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Zen Words for the Heart: Hakuin's Commentary on the Heart Sutra Paperback – July 15, 1996

4.4 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Language Notes

Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Japanese

From the Back Cover

Hakuin Zenji (1689-1769) was one of the most important of all Japanese Zen masters. His commentary on the Heart Sutra is a Zen classic that reflects his dynamic teaching style, with its balance of scathing wit and poetic illumination of the text. Hakuin's sarcasm, irony, and invective are ultimately guided by a compassion that seeks to dislodge students' false assumptions and free them to realize the profound meaning of the Heart Sutra for themselves. The text is illustrated with Hakuin's own calligraphy and brush drawings.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Shambhala; 1st edition (July 15, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1570621659
  • ISBN-13: 978-1570621659
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #640,640 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
The page-long Heart Sutra is one of the most popular Buddhist texts and is chanted every day in Zen monasteries. This small book is a commentary on the Heart Sutra by the Japanese Rinzai Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768). Hakuin goes through the Heart Sutra a word or phrase or line at a time, commenting usually with a paragraph of prose followed by a verse. Translator Norman Waddell adds helpful notes about the Buddhist doctrines, Chinese folktales, and so forth, that Hakuin refers to. And the book is illustrated with Hakuin's own calligraphy and paintings.

Hakuin writes in the incisive, poetic, paradoxical style that I think of as "Zen-speak" when it gets imitated poorly, but this is the real thing. Hakuin's writing is lively, funny, often sarcastic or scatalogical.

Here are a couple of bits I especially liked, to give you a sense of Hakuin's style: Commenting on the line "Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form," Hakuin says, "A nice hot kettle of stew. He ruins it by dropping a couple of rat turds in. It's no good pushing delicacies at a man with a full belly. Striking aside waves to look for water when the waves _are_ water." Commenting on the phrase "is delivered from all distress and suffering," Hakuin offers this verse:

The ogre outside shoves the door,
The ogre inside holds it fast.
Dripping sweat from head to tail
Battling for their very lives,
They keep it up throughout the night
Until at last when the dawn appears
Their laughter fills the early light--
They were friends from the first.

If you'd prefer a commentary in a more ordinary, explanatory style, try Albert Low's "
...Read more ›
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This is the second-most important treatment of the Heart Sutra I've ever encountered. Edward Conze's has to be first; even this translation depends somewhat on Conze's almost perfect translation. As a Sanskrit Scholar and occasional Buddhist, I've contemplated this Sutra for years, and have garnered insights from several translations, most notably those of Conze, this one, and Red Pine's. I'd recommend getting all three. I'd also recommend reading this one LAST. It is a sharp razor that slashes through the intellect, offends the senses and sensibilities, and reveals the pure, impersonal core of this most sacred work in a manner unlike that of any other treatment.

If you do not work out your own understanding, questions, reflections first, this text will either offend or amuse, and thus be wasted. It is no museum piece or comedy act; as another reviewer has said, Hakuin is the Real Deal when it comes to Zen, and treated with respect - and even fear - he will deliver the Heart of this Sutra directly into your own heart.
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Hakuin's commentary truly evokes the essence of Zen.

His sharp wit and poetic metaphors serve to both jumble and clarify your understanding of this famous sutra. You may have to read and reread his words many a time before you reach that "aha!" moment - a sort of mini enlightenment, so to speak.

Because of Hakuin's bizarre writing style and often esoteric allusions, I would not recommend this as one's first experience with the Heart Sutra. However, for those well-versed in the sutra, as well as for those with an open mind and the ability to gain wisdom from seeming irrationality and paradox, I can't advocate this commentary enough.

Give it a go. Then give it another go. All the better for your mind, and of course, your heart.
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There were some poems that weren't so easy to get but some images jumped right out at me to help me feel the intention of the commentary. I spent a lot of time reading, pausing, and feeling this book. The translator's notes were often helpful. Other books like the "Philosophy of the Buddha" by A. Bahm, which I have read, helped me at times recognize some places where a more Middle Path interpretation could exist.

Some of Hakuin's statements are very much in the time of his writing them, some are concepts you can find in most texts on early Buddhism. I like that Hakuin undermines the dangerous and harmful interpretations of "emptiness". It is his metaphors that helped me get this point, feel this point. The translator's notes did help in this. If you have read the Heart Sutra or other works on emptiness and find yourself falling into the trap of seeing a "here" to leave and a "there" to which you need to go to, or your view of emptiness tends towards nihilism then you should read this book and weigh it carefully.

There were also typos, they were annoying but did not render the book unusable. However, those and some incompleteness in the translators notes make me consider this text a 4 out of 5 stars.
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Hakuiin is unrelenting. Wadell's translationof Hakuin's commentary conveys the single minded approach to awakening of Hakuin and brings light to many of the passages in the Heart Sutra that have been written about quite a lot, yet Hakuin adds new dimensions of understanding. I recommend it to you if you are sincere zen seeker.
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