Heart Sutra

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The Heart Sūtra (Sanskrit: Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya; Chinese: 般若波羅蜜多心經) is an early Mahayana sutra that is popular for its brevity and depth of meaning. The full Sanskrit title, Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya, can be translated as "Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom." The Heart Sūtra is considered one of the best known[1] and most popular of the Mahayana sutras.[2][3]


The Heart Sūtra is a member of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) group of Mahayana sutras, and along with the Diamond Sūtra, is perhaps the most prominent representative of the genre.

The Heart Sūtra is made up of 14 shlokas in Sanskrit; a shloka composed of 32 syllables. In Chinese, it is 260 Chinese characters, while in English it is composed of sixteen sentences.[4] This makes it one of the shortest of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, which exist in various lengths up to 100,000 shlokas.

This sutra is classified by Edward Conze as belonging to the third of four periods in the development of the Perfection of Wisdom canon, although because it contains a mantra (sometimes called a dharani), it does overlap with the final, tantric phase of development according to this scheme, and is included in the tantra section of at least some editions of the Kangyur.[5] Conze estimates the sutra's date of origin to be 350 CE; some others consider it to be two centuries older than that.[6] Recent scholarship is unable to verify any date earlier than the 7th century CE.[7]

The Chinese version is frequently chanted (in the local pronunciation) by the Chan (Zen/Seon/Thiền) sects during ceremonies in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. It is also significant to the Shingon Buddhist school in Japan, whose founder Kūkai wrote a commentary on it, and to the various Tibetan Buddhist schools, where it is studied extensively.

The sūtra is in a small class of sūtras not attributed to the Buddha. In some versions of the text, starting with that of Fayue dating to about 735,[8] the Buddha confirms and praises the words of Avalokiteśvara, although this is not included in the preeminent Chinese version translated by Xuanzang. The Tibetan canon uses the longer version,[9][10] although Tibetan translations without the framing text have been found at Dunhuang.



Both long and short versions exist in Sanskrit.[9]


The Chinese Canon includes both long and short versions.[9]


The Tibetan Canon includes the long version of the text. The text is included in the Prajnaparamia section of Kangyur.[11]

Full English translation from the Tibetan text

This translation of the text Heart Sutra is published by Lotsawa House under license CC-by-NC 3.0. Translation by Adam Pearcy. SuttaCentral icon square 170px.png

The Heart of the Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom

In the language of India: bhagavatī prajñāpāramitā hṛdaya
In the language of Tibet: bcom ldan 'das ma shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i snying po
In the English language: The Blessed Mother, the Heart of the Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom.

In a single segment.

Homage to the Bhagavatī Prajñāpāramitā!

Thus have I heard. At one time the Blessed One was dwelling in Rājgṛha at Vulture Peak mountain, together with a great community of monks and a great community of bodhisattvas.

At that time, the Blessed One entered an absorption on categories of phenomena called ‘perception of the profound’. At the same time, noble Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva and great being, beheld the practice of the the profound perfection of wisdom, and saw that the five aggregates are empty of nature. Then, through the Buddha's power, venerable Śāriputra said to noble Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva and great being: “How should a child of noble family who wishes to practise the profound perfection of wisdom train?”

This is what he said, and the noble Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva and great being, replied to venerable Śāriputra as follows: “O Śāriputra, a son of noble family or daughter of noble family who wishes to practise the profound perfection of wisdom should regard things in this way: they should see the five aggregates to be empty of nature. Form is empty; emptiness is form. Emptiness is not other than form; form is not other than emptiness. In the same way, sensation, recognition, conditioning factors, and consciousness are emptiness. Therefore, Śāriputra, all dharmas are emptiness; they are without characteristics; they are unarisen and unceasing; they are not tainted and not untainted; they are not deficient and not complete. Therefore, Śāriputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no recognition, no conditioning factors, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no visible form, no sound, no odour, no taste, no texture and no mental objects; there is no eye element up to no mind element and as far as no mental consciousness element; there is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance up to no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death. Likewise, there is no suffering, no origin, no cessation and no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment. Therefore, Śāriputra, since bodhisattvas have no attainment, they rely on and abide by the perfection of wisdom. Since their minds are unobscured, they have no fear. They completely transcend error and reach the ultimate nirvāṇa. All the buddhas throughout the three times fully awaken to unsurpassed, genuine and complete enlightenment by means of the perfection of wisdom. Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of wisdom—the mantra of great insight, the unsurpassed mantra, the mantra that equals the unequalled, the mantra that pacifies all suffering—is not false and should thus be understood as true. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is proclaimed as follows:

[oṃ] gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhisvāhā.

Śāriputra, a bodhisattva and great being should train in the profound perfection of wisdom in this way.”

Thereupon, the Blessed One arose from that absorption and commended Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva and great being: “Excellent, excellent indeed, O son of noble family, that is how it is. That is just how it is. One should practise the profound perfection of wisdom just as you have taught and then even the tathāgatas will rejoice.”

When the Blessed One had said this, venerable Śāriputra, and noble Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva and great being, together with the whole assembly and the world of gods, human beings, asuras and gandharvas rejoiced and praised the speech of the Blessed One.

Thus concludes the Mahāyāna Sūtra of the Blessed Mother, the Heart of the Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom.

  - Translated from the Tibetan by Adam Pearcy, Lotsawa House

Other English translations avaiable online

Translations from the Chinese language

Translations from the Tibetan language

Origin and early translations

Some scholars suggest that the Heart Sūtra is likely to have been composed in the 1st century CE in Kushan Empire territory, by a Sarvastivadin or ex-Sarvastivadin monk.[12] The earliest record of a copy of the sūtra is a 200-250CE Chinese version attributed to the Yuezhi monk Zhi Qian.[2] It was supposedly translated again by Kumarajiva around 400CE, although John McRae and Jan Nattier have argued that this translation was created by someone else, much later, based on Kumarajiva's Large Sūtra.[13] Zhi Qian's version, if it ever existed, was lost before the time of Xuanzang, who produced his own version in 649CE, which closely matches the one attributed to Kumarajiva.[14] Xuanzang's version is the first record of the title "Heart Sūtra" (心經 xīnjīng) being used for the text,[15] and Fukui Fumimasa has argued that xinjing actually means dharani scripture.[16][17] According to Huili's biography, Xuanzang learned the sutra from an inhabitant of Sichuan, and subsequently chanted it during times of danger in his journey to the West.[18]

However, based on textual patterns in the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Heart Sūtra and the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, scholar Jan Nattier has suggested that the earliest (shortest) version of the Heart Sūtra was probably first composed in China in the Chinese language from a mixture of Indian-derived material and new composition, and that this assemblage was later translated into Sanskrit (or back-translated, in the case of most of the sūtra). She argues that the majority of the text was redacted from the Larger Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom, which had originated with a Sanskrit Indian original, but that the "framing" passages (the introduction and concluding passages) were new compositions in Chinese by a Chinese author, and that the text was intended as a dharani rather than a sūtra.[7][19][20] The Chinese version of the core (i.e. the short version) of the Heart Sūtra matches a passage from the Large Sutra almost exactly, character by character; but the corresponding Sanskrit texts, while agreeing in meaning, differ in virtually every word.[21] Furthermore, Nattier argues that there is no evidence (such as a commentary would be) of a Sanskrit version before the 8th century CE,[22] and she dates the first evidence (in the form of commentaries by Xuanzang's disciples Kuiji and Wonch'uk, and Dunhuang manuscripts) of Chinese versions to the 7th century CE. She considers attributions to earlier dates "extremely problematic". In any case, the corroborating evidence supports a Chinese version at least a century before a Sanskrit version.[23] This theory has gained support amongst some other prominent scholars of Buddhism, but is by no means universally accepted.[24]


The Zhi Qian version is titled Po-jo po-lo-mi shen-chou i chuan[25] or Prajnaparamita Dharani;[26] the Kumarajiva version is titled Mo-ho po-jo po-lo-mi shen-chou i chuan[25] or Maha Prajnaparamita Mahavidya Dharani. Xuanzang's was the first version to use Hrdaya or "Heart" in the title.[27]

Despite the common name Heart Sūtra, the word sūtra is not present in known Sanskrit manuscripts.[9] Xuanzang's was also the first version to call the text a sutra. No extant Sanskrit copies use this word, though it has become standard usage in Chinese and Tibetan, as well as English.[28]

Some citations of Zhi Qian's and Kumarajiva's versions prepend moho (which would be maha in Sanskrit) to the title. Some Tibetan editions add bhagavatī, meaning "Victorious One" or "Conqueror", an epithet of Prajnaparamita as goddess.[29]

In the Tibetan text the title is given first in Sanskrit and then in Tibetan:

  • Sanskrit: Bhagavatīprajñāpāramitāhṛdaya
  • Tibetan: བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་མ་ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པའི་སྙིང་པོWylie: bcom ldan 'das ma shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i snying po
  • English: Bhagavatī Heart of Perfect Wisdom

The text

Various commentators divide this text in different numbers of sections. Briefly, the sutra describes the experience of liberation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, as a result of insight gained while engaged in deep meditation to awaken the faculty of prajña (wisdom). The insight refers to the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas): form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (samskārā), perceptions (saṁjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna).

The specific sequence of concepts listed in lines 12-20 ("...in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, ... no attainment and no non-attainment") is the same sequence used in the Sarvastivadin Samyukta Agama; this sequence differs in the texts of other sects. On this basis, Red Pine has argued that the Heart Sūtra is specifically a response to Sarvastivada teachings that dharmas are real.[30] Lines 12-13 enumerate the five skandhas. Lines 14-15 list the twelve ayatanas or abodes.[31] Line 16 makes a reference to the eighteen dhatus or elements of consciousness, using a conventional shorthand of naming only the first (eye) and last (conceptual consciousness) of the elements.[32] Lines 17-18 assert the emptiness of the Twelve Nidānas, the traditional twelve links of dependent origination.[33] Line 19 refers to the Four Noble Truths.

Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, who was, according to the scriptures and texts of the Sarvastivada and other early Buddhist schools, the promulgator of abhidharma, having been singled out by the Buddha to receive those teachings.[34] Avalokiteśvara famously states that, "Form is empty (Śūnyatā). Emptiness is form." and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty – that is, empty of an independent essence. Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and explains that in emptiness none of these notions apply. This is interpreted according to the concept of smaran as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality – they are not reality itself – and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond our comprehending. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutra to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment. This perfection of wisdom is condensed in the mantra with which the sutra concludes.

It is unusual for Avalokiteśvara to be in the central role in a Prajñāpāramitā text. Early Prajñāpāramitā texts involve Subhuti, who is absent from both versions of the Heart Sūtra, and the Buddha who is only present in the longer version.[35] This could be considered evidence that the text is Chinese in origin.[7]


Jan Nattier points out in her article on the origins of the Heart Sūtra that this mantra in several variations is present in the Chinese Tripiṭaka associated with several different Prajñāpāramitā texts.[7] The version in the Heart Sūtra runs:

  • Sanskrit IAST: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
  • Sanskrit Devanāgarī: गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा
  • Sanskrit IPA: ɡəteː ɡəteː paːɾəɡəteː paːɾəsəŋɡəte boːdʱɪ sʋaːɦaː
  • Chinese: 揭諦揭諦 波羅揭諦 波羅僧揭諦 菩提娑婆訶
  • Korean: 아제아제 바라아제 바라승아제 모지사바하
  • Tibetan: ག༌ཏེ༌ག༌ཏེ༌པཱ༌ར༌ག༌ཏེ༌པཱ༌ར༌སཾ༌ག༌ཏེ༌བོ༌དྷི༌སྭཱ༌ཧཱ།

Chinese exegesis

In the traditions of Chinese Buddhism in the Sinosphere, it is said that the Indian masters who came to China to translate Sanskrit texts never translated mantras into Chinese because they knew this could not be done. They also held that it was impossible to explain the esoteric meanings of the mantras in words.[36] It is said that when a devotee succeeds in realizing singleness of mind (samādhi) by repeating a mantra, then its profound meaning will be clearly revealed to him or her.[36]

Tibetan exegesis

Each Buddhist tradition with an interest in the Heart Sūtra seems to have its own interpretation of the sūtra, and therefore of the mantra. As Alex Wayman commented:

One feature of these commentaries [in Tibetan] on the Heart Sūtra struck me quite forcibly: each commentary seemed so different to the others, and yet they all seemed to show in greater or lesser degree the influence of the Mādhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy.[37]

Donald Lopez goes further to suggest:

The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sutra, because the sutra provides no such explanation and the sadhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra.[38]

Tibetan exegesis of the mantra tends to look back on it from a Tantric point of view. For instance seeing it as representing progressive steps along the five paths of the Bodhisattva, through the two preparatory stages (the path of accumulation and preparation – gate, gate), through the first part of the first bhumi (path of insight – pāragate), through the second part of the first to the tenth bhumi (path of meditation – Pārasamgate), and to the eleventh bhumi (stage of no more learning – bodhi svāhā).

The current Dalai Lama explains the mantra in a discourse on the Heart Sutra both as an instruction for practice and as a device for measuring one's own level of spiritual attainment, and translates it as go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in enlightenment. In the discourse, he gives a similar explanation to the four stages (the four go's) as in the previous paragraph.


See also


  1. Pine 2004, pg. 16
  2. 2.0 2.1 Pine 2004, pg. 18
  3. Nattier 1992, pg. 153
  4. Taisho Tripitaka Vol. T08 No. 251, attributed to Xuanzang.
  5. Conze 1960
  6. Lopez 1988, pg. 5
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Nattier 1992
  8. Pine 2004 pg. 26
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Nattier 1992, pg. 200
  10. http://www.dharmaweb.org/index.php/Tibetan_Version_of_the_Heart_Sutra_(English)
  11. 84000.png Perfection of Wisdom
  12. Pine 2004, pg. 21
  13. Nattier 1992, pp. 184-9
  14. Pine 2004, pg. 22-26
  15. Pine 2004, pg. 8
  16. Fukui 1987
  17. Nattier 1992, pp. 175-6
  18. Nattier 1992, pp. 179-80
  19. Buswell 2003, page 314
  20. Pine 2004, pg. 23
  21. Nattier 1992, pp. 159, 167
  22. Nattier 1992, pg. 173
  23. Nattier 1992, pp. 173-4
  24. Pine 2004, pg. 25
  25. 25.0 25.1 Nattier 1992, pg. 183
  26. Pine 2004, pg. 20
  27. Pine 2004, pg. 36
  28. Pine 2004, pg. 39
  29. Pine 2004, pg. 35
  30. Pine 2004, pg. 9
  31. Pine 2004, pg. 100
  32. Pine 2004, pp. 105-6
  33. Pine 2004, pg. 109
  34. Pine 2004, pp. 11-12, 15
  35. Nattier 1992, pg. 156
  36. 36.0 36.1 Luk 1991 pg. 85
  37. Wayman 1990, p.136
  38. Lopez 1990 p.120.


  • Buswell, Robert E. (ed). Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2003) MacMillan Reference Books. ISBN 0-02-865718-7
  • Conze, Edward. Buddhist Wisdom Books: Containing the "Diamond Sutra" and the "Heart Sutra" (New edition). Thorsons, 1975. ISBN 0-04-294090-7
  • Conze, Edward. Prajnaparamita Literature (2000) Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers ISBN 81-215-0992-0 (originally published 1960 by Mouton & Co.)
  • Fukui Fumimasa 福井 文雅 (1987) (in Japanese). Hannya shingyo no rekishiteki kenkyu 般若心経の歴史的研究. 東京: Shunjusha 春秋社. ISBN 4-393-11128-1
  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr. The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian and Tibetan Commentaries (1988) State Univ of New York Pr. ISBN 0-88706-589-9
  • Luk, Charles. The Secrets of Chinese Meditation (1991) Samuel Weiser. ISBN 978-0877280668
  • Nattier, Jan. 'The Heart Sūtra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?'. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies Vol. 15 (2) 1992. p. 153-223.
  • Pine, Red. The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas (2004) Shoemaker 7 Hoard. ISBN 1-59376-009-4
  • Wayman, Alex. 'Secret of the Heart Sutra.' in Buddhist insight: essays Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990. pp. 307–326. ISBN 81-208-0675-1.

Further reading

External links


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