The Heart Sutra is a popular sutra in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Its Sanskrit title, Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, can be translated as “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom”.
The sutra famously states, “Form is empty” (śūnyatā). It is a condensed exposé on the Buddhist Mahayana teaching of the Two Truths doctrine, which says that ultimately all phenomena are sunyata, empty of an unchanging essence.
This emptiness is a ‘characteristic‘ of all phenomena, and not a transcendent reality, but also “empty” of essence of its own. Specifically, it is a response to Sarvastivada’s teachings that “phenomena” or its constituents are real.
It has been called “the most frequently used and recited text in the entire Mahayana Buddhist tradition.” The text has been translated into English dozens of times from Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan as well as other source languages.
Summary of the sutra
In the sutra, Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, explaining the fundamental emptiness (śūnyatā) of all phenomena, known through and as the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas): form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (saṅkhāra), perceptions (saṃjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna).
Avalokiteśvara famously states, “Form is Emptiness (śūnyatā). Emptiness is Form“, and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty—that is, dependently originated.
Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and explains that in emptiness none of these notions apply.
This is interpreted according to the two truths doctrine as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality—they are not reality itself—and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond mental understanding.
Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahayana Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Sūtra to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment thereby achieving nirvana.
Popularity and stature
The Heart Sutra is “the single most commonly recited, copied and studied scripture in East Asian Buddhism.” It is recited by adherents of Mahayana schools of Buddhism regardless of sectarian affiliation.
While the origin of the sutra is disputed by some modern scholars, it was widely known in Bengal and Bihar during the Pala Empire period (c. 750–1200 CE) in India, where it played a role in Vajrayana Buddhism.
The stature of the Heart Sutra throughout early medieval India can be seen from its title ‘Holy Mother of all Buddhas Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom’ dating from at least the 8th century CE.
The long version of the Heart Sutra is extensively studied by the various Tibetan Buddhist schools, where the Heart Sutra is chanted, but also treated as a tantric text, with a tantric ceremony associated with it.
It is also viewed as one of the daughter sutras of the Prajnaparamita genre in the Vajrayana tradition as passed down from Tibet.
The text has been translated into many languages, and dozens of English translations and commentaries have been published, along with an unknown number of informal versions on the internet.
Dating and origins
Earliest extant versions
The earliest extant dated text of the Heart Sutra is a stone stele dated to 661 CE located at Yunju Temple and is part of the Fangshan Stone Sutra.
It is also the earliest copy of Xuanzang’s 649 CE translation of the Heart Sutra (Taisho 221); made three years before Xuanzang passed away.
A palm-leaf manuscript found at the Hōryū-ji Temple is the earliest undated extant Sanskrit manuscript of the Heart Sutra. It is dated to c. 7th–8th century CE by the Tokyo National Museum where it is currently kept.
Source of the Heart Sutra – Nattier controversy
Jan Nattier (1992) argues, based on her cross-philological study of Chinese and Sanskrit texts of the Heart Sutra, that the Heart Sutra was initially composed in China.
Fukui, Harada, Ishii, and Siu based on their cross-philological study of Chinese and Sanskrit texts of the Heart Sutra and other medieval period Sanskrit Mahayana sutras theorizes that the Heart Sutra could not have been composed in China but was composed in India.
Kuiji and Woncheuk were the two main disciples of Xuanzang. Their 7th-century commentaries are the earliest extant commentaries on the Heart Sutra; both commentaries contradict Nattier’s Chinese origin theory.
Influence on western philosophy
Schopenhauer, in the final words of his main work, compared his doctrine to the Śūnyatā of the Heart Sūtra. In Volume 1, § 71 of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer wrote:
“…to those in whom the will [to continue living] has turned and has denied itself, this very real world of ours, with all its suns and Milky Ways, is — nothing.”
To this, he appended the following note:
“This is also the Prajna–Paramita of the Buddhists, the ‘beyond all knowledge,’ in other words, the point where subject and object no longer exist.”