form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.
~ The Heart Sutra, translated by Bill Red-Pine Porter
Bill Porter is one of the leading translators of Buddhist texts and poetry of our era. With nearly 25 works to his credit, Bill has illuminated to the Western world the poems of Cold Mountain and Stone House, as well as the sutras Heart, Diamond and Lankavatara. In the mountains outside of Taipei and the forests of Port Townsend, he has for a half century embodied the simple life of a Chan-Taoist sage.
The Heart Sutra is Buddhism’s most widely known document, Porter writes. In The Heart Sutra; The Womb of Buddhas, he quotes Fazang, founder of the Flower Garland School: “The Heart Sutra is a great torch that lights the darkest road, a swift boat that ferries us across the sea of suffering.” Bill adds himself, “It is a work of art, as much of as of religion…distinguishing these two callings is both artificial and unfortunate.”
The origin story for the Heart Sutra is shrouded in the clouds of Mount Sumeru, where the historical Buddha went to teach his own reborn mother, Maya, who was herself a manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Scholars believe the sutra was authored in South India in the first centuries BCE, translated in China by 200 AD, and popularized by the monk Hsuang-tsang, in the 7th c, when it became the core document for Tang-era Chan Buddhism.
Bill has divided the sutra into four parts: In the first ten, or so, lines, Avalokiteshvara lays out the fundamental nature that underlies the Buddhist universe, a “matrix of reality” (Saravastivadin Abidharma): Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. The second ten lines explains the basic tenet of shunyata (emptiness), by telling us what it is not: not he six senses, not the five skandas, not even the Four Noble Truths. In the second 10 lines, or so, the bodhisattva tells us what realizing Prajna Paramita brings: living without walls in the mind; without walls and therefore without fears. The fourth part is the magical gatha, an incantation that empowers us to go beyond all conceptual categories: Gate, gate, para-gate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.
Bill began his studies of Chinese “on a whim, really,” with fellowship money while in graduate school at Columbia University. He quit school, and went to live for three years in Pure Land and Chan monasteries in Taiwan, all the while studying Chinese and reading Buddhist texts. Far from the draconian schedule found in Japanese Zen monasteries, at these monasteries, Porter was free to pursue his own interests: “It was like a spa, only without the hot springs.” Three years in residence, he got news that his father died, and a week later, received a letter from his father, advising him to take up a career. So, Bill left the monastery, and spent the next 14 years in a mountain farmhouse outside of Taipei, teaching English, beginning his translations, starting a family.
Bill exudes a playfulness, a kindness of spirit, and appreciation for life that is in many ways a mirror for the lives of his many Chinese poets. Bill says of himself, “I’m not a scholar and I’m not that ambitious.” Yet, when he decides to translate a new work, he buys every book in any relevant language, meticulously reads the scholarly commentaries attached, and cross checks numerous sources. He does not do it for the money: In The Heart Sutra, Bill gives specific thanks to the Dept of Agriculture Food Stamp program, the Port Townsend Food Bank and the Earned Income Tax Credit, for helping support his translation work. “The great poets are the heart poets. Poetry is what comes from the heart,” adding, “That is why I am attracted to these people.” It must be a thing of the heart.