The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom, the Blessed Mother
Degé Kangyur, vol. 34 (sher phyin, ka), folios 144b–146a.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee
under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha
In this famous scripture, known popularly as The Heart Sūtra, the Buddha Śākyamuni inspires his senior monk Śāriputra to request instructions from the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara on the way to practice the perfection of wisdom. Avalokiteśvara then describes how an aspiring practitioner of the perfection of wisdom must first understand how all phenomena lack an intrinsic nature, which amounts to the realization of emptiness. Next, Avalokiteśvara reveals a brief mantra that the practitioner can recite as a method for engendering this understanding experientially. Following Avalokiteśvara’s teaching, the Buddha offers his endorsement and confirms that this is the foremost way to practice the perfection of wisdom.
Translated by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee under the guidance of Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. The translation was produced by Catherine Dalton and Andreas Doctor, who also wrote the introduction. Wiesiek Mical compared the translation against the Sanskrit. The translators also wish to thank Jeffrey Kotyk, Jayarava Attwood, and Joshua Capitanio for their helpful comments and advice.
The translation was completed under the patronage and supervision of 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha.
The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom, the Blessed Mother,1 which today is popularly known simply as The Heart Sūtra,2 has been cherished, read, and recited by Mahāyāna Buddhists in East and Central Asia for well over a millennium. Over the centuries, scholars and practitioners have continued to find deep meaning in this short scripture and vigorously debated its purpose and practice—and even whether to classify it as a sūtra or a tantra. Still today, The Heart Sūtra continues to be recited around the world in monasteries, temples, and meditation centers in a variety of Buddhist traditions. As a result of its popularity, in more recent times the sūtra has been translated into a wide variety of modern languages that are available in print and online.
The sūtra takes place on Vulture Peak Mountain near Rājagṛha. Here the Buddha inspires his senior monk Śāriputra to request instructions from the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara regarding the practice of the perfection of wisdom.3 Prompted in this way, Avalokiteśvara describes how an aspiring practitioner of the perfection of wisdom must first understand that all phenomena lack an intrinsic nature and therefore are empty. To manifest this realization in the practitioner, Avalokiteśvara reveals a brief mantra to be recited: tadyathā gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā. Following Avalokiteśvara’s teaching, the Buddha offers his endorsement of what has been said and confirms that this is indeed the foremost way to practice the perfection of wisdom.
In English we speak of The Heart Sūtra in the singular, but this obscures the fact that—more than most Buddhist canonical scriptures—this short teaching exists in a variety of versions, recensions, and redactions in multiple canonical languages. Most importantly, The Heart Sūtra exists in both a short and a long version (although the long version is also very brief) in Chinese, Sanskrit, and Tibetan. In East Asia the shorter version, which is also the older one in terms of textual history, became the most popular, while in Tibet the longer version was favored.
The short version of The Heart Sūtra was first compiled—most likely as an abstract of longer Prajñāpāramitā sūtras—in China sometime in the middle of the seventh century ᴄᴇ.4 Shortly thereafter, it appears that the sūtra was translated from Chinese into Sanskrit. The material used to compile the sūtra was extracted from key passages in Prajñāpāramitā scriptures in Chinese translation, especially Kumārajīva’s (344–413 ᴄᴇ) translation of The Perfection of Wisdom in Twenty-Five Thousand Lines (Taishō 223). These central statements were then framed by an introduction describing the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara’s role as the teacher, and then a concluding mantra, which functioned to encapsulate the blessings of the Prajñāpāramitā teachings.5 In this way, the short version of The Heart Sūtra combines established Buddhist Prajñāpāramitā scripture with dhāraṇī practice in an abridged format that is eminently suited for recitation. Notably, at that time in China such scriptural digests summarizing the words of the Buddha (buddhavacana) were common, and The Heart Sūtra is certainly not unique in this way.6 What is remarkable, however, is the immense importance and popularity the short version of The Heart Sūtra came to enjoy in China and the rest of East Asia. When viewed from the perspective of its roots in Prajñāpāramitā literature and its transformative and liberating efficacy in the perception of its many devotees, The Heart Sūtra does fulfill important criteria for being a genuine Buddhist scripture. For example, the Mahāyāna sūtra Inspiring Determination (Adhyāśayasañcodana, Toh 69) defines authentic buddhavacana as any discourse7 that fulfils the following four criteria: (1) it must be meaningful, (2) it has to be consistent with the Dharma, (3) it should reduce mental defilements, and (4) it should present the qualities of nirvāṇa as opposed to saṃsāra.8 In this sense The Heart Sūtra is perhaps not so different from many other Mahāyāna scriptures, in particular those of the Prajñāpāramitā family, that likewise were transmitted across a variety of time periods, regions, cultures, and languages—constantly in flux, yet ever encapsulating the transcendent aspects of authentic buddhavacana.
Traditionally, the earliest version of The Heart Sūtra in Chinese was thought to be Taishō 250, which in traditional sources is described as a translation of Kumārajīva. However, this attribution is generally no longer accepted, and some scholars have placed it later in time—some even in the beginning of the eighth century ᴄᴇ.9 Apart from Taishō 250, the earliest witness for The Heart Sūtra’s existence is a famous stone stele, which was discovered in the early twentieth century at the Yunju Temple in the Fangshan region near Beijing. The inscription on this stele is a rendering of the short version of The Heart Sūtra, and the colophon is dated to 661. The colophon further states that this is the translation prepared by Xuanzang (i.e., an equivalent of Taishō 251).10 Of the three shorter versions of the text in Chinese,11 this is the one that has been commonly read and recited across East Asia down to the present day.
In terms of Sanskrit sources, the first rendering of the short sūtra in Sanskrit was likely produced shortly after the compilation of The Heart Sūtra in Chinese in the middle of the seventh century. However, the earliest witness we have of a Sanskrit text is not an actual Sanskrit manuscript, but rather a version with the Sanskrit transliterated into Chinese characters (Taishō 256). This text was likely produced by the famous translator and teacher Amoghavajra (705–74) and can therefore be dated to the eighth century.12 While multiple Sanskrit manuscripts of the shorter version of The Heart Sūtra exist, any dating of such manuscripts is typically fraught with much uncertainty.13 Scholars have, however, dated a Sanskrit manuscript of the short version (currently kept in Tokyo National Museum) to the ninth or tenth century, and this appears to be the earliest extant Sanskrit manuscript.14 Tibetan translations of the short sūtra were never included in any of the Kangyurs, but several have been identified among the Dunhuang manuscripts.15
In sum, we can conclude that the Chinese version of the short sūtra must have been compiled sometime between 404 (when Kumārajīva completed his translation of Taishō 223) and 661 ᴄᴇ (the date on the stone stele), and that the Sanskrit translation was produced soon thereafter.16 However, in addition to these mutually distant historical markers, we also have data that place the likely time of compilation much more precisely within just a two-year period from 654–56 ᴄᴇ. First, 654 ᴄᴇ marks the year when the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya (Taishō 901), which is the likely source of the mantra in The Heart Sūtra, was translated into Chinese.17 Second, in Xuanzang’s biography (Taishō 2053, written in the late seventh century) it is mentioned that in 656 Xuanzang offered a gold-lettered version of The Heart Sūtra to the imperial family as a gift. Although the biography is a later source than the stone stele, the date provided in the biography is the earliest placement of The Heart Sūtra in the historical record and this may possibly be the very occasion on which The Heart Sūtra was first compiled in Chinese.18
The history of the longer version of The Heart Sūtra presents us with an equally complex picture of textual transmission. Notably, there are at least two distinct longer versions of The Heart Sūtra. Both longer versions add to the short sūtra by presenting a more extensive, traditional introduction (beginning with the statement “Thus did I hear at one time”) and a conventional concluding section as we generally know them from the Mahāyāna sūtras. As a result, the longer versions appear much more like a typical sūtra than does the short version.
The earliest version of the long sūtra, traditionally dated to 738 ᴄᴇ, is a text that only exists in Chinese (Taishō 252). While the text presents itself as a translation from Sanskrit, it is most likely an early attempt to present the short sūtra in a traditional literary format by adding an introduction and a concluding section, which appear to have been composed directly in Chinese. This version does not seem to have gained much popularity, as its unique introduction was never replicated or copied in other sources.19
The four remaining Chinese versions of the long sūtra (Taishō 253, 254, 255, and 257) are all translations that were produced either from Sanskrit or Tibetan manuscripts.20 Although they each feature certain idiosyncratic elements, all of them clearly belong to the same family in text-historical terms. Unfortunately, there are no surviving Sanskrit manuscripts from the period when these four translations were produced, from the late eighth to the early eleventh century.21 The earliest Sanskrit witnesses we have of the longer version of The Heart Sūtra are Nepalese manuscripts that were produced several centuries later.
Just as with the Sanskrit translation of the short sūtra, we also do not know the circumstances in which the Sanskrit text of the longer version first appeared. It must have taken place, however, prior to 788 ᴄᴇ, when the first Chinese translation from Sanskrit was produced. At around the same time, the two Tibetan translations, which were subsequently included in the Kangyur (see more below), must also have been produced. We can say that with some confidence, since the translation is recorded in the Denkarma catalog of completed translations, which is dated to 812.22
In the Tengyur collections seven commentaries on the long sūtra by Indian scholars and one by a Chinese scholar are included in Tibetan translation. Some of these commentaries were composed by such well-known names in Tibetan history as Kamalaśīla (740–95), Vimalamitra (eighth/ninth c.), and Atīśa (982–1054).23 The authors of these commentaries were all active from the eighth to the eleventh century and most of them are known to have visited Tibet. Interestingly, the different commentators view The Heart Sūtra through very diverse hermeneutical lenses and interpret it variously through the systems of sūtra, tantra, and even ritual practice (sādhana). This great variety of interpretations, combined with the fact that there is no mention of The Heart Sūtra in any other source linked to India, makes it seem likely that the commentaries were all composed in Tibet during the sojourns of these Indian masters there.24
It therefore appears that the history of the long sūtra can be told largely as a Sino-Tibetan exchange of ideas and manuscripts, which unfolded during the eighth to the eleventh century. In this regard, there are strong indications that the Dunhuang region was an important center for the exchange of such ideas and manuscripts. Among the scriptural treasures discovered in the Dunhuang caves in the early twentieth century, all of which must date prior to the turn of the eleventh century when the caves at Dunhuang were sealed off, there are numerous manuscripts of The Heart Sūtra in both Chinese and Tibetan. In addition to the shorter versions mentioned above, there are a number of longer versions, and apparently even a few “hybrid” manuscripts that are neither of the standard short or long sūtras.25 Like the Chinese and Sanskrit versions, these Tibetan Dunhuang manuscripts provide a variety of readings, but so far no comparative analyses of these texts, or critical editions of the manuscripts, have been published.
In Tibet, only the longer version of The Heart Sūtra was included in the various Kangyur collections, where it has been preserved in two recensions, which Jonathan Silk has designated Recension A and Recension B.26 These two recensions represent individual manuscript traditions and appear to have been translated into Tibetan by different translators, although the exact details remain unknown.27 The two recensions vary on several significant points, such as the title of the text, the name of the absorption in which the Buddha rests, the mantra that Avalokiteśvara reveals, and the presence or absence of a translator’s colophon.
The fact that The Heart Sūtra incorporates elements of both sūtra and tantra, and therefore has been variously classified throughout its history, is evident from its placement in the different Kangyur collections, where it often appears twice in both the Tantra section and the Perfection of Wisdom section.28 Generally speaking, all Kangyurs include Recension A in their Tantra sections, whereas some Kangyurs, mostly those of the Thempangma (them spangs ma) branch, also include Recension B in the Perfection of Wisdom section.29 The Kangyurs that belong to the Tshalpa (tshal pa) branch mostly include the text only once, in the Tantra section.30 In the Degé Kangyur, however, the text appears in both the Perfection of Wisdom and the Tantra sections, but, unlike the Thempangma Kangyurs, the Degé Kangyur includes Recension A both times, thus omitting Recension B.31
Our translation is based primarily on the version of Recension A that is included in the Degé Kangyur. We have made Recension A our primary focus in order to present in English one important version of The Heart Sūtra as it has been transmitted in Tibet since the early ninth century, rather than attempting to edit this version in search of an elusive urtext. However, to give the reader a taste of the differences between the two Tibetan recensions—differences that the Tibetans found worthy of preservation in their Kangyurs—we have included in the form of notes the most significant variations between the Degé text and the version of Recension B that is included in the Perfection of Wisdom section in the Stok Palace Kangyur.32 We have also attempted, whenever possible, to let our translation be informed by the published Sanskrit editions of The Heart Sūtra, the eight commentaries on the text in the Tengyur collections, and the growing scholarly literature on The Heart Sūtra.
At that time the Blessed One rested in an absorption on the categories of phenomena called illumination of the profound.35
At the same time,36 the bodhisattva great being, noble Avalokiteśvara, while practicing the profound perfection of wisdom, looked and saw that the five aggregates are also37 empty of an intrinsic nature.38
Then, due to the Buddha’s power, venerable Śāriputra39 asked the bodhisattva great being, noble Avalokiteśvara, “How should sons of noble family or daughters of noble family40 train if they wish to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom?”
The bodhisattva great being, noble Avalokiteśvara, replied to venerable Śāradvatīputra,41 “Śāriputra, sons of noble family or daughters of noble family who wish to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom should see things in this way: they should correctly observe the five aggregates to be empty of an intrinsic nature.42
“Śāriputra, therefore, in emptiness there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formations, no consciousness, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no texture, and no mental object.
“There is no ignorance and no exhaustion of ignorance, up to no aging and death and no exhaustion of aging and death.
“Śāriputra, therefore, since bodhisattvas have no attainment, they rely upon and dwell in the perfection of wisdom.50 Because their minds have no veils, they have no fear. Having utterly51 gone beyond error, they reach the culmination of nirvāṇa.
“All the buddhas who reside in the three times have likewise fully awakened to unsurpassed and perfect awakening by relying upon the perfection of wisdom.
“Therefore,52 the mantra53 of the perfection of wisdom is the mantra of great knowledge, the unsurpassed mantra, the mantra that is equal to the unequaled, and the mantra that utterly pacifies all suffering. Since it is not false, it should be known to be true.
“Śāriputra, this is the way a bodhisattva great being should train in the profound perfection of wisdom.”
Then the Blessed One arose from that absorption and gave his approval to the bodhisattva great being, noble Avalokiteśvara, saying, “Excellent!57 Excellent! Son of noble family, it is like that. Son of noble family, it is like that. The profound perfection of wisdom should be practiced just as you have taught, and even the thus-gone ones will rejoice.”
When the Blessed One had said this, venerable Śāradvatīputra,58 the bodhisattva great being, noble Avalokiteśvara, [F.146.a] and the entire assembly, as well as the world with its devas, humans, asuras, and gandharvas, rejoiced and praised what the Blessed One had said.
This completes The Great Vehicle Sūtra “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom, the Blessed Mother.”
This was translated by the Indian preceptor Vimalamitra and the translator monk Rinchen Dé, and then edited and finalized by the editor-translators Gelo, Namkha, and others. It was then carefully proofed against the writing on the wall of the Gegye Jema Ling Temple59 at glorious Samye—the spontaneously accomplished temple.60
This mantra was most likely extracted from the Chinese translation of the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya (Taishō 901), which was translated into Chinese in 654 ᴄᴇ. This possibility was already mentioned by Nattier, but without providing any details (1992, p. 177). The Dhāraṇīsamuccaya does indeed contain the mantra that is included in The Heart Sūtra and the passage in question reads:
The Chinese reads:
(CBETA, T18, no. 901, p. 807, b19–26. The incantation itself is found at 18: 807b20–21.)
Interestingly, Taishō 901 includes tadyathā (duozhita) at the beginning of the incantation, as do the Sanskrit and Tibetan versions, whereas this is not found in the Chinese versions of The Heart Sūtra. There are a few additional incantations in this section of Taishō 901 that are also labeled “heart dhāraṇī” or “lesser heart dhāraṇī.” We are grateful to Josh Capitanio for locating this passage in Taishō 901 and for providing the above translation.
In the Toh 531 version of the text there is a slight discrepancy in the folio numbering between the 1737 par phud printings and the late (post par phud) printings of the Degé Kangyur. Although the discrepancy is irrelevant here, further details concerning this may be found in note 33 of the Toh 531 version of this text.
bcom ldan ’das ma shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i snying po bam po gcig go. Toh 21, Degé Kangyur vol. 34 (sher phyin, ka), folios 144b–146a.
bcom ldan ’das ma shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i snying po bam po gcig go. Toh 531, Degé Kangyur vol. 88 (rgyud, na), folios 77b–78b.
’phags pa shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i snying po. Stok no. 28, Stok Palace Kangyur vol. 51 (sras sna tshogs, ka), folios 277a–278b.
Denkarma (pho brang stod thang ldan [/ lhan] dkar gyi chos ’gyur ro cog gi dkar chag). Degé Tengyur vol. 206 (sna tshogs, jo), folios 294b–310a.
Attwood, Jayarava. “Heart Murmurs: Some Problems with Conze’s Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 8 (2015): 28–48. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/104.
_______. “Epithets of the Mantra in the Heart Sutra.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 12 (2017a): 26–57. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/155.
_______. “Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 13 (2017b): 52–80. http://www.jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/164.
_______. “The Buddhas of the Three Times and the Chinese Origins of the Heart Sutra.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 15 (2018): 9–27. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/184.
_______. “Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.” Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies 32 (2019): 1–30. http://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/previous_issues/jcbs3201_Attwood(1-30).pdf.
_______. “The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest.” Pacific World, Series Four, no. 1 (2020): 155–82.
_______. “Preliminary Notes on the Extended Heart Sutra in Chinese.” Asian Literature and Translation 8 (1) (2021): 63–85. https://alt.cardiffuniversitypress.org/articles/abstract/10.18573/alt.53/.
Conze, Edward. “The Prajñāpāramitā-Hṛdaya Sūtra.” In Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies: Selected Essays, 147–67. Bruno Cassirer, 1967.
Dalai Lama. Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings. Translated and edited by Geshe Thupten Jinpa. Sommerville: Wisdom Publications, 2015.
Herrmann-Pfandt, Adelheid. Die lHan kar ma: ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2008.
Horiuchi, Toshio. “Revisiting the ‘Indian’ Commentaries on the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya: Vimalamitra’s Interpretation of the ‘Eight Aspects.’ ” Acta Asiatica 121 (2021): 53–81.
Shi, Huifeng. “Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: ‘Non-attainment,’ ‘Apprehension,’ and ‘Mental Hanging’ in the Prajñāpāramitā.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 6 (2014): 72–105. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75.
Ishii, Kōsei (石井 公成). 『般若心経』をめぐる諸問題 : ジャン・ナティエ氏の玄奘創作説を疑う [Issues Surrounding the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya: Doubts Concerning Jan Nattier’s Theory of a Composition by Xuanzang]. Indogaku Bukkyōgaku kenkyū 印度學佛教學研究 64 (2015): 499–92. Translated by Jeffrey Kotyk.
Kotyk, Jeffrey. “Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳.” T’oung Pao 105 (2019): 513–44.
Lopez, Donald S. Elaborations on Emptiness: Uses of the Heart Sūtra. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Lusthaus, Dan. “The Heart Sūtra in Chinese Yogācāra: Some Comparative Comments on the Heart Sūtra Commentaries of Wŏnch’ŭk and K’uei-chi.” International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture 3 (2003): 59–103.
Nālandā Translation Committee. The Sūtra of the Heart of Transcendent Knowledge. 1980. Online publication. https://www.nalandatranslation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Heart-Sutra-for-website.pdf.
Nattier, Jan. “The Heart Sūtra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 15, no. 2 (1992): 153–223.
Silk, Jonathan. The Heart Sutra in Tibetan: A Critical Edition of the Two Recensions Contained in the Kanjur. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde, vol. 34. Vienna: Arbeitskreis fur Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universitat Wien, 1994. https://openphilology.eu/media/pages/publications-jonathan-silk/3568398551-1639738170/authored_1994_heart.pdf.
Sparham, Gareth, trans. The Transcendent Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines (Aṣṭadaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā, Toh 10). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2022.
_______. “The Heart Sūtra as Dhāraṇī.” Acta Asiatica 121 (2021): 99–125.
- phung po
Five “collections” that encompass all apparent physical and mental phenomena: form, feeling, perception, formation(s), and consciousness.
- spyan ras gzigs dbang phyug
One of the main bodhisattva disciples of the Buddha Śākyamuni, praised for his compassion.
One way of describing experience and the world in terms of eighteen elements: eye, form, and eye consciousness; ear, sound, and ear consciousness; nose, odor, and nose consciousness; tongue, taste, and tongue consciousness; body, touch, and body consciousness; and mind, mental objects, and mind consciousness.
- stong pa nyid
In the Mahāyāna, this refers to the lack of any intrinsic nature in all phenomena that would allow them to be regarded as ultimately real, independently existing entities.
- dge blo
Eighth-century Tibetan editor of Toh 21.
- nam mkha’
Eighth-century Tibetan editor of Toh 21.
- rgyal po’i khab
The capital of the ancient kingdom of Magadha.
- rin chen sde
Eighth-century Tibetan translator of Toh 21.
- sha ra dwa ti’i bu
More widely known as Śāriputra. He was one of the closest disciples of the Buddha, known for his pure discipline and, of the hearer disciples, considered foremost in wisdom.
- shA ri’i bu
Also known as Śāradvatīputra. He was one of the closest disciples of the Buddha, known for his pure discipline and, of the hearer disciples, considered foremost in wisdom.
- skye mched
One way of describing experience and the world in terms of twelve sense sources: eye and form, ear and sound, nose and odor, tongue and taste, body and touch, and mind and mental objects.
- bi ma la mi tra
Eighth/ninth-century Indian master important in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet.
Vulture Peak Mountain
- bya rgod phung po’i ri
The mountain where many Great Vehicle teachings were delivered by the Buddha Śākyamuni.