The Perfection of Wisdom –  The Perfect  Understanding

The Heart Sutra, also known as the Prajna-Paramita or the Perfection of Wisdom, represents the essence of the Buddha’s teachings on Prajna, the highest form of wisdom attained by enlightened beings and the means to its perfection.  It is through the realization of emptiness, rather than impermanence, that the Bodhisattvas overcome all suffering.  The Heart Sutra is chanted daily in monasteries and practice centers throughout the world.  It is a precious gift to the Buddhists,  the gift of fearlessness.

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, commonly known as Kuan Shih Yin or Kuan Yin,  is the manifestation of Great Love and Great Compassion.  Her name, Kuan Shih Yin,  means “She who hears the cries of the world“.  Kuan Shih Yin or Kuan Yin  is most often represented as a female deity, but has the power to assume whatever form is necessary to fulfill her vow to save all beings from suffering.  She is often shown holding a vase (or a bowl) containing the waters of compassion, the lotus flower of enlightenment, or a Mala.

The oldest surviving version of the Heart Sutra is a Chinese translation attributed to Master Kumarajiva (344 – 413 A.D.) who traveled from Kucha, an ancient state in eastern Turkestan, to the capital city of China at Chang-An City and there engaged upon the translation work of the Diamond Sutra  , the Lotus Sutra , and the Heart Sutra from Sanskrit into Chinese.

According to the biography of Master Shuan-Chuang  (or Xuan Zang) (602 – 665 A.D.),  he received a version of the Heart Sutra (perhaps Kumarajiva’s) from a beggar he had help in SiZhuan prior to his jouney to the West, and used it as a talismanic chant during his treacherous crossing of the Gobi desert.  In his biography, the Master mentioned that on his Journey to the West  while passing the Gobi Desert, as he lay dying of thirst and chanting the Heart Sutra, Kuan Yin manifested. She led him and his horse to an oasis of water. The Master remained devoted to Kuan Yin throughout his life.  After 17 years, Master Shuan-Chuang returned from India to China and issued his own version of the Heart Sutra with several important changes.  The most significant change was the title, and being the first to be called a sutra.  The essence of every version of the Heart Sutra is believed to be held in the last phrase:  Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.

The Heart Sutra has been described as the most supreme of Buddha’s 84,000 teachings.  Buddhists around the world recite it, some even daily to generate positive karma merit and attain realizations on the Perfection of Wisdom.  These are aspirations that lie within the hearts and minds of all who practice the Dharma. Just having the Heart Sutra in your home starts you along this path.  It brings enormous blessings.  Toward the bottom of this page you will find my Chinese calligraphy of the Heart Sutra.

The English Translation of “The Heart Sutra” (1)  (By: Anonymity)

“Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Kuan Yin) when practicing deeply the Prajna-Paramita (the Perfection of Wisdom) perceives that all five skandhas (form, sensation, perception, conception and consciousness) are equally empty and thus overcomes all suffering.  Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form.  Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.  The same is true of sensation, perception, conception and consciousness.

Shariputra, emptiness is the nature of all dharmas.  It neither arises nor ceases; it can neither be defiled nor purified; it neither increases nor decreases.  Therefore, in emptiness there is no form, sensation, perception, conception, or consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind; no visual form, sound, smell, taste, touch, or mental object; no realm of eye up to no realm of mind consciousness; no ignorance, nor its extinction up to no old age and death nor their extinction; no dukkha (suffering), no cause, no cessation and no path; no wisdom and no attainment.  There is nothing to be attained.

Bodhisattvas, relying on Prajna-Paramita (the Perfection of Wisdom), have no worries or mental obstructions.  Having no worries and mental obstructions, they have no fear, keep away from illusion and realize ultimate Nirvana.

All Buddhas in the past, present and future rely on Prajna-Paramita (the Perfection of Wisdom) to attain anuttara samyak sambodhi (complete enlightenment).  Thus, one realizes that Prajna-Paramita (the Perfection of Wisdom) is a great, marvelous mantra, an illuminating mantra, a supreme mantra and an unequalled mantra.  It can eradicate all dukkha (suffering).  This is true.  Thus proclaim the Prajna-Paramita (the Perfection of Wisdom) Mantra by saying:  Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha (or, Proceed Proceed, Proceed beyond, completely Proceed beyond to attain Enlightenment.) (Or, Beyond, beyond, totally beyond, perfectly beyond; Awakening….Yes!)”  

The English Translation of “The Heart Sutra” (2)   (By: Thich Nhat Hanh)

The Bodhisattva Avalokita (Kuan Yin) , while in her deep meditation on the Perfect Understanding, shed light on the five skandhas and found them equally empty.  After this penetration, she overcame all pain and fear.

“Listen, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.  The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.”

“Hear, Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are neither produced nor destroyed, neither defiled nor immaculate, neither increasing nor decreasing.  Therefore, in emptiness there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor mental formations, nor consciousness; no eye, or  ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind; no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realms of elements (from eyes to mind-consciousness); no interdependent origins and no extinction of them (from ignorance to old age and death); no suffering, no origination of suffering, no extinction of suffering, no path; no understanding, and no attainment.”

“Because there is no attainment, the bodhisattvas, supported by the Perfection of Understanding, find no obstacles for their minds.  Having no obstacles, they overcome fear, liberating themselves forever from illusion and realizing perfect Nirvana.  All Buddhas in the past, present and future,  thanks to this Perfect Understanding, arrive at full, right, and universal Enlightenment.”

“Therefore, one should know that the Perfect Understanding is a great mantra, is the highest mantra, is the unequalled mantra, the destroyer of all suffering, the incorruptible truth.  A mantra of Prajnaparamita should therefore be proclaimed.  This is the mantra:  Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.”


The English Translation of “The Heart Sutra” (3)   (By: Rev. Dosung Yoo)

The Bodhisattva of Great Compassion,  when deeply practicing Prajna Paramita, realized that all five aggregates are empty and became free from all suffering and distress.

Here, Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.  Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.  The same is true of sensations, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness.

Here, Shariputra, all dharmas are empty; they do not appear or disappear, are not tainted or pure, do not increase or decrease.

Therefore in emptiness, no form, no sensations, no perceptions, no impulses, no consciousness.   No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, or mind consciousness.

No ignorance, nor extinction of ignorance, no old age and death, nor extinction of them.  No suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path; no wisdom, no attainment with nothing to attain.

The Bodhisattva relies on Prajna Paramita, therefore the mind has no hindrance; without any hindrance, no fears exist; free from delusion, one dwells in Nirvana.  All buddhas of the past, present, and future rely on Prajna Paramita and attain supreme enlightenment.

Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is the great mantra, is the great enlightening mantra, is the unsurpassed and unequalled mantra, which is able to eliminate all suffering.  This is true, not false.

So proclaim the Prajna Paramita mantra, which says “gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha,”  or “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone together beyond! Now awakened.”


The  Interpretation of the “Heart Sutra”

Bodhi means being awake, and sattva means a living being, so bodhisattva means an awakened being.  All of us are sometimes bodhisattvas, and sometimes not.  Avalokita is the name of the bodhisattva in this sutra.  Avalokita is just a shorter version of Avalokiteshvara.  In Chinese, we translate her name as “Kuan Shih Yin” or “Kuan Yin,” which means “the one who listens and hears the cries of the world in order to come and help.”  Kuan Yin gives us the gift of non-fear because she herself has transcended fear.  (Sometimes Avalokita is a woman and sometimes a man.)

The Perfection of Wisdom or Perfect Understanding is Prajna-paramita.  The word “wisdom” is usually used to translate Prajna.  In order to fully understand this sutra, we must learn to transcend our own views and knowledge, which are solid and can block our way of understanding this sutra.

Kuan Yin found the five skandhas empty.  But, empty of what?  The key word is “empty.”  To be empty is to be empty of something.  An empty cup cannot be empty of nothing.  An empty cup is empty of water, but it is not empty of air.   Kuan Yin looked deeply into the nature of the five skandhas of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, and she discovered that  all five are empty —  they are empty of a separate self.  That means none of these five skandhas can exist by itself alone.  They have to co-exist with all the others.  So, she tells us that form is empty.  Form is empty of a separate self, but it is full of everything in the cosmos.  The same is true with the feelings, perception, mental formations, and consciousness.  She discovered the empty nature of all of them, and suddenly, she overcame all pain.

Emptiness is the ground of everything.  Thanks to emptiness, everything is possible.  If we are not empty, we become a block of matter.  We cannot breathe, we cannot think.  To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe out.  Emptiness is impermanence, it is changeable.   We should not be afraid of impermanence, because without impermanence nothing is possible.  Without impermanence, how can we grow up?   Once we fully understand emptiness through experience, then clinging is gone completely.  We are fearless, confident, and naturally happy.

Here, Dharmas mean things.  Everything that can be conceived of is a dharma.  So when we say, “All dharmas are makred with emptiness,” we are saying, “Everything has emptiness as its own nature.”   Kuan Yin said, “There is no birth and no death.  Nothing can be born and nothing can die.”  There is only continuation.  For example, a wave on the ocean has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death.  According to Kuan Yin, the wave is empty.  The wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self.  Each wave is born and is going to die, but the water is free from birth and death.  So, if we look very deeply, we will transcend birth and death.

It is the truth that everything is everything else.  We can only co-exist, we cannot just be.  And we are responsible for everything that happens around us.  We want to be only good, and we want to remove all evil.  But, we forget that good is made of non-good elements.  The same can be applied to “beauty” and “ugliness.”  You cannot have beauty alone.  You cannnot hope to remove ugliness, because thanks to ugliness, beauty exists and vice versa.  Buddha is made of non-Buddha elements, like me.  And I am made of non-me elements, like the Buddha. Only penetration into reality can help us understand.  And, understanding is the basis of everything.

Everything contains everything else; that is the principle of inter-penetration.  We are incapable of destroying anything.  When they assassinated Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., they hoped to reduce them into nothingness.  But these people continue to be with us, perhaps even more than before, because they continue in other forms.  So, let us not be afraid of decreasing.  It is like the moon.  We see the moon increasing and decreasing, but it is always the moon.

None of these eighteeen realsm of elements can exist by itself.  It can only rely on the being of the others in order for it to be.  Therefore, all of them are empty, and because they are empty, they really exist.  The same principle applies to the Four Noble Truths:  No suffering, no origination of suffering, no extinction of suffering and no path  The last item on the list is “no understanding, no attainment.”  “No understanding” means understanding has no separate existence.  Understanding is made of non-understanding elements, just as Buddha is made of non-Buddha elements.

Once we see with the eyes of co-existence, these obstacles are removed from our mind and we overcome fear and pain, liberating ourselves forever from illusion, and realizing perfect Nirvana, which is the state of non-fear.  You are longer subject to birth and death, defilement and immaculateness. you are free from all that.

A mantra is something that you utter when your body, your mind, and your breath are at one in deep concentration.  Looking deeply into the five skandhas, Kuan Yin saw the nature of co-existence and overcame all pain and fear.  She became completely liberated.  It was in that state of deep concentration, of joy, of liberation, that she uttered something important.  That is why her utterance is a mantra.

Kuan Yin’s  mantra is “Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha.”  Gate means gone.  Gone from suffering to the liberation of suffering.  Gone from forgetfulness to mindfulness.  Gone from duality into nonduality.  Paragate means gone all the way to the other shore.  In parasamgate, sam means everyone, the Sangha, the entire community of beings.  Bodhi is the light inside, enlightenment, or awakening.  And, svaha is a cry of joy or excitement.  “Gone, gone, gone all the way over, everyone gone to the other shore, awakening,,,,,Yes!.”

The Heart Sutra is not just for chanting, or to be put on an altar for worship.  It is Kuan Yin’s precious gift to us as a tool to work for our liberation, for the liberation of all beings.  If you practice the meditation on emptiness, if you penetrate the nature of co-existence with all your heart, your body, and your mind, you will realize a state that is quite concentrated.  If you say the mantra then, the mantra will have power and you will be able to have real communication, real communion with Kuan Yin, and you will be able to transform yourself in the direction of enlightenment.

When you practice sitting meditation, if  enjoy even one moment of your sitting, if you establish serenity and true happiness inside yourself, you provide your family with a solid base of peace.  If you do not give yourself peace, how can you share it with others?  To sit, to smile, to deeply look at things and really see them, these are the basis of peace work.

Attaining Enlightenment  With The Heart Sutra

The Heart  Sutra teachings also contain hidden meanings on the path to Enlightenment, but of course Enlightenment can not be achieved by meditating on Emptiness alone.  It is insufficient to use only the Wisdom aspect of the path.  We need a union of Wisdom and Method.  We need a realization of Emptiness, but we also need to develop compassion and loving kindness to realize Bodhicitta.

In fact, Enlightenment requires practicing the three principles, which comprises Renunciation, Bodhicitta and Correct View (or Emptiness).  In practicing the three principles, we are practicing both Method and Wisdom.  This is indispensable to attaining the state of Buddhahood.

Renunciation:  It meas generating a real wish to be liberated from cyclic existence no matter how great or happy our present life is.  Without this we can not get started.

Bodhicitta:  It means working for the benefit of sentient beings.  Without this we have no motivation.

Correct View:  It means understanding Emptiness.  Without this we understand nothing, we cannot eliminate the afflictions for all the root causes of our sufferings.

The training in all three principles is gradual.  Thoughts of Renunciation and Bodhicitta cannot arise overnight.  Training is required to develop non-attachment.  It is only because of our perfect human rebirth that we can think and can understand the merit of practicing detachment, that we know that death is certain and that all things are impermanent.  Since they are empty of inherent existence anyway, better to find a way to achieve true happiness.

At the time of death, the only thing we bring with us into our next life is the karma we created while living this life, and that our next life depends on the accumulated balance of good and bad karma.  When we contemplate on this endless cycle of birth and rebirth, that is when we generate the thought to be completely free of this cyclic unenlightened existence.  To do so, we need to understand that the root cause of our being in this cycle is our own store of accumulated negative karma.  To get out, we need to completely eliminate this store of negative karma.  Then only can we get liberated.  How?  By realizing Emptiness to get rid of our delusions which is what gives rise to all our afflictions, which in turn causes us to create even more negative karma.

Not understanding Emptiness is living in a state of self grasping ignorance.  Eliminate this and we eliminate the root cause of all our sufferings.  When we develop the wisdom that realizes emptiness, self grasping ignorance gets released and the stronger our wisdom becomes, the weaker the self grasping becomes also.  If you achieve up to this state, you become an Arhat.

To go beyond Arhatship and attain Enlightenment however, we need one more realization and that is Bodhicitta, the thought of becoming a Buddha to benefit all sentient beings.  The development of this is also a gradual process which starts with developing great compassion for all suffering beings.  From this, one generates the fervent thought to free them of their suffering and bring them everlasting happiness.

But How?  We do not have the power to do so.  We need to become a Buddha to do this.  To become a Buddha, we need to become Enlightened, and for that, we need to first generate the thought of becoming liberated from cyclic existence.  Generating the altruistic mind to want to become a Buddha to help other sentient beings is Bodhicitta.  But Bodhicitta must be genuine and not contrived.  If we have to think of reasons to generate Bodhicitta, it is not spontaneous and not genuine.  This same reasoning applies also to Renunciation.  It too must be spontaneous, natural, and effortless.

(Spring Liao, 11/25/2005)




The following two pages are the entire content of the Heart Sutra (Master Shuan-Chuang’s version) in Chinese calligraphy.  It is to be read from top to down and from right to left, which is the traditional way of writing Chinese characters.

(Spring Liao, 01/22/2010)

The following is the beginning part of the “Heart Sutra” in Chinese calligraphy  which is to be read from top to down and from left to right.