The Heart Sutra (also know as the Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra or Essence of Wisdom Sutra) is a well-known Mahāyāna Buddhist scripture that is very popular among Buddhists both for its brevity and depth of meaning. As the definitive example of prajna paramita (Perfection of Wisdom) literature, the Heart Sutra represents one of the highlights of the Mahāyāna corpus by stating that all things are, at heart, radically empty (Śūnyatā). This epistemologically-nullifying realization is seen as the epitome of the “perfection of wisdom” in Mahāyāna philosophy. Such a realization can be seen as representing one type of deep spiritual awareness.
The Heart Sutra is a member of the Prajñāpāramitā class of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, and along with the Diamond Sutra, is considered to be the primary representative of the genre. It consists of just 14 shlokas (verses) in Sanskrit, or 260 Chinese characters in the most prevalent Chinese version, Taisho Tripitaka Vol. T08 No. 251, translated by Xuan Zang. This makes it the most highly abbreviated version of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, which exist in various lengths of up to 100,000 slokas. This sutra is classified by Edward Conze as belonging to the third period in the development of the Perfection of Wisdom canon, although it is included in the tantra section of at least some editions of the Kangyur.
The study of the Heart Sutra is particularly emphasized in the practice of East Asian Buddhism. Its Chinese version is frequently chanted (in the local pronunciation) by the Zen (Chan/Seon/Thiền) sects during ceremonies in Japan, China, 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.
A striking feature of the sutra is the fact that its teaching is not actually delivered by the Buddha, which places it in a relatively small class of those sutras not directly spoken by the Buddha. In some Chinese versions of the text, the Buddha confirms and praises the words of Avalokiteśvara, although this is not included in either the extant Sanskrit version nor the preeminent Chinese version translated by Xuan Zang.
The sutra introduces the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, who represents the faculty of prajña (wisdom). His analysis of phenomena is that there is nothing which lies outside the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas)—form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (samskārā), perceptions (saṁjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna).
Avalokiteśvara then addresses Śariputra, who in this text—as with many other Mahāyāna texts—is a representative of the Early Buddhist schools, described in many other sutras as being the Buddha's foremost disciple in wisdom. Avalokiteśvara famously states that, "form is emptiness (Śūnyatā) and emptiness is form" and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty—that is, without 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 "labels" apply. This is traditionally interpreted as saying that Buddhist 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 dualistic description. Thus, the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutras 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.
The following mantra, chanted throughout the Mahāyāna Buddhist world, appears in the Heart Sutra:
|गते गते||Gate gate||[gəteː gəteː]||Gone, gone|
|पारगते||Pāragate||[pɑːɾə gəteː]||Gone beyond|
|पारसंगते||Pārasamgate||[pɑːɾəsəm gəteː]||Gone completely beyond|
|बोधि स्वाहा||Bodhi svāhā||[boːdɦɪ sʋɑːhɑː]||Praise to awakening.|
The text itself describes the mantra as "Mahāmantro, mahā-vidyā mantro, ‘nuttara mantro samasama-mantrah," which Conze translates as "The great mantra, the mantra of great knowledge, the utmost mantra, the unequaled mantra, the allayer of all suffering." These words are also used of the Buddha, and so the text seems to be equating the mantra with the Buddha. Although the translation is acceptable, the case ending in Sanskrit mantra is the feminine vocative, so gate is addressed to a feminine person/figure. A more accurate translation is "Oh she who is gone!" In this respect, the mantra appears to be keeping with the common tantric practice (a practice supported by the texts themselves) of anthropomorphizing the Perfection of Wisdom as the "Mother of Buddhas."
One can also interpret the mantra as the 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 bhumi (path of insight—Pāragate), through the second to seventh bhumi (path of meditation—Pārasamgate), and through the eight to tenth bhumi (stage of no more learning—Bodhi svāhā).
The current Dalai Lama explains the mantra 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."
American composer Lou Harrison set Esperanto language texts translated from the Heart Sutra to music in his 1973 cantata La Koro Sutro.
The Band Akron/Family set the English version to music, entitled "Gone Beyond," on their album, Meek Warrior.
All links retrieved December 12, 2017.
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