The Bodhi tree behind
the Mahabodhi temple
in Bodhgaya




The Heart Sūtra is part of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñaparamitā) literature, a collection of early Mahāyāna Scriptures. There are a number of Perfection of Wisdom collections, both long and short, and there are a number of Heart Sūtras, both long and short.

The Perfection of Wisdom collection was originally written in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, which combines classical Sanskrit and regional languages, and in a number of Sanskrit-related languages and dialects that existed on the Silk Road.
It is quite possible that the long version of the Heart Sūtra that has been translated and published by the office of the Gyalwa Karmapa ( is a most accomplished and correct rendering of one of the long versions.
Sir Leon Hurvitz, one of the early highly esteemed Sinologists discovered a short version of the Heart Sūtra that the monk-pilgrim Xuanzang (old spelling Hsuan-tsang) transcribed from a wall in a cave in Loyang, Northern China. What Xuanzang, who died in 664 discovered must have been an transliterated version of a Sanskrit original. Transliteration means that you write down the heard syllables as faithfully as possible in the script in which your own language is expressed. To give an example of transliteration: an Anglosaxon might transliterate the French word "boutique" as "booteec", and "pois" as "pooah". Imagine the misunderstandings that arose in later ages when researchers tried to figure out the Sanskrit words hidden in Chinese characters.

Since Hurvitz' discovery the short version of the Heart Sūtra has been retranslated into Buddhist Hybr. Sanskrit first, and after that into English. Now a version of this Sanskrit → Chinese → Sanskrit → English text floats around in the virtual World Wide Web.
Translating such a text into English was a brave enterprise, especially in the early days of Buddhism in the West. As both the knowledge of Buddhism grew and more and more dictionaries and Sanskrit Grammars appeared, it has become possible to attempt a revised English translation of Xuanzang's version of the Heart Sūtra, which, by the way, is the only version that we know of in the 20th/21rst Century.

It needs to be said that there are several Sanskrit or Sanskrit-like versions. Thich Nhat Hahn chose Edward Conze's edition (full name: Eberhard Julius Dietrich Conze -- 1904-1979) and furthermore mentions a Japanese and a Nepalese version that equally have different Sanskrit(ic) versions as a foundational manuscript.
Compared with the text below especially Conze's version — and therewith Nhat Hahn's literal translation (pp. 126/7) — is longer in some clusters, and shorter in others.
None of the earlier versions translate the last line "gate gate ...". The translators accepted the exegesis that here they had a mantra, and a mantra, it was thought in the early years of translations, was a secret formula with no literal meaning. Later on in the 20th Cent. we came to know more about Sanskrit and semi-Sanskrit, and it appears that Thich Nhat Hanh adopted my translation of the "gate gate: ([is] gone, [is] gone) ...". It is meet to mention such instances from time to time since the still prevalent male-apartheid in Buddhism (first half 21rst Cent.) shies away from referring to female companions on the road.
On the other hand Nhat Hahn's booklet "The Other Shore" (Palm Leaves Press -Parallax, 2017) is mainly dedicated to the concept of emptiness (sunyā), explaining this concept in the context of his personal experience and teaching of zen and meditation.

On the title:

"Heart" here refers to the essence of the Perfection of Wisdom-texts, being the emptiness of all phenomena. A few words are said in the observations in line 3. The stock phrase "emptiness is form, form is emptiness" is not found in this text, at least not verbatim. Instead line 5, where this phrase appears in other manuscripts, shows influences of Huayen-thinking where it emphasises the fundamental identity of forms in their being empty of "ens", substance.

1. Prajñaparamitā hrdaya sūtra

2. arayāvalokiteshvaro bodhisattvo

3. gambhīram prajñaparamitā caryam caramano vyavalokāyati
sma panca skandhas tams ca sva bhāva sunyam

1. Sūtra on the heart of the perfection of wisdom

2. The noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
3. coursed in the profound perfection of wisdom; he uninterruptedly coursed (in such a way that he had a fixed view on) the empty world (,namely the emptiness of) that which has arisen, (i.e.) the five skandhas.

4. pasyati sma iha sariputra

5. rūpam sunyatā vā rūpam rūpan na prthak
sūnyatā sūnyatāya na prthak rūpam
yad rūpam sa sūnyatā ya sūnyatā sa rūpam

4. O, Sariputra, he saw uninteruptedly:
5. that which is emptied is none other than (a single) form and/or forms (plur.); those forms do not distinguish (fundamentally) among themselves; they are empty.

6. evam eva vedanā samjñā samskāra vijñānam
7. iha sariputra sarva dharma sunyatā
8. làkshana anutpanna anuruddha av(i)māla anuna aparpūna.

6. The same goes for physical feeling, the active process of understanding, establishing and maintaining of thought-stream, and consciousness as such.

7. O Sariputra, all phenomena are empty,

8. (therefore their) characteristics (too) are unarisen, (therefore there is no need for) pacifying, (and they cannot be said to be) impure, (or) inferior; (in this sense they are) certainly complete, one.

9a. ta (tada) sariputra sunyatāyam
b. na rūpam na vedanā na samjñā na samskāra na vijñāna caksuh srotam na ghrāna jihva-kaya manah
d. na rūpa sabda gandha rasa spistavya (sprstavya) dharmah
e. na caksur dhātur yā van (yāva) na mano vijñānam dhātur
f. na vidya na vidya na vidya ksayo vā vidya ksayo
g. yā van (yāva) jaramaranam na jaramana ksayo
h. na duhkha samudaya nirodha mārgajnā
i. na jñānam na prapti na (a)bhis(a)maya tamai (tasmat) na prapti.

9a. In that case, Sariputra, (in) that all encompassing emptiness
b. (is) no materiality; there is no physical feeling, no active process of understanding, no establishing and maintaining of thought-stream, no consciousness
c. (nothing belonging to the sphere of the) eye; it has no faculty of hearing, no smell, no tongue, nothing material.
d. (There is) no form, no sound, smell, taste, touching — nothing phenomenal.
e. There is no sphere in which the eye is operative, upto thinking, or a sphere in which consciousness is operative.
f. (There is) no knowing, no exhaustion of knowing or knowing that knowing has been exhausted.
g. This (holds true upto) old age and death and the extincion of old age and death.
h. There is no origin of affliction (or) extinction of the search.
i. (This all encompassing emptiness has) no supreme knowledge; there is nothing to be gained, nothing to be clearly understood; therefore there is nothing to be attained.

10. tvad bodhisattva prajñaparamitā asritya (srutya)
11. viha ratya (vihāratya) citta varano vidya ksayo na vidya ksayo

10. You, bodhisattva, heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom (thus:)

11. (it) is to be dwelt in (thus:), he chooses this (line of) thought: nor is knowing exhausted, nor is it not exhausted.

12. na duhkha-samudaya nirodha-mārgajnā
na jñānam na prapti na (a)bhis(a)maya tamai (tasmat) na prapti.

13. tvad bodhisattvanam prajñaparamitā asritya (srutya)
14. vihāratya citta varano | citta varano
na siddhitvad (nāstitvat) atrasto viparyasa ti kranto (tikranto)
15. ni sthā (nisthā) nirvāna | tya dhā vyāva stitah.

12. There is no origin of affliction, there is no extinction of the search.
(It has) no supreme knowledge; there is nothing to be gained, nothing to be clearly understood; therefore there is nothing to be attained.

13. You who (now) belong to (the line of) bodhisattvas heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom (thus:)

14. It is to be dwelt in (thus:); he chooses this line of thought | this way of thinking:
Because of non-existence of the hindrances of the mind, he is not frightened, he has crossed over distortions; |

15. indeed he will be firmly established in nirvāna.

16. sarva buddhah prajñaparamitam asritya (srutya)
17. anuttaram samyaksambodhim abisambuddhah

16 - 17. All unexcelled, perfectly enlightened, highest Buddhas heard (understood) the perfection of wisdom.

18. tasmat jñatavyam
19. prajñaparamitā-mahā-mantram mahā-vidya-mantram
anuttara-mantram asamasama-mantram.

18. Therefore they knew this.

19. The Perfection of Wisdom is a great utterance, an utterance of great knowing,
an on all levels unexcelled utterance.

20. sarva duhkha prasa manam satyam amithyātvat
21. prajñaparamitayam ukto mantrah tadhyathā

20. All afflictions are cast aside as the mind does away with falsety, unreality.

21. Thus has been declared the utterance on the perfection of wisdom.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate bodhi svaha

(Is) gone, (is) gone, gone to the other shore, altogether gone to the other shore; a salute to bodhi, enlightenment.


Line 2.: — Arayāvalokiteshvaro. Āvalokiteshvara (he who reaches down (aval) to listen to voice/sound (svāra) of the earth (loka)) is Buddha's Compassion aspect; a bodhisattva is an enlightening being, according to the Mahāyāna philosophy.

Line 3.: — sma: uninterruptedly, fixed

vyavalokāyati. Vyava in classical Sanskrit is a prefix indicating action: to fix, to do etc. Lokāyati (gramm.: infin.) = the world. Vyava-lokāyati ought to be read in conjunction with caryam and sunyam: to course/coursing (caryam) in empty/the empty (sunyam) world (lokāyati) of ...

caryam caramano indicates the dynamic though wordless Buddhist meditation.

— sva bhāva (svabhāva) = that which has arisen, that which has been born, the existent. In classical Hindu-thought it is often given as "the self-existent". This, however, would not be the correct interpretation here.

Skandhas are enumerated in lines 5 and 6 as: materiality (form), physical feeling, the active process of understanding (samñjā), establishing and maintaining of thought-stream (samskāra), and consciousness as such (vijñāna).

Sūnyam here is clearly understood in the Southern Buddhist sense of absence of an unchanging, ever abiding self, soul. It indicates the ever changing nature of all phenomena including the self or the soul. It should be understood that the Perfection of Wisdom-collection is one of the first, if not the first long manuscript that expouses the early Mahāyāna philosophy.

Line 4.: — Sariputra, a contemporary of Sakyamuni Buddha, was one of the Arhats, enlightened monks, having, according to Southern or early Buddhism, the same enlightenment as Buddha, yet standing a step below him. Sariputra used to be the trainer of novices. In later ages he therefore is projected as one of Buddha's most important partners in discussion, and is here, in the heart Sūtra, presented as one who understood this teaching, and therefore now has joined the ranks of the bodhisattvas, enlightening beings.

Line 5.: — "Form" is described by the Daoïst as "apparatus", "capacity", or "ability".
— Following the rule that verb and object have to agree in number, sūnyatāya, "is emptied", should be considered the verb, and sa, a "pleonasm" here used in the sense of "this here" has been given the role of subject.

— There is an interplay of singular and plural in the use of rūpam (acc. sing. 3rd. masc.) and rūpan (acc. plur. 3rd. masc.).

prthak, in the original given as prithak and prithag, has the meaning of widely apart, separately, differently, singly, severally, one by one. In conjunction with na, not, it has been rendered as "none other than", and "do not distinguish".

Line 7.: — sarva. Lokesh Chandra (the 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara) is of the opinion that this should be read as sarpa: come.

Line 8.: — This line lacks object. The object has to be found in the word "phenomena" in line 7. Lakshaná therefore has been chosen as the adjective of dharma, phenomena.

Aparpūrna does not occur in either Classical Sanskrit or in Hybrid Sanskrit. Hence "certainly complete, one" has been chosen as a composite of the Hybr. Sanskr. apara, "a certain", and pūrna, "full, one". I.e. the absence of ens, substance in both the phenomena and their characteristics IS the characteristic of the phenomena and their characteristics as we perceive them with our senses.

Line 9.: — One has tried to respect the adjectives, gerund, and datives where they occurred.
— a. sūnyatāyam has been rendered as if the adjective sunyatā were a pronoun with the additional 3rd (= we) form -tāyam.
— c. caksuh should be understood as an ablativus, just as manah.
— d. sprstavya. -tavya is a gerund.
— e. and g. yā van. In classical Sanskrit should be understood as moving, and van as acquiring. However, yāva in Pāli should be understood as "upto" or "down to".
Tasmai in classical Sanskrit generally means "unto Him", and occasionally "therefore". The latter interpretation is chosen since the first does not make sense in this line.
— d. "... upto old age and death" refers to the 12-fold chain of dependent origination (pratitya samutpāda) that starts with ignorance and ends with old age and death, after which the cycle starts again.
— h. Affliction and origin of affliction: duhkha, resp. duhkha-samudaya.

Especially this line speaks of the meditatively experienced eternal moment of now, the non-moving or timelessness. Again here Buddhist philosophy cannot be divorced from Buddhist meditation and vice versa without seriously distorting the one or the other.

— In Hybrid Sanskrit mārgaņā is "act of searching, seeking". -jñā here should be understood as a transliteratory error, although classical Sanskrit has rasa-jñā, "having a taste for", and suya-jñā, "sacrificing well". The pronounciation of -ņā and -jñā is practically identical.
— i. "Nothing is clearly understood": na abhisamaya; the original has a slight error. "Nothing to be attained" is a stock phrase of zen.

— In line 9. philosophy and meditative practice merge. It is furthermore a rephrasing of the abhidharmic teaching on the senses. It describes the senses, e.g. the eye, as a/ the physical organ, b/ as a faculty, i.e. its functioning, and c/ the field in which it is operative.
The earliest strand of Buddhism says of the senses and all that belongs to materiality and mentality: "all this is not me, myself (na me so atta)". The later strands say: they are empty (sunya), there is emptiness (sunyatā). The Perfection of Wisdom-collection to which the Heart Sūtra belongs does not yet say that emptiness of substance equals illusoriness, though this particular Chinese manuscript leans very much towards it.

Line 11.: — Vihāratya: is to be dwelt in.
Várano from várana: choosing: he chooses / the chooser.

Line 14.: — Part of line 14. plus the first 2 words of line 15, delineated by | |, occur in a different manuscript that bears both similarities and differences. It has been translated by a Pāli class of Taiwan University as: citta-avarana-na-astitvat a-trastah viparyāsa-atikrantah nisthā-nirvāna-praptah. It is rendered as: "Because of non-existence of the hindrances of the mind, he is not frightened, he has crossed over distortions, at the end he will attain Nirv257;na."
Both a Sino-Korean recitation book on the 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara and the Lotus Sūtra have the compound viparyāsa-tikranta, not viparyāsātikranta. I.e. there is no negation here.

Line 15.: — It may well be that the last part of this line: tya dhā vyāva sthitah is a distortion that occurred as a result of initial rendering of Sanskrit into Chinese and retranslation into Sanskrit. Should we try to understand the line as it stands, then tya should be tyad, indeed; dhā should be understood as "holding (in place)"; and vyāva should be understood as in line 3.

Line 19.b. : — asamasama. In Classical Sanskrit sama has a number of renderings, among others "homogeneous". Hence asamasama is translated as "on all levels", ignoring the possibility that the initial "a" could be a negative.

Line 20.: — prasa should be prāsa: casting, throwing. Amithyātvat ought to be understood in the line of the Cl. Sanskrit mithyātva: falsety, unreality.

Line 19 - 21.: — mantrah is rendered as "utterance" since a mantra is not in all instances a spell or a short saying without meaning; in fact, it is never without meaning.

gate in the final line is the passive form as in "is done", "is seen", in this case "is gone". The popular interpretation "let's go together" cannot hold. What is given here is a salute to Avalokiteshvara, he has gone to the other shore (enlightenment).

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