An Experiential Rendering of the Heart of Unsurpassed Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutra
with Explanations of the Modifications
By Luca Mokudo Valentino
Heart of Unsurpassed Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) Sutra
The Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara,
while ‘In-Awareness’ deep within the Per•fec•tion of Wisdom, clearly saw that
ALL • FIVE •ROOTS • OF • SENTIENT • EXPERIENCE • ARE • EMPTY •
of inherent ‘self’-nature, and realized the cessation of suffering and distress.
Ho! (Say your name)! • Form and emptiness are each other!
Form is none other than emptiness and emptiness none other than form.
The same is true of sensations, perceptions, conceptions, and consciousness.
All that arises is itself emptiness; all that is emptiness is such. •
Ho! (Say your name)! • All beings, things, and ideas are empty of self being!
No-thing comes to be and no-thing ceases.
No-thing is entire and no-thing is a part of.
No-thing’s realized and no-thing’s obscured.
In emptiness, there is no form, sensation, perception, conception, or consciousness;
no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, or mind;
no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, and no thought;
no realm of sight and so forth up through no realm of mind-consciousness.
There is no ignorance and no cessation of it up through
no decrepitude and death and no cessation of them, as well.
There’s no suffering, no origin of suffering, no end of …, and no path.
There is no Wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment, either.
And so, without attaining or not attaining,
all bodhisattvas, within the Per•fec•tion of Wisdom,
find that mind’s without hindrance, free of ‘self-being’,
being such with no fears, transforming Samsara – realizing Nirvana.
All Awakened Ones – past, present, and future –
gestate in Prajnaparamita
and are born in
Unsurpassed Complete Perfect Enlightenment.
‘Thus’, the Prajnaparamita Mantra, is the great bright Mantra,
is the utmost Mantra, is the supreme Mantra,
which realizes the end of suffering and distress.
And, as its truth is itself ‘Stillness’, this Truth is not false.
So, with this awareness, we now do proclaim the Prajnaparamita Mantra, chanting:
Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi! Svaha!
Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate! Bodhi! Svaha!
Gone! Gone! Gone beyond! Gone completely beyond! Awakened! • Yahaa!
Explanation of this rendering of the Heart Sutra
Luca (Mokudo) Valentino – Notes compiled: September 2012. This editing: February 17, 2020.
Verse I-Line 1: Unbounded compassion arises integrally within the realization of emptiness; and so, up front, “Bodhisattva of Compassion” identifies the manifesting of the Compassionate Mind (Avalokitesvara) with the realization of ‘emptiness’ explicated in the Sutra. (See extensive notes below on within.) (See ‘Mind’ in notes to Verse VI Line 3.)
V.I-L.2: ‘In-Awareness’ expresses an unfolding ‘condition’ and not a process of ‘doing’. Many translations use action verbs such as ‘practicing’ or ‘doing’. Since numerous Mahayana sutras emphasize the ‘non-doing’ nature of existence, using an action verb in the translations contradicts the teachings and the realization. Once again, as is taught and realized, along with no ‘doing’ there is no ‘location’. ‘In-Awareness’ is placed within semi-quote marks and is hyphenated to present this as a single concept rather than as a prepositional phrase indicating location. To further emphasize the conceptual unity and significance of this state of mind, the first letter of each word is capitalized. And so, ‘In-Awareness’ is, itself, a unified state of consciousness, an ‘abiding’ in and as the self-aware Ground of Being, and not an activity. (See the notes to Verse VI.) (See, also, the second to last sentence of Making ‘Things’: “To realize the end of all suffering, ‘be-thus’ in Awareness.”)
As usually understood, “deep within” does give a sense of location, but here and throughout the Sutra and Making ‘Things’ “within” intimates an unbounded ‘penetration’, again, in and as this awareness. (See: V.VI-L.2)
“Per•fec•tion” is bullet-separated into syllables for chanting purposes. This is also done in V.V-L.3 with the word ‘suf•fer•ing’, where, to keep the rhythm, the word needs to be articulated in three distinct syllables.
The phrase “clearly saw” has the standard meaning of the clear ‘seeing’ of Realized Awareness.
V.I-L.3: This entire line is set out in upper case letters as it is the core of the Mahayana realization that nothing, not even the very means by which experience arises, has inherent existence. When chanted, it should be chanted at half-speed to emphasize its significance.
Most renditions of the Heart Sutra use the Sanskrit term “skandhas” or translations of it that are technical and can be confusing. “Heaps”, “conditions”, and “aggregates” are not palpably alive for most English speakers. On the other hand, “ROOTS” is vibrant and familiar; and it is used here so that the sense of this important term may feel immediate and not abstract.
Although suffering is considered a human dilemma, all sentient beings create their mental realities through the same process; and so, “sentient experience” is used to indicate a process shared by all sentient beings and not limited to humans.
The line ends with a ‘bullet’ indicating a pause to rest within the understanding.
V.I-L.4: Semi-quotes are placed around “self” to bring attention to the preeminent delusion that is the essence of sentient experience: At the core of existential reality, all entities and their qualities inherently exist and exist independently. “Inherent ‘self’-nature” more broadly describes the fullness of the delusion. Assuming this delusion to be the Truth of Reality is ignorance.
‘Self-existence’ is expressed slightly differently in two other locations: 1) at the end of V.III-L.1, but without the hyphen. Separating “self” from “being” emphasizes the isolation and power of each; and 2) at the end of V.VI-L.1, ‘self-being’ now has semi-quotes as used with ‘In-Awareness’ to emphasize ‘self-existence’ as a unified concept. It also has a hyphen to reinforce the intimate link between the two.
*** NB: The term “realize(d)(s)” in this rendition is not used personally with its normal meaning of a person realizing the significance of something, but is used in the financial sense! When profits, or losses, are realized, nothing is done. Transactions may be made, but profits or losses are simply present in the resulting condition.
Liberation on an individual level occurs with the ceasing of the process of creating mental realities, believing that these powerful images are extant, and then acting in the world based on the belief that what is thought is the world. Karma is the trail of effects of actions done from within this belief. On the other hand, the “cessation” of suffering is not simply a personal release for Avalokitesvara, as most translations express it. Suffering, itself, ceases in awakening to the nature of existence as being without any inherent characteristics or qualities. All beings, sentient and insentient, on the level of the ‘Totality of Existence’, are realized as manifesting practice/enlightenment, i.e., ‘This Existence’, perfect and complete, without suffering, and actually free of karmic becoming. This may well be what the Buddha intimated when, on his enlightenment, he said, “I and all sentient beings simultaneously enter the Way.” This realization is universal. The release is universal. In this, the Bodhisattva vows are realized and fulfilled.
And yet, there remains suffering. For sentient beings, there remains the belief in being and in becoming. This seeming contradiction is central to the bodhisattva’s realization and guides all the bodhisattva’s activities as ‘upaya’, i.e. skillful means, for the sake of all sentient beings. (”(A)ll”, as used here, means “none left out”)
Quantifying adjectives such as “all” and “every” reinforce the experiential solidity of an assumed ‘reality’ by creating an image of a ‘totality’ (having the inherent qualities of ‘a totality’), and so are not used in this line.
To keep the rhythm, the word “suffering” is chanted here in two syllables rather than three as in V.V-L.3.
The Sanskrit term “duhkha”, rendered here as “suffering and distress”, describes a state of anxiety and unsatisfactoriness that existentially pervades all of our normal experiences and is reinforced by a craving to make what is experientially believed as ‘real’ either a permanent part of one’s life or, if found to be distasteful, to make it, or wish that it go away.
Some translations use “misfortune” and “pain”. However, ‘misfortune’ is easily misunderstood to mean ‘bad things happening to us from the outside.’ Additionally, while ‘pain’ is simply a sensation, as are sound and sight, ‘suffering’ arises with our intractable belief in real and permanent existences within the impermanence of unfolding conditions. Suffering is the response of the injured ‘I’ in its attachment to a permanent and unalterable ego. Distress is the apprehensiveness experienced in that attachment.
V.II-L.1: “Ho!” (iha in Sanskrit) is an emphatic that is meant to shock the mind. As explained by Red Pine in his The Heart Sutra, its accepted use dates back to Buddhism’s Third Council in 267BC. In classic Zen practice, shouts, hits, and slaps developed from this insight, providing for those about to break through a sudden inroad into direct realization. (See: The Heart Sutra, Red Pine (Bill Porter) pg.71.)
Saying Shariputra’s name has been replaced by saying one’s own name. Who else is Shariputra than ourselves to whom the Bodhisattva of Compassion Avalokitesvara is offering this intimate realization? (Note the pause mark.)
“Form and emptiness are each other!” identifies the separateness of ‘other’ and, simultaneously, brings forth their non-separateness. (See also V.VI-L.4 on Samsara and Nirvana.)
V.II-L.2: is similar to many other translations.
V.II-L.3: The word “true” is not the same as ‘this applies to…’ but implies the realized ‘Truth’ expressed below in the last line in Verse VIII.
Rather than “volitional formations”, which suggests a ‘will’ that is seemingly separate and independent, this list of Skandhas includes “conceptions” to signify the state at which complete thoughts and ideas ‘present themselves’ as full-blown experiential emotion-laden entities. The Sanskrit term for the fourth Skandha, sanskara, is comprised of san (together) and kri (to make), connoting an assembling of new experiences and already stored ideas. (See: The Heart Sutra, Red Pine (Bill Porter) pg. 63-64.)
V.II-L.4: Although this line is not included in the original Heart Sutra, its meaning is carried in the sutra’s next line. More comprehensively, the Heart Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines devotes an entire chapter to it, stating in Chapter XVI that everything is, itself, ‘emptiness’ and the nature of emptiness is such. All existence is ‘such’ (or ‘thus’), i.e. unfolding causal conditions, including that which one sees, the seeing process itself, and, likewise, the seer. Such and thus, suchness and thusness are interchangeable. In suchness (or thusness), the nature of Existence is revealed: the form of form. (See the use of “such” and “thus” in Making ‘Things’.)
The use of “such” is repeated in V.VI-L.4 when bodhisattvas, realizing suchness, realize fearlessness, simultaneously, seeing existence, no longer fixed into ‘Things’, unfolding simply and compassionately. (See, also, the description of this “seeing” in the opening paragraphs of Dogen’s Genjokoan.)
V.III-L.1: Rather than retaining the technical Sanskrit term ‘dharmas’ and, in that, continuing the Mahayana refutation of the Theravada formulation that ‘dharmas’ truly exist, the use of “All beings, things, and ideas” is an attempt to encompass the full range of human understanding: the animate, the inanimate, and the imagined.
“(E)mpty of self being!” repeats Avalokitesvara’s realization for Shariputra’s (our?) sake. However, as mentioned above, “self” and “being” are not hyphenated in order to emphasize the power of each word as a separate understanding and belief.
V.III-L.2-4: These three lines are variously and often more literally translated. Translations by their nature remain tethered to a text’s original words. Literal translating can bind one to terms that carried certain values for the early users, but, over the centuries, may have acquired additional values that were never intended, e.g. “pure and impure.” This leaves the need for much ‘study’, or henzan, as Dogen expresses it in his fascicle of the same name, to overcome our preconceptions and to ‘enter’ the non-personal ‘transcendent’ understanding of the terms. With that in mind, as these lines describe aspects of human imputation, I have felt quite free to choose other terms and rearrange the original order as needed.
“No-thing” is used to identify that it is ‘Thing’-ness which is realized to be the delusion. Hyphenating “Nothing” is an attempt to avoid the pitfall of nihilism.
V.III-L.2: The explication of the emptiness of ‘beings’, ‘things’, and ‘ideas’ continues here in detail. No “beings, things, or ideas” come to be, i.e. are born, are created, or are thought of, and no beings, etc. cease, etc. This line also brings into question our assumptions of the character of ‘time’ and the nature of change as occurring in, or within, or due to a separate universal plenum that enables the alteration of experienced fixed ‘real’ entities. (For an in-depth study of this realization of ‘time’, see Dogen’s fascicle Uji – ‘Time/Being’.)
V.III-L.3: In an effort to make the concepts less abstract, the terms used here are an alternative to what is often translated as “increase or decrease” and “complete or incomplete”, stating that nothing is an entity entire in itself and nothing is an entity that is part of a larger, more complete and whole entity.
V.III-L.4: This line applies to the mind and to ideas and concepts. It completely undermines the normal understanding of ‘realize’, and even the way ‘realize’ is rendered in this Heart Sutra. It also connects with the last line in Verse V, concerning ‘Wisdom’ and ‘attainment’.
V.IV-L.1: The word “emptiness” is not capitalized because it should be understood as a characteristic and not a ‘place’. (For an in-depth articulation underlying this choice see: Jamgon Mipham’s commentary on Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way, pgs. 316-319.)
The essential structure of verses IV and V remains as usually rendered.
V.V-L.2: The line is only modified by the use of “decrepitude” instead of “old age” as a broader concept of decline leading to eventual final complete collapse and death of the entity held as being real and permanent.
V.V-L.3: As mentioned above in V.I-L.2 regarding ‘Per•fec•tion’, ‘suf•fer•ing’ is bullet-separated into three syllables for chanting purposes.
V.V-L.4: Although the original Sanskrit term is ‘jnana’ (knowledge), when Wisdom is ‘realized’, even though that realizing is often referred to as “transcendent knowing”, there is no Wisdom that is known – or attained – and, note as well, there is no knower and no knowing “to be found”. (Revisit “No-thing is realized…” in V.III-L.4.)
My thanks, again, to Red Pine (Bill Porter) for pointing out the need to make clear that, unlike the “no attaining” and “no gain” expressed in many translations, there is neither attaining nor not attaining – nothing done nor not done, nothing gained nor not gained. (See: The Heart Sutra, Red Pine (Bill Porter) pgs. 124-5.)
V.VI is difficult to chant because the steady rhythm established in previous verses disappears. This is intentional. One stumbles within this verse trying to find something to hold on to, but there is nothing dependable to anchor one’s chanting. One, also, can’t find a place to catch one’s breath; the words are such that they suck the air right out. In the end, one simply gives everything.
V.VI-L.1: This line reiterates the previous line emphasizing the choicelessness of this awareness that is neither attained nor not attained.
V.VI-L.2: In this line, the word “within” echoes the use of “within” in V.I-L.2, where ‘within’ is not a location but a state of ‘self-abiding awareness’. (See V.VI-L.3 below.)
V.VI-L.1&3: In these two lines, each use of the word “without” echoes the other, while “within” sits in between, raising the question of what “without” could signify beyond its obvious meaning. (See, also, the use of “within” and “without” in the last sentence of Making ‘Things’.)
V.VI-L.3&4: The possibilities expressed in these lines are linked to the condition “within the Perfection of Wisdom,”, “within” which bodhisattvas abide as ‘such’, their minds unhindered by any imputing of existence as ‘Things’ to unfolding experiences and attaching ‘real’ meaning and significance to them. (See Making ‘Things’.)
In the Pali Canon, the Buddha referred to Five Hindrances – craving, aversion, laziness, anxiety, and skeptical doubt – blocking one’s capacity for introspective study (henzan). “Hindrances”, too, result from the automatic processes of the skandhas (“ROOTS”) and the Twelve Links, by which sentient beings create ‘Realities’ and ‘Things’. In this rendering however, “without hindrances” refers to boundless awareness, an awareness that doesn’t even hold boundless awareness, and returns to Avalokitesvara ‘In-Awareness’. (See note V.I-L.2)
Liberated from creating ‘Realities’, bodhisattvas are free of any grasping, fixedness, or self-identity. As such, they empathetically are able to intuit the attentions, i.e. ‘read the minds’, of sentient beings, ‘seeing’ them hold firmly to the belief that there are inherently self-existing real entities, attach meaning to these ‘Realities’, and, repeatedly, become twisted in cycles of anxiety and fear. In this awareness, the bodhisattvas are overwhelmed with immense compassion and become committed to discovering ways by which entrapped sentient beings can be liberated from the shackles of these vicious cycles. (See note V.I-L.1) (See paragraph above, starting with “Liberation…”)
V.VI-L.3: This line begins with the word “find”, which is implied in the goal-lessness of neither attaining nor not attaining and the non-doing awareness of realization.
“(M)ind”, here, does not refer to individual consciousness; but is found as vast and beyond definition, unhindered by any characterization or condition. Mind manifests in unbounded magnificent fundamental non-specific awareness, a self-abiding wisdom beyond all conceptualization, a suchness pervading and being all realms of existence, and yet, not being and not even requiring ‘existence’, i.e. form. This the Buddha referred to as the Unborn, the Uncreated; and in Bodhidharma’s words, “vast emptiness” – self-aware and formless Ground of Being. (See note V.I-L.2) However, it is not something else, something ‘other’, and so is not capitalized. It is, as well, delusions and sentient beings.
The line ends with the last reference to “self”, this time with a hyphen and in semi-quotes to emphasize the totality and identity of the sense of inherently existing ‘self’-ness.
V.VI-L.4: Along with the breath, what also disappears by the last line is the antecedent. The reference in this line is ambiguous with present participles losing their temporal reference, as well as their subject reference. The list of these verb forms starts with “being” (which intentionally contradicts the previous phrase “free of ‘self-being’”) and, unlike the remaining two participles, is not active but states a condition – that of ‘suchness’. The grammatical ambiguity of this line is arranged with the intention of undermining any sense of stability and surety.
Awakened bodhisattvas also profoundly understand – again jnana in Sanskrit – the equivalence of Samsara and Nirvana through the experiential paradigm shift of Realized Awareness (“clearly saw” in V.I-L.2) characterized by a compassionate unity of Abiding Suchness completely engaged in dynamic mutual offering. They know that all existence, including themselves, is Awakened Awareness, i.e. Buddha Nature, which neither has nor requires inherent existence. The way Samsara is now experienced is transformed; Nirvana and Samsara are realized as the same – and each other! (See also V.II-L1 on form and emptiness.)
Although not addressed in the Heart Sutra, the question arises: If Samsara and Nirvana are realized as the same, how does an Awakened One engage in the manifesting world of phenomena? The Avatamsaka Sutra attempts to image the enormity of this as best as words can convey. In far simpler terms, seen from within the realm in which they disappear as ‘Things’, the Precepts are expressions of how existence interrelates: engaging from within the ‘Mind’ of offering. An awakened bodhisattva manifests in the phenomenal world a Way that arises within and is not different from the Precepts as just described. This behavior can be termed “Thus!”, as is expressed in the first word of Verse VIII. (And, as well, in the second to last sentence of Making ‘Things’: “To realize the end of all suffering, ‘be-thus’ in Awareness.”)
V.VII-L.1: The term used most often, ‘Buddha’, is replaced by its translated meaning, because ‘Awakening’ is not for special ‘Beings’, but is an Awareness that all humans can awaken to at any time, at any point. “Awakened Ones” are ‘buddhas’ with a lower case ‘b’. (*See also: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika: Ch. XVIII, Verse 12.)
V.VII-L.2-4: The key to this Awakening is in the gestating within the realization of ‘emptiness’ and awakening to the nature of Existence, a transformation that frees one, as mentioned above, from ‘Thingness’, the fundamental existential experiential delusion that ourselves, all our experiences, and all that we conceive have inherent true existence. Thus, Prajnaparamita is called the Mother of all buddhas.
V.VIII-L.1: Beginning this line of the Sutra, “Thus” is placed in semi-quotes and is separated from “the Prajnaparamita Mantra” by comas to perform three functions: First, “Thus,” as the normal grammatical equivalent of ‘Therefore,’; second, to state the functional equivalence of ‘Thusness’ and “the Prajnaparamita Mantra”; and third, to point to the absolute equivalence of ‘Thusness’/‘Suchness’ and ‘Mantra’ itself.
V.VIII-L.1&2: In these two lines, “Mantra” is capitalized to indicate that this Mantra is not the mantra that is chanted but the ‘Mantra’ that is the Nature of Existence. This ‘Mantra’ is always being chanted, always being expressed by ‘Existence’ as existence. Prajnaparamita is the Awakened Awareness – the practice/enlightenment – of Existence. It holds no-thing. It does no-thing. It is not a ‘Thing’; and yet be careful, because it is not not a ‘Thing’; nor… etc., etc. (See: Nagarjuna’s Four Propositions and Hundred Negations.)
V.VIII-L.3: It is the Mantra, i.e. Existence itself, “which realizes the cessation of suffering and distress” and not individual chanters or the result of an individual mantra. The use of “realize” brings the meaning back to Avalokitesvara’s realization in the first verse of the Sutra. Again, the meaning of realize(s)(d) is similar to realizing financial profits and losses.
Here, as in V.I-L.4, “suffering” is chanted in two syllables and not bullet-separated into three.
V.VIII-L.4: The rendering of this line replaces the dualistic phrase, “it is true and not false.” This Truth is realized and is true because it is, as Dogen so aptly put it, “unconstructedness in Stillness.” The use of “truth” and “Truth” here are the second and third uses and link back to the first use of “true” in V.II-L.3 above, calling for a more profound study (henzan) of the word in that line.
V.IX-L.1: The use of “with” connects with the uses of “within” and “without” in Verses I and VI and with the last sentence of Making ‘Things’. So, it is not just having this awareness, but being this Awareness. It is in and with this state of awareness that “we do proclaim the Prajnaparamita Mantra” – as does all Existence.
V.IX-L.4: ‘Svaha!’ is simply a Sanskrit celebratory exclamation: ‘Hallelujah!’, ‘Hail!’, ‘Yes!’, ‘Rejoice!’, etc. All of these work and so does an invented word: ‘Yahaa!’
Form is the manifesting of ‘Emptiness’. Emptiness is the unfolding Process of conditioned causality. To see ‘Things’ (including ourselves) as having inherent qualities is the delusion we commonly experience and believe as true. And yet, to deny form creates another delusional ‘reality’: the nihilism of nothingness. To ‘see’ both form within the conditioned causal Process and the causal Process free of any inherent form is to see ‘This’ – the Great Reality – in direct awareness. Thereby is revealed the ‘form’ of form. The ‘form’ of the ‘Buddha’ is the form of Existence, which is without fixedness and without self-being – the brilliant dynamic causal Unfolding compassionately actualizing as such. ‘This’ is the Suchness, the Stillness, that is Existence itself, and ‘This’ requires no existence.
Our process of making unfolding experiences into ‘Realities’ is the delusional process that leads to the craving for permanence or impermanence, i.e. suffering. This craving is the symptom of the illness of separateness, of making ‘Things’, and enables all other sufferings to follow. To realize the end of all suffering, ’be-thus’ in Awareness. Abide as and within this Unfolding, engaging from ‘within the mind of offering’ with conditions as they manifest, without making these experiences into ‘Real’ entities, without running away into separateness – without making ‘Things’!
Three Fundamental Practices
Get your ‘self’ (get ‘selfness’) out of the way!
Engage with unfolding conditions without describing them!
Four Bodhisattva Vows
Sentient beings are uncountable;
I vow to awaken them.
Delusions are inextricable;
I vow to liberate them.
Dharmas are inconceivable;
I vow to realize them.
The Buddha Way is unutterable;
I vow to become It.