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Wednesday, 5 May 2010
About Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamita Hrdaya)
The Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra or Heart Sutra or Essence of Wisdom Sutra (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदय Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya; Chinese: 摩訶般若波羅蜜多心經) (the word sutra is not present in known Sanskrit manuscripts) is a well-known Mahāyāna Buddhist sutra that is very popular among Mahayana Buddhists both for its brevity and depth of meaning. Buddhist writer and translator Bill Porter calls the Heart Sutra the best known and most popular of all Buddhist scriptures
The Heart Sutra is a member of the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) class of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, and along with the Diamond Sutra, is perhaps the most prominent representative of the genre.
The Heart Sutra is made up of 14 shlokas in Sanskrit; a shloka composed of 32 syllables. In Chinese, it is 260 Chinese characters, while in English it is composed of sixteen sentences. This makes it one of the most highly abbreviated versions of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, which exist in various lengths up to 100,000 shlokas. According to Buddhist scholar and author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his commentary to the Heart Sutra:
The Essence of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sutra) is much shorter than the other Perfection of Wisdom Sutras but it contains explicitly or implicitly the entire meaning of the longer Sutras.
This sutra is classified by Edward Conze as belonging to the third of four periods in the development of the Perfection of Wisdom canon, although because it contains a mantra (sometimes called a dharani), it does overlap with the final tantric phase of development according to this scheme, and is included in the tantra section of at least some editions of the Kangyur. Conze estimates the sutra's date of origin to be 350 CE; some others consider it to be two centuries older than that. Recent scholarship is unable to verify any date earlier than the 7th century CE.
The Chinese version is frequently chanted (in the local pronunciation) by the Chan (Zen/Seon/Thiền) sects during ceremonies in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam respectively. It is also significant to the Shingon Buddhist school in Japan, whose founder Kūkai wrote a commentary on it, and to the various Tibetan Buddhist schools, where it is studied extensively.
The sutra is in a small class of sutras not attributed to the Buddha. In some versions of the text, starting with that of Fayue dating to about 735, the Buddha confirms and praises the words of Avalokiteśvara, although this is not included in the preeminent Chinese version translated by Xuanzang. The Tibetan canon uses the longer version, although Tibetan translations without the framing text have been found at Dunhuang. The Chinese Buddhist canon includes both long and short versions, and both versions exist in Sanskrit.
Origin and early translations
The Heart Sutra, it is generally thought, is likely to have been composed in the 1st century CE in Kushan Empire territory, by a Sarvastivadin or ex-Sarvastivadin monk. The earliest record of a copy of the sutra is a 200-250CE Chinese version attributed to the Yuezhi monk Zhi Qian. It was supposedly translated again by Kumarajiva around 400CE, although John McRae and Jan Nattier have argued that this translation was created by someone else, much later, based on Kumarajiva's Large Sutra. Zhi Qian's version, if it ever existed, was lost before the time of Xuanzang, who produced his own version in 649CE, which closely matches the one attributed to Kumarajiva. Xuanzang's version is the first record of the title "Heart Sutra" (心經 xīnjīng) being used for the text, and Fukui Fumimasa has argued that xinjing actually means dharani scripture. According to Huili's biography, Xuanzang learned the sutra from an inhabitant of Sichuan, and subsequently chanted it during times of danger in his journey to the West.
However, based on textual patterns in the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Heart Sutra and the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, scholar Jan Nattier has suggested that the earliest (shortest) version of the Heart Sutra was probably first composed in China in the Chinese language from a mixture of Indian-derived material and new composition, and that this assemblage was later translated into Sanskrit (or back-translated, in the case of most of the sutra). She argues that the majority of the text was redacted from the Larger Sutra on the Perfection of Wisdom, which had originated with a Sanskrit Indian original, but that the "framing" passages (the introduction and concluding passages) were new compositions in Chinese by a Chinese author, and that the text was intended as a dharani rather than a sutra. The Chinese version of the core (i.e. the short version) of the Heart Sutra matches a passage from the Large Sutra almost exactly, character by character; but the corresponding Sanskrit texts, while agreeing in meaning, differ in virtually every word. Furthermore, Nattier argues that there is no evidence (such as a commentary would be) of a Sanskrit version before the 8th century CE, and she dates the first evidence (in the form of commentaries by Xuanzang's disciples Kuiji and Wonch'uk, and Dunhuang manuscripts) of Chinese versions to the 7th century CE. She considers attributions to earlier dates "extremely problematic". In any case, the corroborating evidence supports a Chinese version at least a century before a Sanskrit version. This theory has gained support amongst some other prominent scholars of Buddhism, but is by no means universally accepted.
The Zhi Qian version is titled Po-jo po-lo-mi shen-chou i chuan or Prajnaparamita Dharani; the Kumarajiva version is titled Mo-ho po-jo po-lo-mi shen-chou i chuan or Maha Prajnaparamita Mahavidya Dharani. Xuanzang's was the first version to use Hrdaya or "Heart" in the title.
Xuanzang's was also the first version to call the text a sutra. No extant Sanskrit copies use this word, though it has become standard usage in Chinese and Tibetan, as well as English.
Some citations of Zhi Qian's and Kumarajiva's versions prepend moho (which would be maha in Sanskrit) to the title. Some Tibetan editions add bhagavatī, meaning "Victorious One" or "Conqueror," an epithet of Prajnaparamita as goddess.
In the Tibetan text the title is given first in Sanskrit and then in Tibetan:
Tibetan: བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་མ་ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པའི་སྙིང་པོ; Wylie: bcom ldan 'das ma shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa'i snying po
English: Bhagavatī Heart of Perfect Wisdom
Various commentators divide this text in different numbers of sections. Briefly, the sutra describes the experience of liberation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, as a result of insight gained while engaged in deep meditation to awaken the faculty of prajña (wisdom). The insight refers to the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, the five aggregates of human existence (skandhas) – form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), volitions (samskārā), perceptions (saṁjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna).
The specific sequence of concepts listed in lines 12-20 ("...in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, ... no attainment and no non-attainment") is the same sequence used in the Sarvastivadin Samyukt Agama; this sequence differs in the texts of other sects. On this basis, Red Pine has argued that the Heart Sutra is specifically a response to Sarvastivada teachings that dharmas are real. Lines 12-13 enumerate the five skandhas. Lines 14-15 list the twelve ayatanas or abodes. Line 16 makes a reference to the eighteen dhatus or elements of consciousness, using a conventional shorthand of naming only the first (eye) and last (conceptual consciousness) of the elements. Lines 17-18 assert the emptiness of the Twelve Nidānas, the traditional twelve links of dependent origination. Line 19 refers to the Four Noble Truths.
Avalokiteśvara addresses Śariputra, who was, according to the scriptures and texts of the Sarvastivada and other early Buddhist schools, the promulgator of abhidharma, having been singled out by the Buddha to receive those teachings. Avalokiteśvara famously states that, "Form is empty (Śūnyatā). Emptiness is form." and declares the other skandhas to be equally empty – that is, empty of an independent essence. Avalokiteśvara then goes through some of the most fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths and explains that in emptiness none of these labels apply. This is interpreted according to the concept of smaran as saying that teachings, while accurate descriptions of conventional truth, are mere statements about reality – they are not reality itself – and that they are therefore not applicable to the ultimate truth that is by definition beyond our comprehending. Thus the bodhisattva, as the archetypal Mahāyāna Buddhist, relies on the perfection of wisdom, defined in the larger Perfection of Wisdom sutra to be the wisdom that perceives reality directly without conceptual attachment. This perfection of wisdom is condensed in the mantra with which the sutra concludes.
It is unusual for Avalokiteśvara to play any role, let alone the central one, in a Prajñāpāramitā text. Most early Prajñāpāramitā texts involve Subhuti, who is absent from both versions of the Heart Sutra, and the Buddha, who is only present in the longer version. This could be considered evidence that the framing text is Chinese in origin.
Jan Nattier points out in her article on the origins of the Heart Sūtra that this mantra in several variations is present in the Chinese Tripiṭaka associated with several different Prajñāpāramitā texts. The version in the Heart Sūtra runs:
Roman script: gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā
Devanāgarī: गते गते पारगते पारसंगते बोधि स्वाहा
Pronunciation: ɡəteː ɡəteː paːɾəɡəteː paːɾəsəŋɡəte boːdʱɪ sʋaːɦaː
Edward Conze, who translated most of the vast Prajñāpāramita corpus, rendered this mantra into English as:
"gone gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!"
There are several approaches to translating the mantra, most of which assume that the mantra obeys the rules of Classical Sanskrit. Gata is the past-participle of the verbal root √gam meaning "gone". Pāra means "across to the other side" – hence "gone beyond". The preposition sam- equates to the Greek συν, "with". Monier Monier-Williams gives "come together , met , encountered , joined , united; allied with , friendly to" and many other phrases that imply joining together. So a literal translation of pārasamgate would be "gone across to the other side, together with" or as Conze suggests "gone altogether beyond". Bodhi is an action noun from √budh "to wake up, to understand" and is generally taken to mean "awaken" in the Buddhist context. Svāhā is an expletive from Vedic ritual where it was used by ritualists as they made oblations to the fire. It is usually understood as deriving from su- + āha and therefore means "well said" (even Conze admits that his "all hail!" is not a good rendering).
There is much discussion about case ending (-e) of gata, pāragata, and pārasaṃgata. According to Classical Sanskrit grammar it could be a feminine singular vocative (of gatā), or a masculine/neuter singular locative. Most Western exegesis follows Conze in considering it a feminine vocative - and taking the mantra to be an address to the feminine deity Prajñāpāramitā. However the mantra may well have been composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit which is much freer in case endings – in the Magadhi Prakirt -e indicates a masculine nominative singular for instance. In fact the string of words resists analysis and is not a grammatical sentence – or anything like it.
The text itself describes the mantra as "Mahāmantro, mahā-vidyā mantro, ‘nuttara mantro samasama-mantraḥ", which Conze translates as "The great mantra, the mantra of great knowledge, the utmost mantra, the unequalled mantra, the allayer of all suffering." Conze notes that these words are also epithets of the Buddha, and so the text seems to be equating the mantra with the Buddha. Each Buddhist tradition with an interest in the Heart Sūtra seems to have its own interpretation of the sūtra, and therefore of the mantra. As Alex Wayman commented:
One feature of these commentaries [in Tibetan] on the Heart Sutra struck me quite forcibly: each commentary seemed so different to the others, and yet they all seemed to show in greater or lesser degree the influence of the Mādhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy.
Donald Lopez goes further to suggest:
The question still remains of the exact function of the mantra within the sutra, because the sutra provides no such explanation and the sadhanas make only perfunctory references to the mantra.
Tibetan exegesis of the mantra tends to look back on it from a Tantric point of view. For instance seeing it as representing progressive steps along the five paths of the Bodhisattva, through the two preparatory stages (the path of accumulation and preparation – gate, gate), through the first part of the first bhumi (path of insight – pāragate), through the second part of the first to the tenth bhumi (path of meditation – Pārasamgate), and to the eleventh bhumi (stage of no more learning – bodhi svāhā). As Geshe Kelsang Gyatso explains in Heart of Wisdom:
This mantra, retained in the original Sanskrit, explains in very condensed form the practice of the five Mahayana paths, which we attain and complete in dependence upon the perfection of wisdom.
The current Dalai Lama explains the mantra in a discourse on the Heart Sutra both as an instruction for practice and as a device for measuring one's own level of spiritual attainment, and translates it as go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in enlightenment. In the discourse, he gives a similar explanation to the four stages (the four go's) as in the previous paragraph.
Due to this merits,
May I soon,
Attain the enlightened state of Guru Buddha,
That I may be able to librate all sentient beings from their suffering.
May the precious bodhi mind, Not yet been born in me, will arise and grow.
May the birth have no decline, and will increase forever more.
Namu Myo Ho Renge Kyo