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The Heart Sutra, Prajnaparamita Hridaya

The Heart Sutra is of Mahayana Buddhism, and is often cited as a most popular Buddhist scripture. Its Sanskrit name is Prajnaparamita Hridaya - the word "sutra" is not present in known Sanskrit manuscripts. The Sanskrit name literally means "The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom".

The sutra belongs to the Perfection of Wisdom group of Mahayana literature, and in English the short version (the following one) is composed of sixteen sentences. A longer versions exists too, and the short version is the core of it, in Chinese.

When? Recent scholarship is unable to verify any date earlier than the 600s CE. Available evidence points towards it being composed in 500s and 600s.

Where? There are differences of opinion among scholars. The scholar Jan Nattier has suggested that the earliest (shortest) version of the Heart Sutra was first assembled or composed in China in the Chinese language based on a Chinese translation of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra along with new composition. Evidence supports a Chinese version at least a century before a Sanskrit version. Her theory is supported among some other prominent scholars of Buddhism, but is not universally accepted. In short: The composition might be assembled or composed in China and is not taken to be the words of Buddha either.

What does the text say? The sutra describes liberation by meditation-won insight, or deep wisdom. The insight refers to "emptiness" by a contradiction that is loosedly rendered into "All is empty - except this statement". To elaborate a little: Leonard Cohen sings: "There a crack in everything", and it follows too that "There's a crack in the statement that there's a crack in everything."

In the light of the foregoing or the heart-felt wisdom, refrain from buying a silly notion of sunyata as emptiness, for it is not true that "Form is empty. Emptiness is form." The ultimate truth is by definition beyond such comprehending . . . but should be experienced directly. It is awakening, and Edward Conze renders the Heart Sutra mantra into English as: "Gone gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!"

The Diamond Sutra belongs to the same class of Mahayana Buddhist literature.

(Wikipedia, "Heart Sutra")

On Emptiness and Beyond It

Sunyata is a key theme of the Heart Sutra. In some influential Mahayana scriptures, Sunyata is not understood as "emptiness", yet is a Sanskrit noun derived from 'void'.

Over time, many different philosophical schools or tenet-systems developed in order to explain the meaning of sunyata. The exact definition and extent of sunyata varies within the different Buddhist schools of philosophy. In Tibetan Buddhism, detailed dialogues between the perspectives of the various schools are preserved in order to train students.

In the Cittamatra school it is said that the mind itself ultimately exists. In the Tathagatagarbha sutras the Buddha and Nirvana are stated to be real, eternal and filled with inconceivable, enduring virtues. Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra also indicates that to view everything as empty is an unbalanced approach. The Tibetan version of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra says that the attainment of nirvanic Liberation ("moksha") opens up a realm of utter bliss, joy, permanence, stability, and eternity (Dharmakshema "Southern" version).

The Lotus Sutra (chapter 4) states that seeing all phenomena as empty (sunya) is not the highest Buddhic attainment, not the final "gain" or "advantage": the bliss of total Buddha-Wisdom supersedes even the vision of complete "emptiness", and Buddha-Wisdom transcends the perception of emptiness.

The Angulimaliya Sutra explains further that "Liberation is not empty [of existence]" and "Buddha is eternal."

Some others on the Void and Self

Dogen [1200-53] "denies that sunyata (emptiness), is "nothingness, non-existence, or non-reality." "Sunyata is not non-existence." In Master Dogen's teaching sunyata is not the denial of real existence - it expresses the absence of anything other than real existence." - Nishijima and Cross, 1996,, ch "Bussho")

"Many people are afraid to empty their minds lest they should plunge into the Void. They do not know that their own mind [contains] the Void." (Huang-po, in Blofeld 1959:48)

According to Dr. Daizetz T. Suzuki (1870-1966), the total self-identity of "I am I" is the state of non-time and is equivalent to the emptiness of Buddhist philosophy. [◦Link]

You must have been there during the void to be able to say that you experienced a void. To be fixed in that 'you' is the quest . . . You are the constant illumination that lights up both the experience and the void. [. . . Illustration:] In complete darkness we do not see [. . .] and we say: "I see nothing." In the same way, you are there even in the void you mention. - Ramana Maharsi [in Osborne 1971, 132]

From these statements and many others it follows that what is called the Great Void (sunyata) is not really vacant, and that is Mahayana doctrine in the matter. Significant Mahayana texts, including the Nirvana Sutra, tell so.

Mistranslation and misunderstanding

Are mistranslations possible?

The teachings of anatta (Skt: an-atman, non-atman, non-self) and void seem to have been added in the course of time in some schools of Buddhism. In What the Buddha Thought (2009), Dr Richard Gombrich thinks that non-self teachings that were added in Buddhism, stem from a misunderstanding, and holds that a current Buddhist doctrine - that there is no Atman (Self, soul, spirit) - is rooted in a mistranslation of "Things are impermanent, i.e., ever-changing, and by that token they are not satisfactory, and by that token they cannot be the atman [spirit]." Later Buddhists came to interpret the third hallmark in that old doctrine as 'not having a self or essence', but that was not its original meaning, says Gombrich. He finds that both Pali grammar and a comparison with the Vedanta show that the true meaning is 'is not atman' rather than 'does not have atman'. Comparison with the Vedanta further shows that the translation 'self' is appropriate, he sums up (p. 69-70).

Buddha for lay followers

When considering tenets, claims and possible mistranslations, one may consult Buddha about how to respond to some of them, at least, for Buddha divided answers to questions into four classes. Claims and questions are both to be handled with caution, for "All wise persons are cautious," and "being cautious is the pleasure known by Superiors" (The Tibetan Dhammapada, 4, 2, extract). Someone might meet death for the lack of caution, it also says. Granted that, it could be very wise to sort out accepted ways to handle questions and claims justly: In the Panha Sutta, Questions (in Anguttara Nikaya 4.42), Buddha enumerates these four to choose from:

  • Straight yes or no answers;
  • Analytical answers, defining and qualifying the terms of the question;
  • Counter-questions;
  • Putting it aside, at least for the time being.

To add to the list: Buddha at times answered with similes, as in the Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, "Discourse to Vatsagotra on the [Simile of] Fire" (Majjhima Nikaya 72). The effects of the ways of answers, how proper they may be, how succinct, roundabout or absent, are perhaps to be taken into account, as when a little tot asks mom, "Where do I come from?" - "You came drifting on a wooden board," is one answer I have heard, and long before surfing became so widely popular. One may classify the answer as "putting the topic aside for as long as it takes until the child is a bit older and/or mom gets straighter", but a danger of misconceptions and disillusionments is there.

Which answering-alternative to choose calls for wisdom, which is found in deep meditation. (Ib.) Moreover, Buddha also warns against drawing inferences from statements that should not have inferences drawn from them, and advocates drawing inferences from those that should . . .

It could also be good to remember that relevant Buddhist practice for lay followers does not call for more than a working hypothesis - such a "belief" to act from. [Link]. It is often very wise not to believe much, for there are many subjects that could be incomprehensible for the time being, and they could be a sheer waste of time to think about, distracting from meditation and getting onwards and upwards.

The Acintita Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 4.77) names four things it may be a waste of time and effort to speculate violently about. They are:

  1. The Buddha-range of the Buddhas [i.e., the range of powers a Buddha develops as a result of becoming a Buddha]. Heed: "Don't worry about what a Buddha may do in the long run before you get one."
  2. The jhana-range of one absorbed in jhana [dhyana]. [i.e., the range of powers that one may obtain while absorbed in jhana]. What to heed is much similar.
  3. The [precise working out of the] results of kamma (Karma in Sanskrit). If you don't know and don't explain much, it could give rise to speculations that distract a lot. By the way, Buddha told a whole lot in his karma teachings.
  4. Speculation about [the origin, etc., of] the cosmos is an imponderable that is not to be speculated about (SN 56.41 develops this speculation). Question: "If the universe is in a process of imploding, is it an error to say it seems to take lots of time?" Compare point 1 above.


The Heart Sutra - Three Versions

Interestingly, speculations and claims about what the following lines mean, fill books. Suppose it is a bit fun in studying many a thing, and that coupling it with meditation works. And that process is in the way of life that many meditators go through, for example ◦ TM meditators. As for "form emptiness evidently form form not different", and what some make out if it, compare Buddha about speculations and drawing inferences (above) Interpolations needs special care too, as differing translations tell of.

A caveat or three

Along the lines it is taught that whatever is form is emptiness (for example in Red Pine 2004, line 8). However, it also holds that in "in emptiness there is no form . . . no body and no mind (etc)" (Ib. l. 12-14). Also included is emptiness is "no thought" (which interestingly also means "no thought of emptiness". Still the reader is urged to "see through delusions" [with "no mind, no though", alas].

According to itself, the Heart Sutra is formed, and therefore empty and mindless about emptiness that there is no thought in. To miss such main points in the poem could lead to a commentary or two or three and so on. There have been many since the olden times, and Red Pines incorporates some in his book, which although well thought of, is "empty stuff" because it is formed or made. That is according to the Heart Sutra itself: there is a little problem there . . .

Dogen in Soto Zen seemingly solves the problem of reading sutras or not by saying on different occasions, "Read sutras. Don't read sutras; do better," and so on. A daily schedule may combine all those approaches. [Dogen's solution for dealing with tricky teachings].

"Do better" is also into the Heart Sutra's sayings of going beyond its sayings, and take up means to transcend thus.

Heart Sutra, Dr Moriarty's transliteration

deep perfect wisdom action perform luminously
saw five bundles them own nature empty
? saw oh Sariputra

form emptiness evidently form form not different
emptiness emptiness not different form
this form that emptiness this emptiness that form
like this feeling thought choice consiousness

oh Sariputra all dharmas emptiness
mark not born not pure not increase not decrease?
therefore Sariputra in the middle of emptiness

no form no feeling no thought no choice no consciousness
no eye ear no nose tongue body mind
no form sound smell taste touch dharmas
no eye-area up to no mind-consciousness area

no clarity no clarity no clarity exhaustion no clarity exhaustion
up to old age no old age exhaustion
no suffering end of suffering path
no knowledge no ownership no witnessing no thing to own

therefore bodhisattva perfect wisdom dwells
in dwell thought no obstacle clarity exhaustion not clairty exhaustion
up to old age no old age exhaustion
no suffering end of suffering path

no knowledge no property no witnessing no thing to own
therefore bodhisattva perfect wisdom dwells
in dwell thought no obstacle thought no obstacle
no existence fear fright inverse reverse ? separate
perfectly stands nirvana three worlds thing experiences

all buddhas perfect wisdom dwell
unexcelled ultimate perfect insight together? buddhas
therefore should know ? perfect wisdom great charm great clear charm

unexcelled charm unequalled equal charm
all suffering stop terminate genuine real not vain
perfect wisdom declaired charm saying

gone gone totally gone totally completely gone enlightened so be it (gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond the beyond, o bodhi hail!)

[Prepared by Dr. Michael E. Moriarty, Communication Arts Department, Valley City State University, Valley City, North Dakota. Redistribution permitted.]

Who was Sariputra?

Sariputra was one of the foremost disciples of Buddha. He was praised for his wisdom.

Translated by Red Pine

Red Pine is the pen name of the American author and translator Bill Porter. In 2018 he won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Thornton Wilder Prize for translation. For his Heart Sutra work, he made use of various Sanskrit and Chinese versions, using the teachings of dozens of ancient teachers in his own commentary.


1 The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita,
looked upon the Five Skandhas
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
5 said, "Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness;
whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.
10 Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness
not birth or destruction, purity or defilement, completeness or deficiency.
Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form,
no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;
15 no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness;
no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,
and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death;
no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;
20 no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.
Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment,
bodhisattavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
25 they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future
also take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.
You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,
30 the mantra of great magic,
the unexcelled mantra,
the mantra equal to the unequalled,
which heals all suffering and is true, not false,
the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:
'Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.'"

The Heart Sutra in Sanskrit and English (Edward Conze)

"There have been several critical editions of the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, but to date the definitive edition is Conze's, originally published in 1948, and then again in 1967. Conze had access to 12 Nepalese manuscripts; seven mss. [manuscripts] and inscriptions from China; two mss. from Japan; as well as several translations from the Chinese Canon and one from the Tibetan. There is a great deal of variation across the manuscripts in the title, the mangala verses, and within the text itself. Many of the manuscripts are corrupt or simply carelessly copied." [WP, "Heart Sutra"]

The Heart Sutra

Translated from the Sanskrit by Edward Conze

Om namo Bhagavatyai Arya-Prajnaparamitayai!

Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the Lovely, the Holy!

Arya-Avalokitesvaro bodhisattvo gambhiram prajnaparamitacaryam caramano vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhas tams ca svabhavasunyan pasyati sma.

Avalokita, The Holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down from on high, He beheld but five heaps, and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.

Iha Sariputra rupam sunyata sunyataiva rupam, rupan na prithak sunyata sunyataya na prithag rupam, yad rupam sa sunyata ya sunyata tad rupam; evam eva vedana-samjna-samskara-vijnanam.

Here, Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

Iha Sariputra sarva-dharmah sunyata-laksana, anutpanna aniruddha, amala aviamala, anuna aparipurnah.

Here, Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are not produced or stopped, not defiled or immaculate, not deficient or complete.

Tasmac Chariputra sunyatayam na rupam na vedana na samjna na samskarah na vijnanam. Na caksuh-srotra-ghranajihva-kaya-manamsi. Na rupa-sabda-gandha-rasa-sprastavaya-dharmah. Na caksur-dhatur yavan na manovjnana-dhatuh. Na-avidya na-avidya-ksayo yavan na jara-maranam na jara-marana-ksayo. Na duhkha-samudaya-nirodha-marga. Na jnanam, na praptir na-apraptih.

Therefore, Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; No forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables or objects of mind; No sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to: No mind-consciousness element; There is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path. There is no cognition, no attainment and non-attainment.

Tasmac Chariputra apraptitvad bodhisattvasya prajnaparamitam asritya viharaty acittavaranah. Cittavarana-nastitvad atrastro viparyasa-atikranto nishtha-nirvana-praptah.

Therefore, Sariputra, it is because of his non-attainmentness that a Bodhisattva, through having relied on the Perfection of Wisdom, dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, and in the end he attains to Nirvana.

Tryadhva-vyavasthitah sarva-buddhah prajnaparamitam-asritya-anuttaram samyaksambodhim abhisambuddhah.

All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect Enlightenment because they have relied on the Perfection of Wisdom.

Tasmaj jnatavyam: prajnaparamita maha-mantro maha-vidya-mantro "nuttara-mantro" samasama-mantrah, sarva-duhkha-prasamanah, satyam amithyatvat. Prajnaparamitayam ukto mantrah. Tadyatha: Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhisvaha. Iti prajnaparamita-hridayam samaptam.

Therefore one should know the prajnaparamita as the great spell, the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering, in truth - for what could go wrong? By the prajnaparamita has this spell been delivered. It runs like this:

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail!

A NOTE: All is as in Conze's translation, with one exception: "O Sariputra" is "Sariputra" here, as a matter of stylistic preference.


Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, Heart Sutra in three versions, Edward Conze, Mahayana Buddhist Literature  

Blofeld, John. 1959. The Zen Teaching of Huang Po: On the Transmission of Mind. Being the Teaching of the Zen Master Huang Po as Recorded by the Scholar P'ei Hsi of the T'ang Dynasty. Evergreen ed. New York: Grove Press.

Bokar Rinpoche and Kenpo Donyo. 1994. Profound Wisdom of The Heart Sutra and Other Teachings. English translation by Christiane Buchet of the French translation Profondeur de la Sagesse. San Francisco, CA: ClearPoint Press.

Conze, Edward. 1959. Buddhist Scriptures. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gombrich, Richard F. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London: Equinox.

Heng-ching Shih, tr. with Dan Lusthaus. 2001. A Comprehensive Commentary on the Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita-Hrdaya-Sutra). (Taisho Volume 33, Number 1710). Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Lopez Jr, Donald S. 1988. The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Nishijima, Gudo Wafo and Cross, Chodo, trs. 1996. Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. Book 2. Windbell Publications. London.

Osborne, Arthur ed. 1971. The Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharsi in His Own Words. New ed. London: Rider.

Pine, Red. 2004. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of Buddhas. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press.

Waddell, Norman, tr. 2013. Zen Words for the Heart: Hakuin's Commentary on The Heart Sutra. Boston and London: Shambhala.

Pali Canon collections:

AN - Anguttara Nikaya (Collection of Discourses arranged according to numbers)

DN - Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses)

MN - Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of Middle-Length Discourses)

SN - Samyutta Nikaya (Collection of Kindred Sayings)


Harvesting the hay

Symbols, brackets, signs and text icons explained: (1) Text markers(2) Digesting.

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