The use of the Heart Sutra is particularly emphasized in Buddhist traditions of East Asia. Its Chinese version is frequently chanted (in the local pronunciation) by the Chan (Zen/Seon/Thiền) sects during ceremonies in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. It is also significant to the Shingon Buddhist school in Japan, whose founder Kūkai wrote a commentary on it, and to the various Tibetan Buddhist schools, where it is studied extensively.
The sutra is in a small class of sutras not attributed to the Buddha. In some Chinese versions of the text, starting with that of Fayue dating to about 735, the Buddha confirms and praises the words of Avalokiteśvara, although this is not included in either the extant Sanskrit version nor the preeminent Chinese version translated by Xuanzang.
However, based on textual patterns in the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Heart Sutra and the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, scholar Jan Nattier has suggested that the earliest (shortest) version of the Heart Sutra was probably first compiled in Chinese from translated Sanskrit texts, and later re-translated into Sanskrit This theory has gained support amongst some other prominent scholars of Buddhism.
Xuanzang's was also the first translation to call the text a sutra. No extant Sanskrit copies use this word, though it has become standard usage in Chinese and Tibetan.
Some citations of Zhi Qian's and Kumarajiva's translations prepend moho (which would be maha in Sanskrit) to the title. Some Tibetan editions add bhagavati, meaning "bountiful", an epithet ofPrajnaparamita as goddess.
The specific sequence of concepts listed in lines 12-20 ("...in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, ... no attainment and no non-attainment" is the same sequence used in the Sarvastivadin Samyukt Agama; this sequence differs in the texts of other sects. On this basis, Red Pine has argued that the Heart Sutra is specifically a response to Sarvastivada teachings that dharmas are real. Lines 12-13 enumerate the five skandhas. Lines 14-15 list the twelve ayatanas or abodes. Line 16 makes a reference to the eighteen dhatus or elements of consciousness, using a conventional shorthand of naming only the first (eye) and last (conceptual consciousness) of the elements.
Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, who was, according to the scriptures and texts of the Sarvastivada and other early Buddhist schools, the promulgator of abhidharma, having been singled out by the Buddha to receive those teachings. Avalokiteśvara famously states that, "Form is empty (Śūnyatā). Emptiness is form." and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty — that is, empty of an independent essence. Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and explains that in emptiness none of these labels apply. This is traditionally interpreted as saying that Buddhist teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality — they are not reality itself — and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond dualistic description. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutras to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment. This perfection of wisdom is condensed in the mantra with which the Sutra concludes.
|गते गते||Gate gate||Gone, gone|
|पारसंगते||Pārasaṃgate||Gone completely beyond|
|बोधि स्वाहा||Bodhi svāhā||Praise to awakening.|
(The translation can only be loose since, as with many mantras, the Sanskrit does not appear to be completely grammatical)
The text itself describes the mantra as "Mahāmantro, mahā-vidyā mantro, ‘nuttara mantro samasama-mantrah", which Conze translates as "The great mantra, the mantra of great knowledge, the utmost mantra, the unequalled mantra, the allayer of all suffering." These words are also used of the Buddha, and so the text seems to be equating the mantra with the Buddha. Although the translation is acceptable, the case ending in Sanskrit mantra is the feminine vocative, so gate is addressed to a feminine person/figure. A more accurate translation is "Oh she who is gone!" In this respect, the mantra appears to be keeping with the common tantric practice (a practice supported by the texts themselves) of anthropromorphizing the Perfection of Wisdom as the "Mother of Buddhas."
One can also interpret the mantra as the progressive steps along the five paths of the Bodhisattva, through the two preparatory stages (the path of accumulation and preparation — Gate, gate), through the first bhumi (path of insight — Pāragate), through the second to seventh bhumi (path of meditation — Pārasamgate), and through the eight to tenth bhumi (stage of no more learning — Bodhi svāhā).
The current Dalai Lama explains the mantra in a discourse on the Heart Sutra both as an instruction for practice and as a device for measuring one's own level of spiritual attainment, and translates it as go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in enlightenment. In the discourse, he gives a similar explanation to the four stages (the four go's) as in the previous paragraph.
Unlike Greek, Sanskrit distinguishes between 'para' (across, as in Greek and our derivations) and 'pāra', which means across to the other side. The preposition 'sam' equates to the Greek 'συν', with (which here we can reasonably expand to together with). In fact this meaning has been known in western Sanskrit dictionaries at least since Monier Monier-Williams: he gave "saṃgata" as "come together , met , encountered , joined , united AV. &c. &c. ; allied with , friendly to" and many other phrases that imply joining together. So, "Gone across to the other side, together with" or even "Met upon the far shore" would be an absolutely literal and very Mahayana translation of 'Pārasamgate'. This may be understood as referring to liberating all beings, or to the bringing of one's entire world over onto the previously realised higher plane of energy, and as identical in meaning to the Zen saying "First there is a mountain [our initial condition of perception], then there is no mountain [pāragate], then there is [pārasamgate]". "Bodhi svāhā" - "Enlightenment, awaken!".
Peter Rowan incorporated a musical setting of the Heart Sutra in the chorus of "Vulture Peak" on his 2001 album Reggaebilly.
Malaysian new age musical arranger Imee Ooi also performs electronic versions of Buddhist sutras, notably the Heart Sutra, in Sanskrit, and Mandarin.
Chloe Goodchild, British singer and composer, completed a version of the Heart Sutra on her album "Fierce Wisdom"
American Hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan has included the Heart Sutra in their album the 8 Diagrams. It was performed in Mandarin by Shifu Shi Yan Ming in the last track titled "Life Changes" as a tribute to the late Old Dirty Bastard.