The Heart Sutra: New Translation & Commentary

The Great Wisdom of the Heart-Mind Sutra

The Bodhisattva Guanyin
Was traveling freely and deeply through Prajna Paramita,
Illuminating the Five Aggregates, each was seen as empty,
And Guanyin was ferried across the sea of duality, suffering, and hardship.
O Shariptura,
Appearance is not different from emptiness,
Emptiness is not different from appearance;
At present, appearance is emptiness,
At present, emptiness is appearance.
Feelings, perceptions, formations, and divided knowing
Also are originally thus.
O Shariputra,
All things are mutually empty
Unborn, undying,
Neither impure nor pure,
Neither increasing nor decreasing.
Therefore in emptiness there is no body,
No feelings, perceptions, formations, or divided knowing.
No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, nor intention;
No sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, nor mental objects;
No boundary of sight, even no boundary of thought and knowing.
No ignorance, also no end of ignorance,
And even no old age and death, also no end to old age and death.
No Four Noble Truths,
No wisdom, also no gain.
Since there’s no gain,
Thus the Bodhisattva solidly depends on Prajna Paramita
And has no hindrance in the heart-mind,
There is no hindrance thus there is no fear.
At the peak, far from upside down dreams,
At the bottom of the matter, Nirvana.
All Buddhas of the three times depend on Prajna Paramita,
And gathering and disregarding the many weeds,
Attain complete enlightenment
Thus the ancient knowing Prajna Paramita is the great mantra,
The great, illuminating mantra, the complete mantra
Which can remove all suffering, it’s real and true without fail
Speak the Prajna Paramita Mantra, speak and say:
Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi Svaha!

Commentary

There are two characters in this Sutra: The Bodhisattva Guanyin (Avalokitesvara) and Sariputra. They give the Heart Sutra its context. Guanyin represents unconditional compassion, and Sariputra’s name means, “The merits of not dwelling.”

Mahayana Buddhists didn’t think that non-dwelling (not being attached to things) was enough, that compassion was also a necessary part of practice.

Sariputra was a big-wig monk, one of the main teachers in Buddha’s Sangha. Since this is a Mahayana text, Sariputra also represents the way of the Arhat, and Guanyin the Bodhisattva way. Essentially, the Heart Sutra’s target audience were monastics practicing a more Pali Canon orientated Buddhism, and Abidhidharma scholars.

This isn’t the kind of teaching that monastics would’ve handed out to laypeople like you and me. Thankfully, we’ve got the internet.

It’s actually kind of a summery of a Buddhist literary movement. There are several different Prajna Paramita Sutras—including the Diamond Sutra—and they all focus on similar themes like emptiness, compassion, and transcendental wisdom.

The Bodhisattva Guanyin
Was traveling freely and deeply through Prajna Paramita

All Sutras start with a setting. In this case, it’s Guanyin meditating. In another Prajna Paramita Sutra, we learned that Guanyin was meditating on sound. She was listening to the sound of waves rise and fall, and she realized that even though sounds come and go, hearing remained. Something about that experience struck a chord, and she saw that the body and mind were empty.

Prajna paramita is usually translated Perfect Wisdom, it’s seeing things as they really are. Some Buddhists even thought of it as a kind of force, like in Star Wars, or as the mother of all Buddhas.

Illuminating the Five Aggregates, each was seen as empty
And Guanyin was ferried across the sea of duality, suffering, and hardship.

Illumination (zhao) is another term for Prajna. It’s the natural aspect of mind that reveals everything. It’s basically what we’d think of as consciousness and awareness.

So, she experienced the dynamic, and boundless nature of the body-mind directly. Boundless because body and mind are dependent on everything else, they’re not isolated or tucked away in ourselves. Dynamic because they’re impermanent, constantly changing with each experience.

Appearance is not different from emptiness,
Emptiness is not different from appearance;
At present, appearance is emptiness,
At present, emptiness is appearance.

A lot of translations have, “Form,” here instead of appearance. But since Mahayana is an experiential, rather than theoretical, Vehicle, “Form,” is a little too concrete. 色 can also be translated as color, or the look of something. So the Chinese version stresses the experiential aspect of forms. In Western philosophy, we’d translate it as phenomena.

One way to look at this verse is that appearances are nothing but appearances, they aren’t things-unto-themselves. This nature of nothing-unto-itself, is the essence of all appearances.

Some overzealous Westerners tried translating emptiness as nouemena, which means, “Thing-unto-itself.” Really, that’s exactly the opposite meaning that emptiness has here.

I’ll use the classic wave-ocean metaphor to explain the rest of the Sutra. This verse is saying that the wave (appearance) is the ocean (emptiness), the ocean is the wave.

Feelings, perceptions, formations, and divided awareness
Also are originally thus.

The waves are everything we experience, inside and out. Our feelings are waves, so are our perceptions, all the beliefs and conditioning we wrap up with things. Even this confused awareness of separation is a wave. None of these waves exist unto-themselves. They’re dynamic and free.

All things are mutually empty
Unborn, undying,
Neither impure nor pure,
Neither increasing nor decreasing.

Let’s look at just one wave. The wind forces it up, raises it into the air. It peaks, falls, and dissolves back into the sea. If we think of that wave as a thing-unto-itself, then we’re gonna get attached to it like is. Or we’re gonna judge it, form opinions about it like, “That’s a shitty wave.” If we like it, then we’re gonna suffer when it dissolves.

Really, that wave is the whole ocean, and the ocean is the wave. Even though the wave rises and falls, the ocean is still the same. Our opinions about the wave and the ocean (What a great/terrible ocean) are just opinions, they’re something extra. Waves aren’t good or bad, they’re just waves.

The ocean doesn’t decrease when the waves rise, and it doesn’t increase when they fall back into it. When we’re born, nothing is created; when we die, nothing is destroyed.

Therefore in emptiness there is no body,
No feelings, perceptions, formations, or divided knowing.
No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or intention;
No sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or mental objects;
No boundary of sight, even no boundary of thought and divided awareness.

Now the Sutra is taking us from emptiness as the nature of appearance, to emptiness as meditation. In our ordinary, suffering-filled life, we have a, “A wave is a wave,” perspective. The Heart Sutra starts by introducing, “The wave is the ocean,” view.. Now it’s opening us up to, “The ocean is the ocean.”

Imagine if you were looking at the Pacific and said, “Look at all those waves,” and them someone replied, “Waves? I only see the sea.” This is a meditative state where we’re so focused on the method that we forget ourselves, and forget everything else too. We forget that we’re separate from our surroundings, we forget our names and histories.

We forget life and death, coming and going. Nothing we experience, or experience things with, or know about our experiences seems to truly capture the full breadth and depth of just this moment.

No ignorance, also no end of ignorance,
And even no old age and death, also no end to old age and death.
No Four Noble Truths,
No wisdom, also no gain.

At this point, all the helpful means that we used to rely on, are no longer applicable—including the Four Noble Truths. That ignorance and suffering we were trying to so hard to overcome, seem to have never been there to begin with. All beings have always been free. There’s no such thing as loss and gain.

Since there’s no gain,
Thus the Bodhisattva solidly depends on Prajna Paramita
And has no hindrance in the heart-mind,
There is no hindrance thus there is no fear.
At the peak, far from upside down dreams,
At the bottom of the matter, Nirvana.

Since we see that all the waves are the sea, there’s no need to make waves, or to claim them as ours. Since we don’t claim them, there’s no fear of loss. Fearless, there’s nothing to stop us from seeing that confusion we tried to make sense of by dividing it into discrete boxes, is really enlightenment.

The Heart Sutra skips one important part of the process since it’s just a summary.

Seeing the wave is the sea isn’t in itself complete enlightenment, it’s just a taste. If we stick with that, then we fall into a kind of stagnant emptiness, totally out of touch with appearances. This is the point that Sariputra got to.

Guanyin got there and took it one step further: A wave is not a wave, it’s the ocean. The ocean isn’t the ocean, it’s many waves in one. Emptiness isn’t some blissed out realm apart from appearances, it’s the nature of appearances. If there were no appearances, there’d be no such thing as the nature of appearances. In order for there things to be empty, there have to be things.

I live like I’m a thing-unto-myself in a world of things-unto-themselves, and that’s why I suffer. Really, I’m a thing-not-unto-myself. And this not-self is the common ground of all things. That return to things is the real magic of the Bodhisattva way. It’s actual nonduality. One in all, all in one.

All Buddhas of the three times depend on Prajna Paramita,
And gathering and disregarding the many weeds,
Attain complete enlightenment

Prajna Paramita is the wisdom of emptiness. The Sutra says that all Buddhas, in the past, present, and future, Wake Up through this wisdom. With it, they’re able to set aside all their afflictions, and attain complete enlightenment.

As the Diamond Sutra points out, there’s no sense of attainment here. “Attain,” is just a figure of speech.

Thus the ancient knowing Prajna Paramita is the great mantra,
The great, illuminating mantra, the complete mantra
Which can remove all suffering, it’s real and true without fail
Speak the Prajna Paramita Mantra, speak and say:
Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi Svaha!

The Sutra closes in praise of the Prajna Paramita Mantra: “Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi svaha!” which basically means, “Gone! Gone! Gone Beyond! Beyond Beyond! Awakening! Fuck yeah!”

Mahayana Buddhists weren’t as pragmatic as some of us try to make them out to be. They believed that mantras did indeed have spiritual powers, and that diligently chanting this mantra could help people Wake Up.

We don’t have to take it that far if we don’t want to. I don’t know anyone who uses the Prajna Paramita Mantra as a meditation aid, actually, but you could.

Conclusion

The Heart Sutra is one of the most popular Mahayana texts, and it’s a staple of Zen Buddhist liturgies. Honestly, it isn’t my favorite Sutra. It packs so much in that it gets kinda messy. The phrasing has also lead more than one Buddhist to a nihilistic extreme over the years.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that meditation is the heart of Buddhism. All the teachings, even emptiness, are ways to help us meditate. Understanding that things are empty is a great way to settle and concentrate the mind.

All the worry, doubt, anger, fear, or desire that might pop up while we sit, we can move through it by seeing it all as empty appearances, as things-not-unto-themselves. Then, once we drop the body and mind, we can Wake Up to that groundless ground of everything.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s