Perhaps because of both its profundity and its brevity, the Heart Sutra is the most familiar of all the original teachings of the Buddha. (The Sino-Japanese version comprises a mere 262 characters.) Recited daily by Buddhists in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, the Heart Sutra is now also recited by many Buddhists in North America. The Sino-Japanese and monosyllabic Korean versions lend themselves well to chanting, and there are now several English translations. The basic text of the Zen tradition, it must also be the only sutra to be found (in Japan) printed on a man’s tie.
According to Buddhist lore, the Heart Sutra was first preached on Vulture Peak, which lies near the ancient Indian city of Rajagraha, and is said to have been the Buddha’s favorite site.
In this sutra, the Buddha inspires one of his closest disciples, Sariputra, to request Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion, to instruct him in the practice of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom. Avalokitesvara’s response contains one of the most celebrated of all Buddhist paradoxes—”form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” And the sutra ends with one of the most popular Buddhist mantras—gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond…(When chanted, gate has two short vowels with the accent on the first syllable.)
The tradition of composing commentary on the Heart Sutra goes back to at least the eighth century, and includes many of the great Buddhist philosophers and meditation masters. What follows here are versions of the sutra and excerpts from some contemporary commentaries addressed to Westerners.
English translations of Buddhist language are not standardized. Variations of, for example, “Avalokitesvara” or “sunyata” or “sutra” reflect differences between Pali and Sanskrit, as well as the national origins of the translators.—Ed.
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