27. Liberation! The Emptiness of the Five Aggregates

In this post, we discuss the Heart Sutra and how Mahabodhisattva Avalokiteśvara liberates himself from suffering by realizing the Empiness of the Five Aggregates. 

Before discussing the content of Mahasattva Avalokiteśvara’s experience, let’s first clarify the meaning of some relevant terms. 

1) Heart_Sutra (Chinese=/心經) “is a popular sutra in Mahayana Buddhism.” “It has been called “the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition.” “In Sanskrit, the title Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya translates as “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom (Chinese=般若波羅蜜多心經).”” 

2) Perfection of Wisdom is known in Romanized Sanskrit=Prajnaparamita, a combination of prajna and paramita. 

As discussed previously, prajna is the “wisdom” with an “accurate and precise understanding of reality that transcends ordinary comprehension.” 

Paramita (Chinese=波羅蜜多)according to The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, is in Sanskrit, “lit. “that which has reached the other shore,” and “the paramitas, generally translated as “the perfections,” are the virtues perfected by a bodhisattva in the course of his development.

When combined, Prajnaparamita (Chinese=般若波羅蜜多/智度) means the Perfection of Wisdom. 

3) Perfection of Wisdom carries a similar meaning to the “immense wisdom of a Tathagata,” that Buddha exclaimed in the Buddhavtamsaka Sutra upon his enlightenment, “Surprise! Surprise! All the sentient beings of this land, while possessing the wisdom of a tathagata, being foolish and confused, have neither knowledge nor insight. I must teach them the proper path, turn them permanently away from their delusion and attachments, and realize from within the immense wisdom of a Tathagata, without any difference from a Buddha. (Chinese=奇哉奇哉,此處眾生,雲何具有如來智慧,愚癡迷惑,不知不覺,我當教以聖道, 令其永離妄想執著,自於身中,得見如來廣大智慧,與佛無異.)”  

4) The Heart Sutra is considered the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras because this extremely short but influential Sutra summarizes the core teachings of the whole collection of Prajnaparamita sutras by using the experience of Mahabodhisattva Avalokiteśvara’s to teach that all the Five Aggregates are Empty and, therefore, all phenomena are mental.  

5) Mahabodhisattva (Chinese=摩訶菩薩), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit, “great bodhisattva.” It can be generally understood as a bodhisattva close to achieving the highest level of enlightenment, such as Avalokiteśvara.

6) Avalokiteśvara  “is a tenth-level bodhisattva associated with great compassion (mahakaruṇā). He is often associated with Amitabha Buddha.” Avalokiteśvara is also known as Guanyin in East Asia. 

The Heart Sutra starts as follows:

“The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, as he practices the perfection of wisdom profoundly, gained an illuminating insight into the Emptiness of all the Five Aggregates, thus realizing that this is the way to relieve all beings from sufferings.” (Chinese=觀自在菩薩, 行深般若波羅蜜多時. 照見五蘊皆空, 度一切苦厄.” 

The key phrase here is “the Emptiness of all the Five Aggregates,” especially the word “all.” As discussed previously, the Five Aggregates are the five human epistemological steps leading to the realization that rupas are “mere projections of consciousness.” While four of the five steps are obviously mental, rupa, the “body, form, or materiality” of the phenomena world, is often delusionally misunderstood as different. By acknowledging that all five aggregates are Empty, Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara shows that he understands that rupa is also mental. 

Immediately after the proclamation are the four lines that make the Heart Sutra famous. These four lines are famous because many consider them compatible with Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2. In reality, they can only be regarded as equivalent when the energy in the formula is replaced with mentality. 

Sariputra (Chinese=舍利子)

Rupa is no different than Emptiness (Chinese=色不異空). 

Emptiness is no different than rupa. (Chinese=空不異色).

Rupa is just Emptiness; (Chinese=色即是空).

Emptiness is just rupa. (Chinese=空即是色).”

Sariputra (Chinese=舍利子) “was one of the top disciples of the Buddha. He is considered the first of the Buddha’s two chief male disciples, together with Maudgalyāyana (Chinese=目犍連).”

By unequivocally and repeatedly equating rupa and Emptiness and linking it to the Five Aggregates, Avalokiteśvara shows his understanding that while phenomena may look like “body, form, and material,” they are just projections of consciousness. The essence of their being is mentality, which is what Emptiness signifies. 

Upon his realization that rupa and Emptiness are equal, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara fully comprehends the root cause of his delusional misunderstanding of reality. With that understanding, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has overcome his cognitive obstructions, the second of the two obstructions, representing the “subtler hindrances that serve as the origin of the afflictive obstructions and result from fundamental misapprehensions about the nature of reality.” His suffering from the delusional misunderstanding of reality has ended. 

In the words of Buddha, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has “turned permanently away from his delusion and attachments and realized from within the immense wisdom of a Tathagata.” Being “a tenth-level bodhisattva associated with great compassion,” the first thing that comes to Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s mind is that it “is the way to relieve all from sufferings.”

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara then declares that “All phenomena are Empty: there is no birth or death, no turbidity or purity, no addition or subtraction (Chinese=是諸法空相, 不生不滅, 不垢不淨, 不增不減.”). From there, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara goes on to mention a litany of Buddha’s teachings and deems them all “nil.” With everything being nil, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara concludes that “there is nothing to possess (Chinese=無所得).”

However, having nothing to possess is not a bad thing, as Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara continued, “Because there is nothing to possessthe bodhisattvas, relying on the practice of the perfection of wisdom, become carefree. Being carefree and without fear (the bodhisattvas) are far from topsy-turvy reveries and ultimately enter Nirvana. Buddhas of past, present, and future(Romanized Sanskrit=tirkala; Chinese=三世), relying on practicing the perfection of wisdom, realize anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. (Chinese=以無所得故,菩提薩埵, 依般若波羅蜜多故, 心無罣礙, 無罣礙故, 無有恐怖, 遠離顛倒夢想, 究竟涅槃. 三世諸佛, 依般若波羅蜜多故, 得阿搙多羅三藐三菩提).” 

Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (Chinese=阿搙多羅三藐三菩提),” as discussed previously, is “in Sanskrit, “unsurpassed (anuttara), complete (samyak) and perfect enlightenment (sambodhi).” This highest level of enlightenment is the immense wisdom of a Tathagata. 

Nirvana (Chinese=涅槃), as discussed when verifying the two realms or reality, is “in Sanskrit, “extinction,” the earliest and most common term describing the soteriological goal of Buddhism.” 

While what exactly Nirvana extinct is a topic of some debate in Buddhism, what is not subject to debate is that Nirvana is “the soteriological goal of Buddhism.” 

So, what is Buddha’s soteriological goal?

In the Lotus Sutra, Buddha stated his soteriological goal clearly as below: 

“I initially vowed.

 To make all sentient beings my equal without a difference.

 Now that I have fulfilled this vow

 That I made in the past.

 I can transform them.

 So they all enter the path of Buddhahood.”

In other words, Buddha’s aspiration was for everyone to become a Tathagata like him. Buddha could state in the Lotus Sutra that he had fulfilled his original vow because the Lotus Sutra represents one of the last few sermons he gave. His teaching career was about to end.

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara has transformed his enlightenment level by realizing that all five aggregates are Empty. He was about to enter the path of the highest level of Buddhahood and final Nirvana. However, the path from being liberated from suffering to becoming a Tathagata still takes some time.   

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara still had to eliminate latent tendencies (Romanized Sanskrit =vasana; Chinese=習氣); habituations accumulated over innumerable previous cycles of samsara. However, getting rid of habituation does not require work (Chinese=無功用道). As long as no additional habituations are incurred, getting rid of habituations is like getting rid of the smell from an open wine barrel; it happens naturally with time. 

Given that Nirvana describes “the soteriological goal of Buddhism,” it is critical to understand Nirvana accurately. As Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s example shows, entering Nirvana, the final Nirvana in Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s case, represents an elevation in enlightenment. It is certainly not to be confused with “achieved at death,” as some like to believe. 

What Nirvana extinct is not the physical body but the delusional misunderstanding of reality. Buddha’s aspiration for all to enter Buddhahood is, without a doubt, not an aspiration for all to achieve Buddhahood only upon their death.  

The journey in Buddhism is mental, not physical. As Adyashanti realized, “the thing called I and awareness are not two different things.” The ultimate essence of humanity is enlightenment. The journey in Buddhism is returning to the intrinsic self-nature of our original being, which is parinispanna: perfected. Only then can one realize the joy of “Being carefree, without fear, and be far from topsy-turvy reveries.”