To give you a sense of the importance of this text in Buddhism: If – or when – I am gravely ill or on my death-bed, I hope my fellow Buddhists will come and chant the Heart Sutra for me. It’s fewer than 250 words long, and it’s considered to present the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. However, its meaning – and its attraction to Buddhists – may not be immediately evident! The text, particularly because it is so short, is written in a kind of code. That is, it uses Buddhist terminology to refer to significant and complex aspects of Buddhist teaching in condensed form. It also seems to focus largely on negation, talking about how all things are “empty” – a subtle concept I’ll need to explain.
Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
The Text of the Heart Sutra [3:48]
Brief History: Mahayana and the Prajnaparamita Scriptures [6:42]
Brief History: The Origin of the Heart Sutra [11:03]
Brief History: Heart Sutra as Dharani [12:49]
Heart Sutra as a “Sutra” [15:54]
Line by Line: Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva [18:18]
Line by Line: All Five Aggregates Are Empty [21:20]
Line by Line: Shariputra and Form Isn’t Different from Emptiness [26:47]
Line by Line: All Dharmas Are Marked by Emptiness [30:33]
The Heart Sutra is probably the best-known Buddhist scripture in the world. It’s certainly the most commonly recited text in Zen temples, where it’s usually chanted daily as well as on a wide variety of special occasions including funerals, weddings, and celebrations. The Heart Sutra is also chanted by other kinds of Mahayana Buddhists, particularly those in Vajrayana traditions, so it is in active use in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia – and all the places Buddhism from those areas has spread, including Europe and the Americas.
In this episode, I’ll first recite the Heart Sutra for you. Then I’ll give you a very brief overview of its history in order to provide you with a little context. Finally, I’ll start working my way through the text line by line, offering definitions of terms, explaining references, and giving you a sense of the teaching being conveyed. I’ll complete this line by line exploration in the next episode, which I’ll release next week.
Note! I introduce a lot of Buddhist terms in this episode, so I have started a glossary of specialized Buddhist terms on the website (you can also find it under the menu item “Resources”).
The Text of the Heart Sutra
The translation of the Heart Sutra I’m going to share with you is by a team of translators who participated in the Soto Zen Translation Project. This project was organized by the International Division of the of the Japanese Soto Shu, or the official Soto Zen organization in Japan. Don’t worry too much about remembering any aspect of the text, because we’ll go through it later, line by line:
Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this.
Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness.
There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment.
Brief History: Mahayana and the Prajnaparamita Scriptures
You may understand, now, why this text needs some explanation, and you may find yourself wondering why someone like me wants it recited at her deathbed!
First, though, let me provide a little history for context. I have to deliberately limit my discussion of history, here, because this text has an enormously fascinating past that’s intimately tied to the evolution of Buddhism, its spread from India to other parts of Asia, the process of textual translation and popularization, etc. If you want to learn more about the history of the Heart Sutra than I share here, I recommend two excellent books on the subject: Kazuaki Tanahashi’s The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism, and Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas. Both books cover the history of the sutra, including modern scholarship and debate, and also provide in-depth discussion of the text line by line.
In summary, then, the Heart Sutra has its origins in Buddhist texts that began to be composed about 400 years after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. These texts were called the Prajnaparamita Scriptures – prajna meaning “wisdom,” and paramita meaning “perfection,” specifically a Buddhist perfection that led to liberation or enlightenment. The Prajnaparamita Scriptures, as well as other many other texts, were products of what we call Mahayana Buddhism.
Stick with me here, as I need to cover a whole bunch of specialized Buddhist terms in a row. First, to explain the term Mahayana: Maha means “great,” and yana means “vehicle.” Mahayana was a branch of Buddhism that evolved gradually in India and focused on particular aspects of Buddhist teachings. It strongly emphasized the ideal of the bodhisattva, who vows to be reborn in the world in order to help save other beings, instead of enjoying the liberation from the cycle of transmigration that his or her enlightenment makes possible.
Mahayana also accentuated the teaching of shunyata, which evolved from the original Buddhist teaching of anatta, or not-self, which I covered in Episode 14. Shunyata can be translated as “emptiness” or “boundlessness,” and it essentially means that things (including living beings) don’t exist the way we conceive of them – that is, as separate, independent, inherently-existing, enduring entities. All beings and things are empty of inherent self-nature. More on shunyata in a bit, when we start to go through the Heart Sutra line by line.
A deep insight into emptiness was considered, by Mahayana Buddhists, to be central to liberation and to fulfilling the role of a bodhisattva. Such an insight into emptiness is, in essence, the “wisdom” referred to by the term prajna. Therefore, prajnaparamita, the “perfection of wisdom,” is the direct, experiential (that is, not just intellectual) realization that all beings and things are empty of inherent self-nature. The Prajnaparamita Scriptures focused to a large extent on how to go about attaining this realization, its nature and implications, the qualities of bodhisattvas who understood emptiness, and the central importance of the perfection of wisdom to the whole Buddhist path.
Brief History: The Origin of the Heart Sutra
The Mahayana Buddhists went pretty crazy with the Prajnaparamita Scriptures, adding to and revising the literature over the centuries. The oldest version is probably the one in 8,000 lines, but there were also 25,000 and 100,00 line versions. Scholars debate the history of which scriptures are the oldest, and the process by which the scriptures were translated and spread over Asia, but in general it’s believed that the Heart Sutra was inspired by, if not drawn directly from, the Prajnaparamita Scriptures. Given the proliferation and growing length of the perfection of wisdom texts, you can imagine the attraction of a short text that summed up the essence of the prajnaparamita.
Somewhere around the 1st century CE, some unknown person, probably a monk, compiled the Heart Sutra. There is scholarly debate about the timing of this composition and whether this happened in India or China. In any case, the text didn’t become widely popular until the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang [S-u-ahn seng] learned it from another monk in the 600’s, and took up the practice of regularly reciting it on his travels to India and back to China. Part of the attraction of others to this obscure little text was Hsuan-tsang’s story that reciting it on his travels protected him from demons, bandits, and storms.
Brief History: Heart Sutra as Dharani
Essentially, Hsuan-tsang used the Heart Sutra as a dharani. Now I have to introduce yet another Buddhist term: a dharani, or “mystical verse,” is a short text, the recitation of which was sometimes used as a mnemonic device, but was often believed to have real power either to affect change in the person reciting it, or to influence events in real life (such as threats from bandits and storms). The idea of a dharani is that the power lies either in the very sound of the recitation itself, or in the beings or principles the dharani invokes.
Not only did Hsuan-tsang and others use the Heart Sutra as a dharani, one translation of the name of the text in Sanskrit, Prajnaparamita Hridaya, is Prajnaparamita Dharani. According to Tanahashi, hridaya means “heart” in the sense of the organ, or the seat of feelings and sensations or mental operations, or it can mean “center,” “core,” “essence,” or “most secret part.” It can also be translated as dharani and he says “these Sanskrit words are often used interchangeably.” This makes sense in that a powerful dharani might also be a secret teaching or the “heart” of important teachings.
On a related note, the Heart Sutra also ends with a mantra, which is kind of like a dharani in that its recitation is supposed to have spiritual or mystical efficacy, although a mantra is generally much shorter than a dharani – anywhere from one syllable to a short verse – and is often presented in Sanskrit, or a transliteration from Sanskrit, rather than translated. I’ll talk about the mantra when we go through the Heart Sutra line by line, but I thought it was worth mentioning here, in our discussion about mystical recitations.
For the purposes of Buddhism – and our discussion today – it doesn’t matter whether you believe dharanis or mantras have some kind of physical, literal effect in the world when recited. Just keep in mind that Buddhists throughout history have believed the Heart Sutra had unusual power. That power has at times been perceived as magical or mystical, but you might also say the Heart Sutra has power because it invokes the entirety of the transformative prajnaparamita teaching, which another scripture took 100,000 lines to explain.
Heart Sutra as a “Sutra”
Before we move off the subject of the Heart Sutra’s title: The full title is often translated, as it was by the Soto Zen Translation Project, as the Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra (we just call it the Heart Sutra for short). I’ve already given an explanation of the term “heart” (a translation of hridaya, which can mean “heart” or dharani), and of “perfect wisdom” (a translation of prajnaparamita, or the transformative perfection which is insight into emptiness). The “great” is added in because the word maha, or “great” is often added to the term prajnaparamita. So, what about the sutra part?
Strictly speaking, a sutra is a discourse either given directly by Shakyamuni Buddha, or by one of his immediate disciples who is empowered to speak the discourse on his behalf. Of course, it’s extremely unlikely that Shakyamuni Buddha or one of his direct disciples actually spoke the Heart Sutra, seeing as the Prajnaparamita Scriptures which inspired the Heart Sutra didn’t appear until hundreds of years after Shakyamuni’s death. However, the Mahayana Buddhist tradition justifies presenting such texts as sutras either by saying these texts were hidden after the Buddha’s death and only revealed or discovered later, or by portraying the existence and teaching of fully enlightened beings as transcending space and time. (I’ll go into this fascinating aspect of the Mahayana tradition in future episodes.)
In any case, the Heart Sutra is presented as either being the words of Shakyamuni Buddha, implied by the word sutra, or as the inspired words of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. According to Tanahashi, in a later, somewhat longer version of the Heart Sutra, the text explains that the Buddha is present, but goes deep into meditation while Avalokiteshvara speaks the sutra in response to the disciple Shariputra.
Line by Line: Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
So, let’s start going through the Heart Sutra line by line: “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajna paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering.” It’s very significant that this text is either about or spoken by Avalokiteshvara. He is an archetypal bodhisattva, which is a uniquely Mahayana Buddhist creation that’s half timeless, transcendent being – sometimes seen as akin to a deity and even prayed to – and half archetype, or ideal. Avalokiteshvara in particular is seen as the embodiment of perfect compassion, and of the practice of compassion.
Why is it so significant that the bodhisattva of compassion features centrally in the Heart Sutra? In his book, Red Pine points out that Avalokiteshvara is “nearly invisible” in other Prajnaparamita Scriptures. Red Pine has his own ideas about why the bodhisattva appears in the Heart Sutra, but he mentions a theory (which he disagrees with) which suggests that at some point in China, where Avalokiteshvara had become popular, he replaced the Buddha at the beginning of the Heart Sutra. My own theory, which can’t be verified historically, is that the compiler of the Heart Sutra wanted to couple an emphasis on compassion with the apparently negative prajnaparamita teaching of emptiness. Either the compiler, or those who popularized the text, appreciated the message that compassion and wisdom are ultimately inseparable; you need wisdom to be truly compassionate, and you seek wisdom out of compassion.
One of the translations of Avalokiteshvara’s name is “perceiver of the cries of the world,” and part of his compassionate response to suffering beings is to diligently “practice prajna paramita.” That is, he meditates and does other Buddhist practices with a focus on awakening to this critical Mahayana Buddhist insight, or he strives to deepen his understanding of it.
Line by Line: All Five Aggregates Are Empty
When the Heart Sutra says Avalokiteshvara “saw that all five aggregates are empty,” it means he experientially recognized that all aspects of a human being – physical form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness – are empty of inherent, independent, enduring self-nature. As I described in Episode 14, the five aggregates (or skandhas) often serve as a shorthand for all of human existence and experience.
Okay, now for the concept of shunyata, translated here as emptiness. What on earth does it really mean? For one thing, shunyata refers to an aspect of reality that can only be experienced. It’s not really a concept at all, except that once you put a word to something and try to communicate about it, you enter the realm of concepts. The word shunyata, and any descriptions of it what it is or isn’t, are just what we in Zen call “fingers pointing at the moon.” They are meant to guide us toward an experience, but they aren’t the experience itself. So, you really shouldn’t be able to grasp the concept of emptiness intellectually! (I hope that’s encouraging.) At the same time, what is the concept pointing to?
I can’t presume to satisfactorily explain it here in a couple paragraphs; Buddhist teachers throughout the millennia have struggled with this explanation in countless ways, and used a myriad means to express it. Still, here goes: When we’re ignorant of the true nature of things, we mistake our views of the world with reality itself. Our thinking mind, creator of our views, evolved to discriminate between this and that: Self and other, food and poison, friend and foe, etc. With the growth of our intelligence, we create an incredibly complex mental map of our world and experience, including identities, abstract ideas, opinions, and categories of beings and things.
There’s nothing wrong with having a mental map of the world – we need it to function! However, the problem arises when we fail to understand that the boundaries we have mentally drawn between beings, things, and events aren’t inherently real. Those boundaries are expedient descriptions of the ways things tend to function and organize themselves, but they’re not actually there. Instead – and this is the reality of shunyata that bodhisattvas try so hard to awaken to – nothing is fundamentally separate from, or independent of, anything else. One way this is sometimes expressed is that “all things are one,” but even that isn’t accurate, because it suggests an inherently-existing “one” with a boundary! A better (more “Zen”) way to put it is things are “not-two.” The “two” is our idea of separation, which we can drop in order to experience reality directly, without imposing our mental map on it.
Now, the process of achieving a personal, direct experience of shunyata is a subject for another day. However, lest you tune out when reading or chanting the Heart Sutra, thinking “I don’t understand emptiness,” or, “I haven’t personally experienced that yet,” let me share a beautiful alternative translation of the Heart Sutra that may give you a little more of an intuitive sense at the wondrous thing it’s pointing to. In his book on the Heart Sutra, Kaz Tanahashi offers a new, interpretive translation of this text that he did with Joan Halifax. His first line says Avalokiteshvara “sees that all five streams of body, heart, and mind are without boundary, and frees all from anguish.” Throughout the rest of the text he uses the term “boundlessness” to translate shunyata instead of the usual “emptiness,” because of the negative overtones emptiness has in English.
Maybe, instead of thinking, “nothing really exists” when you hear a teaching on shunyata, you can call to mind Tanahashi’s words and think of more inspiring interpretation: “Nothing really has any boundaries; nothing is actually separate from all that is.”
Line by Line: Shariputra and Form Isn’t Different from Emptiness
The next part of the Heart Sutra is addressed to Shariputra. Shariputra was one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, renowned for his ability to listen deeply to a teaching and then understand it. Again, we can’t know for sure, but there are couple possible reasons for Shariputra’s presence: First, he is a good “stand in” for all diligent students of the Buddha’s teaching. Second, there may be a little “one-upmanship” going on here, as a bodhisattva gives a Mahayana teaching to one of the Buddha’s smartest pre-Mahayana students, as if to further or complete his study.
The speaker of the Heart Sutra (Avalokiteshvara, or the Buddha himself) then explains, “Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this.” So, remember that this list comprises the five aggregates, which Avalokiteshvara has realized are empty of self-nature. All aspects of our existence and experience as a human being are without boundary, and without any inherent essence that can be grasped. However, this passage makes it clear that we should not, therefore, conceive of our manifestation as a human being as one thing, and emptiness as another thing.
This is a subtle teaching, so stick with me… another prajnaparamita text, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, says it beautifully (and remember, the five skandhas are the five aggregates):
“As dharmic facts existence and non-existence are both not real.
A Bodhisattva goes forth [into enlightenment] when wisely he knows this.
If he knows the five skandhas as like an illusion,
But makes not illusion one thing, and the skandhas another;
If, freed from the notion of multiple things, he courses in peace –
Then that is his practice of wisdom, the highest perfection.”
We don’t really comprehend shunyata if we conceive of ourselves being empty of the self-nature we wish we had, or are afraid of not having. That’s still holding on to our mental map of reality but then adding a negative feature of “emptiness” which deprives it of any validity or meaning. In contrast, shunyata is the boundless quality of all beings and things – and therefore doesn’t manifest, or have any meaning whatsoever, except through the very existence of beings and things. Existence or manifestation are one side of a coin, and shunyata is the other; you can’t have one without the other. Again, this is an inadequate description of an actual experience, but maybe it helps a little.
Line by Line: All Dharmas Are Marked by Emptiness
Our confusion about emptiness isn’t because it’s a complicated concept, it’s because we’re so tempted to start conceptually discriminating things again, even if we’ve had an insight into, or intuition of, shunyata. Despite the teaching, we start subtly creating categories of things that really must exist.
In fact, one of the scholarly theories is that the Heart Sutra was composed, at least in part, in response to a sect of Buddhism that had explicitly done exactly that: Created a concept of truly existent elements, called “dharmas.” The Sarvastavadin school came up with a list of 75 fundamentally existent dharmas, of which everything else was composed (click here to see it!). These dharmas weren’t limited to physical manifestations – they included things like mindfulness, energy, anger, and drowsiness, as well as eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind – but in some senses, the dharmas were conceptually comparable to the smallest subatomic particles physicists have been looking for. Sure, the Sarvastavadins said, you can’t find any graspable, fixed self-nature as a person, but the world is still composed of some fundamental elements.
In response to this idea, the Heart Sutra directly addresses some of the premises of the Sarvastavadin dharma system (which, by the way, was part of a larger body of philosophical literature called the Abhidharma, that is, “about the Dharma,” or “higher Dharma”). It begins with “Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.” Just to be clear, it specifies all dharmas are characterized by shunyata, and therefore boundless. Edward Conze puts it this way:
“In this one attribute all the other marks which Abhidharma tradition had considered are swallowed up and become extinct. Some reflection will show that ‘to be marked with emptiness’ is the same as ‘to be empty of all differentiating marks.’ Dharmas are empty of all that could mark off a separate existence for each one of them; i.e. they have no separate existence.”
Then the Heart Sutra denies the fundamental characteristics we ascribe to existent things. Although things and beings appear to arise and cease, come into being and then pass away, grow stronger or weaker, or possess attributes that are negative or positive, holy or unholy, etc., fundamentally those qualities or functions belong to separate, self-existent things. Practically speaking, we may want or need to differentiate such events or qualities, but we must remember these definitions of beginning and end, good and bad, are part of our mental map of reality, and not reality itself. If Mahayana has one serious doctrine, it’s this: all things are marked by emptiness. Every last thing.
I’ll continue our line by line exploration in the next episode. If you have any questions or comments, I’ll be happy to respond to any questions or comments you leave below.
Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim Hsuan-tsang: done between 1800 and 1900, from Wikimedia (Public Domain)
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Wisdom: containing the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. New York, New York: Vintage Spiritual Classics, 2001. (Original copyright 1958)
Pine, Red. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Press, 2004.
Tanahashi, Kazuaki. The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Boulder, Colorado: Shambala Publications, 2014.
 Red Pine page 23, Tanahashi page 90
 Red Pine page 17
 Tanahashi page 145
 Red Pine page 20
 Tanahashi page 145
 Tanahashi page 147
 Red Pine page 47
 Tanahashi page 159
 Conze (1958) page 87, Red Pine page 71
 Conze, Edward. The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines & Its Verse Summary. San Francisco, California: Four Seasons Foundation, 1973.
 Conze (1958) page 93.