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Sutra Book: The Great Heart Sutra – Spoken


In the Great Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara makes the case to Shariputra for crossing beyond suffering into the emptiness at the heart of the universe. 

The Great Heart Sutra

(Sutra text follows the introduction word below, with words that may be spoken or sung.)

About the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra was probably written in the first century CE in the area surrounding the Hindu Kush, in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northern India. The word “heart” refers to its place at the core of Buddhist teachings. The word “sutra” has come to designate scripture or discourse, a wise saying, a teaching of the Buddha, or an interpretation of those teachings. 

Prajnaparamita is a compound Sanskrit word. The first half, prajna, is made of two words, “pra,” which means “before,” and “jna,” which means “to know.”  It is often translated as “wisdom.” Paramita is a word that distinguishes this kind of wisdom as the highest form: transcendent wisdom, the wisdom that leads to enlightenment. Various translations include, “perfection,” “that which has gone beyond,” and “that which leads us to the other shore.” Prajnaparamita is also the name of the bodhisattva (enlightened being) who embodies this wisdom. 

Avalokiteshvara is a name that means “one who looks down,” also translated by the Chinese as “one who looks down on the cries of the world.” This bodhisattva is said to have been able to appear in both male and female forms and in later generations became Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. In this sutra, Avalokiteshvara is perhaps to be seen as an incarnation of Maya, the Buddha’s mother, descended from her celestial home.

Shariputra is known as one the wisest of the Buddha’s disciples, and the sutra is set up as one side of an argument. Avalokiteshvara makes the case to Shariputra for crossing beyond suffering into the emptiness at the heart of the universe. 

Avalokiteshvara, sitting in deep meditation, has seen through to the emptiness that is the nature of all things. Her explanation starts with the emptiness of the five skandhas (the ways we experience reality,) and goes through all categories of phenomena that seem to exist separately from one another. In the end, she presents a mantra, or incantation, as a practice of this transcendent wisdom.

Many thanks to Red Pine, author of The Heart Sutra: Translation and Commentary (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004), one of the best sources of insight and information about the Heart Sutra.

The Great Heart Sutra

(chanted, spoken, or sung)

The noble Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara,

while practicing deep Prajnaparamita, 

observed the five ways of knowing the world

and saw they had no existence in themselves.

She said, “Here, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form;

form is exactly emptiness, emptiness is exactly form;

whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form. 

The same is true for feeling, perception, memory and consciousness.

Here, Shariputra, all ways of being are defined by emptiness, not by birth or destruction, purity or contamination,

completeness or deficiency.

So, Shariputra, in emptiness there’s no form, no feeling, 

no perception, no memory,  no consciousness;

no eye, no ear, no nose, 

no tongue, no body, and no mind;

no shape, no sound, no smell, 

no taste, no touch, and no thought; 

no eye nor mind, nor any other means of perception,

no ignorance nor old age and death, nor any causal link,

and also no end of causal links, 

no suffering, no source of suffering, no relief from suffering, and no way out of suffering, 

no wisdom, no gaining wisdom, no failing to gain wisdom.

So, Shariputra, without gaining anything,

bodhisattvas find refuge in Prajnaparamita,

living without walls in the mind, and so without fears,

seeing through delusions and finally seeing through nirvana.

All buddhas of the past, present, and future also take refuge in Prajnaparamita,

realizing unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.

Here, then, is the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,

the mantra of great magic,

the unexcelled mantra,

the mantra equal to the unequalled,

which heals all suffering

and isn’t false but true.

The mantra in Prajnaparamita

is spoken like this:

Gone, gone, into the gone beyond, completely into the gone beyond, awakening, at last!

Gate gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!