heart sutra
Excerpt from the Heart Sutra in Japanese Kanji characters | © IStockPhoto/junji Takemoto

So you’re sitting there, reciting the Heart Sutra, either the long version or the short version. Perhaps you do so every day. It has been recited millions of times over the centuries, without the person reciting it necessarily paying much attention to the meaning (whatever that might mean). But today, let’s imagine that you do. After dutifully negating each of the major categories of Buddhist philosophy (“no eye constituent up to and including no mental consciousness constituent, no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance, no aging and death up to and including no extinction of aging and death. In the same way, no suffering, no origin, no cessation, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, no nonattainment”), you come to the part, “All the buddhas who abide in the three times have fully awakened into unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment relying on the perfection of wisdom.” So far, so good. But then, “Therefore, the mantra of the perfection of wisdom is the mantra of great wisdom, the unsurpassed mantra, the mantra equal to the unequaled, the mantra that completely pacifies all suffering. Because it is not false, it should be known to be true. The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is stated thus: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha” (pronounced ga-tay, ga-tay pa-ra-ga-tay, pa-ra-sam-ga-tay bo-dhi sva-ha). Something odd just happened. The vocabulary has shifted. A transition has occurred, a transition that begins with a “therefore” that seems more like a non sequitur than a conjunction.

Why do you find this shift so jarring? Perhaps it is because the Heart Sutra is considered the most concentrated expression of the most profound doctrine in Buddhist philosophy, the doctrine of emptiness, orshunyata. The Heart Sutra is the essence, the heart, of the perfection of wisdom. Yet as you reach its end, you are suddenly confronted with the mumbo jumbo of a mantra.

Any number of culturally conditioned responses may be at play here. The first is your rather defensive conviction that despite its long exclusion from university philosophy departments, Buddhism has philosophy—indeed, sophisticated philosophy. And philosophy entails critical analysis and reasoned argumentation to arrive at the real. The second is the nineteenth-century European view that mantras, unintelligible syllables, are magic spells, remnants of primitive superstition about the performative power of sound. Philosophy and superstition are different, and incompatible, modes of thought. Philosophy belongs in sutras; magic belongs in tantras. Hence, the dissonance in the text, a dissonance that you find so jarring. But should you?

There are several ways to explain the presence of the mantra in the sutra. The first, and simplest, is to accept the well-founded view of scholars that the Heart Sutra is a pastiche, a composite, a cut-and-paste job of pieces from a number of Perfection of Wisdom (prajnaparamita) texts. Some have argued that it was not even compiled in India, but in China, and then translated from Chinese into Sanskrit. But this kind of historical information provides little explanatory comfort to the Buddhist who regards the Heart Sutra as buddhavachana, the word of the Buddha.

You might instead try to renounce your view of the Heart Sutra as philosophical in the first place, seeing the entire sutra as a kind of long mantra, a dharani, acknowledging that it has functioned as such in Asia for centuries, recited, for example, at funerals to dispel demons. But demons raise the question of superstition again, and the question of whether Buddhism is (also) a form of magic is a question you may not wish
to consider.

You might find some comfort in recognizing that the problem is not restricted to twenty-first century Americans. As Buddhism spread far beyond the confines of the Indian subcontinent, its adherents were faced with the task of translating its scriptures. Yet the translators of the Heart Sutra, into Chinese, into Japanese, into Korean, into Tibetan, did not translate the mantra; instead, in an effort to duplicate, and thereby preserve, the sound of Avalokiteshvara’s voice, they transliterated it. (Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is the sutra’s main speaker.) They translated the rest of the sutra, but they left the mantra—in sound if not in form—in Sanskrit. You should recognize, then, that the experience of reciting the Heart Sutra would be very different for a Chinese monk than it would have been for an Indian monk. The Indian monk, reciting the sutra in Sanskrit, would intone a Sanskrit mantra. The Chinese monk, reciting along in Chinese, would, like you, come to a phrase marked by its incomprehensibility, reading a transliteration to produce sounds that were clearly not Chinese.

The translators did not translate the mantra because mantras are not translated. On the most practical level, a mantra is often untranslated simply because, measured against the model of classical Sanskrit, it is untranslatable; the mantra has undergone sufficient modification, whether intentional or not, to render it grammatically illegible. But more importantly, as an element of ritual discourse, a mantra is as much an event as a statement, and events resist translation; they can only be repeated. And from the Indian perspective, a mantra can only be in Sanskrit and must remain so in order to retain its potency as speech, with its traditional primeval primacy over the derivations of script, a view strongly held in both Hindu and Buddhist thought. Indeed, not only should a mantra not be translated from Sanskrit into another language, it should also not be transferred from its natural medium to some other, from sound to writing. But it has been, and so you read it.

For the Indian monk, the mantra would not be incomprehensible; it would evoke something. As we often read in books about Buddhism, the mantra seems to mean something like: “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, enlightenment, svaha.” It doesn’t quite say that, because for such a reading the vowel ending the first four words (gate gate paragate parasamgate) is not grammatically correct, leading some scholars to speculate that it is in the feminine vocative, an invocation of the goddess Prajnaparamita, the mother of all buddhas. In that case, the mantra would mean “O, you (feminine) who have gone.”

So what to do? You can do what Buddhists have long done when confronted with a scriptural conundrum: you can look at the commentaries. The Heart Sutra is, of course, one of the most commented upon of all the Buddhist sutras, receiving commentaries for over a millennium, and up to the present day. Among the Indian works preserved in the Tibetan canons (where, by the way, the Heart Sutra appears both among the sutras and among the tantras), there are more commentaries on the Heart Sutra than on any other text. Eight commentaries survive from India, and you might take some comfort from the fact that at least some of the commentators, among whom are such famous figures as Kamalashila and Atisha, didn’t know quite what to do with the mantra either.

Indian Buddhist scholars like Kamalashila and Atisha knew that the Perfection of Wisdom sutras were renowned for having two teachings: an open teaching and a hidden teaching. The open teaching set forth the final nature of reality, emptiness. The hidden teaching set forth the myriad realizations that occur over the path of the bodhisattva. The majority of the many commentaries on the Perfection of Wisdom corpus are concerned primarily with the second topic. The Heart Sutra thus presents the Buddhist scholastic with the following dilemma: as the quintessence of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, it should contain pithy expositions of both of these themes. And indeed much of the text is devoted to emptiness. Yet there is no mention of the path, except to say that it does not exist (“in the same way, no suffering, no origin, no cessation, no path”).

Therefore, these commentators took it as their task to discover in the sutra an exposition of the structure of the path, an exposition that is ostensibly absent. In their efforts to decode the sutra in this way, they turned to that part of the sutra that seemed encoded, that did not make immediate sense; they turned to the mantra. The mantra (not counting svaha) has five words, and the bodhisattva traverses five paths: the path of accumulation, the path of preparation, the path of vision, the path of meditation, and the path of no further learning. The third path is different from the first two; it marks the initial direct vision of emptiness and destroys all seeds for future rebirth as an animal, ghost, or hell being. And, sure enough, the third word is different from the first two, adding para to gate. The last of the five paths, the path of no further learning, is synonymous with buddhahood, and, sure enough, the last word is bodhi, “enlightenment.” It’s a convincing homology.

Atisha, writing in the eleventh century, took a somewhat different tack: he apportions the sutra up to the point of the mantra under the headings of the five paths. But if the entire path has been presented to that point, why is the mantra necessary, why is it not superfluous? He accounts for the presence of the mantra by explaining that everything in the sutra up to the mantra has been the teaching for those of dull faculties, the not-so-bright bodhisattvas (relatively speaking), whereas the mantra is the exposition of the five paths for bodhisattvas of sharp faculties, the smart bodhisattvas. What he is suggesting is that the entire structure of the path to enlightenment becomes clear to these bodhisattvas of acute intellect simply upon hearing Avalokiteshvara’s invocation of the mantra. But in that case, why doesn’t the mantra come first? Why didn’t Avalokiteshvara begin with the mantra and let the smart bodhisattvas go home?

So reading the commentaries, as is always the case, answers some questions, but raises others. The translators of the Heart Sutra could have translated the mantra; many commentators over the centuries have done so. Yet they left the mantra untouched by translation and the apparent limitation that that would entail, leaving the mantra unreconciled with the tongue of the reader but protected as sound, a sound that communicates nothing (except to those really smart bodhisattvas). It maintains its potency by eluding any conventional comprehension of its meaning. It works like magic.