Historical Background
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The term Buddhism, used generically and rather loosely, is best understood as an ever-evolving phenomenon with three distinct aspects to its history:

  • the original teachings of the historical person Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha, the Awakened One: the Four Noble Truths, including the Eightfold Path, and the Chain of Dependent Origination. There is a fair historical consensus on the authenticity of these teachings and the teacher.

  • the Buddhist Tradition, by which is meant the developed doctrines such as the Abhidharma canon of the Hinayana tradition, and the sutras (sermons attributed to the Buddha) and sastras (commentaries on the sutras) of the Mahayana tradition whose composition and compilation took place over a period of a thousand years after the death of the Buddha.

  • the Buddhist Religion,which includes a smorgasbord of bewildering and seemingly contradictory practices and beliefs ranging from the marathoning monks of Mt. Hiei in Japan to the devotees of Pure Land and Nichiren sects in East Asia to the laity supporting the forest-monks in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

The Heart Sutra, or the "Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra," to give it its proper Sanskrit name, belongs to the Buddhist tradition, and is probably the best known of the Mahayana sutras. It is chanted daily in the Buddhist monasteries of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and in the West. This very short sutra (containing about fourteen verses in Sanskrit and 260 characters in Chinese) is a basic text of Zen tradition and is considered to contain the essence of all Mahayana wisdom schools.

Zen (Ch'an) began in China as a meditation school of Mahayana Buddhism and was partially shaped by its sutra literature. These sutras capture the dramatic fervor and religious aspirations of new movements in India that had broken away from the earliest forms of Buddhism (Hinayana), beginning, most likely, in the first century BCE. The Mahayana doctrine developed, religiously and philosophically, with the Bodhisattva ideal (which exhorted a practitioner to work for the liberation of all beings, however numberless, rather than striving just for one's own liberation) at its center, and the teaching of sunyatya (Emptiness) as its inspiration. D.T. Suzuki, the great facilitator between Zen tradition and the West, finds, in the psychology of the Bodhisattva, "one of the greatest achievements in the life of the spirit."