The Heart Sutra: a Timeless Dialogue on Emptiness


I just encountered this translation of “The Heart Sutra” by Professor Robert Thurman. It is the same matter as the one we chant in our Zen Center, but is extrapolated out from the pithy, tight chant that we do twice a day, giving a more fine-grained insight into the dynamic of this epic conversation.

I share it here because it can “fill in the blanks” for people about what is “going on” in the sutra that we chant twice daily: It is an elegant dialogue with Sariputra and Kwan Seum Bosal, as the Bodhisattva (called Avalokitesvara) comes out of a meditation period, and clearly expresses the true nature of reality: devoid of self-existent substance or separate objectness.

Heart Sutra Translation by Robert A.F. Thurman
In Sanskrit: Bhagavatī Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra
In Tibetan: Chomden Dayma Sherab Parchin Nyingpo’i DoeIn
In English: Blessed Lady Buddha Transcendent Wisdom Heart Sūtra

Thus did I hear on a singular occasion. The Blessed Lord was dwelling on the Vulture Peak at Rājagṛha, together with great communities of mendicants and bodhisattvas. At that time, the Blessed Lord entranced himself in the teaching samadhi called “Illumination of the Profound.”

Just then, the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, was realizing the profound transcendence of wisdom; and he realized that his five (bodymind) processes are void of any intrinsic reality.

Thereupon, moved by the Buddha’s power, Venerable Shāriputra addressed the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, thus: “When a noble son wants to engage in learning the profound transcendence of wisdom, how should he practice?”

Then the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, addressed Venerable Shāradvatiputra thus: “Shāriputra When any noble son or noble daughter wishes to engage in the practice of the profound transcendence of wisdom, he (or she) should realize it in this way: these five bodymind processes should be truly realized to be void of any intrinsic reality. Matter is voidness. Voidness is matter. Voidness is not other than matter; neither is matter other than voidness. Likewise, sensations, conceptions, mental functions, and consciousnesses are also void.

Shāriputra! Thus all things are voidness; signless, uncreated, unceased, stainless, impeccable, undecreased, and unincreased. Shāriputra! Thus, in voidness there are no matter, no sensation, no conception, no mental function, no consciousness, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mentality, no form, no sound, no scent, no taste, no texture, no idea. There are no sense-media, from eye- to mentality-[sense-medium]; and there are no [consciousness-]media from the visual- to the mental-consciousness-medium either. There are no ignorance and no cessation of ignorance, and so on up to no old age and death and no cessation of old age and death either. Likewise there are no suffering, no origination, no cessation, no path, no intuitive wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment either.

Therefore, Shāriputra, because the bodhisattva is without attainment, she lives in reliance on transcendent wisdom; his spirit is unobscured and free of fear. Passing far beyond all confusion, she ultimately succeeds in nirvana. And all the buddhas who live in past, present, and future rely on transcendent wisdom to reach manifestly perfect buddhahood in unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.

Such being so, there is the mantra of transcendent wisdom, the mantra of great science, the unexcelled mantra, the uniquely universal mantra, the mantra that ends all suffering. It is not false and to be known as truth—the transcendent wisdom mantra—as follows (tadyathā):


“Shāriputra! Thus should the bodhisattva, the great hero, learn the profound transcendence of wisdom!”

Thereupon, the Blessed Lord arose from that samadhi and applauded the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero; “Excellent! Excellent! Noble son! So it is! So it is! One should practice the profound transcendence of wisdom in just the way you have taught it, and even the transcendent buddhas will joyfully congratulate you!”

When the Blessed Lord had spoken thus, the Venerable Shāradvatiputra, the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, and everyone in that audience and the whole world, with its gods, humans, titans, and fairies, rejoiced, and all applauded what the Buddha said.

Translation 2020, By Robert A.F. Thurman via the on-going Online Menla Yogic Sciences Teacher Training manual, All Rights Reserved.

Explaining Emptiness [video]

Image 21.07.20 at 11.30

If you sit, with enough effort, for long enough, you eventually arrive at the view of the ultimate nature of reality. That “view” is nothing more than the awareness that there is no “separate” identity or substance or reality, one object or being or even “time” or “space” from another. Everything — all reality, all appearance, all laws and principles and states of consciousness — are fundamentally and constantly marked with the utter lack of any abiding separate quality, state, or condition, any material or existence. If there is a word to “explain” this, when we need to discuss things, the terms that are most often employed are “the void,” or “emptiness.” In Sanskrit, it is sunyata (sometimes anglicized as “shunyata”).

But every one of these terms is mistaken. Truly, open one’s mouth to “express” it or describe it or state it or render it is already completely insufficient. The monotheistic traditions somewhat “get” this point: That is why in the Old Testament, it says, “Be still, and know God.” And why, in Islam, one is forbidden from ever trying to depict this deity-expression through any kind of drawing.

And yet both traditions then expend oceans of ink, vast rivers of blood, and histories of conflict in order to declare their ideas about this inexpressibility, and to defend and conquer in its name.

In Buddhism, there is the space for its “expression” to be transmitted — especially in the Zen way of teaching. “Opening your mouth is already a big mistake.” Yes, but when you are called upon to do so, perhaps this might be a closer approximation for how we can deliver the experience to others’ minds, when called out into the realm of words and speech: