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The Heart Sutra
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Each of Ashoka's courses on the Heart Sutra presents a unique commentary on the Heart Sutra. This introduction to the Heart Sutra is not meant to provide a commentary but rather to be a prelude to the commentaries.

We conclude this introduction with a collection of excerpts from a wide variety of commentaries using Red Pine's translation of the short version of the Heart Sutra.

The noble Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
while practicing the deep practice of Prajnaparamita,

He watches the wind sweep over grasslands
Until the blue dust of distant fields
Merges with the summer sky,
And doesn’t see a thing.

He listens to the intricacies of
Point and counterpoint,
Canon and fugue,
As his niece practices her piano,
But doesn’t hear a sound.

His mouth fills with the succulent flavors
Of lichee and mango,
Quince and pomegranate,
But he doesn’t taste a thing.

Is he dead?
Perhaps,
But he’s more alive than most.
Ken McLeod

looked upon the Five Skandhas

The Five Skandhas are the root of the ten
-thousand forms of suffering and the basis of the thousand
 calamities. Because beings don't yet realize they are empty, they
 are entangled and ensnared by them. — Chen-k'o

and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, "Here, Shariputra,
form is emptiness, emptiness is form;

The infinitely Far-away is not only near, but it is infinitely near. It is nowhere, and nowhere it is not. This is the mystical identity of opposites. Nirvana is the same as the world. It is not only 'in' and 'with you; but you are nothing but it. — Edward Conze

emptiness is not separate from form,
form is not separate from emptiness;

Form is the wave and emptiness is the water. You can understand through that image. The Indians speak in a language that can scare us, but we have to understand their way of expression in order to really understand them. In the West, when we draw a circle, we consider it to be zero, nothingness. But in India, a circle means totality, wholeness. The meaning is the opposite. So "form is emptiness, emptiness is form" is like wave is water, water is wave. "Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness," because these five contain each other. Because one exists, everything exists. — Thich Nhat Hanh

whatever is form is emptiness,
whatever is emptiness is form.

Aristotle pointed out in his Metaphysics that the rejection of the principle of contradiction must lead to the conclusion that 'all things are one.' This seemed to him manifestly absurd. Here, conversely, the insight into the oneness of all is the great goal, and only by contradictions can it be attained. — Edward Conze

The same holds for sensation and perception,
memory and consciousness.

Certainly this body of ours exist, or so we think. But tying to define our selves in terms of form, we find only emptiness and cannot overcome the indivisibility of "our" form with all forms (the entire external world). Thus, we look elsewhere for a self by considering the remaining four skandhas. Commenmrors seldom have anything to say about this line of the text, but it is one of the most important lines in the sutra. Without it, a person might limit their understanding of emptiness to its relationship with form. Bur by extending the same equation to the other four skandhas, Avalokiteshvara treats everything we might think of as our selves in the same light. — Red Pine

Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are defined by emptiness

Because dharmas manifest the appearance of emptiness, they are said to be defined by emptiness. To be defined by emptiness means there is no one who grasps and nothing that is grasped. It means without duality. — Fa-tsang

not birth or destruction, purity or defilement,
completeness or deficiency.

If the dharmas are seen as a series of momentary flickerings, they cannot be invested with having the quality of appearing or disappearing precisely because flickerings are not solid objects. A flickering, so swift in time and miniscule in space, is not, in itself, tainted or pure, nor does it increase or decrease. An appropriate analogy here is of the waves in the ocean. A large wave is not a solid entity by itself but is composed of a series of smaller waves which in turn are composed of still smaller waves and so on. Even while we get the illusion of a "wave," there is actually a remarkably swift movement of water in certain patterns. A wave does not exist out there in the ocean. Out of ignorance, we may attribute these qualities (of appearing/disappearing, taint/purity, increase/ decrease) to conventional appearances (skandhas) but, since at the core of conventional appearances, there are only unpredictable flickerings (dharmas), our acceptance of these qualities as real in themselves will be a deluded view. — Mu Soeng

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no memory and no consciousness;

Dreams and delusions. Blossoms in the air. Why bother grasping at them? Profit and loss, right and wrong--just leave them be. This scrupulousness of his only stirs up trouble. What's the good of making everything an empty void? — Hakuin Zenji

no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body and no mind;

When Hui-k'o asked Bodhidharma to help him make his mind stop, the First Patriarch of Zen said, "Show me this mind of yours, and I'll make it stop." Hui-k'o answered,"But I've looked everywhere, and I can't find the mind." Bodhidharma said, "There. I've stopped it for you." Thus, in the light of emptiness, we say that the eyes and the other powers do not exist, which does not mean that we have no eyes, only that the eyes are not ultimately real, just a convenient fiction to. which we give a name. — Red Pine

no shape, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling and no thought;
no element of perception, from eye to conceptual consciousness;

If our self is in the eyes, then it cannot be in the ears. And if there is a self present in each element, then a person would be a combination of eighteen selves. And if none of the elements has a self, then there would not be a self in their combination. And because there is none, we know the self is not a real entity. — Hui-chung

no causal link, from ignorance to old age and death,

The essential point is to realize that this sequence goes round and round, forward and backward, and accounts for any particular experience we might focus on without recourse to a self. Thus, it plants the seed of our liberation. We know that whatever link we might identify with at any moment has been produced by the previous link and will in turn give rise to the succeeding link without help from a self of any kind. If we can break but one link in this chain, it comes to an end. But if the links of this chain do not include a self, then it is already broken. Thus, how can there be suffering, if there is no one who suffers? — Red Pine

and no end of causal link, from ignorance to old age and death;

If the dust and domains of sensation exist, they can end. But because they don't really exist, what is there that ends? 'End' means 'death.' If the twelve links of causation arise, then life and death can end. But because causation does not arise, there is no end of life and death. — Hui-chung

no suffering, no source, no relief, no path;

Since the Five Skandhas are empty of self-existence, suffering must also be empty of self-existence. But if suffering is empty of self-existence, then there is no self that suffers. Thus, in emptiness there is no suffering, no source of suffering, no relief from suffering, and no path leading to relief from suffering. This is the basis of Avalokiteshvara's interpretation of the Four Truths. — Red Pine

no knowledge, no attainment and no non-attainment.

By adding 'no knowledge' somebody may have wanted to make clear that in the dialectical logic of the Prajna-paramita a double negation does not make an affirmation. The misconception might arise that 'the extinction of ignorance' might be equivalent to a positive entity, named knowledge. The addition of 'no knowledge' would guard against that misconception. — Edward Conze

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment, bodhisattavas take refuge in Prajnaparamita and live without walls of the mind.

For someone with no mind, there is still a barrier. What do I mean? A white cloud blocks the valley mouth.
: :~ Returning birds can't find the way to their nests. — Pao-t'ung

Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

In the context of the Heart Sutra, we understand nirvana to be the ultimate nature of one's mind at a stage when the mind has become totally cleansed of all mental afflictions. . . it is because the mind is innately pure, which is to say it has buddha nature, that simply removing the obscurations to clarity reveals enlightenment; thus, the emptiness of the mind is said to be the basis of nirvana, its natural nirvana. When an individual goes through a process of purifying the mind by applying the antidotes to the mental afflictions, over time, the mind becomes totally free of all these obscurations. The emptiness of this undefiled mind is the true nirvana or liberation. — The Dalai Lama

All buddhas past, present and future
 also take refuge in Prajnaparamita


The buddhas of the past, present, and future
 take no other road and use only this gate. — Fa-tsang

and realize unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.


Stop hammering spikes into empty space! A steer may give birth to a calf, but no Buddha was ever enlightened by relying on wisdom. Why? Because wisdom and enlightenment are essentially not-two. Besides, if he has anything left to get, he is no Buddha. It's like a blazing conflagration. If they draw too close, Buddhas and Patriarchs get burned to death, like everyone else. — Hakuin Zenji

You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita,

Once you catch a fish, you can forget the trap. Once you catch a rabbit, you can forget the snare. Once you catch the meaning, you can forget the words. The Pravara-devaraja Paripriccha Sutra says,'Though words are used to express a dharani, a dharani has no words. The great compassionate power of prajna is beyond words and expressions.' — Ching-chueh

the mantra of great magic, the unexcelled mantra, the mantra equal to the unequalled, which heals all suffering

What would life be like if
The road had no bumps,
The sea no waves,
The fire no sparks,
The wind no gusts,
And the sky no clouds?

Don’t be fooled. He’s not talking about the four easy escapes:

  • the self-righteous complacency that allows you to dismiss the vicissitudes that afflict your fellow being,
  • the formal courtesy that masks your cruelty with the sterility of social dictates,
  • the heartless justice that enables you to impose values on the helpless and unfortunate,
  • the celebration of the trivial and the inconsequential that artificially inflates self-esteem.

    Ken McLeod

and is true, not false, the mantra in Prajnaparamita spoken thus:

A mantra is something that you utter when your body, your mind, and your breath are at one in deep concentration. When you dwell in that deep concentration, you look into things and see them as clearly as you see an orange that you hold in the palm of your hand. Looking deeply into the five skandhas, Avalokitesvara saw the nature of interbeing and overcame all pain. He became completely liberated. It was in that state of deep concentration, of joy, of liberation, that he uttered something important. That is why his utterance is a mantra.— Thich Nhat Hanh

'Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha.'

This is the function of this mantra: to go beyond language and the categories in which language imprisons us and to lead us into the womb of Prajna-paramita, which is the Gone, the Gone Beyond, the Gone Completely Beyond. — Red Pine