Friday, October 28, 2011

The Heart Sutra - An Introduction (Part 1 of 5)

Some combination of brevity, succinctness, depth of meaning, and poeticism has made the Heart Sutra one of the most widely known of all sutras – revered by practitioners of nearly all the various schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Formally known as the Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, the Heart Sutra is the shortest of the forty or so sutras that comprise the entire Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 128 – hereafter referred to as S&W).

Perhaps we should, ahem, “brush up” on our Sanskrit! Prajna is usually translated as wisdom, but not without some reservation. My teacher, Rosan Yoshida roshi, actually prefers the word prognosis over wisdom due to the far reaching nature of the wisdom conveyed by the word prajna. Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) also has some misgivings about the use of the word wisdom in this context, saying: “Understanding is like water flowing in a stream. Wisdom and knowledge are solid and can block our understanding” (p. 8).

Paramita literally means “that which has reached the other shore” (S&W, p. 267); but it also implies perfection and transcendence. Reaching the other shore is a metaphor that is often used with respect to awakening or attaining release from this samsaric existence. A variation on this metaphor involves the admonition that we not mistake the raft for the shore. In other words, we shouldn’t make the mistake of considering the teachings to be the ‘be all and end all’ when what is really important is where those teachings can lead us.

Given, then, that maha means great, we now know sufficient Sanskrit to translate Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra in a more literal sense as “Great Sutra of the Wisdom That Reaches the Other Shore” (S&W, p. 274). Finally, with hridaya (hrdaya) translated as heart, and with a less literal translation of paramita, Rosan Yoshida roshi has translated Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (commonly known as the Heart Sutra) as “The Sutra of the Heart of Great Perfection of Insight” (from the Missouri Zen Center website).

Placing the Heart Sutra within Historical Context

In order to lend at least some historical context to our understanding of this sutra that we now call the Heart Sutra, let me attempt to provide a very brief overview of the development of Buddhism over its first thousand years or so. After the Buddha’s death at the age of eighty in around 483 BCE there was a period of a few hundred years during which his teachings were recorded and consolidated at various councils of greater or lesser import (Skilton, 1994, pp. 45-49). With the dawn of the Common Era, however, “a new movement arose that opposed many of the prevailing orthodoxies” (Trainor, 2001, p. 132). This movement would come to be known as the Mahayana or Great Vehicle. In contrast, other schools would come to be pejoratively referred to as belonging to the Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle (Snelling, 1991, p. 83). It should be noted, however, that even though Mahayana Buddhism began to differentiate itself as a movement or a school of thought as early as the first century BCE, it may not have been until as late as the fourth century CE that the term Mahayana actually began to be used (Skilton, 1994, p. 94). Thus, we might use caution before jumping to the conclusion that Mahayana Buddhism represents a reactionary rather than organically evolutionary development.

The Mahayana movement ushered in a new wave of teachings and writings. Perhaps the most important new teaching of this movement pertained to the so called Bodhisattva Ideal. Says Snelling (1991):

A new type of spiritual hero appears. Instead of the arhat…, who seeks release from the painful round of cyclic existence [samsara] for himself alone, and the pratyeka-buddha…, who wins it privately and never seeks to impart the Dharma to others, we have in the Mahayana the bodhisattva, an individual to whom both these highly desirable options are available but who rejects them, and instead aspires to buddhahood solely that he might help others. (pp. 83-84)

But it goes deeper than that. It’s not merely a matter of choosing one path to salvation over another. In fact, the Mahayana view is that striving for our own individual escape from the roiling waters of samsara even as all around us are in the midst of drowning is, by its very nature, a misguided endeavor. Using an analogy that Yoshida roshi often uses, and one to which I’ve alluded in a previous post: we are like bubbles in a great ocean. Our separateness is illusory. No single, individual bubble can attain individual salvation because no single, individual bubble exists of its own accord. Says Trainor (2001):

In the Mahayana view, the path to nirvana was impossible without the inclusion of the perfection of others as well, an ideal expressed in the twin virtues of wisdom and compassion, which bodhisattvas need in equal measure to attain their goal. (p. 132)

The Heart Sutra did not exist at the vanguard of this new Mahayana movement. Rather, it represents a process of evolution and distillation spanning hundreds of years. The Astasahasrika is one of the first of the Prajnaparamita Sutras and, according to the scholarship of Edward Conze, probably took the two hundred years or so from 100 BCE to 100 CE in order to complete. This Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines would eventually expand into the Perfection of Wisdom in 100,000 Lines over the next couple of centuries. Subsequent to that time, however, there began to appear efforts toward abridgement or summarization of these longer sutras (Sangharakshita, 1980, pp. 291-292). Finally, somewhere around 300-500 CE, the Heart Sutra blossoms into existence (Skilton, 1994, p. 102).

The Heart Sutra

Over the course of the next couple of posts I will be examining the Heart Sutra by looking at it through the slightly different lenses of three different translations – one by Rosan Yoshida roshi, one by Thich Nhat Hanh, and one by Edward Conze. In addition, I will examine it according to the structural breakdown that Conze used: invocation, prologue, first stage, etc. (Conze, 1959, pp. 162-163).

Invocation – I like the use of this term. On one hand, if we were simply reading the sutra we might refer to this as the title. On the other hand, in group practice the title also serves as a call by one designated individual to the assembled practitioners that they should prepare to commence chanting the sutra itself.

Prologue – The prologue acts as an introductory paragraph of sorts. It tells us who the main character is – the Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva – and what it is that he has accomplished – the realization of the true nature of reality (shunyata or emptiness). With the beginning of the prologue the chanting of the sutra proceeds in time with the striking of the mokugyo (Japanese for wooden fish +) which makes a nice, resonant tock, tock, tocking sound. The rhythm is such that one syllable (or possibly two depending upon the translation) is (are) chanted with each strike of the mokugyo. This is where the poetic nature of the sutra comes into play; and I will definitely vouch for Yoshida roshi’s translation being very amenable to this form of rhythmic chanting.

Rosan Yoshida’s translation via the Missouri Zen Center website:

Prologue:         The Venerable Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,

when carry'ng out the profound Prajnaparamita career,

penetrated through the five aggregates

and saw that they are Shunya in their nature.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation via The Heart of Understanding:

Invocation:      The Heart of the Prajnaparamita

Prologue:        The Bodhisattva Avalokita

while moving in the deep course of Perfect Understanding

shed light on the five skandhas and found them equally empty.

After this penetration, he overcame all pain.

Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:

Invocation:      Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the lovely, the holy!

Prologue:        Avalokita, the holy lord and Bodhisattva,

was moving in the deep course of wisdom which has gone beyond.

He looked down from on high, he beheld the five heaps,

and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.

Let me close at this point. If you’d like to read ahead, please check out Rosan Yoshida roshi's translation on the Missouri Zen Center website. And have a great week!

+          In attempting to understand the symbolism of the fish carved into the mokugyo I discovered numerous possibilities: One – fish represent wakefulness because they either do not sleep or else their eyes do not close. (Alright, maybe I can buy that.) Two – the symmetrical representation of the fish represents harmony. (Hmmm, okay.) Three – the always-open eyes of the fish remind us that God is always watching (Nah, I bet that’s not it!) Four – their ease of movement through the water and inability to drown symbolize freedom in this ocean of suffering. (I really like this one!) Please let me know if you find out anything definitive.


Blum, M. (2001) Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.
Conze, E. (1959) Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988) The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980) A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Skilton, A. (1994) A concise history of Buddhism. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Windhorse Publications.

Snelling, J. (1991) The Buddhist handbook: A complete guide to Buddhist schools, teaching, practice, and history. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Inner Traditions International.
Yoshida, R. (1979) Sutra of the heart of great perfection of insight (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Photo credit:

Image of mokugyo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. Rhythmic chanting is fun, isn't it? ;-)

    I'm really looking forward to reading this series of posts. I'm especially looking forward to seeing how you tie all the translations together.

    Hope you're well!

  2. Kristen, rhythmic chanting is just like singing, only you don't need to be able to carry a tune! I do enjoy it. It has a very meditative quality to it. I've been well. I hope you have been also.

  3. I do like your last interpretation of the fish. That must be it ;-). I, too, look forward to this series of posts.

  4. Stacey, yes, wouldn't it be great it we all knew such freedom and fearlessness! Thank you, as always, for reading and commenting.