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The Prajñaparamita Hridaya Sutra

This is my gloss or explanation of the prajñaparamitahridayasutram, perhaps the most important sutra, and the most popular sutra, in the Mahayana traditions in which I have been brought up.

I’m going to put the words (in my translation) into bold text and in an indented block quote. You’ll find links to other translations and sources at the end, but I want you to, for the moment, forget about this as a scholarly exercise. As I’ve said in other translations, while this is a poetic and powerful work, it is meant to convey a very clear and concrete understanding. No mysticism here.

The title

Every sutra has a name. The word “sutra” is a “scripture”, but it’s also a “well spoken piece” and a “thread”.

Hridaya is the “core” or “heart” of something, meaning the central piece around with it is assembled. In Chinese this word is translated xin1 心, which is normally translated as “heart” but is actually a picture not just of the heart, but also of the lungs and the liver. So you might almost translate it as “guts” or “innards.” It is the stuff that goes in the middle and keeps the outside apperarance moving.

Prajña is “wisdom”—as opposed to jñaya, “knowledge”. You can know how to use a gun, but you must be wise to put it to good use.

Paramita then is “perfection”. Thus the title of this is “the well-spoken explanation of the core of the perfection of wisdom”.

The text

When Avalokiteshvara, deeply examining the perfection of wisdom,

Avalokiteshvara, “the one who looks compassionately down on all beings,” considered the perfection of how to become wise, and

saw the five skandhas,

A skandha is a “pile” or a “heap” or a “collection”. (It’s normally translated “aggregate”, which is a bunch of stuff formed into a “collection, mass, or amount”.) The five skandhas here are

  1. The physical forms—for example, a bell.
  2. connection to the form by a physical sense—so, the reception of the sound of the ringing bell by the ear.
  3. the connection of the physical sensation with a mental perception—“you” hear the sound of the “bell”.
  4. the identification of a mental perception—“that must be the lunch bell.”
  5. leading finally to the sense of there being a “you” to “hear the lunch bell” and thus to go to lunch.

This is a deep teaching, and worth some thought. The teaching of the five skandhas is really a model of how “consciousness” arises: the outside world is there, it’s perceived, we turn that perception into a mental perception or sensation, we then identify that sensation with our past experience, and from this arises our sense of being a “continuing self”.

Hey, wow.

saw that they were empty of independent existence,

Think of these skandhas as piles of small particles, like sand or wheat kernels. If you make a pile of sand, and you look closely at the edge of the pile, you see this “thing” that looks separate has fuzzy edges: the individual particles sometimes escape. What’s more, if you take away a few grains, you still have a “pile”. Take some more, and you still do. The pile doesn’t exist in and of itself, it’s just a temporary arrangement.

So Avalokiteshvara, in deep meditation, in deep concentration, in deeply examining the core existence of things saw that all of the five aggregates were empty of independent existence.

This is “emptiness”, Śūnyatā. Not non-existence, but no independent existence: nothing we see exists independently of cause and effect, and there is nothing that we can point to that has some unchanging, unconditioned existence. So when we read the Heart Sutra, the prajñaparamitahridayasutra, we see that when Avalokiteshvara “saw (through) the five skandhas, saw they were empty of independent existence” this is what he/she saw:

  1. look at the forms of things: beloved cats don’t exist independently, and neither do wars and disasters and television shows and iPods and pepper mills,
  2. so nothing that comes of our perceptions of these forms can have unconditioned existence,
  3. which means that nothing that comes to us as part of the mental formations that arise from the perceptions can have unconditioned existence,
  4. which in turn means that when we identify those mental formations and connect them to our history, our language, our history, none of those connections can have unconditioned existence,
  5. which means, finally, that our whole sense of ourselves, our sense of being “who we are”, can have no unconditioned existence.

and thus was freed of suffering.

Simply by perceiving clearly and deeply that at its heart, there was no independent, constant existence to which one could cling, Avelokiteshvara was freed of clinging, and thus freed of duhkha.

Sariputra!

Yo, Sariputra, listen up! (Every sutra traditionally is introduced by a statement explaining where it was given and to whom it was spoken. I left off the intro because it doesn’t usually appear in the Chinese versions I “grew up with.” Sariputra was one of Buddha’s most famous disciples, but in the Mahayana traditions at least, he’s often depicted as being just a little thick. At this point, Avalokiteshvara is explaining the heart of perfect wisdom to Sariputra.)

Form is not different from emptiness. Emptiness is not different from form.

You can’t distinguish an independent existence of the form.

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. So it is with sensation, mental perception, identification of mental perception, and consciousness that arises from that connection.

Avalokiteshvara is going back over the skandhas: form doesn’t exist independently, the sensation doesn’t exist independently, the perception doesn’t exist independently, the identification doesn’t exist independently, and the “you” that comes from these sensations doesn’t exist independently.

Sariputra!

Stop napping, Sariputra, this is important.

Natural law is empty. It neither arises nor ends, it isn’t pure or impure, it doesn’t grow and it doesn’t shrink. So, there is no form; there is no sensation, perception, identification, or consciousness;

We’re at one of those places where explaining and translating a word gets complicated, and the complication is unnecessary. Strictly from Sanskrit, we ought to say “All dharmas are empty.” But “dharma” means “law” and it really is talking about “natural law”, the “way things really are.” Avelokiteshvara is saying here that the dharma is something else entirely: it isn’t a form or conception at all.

there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind;

These are the sense organs that perceive form.

no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, and no mental models;

These are the things that arise as perception from the sense organs.

no connection to vision and so forth, up to no consciousness;

Sariputra isn’t really thick; Avelokiteshvara doesn’t have to go through every possible perception, identification, and event of consciousness. He just leaves that as an exercise.

there is no ignorance, and ending of ignorance, and so forth up to no aging and death, and no end to aging and death.

This is referring to all the various ways we find duhkha: all the things that change, and all the pains we feel from the changing. In a different text, the “Arrow Sutra”, Buddha explains to his listeners that duhkha is like shooting a second arrow into someone who has been struck with an arrow: you feel the first arrow’s pain, and then you start to moan, and complain, and worry that you might die. So you not only feel the pain, you also feel the suffering caused by your thoughts following the pain. Here, Avelokiteshvara is saying “fundamentally, none of the things that lead to duhkha exist anyway.”

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no end of suffering, and no path to the end of suffering.

So much for the Four Great Truths.

There is no wisdom and no attainment. There is nothing to be attained.

And that Gautama guy.

By way of the perfection of wisdom (prajñaparamita), the bodhisattva’s mind is freed of clinging. With no clinging, there is no fear; freed from distortion and delusion, ultimate liberation is manifest.

“Ultimate liberation” here is nirvana, and I’m avoiding saying “reached” or “achieved” because these imply there is something there and somewhere to go. Nirvana isn’t “achieved”, it simply becomes manifest; the natural state is once again obvious, because we’re not concentrating on the illusory skandhas.

By way of the perfection of wisdom, Buddhas of the past, present, and future manifest perfect enlightenment. Therefore the perfection of wisdom is the great powerful tool of thought, the great enlightening tool of thought, the supreme and peerless tool of thought.

I’m avoiding another word that has gotten some barnacles as it became popular in the West: mantram. We’re used to a mantra being a spoken phrase, a sort of spell that leads to some result, and in fact there is a long long history of mantras being used for that. But true mantra practice is the use of a phrase, a sound, that according to tradition focuses the mind and intention and thus brings about a specific kind of mental state. So, I go back to the roots Man, “thought”, and yes, by golly, there is a connection between that and the English word “man”. Man is the animal that thinks. And the suffix “-tra”, which means a tool. Tool of thought.

This tool can remove all suffering. This is true, and cannot be doubted. This tool is spoken as:

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

This is meant to be spoken or chanted, and to some extent the point is the sound of it, not the words. There are links to some spoken chants in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Japanese at the end of the page. But the words do mean something:

Sanskrit pronunciation meaning
gate “gah-tay” gone!
paragate “pah-rah-gah-tay” gone beyond
parasamgate “pah-rah-sahm-gah-tay” gone completely beyond
bodhi “boh-dee” Awake!
svaha! “swah-hah” !!!

“Svaha” is a tough one. It means “to call” or something like that, and it ends certain mantras. You might think of it, if you’re a computer person, as “enter”, as in “press enter to continue.” It’s the Word of Command, as Gandalf would say.

And that’s it.

Some Sources

(Updated 2008-05-10 to add some explanation from the Śūnyatā post.)

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