19 - The Heart Sutra Part 1: Introduction to the Most Common Mahayana Text
21 – Sesshin: 24-7 Silent Meditation Retreats


In this episode, I complete my line-by-line explanation of the Heart Sutra. I cover what the sutra means when its says “there is no” such-and-such, why it proceeds through such long lists of things that don’t exist the way we conceive of them (and what those lists refer to), and the significance of the mantra presented at the end.

Read/listen to The Heart Sutra Part 1 first



Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Line by Line: All Dharmas Are Marked by One Thing [3:12]
Line by Line: Introduction to the Heart Sutra’s Lists [8:24]
What Does It Mean, “Because Of Emptiness There Is No…” [11:07]
Line by Line: All Elements of Your Experience Are Empty [17:05]
Line by Line: Even the Foundational Buddhist Teachings are Empty [19:54]
Line by Line: And Yet Bodhisattvas and Buddhas Realize Nirvana [25:18]
Line by Line: Realization and Attainment [29:10]
Line by Line: Prajna Paramita as a Mantra [32:34]
Line by Line: Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha [37:11]


In the last episode, Heart Sutra Part 1, I recited the full text of the Heart Sutra for you – it’s under 250 words – and gave you an overview of its history. I then started going through the sutra line by line, explaining what it means. I’ll continue that process here.

First, thought, in order to set up the next line of the text, I want to review two things I discussed in the first episode:

  • In this text, the term shunyata is translated as emptiness, which Kaz Tanahashi also translates as “boundless.” Emptiness isn’t a negative concept that states nothing is ultimately real; rather, the word points to an experience we have when we let go of our mental map of reality in order to experience it directly. We realize things are very real, just not in the way we think. In reality, all things are without fixed boundary, or empty of any inherent, independent, enduring self-essence.
  • The Heart Sutra is part of a larger body of texts called the Prajnaparamita Scriptures, which focus on the perfection (paramita) of wisdom (prajna), which is more or less the insight that all things are marked by shunyata, or emptiness. The Prajnaparamita Scriptures are adamant that all things are thus – a statement in direct contradiction to some theories of Abhidharma, which postulated the world was composed of fundamentally-existing elements called dharmas, even if no self-nature was to be found in them.

Line by Line: All Dharmas Are Marked by One Thing

A Handy-Dandy Chart: Line by Line Annotation of the Heart Sutra

In the last episode, we covered the first several lines of the Heart Sutra, which include the pointed statements that all dharmas are marked by emptiness, and even more specifically, that “they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease.” I want to go a little further into this line, although I talked briefly about it already, because apparently, these three statements about what dharmas don’t do, given that they’re empty, address each of the Buddha’s Three Characteristics of Existence. That is, anicca, or impermanence, dukkha, or dissatisfactoriness, and anatta, or not-self.

I covered the three characteristics in Episode 14, so check that out if you want to know more about this subtle teaching, but in summary, the Buddha taught that all conditioned things are impermanent and subject to eventual dissolution, and therefore, when we seek permanent refuge in them, they are inherently dissatisfying or stressful. It is necessary for us to recognize this, he taught, and learn to also see all things as not-self – that is, to refrain from latching on to things with a sense of “I, me, or mine.”

What the Heart Sutra does, according to three different authors of books about the text (Conze, Tanahashi, and Red Pine), is imply that shunyataemptiness – as a characteristic trumps the Buddha’s Three Characteristics of Existence! Basically, while in a practical, conventional sense, things are experienced as impermanent, stressful, and not-self, ultimately all things are empty and boundless, and therefore even descriptions like the three characteristics are meaningless.

The Heart Sutra says dharmas “neither arise nor cease:” That is, they cannot be said to be impermanent, because that implies some thing which comes into existence and then ends, possessing some kind of boundary in time and space. The sutra says dharmas are “neither defiled nor pure:” That is, they can’t be said to have the qualities of causing or relieving dukkha, or dissatisfactoriness, because again that implies the existence of some real thing. The sutra also says dharmas “neither increase nor decrease,” but for this part of the sentence I prefer Red Pine’s translation, which says dharmas are not defined by “completeness or deficiency.” Basically, the idea is that something with a self-nature would be “complete,” while something lacking in self-nature could be seen as “incomplete” or “deficient.” So, another way to put this section would be “dharmas are neither self-sufficient nor lacking in self-sufficiency.” This is a bit of a mind-bender, but when we say something is lacking in self-sufficiency or self-nature, we’re still conceiving of it as a thing unto itself, which is not compatible with shunyata.

So, this section of the Heart Sutra­ – essentially saying shunyata is the only fundamental characteristic of all things because it transcends all characteristics – is incredibly significant. It’s really quite bold, when you think about it, because it’s basically claiming, “The Buddha taught the Three Characteristics and that’s a useful teaching, but we’ve got a teaching that’s even more profound!” This is one of the things I love most about Buddhism: over time, people can elaborate on or even add to the teaching, as long what they offer is true, useful in relieving suffering, they can convince others to listen to it, and it stands the test of time. I like to think this allows the spiritual tradition to grow and evolve – and improve – over the millennia.

Just a note: if you’re finding the concept of shunyata or emptiness is starting to slip away from your understanding with all this discussion, don’t be surprised. As I mentioned in the last episode, it’s not actually a concept at all, but term pointing toward a subtle aspect of the human experience, so it’s pretty much impossible to grasp intellectually. That’s not to say you can’t have a real experience of it, but that’s a discussion for another day. What we’ll focus on here is what the Heart Sutra says about emptiness.

Line by Line: Introduction to the Heart Sutra’s Lists

The next part of the sutra is a long list of things that don’t exist because of emptiness. It starts with “Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness…” and the list goes on, covering, in an abbreviated fashion, a whole bunch of things certain Buddhist sects had conceived of and then presented as existing in some literal, or subtle, way.

I’ll explain the different sections of the list and what they refer to in a minute, but first I want to reiterate why the Heart Sutra finds it necessary to follow up a statement that “all dharmas are marked by emptiness,” with a whole list of things which are each specifically stated not to exist because of emptiness. It can seem like the Heart Sutra is being a little repetitive or heavy-handed in its effort to ram home its message of emptiness! However, as I mentioned in the last episode, this is because our difficulty in perceiving shunyata and its implications is not because it’s such a profound or complicated thing, it’s because we are so habituated to the process of imputing inherent, independent, enduring self-nature to everything we encounter. In other words, our tendency to conceive of things as inherently existing is so strong, we need to be constantly and explicitly reminded about shunyata and its implications.

Of course, while the Heart Sutra is aimed at particular Buddhist sects and their lists of existent dharmas and favorite teachings, it’s also aimed at us. It’s naturally to argue with the teaching of emptiness. We might be able to conceive of how we’re composed of atoms which are mostly made up of space, and therefore we have no hard and fixed physical boundary the way we think we do. But, we say, there really is right and wrong! There really is killing. There really is light versus dark. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll realize we’re grasping around for something inherently real and self-existent to rely on, even if we’re doing it in subtle or unconscious ways. This is why the Heart Sutra makes a point of listing things that people tend to get attached to, and saying, more or less, “Yup, that’s empty too!”

What Does It Mean, “Because Of Emptiness There Is No…”

Now, before I go on to explain the Heart Sutra’s lists, what does it really mean when it says, “because of emptiness there is no” form, etc., etc.? If you think this sounds like the text is stating that nothing exists even though it obviously does, you’re not alone. That’s been the reaction of people throughout history when they encounter this teaching. In fact, a famous Zen (Chan) master in 9th century China, Dongshan, heard the Heart Sutra as a child, and when it came the next section we’re going to cover, where it says there is no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind, little Dongshan put his hands on his face and sincerely asked his tutor, “Wait, I have eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and so on – why does the sutra say they don’t exist?”[1]

We’re meant to ask this question, and the Heart Sutra’s list is meant to be provocative. We’re meant to think, “Hold on, my body clearly exists, what is this teaching trying to convey?” We’re not supposed to just nod and accept the teaching of emptiness, and we’re wrong if we think the phase “because of emptiness there is no such-and-such” is saying that such-and-such doesn’t exist. Keep in mind that communicating the truth of shunyata is tricky when using words, but then again, words are an essential part of our means of communication and understanding! I’ll offer a little alternative phrasing that’s not a straight translation of the Heart Sutra, but might help: Add a short phrase to the Heart Sutra’s statement, making it into “because of emptiness there is no such-and-such in the way you conceive of it.”

The prajnaparamita teachings, including the Heart Sutra do not say things don’t exist. In a way, that would just be an opposite philosophical proposition to the existence of things, based on the idea of things. Take your body, for example. To say it doesn’t exist is ridiculous. It’s clearly there. It’s not an illusion.

However, when we conclude your body exists, we draw a whole bunch of mental boundaries around it and install it in our mental map of inherently existing, independent, enduring things. Your physical body is a particularly hard thing to perceive of as empty, because it is relatively separate and enduring compared to things like sensations or thoughts, but still, let me ask you a few questions about it.

Was your mother’s egg “your body?” Was your father’s sperm “your body?” At what point in the division of cells in the resulting embryo would you have identified it as “your body?” When you breathe in, does air become “your body?” When an X-ray passes through you, does it temporarily become part of “your body?” Is the pizza you ate last night now part of “your body?” Are the waste products presently in your GI tract part of “your body?” What about the bacteria in your gut? What about your hair? Is a cancerous tumor part of “your body?” What about when the tumor is removed? What if you have an organ removed – is it no longer part of “your body” when it passes the threshold of your skin? When you die and your body starts to decompose, at what point is it just dust and no longer “your body?”

I don’t know if this line of reasoning helps, but hopefully it points out that when we draw what seems like a simple conclusion that “your body” exists, we’re making a whole bunch of mental distinctions in order to conceive of it as a self-existent, independent thing. “Your body” clearly exists, but not in the way we conceive of it. Instead, it is shunyata, or without an inherent or independent self-nature. Very real, but actually without fixed boundaries.

We draw mental boundaries for practical reasons, so I don’t step on your foot when I walk by, but we can allow those mental boundaries to shift or even fall away when they’re not needed. This is why in Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of the Heart Sutra, this line is, “Boundlessness is not limited by form, nor by feelings, perceptions, inclinations, or discernment.” The empty nature of things is true even when we conceive of forms, identify feelings and perceptions, feel motivated by inclinations, or discern thoughts and ideas. Such phenomena are like waves in the ocean – real and separate in a sense, but only temporarily and without fixed boundary – while the ocean itself is shunyata.

Line by Line: All Elements of Your Experience Are Empty

So, as the Heart Sutra goes on to name a bunch of things, saying, “Yup, that’s empty too,” it proceeds through carefully chosen, established lists of dharmas and Buddhist concepts. You might say these lists, taken together, mean to indicate pretty much everything you can identify or experience or conceive of, but here’s what the particular lists refer to:

  • “there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness:” These are, once again, the Five Aggregates or Skandhas, which taken together comprise a human being;
  • “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:” These are the Twelve Abodes, the first six being the Six Sense Organs, and the second being the Six Sense Objects (an object of mind is something the mind perceives). Red Pine says it is by means of the Twelve Abodes that “we can trace and locate whatever we know of our experience.”[2]
  • “no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness:” These two things are actually just the first and last items on a longer list of the Six Consciousnesses, but this is just an abbreviation meant to imply the whole list, including ear, nose, tongue, and body consciousness. (In fact, in the Sanskrit version of the text there is a word in the middle that can be translated as “up to’ or “until,” and some translations of the Heart Sutra include a phrase “and so on, up to” to make it obvious this is an abbreviated list.) The Twelve Abodes and Six Consciousnesses together make up the Eighteen Dhatus, or realms of our experience. Basically, for us to experience something, there needs to be an object, a sense organ to perceive it with, and a mind, or consciousness, to register the experience – but of course, even the Eighteen Dhatus are empty.

Line by Line: Even the Foundational Buddhist Teachings are Empty

Now we get a radical part of the Heart Sutra where it continues to list things we might be tempted to imagine have some kind of inherent or separate existence or reality – and it proceeds through the foundational teachings of Buddhism itself!

  • “There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death:” This is another abbreviated list. It refers to the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. This is a complex teaching that I will take at least one whole future episode to discuss, so for the moment I’ll try to describe it very briefly. Basically, it’s the original Buddhist theory of causation, answering the question of how we end up in the situation we’re in as human beings. How is it we end up with our concepts about self-nature and inherent existence, how do craving, aversion, and ignorance self-perpetuate, and how can we stop that process?

In summary, the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination state that for the whole causal process to continue, it needs all twelve links – and seeing as it starts with ignorance of our true nature, we can stop the creation of more selfishness and delusion by ending that ignorance. There’s a lot more to this teaching than that, of course, but the inclusion of the Twelve Links in the Heart Sutra list applies the teaching of shunyata even to the way we conceive of causation. Note that it denies the inherent reality of not only the twelve links, but also their “extinction” – so even the ending of ignorance and the other links isn’t ultimately real in the way we usually think.

  • “no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path:” Here we have none other than the Four Noble Truths! This was the Buddha’s first teaching, and I will focus on it in an upcoming episode. Briefly, it states that we experience dukkha, or stress, suffering, or dissatisfaction, because we want things to be other than how they are – we either want good things to last, or unpleasant things to go away. We can free ourselves from dukkha by letting go of our grasping and aversion, and the Eightfold Noble Path is how we go about doing that. This teaching describes the essence and entirety of the Buddhist path. The Heart Sutra reminds us that even Buddhist teachings, concepts, and practices are shunyata, without fixed or separate reality. We conceive of them, communicate them, and even use them to relieve our suffering, but ultimately, they are conventional designations within a boundless reality.

What are the implications of the Heart Sutra’s teaching that the Buddhist path itself is empty? I can think of a number of them. For one thing, it means we shouldn’t get too attached even to Buddhism or to our own effort to awaken or escape our suffering. For another, we should recognize even Buddhism as “expedient means” – as a skillful way to point us toward a deeper perception of reality and a more liberated way of being, but not the most important thing in and of itself. Christianity or Sufism or spending time in nature might lead someone to a realization of shunyata and the ending of all suffering. Personally, I think this is one of the most awesome parts of the Heart Sutra – and as far as I know, Mahayana Buddhism is unique among world religions in emphasizing from the first that it, too, is empty.

  • “no knowledge and no attainment:” These are the prize jewels of Buddhism: liberating insight, or wisdom, and the attainment of liberation from all stress and suffering, or “They don’t really exist, either?!” We may ask. But this whole text is about wisdom! And the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara “relieved all suffering” when he awoke to shunyata! Again, though, the Heart Sutra isn’t saying these experiences don’t actually happen, it’s just that we need to remember such experiences are also boundless. Even your physical body is mostly a mental construct, and the same is true of some “insight” someone might get, or some state of liberation they might experience. Such mental constructs aren’t a problem in and of themselves, but they aren’t reality itself.

Line by Line: And Yet Bodhisattvas and Buddhas Realize Nirvana

So, we can’t conceptually grasp anything – who we are, what we experience, causation, Buddhist teachings and practices, even insight and liberation – and yet, if we wake up to what the Heart Sutra is teaching us, the rewards are beyond description. The sutra continues: “With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.”

We already talked about how there’s ultimately no “thing” to attain, so what about the next part – the bodhisattva relying on prajna paramita? How do you “rely” on boundlessness, on nothing, or on something you can’t even conceive of? Remember, prajnaparamita – the insight into shunyata – is not a concept, it’s an experience. This makes me think of a passage from another Prajnaparamita Scripture, the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines, which says:

“He [The Bodhisattva] does not stand in form, perception or in feeling,
In will or consciousness, in any skandhas whatsoever.
In Dharma’s true nature alone he is standing.
Then that is his practice of wisdom, the highest perfection.
Change and no change, suffering and ease, the self and not-self,
The lovely and repulsive – just one Suchness in this Emptiness they are…
…The Leader [Buddha] himself was not stationed in the realm which is free from conditions,
Nor in the things which are under conditions, but freely he wandered without a home:
Just so, without a support or basis a Bodhisattva is standing.
A position devoid of a basis has that position been called by the Jina [Buddha].”

“Without a support or basis a Bodhisattva is standing.” Conceptually, this doesn’t make any sense – how do you stand without any ground under you? Experientially, however, this is exactly how true freedom feels – as if you are standing more firmly, more upright, than you ever have before, precisely because you aren’t trying to grasp, push away, or hold on to anything. You might think about this in terms of the martial arts, where if you tense up and try to prevent someone from pushing you over, your position is very insecure and dependent on your sheer stubbornness, size, or strength. On the other hand, if you are fully present with whatever comes at you and respond fluidly and naturally, you are extremely stable. Wherever you end up, that is the ground you are standing on.

Without holding on to fixed ideas – that is, without hindrance, beyond all inverted views – our life becomes a responsive flow that allows our full wisdom and compassion to manifest. Holding on to fixed ideas when the situation is changing around us is a hindrance; letting go of the idea of ourselves as having a fixed boundary and needing protection allows us to respond appropriately without getting caught in fear.

Line by Line: Realization and Attainment

“Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.” This line points to another significant divergence between original Buddhism and the development of the Mahayana. The Buddha presented nirvana, or complete liberation from greed, hate, and delusion and therefore from the cycle of transmigration, as a state attained by the most advanced practitioners. The process of rigorous spiritual practice and the eventual attainment of nirvana was presented as something that takes most beings many lifetimes to achieve. The Mahayana, on the other hand, emphasized that insight into the true nature of reality – prajnaparamita ­– allows you to realize the freedom and perfection already present in this time and place. In other words, you realize nirvana is right here and now, as opposed to attaining a state of nirvana only after lifetimes of purification and struggle.

However, the difference between the approach of original Buddhism and the Mahayana should not be overstated; it’s really a difference in emphasis, not in fundamental doctrine. In original Buddhism is was acknowledged that all it took was the proper insight, and you could attain nirvana here and now (although complete liberation was seen as only occurring at your death) – and because of your attainment, you would naturally be freed from greed, hate, and delusion. In the Mahayana, it’s acknowledged that most of us need to practice long and hard before we can fully awaken to the true nature of reality – so even if nirvana can be realized here and now, and not a special state of purity attained only after lifetimes, waking up to it is not that easy.

This section of the Heart Sutra ends with the line, “All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.” This seems to me to be an effort to set the record straight – that even though Mahayana takes a different approach than original Buddhism, it is completely compatible with it. In fact, all buddhas (Shakyamuni Buddha is seen as being only one of many completely enlightened beings throughout time and space) have awakened only because they realized prajnaparamita, or the empty nature of all things. If you read this in a sectarian way, the Mahayanists are laying claim to all buddhas and equating the “attainment of unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment” with the practice of prajnaparamita (in which there is no attainment to be grasped). If you read this part of the Heart Sutra in a less sectarian, more profound way, it’s suggesting that the Mahayana is presenting a new way to describe what all buddhas have awakened to.

Line by Line: Prajna Paramita as a Mantra

The Heart Sutra wraps up by presenting the prajnaparamita as a mantra. It says, “Therefore, know the prajna paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false.”

It’s very unusual for a Prajnaparamita Scripture to include a mantra, as I mentioned in the last episode. A mantra is a syllable or series of syllables or words that’s meant to be recited (silently or out loud) and is presented as possessing power – either to effect change within the person reciting it, or out in the world. At times, mantras were, and still are, presumed to have power you might call “magical,” meaning that they tap into forces beyond those we ordinarily experience or can verify, such as physical, psychological, social forces, etc. A mantra might be recited, for example, to bring about physical healing or protect a building from fire, even though the mechanism of such effects cannot be explained.

What are we to make of the presentation of prajnaparamita as a mantra, the recitation of which brings about miraculous results and the complete removal of suffering? This can be seen, as Conze suggests in his book on the Heart Sutra, as putting this teaching “within the reach of the comparatively unenlightened.”[3] Understanding or experiencing the truth of shunyata could be seen as pretty subtle or challenging, while practice with a mantra was considered a little more accessible. You might recite the mantra repeatedly, or focus on it in your meditation, or even contemplate a visual image of the written words, and by recommending the prajnaparamita as a mantra offered by the bodhisattva of compassion, the Heart Sutra implies that mantra practice will pay off. You’ll be able to access the freedom and liberation this teaching provides without having to be a spiritual adept – perhaps through the magical effect of the mantra, or the power of the principle it invokes, or the compassionate intervention of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Of course, there’s another way of looking at prajnaparamita as mantra. It’s not necessarily the case that mantra practice is a lesser practice, or some kind of shortcut, or reliance on external magical forces. Instead, you might see mantra as a way to approach the absolutely inconceivable teaching prajnaparamita non-intellectually. One meaning of the term mantra is “protects the mind,”[4] and we have discussed how a realization of shunyata “protects” the mind from the hindrance, fear, and suffering that results from clinging to our mental map of the world. Awakening to prajnaparamita is not something we can do the way we complete the other tasks in our lives. There is a mystery present in the dynamic reality we occupy, essentially existing as vital and aware waves within the ocean of shunyata. Awakening encompasses the miracle of life, consciousness, and interdependence. You might see the invitation to approach prajnaparamita as mantra as an invitation to open up to the Ineffable – or to that which is beyond description, but is worthy of our awe and reverence. By repeatedly calling the prajnaparamita to mind, cultivating the intention to align our lives with it, and aspiring to comprehend it, there is some kind of effect on us. Is it magical? That’s probably a matter of interpretation.

Line by Line: Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha

Finally, then, the Heart Sutra gives us an actual mantra, or Sanskrit phrase to recite or concentrate on. “Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, the mantra that says: “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.”

In accordance with tradition, a mantra, at least when used as a mantra, isn’t translated. Instead, it’s transliterated – that is, the sounds of the original Sanskrit words are conveyed through the letters of a new language. As Red Pine explains in his book on the Heart Sutra, in ancient India, “many schools of thought maintained, or at least paid homage to the idea, that sound vibrations are the ultimate constituents of reality.”[5] Therefore, he explains, transliteration seeks to preserve the “spiritual potency” of a mantra.

Tanahashi explains in his book that the Heart Sutra’s mantra isn’t even written in standard Sanskrit, but in a special “incantation form,” so, he says, “interpretation or translation of the mantra remains in the realm of conjecture.”[6] Still, it’s interesting to conjecture. “Gate” can be translated as “going” or “gone.” The “para” in “paragate” implies either “the other side” or “beyond,” so “paragate” could be read as “going beyond” or “gone beyond.” Apparently, these words – gate, and paragate – also imply someone who, or something which, is going beyond, or has gone beyond.[7] So this part of the mantra could be seen as addressing prajnaparamita itself, or herself (the perfection of wisdom is sometimes envisioned as a goddess, or the “mother of the buddhas”).

The “sam” in the next word of the mantra, Parasamgate, adds another dimension to “paragate” – Tanahashi says it can mean “all,” “together,” or “thorough.” Therefore, he suggests, you could interpret the term as “gone altogether.” I like Red Pine’s interpretation interpretation of the whole first part of the mantra as “Gone, the Gone Beyond, the Gone Completely Beyond.” He says,

“After negating the categories of the Abhidharma, this sutra refuses to set up another category or set of categories. Whatever it is, this teaching is beyond it, including itself. This is the function of this mantra: to go beyond language and the categories in which language imprisons us…”[8]

A translation we used to use at my Zen Center, from Roshi Jiyu Kennett, translated “gate” as “going” instead of “gone,” and I like that image of a continuing process instead of the suggestion of an end or completion. Sticking with this approach, you might translate the first part of the prajnaparamita mantra as “Going, going, going on beyond, going completely beyond.”

What about “Bodhi Svaha?” “Bodhi” means enlightenment, and “Svaha” is an exclamation, kind of like “hallelujah.” Red Pine suggests it is also comparable to “at last,” or “amen,” and explains that the word was used in India at the end of Vedic rituals while making offerings to the gods. Tanahashi offers the interpretations “hail,” and “blessing to.” Personally, in my own mind, I’ve always translated the end of the Heart Sutra mantra as, “Enlightenment, yahoo!”


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.


[1] Leighton, Taigen Dan. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2015.
[2] Red Pine page 104
[3] Conze page 112
[4] Tanahashi page 191
[5] Red Pine page 156
[6] Tanahashi page 201
[7] Tanahashi page 202, Red Pine page 157
[8] Red Pine page 158



19 - The Heart Sutra Part 1: Introduction to the Most Common Mahayana Text
21 – Sesshin: 24-7 Silent Meditation Retreats