Heart Sutra

Heart Sutra

The Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra or Heart Sutra or Essence of Wisdom Sutra (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदयसूत्र Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sūtra; , Pinyin: Bōrĕbōluómìduō Xīnjīng; 摩訶般若波羅蜜多心経, Maka Hannyaharamita Shingyō; 반야심경, Banya Simgyeong, Bát Nhã Ba La Mật Đa Tâm Kinh, ปรัชญาปารมิตาหฤทัยสูตร) (Tibetan: sNying mDo or shes rab snying po'i mdo) is a well-known Mahāyāna Buddhist sutra that is very popular among Mahayana Buddhists both for its brevity and depth of meaning. It is even said to be the best known and most popular of all Buddhist scriptures.


The Heart Sutra is usually considered a member of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) class of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, and along with the Diamond Sutra, is considered by many to be the primary representative of the genre. It consists of just fourteen shlokas or verses in Sanskrit and 260 Chinese characters in the most prevalent Chinese version, Taisho Tripitaka Vol. T08 No. 251, translated by Xuanzang. This makes it one of the most highly abbreviated versions of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, which exist in various lengths up to 100,000 slokas. This sutra is classified by Edward Conze as belonging to the third of four periods in the development of the Perfection of Wisdom canon, although because it contains a mantra (sometimes called a dharani), it does overlap with the final tantric phase of development according to this scheme, and is included in the tantra section of at least some editions of the Kangyur.

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.

Origin and early translations

The Heart Sutra has generally been thought to probably been composed in the first century CE in Kushan Empire territory, by a Sarvastivadin or ex-Sarvastivadin monk. The earliest record of a copy of the sutra is a 200-250CE Chinese translation made by Yuezhi monk Zhi Qian. It was translated again by Kumarajiva around 400CE. Zhi Qian's translation was lost before the time of Xuanzang, who produced his own translation in 649CE, which closely matched that of Kumarajiva. Xuangzang's translation is the first record of the title "Heart Sutra" (Xīnjīng in Chinese) being used for the text.

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.


Zhi Qian gave his translation the title Prajnaparamita Dharani. Kumarajiva's translation was Maha Prajnaparamita Mahavidya Dharani. Xuanzang's was the first translation to use Hrdaya or "Heart" in the title.

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 text

Various commentators divide this text in different numbers of sections. Briefly, the sutra describes the experience of liberation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, as a result of insight gained while engaged in deep meditation to awaken the faculty of prajña (wisdom). The insight refers to the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas) — form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (samskārā), perceptions (), and consciousness (vijñāna).

The specific sequence of concepts listed in lines 12-20 (" 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.


This mantra, chanted throughout the Mahāyāna Buddhist world, appears in transliterated Sanskrit even in the Chinese version, as pronunciation of mantras is held to be important if they are to function properly. The mantra goes:

Devanāgarī Romanization Pronunciation Translation
गते गते Gate gate Gone, gone
पारगते Pāragate Gone beyond
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!".

Musical interpretations

American composer Lou Harrison set Esperanto language texts translated from the Heart Sutra to music in his 1973 cantata La Koro Sutro.

The Band Akron/Family set the English version to music entitled Gone Beyond on their album, Meek Warrior.

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.

See also



  • Buswell, Robert E. (ed). Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2003) MacMillan Reference Books. ISBN 0028657187
  • Conze, Edward. Prajnaparamita Literature (2000) Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers ISBN 8121509920 (originally published 1960 by Mouton & Co.)
  • Pine, Red. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Shoemaker 7 Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-009-4

External links



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