Heart Sutra

Contemporary Lessons On The Heart Sutra
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor

The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra is regarded as one of the essential instruments in Buddhist teaching. ‘Prajna’ means wisdom or reality that is experienced. ‘Paramita’ means perfecting, or virtues cultivated by a bodhisattvas. So you can say that ‘Prajnaparamita’ is the intentional action of someone seeking to expand their state of body-mind wisdom through personal validated experience. We often say that our greatest wisdom is obtained through personal experiential verification; a very pragmatic approach toward awakening. This sutra is often chanted in many Soto Zen and Ch’an meditation hall and temple services. Monks use it on a regular basis both when in group and their private ritual practice. Ven. Wayne uses it every day in his private monastic service. The sutra dates to the beginning of the first century, and has been studied and commented on for over 2000 years, beginning in China, and then India, Korea, Japan, Tibet and other Mahayana Buddhist countries. And now in the contemporary West. I say it began in China because scholarship now points to it being written in Chinese first, then translated into Sanskrit. The Heart Sutra is a member of the Perfection of Wisdom group of Buddhist Cannon, and contains both a lesson and a mantra.

The Heart Sutra is one of a few who’s words did not come from the Buddha. It is attributed to a bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara in the Mahayana tradition. In some Chinese texts the bodhisattva is referred to as Guanyin, and is depicted in Buddhist iconography as either male or female. In Tibetan Buddhism Avalokitesvara is said to be incarnated in the Dalai Lama.

In my monastic order when we chant the Heart Sutra we skip the introductory phrase, therefore today I will use this chanted version to teach the principles inherent in this pillar of the Buddhist cannon.

The sutra begins:
“Avallokitesvara, Bodhisattva of compassion, observing deeply the refinement of wisdom, prajna paramita, clearly saw the emptiness of personality, thus enduring adversity and pain. O Sariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; from is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form, the same is true of feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.”

A bodhisattva that has obtained an advanced body-mind state of understanding has come to express their Universal expression by acts of compassion. They have developed refined understanding of the progressive stages as expressed in the Four Ennobling Truths and have passed through the mental barriers that the ego-mind has erected that keeps us in a state of unsatisfactoriness or Dukka (suffering). Emptiness of personality refers here to the not-self & impermanent nature of our human existence.

Almost immediately the sutra introduces the terms ‘form and emptiness’ to express the notion of how we can relate to the substance versus absence of essence of phenomena. I often use what I call the wave-analogy(1) to express this difference. Form is like the wave and emptiness is like the water. The water, or ocean, can represent the nature of the Universe and the wave represents the momentary appearance of a specific event like a person, place, or thing, and then it disappears back to it’s original state – the ocean in this example. While the wave may appear to be separate and distinct from each other, it is an illusion. The essence of water is the same in each wave at all times. So form is emptiness, emptiness is form, is like saying “wave is water, water is wave.” Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with our own feelings, our thoughts and the way we form our conscious and unconscious perceptions. Because one exists, everything exists. The notion of existence and non-existence are just created by our minds. We know that modern science has perceived the truth that not only matter and energy are one, but matter and space are also one. Not only matter and space are one, but matter, space, and mind are one, because mind is in it. They are all expressions of the Universe.

Because form is empty of a unique selfness, form is possible. In form we find everything else, our feelings, thoughts and consciousness. So emptiness means empty of a separate self. It is full of everything, full of life. Like the water-wave is full of ocean. So in Buddhism, when we say emptiness, we mean the ground of everything. It is reference to the elementary elements of the Universe. Thanks to emptiness, everything is possible. Form does not have a separate existence. Avalokita wants us to understand this point.

The next phrase:
“O, Sariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness, not born, not destroyed;”

Dharmas, here, mean things. A human being is a dharma. A tree is a dharma. A cloud is a dharma. The sunshine is a dharma. So when we say, “All dharmas are marked with emptiness,” we are saying, everything has emptiness as its own nature, not a unique self nature. When the Buddha said not-self, he was pointing to a Universal self nature, not a dual nature. Thus empty of something other than Universal-ness. And that is why everything can be. It means nothing can be born, nothing can die. Advolokita has said something extremely profound here. He has realized the deep experience that was also awakened in the Buddha.

Every day in our lives we have an opportunity to encounter birth or death. Either experienced personally by us, or though other social networks. Each of us has a birth certificate. When we die there will be a death certificate created recording our passing. But Avalokita is saying, “No, there is no birth and death.” At least when we apply the Buddhist principles we are beginning to awaken to this. We are given a chance to look deeply into this notion of no birth no death to see whether his statement is true. Avalokita is asking us to use our own experiences to validate the core of this Buddhist teaching.

We each have a birth date. Before that date, did you already exist? Were you already there before you were born? Let me help you here. To be born means from nothing we became something. My question is, before you were born, were you already there? Suppose a hen is about to lay an egg. Before it “gives birth” to this egg, do you think the egg is already there? Yes, of course. It is inside. You also were inside before you were outside. That means that before you were born, you already existed, inside your mother. The fact is that if something is already there, it does not need to be born. To be born means from nothing you become something. If you are already something, what is the use of being born? Our birth is only the next causal act in a long chain of the Universe expressing itself.

So, your so-called birthday is really your Continuation Day.(2)  The next time you celebrate, you can say, “Happy Continuation day?” All kidding aside, the question is still up in the air. Before a conception date and physical birth did you exist or not? If you say, “yes”, I think you are correct. Before your conception, you were there already, maybe half in your father, half in your mother. Because from nothing, we can never become something. Consider a cloud for example. Do you think that a cloud can be born out of nothing? Before becoming a cloud, it was water, maybe flowing as a river. It was not nothing. Our experience and educated knowledge informs us of this fact, or dharma. The potential Universal elements are always available for use as the building blocks for all phenomena. This is one of the basic tenants of the Buddhist principle of Dependent Origination. After deep consideration, we can not conceive the birth of anything. There is only continuation. Or what you often hear us say as another expression of the Universe. All the elements and pre-causal actions that proceeded my coming on this stage of life, have always been there. And what is so fascinating, is that some of those pre-me elements were also other expressions of our Universe at other times and moments, and who knows what they will become after I release them upon my passing on. Perhaps I was once a cloud or even water and a wave. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation. This is the history of life on earth. That is why Avalokia said nothing can be born, and also nothing can be destroyed. Something can never become nothing, and this includes a speck of dust. Even our most competent scientists do not even know what a speck of dust is, and cannot reduce something as small as a speck of dust or an electron to nothingness. One form of energy can only become another form of energy.

Sometimes we have the impression that we understand what a speck of dust is. We even pretend that we understand a human being, a human being who we say is going to return to dust, by the way. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “To say you don’t know is the beginning to knowing.” Once again, I ask you to consider the causal chain of existence. Everything is inter-dependent in this Universal web of ours. In a poetic way we can say that the Universe is our mother. We have a great many stems linking us to our mother earth. Think of it like a stem on a plant. The plant emerges from the ground and begins to form stems all linked to the root system being nourished by other Universal material. There is a stem linking us with the cloud. If there is no cloud, there is no water for us to drink. We are made of at least seventy per cent water, and the stem between the cloud and us is really there. This is also the case with the river, the forest, the logger, and the farmer. There are hundreds of thousands of stems linking us to everything in the cosmos, and as a result we can be here now. Do you see the link between you and me? That is certain. If you do not see it yet, look more deeply and I am sure you will awaken the minds-eye. This is not philosophy. It is real, and you will need to experience this reality in order to see what the Heart Sutra is revealing.

A wave on the ocean has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death if you will. But Avalokitesvara tells us that the wave is empty. The wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self. A wave is a form which has been made possible thanks to the existence of wind and water. If a wave only sees its form, with its beginning and end, it will be afraid of birth and especially death. But if the wave sees that it is water, identifies itself with the water, then it will be emancipated from this false notion of birth and death. Each wave is born and is going to die, but the water is free from birth and death. So you see, there are many lessons we can learn from the cloud, the water, the wave, and the wind. From everything else in the cosmos, too. If you look at anything carefully, deeply enough, you discover the mystery of this interconnectiveness, and once you have seen it you will no longer be subject to fear of not-becoming.

The next phrase:
“not tainted, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing,”

Nothing can change the Universal nature as expressed in things, either for better or worse, or to add or subtract from how it is now. A beautiful rose we have just cut and placed in our vase is immaculate just as it is. It smells good, and appears fresh. It even supports the notion of immaculateness. This is not true with contents in our garbage can. It smells horrible, and it is filled with rotten things. But that is only when you look on the surface. If you look more deeply you will see that in just a few days or weeks, the rose will become part of the garbage. And if we look into the garbage can, we can see that in a few months its contents can be transformed into lovely vegetables, and even a rose. That is if we are good organic gardeners, and maybe having the nature of a bodhisattva. For you see, roses and garbage are inter-related. We can even see this notion being played out in international politics, where each side is pretending to be the rose, and calling the other side garbage. We are not separate. We are inextricable inter-related.

In the Majjhima Nikaya there is a very short passage on how the world has come to be. It is very simple, very easy to understand, and yet very deep. It says, “This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This is like this, because that is like that.” Well, I might suggest that this is Siddhartha’s teaching of Genesis. So let us not be worried about increasing or decreasing. It is like the moon. We see the moon increasing and decreasing, but it is always the moon. We know this because our experience informs us of this reality. The size difference we see when we look up at the night sky is only an illusion as the Universe goes about expressing itself in moon cycles.

The next phrase:
“and so in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no mental formations, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no thought, no realm of sight and so forth until no realm of consciousness, no ignorance, no end to ignorance and so forth until no old age and death, and no end to old age and death, no suffering, no desire, no cessation, no path, no wisdom, no attainment.”

This phrase begins with the confirmation that all human characteristics are all empty without unique selfness. They cannot exist by themselves. Each one has to be inter-dependent with all the others. The next part is a list of the eighteen realms of elements. First we have the six sense organs, then there are the six sense objects, and finally the connection between the first twelve brings about the six body-mind elements. The next part speaks of the interdependent origins, which begin with ignorance and end with old age and death. The meaning in the sutra is that none of these twelve can exist by themselves. They can only rely on the existence of the others in order for it to be a gestalt for the short time they have in human form. The last items of this litany is “no understanding, no attainment.” Understanding means understanding has no separate existence either. Understanding is made of non-understanding elements just as humans are made of non-human elements.

The next phrase:
“And so the bodhisattva relies on the prajna paramita with no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance, therefore no fear, far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana. All past, present, and future Buddha’s rely on the refinement of wisdom and thus attain the cultivated enlightenment.”

When the sutra says “no hindrance in the mind” it is referring to no obstacles. These obstacles of birth and death, defilement, increasing, decreasing, above, below, inside, outside, me, you, the Buddha, are all creations of the ego-mind trying to make sense out of what it has encountered. Once we see with the minds-eye of awakening the nature of our inter-dependent Universe, these obstacles are removed from our thoughts and we overcome fear, liberating ourselves forever from illusion, and realizing a body-mind state of harmony and happiness, or Nirvana. Once the wave realizes that it is only water, that it is nothing but water, it realizes that birth and death cannot do it any harm. It has transcended all kinds of fear, and Nirvana is the state of non-fear. You are liberated, you are no longer subject to your own self-created prison of life and death. You have experienced beyond just intellectualization and reasoning what being an expression of the Universe means. The wave has never been separated from the ocean all along.

The sutra concludes thus:
“ Therefore, know that the prajna paramita is the interdependent mantra, the interconnected mantra, the mantra of world making, the mantra which relieves all suffering, so proclaim the prajna paramita mantra, proclaim the mantra and say: gate! Gate! Para gate! Parasam gate! Bodhi, sva ha Great perfection of wisdom, prajna paramita, Heart Sutra.”

A mantra is something that we utter when our body-mind and our breath are at one in deep concentration. Acting in absolute intent of purpose. When we dwell in this deep concentration, we look into things and see them as clearly as we see an apple that we hold in our hand. Looking deeply into our human condition, we have a chance, like Avalokitesvara did the nature of inter-dependence and inter-connectiveness of all things, and therefore overcame all pain and suffering. It was in this state of deep concentration, of joy, of liberation, that he uttered something important. This is why his utterance is a mantra. What he said was, “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi sva ha.” Gate means gone. Gone from suffering to the liberation of suffering. Gone from forgetfulness to mindfulness. Gone from duality into non-duality. Gate gate means gone, gone. Paragate means gone all the way to the other shore. So this mantra is said in a very strong way – Gone, gone, gone all the way over. Parasamgate, sam means everyone, the Sangha, the entire community of beings. Notice I say here beings, not just sentient beings. Bodhi is the awakened body-mind. When you come to awaken to this Universal reality, you will see it, and this vision will liberate you. And sva ha is a cry of great joy. Almost like “Hallelujah!”

That is what the bodhisattva is sharing with great compassion. When we listen to this mantra, we should bring ourselves into the state of attention, of concentration, so that we can receive the strength behind the words of Avalokitesvara. We do not recite the Heart Sutra like singing a song, or with our intellect alone. If your meditation practice is strong and awakened, if you internalize the deep meaning beyond just words, and experience the meaning with your whole body-mind, you will realize a state that is quite awakened. If you say the mantra then, with all your being, the mantra will have great meaning and you will be able to have real understanding, and it will be a boat that will get you to the other shore. This text is not just for chanting, or to be put on an altar for veneration, like I have seen in some temples. It is given to us as a tool to work for our liberation, and for the liberation of all beings. This is why it is chanted and studied in all Zen temples and meditation centers in the West and in Asia. This is the gift of Avalokita.

There are three kinds of gifts I would like to point out today. The first is the gift of material objects. The second is the gift of knowledge and skill, the gift of dharma, for example. The third, the highest kind of gift, is the gift of liberation from delusion. In meditation we do not struggle for the kind of awakening that will happen five or ten years from now. We practice so that each moment of our life becomes an awakened life. And thus, when we meditate, we sit for quieting the mind; we do not sit for something else. We do not sit to obtain something we do not have. We sit to realize an empty mind. And when we have experienced that, our life will thrive on that knowing. Our heart will be full of empty awareness.

If you want to add spice to your meditation session, I strongly recommend that you recite or chant the Heart Sutra in the beginning. At the end of your meditation period, I also recommend you recite a statement giving merit.



1 – water/wave analogy attributed to Master Thich Nhat Hanh

2 – “Continuation Day” phrase attributed to Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s