The Heart Sutra: Prajnaparamita-Hridaya-Sutra

Book Review, Commentary, and Text


Book Review

by Andrea Walsh
At the heart of each of us, whatever our imperfections, there exists a silent pulse of perfect rhythm, a complex of wave forms and resonances, which is absolutely individual and unique, and yet which connects us to everything in the universe. The act of getting in touch with this pulse can transform our personal experience and in some way alter the world around us. — George Leonard, The Silent Pulse, p. xii

More and more we see examples of the convergence of science and mysticism, Western thought meeting Eastern thought. Mu Soeng Sunim's Heart Sutra provides a very detailed, yet simple to follow, explanation of one of the pillars of Buddhism: the Heart Sutra. (Heart Sutra: Ancient Buddhist Wisdom in the Light of Quantum Reality, Primary Point Press, Cumberland, Rhode Island, 1991; ISBN 0-942795-04-0, 70 pages, paper $10.95.) This ancient scripture from the Mahayana school gives an insight into the nature of ultimate reality through intuitive wisdom. Quantum physics, presented in the book as the paradigm denoting the Western way of thought, shares some interesting parallels. The author makes it clear that although he views the insights of Mahayana Buddhism in the light of quantum physics, the two are not necessarily complementary or interchangeable. They are two entirely different orders of reality, each with its own unique underlying processes which happen to converge. Yet it is interesting to note that although they come from different orders of reality, they support one another in the large picture. After this coming together, they separate again and their underlying processes take their own paths. The author attempts to describe this convergence in a creative light, writing from the point of view of a Zen practitioner, striving to create a radical new understanding of the Heart Sutra and the core teaching of Mahayana Buddhism along with its parallels to a new model of the universe as set forth by quantum physics.

The Heart Sutra, or Maha-Prajnaparamita-Hridaya-Sutra as written in Sanskrit, means "the Great Heart of Perfect Wisdom" or "the Heart of Great Transcendent Wisdom." Sunim quotes the Sutra (a sermon of only nine verses, attributed to the Buddha) line for line with a detailed explanation of its meaning. Interjected into these explanations are comparisons, where applicable, to the understanding brought to us by quantum physics. The Heart Sutra is dedicated to the teaching of sunyata, translated as the "void" or "emptiness," but sunyata is not easily translated into English. The author attempts to describe how the scientist's notion of the building blocks of matter and all life being solid indestructible particles has evolved to the realization by subatomic physicists that there are no objects, only ever-changing processes, "a continuous dance of energy." Sunim shows a parallel between this observation and the experience of one in meditation who in his silence comes to see that all that exist in the world are but brief moments of consciousness. He says, "no form exists without being infused by this universal energy; form and energy interpenetrate each other endlessly in an ever-changing dance of the molecules, creating our universe."

Sunim concludes with the thought that if we can wisely learn from the Mahayana mystics and the findings of quantum theory, we can help the world evolve toward connectedness and our own acceptance of personal responsibility. In the words of a contemporary Zen master, "When you practice sitting meditation, if you enjoy even one moment of your sitting, if you establish serenity and happiness inside yourself, you provide the world with a solid base of peace. If you do not give yourself peace, how can you share it with others?"

By presenting the reader with two different approaches to the understanding of reality, Sunim offers a powerful contemporary explanation of the Heart Sutra and its primary message of sunyata. One cannot help but visualize more clearly the deep connectedness between all forms of consciousness and the impact and influence that each individual has on the whole. In conclusion, the state of sunyata, which has the consequence of a release from suffering, is elegantly expressed in the Heart Sutra mantra: Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha, "Homage to the Awakened Mind which has gone over to the other shore."


Commentary on the Heart Sutra

By Harischandra Kaviratna

This scripture has always been held in the greatest veneration in Mahayana countries. In China and Japan there are at least twenty-eight different recensions of this sacred bible of the Buddhist schools. The Prajnaparamita-Sutra is regarded as the holy mother that feeds the bodhisattva with the amrita (nectar) of prajna (transcendental wisdom), and guides him to paramita (the other shore). It is the "utmost great perfection" which gives full enlightenment to the bodhisattva after he has successfully completed the other five paramitas: dana (charity), sila (morality), ksanti (patience, forbearance), virya (energy), and dhyana (concentration).

Linguists who had only an etymological mastery of Sanskrit without even a rudimentary understanding of Buddhist thought have done much harm to the dissemination of esoteric Buddhism in Europe and America. During the last decade of the nineteenth century, Samuel Beal published the first English rendition of the Prajnaparamita in his Catena of Buddhist Scriptures. Next appeared the English translation by Max Muller in the Sacred Books of the East series, Vol. XLIX. In the eighteenth century, although there already existed several Japanese renditions based on Chinese texts, Hion Shon translated it into Japanese direct from the Sanskrit. Tibetan Buddhists believe Boom or Bum (Prajnaparamita) to be the most infallible text to arouse them from the illusion of samsara (round of births and deaths). Various French and German translations are also in circulation, based on partial Chinese versions or on fragmentary Sanskrit texts.

Prajnaparamita-Hridayam (hridaya means heart) — the most condensed recension of the Sutra — was rendered into Chinese in the year 400 AD by the famous Indian scholar and Buddhist missionary, the Venerable Kumarajiva, and even today is used as a protective spell or charm by all Buddhists of Tibet, China, and Japan, monks and laymen alike. It was translated into English by D. T. Suzuki of Japan in 1934, by Edward Conze of England in 1958, and in America by Dwight Goddard in 1969. My verbatim translation, which follows, is made directly from the original Sanskrit.

The complete text of the Large Sutra of Prajnaparamita was ruthlessly destroyed by Muslim incendiaries in the conflagration of the Buddhist University of Nalanda. Millions of Buddhist and Hindu manuscripts were burnt in this great fire along with the monks and artifacts. Because the original Prajnaparamita is reputed to have consisted of a hundred thousand stanzas it was called Satasahasrika Prajna-paramita. It is primarily intended for memorizing, and is believed to protect the aspirant who knows it by heart.


The Heart Sutra: Prajnaparamita-Hridaya-Sutra

English rendition by Dr. Harischandra Kaviratna.

Om namo bhagavatyai arya-prajnaparamitayai!

Om! Salutation to the blessed and noble one! (who has reached the other shore of the most excellent transcendental wisdom).

(In this invocation the perfection of transcendental wisdom is personified as the compassionate mother of bodhi — wisdom — who bestows enlightenment upon the bodhisattvas who had vigilantly followed the course prescribed for the aspirant to full enlightenment — samyak sambodhi.)

Verse 1

arya-avalokitesvaro bodhisattvo gambhiram prajnaparamitacaryam caramano vyavalokayati sma: panca-skandhas tams ca svabhavasunyan pasyati sma.

The noble bodhisattva, Avalokitesvara, being engaged in practicing the deep transcendental wisdom-discipline, looked down from above upon the five skandhas (aggregates), and saw that in their svabhava (self-being) they are devoid of substance.

Verse 2

iha sariputra rupam sunyata sunyataiva rupam, rupan na prithak sunyata sunyataya na prithag rupam, yad rupam sa sunyata ya sunyata tad rupam; evam eva vedana-samjna-samskara-vijnanam.

Here, O Sariputra, bodily-form is voidness; verily, voidness is bodily-form. Apart from bodily-form there is no voidness; so apart from voidness there is no bodily-form. That which is voidness is bodily-form; that which is bodily-form is voidness. Likewise (the four aggregates) feeling, perception, mental imaging, and consciousness (are devoid of substance).

Verse 3

iha sariputra sarva-dharmah sunyata-laksala, anutpanna aniruddha, amala avimala, anuna aparipurnah.

Here, O Sariputra, all phenomena of existence are characterized by voidness: neither born nor annihilated, neither blemished nor immaculate, neither deficient nor overfilled.

Verse 4

tasmac chariputra sunyatayam na rupam na vedana na samjna na samskarah na vijnanam. na caksuh-srotra-ghrana-jihva-kaya-manamsi. na rupa-sabda-gandha-rasa-sprastavya-dharmah. na caksur-dhatur yavan na manovijnana-dhatuh. na-avidya na-avidya-ksayo yavan na jaramaranam na jara-marana-ksayo. na duhkha-samudaya-nirodha-marga. na jnanam, na praptir na-apraptih.

Therefore, O Sariputra, in voidness there is no bodily-form, no feeling, no mental imaging, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind; no sense objects of bodily-form, sound, smell, taste, or touchable states; no visual element, and so forth, until one comes to no mind-cognition element. There is no ignorance, nor extinction of ignorance, until we come to: no aging and death, nor extinction of aging and death. There is no suffering, no origination, no cessation, no path; there is no higher knowledge, no attainment (of nirvana), no nonattainment.

Verse 5

tasmac chariputra apraptitvad bodhisattvasya prajnaparamitam asritya vibaraty acittavaranah. cittavarana-nastitvad atrasto viparyasa-ati-kranto nistha-nirvana-praptah.

Therefore, O Sariputra, by reason of his nonattainment (of nirvana), the bodhisattva, having resorted to prajnaparamita (transcendental wisdom), dwells serenely with perfect mental freedom. By his non-possession of mental impediments (the bodhisattva) without fear, having surpassed all perversions, attains the unattainable (bliss of) nirvana.

Verse 6

tryadhva-vyavasthitah sarva-buddhah prajnaparamitam asritya-anut-taram samyaksambodhim abhisambuddhah.

All Buddhas, self-appointed to appear in the three periods of time (past, present, and future), having resorted to the incomparable prajnaparamita, have become fully awake to samyak sambodhi (absolute perfect enlightenment).

Verse 7

tasmaj jnatavyam: prajnaparamita maha-mantro mahavidya-mantro 'nuttara-mantro samasama-mantrah, sarva-duhkha-prasamanah, satyam amithyatvat. prajnaparamitayam ukto mantrah. tadyatha: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. iti prajnaparamita-hridayam sa-maptam.

Therefore prajnaparamita should be recognized as the great mantra, the mantra of great wisdom, the most sublime mantra, the incomparable mantra and the alleviator of all suffering; it is truth by reason of its being nonfalsehood. This is the mantra proclaimed in prajnaparamita. It is:

gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond (to the other shore)! O enlightenment! Be it so! Hail!

This concludes Prajnaparamita-Hridaya-Sutra.


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The Mysteries in olden times were regarded so highly that preparation for entrance was deemed the most royal gift a father could bequeath his sons. At the age of seven years, young boys were received and trained, disciplined in heart and mind, so that on reaching adulthood they either took their places in the world and exerted a spiritual influence among the people; or if they were favored by right of inner fineness, they remained within the sanctuary and passed on as far as they could go into the Greater Mysteries. Certain ones were trained for the sole purpose of returning to society and teaching the laws of life in university and college; others received the preliminary rites to better fit themselves to govern the State with equanimity and honor. Still others underwent the discipline and purification of the first degrees and then devoted their lives to bringing beauty to mankind, whether in sculpture or color, in verse or harmony. Thus did these early civilizations ripen in spiritual things under the guidance of initiated philosophers and statesmen, artists and musicians. — Grace. F. Knoche, The Mystery Schools