The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell. It covers more of the Buddha’s teachings in a shorter span than any other scripture, and it does so without being superficial or commonplace. Although the author is unknown, he was clearly someone with a deep knowledge of the Dharma and an ability to summarize lifetimes of meditation in a few well-crafted lines.  I would describe the Heart Sutraas a work of art as much as religion. And perhaps it is one more proof, if any were needed, that distinguishing these two callings is both artificial and unfortunate.

“The Heart Sutra is a great torch that lights the darkest road,
a swift boat that ferries us across the sea of suffering.”
— Fa-tsang

The Heart Sutra has been beloved by Buddhists of many traditions for over 1500 years. With its radical economy of expression, the Heart Sutra’s concise rendition of the meaning of emptiness has captivated and challenged the minds and hearts of Buddhist thinkers in India, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Central Asia, and now the West.

Background: The Mahayana

Mahayana Buddhism views pre-Mahayana teachings such as the truth of suffering and the cessation of suffering as essentially provisional, laying the groundwork for the profound but difficult wisdom teachings of Prajnaparamita. Whereas the earlier teachings can be approached logically and conceptually, the wisdom of Prajnaparamita must pierce the heart.

The Prajnaparamita scriptures, which herald the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, recast the Buddha’s core teachings of the dependent co-arising or interbeing of all phenomena—which was identified as the Dharma itself—in fresh language and imagery, centered on the bodhisattva’s perfection of wisdom.

The Mahayana’s reformatting of the Buddha’s Dharma included emphasis on:


AvalokiteshvaraIn pre-Mahayana Buddhism a Bodhisattva was someone recognized as a future Buddha who had yet to reach that state. The Mahayanists recast the Bodhisattva as the ideal saint, one who forsakes their own enlightenment in order to continually return to help other sentient beings achieve enlightenment. By remaining in samsara for the good of others, the Bodhisattva is seen as more ideal than the Arhant.

The emphasis on the bodhisattva gave rise to a tradition of celestial Bodhisattvas that became an integral part of Buddhism. Bodhisattvas such as Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara (the central figure in the Heart Sutra) grew in importance, and before long their images appeared on the altar along with those of the Buddha. In fact, worshippers often focus on a Bodhisattva rather than the Buddha.

Skill and compassion

AvalokiteshvaraCompassion (karuna) is certainly a core component of the Buddha’s teachings from the beginning. But again the Mahayana recast it in a new light. Compassion became the Bodhisattva’s primary motivation, the force behind the Bodhisattva’s actions. It is compassion that leads the Bodhisattva to vow to save all sentient begins, deferring their own enlightenment.

How does the Bodhisattva save sentient beings? Through skillful means or upaya.



The Prajnaparamita teaches the perfection of wisdom.

The six paramitas, which culminate in wisdom or prajna, are a reformulation of the earlier Buddhist teachings of the paramis.


The teaching of the Heart Sutra is known as prajnaparamita. The word prajna is Sanskrit for “wisdom” and is a combination of pra, meaning
 “before,” and jna, meaning “to know… In the centuries after the Buddha, however, the
 focus of cultivation was on knowledge, jhana rather than prajna.
 The members of the earliest Buddhist sects held that reality was a complex system of dharma that could be known and that liberation depended on such knowledge. It would appear that it was in reaction to this emphasis on jnana that the compilation of prajna texts occurred, focusing on wisdom as opposed to knowledge.

The Prajnaparamita sutras, of which there are some forty, are thought to have been composed in India between 100 and 600 CE. In the next lesson we look briefly at the history of this literature, focusing on the Heart Sutra.


skyAt the core of Mahayana teachings is shunyata, usually translated in English as emptiness. The plethora of commentaries attempting to “explain” emptiness give us a clue to how difficult a teaching it is to transmit. Emptiness is a pedagogical term that points to the futility of any concept to accurately express the nature of reality. In the Perfection of Wisdom teachings one finds “suchness” (tathata in Sanskrit) as an alternate expression of shunyata.

Perfection of wisdom is equated with the ability to see emptiness not only of the self but also emptiness of mental states. Buddhist traditions at the time of the rise of the Mahayana saw mental states (dharmas) as constant and indivisible. As we will see in the next lesson, the Mahayana, as presented in the Heart Sutra and other Prajnaparamita literature, see mental states as empty of any own-being (svabhava).

gone, gone, gone beyond, gone way beyond…

Sutra or dharani?

The Sanskrit word Sutra is usually interpreted as deriving from the root sivmeaning “to sew” and as referring to a “thread” that holds things together, like the English word suture. However some scholars have suggested that it might instead come from sukta,  meaning “wise saying. Whatever its derivation, sutra was used . . . to denote a scripture.

According to traditional accounts Buddhist sutras date back to the First Council, which was held . . . immediately after the Buddha’s Nirvana in 383 B.C. Many scholars now believe such an account was a later fabrication by early Buddhist sects anxious to authenticate their selections and interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings. . . . These early sects also began to apply the word sutra not only to discourses of the Buddha but also to discourses on the Abhidharma. As time went on, however, the word shastra, meaning “investigation,” was used for Abhidharma texts, and the word sutra was reserved for sermons of the Buddha or disciples empowered by him to speak on his behalf.

The first translation of the Heart Sutra was titled the Prajna-paramita Dharani. . . The Heart Sutra was not considered a “sutra” until Hsuan-tsang’s translation of 649. Prior to that, the text was considered a mantra or dharani, as reflected in the earlier translations of the title . . . Also, it is worth noting that none of our extant Sanskrit copies includes the word sutra in the title.

Mantras and dharanis

You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,
. . . the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus: ‘Gate gate, paragate, parasangate bodhi svaha.’

At some point in time the term dharani came to be used for meaningful, intelligible phrases, and the term mantra for syllabic formulae which are not meant to be understood. The “Heart Sutra” contains a mantra. In fact, in the earlier, shorter version of the Heart Sutra, the mantra is the conclusion. If the earlier versions were not even named “sutra,” was the Heart Sutra originally a dharani ending with a mantra?

Often a distinction is made between mantras and dharanis, whereby mantras are said to be strings of one or more syllables not meant to be understood as human language, and dharanis are said to be intelligible summaries of some profound truth. But this is a late distinction, and early texts use the words mantra and dharani in reference to both intelligible and unintelligible incantations. Since this sutra uses the word mantra, and the sutra itself was often referred to as a dharani, it was most likely composed before such a distinction was made.

Andre Padoux says, “a mantra has a use rather than a meaning” quote. This mantra, however, has both. It contains the essential teaching of the Prajnaparamita and also enables those who chant it to join the lineage of buddhas who who have their origin in his teaching. In his commentary, Vajrapani says,”The mantra of the Perfection of Wisdom is not a mantra for pacification, increase, power, or wrath What is it?? By merely understanding the meaning of this mantra, the mind is freed”

From dharani to sutra?

As noted earlier, the many translations of the Heart Sutra fall into two basic categories—a shorter and longer version.

Shorter version

The shorter versions begin with Avalokitesvara contemplating the meaning of the profound perfection of wisdom.

Here, Shariputra, form is emptiness,, emptiness form…

Avalokitesvara addresses the relation of appearance and reality, the ultimate and the conventional. In a series of negations, Avalokitesvara
proceeds through the major categories of Buddhist philosophy—the five aggregates, the chain of dependent origin, the four truths—finding that none of them really exist.

The sutra then concludes with the mantra:

… the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,
…’Gate gate, paragate, parasangate bodhi svaha.’

Longer version

The longer versions include a prologue, in which the Buddha becomes a character in the scenario, entering into samadhi, and an epilogue, in which he rises from the samadhi and confirms Avalokiteshvara teaching.

The structure of the prologue and epilogue have led scholars to conclude that their inclusion is associated with an effort to make the original text conform with the accepted structure of a sutra.

Thus have I heard. At one time Lord Buddha was staying at Vulture Peak Mountain in Rajagriha, with a great gathering of the monastic sangha and the bodhisattva sangha.

The Heart Sutra’s prologue begins with a standard formula lead-in: “Thus have I heard,” followed by the location of the teaching (in this case Vulture Peak) and a description of the audience (here the monastic sangha and the bodhisattva sangha.) The Heart Sutra’s prologue then introduces the leading characters: Shakyamuni Buddha, Avalokitesvara, and Shariputra.

It’s noteworthy that unlike earlier sutras in which the Buddha has an active role as teacher, the Heart Sutra begins with the Buddha entering an absorption, called “Profound Radiance, in which all elements of experience are present ” The Buddha does not speak until the epilogue. As Donald Lopez points out, in the Heart Sutra the Buddha, instead,

silently empowers Shariputra to ask and Avalokitesvara to answer, illustrating a view of the Buddha characteristic of much of the Mahayana, a view classically portrayed in the Lotus Sutra: the Buddha is no longer simply the teacher but is transformed into the principle of enlightenment, a silent, eternal, numinous presence, the dharmakaya. 

Then Lord Buddha arose from that absorption and confirmed noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, with these words, “Well done, well done, o son of noble family; thus it is, thus it is.

The longer version of the Heart Sutra concludes with a standard sutra conclusion, with the Buddha rising from meditation to confirm Avalokitesvara’s teaching.

What is a sutra?

The longer version of the Heart Sutra conforms more closely to the format in which Buddhist sutras have been recorded and presented. As Ken McLeod points out (see Ashoka course), Buddhist sutras bring together the Buddha’s mind and the seeker’s in stories. These stories have a structure.

After setting the scene, the sutra usually begins with a question.

Shariputra said to noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, “How does a son or daughter of the noble family, who wishes to practice the profound perfection of wisdom, train?”

A sutra is a question and answer session with a teacher. The teacher was often, but not always (as with the Heart Sutra) the Buddha.

Sutras usually have three elements.

  • The person asking the question — Shariputra in the Heart Sutra.
  • The person answering the question — Avalokiteshvara in the Heart Sutra.
  • A field of attention or awareness — Buddha in the Heart Sutra.

In the sutras, when asked a question the Buddha answered in four ways — depending on the nature of the question and the questioner.

  • Sometimes he just answered.
  • Sometimes he answered with a question.
  • Sometimes he would reframe the question.
  • Sometimes he didn’t answer.

The sutras are not intellectual or scholastic texts. They are a record of an interaction between a student and a teacher.

If you seek to find logic in them you will miss the point.

The Heart Sutra

This introduction to the Heart Sutra includes  collection of excerpts from a wide variety of commentaries using Red Pine’s translation of the short version of the Heart Sutra.

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita,

He watches the wind sweep over grasslands
Until the blue dust of distant fields
Merges with the summer sky,
And doesn’t see a thing.

He listens to the intricacies of
Point and counterpoint,
Canon and fugue,
As his niece practices her piano,
But doesn’t hear a sound.

His mouth fills with the succulent flavors
Of lichee and mango,
Quince and pomegranate,
But he doesn’t taste a thing.

Is he dead?
But he’s more alive than most.
Ken McLeod

looked upon the Five Skandhas

The Five Skandhas are the root of the ten
-thousand forms of suffering and the basis of the thousand
 calamities. Because beings don’t yet realize they are empty, they
 are entangled and ensnared by them. — Chen-k’o

and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;

The infinitely Far-away is not only near, but it is infinitely near. It is nowhere, and nowhere it is not. This is the mystical identity of opposites. Nirvana is the same as the world. It is not only ‘in’ and ‘with you; but you are nothing but it. — Edward Conze

emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness;

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. — Thich Nhat Hanh

whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.

Aristotle pointed out in his Metaphysics that the rejection of the principle of contradiction must lead to the conclusion that ‘all things are one.’ This seemed to him manifestly absurd. Here, conversely, the insight into the oneness of all is the great goal, and only by contradictions can it be attained. — Edward Conze

The same holds for sensation and perception,
memory and consciousness.

Certainly this body of ours exist, or so we think. But tying to define our selves in terms of form, we find only emptiness and cannot overcome the indivisibility of “our” form with all forms (the entire external world). Thus, we look elsewhere for a self by considering the remaining four skandhas. Commenmrors seldom have anything to say about this line of the text, but it is one of the most important lines in the sutra. Without it, a person might limit their understanding of emptiness to its relationship with form. Bur by extending the same equation to the other four skandhas, Avalokiteshvara treats everything we might think of as our selves in the same light. — Red Pine

Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness

Because dharmas manifest the appearance of emptiness, they are said to be defined by emptiness. To be defined by emptiness means there is no one who grasps and nothing that is grasped. It means without duality. — Fa-tsang

not birth or destruction, purity or defilement,
completeness or deficiency.

If the dharmas are seen as a series of momentary flickerings, they cannot be invested with having the quality of appearing or disappearing precisely because flickerings are not solid objects. A flickering, so swift in time and miniscule in space, is not, in itself, tainted or pure, nor does it increase or decrease. An appropriate analogy here is of the waves in the ocean. A large wave is not a solid entity by itself but is composed of a series of smaller waves which in turn are composed of still smaller waves and so on. Even while we get the illusion of a “wave,” there is actually a remarkably swift movement of water in certain patterns. A wave does not exist out there in the ocean. Out of ignorance, we may attribute these qualities (of appearing/disappearing, taint/purity, increase/ decrease) to conventional appearances (skandhas) but, since at the core of conventional appearances, there are only unpredictable flickerings (dharmas), our acceptance of these qualities as real in themselves will be a deluded view. — Mu Soeng

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness;

Dreams and delusions. Blossoms in the air. Why bother grasping at them? Profit and loss, right and wrong–just leave them be. This scrupulousness of his only stirs up trouble. What’s the good of making everything an empty void? — Hakuin Zenji

no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;

When Hui-k’o asked Bodhidharma to help him make his mind stop, the First Patriarch of Zen said, “Show me this mind of yours, and I’ll make it stop.” Hui-k’o answered,”But I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t find the mind.” Bodhidharma said, “There. I’ve stopped it for you.” Thus, in the light of emptiness, we say that the eyes and the other powers do not exist, which does not mean that we have no eyes, only that the eyes are not ultimately real, just a convenient fiction to. which we give a name. — Red Pine

no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness;

If our self is in the eyes, then it cannot be in the ears. And if there is a self present in each element, then a person would be a combination of eighteen selves. And if none of the elements has a self, then there would not be a self in their combination. And because there is none, we know the self is not a real entity. — Hui-chung

no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,

The essential point is to realize that this sequence goes round and round, forward and backward, and accounts for any particular experience we might focus on without recourse to a self. Thus, it plants the seed of our liberation. We know that whatever link we might identify with at any moment has been produced by the previous link and will in turn give rise to the succeeding link without help from a self of any kind. If we can break but one link in this chain, it comes to an end. But if the links of this chain do not include a self, then it is already broken. Thus, how can there be suffering, if there is no one who suffers? — Red Pine

and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death;

If the dust and domains of sensation exist, they can end. But because they don’t really exist, what is there that ends? ‘End’ means ‘death.’ If the twelve links of causation arise, then life and death can end. But because causation does not arise, there is no end of life and death. — Hui-chung

no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;

Since the Five Skandhas are empty of self-existence, suffering must also be empty of self-existence. But if suffering is empty of self-existence, then there is no self that suffers. Thus, in emptiness there is no suffering, no source of suffering, no relief from suffering, and no path leading to relief from suffering. This is the basis of Avalokiteshvara’s interpretation of the Four Truths. — Red Pine

no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.

By adding ‘no knowledge’ somebody may have wanted to make clear that in the dialectical logic of the Prajna-paramita a double negation does not make an affirmation. The misconception might arise that ‘the extinction of ignorance’ might be equivalent to a positive entity, named knowledge. The addition of ‘no knowledge’ would guard against that misconception. — Edward Conze

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment, bodhisattavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita and live without walls of the mind.

For someone with no mind, there is still a barrier. What do I mean? A white cloud blocks the valley mouth.
: :~ Returning birds can’t find the way to their nests. — Pao-t’ung

Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

In the context of the Heart Sutra, we understand nirvana to be the ultimate nature of one’s mind at a stage when the mind has become totally cleansed of all mental afflictions. . . it is because the mind is innately pure, which is to say it has buddha nature, that simply removing the obscurations to clarity reveals enlightenment; thus, the emptiness of the mind is said to be the basis of nirvana, its natural nirvana. When an individual goes through a process of purifying the mind by applying the antidotes to the mental afflictions, over time, the mind becomes totally free of all these obscurations. The emptiness of this undefiled mind is the true nirvana or liberation. — The Dalai Lama

All buddhas past, present and future
 also take refuge in Prajnaparamita

The buddhas of the past, present, and future
 take no other road and use only this gate. — Fa-tsang

and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.

Stop hammering spikes into empty space! A steer may give birth to a calf, but no Buddha was ever enlightened by relying on wisdom. Why? Because wisdom and enlightenment are essentially not-two. Besides, if he has anything left to get, he is no Buddha. It’s like a blazing conflagration. If they draw too close, Buddhas and Patriarchs get burned to death, like everyone else. — Hakuin Zenji

You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,

Once you catch a fish, you can forget the trap. Once you catch a rabbit, you can forget the snare. Once you catch the meaning, you can forget the words. The Pravara-devaraja Paripriccha Sutra says,’Though words are used to express a dharani, a dharani has no words. The great compassionate power of prajna is beyond words and expressions.’ — Ching-chueh

the mantra of great magic, the unexcelled mantra, the mantra equal to the unequalled, which heals all suffering

What would life be like if
The road had no bumps,
The sea no waves,
The fire no sparks,
The wind no gusts,
And the sky no clouds?

Don’t be fooled. He’s not talking about the four easy escapes:

  • the self-righteous complacency that allows you to dismiss the vicissitudes that afflict your fellow being,
  • the formal courtesy that masks your cruelty with the sterility of social dictates,
  • the heartless justice that enables you to impose values on the helpless and unfortunate,
  • the celebration of the trivial and the inconsequential that artificially inflates self-esteem.— Ken McLeod

and is true, not false, the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:

A mantra is something that you utter when your body, your mind, and your breath are at one in deep concentration. When you dwell in that deep concentration, you look into things and see them as clearly as you see an orange that you hold in the palm of your hand. Looking deeply into the five skandhas, Avalokitesvara saw the nature of interbeing and overcame all pain. He became completely liberated. It was in that state of deep concentration, of joy, of liberation, that he uttered something important. That is why his utterance is a mantra.— Thich Nhat Hanh

‘Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.’

This is the function of this mantra: to go beyond language and the categories in which language imprisons us and to lead us into the womb of Prajna-paramita, which is the Gone, the Gone Beyond, the Gone Completely Beyond. — Red Pine


To explore The Heart Sutra further see our course with Red Pine >>>quote