The Heart-Healthy Sutra

The Heart Sutra is my favorite Buddhist scripture. It is profound and beautiful. As Buddhist scripture goes, it’s remarkably concise.

Still, I think it could stand to go on a diet.

Color key (see notes at bottom for further explanation):

  • Dark blue: formulaic stuff that has to go in every sutra
  • Red: advertising hype
  • Orange: meaningless verbiage, padding, filler
  • Light blue: repetition
  • Green: probably just wrong
  • Magenta: “weird Indian stuff”
  • Black: actual content

The (atherosclerotic) Heart Sutra, color-coded

Thus have I heard. Once the Blessed One was dwelling in Rajagriha at Vulture Peak mountain, together with a great gathering of the sangha of monks and a great gathering of the sangha of bodhisattvas. At that time the Blessed One entered the samadhi that expresses the dharma called “profound illumination” and at the same time noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, while practicing the profound prajnaparamita, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.

Then, through the power of the Buddha, venerable Shariputra said to noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, “How should a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita?”

Addressed in this way, noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, said to venerable Shariputra, “O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnaparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas, no eye dhatu up to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death, no end of old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment. Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.

Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear. They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana. All the buddhas of the three times, by means of prajnaparamita, fully awaken to unsurpassable, true, complete enlightenment. Therefore, the great mantra of prajnaparamita, the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the unequaled mantra, the mantra that calms all suffering, should be known as truth, since there is no deception. The prajnaparamita mantra is said in this way:


Thus, Shariputra, the bodhisattva mahasattva should train in the profound prajnaparamita.

Then the Blessed One arose from that samadhi and praised noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, saying, “Good, good, O son of noble family; thus it is, O son of noble family, thus it is. One should practice the profound prajnaparamita just as you have taught and all the tathagatas will rejoice.”

When the Blessed One had said this, venerable Shariputra and noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahasattva, that whole assembly and the world with its gods, humans, asuras, and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the words of the Blessed One.

The Heart-Healthy (slimmed-down) Sutra

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. All phenomena are emptiness. There are no characteristics. There is no birth and no cessation. There is no impurity and no purity. There is no decrease and no increase. In emptiness, there are no sense objects, sense organs, or sensory awareness, and no Four Noble Truths.

Since there is no obscuration of mind, there is no fear.

Hakuin’s Zen Words for the Heart

I would not dare to make fun of the Heart Sutra if it were not for the example of Hakuin Zenji, one of the all-time greatest Zen Masters. His Zen Words for the Heart is a satirical, word-by-word commentary on the Heart Sutra.

For most of the book, Hakuin insults the author of the Sutra as a con man and idiot. Toward the end, you realize that this was a pretense: for Hakuin (as for me) the Heart Sutra is the one essential Buddhist text, for which he has boundless reverence and devotion.

He’s got some good lines:

Profound prajnaparamita? Yeah, right! Bring me some shallow prajnaparamita, then.

Nirvana and samsara? Riding whips carved from rabbit horn.

No eye, no ear, no nose? Well, I have them. They do exist.

It would obviously be fair for someone offended at my treatment of the Sutra to point out “You’re no Hakuin.” Undoubtedly true. But we can’t pretend punk hasn’t happened since then.

How I color-coded the text

Dark blue – Formulaic stuff that has to go in every sutra. Sutras are written in a standard format, as a dialog between the Buddha and some hangers-on. They start by setting the stage for the discussion and end with a return to the setting. Often these bits are much longer. The Heart Sutra was exceptionally short, even before its crash diet.

Red – Advertising hype. Some sutras consist almost entirely of praise for themselves. There are two “very short” summaries of Prajnaparamita, the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. Most of the Diamond Sutra is advertising claims. Apparently, hearing a single line of it even once is far better than practicing the Other Leading Brand of religion all day every day for your entire life.

Orange – Meaningless verbiage, padding, filler. Buddhist texts were mostly written by people who had nothing else to do, to be chanted by people for whom chanting texts was a full-time job. The longer the better. Often they seem to have been made to order: “We need four hours worth of verbiage about patience.” Maybe there isn’t four hours worth to say on that topic, so you put in a lot of extra words.

Light blue – Repetition. Another strategy for padding out a text. The Heart Sutra hasn’t got a lot; some Buddhist scriptures just say the same thing over and over, verbatim, for pages on end.

Green – Probably just wrong. Here I follow Hakuin’s commentary. He points out that enlightened people don’t abide “by means” of anything. They just abide. They don’t “transcend falsity”—that would be dualistic. They don’t “attain” anything, because they always already had Buddha-nature. The Tathagatagharba doctrine is that we are all enlightened to begin with, so “enlightenment” as an event reveals what is naturally present, rather than producing something new. Tathagatagharba theory developed after the Heart Sutra was written. It was probably understood intuitively by the author of the Heart Sutra, but the idea wasn’t out there yet explicitly, so s/he stumbled a bit here. [See the comment from Jayarava about this, below.]

Magenta – “weird Indian stuff.” No one knows what the bit about the mantra is in there for. It’s kinda cool, but it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the Sutra. Some commentators think it was tacked on later by someone else. Kobun Chino Roshi, when asked about the mantra, answered “I don’t know, that’s just Indian stuff.” I personally also don’t know what “the samadhi that expresses the dharma called Profound Illumination” means. It might have a specific meaning that I don’t know, or someone might have just put it in because it sounded impressive. This bit is not found in all versions of the Sutra, and I suspect that it too was added by a later author.

Many bits of the Sutra belong in several categories. (Some lines are formulaic, meaningless, repetitious advertising hype, and so could painted with any of several colors.)

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

27 thoughts on “The Heart-Healthy Sutra”

  1. @ Ron Sinnige – Thank you!

    @ Sherab Dorje – No; I practice other mantras. And “gate, gate” seems like it would be a very fine one… But the question is, how does it relate to the rest of the Sutra? No one seems to know. Interestingly, it never seems to have been practiced as a mantra—that is, repeated thousands of times. The practice of the Sutra is to recite the whole Sutra, instead.

  2. Could it be a method to experience the results of that view expressed by the sutra? A way to work with the Tsa Lung system that results in the understanding of the sutra? The sutra’s apogee?

  3. On twitter, Hokai Sobol has replied:

    The name of the samadhi (profound radiance) is code for inclusive awareness, while mantra of prajnaparamita introduces her as deity. The samadhi is explained in Ken McLeod’s “An Arrow to the Heart”, the deity-mantra is a standard Shingon reading, see Kukai.

    Thanks, Hokai!

    He’s a really interesting teacher, check out his web site.

  4. Brilliant, inspiring and instructive. Well done — thank you !

    Perhaps similarly many progressive Christians (as they like to be called) work with their scriptures in an attempt to save their value and answer criticisms. Thomas Jefferson did it without scholarly tools. I will introduce your analysis and rendering to some progressive Christians and progressive Atheists [my phrase for those who want to not throw out valuable aspects of religion]. I think, even though they don’t value the Mahayana tradition, will see the creativity in this approach as it relates to their traditions.

    I have seen the Heart Sutra chanted superstitiously by many Buddhists — magic, magic, magic. This rendering disempowers the superstition and yet ironically amplifies its power.
    Now, that is magic!

    Now all we need is for your Heart-healthy version to be translated back into Sanskrit or Tibetan to give those superstitious sort the jolt of magic they need to incorporate this punk version back into their rituals.

  5. @ Sherab Dorje
    Good question. Good, because it is hard to answer. Good because it exposes the need for agreement of the two folks using the word in order to effectively communicate.
    Words, in most people’s heads are not held as definitions but as abstractions that contain lots of examples which are felt to overlap significantly to the speaker. Wiki has a great article on the word and exposes its derogatory and parochial uses.
    Let me know why you ask the question and what connotations you object to, so I can facilitate an overlap of concepts to perhaps actually communicate.

  6. Nice summation of my favorite sutra, but all the fun of chanting it is just gone ;)

    On a pedantic note, howevah, I have to add that the repetitious bits are not just filler, but also made it easy to memorize back when this was all an oral tradition. When all you have is your memory to rely on, repetition can be a bookmark. When some upstart monk with an impertinent question interrupts your recital of a 2000 word sutra, repetition allows you to go “ah, I had just gotten to the part where I say ‘noble Avalokiteshvara’ again” instead of starting over from the top.

  7. David, you are the Illuminatus of appropriate Youtube offerings!

    And thanks so much for the Hokai pointer to Ken McLeod’s book– got it; love it.

    I just re-read the post from the top, starting with the acknowledgement that you love the Heart Sutra. I do, too! I have come to notice that I am seeing it everywhere: check out “The Tree of Life” for visual imagery of the great chthonic, terrifying emergence of form from emptiness, emptiness from form, in terms of the elements at their most overwhelming.

  8. The bits in black all come from the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra. If we accept Jan Nattier’s argument (and I do) then the black bits were extracted from the Chinese translation of the LPoWS, and the other coloured bits were composed in China. There’s a small possibility that it was Xuanzang himself who took the Heart Sutra to Indian with him and translated it into Sanskrit from Chinese when he discovered the Indians didn’t have a copy – someone did it, and he was in the right place at about the right time, and is known to have enjoyed chanting the text to scare demons. The Chinese commentaries are all on the short version, so it’s likely it came first. When the Sanskrit version was created they added the opening and closing remarks to make it more sutra-like.

    The mantra is one of several similar mantras that occur in different later, tantra influenced, Perfection of Wisdom Texts in Chinese translation. It was probably added for a reason that is now lost, but there is no mantra in the LPoWS and it is probably not directly related to the black stuff.

    Nattier also calls into question the notion that this was even a sutra in the first place. The Chinese title could apparently be read as “a text for chanting”. In this case the mantra is just there to be chanted. And this is pretty much what mantras are for – outside of sadhana anyway.

    So it seems to me that your colour coding is about spot on and very insightful.

  9. David you do make me laugh. It’s great to read something fresh. I’m specially amused because my take on the Heart Sutra goes just the other way. My longstanding entrepreneurial dream is to commission the Heart Sutra as a *one-act opera* i.e. with *loads* more formulae, bloat, padding, repetition, hype and weird Indo-classical fusion stuff – in terms of musical orchestration. There would be just the three characters on stage throughout. Sariputra (counter tenor) downstage left, addresses Avalokiteshvara, suspended up in the air above centre stage (not so high that the top of the proscenium arch cuts off the view of him from the cheap seats in the top corners of the house). Avalokiteshvara is a helden tenor who gets to wear gorgeous Sambhogakaya costume. The Buddha is downstage right facing the audience, sitting silently till he comes in at the end. He’d be a bass, basso profundo if one were available (most likely Russian); a Gyütor bull’s roar effect is what I’d be looking for. Probably the Sanskrit text would be the best singing version. But I’d make sure your blog entry was one of the features in the programme.

  10. I question, however, how much anyone who has just encountered Buddhism could make heads or tails of your slimmed down Heart Sutra. I doubt I could have way back when. And I strongly suspect, whoever wrote what in it, that much of what you cut away was actually functional as an educational starting point for teaching a great deal more than is merely present in the text.

    When I first read the Heart Sutra, I didn’t know much about skandhas, dhatus, and dharmas, but I could see clearly that what was being said had a context of meanings that could be learned in order to clarify what was the text was saying. If I had encountered your heart-healthy version, all I would have had to work with was a cartoon thought balloon with a large, radiant question mark in it.

    It was just like koans forty years ago when about all you could find on Zen was D.T. Suzuki, Lafcadio Hearn, Zen In The Art of Archery, and mere edited vingettes of the original incidents that brought the koans into being in the first place. My response to all of it back then was, “What on earth are these people talking about?” I got no answer to this question until the publication of Philip Kapleau’s “Three Pillars of Zen” which finally brought some context of how the koans were actually used in practice as well as some minimal background for them in Abhidharma.

    And it is still like encountering the Three Statements of Garab Dorje today alone and stripped naked of commentary.

    Cut-To-The-Chase Buddhism has great appeal when you actually know something of what is being talked about, but have had little contact with, or little taste for, the traditional way the material is taught. However, I can tell you from direct experience that a line-by-line teaching of this text, done in the traditional way, logically opens up a tremendous range of information about Buddhism as a whole that you would need to read all sorts of books to find out about on your own.

    We have lost contact with the fact that “all sorts of books” and the time to read them are an immense luxury of no more than two centuries duration. In a world without many books, the root text and commentary system of presentation is functional, elegant, and satisfyingly informative.

    And it still saves you a whole lot of time in a library when it is done right.

  11. This is another stimulating blog entry. Thank you. Now rather than arguing in your foreign language, here is my “instant” working rendition of the sūtra:

    > Meditating, Avalokiteśvara saw that the five components were devoid of nature. He said: all phenomenas are vacuous, devoid of characteristics and substance.

    He expanded on this, then told Śāriputra that bodhisattvas then have no attainment but abiding serenely in this transcending insight, with the help of the mantra: “Om gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā!” Everyone was happy. <

    I have no strong opinions on this specific wording as – anyway − a reexpanding commentary would examine the “meaning in context” of nature, skandha, dharma, dhātu, lakṣaṇa, śūnyátā, etc.

    Having written my comment i am left with this feeling : What has gone beyond to what other shore and yet has gone nowhere ?

  12. Oops! no editing or deleting of comments …? I can’t understand how i mixed up Avalokiteśvara with Buddha !!!

  13. Alain, I like your version!

    Sorry about the no-edit problem. It’s hard to enable with the software I’m using.

    I have changed it for you; I hope it is OK now!

  14. Just looking at this again after a long while. I still like it, but I think you’ve used an appalling translation. I agree the text you’re using is atherosclerotic, but it is also one which has accumulated transcription errors. Not sure how that fits your metaphor.

    The bits in green are garbled beyond sense, but they need not be.

    “a son or daughter of noble family train, who wishes to ” is propaganda rather than verbiage. It indicates someone well bred enough to comprehend the teaching. Not just any old prathagjana (Skt. = ‘distinct individual’) is able to understand the patter, eh?

    “saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.” I think this gives you away as having used a translation from the Tibetan. The two Tibetan recensions are both garbled at this point – a verb from √paś is replaced by a repeated verb vi+ava√lok. They should be more like: “he looked at” and “he saw”. And then “seeing the nature of the branches of experience as lacking intrinsic existence” is the key to the whole thing – it’s where we cross over with modern neuroscientist/philosophers such as Metzinger and Damasio.

    I think one must add in something to the “healthy” text about the five skandhas, since in it’s proper form the text points to examination of the skandhas as the means to the knowledge set out in the rest of the text. Perhaps: “Examining the five branches of experience one sees that they lack any substantial existence.”

    “They transcend falsity and attain complete nirvana.” *is* just wrong. Your translator has garbled this, though not entirely. Here false views about experience (viparyāsa) are overcome (ati-kranta) – and when we stop doing that altogether we call it “extinguished” (nirvāṇa).

    Of course the verbiage at the beginning and end *were* just added as filler by some Indians wanting to make the short text look more like a sutra. So we can, and most people outside of Tibetan Buddhism do, dispense with most of it.

    Hakuin was a wiley old fox.

    One last thing: Tathagatagharba theory developed before the Heart Sutra was written. We must now place the Heart Sutra in 7th century China. You might argue that the bits in black, drawn from Kumārajīva’s Large Wisdom Text ca 400 CE is about the same era, or that the Sanskrit Pañcaviṁśatisāhasrikā was written a few centuries earlier on the basis of the Aṣṭasāhasrika. Either way it’s complicated.

  15. Jayarava, thank you for this! I’ve been following with great interest your several recent posts on the Heart Sutra.

    To be clear, my project here was rather different from yours. What I wanted to show is that Buddhist scripture is awful, when considered as writing. It’s awful as fiction, and awful as expository text. I don’t really know why. Maybe partly because it wasn’t meant to be read; it was composed to be chanted.

    The way I went about this was to pull the actual meaning out from the verbiage; and my method for that was synchronic, not historical. I was trying to isolate the message of the text, without considering any context. Of course that’s impossible, but the project was playful, so getting it “right” wasn’t really the point.

    Your project is diachronic, and much more serious—although I at least have enjoyed reading your conclusions!

    It’s interesting that my reconstructed “actual content” seems to match up reasonably well with your “original content”, but this might just be accidental. Generally I’m skeptical of the Buddhist tendency to identify “original version” with “correct version.” On the other hand, texts do seem to accrete lower-quality additions from later hands.

    The translation I used is indeed from a Tibetan version. It was done in the 1970s by Chögyam Trungpa’s translation committee. They were young amateurs, not academics, I think. I don’t know to what extent the defects you observe are due to the translation from Chinese to Sanskrit vs. Sanskrit to Tibetan vs. Tibetan to English. The colophon notes that the committee did consult Sanskrit versions. I chose this version because it’s the one I know best, having been in the Shambhala sangha for several years.

    You are right about “a son or daughter of noble family,” and I’ve re-colored it accordingly. It’s offensive. I remember receiving a teaching on the Sutra in which the (nice, white) teacher explained that of course “a son or daughter of noble family” just meant “any Buddhist” at the time it was written. Uh huh.

    I’ve updated my text to strike out what I said about Tathagatagarbha and to point to your comment. You are clearly correct. That makes it mysterious why the author/compiler of the Sutra got this wrong.

  16. I see the two projects as complimentary. I also appreciate what you are saying in this post. It’s far more radical than my rejection of tradition :-)

    “Generally I’m skeptical of the Buddhist tendency to identify “original version” with “correct version.” ”

    I’m writing something about this at the moment. The very notion of a unitary text is false. My view for what it is worth is that Buddhist thought does tend to go down hill over time. The same problems crop up time and again and are solved again and again, but each time with more and more concession to other systems of thought in North India that are outside the Buddhist frame. Buddhists seem unable to maintain their ground in arguments with Indian philosophers and very often begin to argue within their opponents frame. The result is akin to the epicycles employed to maintain the fiction of an earth centered solar system. Nāgārjuna being the first major example.

    But the tendency is not Buddhist, or not only Buddhist. It is the explicit goal of textual studies (codicology or manuscriptology) to reconstruct the manuscript as the author intended it – to repair the degradations inflicted by scribes and editors and know the ideas as first presented. And only then to engage with the ideas in higher criticism. The attitude is: one doesn’t really want to discuss ideas with scribes and editors, one wants to discuss them with (other) authors.

    “What I wanted to show is that Buddhist scripture is awful, when considered as writing.”

    Perhaps it is. Some of it. Not all of it was meant to be chanted. Most Mahāyāna Sūtras were composed in writing in order to be read. They were chanted more by convention than anything. My argument about these texts is that most of us have never met the text – only some poorly made doppelganger. How can we judge it’s literary or aesthetic merit? It’s like judging humanity based on meeting Frankenstein’s monster.

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