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The Heart Sutra

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by Sangharakshita

The Venerable Sangharakshita

Venerable Sirs and friends, as you all know I am sure, at present we're in the midst of the holiday season; and
inasmuch as we are in the midst of the holiday season with so many people going away to different parts of
the country, even different parts of the world, it is perhaps rather surprising that we have so many people here
this morning, in fact staying for the whole day. But nevertheless perhaps, looking at it from another point of
view, it isn't so surprising. Now some of you I do know, and maybe there are others whom I don't know, will
be going away quite shortly to different parts of the continent, even in some cases different parts of Asia. And
when we do this, when we leave these familiar shores, when we see, at least metaphorically, weather
permitting, the white cliffs of Dover fading behind us, we begin to enter a new world, a foreign world,
something strange, something unfamiliar, something unaccustomed, and it's only gradually that we do get
used, we do get accustomed to that new world. Probably all of you have been abroad at some time or other,
and I am sure you will agree with me when I say that it does take quite a little getting used to.
Now the same sort of thing happens when we enter not just a new, a different geographical area, not just a
different portion of the earth's surface, but when we enter or try to enter a whole new world of thought and
of experience. And this is the case for many of us, I know, when we come into contact for the first time with
Buddhism, with the teaching of the Buddha. Quite a number of you I know came into contact with Buddhism
first of all through one or another of our weekly meditation classes. And I am quite sure when you came along
first, the first time you attended one of those classes, there must have been much which seemed strange,
which seemed unfamiliar, or which even seemed rather bizarre, eh? Some of you may recollect that your first
impression was of candles burning on the altar in front of the image, and no doubt you noticed that there was
a strange aroma, a strange perfume which you eventually identified as incense, and you saw no doubt different
people sitting in what must have seemed all sorts of peculiar postures, usually cross-legged upon the floor,
some sitting on little stools, and on occasions you might have seen one or two people sitting with their face
to the wall. And not only that, those who stayed long enough, those who stuck it out as it were, you would
have become aware sometimes of chanting going on in an unfamiliar, in fact an unknown language.
Rhythmical chanting. And eventually you might have discovered that this chanting was of a text in an ancient,
in fact dead, Indian language called Sanskrit. And if you had persisted in your enquiries, if you'd asked about
it, you would eventually have discovered that what was being chanted at the beginning of every meditation
session, in Sanskrit, was something known as THE HEART SUTRA, and you probably would have realised,
from the way in which you were told this, that this Heart Sutra was very important for some reason or other
you weren't quite sure what or why.
So this morning, in the course of this talk, I am going to try and clear up the mystery, at least to some extent.
I can't hope in the course of one hour or so to do more than just lift perhaps a corner of the veil. And this
morning I shall be having very much in mind the needs of those who are comparatively new to Buddhism and
who have not perhaps read the Heart Sutra in translation. At the same time I hope that this talk may be useful
not only to beginners, not only to newcomers, but even to those who already are quite familiar with the work,
at least verbally, who might have read it already quite a number of times. I do know in fact that even some
of those who have read the Heart Sutra, who've heard it chanted perhaps scores of times, who've gone through
the translations, who've puzzled over them, are still not quite sure, not quite clear what the Heart Sutra is all
But before we go any further, let us just read the Heart Sutra. There are two versions in existence in the
original Sanskrit, and I am going to read the shorter of the two, which happens also to be the more popular,
and I am going to use Dr Conze's translation because that is the most literal.
Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the Lovely, the Holy !
Avalokita, the Holy Lord and Bodhisattva was moving in the deep course of the
Wisdom which has gone beyond. He looked down from on high, he beheld but
five heaps, and he saw that in their own-being they were empty.
The Heart Sutra - Page 1
Here, O Sariputra, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness
does not differ from form, nor does form differ from emptiness; whatever is
form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form, the same is true of
feeling, perception, impulses and consciousness.
Here, O Sariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are neither
produced nor stopped, neither defiled nor immaculate, neither deficient nor
Therefore, O Sariputra, where there is emptiness there is neither form, nor
feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; no eye or ear or nose
or tongue or body or mind; no form, nor sound, nor smell, nor taste, nor
touchable nor object of mind; no sight-organ element, and so forth, until we
come to: no mind consciousness element; there is no ignorance, nor extinction
of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to: there is no decay and death, no
extinction of decay and death. There is no suffering, nor origination, nor
stopping, nor path. There is no cognition, no attainment and no
Therefore, O Sariputra, owing to a Bodhisattva's indifference to any kind of
personal attainment, and through his having relied upon the Perfection of
Wisdom, he dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of
thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can
upset, in the end sustained by Nirvana.
All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time fully awake to the
utmost, right and perfect Enlightenment because they have relied upon the
perfection of wisdom.
Therefore one should know the prajnaparamita as the great spell, the spell of
great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequalled spell, allayer of all suffering,
in truth - for what could go wrong? By the prajnaparamita has this spell been
delivered. It runs like this:
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all-hail !
Well, this is the sutra, this is the text, in Conze's translation of the Heart Sutra. Now I have no intention of
giving a word for word commentary, that would be rather difficult and it perhaps wouldn't be of any great
general interest. But I'd like to begin by saying a few words about the title of this work.
1. In Sanskrit the title is Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra. So let's begin at the end and ask first of all, what is
a SUTRA? This is one of the terms that you'll constantly be encountering in your study of Buddhism. So what
is a sutra? A sutra, which in a way is the basic Buddhist text, a sutra is a discourse spoken by the Buddha. If
anything is regarded as canonical, if it's regarded as issuing from the lips of the Buddha himself, it's usually
called a sutra. So a sutra means a text, a canonical text, a scripture embodying the Buddha's own teaching.
Now broadly speaking there are in Buddhist literature two kinds of sutra which are usually known as
Hinayana sutras and Mahayana sutras. Some of the Hinayana sutras are in Pali, others are in Sanskrit, but all
the Mahayana sutras are in Sanskrit. And the Heart Sutra is a Mahayana sutra and it is, as we've already seen,
in Sanskrit.
2. Now secondly, the Heart Sutra is a PRAJNAPARAMITA sutra. Let's see what this means. The Mahayana
sutras themselves are divided into several groups. I'm not going to go into that in detail. But the most
important group, perhaps, is the group of what is known as Prajnaparamita sutras, or Perfection of Wisdom
sutras. And this is a very large group of sutras indeed. There are altogether about thirty-five independent texts
all known as prajnaparamita sutras, and some of these texts are very lengthy indeed. And as their name
suggests, all these texts, all thirty-five of them, deal with prajna or wisdom; or rather, strictly speaking, they
deal with prajnaparamita, sometimes translated as perfect wisdom, sometimes as transcendental wisdom,
and sometimes rather more literally as the 'wisdom that goes beyond'.
Now the question that arises at this point is, admitting or recognising that the prajnaparamita texts deal with
The Heart Sutra - Page 2
wisdom or perfect wisdom, what is wisdom? What do we mean by wisdom? The English word 'wisdom' is
unfortunately rather vague. It can mean 'worldly wisdom', it can mean something more philosophical. Well
the Sanskrit word prajna is more precise. Prajna comes from a root, a Sanskrit root, meaning 'to know'. And
the prefix pra is what we may call an emphatic prefix which ...

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