Listening today to a podcast about a Christian Zen practitioner, I heard the interviewer mention the Heart Sutra. This caused me to go straight to my shelves and take down my slim copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding, his commentary on the Heart Sutra and one of the books I have read over and over again through the years.
What exactly is the Heart Sutra? It is the shortest of the Mahayana Sutras, or holy writings, and it is a pithy and poetic examination of the concept of emptiness. The Buddhist notion of Emptiness, which is reasonably well known by its Sanskrit name sunyata, is one of those that most troubles Christians when they investigate Buddhism. It is the notion that, at the basis of all things, there is no substance – all is empty.
In Vietnamese Buddhist temples the Heart Sutra is chanted at each prayer sesssion, and it can be identified by the chanting of its ditinctive mantra, which always remains untranslated: gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. Offering a translation is kind of pointless, but I have found that English speakers always want one, so, for what it’s worth, this mantra is literally saying (in Edward Conze‘s version): “gone gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!”
Some say that the Heart Sutra is the best known of all the Buddhist sutras, and its brevity means that it is commonly presented in Buddhist art. It can also be found printed on small cards and distributed freely in temples; and also etched onto jewellery, ritual objects and cups. In these forms the Sutra becomes something like a talisman.
Scholars think that the Sutra was probably composed in Chinese and later into Sanskrit, though Buddhist tradition has always claimed the opposite. It is said to be the work of Xuanzang, the monk famously depicted in the Monkey stories and one of the powerhouses of Chinese Buddhist literature.
The famous Buddhist Master Lok To wrote that chanting the Sutra was a powerful way to drive away demons, both real and imaginary, and Thich Nhat Hanh points out that its central point is to point out the interdependence of all states of being.
I think that The Heart of Understanding is the best commentary on the Heart Sutra the beginner could hope to read. It is certainly the most accessible. This small piece of text has inspired a bewildering amount of writing, much of it very esoteric indeed!