The Heart Sutra and ‘Enterchievement’

Guanyin and Child - Guanyin is often linked with the figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, given a child to complete the picture

Bravely stepping outside the bounds of your average history seminar, a group of students and myself tried to get our heads around the Heart Sutra this week: a short but crucial text in Mahayana Buddhism, featuring the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara – known as Guanyin in Chinese, or Kannon in Japanese (from where Canon cameras took their name).

In deep meditation, Avalokiteshvara has a series of insights about the way reality is, and these form the basis of the sutra. It’s not a dense, complex text, in the way that a western philosophical treatise might be, but it’s not ‘easy’ either – see this excellent introduction by the late John Crook.

Going on students’ reactions in class, there are at least two major difficulties – or points of discomfort – with the Heart Sutra.

Firstly, rather than laying out a conceptual case about ‘truth‘, it’s hinting at something, provoking and evoking, as well as gently nudging the reader to a practice of meditation. This can come across as a frustrating sense of an argument being poorly made. The text also functions as a record of experience, to which a practitioner can return and perhaps say ‘right, yes, that’s a bit like something that’s happened to me':  the sutra can’t take you anywhere, but it can help test or confirm your understanding of a place you’ve already visited.

A second problem is that the sutra seems to want to take away from us much of what we most value in life. It claims that nothing we know of in the world – objects, ideas, our minds and selves – ‘exists’ in the way that we usually understand existence: the apparent independent materiality or ‘thing-ness’ of a pen, a cup, or a person is just a product of the way that human brains are wired.

Nagarjuna, one of Buddhism's greatest philosophers: if the Heart Sutra makes your brain hurt, it's partly his fault

Even worse, any notion of trying to grasp this, and any happy sense of fulfilment or personal transformation in doing so, is just as misguided as the idea of independently-existing things. In reality, there is ‘no attainment’ of this or any other sort.

Ouch. So the concept – much beloved of modern living and modern spirituality – of getting somewhere, of being better, of understanding more, of suffering less anger and less anxiety, and of generally being less of a pain-in-the-arse to yourself and others, is just that: a mere concept.

I suspect this takes us back to the question of metaphors that underlie our thinking and behaviour. A great many academics might sneer at the narrow and obsessive focus on productivity and efficiency that seems to characterize the thought-world of business and commerce. But I doubt we’re any less driven by a deep-set faith in ‘progress’, in ‘getting stuff done’ – developing an idea, finishing a book, seeing students become sharper and more subtle, even just wading successfully through an email inbox. (John Gray’s Straw Dogs discusses this in terms of a ‘self-deluding’ human faith in progress).

Straw Dogs (2002)

Now even recreation and entertainment are falling victim to ‘achievement': we have what you might call  ‘enterchievement’, as opposed to genuine rest or play. City breaks, where you have to learn x or see y, or at least be able to tick off a new location as ‘done'; bungie-jumping, requiring a video record of the achievement; paint-balling, to build a team or at the very least to win; an ‘improving novel’, a ‘difficult’ piece of theatre, or a ‘challenging’ TV drama; any number of culture-vulture activities, or a ‘healthy’ dose of (competitive) sport. Even rest can be construed as a recharging activity, fitting us for various achievements at work the next day.

There’s a relentless, addictive quality to enterchievement, orienting us towards a ‘better’ future in which we think we might – but in fact won’t – truly rest.

Just as Terry Eagleton rather ironically bemoaned the lack of a ‘solution’ offered in Straw Dogs there seems to be a trap of logic or habit with achievement or betterment: what do you replace achievement with? What does life look like without achievement, and would it be worth living? Is there anything on the other side of the boredom or inertia that seem to come with letting go of achievement?

Maybe this is why the Heart Sutra sticks to hinting, provoking, evoking: to worry about an absence of achievement is still to be locked into achievement mode, still to be striving towards a fulfilled future (the future, you won’t be surprised to learn, is also on the Heart Sutra’s list of things that don’t exist).

I find this all incredibly difficult and totally against the way I am for most of the average day; it seems either self-defeating and barren, or on the other hand an unusual and precious challenge – and a great example of subtractive over additive spirituality.


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  • Katie Phair
    November 5, 2011 - 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Brilliantly put Chris. As you know, I found the Heart Sutra really difficult and quite depressing as, despite the rather poetic language, it is ultimately a rejection of the ‘progress’ the human race is biologically and culturally programmed to desire. I’ve always viewed the rise of the concept of the individual as one of the high points of our race, but the Heart Sutra negates the need for an individual and the entire existence of the ‘self’. As historians, a pivotal aspect of our study is focussed on this ‘self’ and the way it is developed by different nations and cultures. To remove the concept from both our study and our lives is to simplify the incredible intricacies than make us human, and that is such a demoralising prospect.

    I guess ultimately the Heart Sutra taught me an important, surprising and challenging lesson: I value my capacity to be individual and to be able to strive to achieve more than I value true and total enlightenment.

  • Yoshi Inoue
    November 5, 2011 - 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Miss Katie Phair that this ‘subtractive’ approach to spirituality can be very depressing at times. I say this from my personal experience… Like in the Heart Sutra, Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy starts off with negation of all values. but, what distinguishes his philosophy from the Heart Sutra (or in his case, from Arthur Schopenhauer) is that, this process of negation was intended to give birth to a higher being – the ‘Overman’! In what he calls the ‘transvaluation’ of all values, he does not tell us what to become. but what he does tell us to do, is to confront our ‘selves’ head on, with courage! so, instead of providing us with a direction (as in Christianity), he encourages us to find our own path to salvation. in this sense, his philosophy is still, at the core, ‘additive’. But I think, this must be the same for the Heart Sutra at the most fundamental level. Otherwise, the Heart Sutra ceases to be a teaching, and is reduced to a mere statement. Just because it starts off with the process of negation, we do not have to deny any progress it may bring – a personal transformation which cannot be shared with others. I think this is why the Heart Sutra sticks to provocative and evocative means of communication. In other words, the essential aspect of the text can only be understood at a personal level.

    When I read Nietzsche, I have this on going sense of conspiracy as though he is saying to me, “hey Yoshi, this is just between me and you now bro.” it is so personal that my experience with Nietzsche cannot really be shared. All I can say is that I absolutely love him. Anyway, I would like to leave my favourite Nietzsche quote from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, which instantly resonated in my heart when I first read it:

    “in truth there are a hundred good reasons for everyone to stay away from it if he can! on the other hand, once your ship has strayed onto this course: well then! all right! grit your teeth bravely! open your eyes! keep your hand at the helm! we are going to be traveling beyond morality, and by daring to travel there we may in the process stifle or crush whatever remnant of morality we have left, but what do we matter? never yet has a deeper world of insight been opened to bold travellers and adventures.”

    so the ‘search’ continues…

  • Thomas Monaghan
    November 6, 2011 - 8:43 am | Permalink

    I guess the basic buddhist assumption that believing in the ‘self’ causes suffering is something debatable or at least difficult for us to totally accept. If my ‘ego’ drives me to get a good job, live in a nice place, have a family etc. then I would probably be pretty content most of the time, rather than fretting over the transience of it all.

    I agree the Heart Sutra and its ideas can be depressing. But I suggest a Buddhist would say that although total enlightenment involves having to accept some hard truths, once you have a true understanding of ‘how reality works’ you are better placed to choose, instinctively, the right path and to understand what’s worth worrying about and what’s not. I don’t think it’s fair to say Buddhism totally removes all these ‘human’ character traits in practical day to day life, but rather gives you a better understanding of them. The book by Brad Warner you recommend, Chris, is interesting and useful in explaining some of these concepts. Surely, as a hardcore punk rocker, you can’t say that Buddhism has stripped Brad Warner of his capacity to be an individual!

  • Felicity Loughlin
    November 7, 2011 - 4:04 pm | Permalink

    I find it very difficult to accept the concept of ‘anatman’ or ‘no self’ which is presented in the Heart Sutra without feeling quite uncomfortable. The idea that what I have always considered as the essence of myself, my thoughts, emotions and feelings, do not in fact compose my ‘self’ as an entity but are themselves merely a collection of conceptualisations, which are only true on an experiential and impermanent level, is very disconcerting. So in this way I agree with Katie that the Heart Sutra can certainly be quite depressing, particularly since the idea of a soul has always appealed to me.

    But what I find more problematic is that this difficult idea of anatman leads on to something I found admirable in Mahayana Buddhism. Closely linked to the concept of anatman is the idea of ‘dependent-origination’, the idea that everything is dependent on something else and has therefore no independent materiality. I thought this idea of unintentional belonging and effect was quite a refreshing change of perspective from the more familiar idea of consciously striving to ‘make a difference’. I am quite wary of detracting from individual achievement, because I do think it is truly remarkable what a desire for personal betterment or fulfilment can achieve. But I actually find it comforting rather than depressing to think that everyone and everything affects each other. If viewed in this light, the no-self idea doesn’t really stymie progress and action but promotes a world view of constant movement and impact.

    The other thing that leaps out at me about Mahayana Buddhism is its fundamental compassion. I think this is reflected quite well in the Heart Sutra. If there is no self and nothing to gain from that realisation and enlightenment, it is possible to be truly compassionate with no ulterior motive at all. The Bodhisattvas would choose to put off nirvana until all others are enlightened because there is no self that will benefit, ‘With nothing to attain, Bodhisattvas relying on Prajnaparamita have no obstructions in their minds.’ This pure compassion prevents me from viewing the Heart Sutra as fundamentally depressing.

    This is even more the case when the experiential goal of the Heart Sutra is taken into consideration. I really liked Yoshi’s point that rather than providing a clear answer, the Heart Sutra’s complexity encourages meditation through its evocative nature to allow others to draw their own conclusions and meaning, and therefore has an additive quality. I think that this provocation towards personal experience that Yoshi has pointed out is perhaps part of the compassion at the centre (or heart!) of the Heart Sutra. The didactic form of the heart sutra is itself compassionate, Avalokiteshvara has meditated on a way to transcend suffering and wishes to help others find their own way to do so, ‘Therefore, know that the Prajnaparamita…is able to remove all sufferings’. In this way, I agree with Tom that it isn’t fair to say ‘Buddhism totally removes all ‘human’ character traits in daily life’ because the propensity for compassion has always been something that I have admired about what I conceive of as ‘humanity’.

    Therefore, while the Heart Sutra is reductionist in stripping away the existence of a self, the potential for this reductionism to provoke personal experience and be truly compassionate seems to me an additive experience. Personally, I don’t think I would ever be able to abandon the idea of myself as a real entity lacking a true essence. For this reason I could never be a Buddhist whole-heartedly. However, while I can’t accept the idea of anatman, I find the related idea of dependent origination and the experiential goal behind the encouragement to find your own answers easier to appreciate and I truly admire the underlying compassion that could be achieved in accepting anatman.

    • Katie Phair
      November 12, 2011 - 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Hear hear! Thoroughly enjoyed that Felicity :)

  • Alistair Walker
    November 9, 2011 - 12:11 am | Permalink

    I am posting here not to discuss the Heart Sutra but to discuss the concept of ‘enterchievement’ in perhaps its most nerdy but also potentially strangest incarnation: the world of video gaming.

    Playing video games has become more and more about ‘achievement’ rather than about sheer enjoyment for some time now. For those of you that don’t know most games now come with ‘achievements’ on the XBox and ‘Trophies’ on the Playstation. What these basically equate to is accomplishing things in a game above and beyond just completing the game, often in an extremely tedious fashion. The example that springs most prominently to mind comes from Grand Theft Auto IV, in which one of the more difficult achievements is to find and shoot 100 pigeons placed around the city. Leaving cruelty to animals for the history debates, it is difficult to think of anything more tedious to do with several hours of your time in something that supposedly exists for pure enjoyment (especially considering the sort of people that place this game are used to driving cars extremely fast, getting involved in mafia politics and hundreds of gunfights).

    However this can be taken one step further. Achievements are not purely for your own sense of accomplishment. The points you accumulate over the games you play are displayed as a single score and are thereby used to judge each other over the internet. This leads to a phenomenon that is in my mind even more disturbing. In order to make this collective score higher it is not uncommon for people to seek out games that are renowned for giving away easy points and rapidly completing them, somehow reducing what is supposed to be sheer entertainment into an exercise in the mundane; seeking out games that are terrible for the sole purpose of collecting points.

    It is perhaps this addiction to achievement that makes me want to take a step back from a notion of progress and so makes the heart sutra relevant.

    (To show just how far this process can be taken, I thought I’d post a link to a website that talks you through exactly how to accumulate these points quickly.)

    Apologies for nerding up your time.

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