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:
OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA
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.)