Zen for Beginners

The Heart Sutra and Key Concepts of Buddhism

The Heart Sutra is a teaching by the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion, to the monk Shariputra. It is chanted regularly by followers of Buddhism at meetings and meditation practice. Although The Heart Sutra is very brief it contains key concepts of Buddhist Philosophy. These include the skandhas, the four noble truths, the cycle of interdependence and the central concept of Mahayana Buddhism, Emptiness.

Mahayana means the great vehicle, it is the Buddhism of China, Tibet, Japan and Korea. It arose around the first or second century CE as a reaction against several highly analytical schools of Buddhism which had developed in the 600 years since the time of the Buddha. These schools were referred to as Hinayana, the lesser vehicle by the Mahayanists. Zen, which appeared around 800, in China is considered a school of Mahayana.

The Heart Sutra begins:

Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, When practicing deeply the Prajna-paramita perceives that all five skandhas are empty and is saved from all suffering and distress.

Avalokitesvara is an enlightened being, a Bodhisattva, who has forgone his own entry into Nirvana so that he can help others. As the embodiment of compassion he is called on by traditional practitioners of Buddhism in times of crisis. In the Heart Sutra he has realized emptiness through the practice of Prajna-paramita (infinite wisdom) and is preacing to the monk Shariputra.

More on Avalokitesvara

That which is form is emptiness that which is emptiness form.

What is Emptiness? Emptiness is how we translate the Sanskrit noun Sunyata. The adjective form is Sunya, Empty.

Does Emptiness mean that Buddhists believe that nothing exists? No, Emptiness is not nothingness. It is the other side of interdependence (pratityasamutpada). All things are interrelated, you cannot take out an object and say this is here in and of itself. Its existence has no self-being (svabhava).  This is explained further by Avalokitesvara using the five skandhas.

The same is true of feelings perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

These are the five skandhas (aggregates): form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, consciousness. It is how we are aware.

Form is the solid object, the color or the sound that is interdependent with the other skandhas. For example a hot stove.

Feeling is the act of the sense organ contacting the object. The skin feels, the eye sees, the ears hear. For example when the skin comes in contact with a hot stove.

Perception is the first sensational awareness of the object. For example the skin becomes hot when it touches the stove.

Impulse is the unconscious reaction to the object. We place our hand on a hot stove and our impulse is to pull it away, before we even think.

Consciousness is mental awareness of the object. One feels the heat on the hand and thinks, "Ouch!"

Each of the skandhas is empty, since it cannot exist on its own, it is dependent on the four other skandhas. Like a set of blocks forming a house, the entire structure is dependent on its pieces, you can't point to one block and say that block alone is the house.

More on the skandhas

All dharmas are marked with emptiness they do not appear or disappear are not tainted or pure do not increase or decrease.

The term dharmas here is different from The Dharma, the way or the teaching. Dharmas are factors of existence. The five skandhas are dharmas as are any other bit of consciousness-information. The Hinayana schools sought to analyze the dharmas and give them qualities such as arising or disappearing, increasing or decreasing, but the Mahayanists realized that dharmas are empty without qualities.

Therefore in Emptiness no form no feelings, perceptions, impulses consciousness.

This is the conclusion of the argument, the five skandhas are empty, since they are interdependent dharmas and have no self-qualities.

No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue no body, no mind, no color, no sound, no smell no taste, no touch, no object of mind, no realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of mind consciousness.

This is a related result of the above argument. Perception is divided into the six senses of Buddhism: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, mind. We usually think of the mind as separate from the other senses, but when we are conscious of an object or we dream or think of something that is not in front of us, our mind acts as a sense organ. Each sense has three parts, the organ of sense, its object, and its realm of consciousness (datu). For example the eye sees the color green which gives rise to the consciousness of green. Again each of these parts is empty, since they are interdependent and cannot be separated. Three parts and six senses gives us the eighteen elements of experience, enumerated in this verse. 

sense object

sense organ

realm of consciousness



awareness of color



awareness of sound



awareness of smell



awareness of taste



awaress of touch

object of mind


awareness of mental phenomena

No ignorance and also no extinction of it and so forth until no old age and death and also no extinction of them.

This verse refers to the Twelve Link Chain of Causation or The Cycle of Interdependence (pratityasamutpada):

1. From ignorance (avida) arises volitional action

2. From volitional action (karma) arises consciousness

3. From consciousness (vijnana) arises mental and physical phenomena

4. From mental and physical phenomena (nama-rupa) arises the six senses

5. From the six senses (shadayatana) arises sensorial contact

6. From contact (spasha) arises sensation

7. From sensation (vedana) arises desire

8. From desire (trishna) arises grasping

9. From grasping (upadana) arises the process of becoming

10. From the process of becoming (bhava) arises birth

11. From birth (jeti) arises death, pain, decay . . .

12. From sickness, old age and death (jana-marana), sorrow, lamentation, suffering and distress occur. Thus arises the whole mass of suffering

The cycle starts when an individual becomes aware of itself as a being separete from the universe. It becomes ignorent of its true nature and this leads to metal activity (karma). Karma leads to consciousness which leads to metal and physical phenomena. This is the opposite of the way we usually think of creation. For the Buddhists, the mind itself creates the phenomenal world. Here we see the five skandas come into play as the self becomes aware of the objective world though the senses. When the self becomes aware of the other, desire arises. "I want what is outside myself." It has forgotten through ignorance that the object is just a creation of its own mind. Desire leads to grasping, trying to get something, which leads to becomming and birth, the consciousness has taken physical form. Now physical form is subject to all the ill of the world: pain, decay, sickness, old and and ultimatly death. From death arises ignorance and the process starts over again.

The process of Buddhist meditation and practice is to reverse the cycle. Through the extinction of ignorance, karma ceases, and so on,up to the ceasation of birth, meaning escape from the the cycle of birth and death (samsara), into nirvana, the stopping of the cycle.

Yet, the Heart Sutra says "no ignorance and also no extinction of it" and the same for the other twelve factors. In this process there is no first cause and there is no self-being. Each factor in the process is relative and interdependent with the other twelve factors and therefore empty.

No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition also no attainment with nothing to attain.

This verse refers to the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha:

1. Suffering (samsara) Suffering is endemic to life, even if we have our physical needs met, we still feel uneasy, there is something missing in our lives.

2. Origination (samudaya)The origination of suffering is clinging. We attach ourselves to material objects or to ideas and become obsessed with things that are ultimately transient.

3. Stopping (nirvana)

3. Path (marga) The path to escaping the cycle of samsara is the eight categories or the eight-fold path:

right understanding
right thoughts
right speech
right action
right livelihood
right effort
right mindfulness
right meditation

When you have stopped this cycle you attain nirvana, yet this verse denies attainment. This is the emptiness of emptiness. If you are clinging to emptiness, it cannot be emptiness.

More on the Four Noble Truths

More on the Eight-Fold Path

The Bodhisattva depends on Prajna Paramita, and the mind is no hindrance, without any hindrance no fears exist. Far apart from ever perverted view one dwells in Nirvana. In the three worlds all Buddhas depend on Prajna Paramita and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi.

When thoughts and analysis are stopped the world is perceived as it is. Perverted views are any qualities one gives to dharmas. Without the hindrance of wrong views we gain Prajna Paramita, the knowing beyond knowing and find Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi, the supreme awakening. Again we are presented with a paradox. In the last verse it says "no attainment, with nothing to attain" in this it says supreme awakening can be attained. What does this mean?

Therefore know that Prajna Paramita is the great transcendent mantra . . .

The sutra now shifts from diagnosis to prescription. It recommends a way to find the goal-less goal. Simply repeat the prajna paramita mantra:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.

Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone all together beyond, awaken, all hail.

This line is left untranslated from the Sanskrit in the different Asian versions. Mantra meditation has been used in India for thousands of years and was appropriated by the Buddhists. By concentrating on a phrase thinking is cut off, opening the way for awakening.

As with any other method there is no guarantee, but what we may find along the path is often helpful. Even if we do not find supreme awakening in this lifetime, perhaps we can find the still, empty eye in the center of the hurricane. Even if we do not know interdependence, by trying to understand it we can see that all life is related and have compassion for our fellow beings. As we chant the Heart Sutra we should be mindful of the teachings it summarizes and apply them to our lives.


Further Reading

Buddhist Wisdom Books, Edward Conze

What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula

The Heart of Understanding : Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh


Zen for Beginners | Top