Beyond Words:

A comparison of the indescribable in The Mystical Theology and the Heart Sutra

God is beyond the mind, but can be known only by the heart. Words fail. No thought, no matter how majestic, can fail to be a barrier between the soul and the divine reality, which is beyond all. When the heart can see and experience God in simple reality, beyond concepts, all distinctions vanish, and nothing is not part of God. This is something known to mystics in every tradition, in both the East and the West.

the mystical theology

From The Mystical Theology, by Pseudo-Dionysius (St. Denys the Areopagite), 6th-century Christian monk

Chapter Four

So this is what we say. The Cause of all is above all and is not inexistent, lifeless, speechless, mindless. It is not a material body, and hence has neither shape nor form, quality, quantity, or weight. It is not in any place and can neither be seen nor be touched. It is neither perceived nor is it perceptible. It suffers neither disorder nor disturbance and is overwhelmed by no earthly passion. It is not powerless and subject to the disturbances cause by sense perception. It endures no deprivation of light. It passes through no change, decay, division, loss, no ebb and flow, nothing of which the sense may be aware. None of all this can either be identified with it nor attributed to it.

Chapter Five

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. it cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

Source: Pseudo-Dionysius, The Complete Works, 1987, Paulist Press. Trans. Colm Luibheid

the heart sutra

. . . Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita [the perfection of wisdom]
perceived that all five skandhas are empty
and was saved from all suffering and distress.
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness [the indescribability of divine Reality]; emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness;
that which is emptiness, form.
The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
Shariputra, all dharmas [phenomena] are marked with emptiness;
they do not appear nor disappear,
are not tainted or pure, do not increase or decrease.
Therefore in emptiness, no form, no feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind;
no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind;
no realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind-consciousness;
no ignorance and also no extinction of it, and so forth until no old age and death and also no extinction of them;
no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path;
no cognition, also no attainment.
With nothing to attain the bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita and his mind is no hindrance. Without any hindrance no fears exist; far apart from every inverted view he dwells in nirvana [Reality].
In the three worlds all buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita and attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi [complete and perfect enlightenment].
Therefore know the Prajna Paramita is the great transcendent mantra,
is the great bright mantra,
is the utmost mantra,
is the supreme mantra,
which is able to relieve all suffering
and is true, not false.
So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, proclaim the mantra that says:

Gaté, gaté paragaté, parasamgaté! Bodhi! Svaha!

[Gone, gone, completely gone, all completely gone in awakening, Hallelujah!]

Trans. by Kobun Chino, reprinted in Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner, 2003, Wisdom Publications.
Explanatory notes in brackets by Jon Zuck.

Added December 29, 2002