September 16, 2014

Thich Nhat Hanh Gives Heart Sutra a New Translation.

Tammy T. Stone

It was recently announced that the venerated Vietnamese monk and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh, re-translated the English version of the Heart Sutra.

The Heart Sutra is one of the most famous and important sutras (scriptures) in Buddhism’s Mahayana tradition. It literally translates from the Sanskrit, Prajnaparamita Hrdaya, into “The Heart of the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom”.

The Heart Sutra goes back to somewhere between 100 BCE and 500 CE, and is a potent and compact teaching,  considered to contain the essence of truth and wisdom. It’s also relatively short, which makes it highly accessible to seekers today.

Its enduring value, though, comes from the fact that it is not a text to blindly revered, but one which contains truths won over the centuries by serious meditation and practice.

Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva embodying compassion, here speaks to Sariputra, a disciple of Buddha, about emptiness. Emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit) is a fundamental doctrine in Mahayana Buddhism, and is an often misunderstood one, so that even the subtlest nuances in a translation of a discourse on emptiness can cause confusion.

I’m no expert, but if I can greatly summarize, one of the greatest misconceptions about emptiness is that it can be equated with non-existence or non-being, when actually, emptiness is more about how we approach existence (to be empty of form) rather than how we define it—to say something is empty is not to say it doesn’t exist.

This common misunderstanding lies behind the new translation of the Heart Sutra, and Thích Nhất Hạnh explains his reasoning with two amazing anecdotes, here, where I also found the translation provided below.

The Heart Sutra is a scripture, a teaching, wisdom, a chant, a mantra, and is meant to be experienced in many ways, not only intellectually (I’m not just saying this because it remains largely out of my grasp!)

I just read the Sutra below out loud a few times, and was entranced, and puzzled, and inspired. I look forward to spending more time with it, in hopes of ever-greater understanding.


The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore


while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.

“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.

“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Immaculacy,
no Increasing no Decreasing.

“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.

The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.

The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.

Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.

Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.

“All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.

“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

The Heart Sutra:

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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: via the author


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