My Old Friend, the Heart Sutra

Muroji Temple's Pagoda
The famous Pagoda of Murōji Temple in Nara. Courtesy of Wikipedia

As a final post for “Ohigan” week, I wanted to talk about something that has been of interest to me as of late: the Heart Sutra.

In January, after getting inspired to cultivate more self-discipline, I decided to make a personal vow to follow one, ONE Buddhist practice for 30 days. I have trouble with commitment in general,1 and I rarely can follow a single Buddhist practice, liturgy or chant for more than 1-2 weeks maximum. Some of it is due to a very fluid work schedule, but also some of it is just personality and lack of self-discipline. So I decided to really push myself to follow something for 30 days (coincidentally until Nirvana Day). The practice was really simple:

  • Get up a bit early in the morning.
  • Chant the Heart Sutra.
  • Say the nembutsu 10 times or so.

Time to practice: 5 minutes or less.

Pretty simple, right? Well, it turned to be a struggle. The first 2 weeks or so went well, but then I had a few interruptions, which meant that I had to “catch up” at night. A couple times, toward the end, I just completely forgot, after the excitement of the goal faded. However, I didn’t give up, and finished my goal (more or less……).

Lately, again, I took further interest in Heart Sutra after watching the DVD series 百時巡礼 (Hyakuji Junrei, or “100 Temple Pilgrimage”) with Itsuki Hiroyuki again. I haven’t watched it in a long time, almost years, but I wanted to practice Japanese listening again, and I just miss the videos, so I pulled out volume one and watched the first temple, which is a famous women’s monastery in Nara named Murōji (室生寺). This monastery of the Shingon sect is famous both for its gorgeous pagoda (Asian version of the Buddhist “stupa”) and the many stairs there. During the segment, they showed an elderly lady, 90 years old (!), who climbed those long stairs every morning before sunrise for 40 years, rang the bell and recited the Heart Sutra a few times. She explained to the cameraman that she had lost her husband and her children all around 40 years ago due to disease, accidents and other things. With nothing left, she became a devout Buddhist.

I watched this years ago, but now I can understand just enough Japanese that I can hear her saying this without my wife translating, and the whole moment of watching her recite the Heart Sutra really struck me. It wasn’t the particular practice that mattered, but her dedication and sincerity after so many years.

Something to consider for myself and for readers, who struggle with such things. The Heart Sutra, while probably not a genuine sutra of the Buddha (research suggests it is a Chinese liturgy that condenses the larger Perfection of Wisdom Sutra), it shows that Buddhist liturgy after the time of the Buddha can still be true to the Dharma, and by sincere devotees, can be a powerful expression of faith. Also, its frequent use across most Mahayana Buddhist sects also ensures a sense of unity with other Buddhists across Asia and the world.

The Heart Sutra means a lot to me, and I think it encompasses a lot of things about Mahayana Buddhism in general that appeal to me. Someone I know recently joked that my “sect” of Buddhism is “Doug-shū”, (宗, or shū is used in Japanese to refer to a sect or religion). I have trouble staying with any particular sect or teaching, but I take great inspiration from traditional Nara Buddhism (especially Hossō-shū, Yogacara) and Mahayana Buddhism in general (e.g. writings of Ven. Yin-Shun), so the Heart Sutra encapsulates all this for me. Time and again, I keep coming back to this, and I believe this is where I’ll remain for many years, perhaps until I die.

So, although the 30 day is gone, I’ve been making an effort to keep up the Heart Sutra since then. Can I do it for the next 10, 20 or 40 years? Time will tell.

1 Except for marriage, don’t worry.:)

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “My Old Friend, the Heart Sutra

  1. Wow! This old lady just decided she wanted to do her own practice, and she continued! I used to be very sectarian about such matters, but now I realize that people should do what feels right. That could be why the Buddha taught so many different ways–so everyone could find what feels right. In the same way, the Heart Sutra seems to feel right to a lot of people. Kukai wrote a famous interpretation of the Heart Sutra that is in the book by Hakeda.

  2. Hi Johnl,

    I don’t know if the lady just made up her own practice, she might have learned it growing up in the area around the temple. The fact she became so dedicated is impressive.

    I’ve read the Hakeda book so I know what you’re talking about though I admit Kukai’s writings are still pretty obtuse at times.

    Yeah I think the sectarianism is wearing off on me too. I guess that Buddhists who’ve travelled on the path enough start to think alike.😉

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