The Heart Sutra is a Buddhist text that explains how prajna-paramita (transcendent wisdom) goes beyond fundamental ignorance to penetrate ultimate truth or things as they really are. This wisdom is not intellectual knowledge, rather it is an intuitive wisdom that when uncovered leads to the transcendence of suffering and the flowering of compassion. The Heart Sutra is also a practice in that it teaches a method for training the mind.

The other day while browsing some Buddhist blogs, I ran across a blogger who had analyzed the Heart Sutra in terms of which parts are formulaic, advertising, meaningless filler, repetition, stuff that is wrong, stuff that is weird, and actual content. Even the term prajna-paramita was classified as just unimportant religious formula and therefore, unnecessary. In the end, everything judged to be of no value was removed and there was not much left. Well, this is nothing new. Indeed, the sutra was crafted from a process of reductionism.

It’s likely that the precise history of the Heart Sutra will never be known. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether it originated in India or China. Some maintain the sutra was composed in 1st century CE by a monk of one of the early Buddhist schools. Other scholars date it several centuries later. I think it was probably “composed” by a number of people, one or more of whom added elements that are not found in the Prajna-paramita sutras (Avalokitesvara/Kwan Yin from the Lotus Sutra) and there is a strong influence from esoteric or tantric Buddhism whose practitioners had a keen interest in distilling Buddhist teachings into short phrases (dharani and mantra) and eventually into single letters (bija or seed syllables).

My humble attempt at creating Siddham characters on a computer: dhihmma above, dhih below.

The Heart Sutra is based on the collection of 40 Prajna-paramita Sutras. These were first redacted into the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra with 100,000 lines. Following this was a 25,000 line sutra, an 18,000 line version, a 10,000 line sutra, a 8,000 line version, and eventually a 40 line version which is the essence of the Heart Sutra as we know it today. Around 250 CE, we have the first mention of a Prajna-paramita dharani (Chih-ch’ien), and later, a mantra: Tadyatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, which was further trimmed down by hacking off Tadyatha and Om. Finally, they condensed the Heart Sutra into a single bija or seed syllable, dhihmma, and then shorted it to simply dhih.

This centuries long process was undertaken for specific reasons, and while one aim was to negate the most fundamental concepts of early Buddhism, it was not a complete negation. After the negations, the concepts are then reaffirmed, only now in a new light, in the transcendent light of going beyond. On one hand the authors offered up a critique and on the other they presented an valid alternative view.

As many of you know, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra, a long version and a short one. The longer one has a prologue where the Buddha enters into a samadhi called “perception of the profound” (observation of emptiness) and an epilogue where he praises Avalokitesvara. The short version is normally used for recitation. In my opinion, every word is important and necessary, especially in the shorter version. This is a cryptic text. Each word has meaning, is a symbol, represents a thought, a concept. The Heart Sutra, in one way or another, discusses every major concept in Buddhism, and I would go even a step further to say that it touches upon nearly every philosophical idea known to the world. How is that possible in such a short work? Well, that’s the genius behind the text. It’s like a form of shorthand.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Heart Sutra is so sacred that it can’t be altered or subjected to different interpretations. I’m just saying that this carefully crafted work shouldn’t be filtered through one’s personal preferences or gutted for the sake of post-modernism or secularism.

In the context of Prajna-paramita literature, the term prajna-paramita means transcendent wisdom. This concept is perhaps even more central to the sutra than the concept of emptiness. Paramita means “crossing over” or “going beyond.” When Avalokitesvara sees that the five aggregates are empty of self-being, the sutra says that he was able to “cross over all suffering.” [The sea of suffering, the raft, the other shore, nirvana.] This implies real transcendence: the wisdom that goes beyond not only the extremes of conceptual thinking but suffering as well.

The relevance of the mantra at the end (“gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond . . .”) to the rest of the sutra is that it serves as a coda, summing up the sutra. And yet it has further significance. The mantra is a call to action, it implores us to go beyond, go beyond our preferences, our preconceived notions, our attachments, the limitations we place on ourselves, the limits of our mind – go beyond everything, entering into a new realm of insight and wisdom, which in the end means seeing things differently than we did before, seeing things with a pragmatic and intuitive kind of wisdom.

By the way, the phrase “crossing over all suffering” is not found in either the Sanskrit or Chinese versions. It’s usually added to English translations for clarification, to further emphasize the point of transcendent wisdom. The text is altered in this way for the purpose of clarifying  and supporting the sutra’s message.

So then, before we start to critique of this little gem, I suggest we try to practice it, study it, develop a basic understanding of the meaning and how it uses words and meanings to describe prajna-paramita which goes beyond words and meanings.

There are some very good books on the Heart Sutra. One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the positive spirit of the sutra. Elaborations on Emptiness by Donald S. Lopez Jr. is excellent as well, although I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book as it’s a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism. Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra and There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Master Sheng Yen and Chan Master Sheng-yen are also fine. I found Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings to be somewhat light, but it’s not a waste of time.

Here I am reciting the Heart Sutra in English. The text of the sutra is below.

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and crossed over all suffering. Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness: Not beginning, not ending, not stained and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing. Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, and no thinking; no realms from sight to mind; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death; no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering, no path; no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana. All Buddhas from the past present and future practice in this way and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know that the Prajna-Paramita is the great bright mantra, the great transcendent mantra that relieves all suffering. Know this as truth and declare:

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond, Be Set Upon Awakening!

Here’s one of the untold stories around the current situation in Afghanistan. You probably remember when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues at Bamiyam – well, more historic Buddhist relics in that country are now being threatened.

Archaeologists recently uncovered the remains of a Buddhist temple at a place called Mes Aynak, southwest of Kabul. Apparently the temple (some reports describe it as a monastery) has existed on the spot for 2000 years. According to the, “Archaeologists describe it as a site of global historic importance and have in recent months been uncovering intricately constructed mound-like structures called stupas – with vaulted corridor and painted statues, including a magnificent reclining Buddha.”

Only there is a problem. The relics sit on top of one of the world’s largest known reserves of copper ore. Some 240 million tons of copper ore, it’s estimated. China’s state owned mining company, MCG, won the rights to mine Mes Aynak with a bid of $3.5 billion in 2007.

The Chinese government is no friend to Buddhism. In the past they have shown about as much regard for the preservation of historic Buddhist relics as the Taliban did. And this is a really big deal: MGC stands to make at least $42 billion from the project while the Afghan government should receive about $500 million a year in royalties plus another $1 billion a year in spinoff benefits to the country’s economy over the expected 25-year life of the mine, so reports the Guardian.

Naturally there are fears that the Buddhist site will not survive. The same goes for 12 other Buddhist sites in the area. One of the archaeologists, Abdul Khalid, was quoted as saying, “It is very shameful for the Afghan government to let the Chinese come here and destroy our history. People around the world only hear of the war in Afghanistan but they do not know that we have the best of things from our forefathers.”

I thought I would share some other versions of the Heart Sutra that I’ve found on YouTube.

The first the Heart Sutra in song, by the gifted Chinese actor and singer, Fay Wong (shown above in a still from Chungking Express). This is a live performance from thef the Famen Temple Ceremony in 2009 .

This clip is rather long, but worth it, for the chanting is just beautiful: Chinese Buddhist nuns reciting a portion of their Evening Ceremony.

Nice Tibetan chanting of the sutra here.

This one is very cool, although you’ll probably need to turn the volume up: An Austrian Buddhist chanting the Hannya Shingyo on a mountaintop.

An American Buddhist monk gave me a tape of this one years ago. The tape had no label, so I have absolutely no idea who the artist(s) is and I’d love to find out. This YouTube video is with Spanish titles, so it’s no help to me in that department. The audio is not the best quality and it’s also missing the Pink Floyd-like beginning, but you can still dig it: Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha.

Heart Sutra

Entire Heart Sutra in Chinese

Chanting practice is usually associated with the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) branch of Mahayana Buddhism and the Pure Land and Nichiren traditions, however, almost all Buddhist traditions employ chanting to some degree. We can categorize chanting practice under three general headings:

a) Reciting the text of Sutras

b) Chanting the name of a Buddha or a sutra

c) Chanting mantras and dharinis

Strictly speaking, phrases constructed around a Buddha’s name, such as Namo Amito-fo (Praise to Amita Buddha) or the title of sutra, like Namu-Myoho-Renge-kyo (Praise to the Lotus Sutra) are not considered to be mantras. In my opinion they are the weakest form of chanting practice because they are faith-based practices. Faith in Buddhism has nothing to do with believing in the saving power of a particular Buddha or sutra. While the intent in some cases may be otherwise, the result is often that the practitioner ends up looking for enlightenment outside of their own life, which is the wrong direction. I am simplifying things a bit here, yet I think my criticism of this approach is nonetheless valid.

That sort of practice is very different from devata or “deity yoga” practices in Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism. While proponents of Pure Land and Nichiren schools may claim that their aim is the same, to realize the non-dual nature of the practitioner and the object of meditation, devata is a subtler practice and is best done under the guidance of a qualified teacher and with a proper empowerment or introduction to the teachings. Popular faith-based practices are transmitted widely with little or no instruction behind it.

Of course, that’s just my opinion, based on my own personal experience. I don’t disparage those who practice in that way. But since I feel as I do, I won’t dwell on that subject but instead would like to focus on chanting sutras and mantras, and I will deal with sutra recitation first.

Nearly all Buddhist traditions use sutra recitation either as part of daily practice or during the performance of rites and ceremonies. Probably the most commonly recited text is the Maha Prajna-paramita Hrdaya Sutra, popularly known as the Heart Sutra.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that sutras must be chanted in an Asian language. I often recite the Heart Sutra in English and find it just as powerful and beneficial as in Sanskrit, Chinese of Japanese. But there are a couple of caveats.

One being that when the sutras are translated into English the text is often chunky, the rhythm uneven. To illustrate what I mean, the Heart Sutra in Japanese is almost entirely made up of consonants and each “word” is one beat:

Kan ji zai bo satsu gyo jin han nya ha ra mi ta ji sho ken go on kai ku do is sai ku yaku

When translating this line for chanting purposes, one should try to keep the English words short. Here is the line in English by the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association:

When Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was practicing the profound Prajna Paramita, he illuminated the Five Skandhas and saw that they are all empty, and he crossed beyond all suffering and difficulty.

That’s good, but this, for me, works better:

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and thus crossed over all suffering.

21 words versus 29. Less words, shorter words. Kuan Yin instead of Avalokiteshvara (which after all these years I still stumble over). “Clearly” for “illuminated” . . . You get the idea. The shorter words conform better to the rhythm set by the Japanese “consonants”.

Some sutras can’t be worked out quite as easy as the Heart Sutra, so perhaps for the rhythm’s sake, especially in group chantings, it might be better to stick with one of the other languages.  The shorter Heart Sutra was edited specifically for the purpose of chanting. One of the reasons why most sutras have a prose section followed by verses restating the same content was because the verses sections were meant to be chanted.

The second caveat is that when reciting in English, chanters may be tempted to “read” the sutra. That is not what we are trying to do when we chant sutras. In some cases, the Asian words are archaic and not part of modern usage. In this way, everyone is on a somewhat even-keel. We should  let the words flow through us, or from us, rather than trying to read them as we chant. The great Buddhist teacher, D.T. Suzuki once explained:

All the Mahayana sutras . . . are not meant to appeal to our reasoning faculties, that is, to our intellectual understanding, but to a different kind of understanding, which we may call intuition. When the Heart Sutra (or the Lotus) is recited in Sanskrit or Chinese or Tibetan, without trying to extract its logical meaning, but with a devotional turn of mind and with the determination to go through [the verses], the Prajna-eye (Wisdom-eye) grows gradually more and more penetrating. Finally it will see, through all the contradictions, obscurities, abstractions, and mystifications, something extra-ordinarily transparent, which reveals the ‘other side’ together with ‘this side.’ This is awakening the Prajna . . . Herein lies the secret of sutra recitation.

“Other side” and “this side” refers to the famous analogy of Prajna-paramita (Transcendent Wisdom) being the ship that ferries people away from “this” shore and across the sea of suffering to the “other” shore of Nirvana. By “devotional”, I believe Suzuki is referring to a more meditative state of mind, as opposed to a faith-oriented one discussed earlier in the post.

At the same time, sutra recitation is an external expression of our devotion to the Buddhist path. Chanting sutras can aid in getting us into the right frame of mind when it’s used as a preparatory practice, performed prior to prolonged meditative chanting of a mantra or silent meditation. And, sutra recitation can be a form of meditation in itself, if done with the proper frame of mind.

There is also the historical and traditional aspect. For many centuries, Buddhism was an oral tradition, so reciting the sutras was the only way to preserve and transmit them. Chanting the sutras is a way of connecting with the Buddha and great masters from the past. When I recite the Heart Sutra in Japanese I know that I am saying the same words in the same language as  Saicho and Kukai and Dogen and other Japanese masters. I feel kenzoku (a deep spiritual bond) with them. It helps to lift me out of my own mundane self-centered thoughts and it encourages and stimulates my commitment to fare on the Buddha way.

This is a somewhat long post, and yet, it barely scratches the surface. I’ll leave the final words to Thich Nhat Hanh who summarizes a bit of what I have wanted to relate:

We do not recite the Heart Sutra like singing a song, or with the intellect alone. If you practice the meditation on emptiness, if you penetrate the nature of interbeing with all your heart, your body, and your mind, you will realize a state that is quite concentrated. If you say the mantra then, with all your being, the mantra will have real power and you will be able to have real communication, real communion with Avalokitsevara, and you will be able to transform yourself in the direction of enlightenment. The text is not just for chanting, or to be put on an altar for worship. It is given to us as a tool to work for our liberation, for the liberation of all beings.

More to come. Pt. 2 will deal with mantras.

Ghost Dog is a film by Jim Jarmusch. Forest Whitaker plays the title character, a lone wolf hit man who follows the ancient code of the samurai. He lives in a homemade cabin on the roof of an abandoned tenement building where he keeps a flock of pigeons. Ghost Dog is cold-blooded but he also has warmth and humanity, something that was already a bit of a cliche by 1999 when the film was made, but it works. Ghost Dog broods a lot and in voice overs, frequently quotes from the Hagakure, a book of commentaries by a 18th century samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo:

Our bodies are given life from the midst of nothingness. Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase “Form is emptiness.” That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase “Emptiness is form.” One should not think that these are two separate things.

“Form is emptiness, emptiness is form . . .” comes from the Heart Sutra, of course. It has been called the most famous statement in Mahayana Buddhism.

Boiled down from the much larger Maha-Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Heart Sutra not only touches upon every major concept in Buddhism, but I would say that of religion and philosophy as a whole. There’s even a shorter version of what is already the shortest Buddhist sutra, which in any of the Asian languages amounts to a mere paragraph, and it’s not much longer in English. Recited daily by Buddhists all over world, the Heart Sutra transcends sectarianism. I think the Pure Land, Nichiren and Theravada are probably the only mainstream schools that do not use the Heart Sutra in one way or another.

Interpretations of this famous phrase, “form is emptiness . . .”, might be as numerous as the sands of the Ganges. It is not my intention today to add another one, but rather present some words by a few contemporary Buddhist teachers.

The Five Skandhas are the components of existence. Buddhism holds that an individual is a combination of the skandhas, or aggregates, listed here in the passage that contains the statement under discussion:

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and thus crossed over all suffering. O Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Thich Nhat Hanh, contemporary Zen Master, from The Heart of Understanding:

Form is the wave and emptiness is the water. You can understand through that image. The Indians speak in a language that can scare us, but we have to understand their way of expression in order to really understand them. In the West, when we draw a circle, we consider it to be zero, nothingness. But in India, a circle means totality, wholeness. The meaning is the opposite. So ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form,’ is like wave is water, water is wave. ‘Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness,’ because these five contain each other. Because one exists, everything exists.

Sheng-yen, (1930-2009) Chinese Ch’an monk, from There is No Suffering:

Indeed, everything is empty, but emptiness is wonderful existence. It is precisely because our existence is illusory that we can experience enlightenment and help others to do the same. For this reason, “emptiness is not other than form” is more important to understand than “form is not other than emptiness,” in that the workings of the five skandhas are the full display of emptiness. The five skandhas do have a conventional existence. Our bodies are illusory, but we will suffer if we do not care for them. Food is illusory, but we will starve if we do not eat. Our activities are illusory, but only through activity can we help others. For this reason, there is action in the midst of emptiness, and because of this, we should remain active and positive, and avoid nihilism.

Tenzin Gyatso, The 14th Dalai Lama, from Essence of the Heart Sutra:

It is important for us to avoid the misapprehension that emptiness is an absolute reality or independent truth. Emptiness must be understood as the true nature of things and events. Thus we read, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is from. Emptiness is no other than form; form too is no other than emptiness.” This does not refer to some kind of Great Emptiness out there somewhere, but to the emptiness of a specific phenomenon, in this case form, or matter.

The statement that “apart from form there is no emptiness” suggests that the emptiness of form is nothing other than the form’s ultimate nature. Form lacks intrinsic or independent existence; thus, its nature is emptiness. This nature – emptiness – is not independent of form, but rather is a characteristic of form; emptiness is form’s mode of being. One must understand form and its emptiness in unity; there are not two independent realities.

Mu Soeng Sunim, Korean Zen teacher, from Heart Sutra: Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality:

The sutra insists that form is emptiness. There is a critical difference between form being empty and form being emptiness. Sunyata [emptiness], in Prajna-paramita sutras, is the ultimate nature of reality; at the same time it does not exist apart from the phenomena but permeates each phenomenon. Therefore, sunyata cannot be sought apart from the totality of all forms. And, although all forms are qualified at their core by sunyata, its presence does not negate the conventional appearance of form. In this sense, emptiness is dependent upon the form it qualifies, as much as form is dependent on emptiness for its qualification. Thus form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. At its core level, form does not differ from emptiness nor does emptiness differ with form.

Shunryu Suzuki (1904-1971), Soto Zen Master, from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra. However, if you are not careful the sutra itself will give you a gaining idea. It says, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But if you attach to that statement, you are liable to be involved in dualistic ideas: here is you, form, and here is emptiness, which you are trying to realize through your form. So “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form” is still dualistic. But fortunately, our teaching goes on to say, “Form is form and emptiness is emptiness.” Here there is no dualism.

When you find it difficult to stop your mind while you are sitting [in meditation] and when you are still trying to stop your mind, this is the stage of “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” But while you are practicing in this dualistic way, more and more you will have oneness with your goal. And when your practice becomes effortless, you can stop your mind. This is the stage of “form is form and emptiness is emptiness.”


The exact dates of Han Shan are unknown. Somewhere between 630 and 830 CE. He was a poet and a Chinese sage who mixed Ch’an (Zen) and Taoism, as many did at the time. His name means Cold Mountain.

In addition to poetry, Han Shan apparently wrote some commentaries on Buddhist sutras. This is from A Straight Talk on the Heart Sutra. While it is a bit mystical and preachy, Han Shan nonetheless captures the essence of Prajna.

This passage discuss the mantra of the Heart Sutra. Prajna means wisdom, although as he is using it here, I think Han Shan is referring to Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom, which is wisdom that “goes beyond.”

Gate Gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!

This is Sanskrit. Before the Mantra was taught, Prajna had been taught exoterically, and now it was expounded esoterically. Here there is no room for thinking and interpreting, but the silent repetition of the Mantra which ensures speedy efficacy made possible by the inconceivable power through the discarding of all feeling and elimination of interpretation. This Prajna which makes possible this speedy achievement is the light of the heart which every man possesses, and is realized by all Buddhas for their supernatural powers and wonderful deeds. Living beings, who are deluded about it, use it for creating trouble (klesa) by their wrong thinking.

Although the use it daily, they are not aware of it. Thus ignorant of their own fundamental reality, they go on enduring uselessly all kinds of suffering. Is it not a pity? If they can be instantaneously awakened to their own selves, they will immediately turn the light inwards on themselves. In a moment’s thought, by means of their accordant self-cultivation, all barriers of feeling in the world (samsara) will be broken as the light of a lamp illumines a room where darkness has existed for a thousand years. Therefore, there is no need to have recourse to any other method.

If in our determination to get out of Samsara we do not use Prajna, there will be no other means. For this reason, it is said that in the middle of the oceans of sufferings, Prajna is the ferry and in the darkness of ignorance, Prajna is the light.

Worldly men are treading a dangerous path and are drifting about in bitter ocean but they are still not willing to look for Prajna. Really, their intentions cannot be guessed. Prajna is like a sharp sword that cuts all things which touch it so sharply that they do not know they are cut. Who but sages and saints can make use of it? Certainly not the ignorant.

Heart Sutra

Entire Heart Sutra in Chinese

I recall running across the Heart Sutra very early on in my journey to Buddhism. Oddly enough, it did not leave much of an impression on me. I say it is odd because approaching the Heart Sutra from a literary point of view, it is just the kind of minimalist, e.e. cummings  style of poetry I’ve always been drawn to, plus the fact at that time I was rather young and immediately dug anything that smacked of being mind-blowing.

My next encounter was some thirty years later. In the interim, I was in Buddhist traditions that did not use the Heart Sutra as a teaching or practice.

When I left the tradition I had been involved in for twelve years, I started visiting different centers and groups in the Los Angeles area. One place I visited was in the San Gabriel Valley, an English speaking Dharma group, and on my first visit, we chanted the Heart Sutra in English and it was then that I had my mind-blowing experience. It was a little like the line in the Bob Dylan song: “every one of those words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal pouring off of every page . . .”

This is truly a between-the-lines sutra. I think that without some basic knowledge of Buddhist dharma, the sutra does not have as much of an impact. Even then, to grasp the full meaning of the Heart Sutra is a daunting task.

I recently ran across an old notebook of things I had jotted down from dharma talks and lectures I attended and books I was reading some ten years or so ago. One of the notes I found was from a class I took at a Buddhist Center in mid-town L.A. The instructor of the class mentioned that she had recited the Heart Sutra daily for nearly fifteen years and yet only recently had she began to have real insight into the sutra’s meaning.

There are also a few pages of notes I took when I attended teachings by the Dalai Lama for the first time. I only went to the last two days, and it was sort of a fluke, and I was somewhat unprepared, knowing very little about Tibetan Buddhism. I can’t even recall what the teachings were on. However, I think that at some point a question concerning the Heart Sutra was asked of the Dalai Lama, and he replied, “Heart Sutra is actual words of Buddha, not transmission.”

I hope that I have taken him out of context, because to this, I cannot agree. The historical Buddha had nothing to do with the Prajna-paramita or any Mahayana sutras. I don’t know why it is necessary to keep propagating that nonsense. The fact that Buddha did not directly teach it does not make the teaching any less valid.

He also said, “People should recite Heart Sutra in accordance with their own country.” Now, this I agree with completely, however when I am reciting the sutra alone, it is often in Japanese. In my experience, when some individuals are introduced to Buddhist chanting in Asian languages, they feel a bit put off. They don’t understand the words and we Westerners just have to understand the meaning of each word if we are expected to recite it.

Chanting in Japanese is my personal preference because I spent many years doing that and I like the rhythm. Chanting in a traditional Buddhist language allows me to approach the sutra with a more meditative mind. I know the general meaning of the sutra, I can recognize many of the sutra’s Chinese characters, and I know, for instance, that when I say “ku” it means empty and so on. At the same time, since the language is foreign, I am not weighed down with the baggage of literal meaning English would suggest. Reciting in Japanese allows me to relax my mind and just go with the flow of the sutra.

In the English version I use, Avalokitesvara  appears as Kuan Yin, in the female aspect, and I encourage those chanting with me to envision the Bodhisattva in that way. Bringing Avalokitesvara over from the Lotus Sutra, gave the Mahayana authors, or compilers, of the Heart Sutra a chance to make a little dig at the so-called “Hinayana.” Having Shariputra, one of the foremost shravaka disciples of Buddha Shakyamuni, asking a question of and then receiving instruction from a Mahayana Bodhisattva is kind of designed to put the “Hinayana” in their place.

Nowadays, this Mahayana attitude appears to be just a little unseemly, and we realize what a derogatory term “Hinayana” is, and most people don’t care to hear much about shravaka and non-returners, etc. But, if you go a step further and envision Kuan Yin as female, I then think  you have something that is both revolutionary and relevant to today.

With this slight change, we have one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, and remember that all his disciples were male, receiving instruction from a woman.  That seems pretty mind-blowing. This may not be a traditionally accepted interpretation, but really what’s wrong with it? In this way, we can broaden the symbolism we use and make it more inclusive by expanding the role of women in our mythology. This interpretation is not just relevant to women but to everyone, because every person reciting the sutra is then encouraged to tap into and cultivate more of their innate feminine qualities, one aspect of which is symbolized in the sutra as compassion.

Maybe some already view it in this way, but I haven’t heard about it.

A few other things I have jotted down in this old notebook:

The mantra is the essence of the sutra. It tells you how to proceed to enlightenment. “Go, go, go way beyond .  . .”

The five skandhas are all delusions. They are not definite and real. Our delusion is that we cling to them as being an actual and real self.

Buddha said first requirement for “faith” is suffering. Faith is commitment to practice in the face of great difficulty. Suffering wakes us up from our dream.

True form is no form. The Bodhisattva of freedom realizes the form of no form, the principle of ultimate emptiness, particularly in sound. Avalokitesvara, one who perceives the sounds of the world.

Buddha: After I am gone, the dharma is the teacher.

What are the five skandhas empty of? Sunyata-svabhava, empty of self-being. Svabhava, the being or essence, character, is-ness of a thing or person. Absolute self-being equals eternalism and ignores cessation.

Perfection of wisdom, transcendent wisdom, is not present as an existing thing.

D.T. Suzuki’s version of the Heart Sutra and three short commentaries:

The Prajnaparamita-hridaya-sutra, or Shingyo

When the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara was engaged in the practice of the deep Prajnaparamita, he perceived that there are the five Skandhas; and these he saw in their self-nature to be empty.

“O Sariputra, form is here emptiness,[4] emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness is form. The same can be said of sensation, thought, confection, and consciousness.

“O Sariputra, all things here are characterized with emptiness: they are not born, they are not annihilated; they are not tainted, they are not immaculate; they do not increase, they do not decrease. Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no thought, no confection, no consciousness; no eye,  ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form,[6] sound, colour, taste, touch, objects; no Dhatu of vision,  till we come to no Dhatu of consciousness; there is no knowledge, no ignorance, till we come to there is no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death; there is no suffering, no accumulation, no annihilation, no path; there is no knowledge, no attainment, and no realization, because there is no attainment. In the mind of the Bodhisattva who dwells depending on the Prajnaparamita there are no obstacles; and, going beyond the perverted views, he reaches final Nirvana. All the Buddhas of the past, present, and future, depending on the Prajnaparamita, attain to the highest perfect enlightenment.

“Therefore, one ought to know that the Prajnaparamita is the great Mantram, the Mantram of great wisdom, the highest Mantram, the peerless Mantram, which is capable of allaying all pain; it is truth because it is not falsehood: this is the Mantram proclaimed in the Praynaparamita. It runs: ‘Gate, gate, Paragate,parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!’ (O Bodhi, gone, gone, gone to the other shore, landed at the other shore , Svaha!)”

The Heart Sutra has only two hundred seventy Chinese characters, yet it contains all of Mahayana Buddhism’s teaching. Inside this sutra is the essence of the Diamond Sutra, the Avatamsaka-sutra, and the Lotus Sutra. It contains the meaning of all the eighty-four thousand sutras. It is chanted in every Mahayana and Zen temple in the world. In Korean temples and in our Zen centers in the West, the Heart Sutra is chanted at least twice every day, in the morning and at night, and during retreats it is chanted more. Sometimes if you find that your mind is not clear, and meditation does not help so much, you must read this sutra. Then your mind will become clear.

-Seung Sahn, Korean Jogye Seon master

The title, the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, is made up of references to both dharma and analogy. The phrase “which transcends the relative” indicates a dharma which reaches a state of non-relativity. Prajna paramita is . . .the wisdom which arrives home and the wisdom of the Buddha . . . It is called the true heart (In Chinese, the character xin means both heart and mind) . . .The true heart is wisdom; wisdom is the true heart. Because prajna can be translated “true heart,” the two hundred fifty or so words of this sutra are the heart within the heart – the heart within the six hundred chapters of the prajna text of the Great Prajna Sutra.

-Hsuan Hua, Ch’an Buddhist teacher

When we listen to this mantra, we should bring ourselves into that state of attention, of concentration, so that we can receive the strength emanated by Avalokitesvara. We do not recite the Heart Sutra like singing a song, or with our intellect alone. If you practise the meditation on emptiness, if you penetrate the nature of interbeing with all your heart, your body, and your mind, you will realize a state that is quite concentrated. If you say the mantra then, with all your being, the mantra will have power and you will be able to have real communication, real communion with Avalokitesvara, and you will be able to transform yourself in the direction of enlightenment.

This text is not just for chanting, or to be put on an altar for worship. It is given to us as a tool to work for our liberation, for the liberation of all beings. It is like a tool for farming, given to us so that we may farm.

-Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen monk