by the Chinese monk-scholar Kumarajiva.

The Lotus Sutra is a major text of the Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” tradition of
Buddhism that predominates in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The earliest
Buddhist traditions had developed into the Theravada system, the “Teaching of
the Elders,” which focused on the personal quest for enlightenment. It centered
around the monastic life and assumed that women and laity could show devotion
and hope for a better rebirth, but could not reach the ultimate goal. The
Mahayana tradition broke all that apart, claiming that the true goal was not the
extinguishing of the self in nirvana, but rather the liberation of all beings. The
tradition highly reveres bodhisattvas.

Like the Heart Sutra, the Lotus Sutra is part of the “Perfection of Wisdom”
literature. Wisdom here is akin to true understanding; specifically,
understanding the true nature of reality, which ultimately is empty of self-
existence. In a subtle way, this sutra is itself empty of self-existence: over and
over we hear that the Buddha is about to teach the sutra, or that he has taught
the sutra, or about the amazing benefits that come to those who hear the sutra,
but what we do not hear is the sutra, the “teaching”, itself. And even though the
central teaching stays just out of sight, we are assured over and over that
whatever methods they might employ to get people to pay attention, ultimately
the teaching of all buddhas everywhere is the same as the teaching in the Lotus
Sutra. All of which is perfectly in line with the basic Mahayana Buddhist
understanding that the truest teaching lies beyond words.


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