Four Fold Heart Sutra
baritone, men's chorus, piano and percussion

Robert Morris

Program Notes

In early spring of 1984, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from William Albright. He told me that our mutual friend, the composer George Cacioppo, had died. A few days later Syd Hodkinson and I flew to Ann Arbor to attend George's funeral at which time some tentative plans for a concert honoring George's life in music were made. During the summer, I wrote the Four Fold Heart Sutra as a contribution to that concert, but due to various difficulties, it could not be performed.

I chose to commemorate George by setting the Heart Sutra, an important and well-known Buddhist text. It is recited daily in certain branches of Buddhism, notably Zen, and is also chanted at funeral services. The text is a short but elegant summary of the other much longer Prajna-Paramita sutras originally associated with the Madhyamika school of Indian Buddhism (circa ce. 150). What it lacks in length, it makes up in depth; for it has inspired literally thousands of commentaries written over the last two millennia. Indeed, the sutra presents the heart of Buddhist wisdom, in as much as such wisdom can be put into words. In some respects it is a critique of certain (earlier) Buddhist doctrines that place too much emphasis on conceptual thinking or empirical concepts as an aid to reaching enlightenment. Rather it stresses the functions of shunyata (emptiness) as the basis of wisdom. Like many sutras, it ends with a mantra, or spell, which if recited repeatedly will help develop a receptive mind to spiritual growth.

While my setting is designed for concert use, it employs chanting which reflects the sutra's presentation in a more ecclesiastical environment. The text up to the mantra is set four times, each time with slightly more elaboration by the chorus, piano, and percussion. The last section uses the mantra which slowly unwinds the basic material from which the piece is made. This material is based on all-interval tetrachords, four-note chords which contain each basic musical interval exactly once. I felt these chords in their special construction reflected the spirit of the text. Moreover, I know George liked these sounds and I think he would have been amused at the chorus's role in my piece, one found in some of his own music, most notably, The Advance of the Fungi.

The Text of the Heart Sutra

The Bodhisattva of compassion
from the depths of prajna wisdom
saw the emptiness of all five
skandhas and sundered the bonds
that caused him suffering.

Know then:

Form here is only emptiness,
emptiness is only form.
Form is no other than emptiness,
emptiness no other than form.

Feeling, thought and choice,
consciousness itself
are the same as this.

Dharmas here are empty,
all are the primal void.
None take birth or die.
Nor are they stained or pure,
nor do they wax or wane.

So in emptiness no form,
no feeling thought or choice
nor is there consciousness.

No eye, ear, nose,
tongue, body, mind;
no color, sound, smell,
taste, touch or what the mind
takes hold of,
nor even act or sensing.

No ignorance or end of it
nor all that comes of ignorance:
no withering or death,
no end of them.

Nor is there pain or cause of pain
or cease in pain or noble path
to lead from pain,
not even wisdom to attain.
Attainment too is emptiness.

So know that the Bodhisattva,
holding to nothing whatever,
but dwelling in prajna wisdom,
is feed of delusive hindrance,
rid of the fear bred by it,
and reaches clearest nirvana.
All Buddhas of past and present,
Buddhas in future time,
using this prajna wisdom
come to full and perfect wisdom.

Hear then the great dharani,
the radiant, peerless mantra,
the Prajna Paramita,
whose words allay all pain.
Taught by highest wisdom,
true beyond all doubt,
hear and know its truth:

Gate, gate
bodhi, svaha!