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The Heart Sutra
A New Translation from the Chinese by Hanh Niêm with Commentary
Prajna Paramita Hridaya – Heart of Perfected Wisdom
The Bodhisattva Avelokiteshvara,
Practicing the perfection of wisdom, going deep within,
Was illuminated and perceived that
All five skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence.
Thus being at one with all things,
Experiencing things directly without the intervention of thought,
All suffering and doubt ceased.
Shariputra, the appearance of form is not separate from emptiness,
Emptiness is not separate from the appearance of form,
The appearance of form is one with emptiness,
Emptiness is one with appearance of form.
The same is true for feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness-ego.
Shariputra, all dharmas – all appearance of phenomena – are mutually empty:
There is neither birth nor death,
Neither defilement nor purity,
Neither gain nor loss.
Therefore, within emptiness there is no appearance of form
No feelings, perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness-ego,
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, thought,
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch, or the appearance of phenomena,
Not even the domain of sight
Nor the domain of consciousness-ego.
No ignorance or end of ignorance,
Nor aging and death or end of them,
No creation of suffering or noble path to end suffering.
No wisdom nor its attainment,
There is nothing to attain.
Bodhisattvas, abiding always in perfected wisdom,
Their minds have no fears or obstructions,
Therefore they have no fears or obstructions;
Free of confused illusions,
They reach nirvana.
All Buddhas of past, present, and future time,
Abiding always in perfected wisdom
Come to full enlightenment.
Therefore let all know that perfected wisdom
Is the most spiritual mantra,
The most radiant mantra.
None is higher than it
Nor equal to it,
It is able to relieve all suffering,
It is the essence of truth, not false.
Therefore, say the mantra of perfected wisdom:
For me, the power of this sutra is that it does not describe what it is like to be enlightened, but rather it shows the path, or markers on the path, to enlightenment. Boddhisatvas after all are not yet enlightened beings … the Buddha himself referred to his pre-enlightened state as a Boddhisatva.
There are several sections of the sutra that are especially edifying and became more so for me through my translation work. The first verse states in just a few scant words the essence of Buddhist teaching … that all our perceptions are illusory, without inherent existence, and that when we realize this we are able to be one with all things (having surrendered our ego to our true Buddha nature). All barriers are gone, and we experience and observe things without the intervention of thought. It is this freedom from thought that ends our doubt and suffering.
As a later verse reiterates, when you reach this state “your mind has no fears or obstructions, therefore you have no fears or obstructions. Free of confused illusions, you reach nirvana.” You have freed yourself from the known.
The point is that our lives are ruled by the labels our learned experience places on everything we encounter in life and that when one reaches the stage of ones practice that is the perfection of wisdom, one is free of these labels and their resulting obstructions.
The verses that list examples of this truth are powerful indeed. “There is neither birth nor death.” This seemingly clear statement gives many people pause at first. But the sutra here does not contradict this central fact of life or the Buddha’s teaching … that all things that arise eventually fall … rather it means that our thoughts about birth and death, our perception of those two states, are illusory. And when we realize that the five skandhas are empty of intrinsic existence, those perceptions fall away. The labels, the way we think of birth and death are no more. And so the fear we have of death based on those labels is no more.
The same is true of “neither defilement or purity.” Many people reading the sutra for the first time again just shake their heads in bewilderment. “How can there be no such thing as defilement?”
But here too, the sutra is not saying that the acts that we label as defilement don’t happen … bad things happen to many innocent people … but that the interpretation of these acts as a defilement of the person have no intrinsic nature. One feels defiled only because our culture or learned experience says you are defiled. Whereas if you know that your true Buddha nature is totally unaffected by what has happened, then you are not defiled and the experience of the act does not cause mental suffering.
“Ok,” you may say, “but what about the line that says, ‘No creation of suffering or noble path to end suffering.’ That’s what the Four Noble Truths, the most central of the Buddha’s teachings, is all about. It makes no sense.”
Again, you have to consider the context. The sutra is talking about one who perceives the emptiness of all five skandhas and thus is free of doubt and suffering. Well, if you are at that stage of your practice, then there is no creation of suffering or noble path to end suffering. Suffering for such individuals does not exist.
This is the promise of the Buddhist path, and it is not just available to the enlightened. For most of us the experience of the Buddhist path is incremental. We do not become enlightened in a flash. Indeed, we may never reach full enlightenment, always remaining at some stage just short of it. But as we progress on the path, we experience more and more the freedom from thought that is described in the sutra and the peace that comes with it.
As to how I came to undertake this translation:
Over the years, one of the most compelling chants I recited at temple was the Heart Sutra … The Heart of Perfected Wisdom. If you are not yet familiar with it, it is, with its contemplation on emptiness and the process of spiritual development that leads to enlightenment, a central sutra of the Buddhist Mahayana tradition. It is the essence of the sixth Paramita. Its core truths are the key to freeing ourselves and it is typically chanted on a regular basis.
But after years of chanting the sutra in various translations, I had the feeling as my practice deepened that the translations were inadequate. Some suffered from a use of English that lacked clarity or just seemed wrong. And all seemed to me to be missing something important in the first verse.
In that verse, these versions uniformly stated that when the Bodhisattva Avelokiteshvara perceived that all five skandhas were empty of intrinsic existence his suffering ceased. The causal connection is direct. So, for example, in the lovely translation by Roshi Philip Kapleau:
“saw the emptiness of all five skandhas and
sundered the bonds that create suffering.”
It seemed to me that as a teaching tool, which the sutras are, the concept of the oneness of all things, of experiencing things without the intervention of thought, was missing as a bridge from realizing the emptiness of the skandhas to being free of suffering. I know how presumptuous this must sound, but I felt it in my gut.
Having been a onetime student of language, I knew the problems and misunderstandings that can result depending on how words are translated. After not being able to find a monk who was interested in working on this project with me, I decided to give it a go myself.
I chose to base my translation on the Chinese text and so gathered several Chinese editions of the sutra. In comparing them, I found that they all were identical and so felt safe proceeding with the project. Armed with several Chinese dictionaries I tackled the translation.
As I worked through the first verse, I found what I had thought had to be there. Between the phrase positing the perception of the emptiness of the skandhas and that regarding the cessation of suffering was the phrase “度一", literally "passing through one.” Taking the liberties in translation (and exposition) that are not uncommon in these texts to clarify meaning, I translated this phrase:
“Thus being at one with all things,
Experiencing things directly without the intervention of thought”
This material was excerpted from my book, Scratching the Itch: Getting to the Root of our Suffering. It can also be found in The Self in No Self: Buddhist Heresies and Other Lessons of a Buddhist Life.