The Heart Sutra

Translator's Introduction

Wonderful Prajna! Mother of all buddhas, the supreme guide and teacher of sages and saints. All that is comes from Prajna and returns to Prajna. Sentient beings experience birth and death in the wheel of life, their mind deeply affected by ignorance, bent by the five skandhas, confused and submerged in the ocean of suffering for long kalpas. How regrettable! Prajna is said to be the light in the darkness of a very long night. On the ebb and flow of the ocean of suffering, Prajna is a raft. To a house consumed by a blazing fire, Prajna is the rain. Without Prajna the universe is darkness, without Prajna the human mind is ignorant, without Prajna sentient beings suffer without respite. Cultivation of Prajnaparamita, the perfected virtue of knowing truth by intuitive insight, relieves us from our suffering and helps us to overcome, every kind of calamity. All buddhas of the past, present and future attain Prajna, all sages and saints have cultivated Prajna: Therefore, all of us need to cultivate the practice of Prajna.

The wonderful doctrine of Prajna is true and, therefore, real, perfect in all places, at all times and yet it is inconceivable. If one can understand that voidness is not void since the radiant existence exists within its mystery, then at this moment all is perceived as void. Sages and saints become accomplished by means of Prajna, the ultimate ground all sentient beings share. The uninformed majority fails to understand that all existing is produced by causes and conditions, and the self is a false self without any selfhood. Most grasp form and mistake it for the True Existence, enduring immeasurable suffering in the wheel of life. The practice of truth or reality of Prajna excepted, there is no release from suffering in the three realms, no hope of freedom from worldly worries.

It is said in the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra that “all forms are unreal and illusory, and if they are seen as such, the Tathagata will be perceived” because, originally, the true Void is formless. The sutra says further: “The one who sees me by the form and seeks me by the sound cannot perceive the Tathagata because of deluded views.” It is to be understood as saying that the one who perceives the form (or body) and the sound or voice as the Buddha is grasping merely the form. Missing the true meaning of reality he/she is unable to perceive that all dharmas are voidness. Says the sutra further: “A bodhisattva that (still) clings to the false notion of an ego, a personality, a being and a life, is not a bodhisattva”. Bodhisattvas, same as the buddhas, establish themselves in Emptiness, apprehending their ego, personality, being and life as false views rooted in duality. “The one who hears this pure teaching with a clear and faithful mind can attain the really real, the reality that is formless; those freed from all forms are called buddhas” continues the sutra.

The Prajna Paramita Hrydaya Sutra is the core of the Maha Prajna Paramita in six hundred scrolls. Its teaching is the teaching of supramundane Void as the only true existence, the true Void being mysteriously concealed in the existing. Therefore one might say the substance of this sutra is the characteristic of Void of all dharmas; non-obtaining is the purpose. There is nothing to be obtained from the manifestation of dharmas, all dharmas being void, or empty. Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, coursing deeply in Prajna Paramita comprehended the substance of the Prajna reality: All dharmas, as well as all five skandhas are empty of self, completely free from thought. For this reason the Bodhisattva received the Chinese name “Guan Zi Zai Pu Sa”.

As the substance of all dharmas, Void confirms the true reality of form as non-form. The one who understands that buddha and sentient beings are not different can liberate all sentient beings from disease and calamity, end the cycle of birth and death and attain perfect, complete enlightenment and Nirvana.

The aggregate of form (rupa skandha) stands for all matter as produced by causes and conditions, with no permanent substance and no separate, lasting self. The remaining four skandhas are: Feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousness. They all belong to the Dharma of Mind, which is, likewise, void. But mind cannot find expression without form and form cannot manifest itself without mind. Without form, mind cannot be expressed, without mind, form cannot be made manifest. In other words, apart from form there is no mind, apart from mind there is no form. Although they are inseparable, they are not the same, as stated in the sutra: “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form.” Being neither form nor mind, all dharmas are empty here and now; this is the wonderful Dharma of Reality as Suchness, transcending all.

The uninformed view the perceptible world with all its beings and non-beings as real or true. Some of them know it to be an illusion produced by interaction of matter and mentality, that it is deceptive and impermanent and must return to the Void. That particular interpretation of void has not been especially created by buddhas and bodhisattvas in order to emphasize that all dharmas are rooted in emptiness, because all existence is originally devoid of self-hood and, therefore, empty. It is what they have been practicing for countless kalpas. All those who attain enlightenment attain understanding of the true substance of reality. They perceive that the five skandhas are empty, and thereby overcome all ills and suffering.

Ultimately, mind and form are not different. Likewise, the rest of the existing world has neither birth nor death, is neither pure nor impure, it neither increases nor decreases because it is originally void (of selfhood). In case one perceives birth as coming and death as going, or if one claims that clean is pure and dirty is defiled, holds “full” to be an increase and “less” a decrease, one is not yet empty of skandhas. These views represent obstacles which bind. Not being able to liberate oneself, how can one hope to liberate others? When one has finally reached the understanding that all existence is produced by causes and conditions and, therefore, empty of permanent self, then all reality equals stillness and the absence of diversified form. Then birth and death, pure, impure, increase and decrease all are void. Without defiled thought arising, suffering and calamity vanish. The entire range of artificial or contrived forms is the result of the six organs, six kinds of data and six kinds of consciousness. Reality, in truth, does not comprise any realm. When the five skandhas are empty, there is no diversity of form. Without ignorance there is no ending of ignorance and no ending of old age and death.

Supreme Prajna is stillness without form. When one is neither the resultant person, nor the dependent condition, one’s suffering ends. When delusory thoughts and views are severed it is the end of the cause of suffering. To relinquish the doctrine of unreality is to block the cessation of suffering. Without the three studies there is no path. If there is no subject of wisdom, that is called “Non-wisdom.” Without the object and its domain there is nothing to obtain. True mind is not empty, yet it is Emptiness. Although Bodhi is considered to be an attainment, there is nothing to attain. To perceive the ground of all buddhas is Suchness. There are adornments everywhere and ten-thousand merits manifest themselves. When Dharma-kaya becomes manifest, there is only true Emptiness. Mind established in true Emptiness completely encompasses the universe. There should be no seeking; no “inside” and “outside”. The universe is not attainable that way. As long as there is something to attain, there are obstacles; thought arises and, there is then an object. To have an object means duality, which means the loss of true reality. It cannot be called Prajnaparamita.

The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practiced wonderful wisdom and attained enlightenment completely free of attachment. He entered Emptiness, unobstructed, through the gate of liberation. Since there is nothing but Emptiness, (including the body, the mind and all that exists), a bodhisattva is never moved by eulogy, ridicule, slander or fame. Even war, famine or the bubonic plague are dismissed by him/her as illusions taking hold through karma. Letting go of all that seemingly exists on its own, independently of the mind, sets forth brightness and the one experiencing it will no be intimidated. The Bodhisattva then entered the kind of liberation that is Nirvana. Similarly, the one who has been practicing over a long period of time achieves wonderful calmness which empowers when faced with disturbance. Water cannot submerge him/her nor fire burn. Because he/she attained liberation, he/she is fearless. Seeking Dharma “outside”, in what exists, apparently independent of mind, is proceeding backward, perpetuating a misunderstanding as to what is good and evil, dreaming of gain and holding the cycle of birth and death to be the opposite of Nirvana. It is essential to let go of distinctions such as dreaming versus thinking, right side up, and so on if one wants to enter the gate of liberation through non-action. Only when the name/form is dispatched and there is no mind object, can the original enlightenment become manifest and Nirvana, the perfect liberation in the Dharma-dhatu, obtained.

All the buddhas in the three periods depend on Prajnaparamita for the attainment of Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi. Because of superb causes, they attain the fruit of sainthood. Consequently, we know that Prajnaparamita can dispose of all kinds of demons. Independent of personality and Dharma, free at all times and in all places, the buddhas manifest or remain concealed depending on potential. The great mantra is beyond comprehension of the Saints and the worldly alike. Endowed with a power to sever ignorance, it radiates brilliance and stillness. This great, bright mantra emanates unadulterated wisdom, and its power to transcend the three realms and attain supreme Nirvana is beyond comparison. Illuminating the ten directions, it shines, like the sun, everywhere without discrimination. Such is the unequaled mantra.

The one who can receive and hold this sutra and mantra will liberate all sentient beings from obstacles, release them from suffering and attain complete enlightenment. This is true, and it is real; therefore the Prajnaparamita Mantra says: “Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha.” The great master T’an Hsu commented that “mantra belongs to the esoteric tradition and accordingly, belongs to the five kinds of texts deemed primal, untranslatable, and inconceivable; when they are translated and explained they will became conceivable dharma and their original meaning and merit will be lost.” In short, the primary purpose of the Prajna Paramita mantra is to liberate self and others, traverse the sea of suffering and, attaining complete enlightenment, reach the serenity and joy that is Nirvana.

Venerable Dharma Master Lok To

Young Men’s Buddhist Association of America
Bronx, New York.