The Essence of the Heart Sutra

Giant Buddha of Kamakura and flowers
Grant Faint

The Heart Sutra (in Sanskrit, Prajnaparamita Hrdaya), possibly the best known text of Mahayana Buddhism, is said to be the pure distillation of wisdom (prajna). The Heart Sutra is also among the shortest of sutras. An English translation can easily be printed on one side of a piece of paper.

The teachings of the Heart Sutra are deep and subtle, and we do not pretend to completely understand them. This article is a mere introduction to the sutra for the completely baffled.

Origins of the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is part of the much larger Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) Sutra, which is a collection of about 40 sutras composed between 100 BCE and 500 CE. The precise origin of the Heart Sutra is unknown. According to the translator Red Pine, the earliest record of the sutra is a Chinese translation from Sanskrit by the monk Chih-ch'ien made between 200 and 250 CE.

In the 8th century, another translation emerged that added an introduction and conclusion. This longer version was adopted by Tibetan Buddhism. In Zen and other Mahayana schools that originated in China, the shorter version is more common.

The Perfection of Wisdom

As with most Buddhist scriptures, simply "believing in" what the Heart Sutra says is not its point. It is important also to appreciate that the sutra cannot be grasped by intellect alone. Although analysis is helpful, people also keep the words in their hearts so that understanding unfolds through practice.

In this sutra, Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is speaking to Shariputra, who was an important disciple of the historical Buddha. The early lines of the sutra discuss the five skandhas -- form, sensation, conception, discrimination, and consciousness. The bodhisattva has seen that the skandhas are empty and thus has been freed from suffering. The bodhisattva speaks:

Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness; emptiness no other than form. Form is exactly emptiness; emptiness exactly form. Sensation, conception, discrimination, and consciousness are also like this.

What Is Emptiness?

Emptiness (in Sanskrit, shunyata) is a foundational doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. It is also possibly the most misunderstood doctrine in all of Buddhism. Too often, people assume it means that nothing exists. But this is not the case.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama said, "The existence of things and events is not in dispute; it is the manner in which they exist that must be clarified." Put another way, things and events have no intrinsic existence and no individual identity except in our thoughts.

The Dalai Lama also teaches that "existence can only be understood in terms of dependent origination." Dependent origination is a teaching that no being or thing exists independently of other beings or things.

In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha taught that our distresses ultimately spring from thinking ourselves to be independently existing beings with an intrinsic "self." Thoroughly perceiving that this intrinsic self is a delusion liberates us from suffering.

All Phenomena Are Empty

The Heart Sutra continues, with Avalokiteshvara explaining that all phenomena are expressions of emptiness or empty of inherent characteristics. Because phenomena are empty of inherent characteristics, they are neither born nor destroyed; neither pure nor defiled; neither coming nor going.

Avalokiteshvara then begins a recitation of negations -- "no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, thing," etc. These are the six sense organs and their corresponding objects from the doctrine of the skandhas.

What is the bodhisattva saying here? Red Pine writes that because all phenomena exist interdependently with other phenomena, all distinctions we make are arbitrary.

"There is no point at which the eyes begin or end, either in time or in space or conceptually. The eye bone is connected to the face bone, and the face bone is connected to the head bone, and the head bone is connected to the neck bone, and so it goes down to the toe bone, the floor bone, the earth bone, the worm bone, the dreaming butterfly bone. Thus, what we call our eyes are so many bubbles in a sea of foam."

The Two Truths

Another doctrine associated with the Heart Sutra is that of the Two Truths. Existence can be understood as both ultimate and conventional (or, absolute and relative). Conventional truth is how we usually see the world, a place full of diverse and distinctive things and beings. The ultimate truth is that there are no distinctive things or beings.

The important point to remember with the two truths is that they are two truths, not one truth and one lie. Thus, there are eyes. Thus, there are no eyes. People sometimes fall into the habit of thinking that the conventional truth is "false," but that's not correct.

No Attainment

Avalokiteshvara goes on to say there is no path, no wisdom, and no attainment. Referring to the Three Marks of Existence, Red Pine writes, "The liberation of all beings revolves around the liberation of the bodhisattva from the concept of being." Because no individual being comes into existence, neither does a being cease to exist.

Because there is no cessation, there is no impermanence, and because there is no impermanence, there is no suffering. Because there is no suffering, there is no path to liberation from suffering, no wisdom, and no attainment of wisdom. Thoroughly perceiving this is "supreme perfect enlightenment," the bodhisattva tells us.


The last words in the shorter version of the sutra are "Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha!" The basic translation, as I understand it, is "gone (or ferried) with everyone to the other shore right now!"

Thorough understanding of the sutra requires working face-to-face with a real dharma teacher. However, if you want to read more about the sutra, these two books are particularly helpful:

  • Red Pine, (Counterpoint Press, 2004). An insightful line-by-line discussion.
  • His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, (Wisdom Publications, 2005). Compiled from heart wisdom talks given by His Holiness.
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Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "The Essence of the Heart Sutra." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). The Essence of the Heart Sutra. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "The Essence of the Heart Sutra." Learn Religions. (accessed March 31, 2023).