What Does Heart Sutra Really Convey?
Prajñā Paramita Heart Sutra
Translated by Master Xuanzang
Bodhisattvas who comprehend independent existence dwell in profound prajna paramita, perceive the five aggregates as emptiness, and are liberated from all sufferings and calamities.
Sariputra! Form is not different from emptiness. Emptiness is not different from form. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. The same is true for sensation, perception, formation, and consciousness.
Sariputra! Characteristics of emptiness of all dharmas are neither arising nor ceasing, defiled nor immaculate, increasing nor decreasing. Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, sensation, perception, formation, or consciousness. There is no faculty of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mental consciousness. There is no form, sound, odor, taste, touch, or mental object. There is no function of eye consciousness, even up to and including no function of mental consciousness. There is no ignorance or the elimination of ignorance, even up to and including no aging, death or elimination of aging and death. There is no suffering, accumulation, cessation, or path. There is no wisdom or attainment. Since there is no attainment, bodhisattvas rely on prajna paramita, and the mind is free from worries and obstructions. With no worries or obstructions, there is no fear. Distancing from perverse and confused views and delusions, bodhisattvas attain ultimate nirvana.
Relying on prajna paramita, all Buddhas of the past, present, and future attain Anuttarā Samyaksaṃbodhi.
Hence, one knows that prajna paramita is the mighty transcendent mantra, the great illuminating mantra, the unsurpassed mantra, and the peerless mantra. It can allay all sufferings. It truly exists and is not illusory. For these reasons, the prajna paramita mantra is delivered as: ‘Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā!’
The full title of the Heart Sutra is the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra (Prajñā Pāramitā Hṛdaya Sūtra). There are only two hundred and sixty characters in the Chinese version. It is a household legendary sutra well known throughout the (Chinese) community. It contains the essence of the Prajna Paramita Sutra series. It is also one of the most misunderstood and misinterpreted sutras.
When we read a book, we pay special attention to its theme because the content revolves around the exposition of this theme and seldom deviates from this core. Applying the same principle, the focal point of the theme of the Heart Sutra or the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra is the mind (literally heart in Chinese translation). Sutras, on the other hand, denote a common noun. It refers to scriptures that connect all the teachings of the Buddha in a thorough and coherent manner.
What does the word “heart” really refers to in the Heart Sutra? Most people will naturally exclude the anatomical heart of the human body. The term “heart” in the sutra primarily refers to mental functions of the mind or consciousness that are not physical in nature.
The nonmaterial mental functions of the mind can be categorized to include the true and deluded mind. The True Mind refers to the mind of ultimate reality. The deluded mind refers to the arising and ceasing mind in the phenomenal world. The True Mind inherently exist since beginningless time, neither arising nor ceasing, neither defiled nor immaculate, and neither increasing nor decreasing. The deluded mind, on the other hand, arises and ceases, is defiled and not pure, and tends to increase and decrease.
All sentient beings possess both the true and deluded mind inherently. The two minds operate concurrently and at every instance. Due to the degree of purity, the “mind” can be roughly classified as the mind of sentient beings, bodhisattvas, and the Buddha.
The mind of sentient beings: most sentient beings are only aware of their deluded minds but not the presence of the coexisting True Minds. They live their daily lives in the domain of the deluded mind and cannot attain liberation.
The mind of bodhisattvas: even though they have realized the True Mind, defiled seeds still remain. Hence, the mind of bodhisattvas is neither true nor deluded.
The mind of the Buddha is complete and perfectly pure. It will not undergo anymore changes. It is tantamount to permanence, bliss, self, and purity.
The content of the Heart Sutra includes all of the minds of sentient beings, bodhisattvas, as well as the Buddha.
The vast majority of the elaborations to date, treat the connotation of the Heart Sutra as being about all dharmas are dependent arising without any intrinsic nature. Since it is stated in the Heart Sutra that “there is no faculty of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mental consciousness. There is no form, sound, odor, taste, touch, or mental object. There is no function of the eye consciousness, up to and including no function of the mental consciousness. There is no ignorance or the elimination of ignorance, even up to and including no aging, death or elimination of aging and death. There is no suffering, accumulation, cessation, or path. There is no wisdom or attainment.” It appears that the Heart Sutra negates all dharma literally at first glance. Many people then conclude arbitrarily that the content conveys the notion that all phenomena arise and cease dependent upon conditions. All phenomena eventually vanish into total nothingness, devoid of anything and become empty nothingness.
Does the Heart Sutra really try to convey the notion about the emptiness of all phenomena? Let us go back to the point we raised before: the theme of a book or an article is what it focuses upon and the contents should revolve around this theme. From this perspective, since the Heart Sutra is aptly named, there must exist a “heart” to deserve such detail exposition to help readers gain a better understanding of this heart. It is important and meaningful only if the Heart Sutra elaborates and interprets from the perspective of a “heart”.
If the Heart Sutra were about “the emptiness of all phenomena,” the sutra would have been named the Emptiness of All Phenomena Sutra, which would then be totally consistent with its theme. From extremely superficial reasoning relying on mere common sense, it is apparent that the content of the Heart Sutra is really about a certain “heart” (or mind) and not about “the emptiness of all phenomena.”
The full title of the Heart Sutra is Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra (Prajñā Pāramitā Hṛdaya Sūtra). “Prajna” is a transliteration of the Sanskrit version which means “bodhi wisdom. “Paramita” is another transliteration of the Sanskrit version which means “having crossed or traversed”. In other words, the Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra literally translates into: the scripture that discusses the “heart” (or mind) that enables us to traverse to the other shore with bodhi wisdom.
The complete six hundred volumes of the Sutra on the Great Perfection of Wisdom (Mahā Prajñā Pāramitā Sūtra) were translated by Bodhisattva Xuanzang during the Tang dynasty. The theme of the entire volume of the sutra focuses on the detail elaboration about bodhi wisdom. Dating back to ancient times, Buddhist practitioners know that the Diamond Sutra is the condensed version of the Sutra on the Great Perfection of Wisdom while the Heart Sutra is the quintessential core of the Diamond Sutra. In other words, the Heart Sutra is the core essence of the Prajna Paramita Sutra series.
Buddha dharma is the dharma of the mind. In accordance with the Laṅkāvatāra Sutra, Chan master Mazu Daoyi said: “The mind is the core essence of Buddha’s words. Being doorless is the Dharma door” To penetrate and gain a true understanding about Buddhadharma, practitioners need to proceed through the realization of this “mind” first. Only until then can they enter the doorless door to see the path toward Mahayana, truly begin the study about Buddhadharma, and continue to progress along the Path toward Buddhahood. One cannot be considered to be truly practicing Buddhadharma prior to realizing this “mind” because one has yet to enter the door towards Mahayana dharma.
In order to realize this “mind”, one will obviously have to understand the content, various characteristics, and functions of this “mind”. One needs to know the criteria for the realization of this mind and how to work towards realizing it. Only until then can one eventually possess the opportunity to realize this mind. We can, therefore, see the significance of the Heart Sutra: it is the unsurpassed priceless treasure that can assist Buddhist practitioners to understand this “mind” and eventually guide them towards realizing the True Mind.
We can see that the Heart Sutra focuses on the description and elaboration of the content about the “mind.” The content and span of this “mind” are extremely vast and profound. If one can attain a correct and thorough understanding of its content, one will then have a chance to realize this mind. A practitioner of Buddhadharma who aims to tread the Path to Buddhahood to eventually become Buddha, should first acquire a thorough understanding of the connotation of the Heart Sutra. The Buddha explains to us clearly in the sutra what this “mind” really is. This allows us to gain a thorough understanding of and assist us to personally realize this “mind”. We can then proceed to truly learn and practice Buddhadharma and eventually fulfill and complete the Path to Buddhahood after three incalculable eons. The Heart Sutra is indeed the precious key to the door of the Path to Buddhahood. All Buddhist practitioners ought to read, contemplate, and explore its contents in detail earnestly and respectfully, and pray for the blessing and guidance from the Buddha and bodhisattvas to enable them to eventually arrive at the stage of vision in Mahayana dharma and begin treading the Path toward Buddhahood.
The Heart Sutra is a sutra well known in regions populated by ethnic Chinese communities. Both monastic and lay bodhisattvas list the Heart Sutra as part of their daily chant during their morning and evening routine. This daily chanting is not just commonly used in their practices but also in many ceremonies. The sutra is not restricted to usage in Buddhism but also in Daoism as well. Elderlies who are immersed in traditional fork-lore also chant the Heart Sutra as part of their daily routine. It is evident that the Heart Sutra is a universally popular sutra amongst both Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists. Why is the Heart Sutra so popular? The main reason is that it is very concise with only two hundred and sixty Chinese characters. One can easily finish chanting the sutra in a relatively short period of time.
Regardless of whether they are literate or illiterate, the general public is able to chant and even recite the Heart Sutra. However, if you ask them: “What is the meaning of the Heart Sutra?” Many people will look dazed because they do not know what is really conveyed in the Heart Sutra. Some monastic dharma masters or even lay Buddhists claim: “The Heart Sutra is all about the notion of “dependent arising without any intrinsic nature” or it is “an empty nature mere name system” (literally the nature of all phenomena is empty and just names only).” They have indeed seriously misunderstood the true content of the Heart Sutra. They are “those who seek the Dharma beyond the True Mind.” What exactly does the Heart Sutra convey then? The full title of the Heart Sutra is The Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya Sūtra). The sutra enables sentient beings to acquire wisdom to reach the opposite bank and allow Buddhist practitioners to accomplish the Three-Vehicle Bodhi— Sound-hearer bodhi, Solitary-realizer bodhi, and Buddha bodhi.
The Sound-hearer bodhi is the Dharma-path toward awakening that sound hearers practice. Sound hearers acquire the teachings of the World Honored One by listening to Him propagate notions about the Four Noble Truths, Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Noble Eightfold Paths, etc. They learn to observe and contemplate that the five aggregates, six entrances, twelve sense-fields, and eighteen elements are all illusory. Henceforth, upon eliminating the three fetters—self-view, skepticism about true reality, as well as misconceptions about the precepts—they acquire the first fruition of a sound-hearer and become a stream-enterer. Sound-hearers can also eliminate the five higher fetters—desire in the form realm as well as the formless realm, restlessness, arrogance, and ignorance—and become arhats with the attainment of the fourth fruition. Upon their passing away, they are willing to eliminate all of their own aggregates, sense-fields, and elements, allow the self to disappear and enter remainderless nirvana and never again appear in the three realms.
The Solitary-realizer bodhi is the Dharma-path toward awakening that solitary-realizers practice. Solitary-realizers observe and contemplate the Ten as well as the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising and ascertain that there is a “consciousness” that gives rise to the dharma of birth, aging, illness, death, suffering and even name and form. No other dharma can surpass it. Buddha said in the sutras: “The source of dependent arising ends with this consciousness, and it does not go beyond this consciousness.” This “consciousness” is the True Mind that every sentient being individually possesses. Solitary-realizers observe that all phenomena of the aggregates, sense-fields, and elements are illusory and only this “consciousness” is real. They know that entering remainderless nirvana does not connote nihilistic emptiness since this “consciousness” still remains. Hence, they will eliminate the three fetters to attain the first fruition of a stream-enterer or even eliminate the five higher fetters to become arhats and attain the fourth fruition and enter remainderless nirvana at the time of death, stay in an extremely tranquil state, and never ever appear in the three realms again.
The Buddha bodhi is the Dharma-path that bodhisattvas practice in order to become enlightened and attain Buddhahood. All bodhisattvas follow this path and go through the fifty-two stages of practice to achieve Buddhahood. Commencing from the beginning of the stages of the Ten Faith, bodhisattvas bring forth faith in the Buddha’s teachings until they acquire total faith and complete the ten stages of practicing. They then make the transition to the stages of the Ten Abiding and begin to extensively cultivate the external six paramitas of bodhisattvas. At the stage of the Seventh Abiding, they realize the True Mind and begin to extensively practice the internal six paramitas of bodhisattvas. At the stage of the Tenth Abiding, they will manage to see Buddha-nature with the physical eye. They will see that their body, mind, mountains, rivers, and the earth are all illusory, attain the illusory-like comprehension, and complete the stages of the Ten Abiding. They will then make the further transition to the ten stages of Practice, ten stages of Dedication of Merits, and Ten Grounds in sequence to continue their practices. After having completed the stages of all of the Ten Grounds, they will proceed to the stage of Virtual Enlightenment, solely to accumulate virtue in a hundred eons to attain a bodhisattva’s thirty-two majestic physical features and eighty innumerable good marks associated with and unique only to the Buddha. Henceforth, they are willing to abandon their body any time and abandon their lives anywhere in response to the needs of sentient beings. They are always willing to give away whatever they have, let it be internal or external assets.
After having completed the accumulation of the needed virtues in a hundred eons, bodhisattvas will be born into the heavens and observe the causes and conditions of sentient beings. When the causes and conditions mature, they will manifest birth in the human world and complete the eight phases of a Buddha’s life. While sitting on the bodhi seat, they press the ground with one hand and attain awakening to the True Mind under the bodhi tree. The highest grade “wisdom of specific knowledge,” highest grade “wisdom of equality,” and “great perfect mirror wisdom” will then manifest themselves. When they see a bright star in the sky near dawn, they will see Buddha-nature with the physical eye. The “wisdom of accomplishing activities” manifests and they will become Ultimate Buddhas who have perfected the four kinds of wisdom. Commencing from the realization of the True Mind at the stage of the Seventh Abiding, bodhisattvas understand that all dharmas are generated and manifested by this True Mind and no dharma can exist independent of the True Mind. They then cultivate in such a sequential order through three countless eons, and finally realize and attain the non-abiding nirvana that dwells neither in birth and death nor in nirvana.
We can see from the aforementioned explanation, the Heart Sutra actually teaches about the true contents of the True Mind that every sentient being individually possesses. No phenomena of the aggregates, sense-fields, elements as well as the Three-Vehicle Bodhi can exist beyond this mind. It is futile to talk about the Heart Sutra beyond this “mind”. Any discussions about the aggregates, sense-fields, elements, or any dharma that are external to this “mind” are mere frivolous talk.
There are three major aspects of the Heart Sutra. The first is the “mind”. It is the core essence of the Heart Sutra. It is also called “the mind with an emptiness nature.” This mind has existed from the very beginning and will never cease to exist in the future. It is an actual existence. It is unlike what some monastic dharma masters and lay Buddhists advocate: “It is incomprehensible and unrealizable.” They twisted the teachings of the Buddha about the actual existence of the mind with an emptiness nature and turn it into illusory dharma. They will inevitably become non-Buddhist nihilists of whom the Buddha admonishes in many instances.
Secondly, the aggregates, sense-fields, elements as well as various dharmas described in the Heart Sutra possess marks or characteristics of emptiness generated by the mind with an emptiness nature under various conditions. They are all illusory phenomena that constantly arise and cease.
Thirdly, the relationship between the emptiness nature and emptiness characteristics of the mind. The mind with an emptiness nature itself neither arises nor ceases. On the contrary, one can directly experience the impermanent nature of the constant arising and ceasing emptiness characteristics of the aggregates, sense-fields, elements, and all dharmas. These two have very different natures. The former is a dharma that neither arises nor ceases. The latter is a dharma that is in a constant flux of arising and ceasing. Because their natures are completely different, and they are not the same dharma, they are thus referred to as not identical. The emptiness characteristics of the aggregates, sense-fields, elements, and all dharmas are given rise by the mind with an emptiness nature contingent upon conditions, and they are in fact part of the intrinsic nature of the mind with an emptiness nature. It belongs to and is subsumed under the mind with an emptiness nature and does not differ from it. Hence, the two are referred to as being not different. Combining these two being neither identical nor different, they are referred to as neither identical nor different. This is similar to the relationship between the hands and body. A hand is itself a hand per se and likewise a body. They are not identical. However, a hand is part of the body. One cannot say that they are different because the hand is not the body. This relationship between the hand and body is said to be neither identical nor different.
We will now begin our discussion of the text of the Heart Sutra. “Bodhisattvas who comprehend independent existence dwell in profound prajna paramita, perceive the five aggregates as emptiness, and are liberated from all sufferings and calamities.” The meaning of this passage is: “Bodhisattvas who have established correct knowledge and view that ‘the True Mind inherently exists by itself’ proceed to practice deep contemplation. During this process, they will personally realize instantaneously in one corresponding thought and awaken to the True Mind. They will be able to directly comprehend that the True Mind inherently exists by itself. They will also perceive that none of the phenomena of the aggregates, sense-fields, elements, and all other dharmas are real, and all of them are illusory. They will initiate prajna wisdom to reach the opposite bank.” Bodhisattvas who have realized the True Mind and can directly comprehend that this mind inherently and independently exists by itself are referred to as “Bodhisattvas who comprehend independent existence.” Bodhisattvas who directly comprehend the independent existence will be able to observe that none of the phenomena of the aggregates, sense-fields, elements, and all other dharmas exists in the realm of ultimate reality of the True Mind that they have personally realized, and yet this realm of ultimate reality does not hinder the arising, abiding, changing, and ceasing of the aggregates, sense-fields, and elements in the phenomenal world. Since there is not even a single dharma that exists from the perspective of the realm of ultimate reality, there will certainly be no so-called birth and death or various kinds of sufferings and calamities. Therefore, they are liberated from all sufferings and calamities.
Many dharma masters and lay Buddhists interpreted “Bodhisattvas who comprehend independent existence” as Bodhisattva Avalokitêśvara. This is a very serious misunderstanding! The bodhisattvas mentioned in the Heart Sutra refers to those who have met up with true enlightened mentors who will then guide and help them establish a correct set of knowledge and view. Upon recognizing and accepting the teachings of truly enlightened mentors, the bodhisattvas will establish the correct knowledge that “the True Mind inherently exists by itself”. Subsequently, the bodhisattvas will practice deep Chan contemplation to search for the True Mind that does not see, hear, feel, and know but itself has inherently existed independently since beginningless time. When the cause and conditions of virtue, wisdom, and power of meditative concentration mature, they will find their True Minds that have inherently existed by themselves through instantaneous awakening. They will be able to directly observe and comprehend that the True Mind does not actually see, hear, feel or know and does actually exist inherently by itself. Its inherent existence does not depend on whether one observes that it exists or not. It inherently exists by itself, and this existence is permanent, continuous and has never ceased to exist. Bodhisattvas who comprehend independent existence described at the beginning of the Heart Sutra actually refers to bodhisattvas who possess correct knowledge and view to contemplate Chan and realize the True Mind.
The notion of “…dwell in profound prajna paramita” means that bodhisattvas who comprehend independent existence engage in in-depth Chan contemplation to search and realize the True Mind. However, in order to be able to contemplate in-depth, one must be adorned with the conditions of correct knowledge and view, power of meditative concentration, and virtue, etc. Otherwise, one will not be in a position to practice in-depth contemplation or even realize the True Mind and see Buddha-nature. Therefore, not many Chan masters have become enlightened since ancient times. The number is in fact quite small.
“Correct knowledge and view” refers to the guidance afforded by true enlightened mentors to bodhisattvas that the True Mind does not see, hear, feel, and know. One must utilize the conscious mind that can see, hear, feel, and know, to contemplate and search in the direction that distance oneself from seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing. In such a manner, one will find the eighth consciousness mind that never sees, hears, feels or knows in the first place. The mentors will also teach bodhisattvas that the True Mind and the illusory mind work together harmoniously as if there is only one mind. The “power of meditative concentration” described earlier refers to the preliminary concentration skill of access concentration as a minimum, in order to have a profound awakening as well as a deep experience when one personally realizes the inherently existing True Mind. Similarly, the “virtue” refers to the stocks of virtue one accumulates while cultivating in true dharma organizations. After having been completely imbued by the above three factors and upon practicing profound Chan contemplation, one will be able to personally realize the inherently existing True Mind through wisdom from spontaneous awakening when cause and conditions mature. One will then be adorned with prajna wisdom to reach the opposite bank. Bodhisattvas who realize the True Mind through wisdom from spontaneous awakening will be able to ascertain, at the immediate instance when prajna wisdom manifests itself, that the True Mind really does exist by itself and have never performed any acts of seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing from the outset, exactly what the mentors had taught all along. It does not discern or discriminate amongst the six sense objects. It is the illusory mind of the seven evolving consciousnesses self that is defiled and keeps differentiating the six sense objects.
After having awakened to and realized the True Mind and become bodhisattvas who have directly comprehended independent existence, they directly observe and contemplate the following: Firstly, none of the dharmas of the aggregates, sense-fields, and elements exists in the realm of ultimate reality of the True Mind. However, this does not hinder the True Mind from constantly manifesting the various dharmas in the phenomenal realm contingent upon conditions. Bodhisattvas can observe that none of the phenomena has any actual intrinsic nature. This is exactly what the Heart Sutra described as “…the five aggregates as emptiness….” Secondly, there does not exist even one single phenomenon in the realm of ultimate reality of this True Mind. When bodhisattvas realize the True Mind of no attainment and undergo a successful realignment of the mind, they observe that all phenomena are also of no attainment either. Bodhisattvas with direct comprehension of independent existence continue to constantly eliminate afflictions and develop wisdom and virtue under this non-attainment predicament. It may appear that they attained something, yet they actually attained nothing because they already realigned the mind with the true suchness of no attainment. Even though there are various kinds of sufferings and calamities in the phenomenal realm, these bodhisattvas will not be affected because they have already realigned with the True Mind that does not attain anything in the first place. Therefore, they are said to have been “liberated from all sufferings and calamities.” Bodhisattvas who directly comprehend independent existence in fact attained nothing amid the phenomenal world of attainment. If they practice as such, they will eventually be able to accomplish the ultimate fruition of Buddhahood.
In summary, bodhisattvas who directly comprehend independent existence refer to those who have realized the True Mind. Since they dwell upon and practice profound prajna paramita, they will personally realize the True Mind through the wisdom of spontaneous awakening and gain direct comprehension of prajna. Subsequently, they ascertain that the aggregates, sense-fields, elements, and various phenomena are all generated and manifested by the True Mind contingent upon conditions and hence these are all illusory dharmas. They perceive that the five aggregates are all emptiness. Bodhisattvas who directly comprehend independent existence observe and react to all phenomena as if there are no sufferings or calamities at all since they have already aligned their mind with the True Mind’s nature of non-attainment, despite of various kinds of sufferings and calamities manifested in the phenomenal realm. They are, therefore, liberated from all sufferings and calamities.
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