Heart Sutra

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A text of fewer than three hundred Chinese characters in its earlier short version, the Heart Sūtra (Sanskrit, Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya; Chinese, Boruo boluomiduo xin jing) was given to the great translator Xuanzang (ca. 600–664) to recite for protection on his pilgrimage to and from the holy land in India. Through his successful use of the sūtra and its concise eloquence, the text became the single most commonly recited and studied scripture in East Asian Buddhism. The Heart Sūtra is thought to embody the most profound teaching of prajñūāpūāramitūā, the perfection of prajnŪĀ (wisdom), and it is recited in rituals by participants in the Chan school, the Tiantai school, and other traditions.

The longer version of the Heart Sūtra has a conventional sūtra opening in which Ānanda recites the teaching as given by Śākyamuni Buddha on Vulture Peak, followed by a formal conclusion. The short version lacks these framing elements, consisting solely of Avalokiteśvara's explanation of the identity of form and Śunyata (emptiness), as well as a mantra. Based on literary evidence, Jan Nattier has argued that the short version was constructed initially in Chinese and then translated into Sanskrit. If correct, this would be an otherwise unknown sequence in Buddhist literary history.

The Heart Sūtra opens with the statement that Avalokiteśvara understood the emptiness of all things and was thus liberated from all suffering. Addressing ŚĀriputra, the stand-in for the abhidharma under-standing of Buddhism in this scriptural genre, Avalokiteśvara then describes the perfect equivalence of emptiness and form; that is, emptiness is not a separate realm underlying or transcending the mundane world, but a different aspect of that same world, or a transcendent realm entirely identical with mundane reality. With concise but systematic thoroughness, the text denies the ultimate reality of virtually all aspects of that mundane world, including such quintessential Buddhist teachings as the four noble truths of duḤkha (suffering), its cause, its elimination, and the path to that end. With a wordplay on attainment, taken first as sensory apprehension and then as the achievement of spiritual goals, the Heart Sūtra describes the perfection of wisdom as the source of the enlightenment of all the buddhas. Finally, it identifies the perfection of wisdom with a mantra: gate gate pūragate pūrasaṃgate bodhi svāhā. The grammar of this phrase is obscure (as is the case for mantras in general), even more so for East Asian users of the text, but it is usually understood to mean roughly "gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond; enlightenment; hail!"

See also:Prajñāpāramita Literature


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

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

McRae, John R. "Ch'an Commentaries on the Heart Sūtra." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 11, no. 2 (1988): 87–115.

Nattier, Jan. "The Heart Sūtra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?" Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15, no. 2 (1992): 153–223.

John R. McRae