The Heart Sutra: Buddhism in a Nutshell

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In Christianity, there is The Bible. In Islam, there is The Koran. In Judaism, there is The Torah. In Taoism, there is the Tao Te Ching. In Buddhism, there are…over 5000 scriptures!  Not many people know that Buddhism has the most extensive collection of spiritual scriptures in the world. The amount of written material is staggering. Even Buddhist scholars cannot hope to read all of these scriptures in a single lifetime.

Luckily, they don’t have to. And neither do we. There is a simpler way. And in the spirit of Buddhism, simpler is often better.

A Simpler Way

The Heart Sutra contains only 260 Chinese characters. Although these characters are more saturated with meaning than a single English word, this Sutra is short in any language. And yet, despite its brevity, the Sutra contains everything a person needs to know about Buddhism. It also contains everything we need to know about cosmic reality!

Of the 5000+ scriptures that I mentioned above, the Heart Sutra is the most widely translated into English. Some of these translations are good, and some are not so good. In Chinese, the Sutra is poetic, succinct, and meaningful. Translating this into English is not an easy task.

An Inspired Monk

Why is the original Sutra in Chinese? Wasn’t the Buddha from India? Yes. And the original Buddhist scriptures were written in the Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit. But Buddhism spread to China very early on, and many scriptures were translated into Chinese.

The Heart Sutra was translated by a Chinese monk named Xuan Zang (AD 596-664). He traveled all the way to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures. The Heart Sutra was his favorite, and his translation is inspired an ingenious. There are several ancient translations of the Heart Sutra, but the one done by Xuan Zang is widely believed to be the best.

My Teacher’s Help

I am not a Chinese scholar, but I read enough classical Chinese to understand the Heart Sutra. For years, I have studied it in both Chinese and English. I feel that I understand the Sutra not just intellectually, but experientially. For this, I have my teacher, Grandmaster Wong Kiew Kit, to thank.

He has not only taught me how to experience Buddhism through the Shaolin arts, but he has also taught me how to study and understand Buddhist scriptures. My teacher has written several books that contain sections about the Heart Sutra. I am also privileged to have read an unpublished manuscript written by my teacher. In fact, my original idea for a figurative translation of the Sutra came from that manuscript, which contains both a literal and a figurative translation.

I relied heavily on my teacher’s translations as a template. I also used several English translations of the Heart Sutra. All told, I used the following texts:

  • There is No Suffering by Zen Master Sheng-Yen
  • The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra by Tripitaka Master Hua
  • The Heart of Understanding by Master Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Complete Book of Zen by Master Wong Kiew Kit
  • Sukhavati by Master Wong Kiew Kit
  • The Complete Book of Shaolin by Master Wong Kiew Kit
  • The Heart Sutra by Master Wong Kiew Kit (unpublished)


For those who would like to learn more about the Heart Sutra, let us hope that my teacher’s book is published soon. It is the best book I have read on the subject.

My Figurative Translation

The original Sutra assumes a prior understanding of Buddhist philosophy. It hints at things that a serious Buddhist would understand without thinking twice. But for those who are new to Buddhism, the Sutra can be confusing.

The translation below is not literal. If you want a literal translation, please consult one of the books listed above. My translation is different. It contains additions and changes. I made these changes in an effort to make the Sutra more meaningful and accessible to Buddhist and non-Buddhists alike.


The Great Heart Sutra
of the Transcendental Wisdom
to Reach the Other Shore

A Bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara, meditating deeply on prajna-paramita, perceived that the Five Skandhas are all equally empty, and thus overcame all suffering and calamity.

Speaking to Sariputra, she said: Form is not other than emptiness; emptiness is not other than form. Form itself is emptiness; emptiness itself is form. The other four skandhas — sensation, perception, formations, and consciousness — are also thus.

Listen, Sariputra: in transcendental reality all dharmas are marked with emptiness: thus things are neither born nor destroyed; neither pure nor impure; neither increasing or decreasing.

In ultimate reality, the Five Skandhas do not apply: thus, there is no form, sensation, perception, formations, nor consciousness.

In ultimate reality, the Eighteen Dhatus do not apply: thus, there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind; there are no sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, or thoughts; there is no vision, audition, olfaction, gustation, tactition, or perception.

In ultimate reality, the Twelve Nidanas do not apply: thus, there is no ignorance, activity, consciousness, or modality, no senses, contact, perception, or desire, no attachment, becoming, birth, or age-death, and no ending of any of these.

In ultimate reality, the Four Noble Truths do not apply: thus there is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinction of suffering, and no Eightfold Noble Path out of suffering.

In ultimate reality, the Eightfold Noble Path does not apply: thus, there is no Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Concentration, nor Right Contemplation.

In ultimate reality, the Six Paramitas do not apply: thus there is no charity, discipline, tolerance, perseverance, meditation, or wisdom.

Thanks to prajna-paramita, Bodhisattvas understand that there can be no new attainment of enlightenment because originally there was only enlightenment. Thus, the mind of a Bodhisattva has no obstructions. Without obstructions, she has no fear. Free from delusion and illusion, she is able to reach the ultimate enlightenment called nirvana.

All of the Buddhas of the past, present, and future have relied on prajna-paramita to reach the supreme perfect enlightenment known as anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

Thus know that this Heart Sutra is a great divine mantra, a mantra of great clarity, an unsurpassed mantra, a mantra that has no equal. It can eliminate all suffering. This is the incorruptible truth, without falsehood. If you wish to chant a mantra of prajna-paramita, recite thus:

ga-te ga-te para ga-te para sam ga-te bodhi svaha.


Glossary

anuttara samyak sambodhi(Chinese: 阿耨多羅三藐三菩提): the perfect, unsurpassed enlightenment of a Buddha.

Avalokitesvara – (Chinese: 觀 世 音 Guan Shi Yin or 觀 自 在 Guan Zi Zai); The Bodhisattva of compassion. Known as “Guan Yin” in Chinese, and “Kannon” in Japanese. In India, Avalokitesvara was depicted as male, but in China, she is usually depicted as female. The changing gender of Avolitesvara points to the non-duality of cosmic reality, where there is no gender.

Bodhisattva – (Chinese: 菩 薩 Pu Sa); a highly developed spiritual being who has taken a vow to help all sentient beings to reach enlightenment. In Sanskrit, the word means “awake existence”.

Buddha – (Chinese: Fo 佛): any being who has become fully enlightened. In Buddhism, there are countless Buddhas of different ages and realms. The Buddha of our age is the historical Buddha named Siddhartha Gautama, who lived c. 563-482 BCE.

dharma – (Chinese: zhu fa 諸 法); in the context of the sutra, dharma means “things” or “phenomena”, but in the larger context of Buddhism it often refers to “the teachings of the Buddha”.

dhatusThe Eighteen Dhatus, or Eighteen Realms, arise because of and through the five skandhas. These realms can be divided into three groups of six: the six sense organs; the six sense objects, and the six sense consciousnesses. Each sense organs operates on an object, and thus creates a specific consciousness. The 6 sense consciousnesses arise because of the interaction between the six sense organs and their sense objects.

The 6 Sense Organs:

  1. The Eyes
  2. The Ears
  3. The Nose
  4. The Tongue
  5. The Body
  6. The Mind


The 6 Sense Objects:

  1. Shapes
  2. Sounds
  3. Aromas
  4. Flavors
  5. Textures
  6. Thoughts


The 6 Sense Consciousness:

  1. Visual sense, or vision
  2. Sense of hearing, or audition
  3. Sense of smell or olfaction
  4. Sense of taste, or gustation
  5. Sense of touch, or tactition
  6. Perception

Eightfold Noble Path (Sanskrit: arya stanga margah; Chinese: Bāzhèngdào 八 正 道 ): the 4th of the Four Noble Truths, and the way to end the suffering in samsara. It is a practical way to live which involves understanding the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings), developing moral purity, and practicing meditation.

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Conduct
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Concentration
  8. Right Contemplation

Four Noble Truths (Sanskrit: Catvāri āryasatyāni; Chinese: Sìshèngdì, 四聖帝)

  1. The Nature of Suffering (Dukkha): living in samsara (the endless cycle of rebirth) is suffering.
  2. The Origin of Suffering (Samudaya): the cause of suffering is desire.
  3. The Extinction of Suffering (Nirodha): to eliminate suffering, one must eliminate desire.
  4. The Path out of Suffering (Magga): follow the Eightfold Noble Path

ga-te ga-te para ga-te para same ga-te bodhi svaha: a Sanksrit mantra that can be loosely translated as: “Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, enlightenment, ah!”

Heart Sutra: (Sanskrit: Prajñāpāramitā Hrdaya Sutra; Chinese: 般若波羅蜜多心經 Bo re bo luo mi duo Xin Jing): one of the most popular sutras in Zen Buddhism revered for both its brevity and profundity. It belongs to a group of sutras known as the Wisdom Sutras. The version here is the most popular, and comes from the Chinese translation by Xuan Zang (596-664 CE).

mantra: a mystical syllable, phrase, or poem chanted in many religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. The most famous Buddhist mantra is “Om Mani Padme Hum”. In the context of the Heart Sutra, we have two mantras: the sutra itself, and the “ga-te” mantra at the end.

nidanas: the Twelve Nidanas, or the Twelve Links, is a Buddhist doctrine that explains how suffering is perpetuated through samsara (the cycle of birth and death). Each step in the twelve “links” is a consequence of the previous one.

  1. Ignorance
  2. Activity or action
  3. Consciousness
  4. Modality or Name-and-Form
  5. The Six Senses
  6. Contact
  7. Perception or Sensation
  8. Desire
  9. Attachment
  10. Becoming
  11. Birth
  12. Old Age & Death

nirvana (涅盤): the ultimate goal of Buddhism. The word literally means “no wind”, and describes an enlightened state of permanence, tranquility, and bliss.

paramitas: The Six Paramitas, or perfections of wisdom. In Buddhism, these are virtues that should be cultivated. In Mahayana Buddhism, The Six Paramitas are:

  1. Charity, generosity, giving of oneself (Dana, 布 施 波 羅 蜜)
  2. Discipline, morality, proper conduct (Sila : 持 戒 波 羅 蜜)
  3. Tolerance, forbearance, acceptance (Ksanti : 忍 辱 波 羅 蜜)
  4. Perseverance, diligence, effort (Virya : 精 進 波 羅 蜜)
  5. Meditation, contemplation (Dhyana : 禪 定 波 羅 蜜)
  6. Wisdom (Prajna : 智 慧 波 羅 蜜)

prajna-paramita (Chinese: 般 若 波 羅 蜜 多): prajna means wisdom or understanding based on direct experience; the three characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism are compassion (karuna), wisdom (prajna), and emptiness (sunyata), all three of which are emphasized in the first line of the sutra. Prajna-paramita refers to the the transcendental wisdom leading to perfect enlightenment.

Sariputra (Chinese: Shi Li Zi 舍利子); a disciple of the historical Buddha.

skandhas (Chinese: wu yun五 蕴); the five skandhas, or aggregates, that make up human existence:

  1. form or matter (se色 )
  2. sensation or feeling (shou受 )
  3. perception or cognition (xiang想 )
  4. mental formations (xing行 )
  5. consciousness (shi 識)

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7 Responses to “The Heart Sutra: Buddhism in a Nutshell”

  1. Mary Bast September 7, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    Sifu, thank you for this. I’ve chanted the Heart Sutra for years without full presence to its meaning. I’m respectful of your scholarship, appreciative of your clarity, and touched by the heart-felt understanding you have conveyed.

    • Sifu Anthony September 8, 2011 at 7:25 am #

      Hi Mary. Out of curiosity, did you chant it in Chinese? I chanted it in Chinese for years. Once I fully understood what I was chanting, the experience was a lot more powerful.

  2. Laurie Goslinga November 26, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Sifu!

    The translation is beautiful to me because it glorifies to me the emptiness of all my struggles to make enlightenment happen. So do I need to learn to chant? Would it be a good tool to make my mind less invasive and my tai chi smoother with better balance? Thank you for your time! Laurie

    • Sifu Anthony November 26, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

      Hi Laurie. It’s not necessary, no. Chanting is just another tool in the box. Your box is already full of excellent tools. If you want to learn chanting, that is fine, but in the end, what matters is whether or not you use the tools that you have in the box.

  3. Vicky May 17, 2012 at 11:14 pm #

    Wow, Sifu, this is really awesome. Does Sigung’s Complete Book Of Zen feature his translation as well?

    • Sifu Anthony May 18, 2012 at 7:22 am #

      Yes, there’s a translation in there, but it is different than mine. Sifu’s translation is more traditional; mine breaks tradition by listing and explaining more of the details.

      • ida February 16, 2014 at 11:49 am #

        Thank you for this clear translation which crisply unpacks the many condensed Buddhist elements embedded in the Heart Sutra. I started understanding some of the elements by reading Red Pine, but your presentation seems more elegantly done (or maybe just because it is my second encounter). And I also find great meaning chanting it in Chinese.

        Recently I have become frustrated with the free form translations of the poetry parts in Sutras. If there is a rhyme in the original, I would like to see the rhyme in translation. Can you recommend anyone who does that? With gratitude, ida

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