The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is one of the key scriptures in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Especially, its short version has been one of the most commonly recited sutras.

Its Chinese version is well-known as translated by Xuanzang (玄奘三蔵 602 – 664) from the original Sanskrit manuscripts. His translation consists of 262 Chinese characters. Many Buddhists have memorized them. And they often recite them for various occasions, like Christians do so with the Lord’s Prayer.

They believe it is the essence of the Mahāyāna Buddhism teachings, focusing on emptiness and nothingness, as well as the compassion of the noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva (観世音菩薩 or 観自在菩薩)

般若心経 262 Chinese characters

In Sanskrit, प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदय. In Chinese 般若波羅蜜多心経 or in short, 般若心経. In English, the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom or well-known as the Heart Sutra.

The English version is as follows. Let’s see it per section.

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita, looked upon the Five Skandhas and seeing they were empty of self-existence, said, Here, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness; whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form. The same holds for sensation and perception, memory and consciousness.

The Heart Sutra

Shariputra is the Buddha’s chief disciple. The Heart Sutra uses the style that the noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is talking to him. The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is a manifestation symbolizing compassion that the awakened one intentionally remained as Bodhisattva (unawakened) to stay with those people who suffer.

This compassionate Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is telling Shariputra that everything in this universe is empty; all that which we see is empty; even seeing such emptiness as unsayable is empty. In Chinese, these lines are well-known as follows:

色即是空 (Form is emptiness)

空即是色 (Emptiness is form)


After stating emptiness, the noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva talks about nothingness.

Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness not birth or destruction, purity or defilement, completeness or deficiency.

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind; no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling and no thought; no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness; no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death, and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death; no suffering, no source, no relief, no path; no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.

The Heart Sutra

Beyond everything in this universe and beyond all comprehensions, what we could scarcely say is emptiness alone; however, even saying emptiness is empty. As such it could be an illusion. Nothing is real, including our thought that we could be awakened and enlightened.

Even the teachings of the Buddha like the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Paths could be illusory and nothing. If we believe we have to deny ourselves to reach the total cessation of the self and enlightenment, then such belief or thought itself would become another attachment. It should be absolute nothingness. But again, even the thought of such absolute nothingness is illusory and nothing.

Here, true compassion (the noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva) could emerge as we no longer care about what we want to see; who we want to become; where we want to achieve. We can stay in this world with those people who suffer.

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment, bodhisattavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita and live without walls of the mind. Without walls of the mind and thus without fears, they see through delusions and finally nirvana.
All buddhas past, present and future also take refuge in Prajnaparamita and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.

You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita, the mantra of great magic, the unexcelled mantra, the mantra equal to the unequalled, which heals all suffering and is true, not false, the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus: ‘Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.’”

The Heart Sutra

Knowing both emptiness and nothingness, and understanding these illusory universes and ourselves, all sufferings would disappear. Nevertheless, we intentionally stay in this world and universe.

We suffer. But this suffering is compassion, like the Death of the Crucifixion.

The Heart Sutra teaches us the truth about emptiness, nothingness, and the noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva’s compassion, using 262 Chinese characters only, which reminds us of the love of agape.

Image by pixel2013 and Benjamin Balazs

5 thoughts on “The Heart Sutra

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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