The Other Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh
June 22, 2017 / By Stephen at Parallax
The Other Shore: a New Translation of The Heart Sutra with Commentaries by Thich Nhat Hanh will be released on July 18th, 2017.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Cloud and the Cave
In the mountains of Vietnam, there are caves where many thousands of birds make their nests. In the early morning, the birds fly out to look for food to bring back for their young. Sometimes the mouth of the cave is obscured by a passing cloud and the birds cannot find their way home. Only when the bright light of the sun melts away the clouds can the birds see clearly the entrance to the cave and come home.
In our lives there are things that seem to block our way, causing confusion and preventing us from finding our true home. Not only obstacles and suffering cause us to lose our way; sometimes the most profound teachings can mislead us if we do not understand them correctly. Even a sutra can block our way to liberation if we do not know how to handle it skillfully. The Heart Sutra is a deep and important text, which has the capacity to bring us to the shore of liberation, happiness and peace, and yet it has also caused much misunderstanding for more than 1,500 years. I believe that these misunderstandings have come about because the ancestral teachers who compiled the Heart Sutra made an unskillful choice of wording.
We know that words can be misleading, and that the deepest insights into the nature of reality are beyond the reach of language, and yet, out of compassion, teachers over many generations have done their best to make skillful use of words to guide us on the path leading to liberation. When a teacher uses words, he or she knows that they are only an approximation—they cannot perfectly express the reality of awakened understanding. A good teacher knows that no matter how careful they are, some people will inevitably become confused, and yet they must still try their best to help guide their students out of suffering. I have retranslated the Heart Sutra, and present it here in this book, along with a detailed commentary, in the hope that the wording in this version is clearer than that of the traditional text. To explain my approach, I would like to share with you two stories: the story of a novice monk who paid a visit to a Zen Master and the story of a monk who brought a question to the Eminent Master Tuệ Trung, a renowned poet and lay Zen Master who had once served as the mentor of the young King Trần Nhân Tông in thirteenth century Vietnam.
The Novice Monk and his Nose
The Zen master asked the novice monk: “Tell me about your understanding of the Heart Sutra.”
The novice joined his palms and replied: “I have understood that all the five skandhas are empty. There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind. There are no forms, no sounds, no smells, no taste, no touch and no objects of mind. The eighteen realms of phenomena do not exist; the twelve links of interdependent arising do not exist; and insight and attainment also do not exist.”
“Do you believe this?”
“Yes, I truly believe this.”
“Come closer,” the Zen master instructed the novice monk. As the novice drew near, the Zen Master reached out, grabbed his nose and twisted it hard.
In great pain, the novice cried out, “Master! You’re hurting me!”
The Zen master raised his eyebrows in surprise: “But you just said that the nose doesn’t exist. So if there is no nose, then what’s hurting?”
The essence of the Heart Sutra is contained in the well-known phrase: “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But the traditional Heart Sutra continues with the line: “Therefore Śāriputra, that is why in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no mental formations, and no consciousness. No eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body or mind.” How strange! First, the sutra states that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, but then it seems to contradict itself, saying that there is no form, only emptiness, and that there is no body, there are no feelings, no perceptions, and so on. This is confusing and could lead to many harmful misunderstandings. We might be inclined to deny the reality of our body and our feelings, saying that everything is only emptiness––seeing emptiness here as a kind of nihilism. We mistakenly think that nothing really exists, and that therefore nothing really matters, which could lead to apathy and despair. We can fall into this trap if we fail to understand the Heart Sutra correctly. So long as we keep this traditional wording, novices still risk getting their noses twisted.
In Buddhism, nihilism is considered an extreme view which can bring about suffering, and which is therefore to be avoided. When we encounter polarities, or pairs of opposites, we have the tendency to believe that one must be right and the other wrong. For example, we think that either everything exists, everything is real, or nothing exists, nothing is real. These are the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Either we believe that we have an eternal soul which will live on forever or we believe that we are just a meaningless collection of atoms and that when we die, we will be extinguished forever and nothing will be left. But the Buddha teaches us to avoid both these extremes of being and nonbeing. If we are wise, the Heart Sutra can help us to find the middle way between these extremes.
Now let us continue with the second story…
 Throughout this book we use the word Zen, now a common word in English, for the Chinese character 禪, the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term dhyāna, meaning “meditation”, pronounced chán in Chinese, sŏn in Korean, zen in Japanese, and thiền in Vietnamese.
Available July 18th, 2017.