Article: Understanding the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is one of the best-known Buddhist scriptures and we say it at the start of every day at the Hermitage and on Sangha retreats. A Sutra is a teaching given by the Buddha or in the presence of the Buddha.

The Heart Sutra is about Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom, the wisdom that lies at the heart of the Universe and in the heart of each one of us. Even if you do not understand the sutra, by hearing or reciting it you make an auspicious connection with the protective power of the Truth.

Like most sutras, it begins by giving the time and place that a certain teaching was given to a certain group of people who drew out the teaching from the Buddha. It is a mandala: it has a centre (the Buddha) and a periphery (the assembly of monks and bodhisattvas). It is a precise, unique event and yet it is not a graspable historical occasion. It is somehow real, but out of time. The more we recite it though, the more real it starts to feel. There is a living presence in the way the sutra conjures up the time, the place, the teaching and the assembly, and we are transported. A shared world is conjured up from deep and mysterious connections, and we pick up the cues and act as if it’s all real.

When the sutra says the Buddha was in deep samadhi, this is often translated as meditative absorption or concentration, but actually it means that he was entering and creating a whole world, or mandala, that others could also enter. So when we hear or recite the sutra, we are somehow an integral part of that world created by the Buddha.

That is why Buddhists actually worship sutras, treating them as living beings, making offerings to them, writing them out in beautiful script, memorizing them and best of all, contemplating their meaning so that they can truly enter the world of Awakening. As we make these connections with the Sutra we receive its adhistana (powerful blessing) and make an energy exchange that brings the mandala to life and augments it.

As we recite it, it is not just ourselves but our whole world that gets connected to the samadhi of the Buddha that produced it. We are invoking the Buddha’s presence in the world. Reciting a sutra is therefore a very meaningful and powerful event, regardless of whether we understand what we are reciting or not. But there is even more to the whole event if we really link into the meaning of the teaching that comes through. I think the essence of the whole sutra can be summed up in the line ‘form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.’

Emptiness here means openness, groundlessness, ungraspableness; form is the precision of all phenomena. Each sound, feeling or smell is precise and unmistakable, and yet none of it can be grasped or known in the usual way we think we can know things. The Heart Sutra presents this truth as Prajnaparamita, which is also known as the Perfection of Wisdom or the Wisdom of Emptiness. It is a key Mahayana Buddhist teaching and it can be understood in two ways. At first we discover the world to be empty, but when we examine Reality more deeply we find that this empty world is inseparable from the awareness that discovers it.

Prajnaparamita therefore discovers itself to be the foundation and basis of all phenomena, where the knower and the known are not separable into two distinct realities, and neither can be categorized as existent, nonexistent, both or neither. The way Reality is known is not by grasping and fixing in the way the logical mind tries to understand things, or in the way our emotional tendencies try to somehow secure our ground.

To realize Prajnaparamita is to allow the rug to be pulled from under us and to step into the unknown and unknowable. It is the highest form of knowledge or wisdom, and the ambiguity in the words ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ is significant. Is Reality the known or the knowing of what is known? Or is the distinction between the two false? Dzogchen and Mahamudra texts and commentaries often remark that there is no difference between the Prajnaparamita and the Dzogchen or Mahamudra view. When they say this, they are understanding Prajnaparamita as a name for Reality itself. It is the living Truth, the Dharma, that which the Buddha realized on the night of his Enlightenment.

When Shariputra asks Avalokiteshvara how to abide in the Prajnaparamita, or the true nature of Reality, Avalokiteshvara replies that the Bodhisattva should abide by ‘seeing in this way’. In Reality, there is nothing new to see, and nothing obscuring Reality that needs to be removed. You just have to rest in the right way of seeing and by seeing in the right way, you are liberated from delusion.

The Heart Sutra tells us that what is known in the ordinary grasping way, by the complicated mind that has turned away from the simplicity of Reality, is actually false and not real. It all lacks self-nature. You can therefore say that there is no body, no feeling, no perception and so on, because none of the different aspects of our experience can be ‘known’ in the way we think things can be known. None of it stands up to logical analysis.

So again the question arises, what is it all then? How come we are even talking about all these different aspects of experience? What is going on? From the Dzogchen and Mahamudra point of view, what is going on is that there is a living Truth – Openness, Clarity and Sensitivity – to be discovered, and all that we think of as the world is a play or display of mandalas within the spaciousness of awareness.

Awareness can come to recognize its own nature and enjoy the play of phenomena that move into the foreground and then into the background, appearing and disappearing, but never truly coming into separate existence, never arising, beginning or ending. This is the mysterious living heart of Reality that cannot be known as long as we are trapped in believing in the world that we have created for ourselves by logical construction, the world we cling to emotionally.

So the Heart Sutra really hammers home this point. There is no eye, no nose, no tongue, no body, etc, etc. There is absolutely nothing to grasp onto; not even the so-called eternal truths of Buddhism, such as the twelve links of dependent arising, birth and death, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, wisdom, liberation and so on. It is extremely iconoclastic.

If you know something about the history of Buddhism, you will know how the early commentators on the Buddha’s word tried to make a kind of science of it. They called it Abhidharma and tried to list every single possible phenomenon that we experience, in order to show that they are all empty, conditioned and unreliable, and that grasping them was the cause of suffering. But the whole thing got out of hand.

Instead of using these comprehensive lists as a means of liberating themselves from grasping, scholars actually used them to bind themselves to a lower view of reality. They took all these things to be real objects of awareness that somehow existed in themselves and proved that there was no self. However, such a teaching is somewhat sterile. What are love and compassion, truth and meaning in such a system?

All the major questions that trouble the human heart have been shelved. The system was overthrown, only to re-emerge in different shapes and forms over the centuries that followed, and it is still present in a strand of Western Buddhism today. From the Dzogchen and Mahamudra point of view the Heart Sutra is clearly attacking both the Abhidharma view and the ‘common sense’ point of view. Both are missing the point, which is that the Truth, Prajnaparamita, cannot be grasped.

We can approach it by using our logical mind, but the nearer we get to it, the more that way of thinking breaks down. However hard we try, we can never grasp the prize. Yet the effort is not wasted. As we struggle to understand we are forced to let go of our wrong understanding and step into a space of not knowing, very clear and awake. This is the state in which the Living Truth can reveal itself to us as we let go of our proud clinging to our views and preconceptions.

In this way we come to balance the faculties of Prajna (widsom) and Shraddha (faith). In the end the Truth erupts into our awareness as direct experience that satisfies the heart. It is our heart that knows that what we have found is true. It is our heart that overcomes its fear and comes to learn to trust what it has discovered.

So all there is to do in the end is to abide, to rest, to stay, just as one is, in the Reality of Prajnaparamita. How should one rest? With faith and confidence. In other words, without fear. Then the Living Truth is simply there. It has adhistana (blessing), power and influence from its own side.

So you can open out to that and be as receptive as you can be. That is perhaps what it means, in essence, to pray. It is a very humble and grateful frame of mind.

With an open heart, we recite the mantra:


Om Gone, Gone, Gone beyond, Gone altogether beyond, Bodhi (Awakening) Svaha.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

This is an excerpt from Lama Shenpen Hookham’s book Mandala of Sacred Space: Setting up your Practice at Home’’Available here or direct from the Sangha for members of the AHS.

Find out more here about Lama Shenpen’s training in Formless Meditation, reflection and insight, with the Living the Awakened Heart Training.

The Heart Sutra is recited every morning at The Hermitage of the Awakened Heart, the AHS retreat centre (and Lama Shenpen’s home) in North Wales. You can join us online via Zoom conferencing for this, our morning puja followed by formless meditation at 7am, as well as other sessions – full details at

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