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The Heart Sūtra (Sanskrit: प्रज्ञापारमिताहृदय Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya) is a famous sūtra in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Its Sanskrit title, Prajñāpāramitā Hṛdaya, literally means "The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom." The Heart Sūtra is often cited as the best-known  and most popular Buddhist scripture of all.
The Heart Sūtra, belonging to the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñāpāramitā) category of Mahāyāna Buddhism literature along with the Diamond Sūtra, is perhaps the most prominent representative of the genre.
The Heart Sūtra is made up of 14 shlokas in Sanskrit, with each shloka containing 32 syllables. In the standard Chinese translation by Xuanzang, it has 260 Chinese characters. In English it is composed of sixteen sentences. This makes it the shortest text in the Perfection of Wisdom genre, which contains scriptures in lengths up to 100,000 shlokas. According to Buddhist scholar and author Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his commentary to the Heart Sūtra:
The Essence of Wisdom Sutra (Heart Sūtra) is much shorter than the other Perfection of Wisdom sūtras 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 its existence before any date earlier than the 7th century CE.
The Chinese version is frequently chanted (in the local pronunciation) by the Chan (Zen/Seon/Thiền) school 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 sūtra is in a small class of sūtras 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.
The earliest extant text of the Heart Sūtra is the palm-leaf manuscript found at the Horyuji Temple, and dated to 609 CE. It was one of two texts which formed the basis for a published edition by Max Müller (1881), and formed the basis of a published edition by Shaku Hannya (1923). (See image top right) However it is important to note that a comparison of the script with India manuscripts and inscriptions argues for a date in the 8th century for the Horyuji manuscript.
A Chinese text attributed to Xuanzang and dated 649 CE is preserved in the Chinese Tripiṭaka. Stories exist of earlier translations but are likely to be apocryphal. In particular Edward Conze acknowledges that the text attributed to Kumarajīva is the work of his student. It is not mentioned a biography compiled in 519 CE. John McRae and Jan Nattier have argued that this translation was created by someone else, much later, based on Kumarajiva's Large Sūtra. Zhi Qian's version, supposedly composed in 200-250 CE, 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 Sūtra" (心經 xīnjīng) being used for the text, and Fukui Fumimasa has argued that 心經 actually means dhāraṇī 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.
There have been several critical editions of the Sanskrit text of the Heart Sūtra, but to date the definitive edition is Conze's, originally published in 1948, reprinted in 1967 and revised in 1973. Conze had access to 12 Nepalese manuscripts; seven mss. and inscriptions from China; two mss. from Japan; as well as several translations from the Chinese Canon and one from the Tibetan. There is a great deal of variation across the manuscripts in the title, the maṅgala verses, and within the text itself. Many of the manuscripts are corrupt or simply carelessly copied.
However, based on textual patterns in the Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Heart Sūtra and the Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra, scholar Jan Nattier has suggested that the earliest (shortest) version of the Heart Sūtra was probably first composed in China in the Chinese language from a mixture of material derived from Kumārajīva's Chinese translation of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra (cf. vol. 1-1, pg 64 of Takaysu 2007) and new composition, and that this assemblage was later translated into Sanskrit (or back-translated, in the case of most of the sūtra). She argues that the majority of the text was redacted from Kumārajīva's 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 sūtra. The Chinese version of the core (i.e. the short version) of the Heart Sūtra 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) 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 become the scholarly consensus, but is rejected by Red Pine who favours the idea of a lost manuscript of the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra with the alternate Sanskrit wording despite there being no evidence for such a lost text.
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 translation was the first to use Hrdaya ("Heart") in the title.
Despite the common name Heart Sūtra, the word sūtra is not present in known Sanskrit manuscripts, which refer to it simply as prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya. Xuanzang's translation was also the first 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:
In other languages, the title is frequently called Heart Sūtra in common-usage:
Various commentators divide this text into 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 apprehension of the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena, known through and as 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 Samyukta Agama; this sequence differs in comparable texts of other sects. On this basis, Red Pine has argued that the Heart Sūtra is specifically a response to Sarvastivada teachings that, in the sense "phenomena" or its constituents, 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 dependently originated. 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 notions 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 be in the central role in a Prajñāpāramitā text. Early Prajñāpāramitā texts involve Subhuti, who is absent from both versions of the Heart Sūtra, and the Buddha who is only present in the longer version. This could be considered evidence that the 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:
This was transliterated by other Mahayana Buddhist traditions in China and Tibet, and then spread to other regions such as Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Classical transliterations of the mantra include:
In the traditions of Chinese Buddhism in East Asia, it is said that the Indian masters who came to China to translate Sanskrit texts never translated mantras into Chinese because they knew this could not be done. They also held that it was impossible to explain the esoteric meanings of the mantras in words. It is said that when a devotee succeeds in realizing singleness of mind (samādhi) by repeating a mantra, then its profound meaning will be clearly revealed to him or her.
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 Sūtra 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 The New Heart of Wisdom:
The 14th Dalai Lama explains the mantra in a discourse on the Heart Sūtra 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.
Edward Conze attempted to render the 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. However, the string of words resists analysis and, like most mantras, is not a grammatical sentence.
The Heart Sūtra has been set to music a number of times. Many singers solo this sutra. The Buddhist Audio Visual Production Centre (佛教視聽製作中心) produced a Cantonese album of recordings of the Heart Sūtra in 1995 featuring a number of Hong Kong pop singers, including Alan Tam, Anita Mui and Faye Wong and composer by Andrew Lam Man Chung (林敏聰) to raise money to rebuild the Chi Lin Nunnery. Other Hong Kong pop singers, such as the Four Heavenly Kings sang the Heart Sūtra to raise money for relief efforts related to the 1999 Chichi earthquake. An alternative Mandarin version was performed by Faye Wong in 2009 at the Famen Temple and its recording subsequently used in the 2010 Chinese blockbuster Aftershock. Shaolin Monk Shifu Shi Yan Ming also recites the Sutra at the end of the song "Life Changes" by the Wu-Tang Clan, in remembrance of the deceased member ODB. The outro of the b-side song Ghetto Defendant by the British first wave punk band The Clash also features the Heart Sūtra, recited by American beat poet Allen Ginsberg. A slightly edited version is used as the lyrics for Yoshimitsu's theme in the PlayStation 2 game Tekken Tag Tournament. An Indian styled version was also created by Bombay Jayashri title named - Ji Project. It was also recorded and arranged by Malaysian singer/composer Imee Ooi.
In the centuries following the historical Xuanzang, an extended tradition of literature fictionalizing the life of Xuanzang and glorifying his special relationship with the Heart Sūtra arose, of particular note being the Journey to the West (16th century/Ming dynasty). In chapter nineteen of Journey to the West, the fictitious Xuanzang learns by heart the Heart Sūtra after hearing it recited one time by the Crow's Nest Zen Master, who flies down from his tree perch with a scroll containing it, and offers to impart it. A full text of the Heart Sūtra is quoted in this fictional account. The mantra of the Heart Sūtra was used as the lyrics for the opening theme song of the 2011 Chinese television series Journey to the West.
The Heart Sūtra was spoken in the final minutes of the movie Little Buddha.
Schopenhauer, in the final words of his main work, compared his doctrine to the Śūnyatā of the Heart Sūtra. In Volume 1, § 71 of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer wrote: "…to those in whom the will [to continue living] has turned and has denied itself, this very real world of ours, with all its suns and Milky Ways, is — nothing." To this, he appended the following note: "This is also the Prajna–Paramita of the Buddhists, the 'beyond all knowledge,' in other words, the point where subject and object no longer exist. (See I. J. Schmidt, 'Über das Mahajana und Pradschna–Paramita'.)" 
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