The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra

Many in our modern Western culture strive for fulfilment in life on various levels, to increase knowledge, pleasure, prestige, power, possessions, or success. As a result, there is always something to do. A seemingly endless stream of activities, addictions and anxieties is the result.

In modern language there is the term FOMO – ‘Fear of Missing Out’. The Heart Sutra, a Buddhist text, seems to be in striking contrast to this phenomenon.

This text is considered one of the most profound and concise lessons in the Buddhist canon and is also known as the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra in Sanskrit, meaning “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom.” The sutra is written as a teaching to a person named Shariputra by the Bodhisattva. The Heart Sutra is part of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, a collection of Buddhist texts that focus on the concept of “emptiness.”

The Heart Sutra represents a core Buddhist text cast in the form of a doctrinal discourse. In its brevity, it brings a world view in light of the philosophy of shunyatâ, “emptiness.” This philosophy can only be understood by throwing overboard one’s thinking and consciousness which appears to us to be essential, but, in fact, is empty of independent being. All essential being is contained in emptiness, which is inconceivable to the ego.

In Buddhism, emptiness means that all things, including the human “self,” are empty and devoid of immanent existence. This philosophy gradually emerged from the original “anatman” teaching of the Buddha, who rejected any “self” because in the thinking of his time, the ego and the atman (the universal self) were often considered to be one and the same. So, what we regard as self is empty; all things lack independent existence. But the essence of the philosophy of Shunyatâ is that emptiness is at the same time seen as an all-pervading field in which enlightenment dwells.

The Heart Sutra states that “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”, which means, among other things, that everything we recognise as solid and substantial is actually a product of our own perceptions and interpretations. The concept of emptiness also implies that all things are interdependent and interconnected, and that there is no separation between the self and the world around us. The Heart Sutra is a concise and powerful summary of this idea. It “shifts” our worldview in a radical way. It removes the ground from under our feet and we find ourselves as if on a mountain where form dies.

Dropping into the void, losing oneself, is in many cases experienced as an overwhelming human experience. It seems as if inner shadows disappear in the process and radiant light streams in, followed by a feeling of unimagined lightness.

The teaching of Buddhism is that attachment is the cause of all suffering. If we can recognise the principle emptiness of all form, then to some extent attachment to manifested things, that is, identification with the form aspect, also disappears, and we are freed to some extent from the illusion of separation. Recognition of emptiness and attachment to things are like two sides of the same coin.

The Heart Sutra also explains the concept of the “five skandhas,” which are five aspects of our being, and which constitute our concept of self: Form, Sensation, Sense Perception, Mind Arousal, and Consciousness. It is expressed in the text that these five skandhas are also empty and devoid of inherent existence, and that our awareness of ourselves, our identity, is ultimately an illusion.

The Heart Sutra can also be understood as a series of koans. Koans are riddles, paradoxes, or stories from the Zen tradition that serve to train the heart and intuition. They are often difficult to interpret and can lead the mind down a blind alley, leading one to rely on intuition as the central transformative force of the heart to find an answer.

There is no “right” interpretation, nor is there a “right” solution. The sentence from the Heart Sutra “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form” does not contain any logical content for our thinking – but it can be decoded energetically. This “un-riddling” then shows itself in a way of spontaneous and inexplicable understanding.

The goal of koans is to empty the mind and create space for intuition. By quieting the conscious mind, the heart can do its work and uncover deeper insights. By overcoming thought patterns and letting go of the normal anchor points of consciousness, we can achieve openness and see the truth, that is, the essence of things.

Similar to the Heart Sutra which emphasises the importance of emptiness and inner silence is the book “The Voice of Silence” by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (HPB). In it she contrasts the teaching of the heart with the teaching of the eye. It states there:

Search for the paths. But, O Lanu,
be pure in heart before you begin your journey.
Before you take your first step, learn to distinguish the real
from the false, the ever elusive from the everlasting.
Learn above all, to separate head knowledge from soul wisdom,
the “eye” from the “teaching of the heart”[1].

This text also emphasises the limitations of the human mind and perception. The teaching of the eye leads us to the limited experiences of the world, limited only to the visible, material universe. The teaching of the heart, however, opens us to the higher truth and spiritual reality that transcends the visible.

True understanding means recognising the causes that lie behind the visible phenomena (English “understand”, i.e. recognise what is “underneath”). Intuitive understanding enables us to listen to the innermost of the inner being and to recognise the divine in it. However, this happens if we can leave aside the perceptual filters we have formed so that an openness, an emptiness, arises.

The Heart Sutra also contains references to the dual structure in the cosmos: “Neither age nor death, nor an end to age and death.” These lines can be interpreted in the sense that earthly man, living in material bondage and separation, cannot free himself from it. For him there is no real end of age and death. Only the inner man, the “Buddha-being” in us, lives in a nirvanic world in which there is no age and no death. This inner man opens up a liberating perspective through a transformative path that initiates true freedom.

These two writings emphasise the need to break free from fixed concepts and ideas and reach a deeper level of wisdom that is beyond all duality. Through the realisation of the emptiness of all phenomena and the practice of non-attachment, we can free ourselves from the illusion of separation and realise the oneness of all life. At the same time, the two texts invite us to elevate the stillness in our own being becoming then a daily life practice. The highest transcendent consciousness can reveal itself if one accepts it.

The Heart of Perfect Wisdom (Heart Sutra) [2]

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, absorbed in deepest wisdom,
realized that the five skandhas are empty
and thus became liberated from suffering and all pain.
Shariputra, form is nothing but emptiness,
and emptiness is nothing but form.
Form is identical with emptiness,
and emptiness is identical with form.
And so it is with sensation, perception,
mental excitation, and consciousness.
Shariputra, all things are empty in truth.
Nothing comes into being, and nothing passes away.
Nothing is impure, and nothing is pure.
Nothing increases, and nothing diminishes.
There is no form, no sensation in emptiness,
perception, mental excitation, and no consciousness.
No eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind.
There is nothing to see, hear, smell, taste,
feel or think.
No ignorance, nor an end to ignorance,
no aging and no death, nor their abolition.
No suffering, no arising,
no passing away and no way of salvation,
no understanding, no attainment, no non-attainment.
Because there is nothing to attain, Bodhisattvas live
Prajnaparamita, and their minds are untroubled and free from fear.
Freed from all confusions, dreams and imaginings and conceptions
All Buddhas of the past, present and future
live Prajnaparamita and thereby achieve
the highest enlightenment.

Therefore, realise that Prajnaparamita is the great mantra,
the radiant mantra, the unsurpassed mantra,
the supreme mantra that stills all suffering.
This is the truth, the truth without error,
so speak out the Prajnaparamita mantra:
Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!


(Gone, gone, gone beyond everything, gone beyond everything altogether, enlightenment, joy!)

[1] Helena Petrovna Blavatsy, The Voice of the Silence, Theosophical University Press Pasadena, California, 1994, p. 41.

[2] Gesche Kelsang Gyatso, Heart of Wisdom, Tharpa Publications London, 1986, p. XVII


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Date: January 9, 2024
Author: René Lukas (Germany)
Photo: a-heart-Olya auf Pixabay CCO

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