“… when practicing deeply …” 行深 in the second line of the Heart Sutra

觀  自  在  菩  薩  行   深   般  若

kwan        ja           jae          bo         sal        haeng       shim         ban       ya
    avalokiteshvavra              bodhisattva      practice      deep            prajna

The above is the second line of the Heart Sutra in Chinese characters, with the characters 行深 highlighted in red. Immediately below the Chinese characters is the romanized version of the “Korean” pronunciation of the characters. I put “Korean” in quotes because this is actually the approximation of the Korean pronunciation used by many English speakers (in particular, by those English speaking Buddhists who are in the extended Dharma family of the late Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn). And then below the romanization is a third line showing the “meaning”, more or less, in English words.

As I said a while back I am working my way slowly through the whole Heart Sutra as it is written out in Chinese characters. This is to help me (and possibly others) to learn how to write out the Heart Sutra as a spiritual practice. In my opinion it is good to actually learn how to recognize the individual characters and their meanings if not before learning how to write them, then at least concurrently with learning how to write them. Otherwise one doesn’t really understand what one is writing. In my personal opinion, it is always best to understand what one is doing, and to the extent one does not, one should be striving to come to such an understanding. Doing something without knowing what it is that one is doing, and with no wish to know, is a very bad idea.

The first five characters of the second line have already covered – these are the characters translated into English as “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva”. The next two words begin to tell us what it is that Avolokiteshvara Bodhisattva is doing. In the first place she is “practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita”. And, at the risk of getting ahead of myself, it is “when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita” that she “perceives all five skandhas are empty”. Having perceived this, she is thereby “freed from all suffering and distress.” And so forth.

Even though the title of this post clearly says “when practicing deeply”, the “when” part doesn’t actually come until the next line. Just so you know.

The Chinese character 行 (xíng) means “to practice” or “to perform”. In this context, it means “practice” in the way that people say “I am practicing compassion” or “I am practicing meditation”. This of course does not answer the real question, which is: what does it mean to “practice” “Prajna Paramita”?

In modern Chinese, the two character combination 實行 (shí xíng) means “actual implementation” in the sense of “what is actually done” (you know, as opposed to “what was in the plan”). The character 實 by itself has a wide range of suggestive meanings, like “honest”, “true”, “solid”, and “real”. For example, the phrase 臺灣實行民主 refers to Taiwan’s (臺灣) implementation (實行) of democracy (民主). This can also be translated as “The democratization of Taiwan”. You can google the phrase and then let google translate the results for you: https://www.google.com/search?q=臺灣實行民主. Of course that google search almost certainly won’t work if you are in the People’s Republic of China!!

The phrase 臺灣實行民主 implies that Taiwan has actually (albeit perhaps imperfectly) implemented democracy. By contrast, with respect to Hong Kong, one speaks of 香港民主運動, which means Hong Kong’s (香港) democracy (民主) development (運動), or, in somewhat more idiomatic English: “the development of democracy in Hong Kong”. It seems (to me – with my very limited understanding of Chinese) that the word order is significant, and different, when using 實行 (implementation) versus 運動 (development). And if you do a google image search of 運動 (https://www.google.com/search?q=運動&tbm=isch) you’ll see pictures of people exercising.

The character 深 (shēn) means “deep”. It is composed of two parts. The first part is 氵, which is the radical form of 水 (shuǐ), the character for “water”. The second part is 罙 (mí), which means “far”. In modern Chinese you can emphasize that something is especially profound by using this character twice, as in the phrase 深深意思, which means “deep/very profound” (深深) “meaning” (意思).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.