The Prajna Paramita school was the reawakening of the original teaching of Buddha. When Buddha left home he worked with all the Samadhi traditions and reached a level where he was invited to teach. But he said this was not the way to end the suffering of the world. Buddha opened the world to the truth of awakening. This doesn’t mean to say that before Buddha there was no awakening, but he brought it to the fore, showed its importance. There are many different kinds of spiritual experience. Even awakening itself, as shown by Hakuin’s four ways of knowing, is not homogenous. So it was easy for the one that Buddha highlighted to be lost.
Awakening brings about a different way of seeing the world. It is a fundamental shift. Awakening was the essential element contained in the Prajna Paramita school. But this was again lost. It was resurrected by Bodhidharma and then lost again, until Hui Neng. Again it was lost, until Dogen and then Hakuin revived it. It is much easier to enter into a condition of Samadhi, one can even get a low-level Samadhi jogging. As a consequence, the teaching can be easily polluted.
The Prajna Paramita Hridaya is drawing attention to prajna. Pra means to arouse, jna is knowing, knowing without content. The awakened mind. The Prajna Paramita opens us to the source of life, intelligence, spirituality, and love. But this sutra is also the sutra of death. When one is working on ‘Who am I?’ one is working with the question ‘what is death?’ If one works genuinely with ‘Who am I?’ inevitably a fear of death will arise. Alternatively, when a person has had a loved one die, or themselves have had a serious illness or accident, the question ‘Who am I?’ comes very much to the fore.
In Japanese the question Who am I?’ is framed as ‘what is my face before my parents were born?’ What am I essentially? What is one’s essential aspect? To really ask this question one has to realize that one is going into the domain where all is eradicated, all is wiped out. To dwell in that requires a great deal of courage. ‘What is my face before my parents were born?’ is the same as ‘What is my face after death?’ Everything is wiped clean. So we have the same condition before birth and after death. My face before my parents were born is right now, my face after death is right now. And now is always now. There is no passage, no transition, no change. Now is now. Not that now is static, on the contrary, it is dynamic.
Prajna is aroused mind without content, pure knowing. This is sometimes called Bodhi, the light that shines by itself. Paramita has to do with crossing the ocean of birth and death; crossing to the other shore. But to cross to the other shore is not to go from here to there, but to go from there to here. In other words, one is not going away, not going outside, it is coming home to that which is closest, most intimate.
The sutra starts off referring to the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Bodhi is knowing and sattva is being. There is no entity, Bodhisattva is not a person, an ego or a self. It is the essence of compassion. If it is true that from the beginning all beings are Buddha, it is also true that from the beginning all beings are the Bodhisattva of Compassion. It is what you are essentially.
The sutra is talking about prajna, why does it not rather refer to the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjusri? This is very important. We are practicing to awaken to our wisdom, and yet what must underlie that is compassion. We should do this work from compassion, not from self-interest. All beings without number I vow to liberate – this is the Bodhisattva of Compassion speaking. To be open to the fact of others is an essential aspect of practice. It makes it possible for us to work on the poison of separation. By opening ourselves in this way we see the emptiness of all five skandas and sunder the bonds of suffering.
The Sanskrit word for suffering is dukha, twoness. So to sunder the bonds of suffering is to sunder the bonds of dualism, separation. From the very beginning of this sutra, the nature of practice is summed up in a nutshell: arouse the mind without resting it on anything, against a background of compassion. When the mind is thus aroused, it sees into the emptiness of the five skandas.
One could say that the Prajna Paramita Hridaya is an elaboration of the cryptic statement: ‘All beings are Buddha.’ Or that it is an answer to the question, ‘what is your face before your parents were born?’ Or that it is about death. Or that it is about how to work on yourself. All of these are addressed with the same words.