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The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is the main sutra in Zen Buddhism. It's a very short sutra that contains the essence of the Buddha's teaching in around 300 words. It's a popular sutra in Japan, even among people who aren't particularly interested in Buddhism. Its full name is the “Heart Sutra of Prajna” or the “Heart of Great Real Wisdom Sutra”, because it contains the heart of a much longer sutra called the Great Real Wisdom Sutra.

The theme of the Heart Sutra is something called “prajna”. Prajna is an old Sanskrit word. It's made up of two parts. The first part "pra" means "before", and the second part "jna" means "knowing". So prajna literally means "before knowing". Prajna is often translated as "real wisdom" or "intuition". In a lot of translations it's just left as “prajna”.

Buddhism considers prajna to be more important than intellectual ability or intellectual understanding. It’s possible to improve our intellectual understanding by reading books and accumulating knowledge, but with prajna the situation is a little different – we can’t really develop it by reading books or accumulating knowledge. It’s not even something we can call upon when we need it. Prajna is something that happens all by itself, without us having any control over it at all. It’s completely natural. It’s the universe happening through us.

Buddhists believe that we can develop prajna by practicing the sitting meditation known as zazen. When we practice zazen our mind and body naturally become balanced. When our mind and body are balanced prajna happens very subtly and naturally, without us even noticing. Afterwards, when we look back, we may notice and say “Oh, that was a coincidence” or “that was a bit strange”, but that’s usually as close as we can get. But when that happens many times, we can start to get a picture of what prajna is. We can notice prajna for ourselves. But each time we do, it’s already gone.

Below is a translation I made of the Japanese version of the Heart Sutra, which is called “Hannya Shingyo” in Japan.

The Heart Sutra

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajna paramita, clearly saw that the five skandas are all empty, and was saved from all suffering and distress.

Sariputra, form is no different to emptiness, emptiness no different to form.

That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness, form.

Sensations, perceptions, impressions, and consciousness are also like this.

Sariputra, all things and phenomena are marked by emptiness; they are neither appearing nor disappearing, neither impure nor pure, neither increasing nor decreasing.

Therefore, in emptiness, no forms, no sensations, perceptions, impressions, or consciousness; no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind;

no sights, sounds, odors, tastes, objects of touch, objects of mind; no realm of sight up to no realm of consciousness;

no ignorance and no end of ignorance, up to no aging and death, and no end of aging and death;

no suffering, accumulation, cessation, or path; no wisdom and no attainment.

With nothing to attain, bodhisattvas rely on prajna paramita, and their minds are without hindrance.

They are without hindrance, and thus without fear.

Far apart from all confused dreams, they dwell in nirvana.

All buddhas of the past, present and future rely on prajna paramita, and attain anuttara samyaksambodhi.

Therefore, know that prajna paramita is the great transcendent mantra, the great bright mantra,

the supreme mantra, the unequalled balanced mantra, that can eliminate all suffering, and is real, not false.

So proclaim the prajnaparamita mantra, proclaim the mantra that says:

gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

The Heart Sutra of Prajna.

Translated by Peter Rocca