S2E36 The Heart Sutra

Dr. Rubin asks and she receives, so Dr. Pete breaks down the Heart Sutra in a very basic, secular way. Listeners will learn about the role of chanting and sutras in eastern practices, specifically the Heart Sutra in this episode. If you want to learn more about the role of chanting in Buddhism, tune in!

Listeners can read the Heart Sutra here:


Pete: So, you know Nikki you always get what you want and so here we are our eastern talk on the Heart Sutra. Hey.


Nikki: Hi, I don't know if that's true that I always get what I want but I make recordings. It's like calling into a radio station and make a request, please can we talk about The Heart Sutra?


Pete: You’ve totally age yourself because it’s only a [crosstalk 0:43] certain demographic of our listeners [inaudible 0:48] and yet we had to do that. Remember when you had to sit around with your finger on record for your favourite song to come on the radio to try and record it?


Nikki: I never did that actually but that's like real commitment.


Pete: I was just too cheap to go buy the tape.


Nikki: I did have that cassette, you make a membership. It was like a literal mixtape.


Pete: A literal mixtape. Anyway, we're going to talk about the Heart Sutra. We would make mixtapes for our loves for Heart Sutra. That is right, that is exactly right [crosstalk 1:24]. I don't know that The Heart Sutra is actually anything about love to be honest. 


Nikki: This is why I did a request. 


Pete: Curiosity. So, we're going to talk about The Heart Sutra. And so just as a little foundation in Zen or any kind of Buddhist Eastern traditions, there is chanting. And so, the Heart Sutra in the Zen tradition is one of the sutras or chants that we participate in. And they also serve as teachings like the Dalai Lama like has given several talks, but sometimes when they give a talk on a sutra the talk might just be about like the first four lines.


Nikki: Can you also define what the Sutra is actually, for our listeners?


Pete: Well, I guess it’s a prayer, my gut would say prayer but if I look into the Oxford they say that is a rule in Sanskrit literature. Or it could be like Hindu law philosophy, its scripture. I think I just said that didn’t I?


Nikki: Yes, that's maybe a word I would use as well. 


Pete: A prayer, Buddhist or Janus scripture. It's a set of views on grammar or Hindu law or philosophy. That I understand, but I guess, like a lot of things within the Zen world. Why I think there's such a beautiful blend between Western behavioural science and Eastern traditions, is that a lot of these, say a sutra for example, or these prayers, are to help untangle your brain. I'm going to frame it that way because again, I think we especially in third wave CBT, we embrace that our brains rigidity is what creates suffering.


Nikki: Oh, yeah.


Pete: So, these sutras help you. So, I'm not going to read the whole sutra, I'll put a link in, and I won't read the whole thing because otherwise you'll click off and stop listening. I'll give you a couple taste throughout. I’ll start off with saying, ‘[inaudible 03:36] clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions.’ So that's just like an acknowledgement of what's out there in terms of like [inaudible 03:45] is all of us. Prajna Paramita is like the suffering that we have. And so, the five conditions are form, sensations, perceptions, mental activity and consciousness.  So, what the teaching is saying there is that we saw emptiness of all these five conditions.


Nikki: You are seeking space from those.


Pete: Seeking space from, form, sensations, perceptions, mental activity, or consciousness, because you're just trying to get to this idea of non-suffering. And so, we do this like, [chanting 4:31] clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions and during it, there could be, somebody who's beating a drum type thing.


Nikki: Yes, to keep the rhythm. It’s supposed to be rhythmic.


Pete: It's meant to be kind of fast rhythmic, which helps that untangling? 


Nikki: Yes.


Pete: Some of us are afraid of meditation because silence and stillness is really scary. And so, this is another form of meditation.


Nikki: Right. I'm thinking this is also why some people find yoga to be more useful because there's something that feels more tangible about the body and I'm hearing when you were chanting just now, I had a similar reaction, and it feels similar. It's something like more tangible to focus on.


Pete: Yes, even with clients I work with where maybe this meditation is not right for them in this moment, and so we try other things.


Nikki: Yes of course.


Pete: You know, music is an easy way of trying to access some of these same meditative properties. So, it'll go on and I wanted to read this because I think this is part of where it really forces you to change the way your brain is processing the words?


Nikki: Yes.


Pete: So, then it goes on to say form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. Form is no other than emptiness. Emptiness, no other than form.


Nikki: It's like a brain herder. It's like the dialectics and that specific reading, is that a  part of the Heart Sutra?


Pete: It is all the Heart Sutra.


Nikki:  What's the intention? 


Pete: Why the word heart?


Nikki: Yeah, why Heart Sutra?


Pete: I probably should know the answer to that, I don't.  That could just be interpretation. I will have to get back to you that, and I think that would be, maybe there's a Diamond Sutra which is another big one. And so maybe we'll do another episode on another sutra, and I’ll answer. But I think the heart sutras is belonging to the Perfection of Wisdom Teachings, and they're a part of the Sanskrit tradition. So again, a lot of the main teachers within the Eastern traditions this is one thing that they focus on. I'm thinking that from Poly or Sanskrit that the interpretation is probably where it landed on heart. And as you go on, it says like so an emptiness there is no form no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness. No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, no colour, sound, smell, taste, touch phenomena, no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, no ignorance and no entering durance, no old age and death and no end to old age and death. No suffering no cause of suffering. So, it describes the dialectics, so I feel like the heart is in the middle of that even like the body.


Nikki: That's what it's funny because again, I'm learning specifically about that Heart Sutra in real time, as we're talking about this.


Pete: Sounds like I am too.


Nikki: We’re always learning, that is actually how I was experiencing it. You said that one of the functions of the sutras again, or just maybe the Eastern practice in general is to untangle the mind. And when we untangle the mind, what we do is we move into experiencing and using language, which again, is useful for it's like the map and not the territory but the word heart does draw us into the centre of our body and more experiential. 


Pete: But there is no body.


Nikki: Exactly, that language I personally connect with it, I can understand why it's named that.  As you're reading the parts of no this, no that, it's back to experiencing.


Pete: Yes, far beyond deluded thoughts this is nirvana. So, it really is about far beyond deluded thoughts. We talked about sense of self is delusional, the East uses the word delusion a lot.


Nikki: It has a different meaning clinically, in Western psychology.


Pete: As a Western practitioner, when I read that I'm like, wow, that's harsh to say  about something that we all do.


Nikki: Well, I think that's where we can also come back to this notion that language is invented.  We invented it and so we have associations with certain sounds and symbols. So, somebody translated that, and we actually don't even know and don't even speak that language. So [crosstalk 10:00], we don't the word delusion, it's like, that's the best approximation in English. So, Pete and I have a reaction to hearing that. But it doesn't necessarily mean the same thing that we mean, when we're using a diagnostic label, for example, of a delusional disorder. It's not the same thing.


Pete: Well, so the Dalai Lama has taught this, he has said, and I just read a quick quote, he said, “Look at me, what you see is my body. Listen to me, and what you hear is my voice, but where is the Dalai Lama?”


Nikki: Yeah.


Pete: So, in the Heart Sutra we read form is empty. So, what do you think about that? I feel like that's the hard part of this if these eastern teachings.


Nikki: I love it. I can remember I've mentioned this before, but there's a book I've been to recently that's called the doubt of physics, I think I mentioned was there in the 70s. And it's also like quantum physics, it’s basically the Eastern traditions and modern physics are talking about literally the same thing. It's like what we as human beings with the brains that we have, and the five senses that we use to experience the world that that we live in, that's not really reality. That's what I was getting at.


Pete: It’s delusional.


Nikki: Yeah, and delusional means it's not real. And the reason that's so hard to conceptualize is because we're trying to conceptualize something that our brains literally don't have the tools to experience without some of the practices and these Eastern traditions help us get it more. But I'm sure there are listeners right now going like ‘this is very confusing.’


Pete: And that’s ok. Like I started today by saying that Nikki always gets what she wants. And just to tell us, she would ask, hey, what are you studying? I'm like, I'm studying a bunch of stuff right now. And so, we always do the Heart Sutra at least once or twice a week, and I’ve probably been chanting this again at least maybe once a week for 10 years. 


Nikki: Right.


Pete: And you don't always hear it because sometimes I'm just in it. I'm just with the flow like that's meditative in and of itself. The point is also, as we kind of come to the end of this, thinking about being okay with not being okay. That's like a social thing happening right now, like it’s okay to not be okay, that's happening in the athlete world. And I think it’s okay to not understand, it's okay to be confused. It's okay to read something and I think that's where I struggle the most with studying is trying to comprehend intellectually what a teaching is. I believe the opposite of what we're supposed to be doing.


Nikki: I agree with you wholeheartedly, and I don't think that's just a belief I think that's straight up accurate. The point is that these brains of ours, the thinking that they're capable of doing while that is very useful in all kinds of ways is equally the cause of our suffering as human beings and being in that really uncomfortable place is hard for us. I'm thinking of a line I really like in the “Tao Te Ching” that says, “Darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding.” So, it's like, going into the darkness is the gateway to understand.  People are like, that's so uncomfortable. It's like, yep. And yet, that's the way


Pete: That’s where you get your understanding.  So hopefully you take something from this. If not, I will put the link for the Heart Sutra, in the bio and I'll read the last two lines as we sign off and say, “So set forth the Prajna Paramita mantra, set forth the mantra and say, Gaté gaté paragaté parasamgaté bodhisattva prajna heart sutra.”


Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Peter Economou.


Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present. Be brave.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.