While I am deeply indebted to many for their previous translations of these words, I am responsible for the translations as they appear here. May any benefits or merit following there from be given to and shared among all beings, may any weird karma that may be derived there from be added to my already ancient twisted karmic debts.
Great Transcending Wisdom Heart Sutra
“Thus have I heard.”
There are two versions of this short sutra. The shorter of the two is the one chanted in most Buddhist temples. The longer of the two has the introductory paragraph that is virtually obligatory in all sutras and a usual concluding paragraph of praise. The introductory paragraph of the longer version begins with the words “Thus have I heard” and sets up the location of the sutra and introduces the questioner and the question asked of the Buddha to which the sutra is responding. Most scholars believe the Heart Sutra was first written as a dharini, or mantra for recitation, not as a sutra and that the introductory and concluding paragraphs were added later to elevate the status of the work to that of sutra.
The location of the Heart Sutra was on Vulture Peak, which the Chinese translated as “Sacred Eagle Peak,” in the kingdom state of Magadha Buddha stayed at a cave on Vulture Peak and spoke to the assembly in open areas nearby. The road to Vulture Peak was not wide or improved so that when King Bimbisara visited Buddha even the king could go only so far in his chariot and then he would have to walk. There were at one time two monuments along the road to indicate the point where the king would dismount the chariot and another where he would leave his retinue behind and approach the Buddha alone. Vulture Peak is one of the primary sites of Buddhist pilgrimage along with Bodhgaya, the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, and the Deer Park. Photos of Vulture Peak may be seen athttp://sped2work.tripod.com/vulturespeak.html and elsewhere on the internet.
The Heart Sutra is the essential condensation of the Prajnaparamita Sutra found in several much larger versions such as the Large Prajnaparamita Sutra in 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 lines. In addition to being the location of the Prajnaparamita Sutras, Vulture Peak was the site of the Amitâyur Dhyâna Sûtra (Sutra on the Meditation on the Buddha of Infinite Life), the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra (Larger Sutra of the Buddha of Infinite Life (Amitaya)), and the Lotus of the True Dharma Sutra (Sadharmapundarika Sutra). Thus several schools of Mahayana Buddhism including the T'ien-t'ai, Pure Land, Nicherin, and Ch’an/Zen schools have great affinity with Vulture Peak. As described in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta the last journey of Buddha leading to his predicted death begins with Buddha teaching at Vulture Peak.
Of direct importance to the Ch’an/Zen tradition is that Vulture Peak is where “the Great Silent Sutra” was delivered in which Buddha silently held up a flower and onlyMaha-Kashyapa understood and smiled. This story is told in Case #6 of the Gateless Barrier (Ch. Wu-wen kuan, J. Mumonkan) and elsewhere. With this direct meeting of the minds, “like arrow points meeting in the air” (see the Ts’an-T’ung-Ch’I, the Promise of Meeting Unity), the first transmission from heart-mind to heart-mind is said to have taken place in the legendary Ch’an/Zen lineages. The Buddha confirmed Maha-Kashyapa as his Dharma heir saying, "I have the correct-orientation eye of the treasury, the subtle mind of incomparable Nirvana, the true form of the formless, not standing upon scriptures and letters. I now pass it on to Maha-Kashyapa." Maha-Kashyapa thus became the first patriarch in the lineages of Ch’an/Zen transmission.
In the Heart Sutra the questioner is Sariputra. At that time the Buddha was absorbed in meditation, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was studying the Prajnaparamita, and Sariputra had a question about the Prajnaparamita. Through the Buddha’s power he knew Sariputra’s question and made it possible for Sariputra to ask his question directly of Avalokiteshvara who had just then been deeply considering the very answer. Sariputra’s question was “If the son or daughter of a family wishes to perform the study in the deep Prajnaparamita, how is he to be taught?” The shorter version begins at this point stating the condition of Avalokiteshvara’s immersion in the Prajnaparamita and the Bodhisattva’s response to Sariputra.
My translation sticks mainly to the shorter version but includes a few items from the longer version. Out of homage to Buddha, and the true importance of the status of sutra, I have included the introductory phase “Thus have I heard,” which in my opinion should never be absent from a sutra even if to save a few breaths or words in chanting. In other words, if it is called the Heart Sutra and not the Heart Dharini then I feel the “Thus have I heard” should be included regardless of any other consideration. I haven’t reinserted the location information or the identification of questioner and question, but because of its importance I have described it here, so that people may have it in mind when they chant or consider the Heart Sutra.
“saw the essential emptiness of the five branches of being”
The term skandha is usually translated as “aggregate,” “collection,” “heap,” or “component.” It means “shoulder,” “trunk” or “stem” of a tree, “esp. that part of the stem where the branches begin,” “large branch or bough,” a “part,” “division,” “chapter,” or “section,” and other related meanings. The term “aggregate” has been used usually to emphasize the philosophical sense of infinite progression of logical subdivisions in the analysis of emptiness. However, the terms shoulder, trunk, or branch are closer to the image that is originally evoked in the term skandha. Shoulder would be good to emphasize the connection of the branch with the trunk as well as to imagine all the variety that creates the shoulder such as bone, sinew, muscle, blood vessels, skin, etc. But to say the “five shoulders” would be awkward in English. Trunk emphasizes the pillar aspect of holding up the branches but leaves out the all important branching aspect. To say “five trunks” or “five pillars” creates an image of five separateskandhas, not one unified thusness branching into five. “Branches” is my preferred translation because it includes the core image of the tree and that all branches are connected through the trunk as well as alluding to the limbs of the body. It also has the connotation that they flow both ways as in branches of a river and branches of a tree. It also resonates with the lines in the Ta’an-T’ung-Ch’I (J. Sandokai) “the branching streams are flowing darkness” and “Trunk and branches have the same source.” Also, branches corresponds well with the uses of branches in English, as in the branches of knowledge taught in universities, as the five skandhas are the five faculties of mind.
“Form is emptiness; emptiness itself is form,”
I have also reinserted the two extra lines from the longer version, “Form is emptiness; emptiness itself is form,” regarding the unity of emptiness-form which are left out of most of the shorter versions. The longer version has the full six sided rendition of the three views of form and emptiness: (1) Form is emptiness; (2) emptiness itself is form; (3) form is not other than emptiness; (4) emptiness is not other than form; (5) what is form, that is emptiness; and (6) what is emptiness, that is form. I don’t know why the shorter version removed the first and most basic pair of the three pairs from the list, but to me it should be included.
“thus so for feelings, perceptions, complexes, comprehension.”
When referring to the five skandhas, (rUpa, vedanA, saMjJa, saMskAra, and vijJAna) the fourth branch “samskara,” is the most difficult to translate. I have seen it variously translated as “discrimination,” “mental formations,” “imagination,” “volition,” “action formations,” “conception,” etc. I have translated it as “complexes” because that is to me the most simple and generic term coming from a psychological perspective rather than a philosophical one, which is essentially the perspective presented by the system of the skandhas. The term complexes includes all of the terms stated above used in the various translations. The complexes (fourth skandha) are the organizational structures and functions of consciousness that coordinate and correlate the first three branches resulting in concepts, imagination, the sense of volition, and all the other mental and emotional formations that make comprehension (fifth skandha) possible. Even the mental model or pattern of “ego” in self-identity which we use to create our sense of volition is itself a complex, the ego complex, and is the coordinating complex that is the nexus of the entire system of subject-object relationships which we call self and other at the level of comprehension. Seeing the ego-self as essentially empty -- because it is the core complex-nexus of consciousness and not an entity of separate existence -- was the great psychological and existential discovery of Sakyamuni Buddha.
I’m now translating vijJAna, as used in the system of the five skandhas, as “comprehension” rather than the more usual “consciousness.” The definition of vijJAnaincludes understanding, comprehending, recognizing, intelligence, knowledge, the act of distinguishing or discerning, science, doctrine, etc.. Etymologically, vi is related to the number two and implies duality or separation and jJAna means knowledge, so vijJAna connotes the knowledge that comes from separation, i.e., analysis, or holding something as an object in the subject-object relationship. To me, making “consciousness” the label for one of the five branches creates confusion and obscures the fact that consciousness is the essence of all the branches not just one of them. In one sense consciousness is the trunk of the mind that the five branches are commonly connected to as indivisible branches, with the above ground portion of the trunk being conscious consciousness and the underground roots the unconscious consciousness. Forms, feelings, perceptions, and complexes all to one extent or another become conscious rising to the surface of the cauldron and then subside again into unconsciousness, the same is true of the fifth branch, comprehension. Comprehension is the fifth branch function that holds (L. prehendere) the other four branches in the mind in such a way that consciousness can become self-conscious, thus it is easily, though mistakenly, equated with consciousness itself. With comprehension our consciousness is fully functioning, but without comprehension we may still be conscious though in a less comprehensive manner, such as in the lowest state of consciousness of a persistent vegetative state in which only the most basic reflexes of form and primitive feeling are present without more developed feelings, perceptions, complexes, or comprehension.
“Everything has these aspects of emptiness”
I haven’t translated the words Buddha, bodhisattva, and mantra because they have been in the English language dictionaries for over 50 years. Though dharma is also in the English dictionaries its definition is not as nuanced as it should be, generally referring to what I call the capitalized meaning of Dharma as teaching, law, or cosmic principle. The lower case meaning of dharmas as a generic word for “things,” i.e., any recognizable pattern of events, circumstances, ideas, deeds, etc., is not usually recognized in English, and that is how it is used here in the phrase “all things have” or “everything has” the characteristics of emptiness. By saying “all dharmas have the characteristics of emptiness” one might mistakenly convey the wrong impression to English readers that only the teachings are empty and not that everything that is identifiable as a “thing” is emptiness. People forget that “thing” is not just a word for a material entity, but for basic pattern recognition itself, ranging from being a matter for concern (“I have many things to do”), to a bit of news (“I couldn’t get a thing out of him”), to an individual or the assembly of persons, to the essence (“the thing in itself”). This last sense of essence, or the intimacy of things, is where the small “d” dharma as thing becomes the Dharma, the Great Pattern of no pattern that transcends (paramita) all patterns. It is sometimes rewarding to translate dharma as pattern. “All patterns have the characteristics of emptiness” would also be a suitable translation of this phrase, but I like “things” because it goes directly to challenge the materialist view of things as substance or entity.
“to dwell serenely without attention resistances”
I translate “acittAvaraNah” (J. mu-kei-ge) as “without attention resistance(s).” It is a combination word of “a,” the negative, “citta” and “AvaraNa.” I have seen it variously translated as without “mental hindrances,” “thought coverings,” “mental impediments,” “thought obstructions,” “mind obstruction,” “delusive hindrance,” “hindrance in the heart,” “obscuration of mind,” etc. The Sanskrit “citta” can mean “attending,” “thinking,” “reflecting,” “imagining,” “thought,” “intention,” “aim,” “wish,” “the heart,” or “mind.” I use the term attention, rather than the more commonly used “mind” or “mental” for citta, because I want to focus directly on the psychological dynamics without the entity aspect associated with the noun “mind.” An equally suitable alternative to “attention” would be the word “aware(ness),” as both terms inherently imply being awake, as bodhicitta is the attention or awareness of awakening. The word attention has the direct connotation of the essence or presence of mind and currently has wide use in English as in the phrase “attention deficit disorder.” Essentially, Buddhism can be said to be medicine for the basic dysfunctions of human attention. Here’s a well known Zen story.
A layman asked 15th-century Zen Master Ikkyu to write something expressing highest wisdom. Without hesitation the master brushed one word: "Attention." The layman, disappointed, asked if that was all, could he say more. In response, Ikkyu wrote "Attention. Attention." The layman still felt disappointed and frustrated and complained that he didn’t see much wisdom in what was written. The master responded by writing, "Attention. Attention, Attention." The layman, now quite irritated, asked what "Attention" was supposed to mean. Ikkyu replied, "Attention means attention."
The term “AvaraNa” can mean “covering,” “hiding,” or “concealing,” or the noun of the act of covering, concealing, or hiding; “shutting” or “enclosing”; an “obstruction” or “interruption”; “a covering,” “garment,” or “cloth”; “anything that protects,” or an “outer bar” or fence”; a “wall”; a “shield”; a “bolt” or “lock”; and in philosophical usage a “mental blindness.” The term AvaraNazakti means the power (zakti) of illusion as in that which veils the real nature of things. I use resistance rather than obstruction or hindrance, or the more poetic “wall,” in order to avoid objectifying the obstructions and to directly point to the psychological element of the term. It is our own resistance to attending to or reflecting reality as it is that is indicated. Resistance in English also includes opposition and in this case it is referring to the internal oppositions created by our own dualistic thinking. CittAvaraNa points directly to the functionality of the hindrance and obscuration that results from our mind’s objectifying process, but that process is not an external obstruction, it is our most intimate obstruction, the oppositions created by the unexamined polarities of consciousness. The mind’s attention (citta) is resisted, impeded, obstructed, opposed, hindered, or obscured (AvaraNa) by its own objectification process. Insight into (vipassana) and stopping (samatha) the resistances in our own attention/awareness caused by the objectifying process of mind is the core of Buddhist meditation and what Buddha meant when he said, “I see you, Oh house-builder! The rafters are broken, the ridge-beam is shattered.” With awakening, no more does objectification build the house of suffering and fear in the same way; thus one dwells without mental resistances.
“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, enlightened, amen.”
I translate svaha as “amen” because svaha is a sacred way to say “so be it,” “hail!”, “hail to!”, or “may a blessing rest on”; all of which are included in the meaning of amen.