The Heart Sūtra (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदय Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya) is a famous sūtra in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Its Sanskrit name Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya literally means “The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom”. The Heart Sūtra is often cited as the best-known and most popular Buddhism scripture of all.
The Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, when deeply practicing prajna paramita, realized that all five aggregates are empty and became free from all suffering and distress.
Here, Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. The same is true of sensations, perceptions, impulses, consciousness.
Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are empty; they do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, do not increase or decrease.
Therefore in emptiness, no form, no sensations, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind consciousness.
No ignorance, nor extinction of ignorance, no old age and death, nor extinction of them. No suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path; no wisdom, no attainment with nothing to attain.
The Bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita, therefore the mind has no hindrance; without any hindrance, no fears exist; free from delusion, one dwells in nirvana. All buddhas of the past, present, and future rely on prajna paramita and attain supreme enlightenment.
Therefore know that prajna paramita is the great mantra, is the great enlightening mantra, is the unsurpassed and unequalled mantra, which is able to eliminate all suffering. This is true, not false.
So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, which says
gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.
The Heart Sūtra, belonging to the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) category of Mahāyāna Buddhism literature along with the Diamond Sūtra, is perhaps the most prominent representative of the genre.
The Heart Sūtra is made up of 14 shlokas in Sanskrit, with each shloka containing 32 syllables. In the standard Chinese translation by Xuanzang, it has 260 Chinese characters. In English it is composed of sixteen sentences. This makes it the shortest text in the Perfection of Wisdom genre, which contains scriptures in lengths up to 100,000 shlokas.
According to Buddhist scholar and author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his commentary to the Heart Sūtra:
The Essence of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sūtra) is much shorter than the other Perfection of Wisdom sūtras but it contains explicitly or implicitly the entire meaning of the longer Sutras.
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. Conze estimates the sutra’s date of origin to be 350 CE; some others consider it to be two centuries older than that. Recent scholarship is unable to verify any date earlier than the 7th century CE.
The Chinese version is frequently chanted (in the local pronunciation) by the Chan (Zen/Seon/Thiền) school 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 sūtra is in a small class of sūtras not attributed to the Buddha. In some 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 the preeminent Chinese version translated by Xuanzang. The Tibetan canon uses the longer version, although Tibetan translations without the framing text have been found at Dunhuang. The Chinese Buddhist canon includes both long and short versions, and both versions exist in Sanskrit.
Origin and early translations
The earliest extant text of the Heart Sutra is the palm-leaf manuscript found at the Horyuji Temple, and dated to 609 CE. It was one of two texts which formed the basis for a published edition by Max Müller (1881), and formed the basis of a published edition by Shaku Hannya (1923). (See image top right) However it is important to note that a comparison of the script with India manuscripts and inscriptions argues for a date in the 8th century for the Horyuji manuscript.
A Chinese text attributed to Xuanzang and dated 649 CE is preserved in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. Stories exist of earlier translations but are likely to be apocryphal.
In particular Edward Conze acknowledges that the text attributed to Kumarajīva is the work of his student. It is not mentioned a biography compiled in 519 CE. John McRae and Jan Nattier have argued that this translation was created by someone else, much later, based on Kumarajiva’s Large Sūtra. Zhi Qian’s version, supposedly composed in 200-250 CE, was lost before the time of Xuanzang, who produced his own version in 649CE, which closely matches the one attributed to Kumarajiva. Xuanzang’s version is the first record of the title “Heart Sūtra” (心經 xīnjīng) being used for the text, and Fukui Fumimasa has argued that 心經 actually means dhāraṇī scripture. According to Huili’s biography, Xuanzang learned the sutra from an inhabitant of Sichuan, and subsequently chanted it during times of danger in his journey to the West.
Thus the available evidence points towards the Heart Sutra being composed in 6th or 7th century.
The Zhi Qian version is titled Po-jo po-lo-mi shen-chou i chuan or Prajnaparamita Dharani; the Kumarajiva version is titled Mo-ho po-jo po-lo-mi shen-chou i chuan or Maha Prajnaparamita Mahavidya Dharani. Xuanzang’s translation was the first to use Hrdaya (“Heart”) in the title.
Despite the common name Heart Sūtra, the word sūtra is not present in known Sanskrit manuscripts, which refer to it simply as prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Xuanzang’s translation was also the first to call the text a sutra. No extant Sanskrit copies use this word, though it has become standard usage in Chinese and Tibetan, as well as English.
Some citations of Zhi Qian’s and Kumarajiva’s versions prepend moho (which would be maha in Sanskrit) to the title. Some Tibetan editions add bhagavatī, meaning “Victorious One” or “Conqueror”, an epithet of Prajnaparamita as goddess.
In the Tibetan text the title is given first in Sanskrit and then in Tibetan:
- Sanskrit: Bhagavatīprajñāpāramitāhṛdaya
- Tibetan: བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་མ་ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པའི་སྙིང་པོ, Wylie: bcom ldan ‘das ma shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i snying po
In other languages, the title is frequently called “Heart Sutra” in common-usage:
- English: Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom
- Japanese: Hannya Shingyō (般若心経)
- Korean: Panya Shimgyeong (반야심경)
Various commentators divide this text into 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 apprehension of the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, known through and as the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas): form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (samskārā), perceptions (saṁjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna).
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 Samyukta Agama; this sequence differs in comparable texts of other sects. On this basis, Red Pine has argued that the Heart Sūtra is specifically a response to Sarvastivada teachings that, in the sense “phenomena” or its constituents, 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. Lines 17-18 assert the emptiness of the Twelve Nidānas, the traditional twelve links of dependent origination. Line 19 refers to the Four Noble Truths.
THE HEART SUTRAAvalokiteśvara 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 dependently originated. 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 notions apply. This is interpreted according to the concept of smaran as saying that 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 our comprehending. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutra 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.
It is unusual for Avalokiteśvara to be in the central role in a Prajñāpāramitā text. Early Prajñāpāramitā texts involve Subhuti, who is absent from both versions of the Heart Sūtra, and the Buddha who is only present in the longer version. This could be considered evidence that the text is Chinese in origin.