The True History of the Heart Sutra and its links to MN121 / MA190

Our friend @jayarava has just published the third and final instalment of his essay entitled ‘The True History of the Heart Sutra’, which I found very interesting and out of the box.

In an nutshell, @jayarava concludes that the received tradition of the history of the Heart Sutra is bunk. It was probably forged by a Chinese author, and the work was really well done!

Despite that, Jayarava notes that the practical implications and motivations of the Heart Sutra are legitimate to some extent:

"The practice of nonapprehension (anupalambha-yoga) of dharmas is central to the Prajñāpāramitā.
Just such a practice of withdrawing attention from sense experience is outlined in the Majjhima-Nikāya (MN 121) and so this material is relevant for early Buddhism enthusiasts as well.

By withdrawing attention from sense experience, using meditative techniques, we can bring sense experience to a halt without losing consciousness.
In the ensuing state, the processes which give rise to experience (i.e., the skandhas) are not apprehended.
Nor are the objects of the senses. This state feels like being in infinite space.
If we also withdraw attention from cognitive experience, then we cease to apprehend thoughts and it feels like infinite consciousness.
Through several more refinements that are more difficult to explain, one ends up in the state of emptiness in which there is only a kind of base awareness; one is conscious, but not of anything.
Subject and object do not arise. Self does not arise. No dharmas arise in this state.
And this is what the Heart Sutra is describing.
Fundamentally, Buddhism asks us to orient ourselves away from the kamaloka, to turn away from sense experience as a means to life satisfaction.
The Heart Sutra draws mainly on a tradition of attempts to communicate from the ārupaloka.
This is not some metaphysical absolute.
It is not a paramārtha-satya or ultimate truth. Emptiness is not some alternative reality.
It is experiential, though perhaps not in any way that someone intoxicated with sense experience can appreciate.

In conclusion, then, the Heart Sutra is not what we were told it is, but it is exactly what we wish it to be.
It is not an Indian, Sanskrit text.
It is not a genuine sutra. It is a patchwork of pericopes, stitched together by a 7th Century Chinese monk.
However, it does contain an accurate depiction of what we often call the farther shore, the cessation of sensory experience and cognitive experience that results in the radical reorganisation of our psyche away from self-centredness."

I hope you enjoy as much as I did reading his interesting analysis!



Hi Gabriel,

thanks for posting this! The excerpt you give sounds very interesting!

Maybe you didn’t notice: You don’t have the link to the third instalment, instead the first one comes twice.


Thanks for the correction! :grin:


Hmm, wouldn’t thinking already be suspended in the Infinite Space dimension of mind?

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In MN121 the verb used is understand (pajānāti). In my experience understanding occurs at a more subtle level than thinking. Note that pajānāti is the verb associated with the first noble truth and it’s respective ennobling task.

In my raw experience of very basic insights, understanding comes as a gradual but consistent shift in standpoint and perspective, which in turns tends to shape more and more thoughts, words, actions, livelihood and efforts.

I understand therefore that the link between the Heart Sutra and this EBT made by the author relates to how possibly the first was actually written having in mind to inspire us to that sort of shift in understanding, and not necessarily affirming or pushing for ontological truth about how one should think about things. And this is where most people miss the point of Heart Sutra!


I agree with what you’ve said. That part was just puzzling to me, “thinking” isn’t something I’d associate with jhanas 2-4, let alone arupas.



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To me the first section of the Heart Sutra ( emptiness of the aggregates ) looks very similar to the Phena Sutta:

"Form is like a lump of foam,
Feeling like a water bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Volitions like a plantain trunk,
And consciousness like an illusion,
So explained the Kinsman of the Sun.

However one may ponder it
And carefully investigate it,
It appears but hollow and void
When one views it carefully."

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One is reminded of kanshiketsu.
If it works, then it suffices.

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I had a look at the thread but couldn’t get much of what’s wrong in his argument or logic.
Could you summarise where exactly the analysis and hypothesis may be flawed?
Tks! :anjal:

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Sure. So, do you think these issues make his central hypothesis weaker or invalid?


Thanks for sharing this interesting post. While I may not agree with all of his statements, it is though-provoking. The history lessons it provides are also fascinating and very engagingly written; the posts are worth reading for their summary of the early history of Buddhism in China even if one agrees or disagrees with his perspective on the Heart Sutra.

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I think the element that’s missing in these attempts to trace a history of the Sanskrit Heart Sutra is the apparent ignorance of Central Asian languages that dominated Buddhist texts flowing into China during those formative centuries between 100-500 CE. During Xuanzang’s time, Buddhists in northern India and Central Asian had switched to Buddhist Sanskrit and then to proper Sanskrit. Kumarajiva was himself a Central Asian teacher brought to China to head a translation project for a Central Asian kingdom that had conquered northern China and was in the process of adopting Chinese culture and political systems.

So, it’s very possible to me that the Heart Sutra was originally Central Asian in origin, was translated to Chinese (many times, there are seven versions in the Taisho that still exist). It just happens that the later Sanskrit version was translated from Chinese. All of this drama about forgeries is a little overwrought as well. Just about every Mahayana text in existence is a “forgery”. It was a creative literary tradition.


Thank you for adding that clarifying comment. I think it is fascinating to explore these language aspects, especially considering that Pali itself is likely a hybridized language blending several Magadhi dialects and the Buddha himself likely did not speak “Pali”. I often remind myself of this when I see complicated discussions about the specific meaning of a Pali term as we seek to understand the Buddha’s intent.

My apologies in advance for my ignorance, but what are some of the Central Asian languages that you are referring to? Are these the ancient languages used in the areas we would now refer to as Afghanistan/Pakistan?

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Yes. Gandhari, which was a Prakrit like Pali, seems to have been the primary scriptural language before Buddhists in modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan switched to Sanskrit. Other important Central Asian languages were Sogdian and Tocharian. The Sogdians, in particular, were instrumental in translating between Persian, Indian, and Chinese languages because they dominated the Silk Road trade. Learning many languages and translating between them became second nature to them.

So, it’s very possible to me that a Sogdian translated Xuanzang’s Heart Sutra to Sanskrit. Or it could have been Xuanzang himself. But the text would have found its way into India and Tibet afterwards, so a Silk Road intermediary makes sense to me. And the translator apparently wasn’t fluent in Chinese and/or Sanskrit, so that would rule out an expert like Xuanzang. It’s definitely an interesting mystery that points to how interconnected India and China were. The influences went in both directions.


There is a similar bit in the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra (Diamond Sutra):

All conditioned dharmas
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew, or like flashes of lightning:
Thusly should they be contemplated.

One of the most common themes in early Mahayana sutras is that conditioned dharmas are like illusions.

Some people haven’t yet come to terms with the idea that Buddhism was very expansive during this period. To some extent, I think they use an idealized Theravada Buddhism as a stand-in for a much more diverse range of Buddhist traditions.

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The Heart Sutra was the first Buddhist text I ever saw, and I found it quite perplexing. I couldn’t make sense of its apparent self-contradictions. Today, when you look for a translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra, you’ll be faced with three choices. The great Edward Conze, a pioneer of Buddhist studies and specialist in Prajnaparamita literature, did one back in 1958, and this is available with his translation of the Diamond Sutra under the title “Buddhist Wisdom.” Conze is a Sanskritist.

Let me summarize very briefly the text history. Jayarava has studied this in tremendous depth, but his exposition is so rich in detail that the essential story may not be clear.

The Heart Sutra itself is based on a passage from the of the Large Sutra (the 25,000 line Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, which was composed sometime during the first six centuries AD.) Kumarajiva (4th-5th century AD) translated parts of the Large Sutra . A passage from Kumarajiva’s partial translation of the Large Sutra became the body of the Heart Sutra, which was composed in China by Xuanzang (7th century AD), the famous “scripture pilgrim” who is the hero of the great 16th century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.”

So the Heart Sutra, though composed in Chinese, was made out of a Chinese translation from Sanskrit, and Sanskrit must a factor in its definitive translation, though the Chinese coloring it took on needs to be taken into account as well.

Conze concerned himself exclusively with the Sanskrit text, which was actually a retranslation of the Chinese translation back into Sanskrit, which muddled the text slightly. But the greatest problem with his book is Conze’s rather papal attitude towards the scholarly world. He delivers mystical pronouncements which tell us more about his own spiritual attainments than they do about the text itself .

The next account to be considered is Donald Lopez’s “The Heart Sutra Explained,” which offers an anthology of Indian and Tibetan commentaries on the text. Though these are very valuable for understanding how the text was traditionally viewed, it is not particularly useful for understanding the text in its plain original meaning . Medieval commentaries on ancient scriptures are preoccupied with elaborating medieval theologies, they are only indirectly, occasionally, and accidentally useful in understanding what the original text meant.

The last is Red Pine’s “The Heart Sutra,” which draws primarily on late Chinese Zen commentaries to explicate the text. Pine’s book has a great deal of interesting material, mixed with a great deal of pious fantasy, and one needs some background to be able to distinguish the accurate interpretation from the pure inventions, and both of these from the Zen perspective, which is, like the commentaries Lopez presents, somewhat beside the point.

So far I have looked in vain for a clear explication of the Heart Sutra’s clear meaning, which, though not particularly difficult to understand, requires a clear exposition that does not lose sight of the reader’s needs.


The difficulty with the Heart Sutra is not the word for word literal translation, but the concepts they express, which a dictionary provides little help with.

The Mahayana viewed reality (which included both physical and mental elements) as a flux of ever-changing elements, none of which had enduring existence or stable identity (“own self.”)

The reality which ordinarily appears to us, the Mahayana viewed as real — up to a point. It coexisted with or, if you like, was the visible face of, an ever-changing totality in which forms appear and into which they once again dissolve, a totality which the Mahayans denominated “emptiness” (shorthand for "that which is empty of “own nature.”)

The relationship between form and emptiness is central to the Mahayana. Traditionally it is described in the most startling, paradoxical terms, not out of a desire to mystify, but because it was felt that any clear exposition favored form (in the guise of conceptualization) and downplayed the really equal role of emptiness (ever-changing totality).

I will attempt to explain the precise relationship of form and emptiness by an analogy. Here let furniture stand in place of form, and wood in place of emptiness. From the point of view of furniture, a table is a very real thing, with aesthetic qualities and physical proportions which could never be confused with mere wood. From the point of view of wood, a table is wood, and no amount of carving, sanding, staining or varnishing in any way lessens the woody truth of what it really is.

If we now substitute wood and furniture in the most famous phase of this sutra, we have “A table is not different from its wood, the wood is not different from the table. The wood is a table, the table is wood.” Though the analogy is not precise, it allows us to understand precisely the point the sutra is making when it says “form is emptiness, &c.”

The background of the form-emptiness problem is Abhidharma, the metaphysics of early Buddhism, which saw the world as composed of elements that constantly re-arranged themselves to create mental and physical things, rather like the way we think of atoms — though Abhidharma viewed feelings and thoughts as physically real phenomena. Abhidharma claimed that everything that existed was composed of shifting elements, except for empty space and nirvana.

The Mahayana took this concept one step further. It saw the elements as existent only in relation to one another, each propping up, as it were, the other’s existence, but none of them were ultimately supported by anything that stood on its own. Everything was the effect of something else, but there was never anything ultimate or abiding to cause all these effects. There was nothing finally holding existence together: it was, for all its ceaseless activity, finally empty of stable shapes or identities, “own nature.”.

This looked like a kind of nihilism, and the Heart Sutra uses nihilistic statements to shock us into an awareness of the chaos inherent in form. This Mahayana critique of existence does not stop short of the Buddhist teaching itself, or the realities of suffering and the possibility of enlightenment: these are in a sense empty as well. Here the critique becomes less literal. Though it sounds as though Buddhism’s existential truths are being exploded, this is not really the case. The point being made by these extreme and slightly misleading formulations is to discourage clinging to concepts (“views”) and dogmas (“precepts and practices.”) This is a mystical and super-charged version of traditional Buddhist teaching, meant to startle one into a higher awareness. Note that although all else is subject to the emptiness critique, the reality of Nirvana, which exists outside the flux of emptiness, remains unchallenged in the Heart Sutra. Nirvana is now described more as an ineffably paradoxic point of view than as a state beyond the bounds of imaginable experience, but Nirvana nonetheless maintains its structural role as goal and resolution of existential problems.

The Heart Sutra next informs us that by adopting these insights, we may face our somewhat dubious existential situation without fear or confusion, that Nirvana is assured, and we are finally given a mantra, a magic charm, to protect us in the seemingly less stable world Mahayana insights have opened for us.

The last lines, introducing the mantra, are quite crude in their salesmanship. The mantra itself, a phrase in Sanskrit, need not be translated. The point of it was that is was a magic and mysterious utterance, and it forfeits its emotional power by being translated. (If you must know, the translation would be “Gone, gone, gone utterly beyond, awakening, ah!”)

This last point is not meant disrespectfully: it is an important part of understanding why the Heart Sutra became the most popular Buddhist prayer in east Asia, and may be found today even on bracelets, ties and coffee mugs. Though the Heart Sutra is a deft summary of long classic Prajnaparamita texts, it also presents itself as hoodoo. We should not allow a middle class sense of piety and propriety to bar us from understanding how this text works on the level of popular religious culture, and the fact that it very explicitly meant to do so.


The following is more an interpretation than a translation: a literal rendering is far better for general purposes, if one has the key for understanding it, which I have endeavored to provide in the foregoing analysis. It is however worthwhile to offer a version such as this, where the actual content is made very clear, and the literary tactics of the original are visible. The standard, literal translation is made on one dull level and misses the tension and changing moods of this remarkable text. What my approach forfeits is the startling paradoxes. Though I show all that is really there, I lose certain felicities of concision. But my purpose is to educate and inform, not to charm and startle.

Since my aim is to clearly convey the contents, I have sometimes expanded to a phrase what the original gives in a word, and condensed lines which are given in (to us) wearisome and needless detail. By the conventions of Sanskrit literary style, this prolixity gave an impression of imposing and scientific precision. This effect is, for us, better achieved by clarity and exactitude.

This translation is made from the Chinese, taking into account the meaning of the Sanskrit terms. But their urtext sense is not really in play here.


The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, he whose gaze nothing evades, traveled in mind through the depths of Prajnaparamita, the perfect wisdom by which one sees that agents, objects and actions are in themselves not absolutely and individually real, but are merely aspects of the total flux of reality.

While he journeyed among such profundities, he saw with perfect clarity the human condition, he saw how he himself had long since passed beyond all suffering and anxiety.

Avalokiteshvara, the great bodhisattva of the Mayahana, addressed Sariputra, the foremost of the Hinayana philosophers, and said, "Here is a teaching you have failed to learn with all your learning,

The material word is not other than emptiness, nor is emptiness something other than the material world. In fact, the material world is emptiness; emptiness is in fact the material world. Physical reality, sensation, understanding, will, reason, everything you hold to be reality and your engagement with reality are void, hollow, mere seeming.

Sariptura! All the constituents of reality are appearances propped up by other appearances, with nothing ultimately supporting them all. Emptiness is their defining characteristic. Since none of it is quite real, there isn’t really creation or destruction, no real moral purity nor any really guilty acts, nothing really increases and nothing really diminishes.

Since the entire world is illusory, the five elements of a personal identity, that is, 1) a physical body, 2) sensation, 3) understanding, 4) will and 5) intellect, don’t fully exist; the five senses and the mind don’t fully exist, nor do the things senses and the mind take as their objects, nor do the sensations and ideas which arise when the senses and the mind engage with their proper objects.

There is more. Enlightenment isn’t entirely real, so there can’t really be an end to ignorance. Death and aging are not entirely real, so there can’t really be an end to the cycle of rebirth that ends in aging and death. The four noble truths about suffering, how it arises, how it ends and how to bring about its end, these aren’t fully true (how could they be? they’re about things that aren’t fully real.) There isn’t really insight or attainment, since there really isn’t anything to attain.

Thus a bodhisattva, through the perfect wisdom which is prajnaparamita, has an understanding that completely unobstructed, he thinks through and sees through all that seems to be. He knows none of it is quite real, and the emptiness of it all doesn’t frighten him at all: how could he be frightened of nothing? Because he has left behind the topsy-turvy dream-world of people who take the world at face value, he finally attains nirvana. In all the worlds every Buddha uses Prajnaparamita to attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, unexcelled perfect enlightenment!

So learn Prajnaparamita! It’s a grand magical spell, conferring great enlightenment, the greatest spell, matchless, good against every single kind of suffering, and it really really works, no lie!

Recite the Prajnaparamita spell: it goes like this:

Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.

Here is the Chinese Text of the Heart Sutra










An interesting addition is D. T. Suzuki’s translation of the Heart Sutra, which Allen Ginsberg greatly admired and often chanted. This copy has a few emendations which Allen made in collaboration with Gelek Rinpoche.


I still don’t understand that quote, please elaborate :pray::pray:

May you be happy :smiling_face_with_three_hearts::smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

This is similar to Hinduism where mantra is prescribed as the means to attain moksha or mukti

In Hinduism the mantra is “om nama shivaya” for Shiva followers and “hare Krishna hare Krishna hare Rama hare Rama” for Vishnu followers

I never find Buddha prescribed a mantra in Pali canon instead he recommended contemplation of impermanence

Bro @Jake does mahasanghika support the use of mantra too to gain enlightenment ?

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