The Heart Sutra is chanted every day in Zen monasteries and retreat centers around the world. The actual Sanskrit name for the Heart Sutra is Prajnaparamitahrdaya Sutra, which means "Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom". But the word "heart" in the English name has for me a kind of double meaning. On the one hand, the Heart Sutra contains a highly condensed version of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, or "Perfection of Wisdom" Sutra, a huge corpus of work scholars believe originated in India during the 1st century BC and worked its way throughout Buddhist Asia as the Mahayana expanded into Central Asia, China and Japan. Xuanzang, the Chinese Buddhist monk whose pilgrimage to India I spoke about in the book, carried a copy of the Prajnaparamita back to China with him and had it translated from Sanskirt to Chinese. The Heart Sutra reduces the hundreds of thousands of lines of text in the Prajnaparamita to the heart of the teaching, 280 words in Sanskirt or 260 Chinese characters.
Though not actually part of the translation of the Sanskrit name, the other meaning of heart has to do with the way ancient people in India, China, and Japan viewed the human heart. The heart was thought of to be the seat of emotions and of human nature in general. So the Heart Sutra is a sutra that speaks to the heart, to the origin of what it means to be human. Since Prajnaparamita means "Perfection of Wisdom" in English, the sutra speaks of wisdom, as the highest of the virtues, and how to cultivate it.
Here's a translation that San Fransisco Zen Center used to use, which I actually got from the Brooklyn CUNY web site. This is the translation I'm most familiar with from having chanted it over the years:
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when practicing deeply the Prajnaparamita, perceived that all five skandhas in their own being are empty and was saved from all suffering.
O Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness.
O Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness. They do not appear nor disappear, are not tainted nor pure, do not increase nor decrease.
Therefore in emptiness: no form, no feelings, no perceptions, no 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 object of mind; no realm of eyes...until no realm of mind-consciousness; no ignorance and also no extinction of it...until no old-age and death and also no extinction of it; no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment.
With nothing to attain a bodhisattva depends on Prajnaparamita and the mind is no hindrance. Without any hindrance no fears exist. Far apart from every perverted view one dwells in nirvana. In the three worlds all buddhas depend on Prajnaparamita and attain unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment.
The story here is that Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is meditating, and he perceives emptiness through the perfection of wisdom. He then goes on to instruct Shariputra, the Buddha's chief monk and the one called "First in Wisdom" in the Pali Canon, about the nature of experience. It's a pretty thin story, and there's a bit of 1st century "Yana politics" (Mahayana v.s. Hinayana) embedded in it, but that's really just a setup for what follows.
Therefore, know the Prajnaparamita is the great transcendent mantra, is the great bright mantra, is the utmost mantra, is the supreme mantra which is able to relieve all suffering and is true not false; so proclaim the Prajnaparamita mantra, proclaim the mantra that says:
Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!
The sutra is addressing the nature of human experience directly. The key lines, sort of the heart of the Heart Sutra, are these:
Form does not differ from emptiness;What these lines say is that form and emptiness perfectly interpenetrate. They are different but not separate.
Emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness;
That which is emptiness form.
Perceiving emptiness, even for just a fraction of a second, is nirvana, peace. The middle paragraph describes what the experience of emptiness is like: quite literally, nothing. Perception shuts down for some period of time, cognition, any kind of mind activity are absent. That is the path/fruition experience spoken of in the Abhidhamma, or after the initial path/fruition, just a fruition.
But emptiness isn't just part of some special experience. It exists within every perception, every thought, and not just the fruition experience, though in a fruition it is most visible. That's what the key lines: "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" are about. Every time a perception disappears, it disappears into emptiness. And every time one arrives, it arrives out of emptiness. Emptiness even pervades the perception itself through its origin and cessation. Emptiness lies between the in breath and out breath, and at the end of the out breath. That experience of emptiness within sensation leads into the deeper experience of the path/fruit moments within meditation.
The line about bodhisattvas having no attainment, the last line in the fourth paragraph, is how a bodhisattva, basically a Mahayana practitioner, treats the experience of emptiness in their behavior. The attainment of bodhisattvas is attested to by the people who they interact with. My teacher, Yvonne Rand, used to say that if you wanted to know whether someone was enlightened, you should ask their husband or wife. Or if they aren't married, then the people they live with.
The next paragraph says that without any attainment, the mind is no hindrance. Why would that be? If you think you've attained something, then your mind has some kind of view about what you are. That view becomes a hindrance. In the experience of emptiness there is no attainment, and so the mind has no hindrance. And with no hindrance, there's no fear. You don't have to be afraid that some experience is going to come along and challenge your view of what you are, because there's no "you" there to challenge. So if you carry the "no attainment" mind of emptiness into form, you don't have to be afraid.
The sentence about being far apart from perverted views nails this down in no uncertain terms. Many more recent translations use a softer word than "perverted". For example, Thich Nhat Hahn uses "wrong perceptions". The newer San Francisco Zen Center translation uses "inverted views" . All these softer words miss this: every view is, in a sense, perverting in the sense that it is limiting. What the Heart Sutra is getting at, I think, is that if we think of ourselves in a limiting manner, we draw a circle around our current experience and say "this is what *I* am". We thus exclude what's outside our current experience as being unacceptable. This process is the process of defining the self, making it into a thing that doesn't change or that we don't want to change or that we think we can force to change in a particular direction rather than a process that is fluid and can often go in surprising directions.
Finally, there's that last line, that funny Sanskirt phrase, a mantra which most translations leave untranslated. Scholars debate about what it means, but the most common translation (attributed to Edward Conze) is:
Gone,This was supposed to be what the early Mahanyana practitioners said upon experiencing emptiness for the first time.
gone fully beyond.
So be it!
Next time you're meditating, try looking for emptiness in your perception. If you're doing vipassana, look for emptiness at the end of a sensation. If you're doing anapanasati (breath meditation), look for it at the end of the out breath. After a while, you'll get better and better at seeing it, and you might find it becomes your object of meditation, the object which is no object. And then you'll have found peace.
Updated 08/29/2016: Fixed broken link to image.
Image Source: http://unbornmind.com/myblog/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/heart-sutra-wordle1.gif