A Reader’s Guide to the Heart Sutra

Heart SutraThe Heart Sutra stands among the classic Buddhist scriptures. Akin in importance to the “Shema Yisrael” for Jews or the “Lord’s Prayer” for Christians, the Heart Sutra is considered by Mahayanists, and especially Zen Buddhists, to contain the pith instructions for the practice of their religion—namely the radical negation of conventional concepts and extreme views in favor of an experience of reality permeated by wisdom and compassion.

"Heart Sutra" is a translation of the Sanskrit term Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, which more fully translates to “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra.” Along with the Diamond Sutra, it is the most famous representative of the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) section of the Mahayana Buddhist canon. The sutra has been translated into English from Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese canonical sources and exists in both a long and a short form—the short version consisting, incredibly, of only fourteen lines of Sanskrit or 260 Chinese characters.

The key to its brevity is the sutra’s single-pointed focus on negation of conventional understanding. Indeed, this iconoclastic text goes so far as to negate the core teachings of the Abhidharma (the orthodox Theravadin collection of texts interpreting the sutras) and of the Buddha himself—the Four Noble Truths, the Five Skandhas (aggregates), the Eighteen Dhātus (senses, sense objects, and fields of sense perception), and the Twelve Links of Dependent Co-Arising. The Heart Sutra holds that those who allow practice to carry them through and beyond even these wisdom concepts will find “wisdom beyond wisdom,” a far shore of awakening where one is not caught by fixed ideas and therefore can escape all suffering.

Although the Heart Sutra is mentioned in more Shambhala Publications books than can be listed here, interested readers can find various translations and in-depth analyses of the sutra in the following Shambhala books.

The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism by Kazuaki Tanahashi

There is no better introduction to the Heart Sutra than this guide by Kaz Tanahashi. A lifelong translator and calligrapher working at the peak of his powers, Tanahashi outlines the history and meaning of the text and analyzes it line by line in its various forms (Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Mongolian, and several key English translations). The result is a deeper understanding of the history and etymology of the sutra’s elusive words than is generally available to the non-specialist—yet with a clear emphasis on the relevance of the text to practice.

Those who enjoy Tanahashi’s interpretation of the Heart Sutra may also wish to spend time with his Zen Chants: Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary, which presents the Heart Sutra in the context of the broader liturgy in which it lives in Zen temples and monastic communities.

The Heart Sutra: An Oral Teaching by Geshe Sonam Rinchen translated and edited by Ruth Sonam

Readers interested in approaching the Heart Sutra from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective will enjoy this set of oral teachings by Geshe Sonam Rinchen (1933-2013), a Tibetan monk who spent decades teaching (including to large numbers of Westerners) at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, India. He moves systematically through the text, showing how it has been interpreted by various Indian and Tibetan masters and how it can be practiced today. A chapter entitled “The Mantra” contains an interesting examination of the Tibetan discussion concerning whether the scripture “should be classified as a sutra teaching or as a teaching of secret mantra.”

The Heart Attack Sūtra: A New Commentary on the Heart Sūtra by Karl Brunnhölzl

Acclaimed translator and scholar Karl Brunnhölzl notes that several of the Buddha’s followers are said to have suffered heart attacks and died when they first heard the Heart Sutra’s assertion of the basic groundlessness of our existence—hence the title of this lucid, enjoyable commentary. Brunnhölzl’s learning is such that he moves easily between references from various Buddhist eras and schools, all the while explaining the Heart Sutra using examples, terms, and analogies that are accessible to contemporary readers (including several helpful Q&A sections interspersed through the book).

Infinite Circle: Teachings in Zen by Bernie Glassman

Beloved American Zen teacher Bernie Glassman takes the Heart Sutra (along with another key Zen text, The Identity of Relative and Absolute) as his focus in this succinct, down-to-earth volume.

“We see Bernie as one body, but somehow we’re unable to see the whole universe as one body,” he writes. “By seeing our true nature we realize the emptiness of all five conditions and are freed of pain. The last line or mantra of the Heart Sutra is ‘Gone, gone, have gone, altogether have gone!’ Gone where? Here.”

Zen Words for the Heart: Hakuin’s Commentary on the Heart Sutra translated by Norman Waddell

Readers seeking an earlier Zen commentary on the Heart Sutra will benefit from this slim volume of teachings from the eighteenth-century Rinzai Zen master Hakuin Ekaku. Among the most important Zen teachers in history, Hakuin not only revitalized Rinzai Zen in Japan but also created a new visual language through his hundreds of calligraphic and representational artworks—a number of which are reproduced in this volume. Norman Waddell, the premier Hakuin translator, provides an illuminating introduction and notes to Hakuin’s commentary while beautifully conveying the earthy, irreverent style of Hakuin’s teaching.