The Heart Sutra as polemic—prajna not jhana
Although texts such as the Heart Sutra become in some sense timeless, they are also firmly rooted in the context in which they were created, The American Declaration of Independence has, as an example, become a model and inspiration for peoples around the world. At the same time it was created as a response to a specific historical moment and political context.
In exploring the Heart Sutra’s history it’s important to note that the different schools often split over ideological differences concerning the 'real' meaning of teachings in the sutras recorded in the Pali canon. These ideological disagreements then became embedded in the Buddhist literature such as the Abhidharmas and commentaries.
Although it is today often chanted as a dharani or mantra, the heart of the Heart Sutra was a direct challenge to the understanding of reality as approached by the most prominent Buddhist sect in Northern India and Central Asia two thousand years ago. And the Heart Sutra presents the alternative approach— Prajnaparamita. So a little background on the Buddhist thought of the time of the Heart Sutra can shed some light on its power and its vision.
Not long after the emperor Ashoka inherited the Mauryan throne in 268 B.C., he sent Sarvastivadin missionaries to Gandhara. The cities in this part of India were at the center of a network of transcontinental trade routes and among the richest in the subcontinent. Thus, it is not surprising that the Sarvastivadins soon became the dominant Buddhist sect in this region. Over the course of the next several centuries, preferential patronage by merchants and the ruling elite extended their dominance beyond Gandhara to the boundaries of the Kushan Empire.
While he was on earth, the Buddha taught lessons suited to whatever audience he was addressing. But much like a doctor, his instructions were primarily intended to put an end to suffering. He never bothered trying to explain the system that formed the basis of his spiritual pharmacology, which was the Abhidharma. As later disciples and their disciples came to understand the Abhidharma, they claimed that it explained reality as a matrix of dharmas, or fundamental entities of the mind, much like the table of atomic elements used in chemistry. From such a perspective, our familiar world of objects and persons was viewed as nothing but a conceptual construct fashioned out of dozens of these dharmas... And to know things as they really are, a person needed to develop the ability to know the characteristics and connections among these entities.