The Heart of Leaping Wisdom — The Heart Sutra


A free re-rendering of the Heart Sutra by Ratnaprabha

  1. I salute the Abundant Lady, Noble Leaping Wisdom!
  2.  The Bodhi-hero noble Master Kind-gazer was practising the ocean-deep life of leaping wisdom,
  3. And he gazed down,
  4. Seeing only the five segments of oneself and total experience,
  5. And knowing they were essentially completely open.
  6. Kind-gazer said:
  7. ‘Right here and now, Sharp-eye, the world you experience and your body are completely open.
  8. And open reality is just what you call the world and body.
  9. The world and body precisely are complete openness.
  10. And open reality precisely is what you call the world and body.
  11. Anything in the world or body is completely open.
  12. And anything in open reality appears as the world and body.
  13. ‘All responses of like and dislike are completely open.
  14. And open reality is … [as for the world you experience…]
  15. And anything in open reality appears as all responses of like and dislike.
  16. ‘Every time you notice and recognise anything is completely open.
  17. And open reality is … [as for the world you experience…]
  18. And anything in open reality appears as every time you notice and recognise anything.
  19. ‘Every little urge or proclivity you feel is completely open.
  20. And open reality is … [as for the world you experience…]
  21. And anything in open reality appears as every little urge or proclivity.
  22. ‘Your split awareness itself is completely open.
  23. And open reality is … [as for the world you experience…]
  24. And anything in open reality appears as your split awareness.
  25. ‘Right here and now, Sharp-eye,
  26. Everything you can name or think about is completely open.
  27. Everything is without identifiable characteristics.
  28. Everything neither comes into being, nor finishes.
  29. Everything is neither morally bad, nor pure.
  30. Everything is neither lacking in perfection, nor perfect.
  31. ‘Next, Sharp-eye, get into a completely open meditation.
  32. There, there’s no world or body.
  33. There’s no response of like or dislike.
  34. There’s nothing to notice or recognise.
  35. There are no little urges or proclivities.
  36. There is even no divided awareness.
  37. ‘Get into a completely open meditation.
  38. There, there are no senses or mind-sense.
  39. There’s nothing to sense, nor ideas or images.
  40. There is no sense awareness, nor even mental consciousness.
  41. ‘Get into a completely open meditation.
  42. There, there’s no unknowing, or karma-formations, nor all the links they lead to, up to decay and death,
  43. But there is no stopping of these twelve links, either.
  44. ‘Get into a completely open meditation.
  45. There, there’s no frustration.
  46. There is no craving to make you frustrated.
  47. There is no peaceful cessation of all frustration,
  48. Nor is there a spiritual path to lead to it.
  49. ‘Get into a completely open meditation.
  50. There, there is no real knowing;
  51. There are no Buddha-achievements;
  52. There is no lack of Buddha-achievements.
  53. ‘Next, Sharp-eye,
  54. It is because of his complete indifference to achievements,
  55. And because he relies on Leaping Wisdom,
  56. That a Bodhi-hero can live with no barriers trapping his mind or heart.
  57. Having burst through all barriers, he does not panic;
  58. He is no longer upside-down;
  59. Finally, he achieves Enlightenment.
  60. ‘Every Buddha throughout time,
  61. With just this Leaping Wisdom,
  62. Fully wakes up to perfect and complete Enlightenment.
  63. ‘Next, learn the great secret name of Leaping Wisdom.
  64. It’s the Lady of Full Knowing’s secret name,
  65. The best name,
  66. The name as good as a Buddha,
  67. The name that calms all frustration.
  68. It’s true, and it works,
  69. It’s the secret name spoken by Leaping Wisdom herself.
  70. Here it is:
  71. ‘Leap; Leap; Leap over; All of you leap over; AWAKE! That’s it!’


Please refer to Sangharakshita’s commentary on the Sutra (lecture 73 on Free Buddhist Audio, & in Wisdom Beyond Words).

I produced this re-rendering during the ‘Towards Insight’ Order retreat at Guhyaloka in September 1994, where we were studying and reciting the Heart Sutra. My purpose was to produce a fresh and immediate interpretation of the Sutra, based on a number of translations and commentaries, primarily to help my own reflection on and study of the text. I don’t understand most of the Sutra and do not have Insight into shunyata, nor can I read Sanskrit, Tibetan or Chinese! So do not regard this as a reliable English version. Even on the level of the discursive intellect, several other interpretations are possible. I haven’t even tried to preserve the Sanskrit grammatical forms. And I have freely expanded the terse Dharmic concepts in order to convey a more accessible meaning.

The notes below refer to my line numbers. The full diacritics of the Sanskrit words can be found in Conze (A). Words in brackets are additions: I have added words or phrases for clarity or to expand sections for more efficient reflection.

Title       Also includes the word Sutra.  Heart (Hrdaya) is the ‘essence’, and also the mind/heart that operates with Prajnaparamita.  Leaping (paramita) is glossed as ‘going beyond (to the other shore)’, and can also mean excellence or perfection; ‘leap’ is Han Shan’s image. Prajna is the Imaginal faculty, leaping onto a safe refuge beyond the ocean of suffering. The Heart of Leaping Wisdom Sutra only sketches in a few, advanced stages of the path; it is more a ‘path of no steps’ teaching, a path of one leap (or a few leaps), you might say. The much more gradual accumulation of merit is described in other scriptures.

1             Abundant lady  – Bhagavatyai; as an epithet of the Buddha, usually ‘Blessed One’ or ‘Richly endowed one’ (Sangharakshita). Here referring to Leaping Wisdom, and so in feminine form, hence Lady (grammatically feminine, and referring to the female Buddha).  Noble: Arya.

Following this, the long version has an introduction setting the scene on Vulture’s peak, with the Buddha in the Samadhi ‘Perception of the Profound’.

2             Bodhi-hero – bodhisattva.  Master Kind-gazer – Avalokiteshvara. Ishvara is a ‘lord’ or highly capable being. Avalokita means ‘looks down’ – in compassion being understood.   Practising – caramano; or ‘meditating’.  (ocean) deep – gambhiram.  Life – caryam; or ‘practice’.

3             gazed down – vyavalokayati, echoing his name.

4             five segments … experience – the skandhas. The Chinese version then adds (in our puja translation – see refs.) ‘and transcended the bonds that caused him suffering’. The Chinese translator working with Kumarajiva may have added this, but Hsuang Tsang has it too, despite the fact that it is not in his Sanskrit source (see Hurvitz, in Lancaster).

5             essentially completely open – svabhavashunyan. My ‘completely open’ and ‘open reality’ for shunya/shunyata are from Herbert Guenther’s explanations of the word as the ‘open dimension’ (of being). (Kindly Bent to Ease Us, Pt I (Dharma, 1975), 169 & 264n. Also see his Tibetan Buddhism in Western Perspective (Dharma, 1977), 73-4).  After 5, the long version has Sharp-eye ask Kind-gazer how to train in Leaping Wisdom.

7             Right here and now – iha, literally ‘here’. I’m suggesting that ‘iha’ is drawing Sharp-eye’s attention to his present experience. (See also lines 25, 31, 53 and 62.)   Sharp-eye – Shariputra. A ‘shari’ (his mother’s name) is apparently a bright- and sharp-eyed bird; ‘Sharp-eye’ seems to fit his acute mind. (I’ve freely ‘translated’ his and Avalokiteshvara’s names to help in looking at the Sutra’s characters in a fresh light.)   the world … your body – rupa; as a skandha, rupa can be the whole objective content of experience (‘the world’), or just one’s body and senses.

8             is just (what you call) – 7 and 8 actually just say ‘rupa is shunyata, shunyata (or the very shunyata) is rupa’. Of course, I can’t grasp this paradoxical part of the Sutra, but 8-11 (as well as the following lines on the other skandhas) seem to be saying that both ‘objective’ appearances and ‘subjective’ processes are completely open, yet there is not a thing called shunyata which is distinct from appearances and experience, let alone a nihilistic void – Han Shan warns against getting ‘immersed in the void and stagnant in stillness’. The three (two in some versions) ways of putting it are presumably to guard against wriggling out of this conundrum. Perhaps it is sufficient just to contemplate the words as they are, and let them sink in. However, I’ve expanded them a little in translation, based on the Indian and Tibetan commentaries – hence ‘what you call’. Shunyata seems to have two strands of ‘meanings’: the utter lack of inherent existence in any phenomenon, and the ultimate invalidity of any labelling or conceptualisations of any phenomenon. As concepts, shunyata and rupa are distinct, of course. They are identical in that there is nothing other than ineffable reality for one’s divided awareness to misperceive as split into various labellable (‘what you call’) segments, like the skandhas. Therefore, all that non-dual Transcendental consciousness (Prajna) needs to vision is complete openness.

12           (Appears as) – again, I’ve added this. The commentaries explain that everything we experience is a manifestation of shunyata, which ‘does not prevent the causally originated semblances’ (Manjughosha Sadhana), and this mere appearance can be relatively real. Shunyata is to do with experience, not metaphysics. However, it presumably is not that shunyata manifests rupa and nothing but rupa: ‘it’ manifests the other skandhas too. And, for our spiritual purposes, we do need to make a distinction between the potentially misleading appearances that weave our life and world, and the completely open reality that we fail to see life and world as. But I’m out of my depth here! ‘All appearances are reflected in prajna’s mirror’, says Han Shan.

13           Responses of like and dislike – vedana; can be neutral too. The Sutra just lists the remaining skandhas, but I’ve repeated Kind-gazer’s statements in full for each one, to aid reflection.

16           Every time you notice and recognise (anything) – samjna.

19           Every little urge or proclivity (you feel) – samskaras. ‘Proclivities’ is Sanghrakshita’s suggestion, or was it ‘propensities’?

22           Your split awareness (itself) – vijnana.

26           Everything you can name or think about – all dharmas. 26-30 constitute the ‘eight-fold profundity’.

27           (Everything) – ‘all dharmas’ is not actually repeated in 27-30.  Without identifiable characteristics – (a)-lakshana. This could be part of the previous word, shunyata, in which case, 26-27 together mean all dharmas ‘have the characteristic of shunyata’, as Conze has it, and the profundity would only be sevenfold. All the Indian commentators have 27 as a separate statement.

28           neither comes into being, nor finishes – anutpanna (or ‘not produced’), aniruddha.

29           neither morally bad, nor pure – amala (literally ‘not stained’), avimala.
30           neither lacking in perfection, nor perfect – anuna; or ‘not deficient’ (in the spiritual qualities to be accumulated by practice); aparipurnah; or ‘not filled’ (Chinese versions have ‘not increasing or decreasing’).

31           Next – tasmac usually means ‘therefore’, but it can mean (says Wayman) ‘afterwards’. So perhaps the first two sections of Kind-gazer’s teaching, which start with ‘here’, are calling for an immediately open attitude to present experience, although they can be used as meditations (see Khenpo’s Progressive stages of Meditation on Emptiness). The last three sections all start with tasmac (or tasmaj), perhaps implying that once one has some Insight into open reality, then one should meditate on the following statements. Hence my (get) in(to) a completely open (meditation), for what is literally ‘in shunyata’. Han Shan confirms that this is a meditation, intended to wipe out all (remaining) errors, and several commentators align it with the ‘bhavanamarga’, the fourth of the five paths.

32           There, there’s no … – presumably (if I’m not being too logical) if you enter a samadhi which directly contemplates open reality itself (one of the Doors to Liberation), then you will no longer apprehend all the ‘appearances’ (rupa etc) listed in 32-52, despite the fact that when you are not in the samadhi, open reality is no other than all those appearances.

37           (Get into …) – The phrase ‘in shunyata’ only occurs at the beginning of the whole (31-52) section. I’ve repeated it for each separate list because each can be used as a separate set of topics for contemplation.

38-40     — The 18 dhatus (sense-spheres or -constituents) are the six sense organs, including mind (manamsi), their objects – sounds etc, including ‘dharmas’ (my ‘ideas and images’) for mind – and their (sense-) consciousnesses, including manovijnana. The Sutra literally just says ‘no eye-dhatu and so on up to no manovijnanadhatu’. It also lists the 12 ayatanas (sense-bases or -sources), but since these are identical to the first 12 of the 18 dhatus, I’ve not repeated them. This section refers to the subjective and objective world of the senses, the whole of reality for an ordinary person. Han Shan explains that to realise that the sense-world is non-existent in shunyata is a leap beyond this ‘Dharma of worldly men’.

42           unknowing … decay and death – the 12 ‘negative’ (as we call them in the TBC) nidanas. This and 43 (their cessation) and 44-48 (the Four Noble Truths) is basic Buddhism, all operational concepts, categories to be leapt beyond when they are no longer spiritually useful.

50           real knowing – jnanam; non-dual wisdom, not here distinguished by the commentators from Prajnaparamita.

51           (Buddha)-achievements – praptir; literally attainment. The old commentaries say that 50-52 refer to the Bodhisattva’s non-dual wisdom and ‘attainment’ of Buddhahood. In open reality, one does not need to take even these ideas literally.

54           (his) – actually there are no pronouns in the Sanskrit in this paragraph, I think, so no gender is implied.  Complete indifference to achievements – apraptitvad; this is Sangharakshita’s gloss: literally, ‘non-attainmentness’. Han Shan concludes: ‘gainlessness is the real and ultimate gain’.

56           no barriers trapping … mind or heart – acittavaranah; avarana (barrier or veil) as in the three veils of karma, kleshas and jneya (views). Refers to all the barriers that separate one from one’s experience. Can sometimes mean the five hindrances, which are more usually the nivaranas. Han Shan says that if you rely on ‘discriminative feeling and thinking, the heart (citta) and objects will bind each other and can never be disentangled from the resultant avid graspings (avarana)’. But, he continues, if you meditate using the faculty of Prajna, then when the shunya heart contacts shunya appearances, only liberation results.

57           burst through (all) – nastitvad; literally, just ‘in the absence of’.  does not panic – atrasto; or tremble, or fear. If you’ve got barriers, then open reality will seem frightening, if (as Sangharakshita points out) you are open enough to see how threatening it is to your limited self.

58           no longer – atikranto; literally he’s ‘stepped above’, or ‘passed beyond’.  upside-down – viparyasa, as in the four ‘topsy-turvies’ or mental perversities: seeing the permanent as impermanent, etc.

59           Finally, … Enlightenment – nishtha-nirvana; or ‘the fulfilment or summit’ (the name of the fifth and final path) of nirvana. achieves – praptah; the start and end of the paragraph thus says: ‘through non-achievement … he achieves (same term) Enlightenment’. Only direct knowledge of reality (Leaping Wisdom), says Sangharakshita, confers Enlightenment.

60           throughout time – tryadhva; the three times, of present, past and future.

61           With just – ashritya; literally ‘through relying on’.

62           Fully wakes up – abhisambuddhah.

63           learn – jnatavyam; ‘one should know’ (the secret name). secret name – mantra, but often regarded as a dharani too, especially in China and Japan.

64           Lady of Full Knowing’s – mahavidya; or just ‘great knowing’s’. Wayman suggests this refers to Leaping Wisdom herself, since vidya is feminine.

65           best – ‘nuttara.

66           as good as (a Buddha) – samasama; literally ‘equal to the unequalled’.

67           frustration – duhkha.

68           It’s true – satyam. it works – amithyatvat; ‘for what could go wrong?’ (Conze), or ‘without fail’ (Han Shan), or ‘since it is not false’ (Other translations).

69           spoken by … (herself) – ukto; delivered by.

70           Here it is – tadyatha. An ‘Om’ is sometimes added after this word, both tadyatha and Om being included in the secret name by Tibetans (see bijas on lotus petals illustration in Kelsang, p130).

71           Leap; Leap;  – it is said that the secret name is best left unexplained and untranslated, but nearly all the commentators explicate it in some detail! I thought an imperative sounds better, though it is actually a past participle, ‘gone’. It could also be rendered ‘proceed; proceed’, or ‘leave it behind; leave it behind’. Leap over; – paragate; or across (to the other shore), echoing the para in prajnaparamita. All of you – –sam-; literally ‘completely’: two of my sources (Thich Nhat Hanh and a Japanese version) say that ‘sam’ refers to everybody, not just yourself, going to the other shore. ‘All of you’ leaves a satisfying ambiguity. AWAKE! – Bodhi; Enlightenment. That’s it!  – svaha; which is the traditional last word of mantras of female deities (replacing Hum), meaning, roughly, ‘all is well’.

The longer version has an epilogue, in which the Buddha approves Kind-gazer’s teaching.


Modern commentaries and translations

Sangharakshita, Wisdom Beyond Words (Windhorse, 1993), 25-35. (Incl. Conze’s trs. slightly modified.)

Conze, Edward (A), Buddhist Wisdom Books (Allen & Unwin, 1958). (Incl. Sanskrit text of the shorter form, and English trs.)

Conze, Edward, (B) ‘The Prajnaparamita Hrdaya Sutra’, in Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies (Cassirer, 1967), 148-167. (Incl. Sanskrit text of the longer form.)

Rabten, Geshe, Echoes of Voidness (Wisdom, 1983), 18-45. (Translated by Stephen Batchelor. Incl. trs.)

Kelsang Gyatso, Geshe, Heart of Wisdom (Tharpa, 1989, 2nd edn). (Incl. trs, and Tibetan trs in Roman and Tibetan script.)

Suzuki, D T, ‘The Significance of the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra in Zen Buddhism’, in Essays in Zen Buddhism, Third Series (Rider, 1953), 222-238. (Incl. trs.)

Tejananda, ‘A Rendering of the Heart Sutra’, in The Order Journal No. 1 (Nov. 1988), 23-6. This is a revision, designed for chanting, of Conze’s translation, plus some criticisms of the ‘Kapleau’ version (which we use in the Triratna Buddhist Order Puja). Most of the criticisms are misplaced, because they assume that discrepancies between the Puja version and Conze’s are mistakes, when in fact they generally reflect the fact that the two are from different original texts: there are a number. The Puja version in probably from a classical Chinese version (as used in Japan) translated in the workshop of Kumarajiva before 519 CE, and thus our earliest known version. Conze (B) suggests that several phrases in the Sanskrit texts that Conze used are later alterations.

Kapleau, Philip, Zen Dawn in the West (Rider, 1980), 180-1, has the translation of the Heart Sutra used by Kapleau’s disciples, almost identical to the one in the TBC Puja Book.

Red Pine, The Heart Sutra, the Womb of Buddhas (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2004)

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding (Parallax, 1988). (Incl. trs.)

Wayman, Alex, ‘Secret of the Heart Sutra’, in Lancaster (ed.) (see below), 135-152.

Older Traditional Versions and Commentaries

Various, in Lancaster, Lewis (ed.), Prajnaparamita and Related Systems (Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series 1, 1977). Includes a translated transcription from the Chinese (by Hurvitz) and a translation from the Khotanese (by Bailey, with comments by Lancaster).

Donald S Lopez Jr, The Heart Sutra Explained (State Univ. of New York Press, 1988). Includes trs., a connected commentary based on the seven known Pala dynasty Indian Commentaries, and two Tibetan Commentaries. Very thorough, authoritative and interesting.

Han Shan, ‘A Straight Talk on the Heart Sutra’, in Charles Luk, Chan and Zen Teaching, First Series (Century/Rider, 1960) 209-223. Inspiring.