05 March 2021

An Alternative Wikipedia Entry for the Heart Sutra

Although there have been some recent improvements on the Wikipedia Heart Sutra article (which now mentions my work thanks to an anonymous contribution - not me I hasten to add), I would still like to rewrite it from scratch because it is written by a certain type of religious person for other people of that same type. It's not a proper "neutral point of view" encyclopedia article and it relegates modern research to obscurity while promoting conservative Japanese religious scholars who attack dissent from the tradition. 

Before diving in I want to make a point about the title of the text. Heart Sutra is an English translation of the abbreviated Chinese title, Xīnjīng 心經. The standard Sanskrit title is Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, or Heart of Perfected Paragnosis. Note that Prajñāpāramitā texts routinely leave the word sūtra out of their titles. Some editors insist on treating the word sūtra as Sanskrit, i.e. Heart Sūtra. This means that we are translating xīn 心 into English and 經 jīng into Sanskrit. Since "sutra" is an Anglicised word that occurs in all the major British and American English dictionaries, there is no need to translate it into Sanskrit. The English translation of Xīnjīng 心經 is Heart Sutra.

Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra (Chinese Xīn jīng 心經; Sanskrit Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya) is a Chinese Buddhist text composed mainly of excerpts from the much larger Móhēbānrěbōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» or Large Perfection of Paragnosis Sutra (aka Large Sutra). There are also Sanskrit and Tibetan versions. The Heart Sutra is perhaps the most widely known and popular text in Mahāyāna Buddhism and is revered as an object of religious significance and magical power, and is considered to contain a summary of the Buddhist teachings on the perfection of paragnosis (Skt. prajñāpāramitā). There are more than 60 published translations into English.


The principle version is prose consisting of 266 characters, most of which are copied from the Large Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, translated by Kumārajīva (404 CE) as Móhēbānrěbōluómì jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜經» (T 223), with a few modifications introduced by Xuanzang (602-664). Note that the title varies across the manuscript tradition and has varied over time, the common feature being the word heart (Chinese xīn 心; Sanskrit hṛdaya).

The main text is followed by a short spell or dhāraṇī (usually, though mistakenly, referred to as a mantra) that appears to have been copied from Tuóluóní jí jīng «陀罗尼集經» (T 901) a translation of the Dhāraṇīsamuccaya completed in 654 CE by Atikūṭa (a Buddhist monk from India). As with the text as a whole, the dhāraṇī is associated with magical powers of protection but it is also considered by some to be a kind of mnemonic reflecting the internal structure of the text.

The Heart Sutra has long been associated with Xuánzàng 玄奘 (602-664), the Chinese Buddhist monk remembered primarily as a pilgrim and translator. The Biography of Xuánzàng (T 2053), composed in 688 CE by Yàncóng 彥悰 (possibly on the basis of earlier work by Huìlì 慧立) provides some clearly apocryphal back-story for the Heart Sutra. Details included in the Biography became the foundation of the received origin myth of the text. These include Xuánzàng being gifted the Heart Sutra before leaving China and using it as magical protection while crossing the Gobi Desert. A later source suggests he translated the text in 649 CE but this conflicts with other stories and historians have cast doubt on this part of the story.

However, the Biography also provides the first reliable literary mention of the Heart Sutra when it reprints a letter dated 656 CE in which Xuánzàng presented a scroll to Emperor Gāozōng 高宗 (r. 649–683 CE) and his consort Wǔ Zhào 武曌 (624–705 CE, later Empress Wǔ Zétiān 武則天). The same letter is preserved in another document making this plausible (Kotyk 2019).

The earliest physical evidence of the Heart Sutra is a votive stele from Fangshan: the standard text is engraved on a stone slab, with a colophon naming the donor and his family and dated 13 March 661 CE (Attwood 2019). The earliest extant commentaries on the Heart Sutra are attributed to Xuanzang's student, Kuījī 窺基 (632–682), and his colleague, Woncheuk 圓測 (613–696). Although undated they must have been composed before the end of the 7th Century. Both acknowledge that the text is not a sutra and treat the work as an epitome of Yogācāra Buddhism.

The Heart Sutra belongs in a distinctively Chinese genre of texts known as "digest texts" (chāo jīng 抄經). A digest text is a collection of copied passages, originally designed to provide an abstract or summary of a larger text. Many hundreds of digest texts were composed in China and circulated independently. By the Tang dynasty (beginning in 618 CE), compilers of catalogues of Buddhist texts were hostile to these indigenous texts and they began to be purged from the Chinese Canon. However, a number of them, including the Heart Sutra, were not recognised as indigenous texts and were retained. In the case of the Heart Sutra, the Sanskrit "original" played a major role in disguising the true origins of the text.

The standard text was translated into Sanskrit before the end of the 7th Century. Long considered to reflect a Sanskrit original, the Sanskrit translation incorporates some Chinese idioms, conventions, and calques which betray its origins in China. Jan Nattier's 1992 study demonstrated this but it took some time to be accepted. Further work by Matthew Orsborn (aka Huifeng) and Jayarava Attwood have helped to validate Nattier's methods and confirm her conclusions. However, Japanese scholars, beginning with FUKUI Fumimasa have resisted Nattier's conclusion.

Probably in the early eighth century, the standard text was expanded twice, creating two extended Heart Sutra texts: one in Chinese (T 252) and a second in Sanskrit. Recension two was translated into Tibetan and is popular with Tibetan Buddhists; it has also been translated back into Chinese three times (T 253, T 254, T 257). The Chinese canon also preserves a translations into Chinese from Tibetan (T 255) and transliteration of an early Sanskrit version using Chinese characters (T 256).

There is also a version of the standard text apocryphally attributed to Kumarajīva (T 250) but now thought to have been composed in the 8th Century. This attribution was first challenged in 1932 by MATSUMOTO, but was cemented in 1991 with an article by WATANABE Shōgo calling T 250 a "fake text" (Japanese: gikyō 偽経).

The Dunhuang cache of Buddhist texts included almost 200 Heart Sutra texts in Chinese and Tibetan. There is no published study of the Dunhuang Heart Sutra texts, but some preliminary work has been presented at a conference by Ben Nourse. There is no standard text translation found in the Tibetan Kanjur, however several were found at Dunhuang. The cache includes a some variant texts including hybrids of the standard and extended versions.

Although there is no evidence of the Heart Sutra from India, the Kanjur preserved a total of eight commentaries which purport to be Tibetan translations of commentaries composed by India pandits who travelled to Tibet during the Pala Dynasty (9th - 12th Century CE). Most of these are heavily influenced by Tantric Buddhism. It's possible that the Heart Sutra was unknown in India and went directly from China to Tibet, probably via Dunhuang (which was controlled by Tibet during the 8th-9th centuries). This would account for the complete lack of physical or literary evidence for it amongst surviving Buddhist documents in India. Not only is it not found in manuscripts, it is not even quoted in anthologies and not mentioned in any Indian commentarial literature.


The Heart Sutra is used by Buddhists in several different ways: for its magical powers of protection, as a liturgical text, as a focus for studying prajñāpāramitā, and decoratively. There is some crossover between these categories. Sometimes the dhāraṇī is chanted separately, in which case it is thought to invoke the soteriological and protective power of the text and the corpus of prajñāpārmaitā as a whole (when Prajñāpāramitā is represented as a female bodhisatva, she has her own mantras).

As apotropaic magic the text is chanted by believers for its prophylactic effect of warding off evil. The text may also be chanted to mitigate the effects of karma. As a liturgical text, the Heart Sutra is chanted as an invocation of the soteriological powers thought to reside in prajñāpāramitā texts. Copying the text is also seen as an effective soteriological practice in line with injunctions contained in the early Prajñāpāramitā texts. Tantric practitioners have made ritual practices focussed on the text as deity. In this situation the text is sometimes also associated with Mañjuśrī bodhisatva.

Both chanting and copying the text may crossover with the decorative uses which see calligraphy of the Heart Sutra printed on many different objects and items of clothing. Religious study of the Heart Sutra focuses on the apparently paradoxical nature of the contents.

Many Buddhists report having felt a sense of mystical connection with the Heart Sutra, even (or perhaps especially) when it is heard for the first time in an unfamiliar language).

The Heart Sutra crops up in some pop culture references. It is chanted during the film The Little Buddha and seen in the 2003 Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. Schopenhauer mentions Prajñāpāramitā briefly at the end of book IV of his The World as Will and Representation, although his take on Buddhism is pessimistic and nihilistic.


The Heart Sutra is an epitome of the philosophy of the perfection of paragnosis or prajñā-pāramitā. In this context we can take this to refer to the knowledge gained by bringing sensory experience to a halt (nirodha) and dwelling in the subsequent contentless awareness (śūnyatā). Hence, it is knowledge beyond ordinary sensory experience (paragnosis).

The message of the Heart Sutra is often reduced to a series of negations, partly because of readings of another prajñāpāramitā sūtra, the Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā. Based on essays by D. T. Suzuki in 1935 and Conze in 1946, the essence of Prajñāpāramitā is presented as contradiction (entailing a repudiation of Aristotle's law of non-contradiction). In Conze's formulation, the contradiction—A is not-A—is an expression of the Absolute. The term Absolute is not found in Buddhism per se, and Conze uses it rather vaguely, but it appears to bear a resemblance to the One of Neoplatonism, the absolute found in the Theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky, and absolute being as found in German Idealists such as Fichte and Schelling. Schopenhauer may also have been an influence. However, this appeal to contradiction has some antiquity as we see evidence of scribes adding extra negations to their copies of the text as early as the 8th Century. Conze's Absolute is ineffable and beyond intellectual understanding and can only be expressed as contradiction or paradox. Conze and Suzuki leverage the confusion caused by asserting the truth of contradictions to undermine opposition while reinforcing their own position of authority. One cannot argue with someone who refuses to acknowledge that logic applies and is convinced that they have an understanding that others can never attain.

A major breakthrough came in 2014 with the publication of an article by Matt Orsborn (then writing as Shi Huifeng). He pointed out that an expression from the Large Sutra which originally meant "through the yoga of nonapprehension" (anupalambhayogena) had been mistranslated when the Sanskrit Heart Sutra was made. Kumārajīva translated it as yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故 in Chinese. However, it was translated back into Sanskrit as aprāptitvād "because of being in state of nonattainment". (See also Attwood 2020a). And this mistaken meaning was then read back into the Chinese text cementing the error.

In pointing out the mistake, Orsborn also pointed out some implications of repairing the error. Reading yǐwúsuǒdégù 以無所得故 as "through the yoga of nonapprehension" makes it seem to be qualifying the negations that precede it (an impression reinforced by how the term is used in the Large Sutra). Indeed, the negations are qualified twice, first by "in emptiness" and second by "through the yoga of nonapprehension". The yoga of nonapprehension appears to relate to a practice of withdrawing attention (Pāli: amanasikāra) from sense experience resulting in an altered state known as "dwelling in emptiness" (suññatāvihāra). Compare, for example, the Pāli Cūḷasuññata Sutta MN 121). Here we think that suññatā (Skt śūnyatā) in fact refers to the absence of sensory experience in this altered state. And this enables us to see the negations as phenomenological statements, i.e. in the absence of sensory experience, brought about through the withdrawal of attention, there are no skandhas because the skandhas are what generate sensory experience, there are no internal sensory spheres (aka sense faculties; indriya) or external sensory spheres (aka sense objects; ālambhana). And so on.

When the Heart Sutra says "there is no form", it is not a metaphysical statement about reality. It is not saying that form per se does not exist. Rather it is a tautology: in the state characterised by the absence of sensory experience, there is no sensory experience. Importantly, the meditator remains conscious in this state, but they are without any intentional stance, or content of awareness. Thus, they can remember being in that state (tatha-gata).

Subsequently, it was discovered that the famous lines that equate form and emptiness had been changed when the Smaller (or 8000 line) Sutra was expanded to the Larger (or 25000 line) Sutra (Attwood 2017). The original Sanskrit pericope has rūpaṃ māyā "form is an illusion". This as a metaphor based on a much older simile from early Buddhism which likens sensory experience to various hollow, ephemeral, and fleeting phenomena such as foam on a river, a dream, a lightning bolt, and a māyā or "illusion". When the word māyā was changed to śūnyatā the sentence made considerably less sense, but we can understand it to convey the same sentiment, i.e. that sensory experience is hollow, because we can bring it to a halt in meditation without loss of consciousness.

In other words, the whole drift of this text, and likely of the other prajñāpāramitā literature points to the phenomenological and epistemic conclusions that emerge from the absence of sensory experience while conscious. The text has metaphysical implications, but it is not a metaphysical treatise, i.e. it is not concerned with the nature of reality, but rather with the nature of sensory experience. This line of reasoning has a parallel in Sue Hamilton's reading of the Pāli suttas, especially in the context of the khandhas.


A basic genealogical diagram of the Heart Sutra shows the development of the standard text in Chinese:

Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā

Móhē-bānrěbōluómì jīng (T 223)

Bānrěbōluómì xīn jīng (T251)


The standard version in Chinese and Sanskrit were both further developed giving us the diversity of texts mentioned above.

Nattier, Orsborn, and Attwood have individually proposed a number of corrections to the existing editions in both Sanskrit and Chinese. At one level we can simply correct the mistakes in Conze's Sanskrit edition and note the Chinese idioms as part of the received tradition. And we can correct the misreading of the Chinese text that the Sanskrit caused. This would give us fully parsible and translatable texts. While most of the necessary changes have been published, they have yet to be incorporated into the editions.

Moreover at present no translation or study of the text that incorporates the new information has been forthcoming.



Móhē bānrěbōluómì dàmíngzhòu jīng «摩訶般若波羅蜜大明呪經» = Mahāprajñāpāramitā-mahāvidya-sūtra. T 250, attrib. Kumarajīva ca 400. [date and authorship are apocryphal].

Bānrěbōluómìduō xīn jīng «般若波羅蜜多心經» = Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra. T 251, attrib. Xuanzang, 649. [date and authorship are apocryphal]

Dà Táng dà Cí'ēnsì sānzàng fǎshī chuán xù «大唐大慈恩寺三藏法師傳序» A biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci’en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty (T 2053). Translated into English by Li Rongxi (1995).

Attwood, Jayarava. (2017). "Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra."Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 13,52–80. http://jocbs.org/index.php/jocbs/issue/view/15/showToc.

Attwood, Jayarava. (2019). ‘Xuanzang’s Relationship to the Heart Sūtra in Light of the Fangshan Stele.’ Journal of Chinese Buddhist Studies, 32: 1–30. http://chinesebuddhiststudies.org/previous_issues/jcbs3201_Attwood(1-30).pdf

Attwood, Jayarava. (2020). “The History of the Heart Sutra as a Palimpsest.” Pacific World. Series 4, no.1: 155-182. https://pwj.shin-ibs.edu/2020/6934

Attwood, Jayarava. (2021).”Losing Ourselves in the Heart Sutra: A new reading of the ancient scripture surfaces a forgotten Buddhist practice.” Tricycle Magazine (Spring): 83-4, 104-6. https://tricycle.org/magazine/heart-sutra-history/

Hamilton, Sue. (2000). Early Buddhism: A New Approach. London: Routledge.

Huifeng, Shi. (2014). “Apocryphal Treatment for Conze’s Heart Problems: Non-attainment, Apprehension, and Mental Hanging in the Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya.” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 6: 72-105. http://www.ocbs.org/ojs/index.php/jocbs/article/view/75

Kotyk, Jeffrey. (2019). ‘Chinese State and Buddhist Historical Sources on Xuanzang: Historicity and the Daci’en si sanzang fashi zhuan 大慈恩寺三藏法師傳’. T’oung Pao 105(5-6): 513–544. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15685322-10556P01

Li Rongxi (1995) A Biography of the Tripiṭaka Master of the Great Ci'en Monastery of the Great Tang Dynasty. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research.

Nattier, Jan (1992). ‘The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?’ Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 15 (2) 153-223. Online: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/ojs/index.php/jiabs/article/view/8800/2707

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