Buddhist Biology from Barash


Illustration by Andy Gammon

Review of David P Barash, Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science (Oxford University Press, New York, 2014). By Ratnaprabha.

Through the nineteenth century, Western science gradually disengaged itself from Christian religion, and scientists set themselves up as rivals to churchmen in interpreting the world. Nevertheless, religion remains a force in our culture, and some scientists detect a spiritual vacuum in their own hearts, turning back in hope towards religious traditions, at least for their own personal solace. Yet to answer one set of needs through a religious allegiance, and a separate set of needs through the discipline of science leaves a frustrating split, despite Stephen Jay Gould’s recommendation that the two should be confined to “non-overlapping magisteria”.[1] David Barash joins the club of those scientists wanting science and religion to be at least on speaking terms with each other, better still to marry.  His arranged bride for science is Buddhism.

Thus he proposes a “Science Sutra… [in which] not-self, impermanence, and interconnectedness are built into the very structure of the world, and all living things — including human beings — are no exception.… It can help animate — more precisely, humanise — this otherwise cold and dreadful skeleton of rattling bones”. (Pages 27-8. The image of science as a rattling skeleton is from Bertrand Russell.)

Barash is a psychology professor at the University of Washington who has been active in the field of peace studies, but by training he is an evolutionary biologist, and it is biology in particular that he wishes to give a Buddhist flavour. He is an avuncular and jaunty writer, and this being his 33rd book, you can see that his publishers give him some leeway. He admits that they wanted him to discard altogether a chapter that tries to add existentialism to the mix, and they’ve left him to his own devices to the extent that the Buddhist sections are riddled with, mainly minor, errors of fact and spelling. As for science, he discusses genetics, ecology and neuroscience as well as evolution, and he is on pretty firm ground here, though some mistakes do creep in – including the howler that Newton discovered the second law of thermodynamics (page 58).

An enthusiastic Buddhist for most of his life, Barash’s chief inspiration is the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Thus, along with impermanence and non-self, the main Buddhist concept he wishes to apply to his biology is interconnectedness, all things linked in a dance of mutual dependence, a teaching that Thich Nhat Hanh adapts for modern audiences from Chinese Hua Yen Buddhism. Ecology, too, demonstrates that organisms and their environments constitute a net of mutual dependence.

Buddhist teachings argue that anything which depends for its state on external factors must change when those conditioning factors change (anitya), and if no part of that thing is immune from dependencies, then to identify any essential protected nucleus of self must be mistaken (anatman). In biology, impermanence is the rule, and evolution superimposes long-term inter-generational changes on the short-term developments undergone by every organism, so that only the genes themselves are (according to Barash) comparatively stable. My impression here is that Barash’s popular writing has not yet caught up with advances in genetics that he must surely be aware of. The gene as an almost fixed sequence of bases in DNA that codes for some detectable feature of an organism is only one component of inheritance. Genes interact in complex ways determined partly by environmental influences, events can switch genes on and off according to circumstances, and survival-enhancing features innovated by a parent can pass to its descendants without changes to the genetic sequence. As I was reading the book, there was news of research showing that mice taught to become frightened when they smelt cherry blossom could pass that fear to offspring they had no contact with: the genetic basis of the offsprings’ smell receptors had changed as a result of their parents’ experience.[2] A process like this is termed epigenetic, and epigenetics increasingly seems to be a significant factor in evolution.

In highlighting anitya and anatman (just two of the traditional three marks), and then adding interdependence, Barash is already reframing Buddhism according to his own preferences. As well as downgrading the third mark (duhkha, suffering), he adds pratitya samutpada, which is indeed basic to a Buddhist understanding of human experience, though it is incorrect either to translate it or to sum it up as only interdependence. It refers to an understanding of how the apparent entities that we single out from our experience come into being and pass away, as well as how they relate with other entities in the present moment. (The Present Moment, incidentally, is the name of Barash’s campervan, named so that he can sometimes claim to be “in” it.)

Barash is happy to modify traditional Buddhist teachings, if the results serve the needs of his audience: modern Westerners who have confidence in the findings of science. Thus he would ditch many of the practices of Eastern Buddhists (he rather condescendingly views them as naive and superstitious), and many of the teachings of what he calls “originalist” Buddhism. Someone has drawn his attention to David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, and since it is effectiveness and accuracy that motivate him, he is more than happy to confess that his grasp of Buddhism has come largely from the interpretations and revisions of westernised Buddhists. In fact he goes further, seeking to delineate what almost amounts to his own new religion, which he calls Existential Bio-Buddhism.

I think that this is fine, and it is very gratifying to see a popular scientist sharing an enthusiasm for Buddhism with his readers. Those whose interest is piqued can track down teachers and writers with a stronger basis in Buddhist traditions, and a deeper experience of practising them. But it is disappointing that he lacks the curiosity to further explore the aspects of Buddhism he is tempted to dismiss. (The “arrant nonsense” (page 11) of rebirth, for example, he explains as a “silliness about [transmigration of] souls” (page 138), and concludes that Buddhism must be “muddled” to teach both rebirth and anatman.)  One day, through a more daring dialogue than Barash risks, the interpenetration of Buddhism and biology is going to yield exciting fruit.

How is his biology informed by Buddhism? He uses it to speed up the defeat of essentialist and Platonic ideas in biology, and to support engagement with environmental issues, with its visions of interconnectedness and non-violence. Evolution confirms a kinship between humans and animals, hence a sense of solidarity with other forms of life, and a valuing of the natural world around us. Evolution and Buddhism also similarly agree that human beings are not special, indeed none of us as an individual ego is special either. In return, Barash is happy to contribute a conventional critique of Buddhism from a materialist scientific standpoint.

What other fruit could the dialogue yield?  What interests me most is the mind as an evolved phenomenon. From a human point of view, which is the only viewpoint we have access to, the degree and scope of our awareness is unparalleled in the natural world. Somehow we have come to the ability to reflect on our own experience, sometimes holding the stream of our consciousness in the illumination of mindful awareness. And we can enhance our level of consciousness through working on the mind with the mind. Perhaps as a consequence of this reflexivity, we seem largely trapped in a sense of separation from the world, a subjective me peering out at its hostile or alluring surroundings, always other. The teaching of pratitya samutpada states that this consciousness is dependently arisen, i.e. we can come to comprehend the evolutionary processes which gave rise to human consciousness, and thus understand our own minds better.

I feel that this understanding will not be well served by insisting on a materialist standpoint, as Barash and most scientists of standing do at present. Materialism seems to me to be primarily the rotting corpse of an old European debate, a debate that concluded first that mind and matter were two entirely distinct substances, and later that matter was the one real substance that made up everything in the universe, so that mind is nothing but patterns of electrical and chemical processes in the brain. The three truths that Barash imports from Buddhism – impermanence, not self, and pratitya samutpada – undermine such strict bifurcations as that between mind and matter. And I would say that honest reflection on experience doesn’t allow one to agree that awareness is illusory.  Like the objective world, the subjective or “inside” pole of experience must have arisen through law-governed causal sequences that can be understood. This is true of the whole range of minds found amongst animals, human and nonhuman, as well as this particular fleeting event of awareness that is my present moment. Buddhism wants to find evolutionary explanations (using the term ‘evolution’ in a general sense, not just as Darwinian natural selection). Buddhism has an evolutionary vision, as does biology. Biology is particularly interested in the evolutionary history of consciousness, Buddhism teaches its evolutionary potential, the further development of consciousness through contemplative methods.

Once mind or awareness is taken seriously as a genuine (though not substantial) phenomenon, we could consider its importance in the lives of animals as well as humans. It has arisen through evolution by natural selection: did its presence have any effects on the process of evolution? (Recall interdependence.) One possibility is through the Baldwin Effect, whereby innovative behaviours by animals (and behaviours have a mental origin) can propel them into new environmental niches where fresh selection pressures apply. For example, the Galapagos finches which now instinctively use cactus thorns to extract larvae from tree branches could not have started with a mutation for the behaviour – it is far too complex – they must have started with the novel behaviour, then passed it on through learning, until its different components were gradually selected for in the genes.[3]

Then there is the last of the three marks, duhkha or suffering. Entrenched views don’t just inhibit scientific progress, they may also inhibit compassion, and even promote antisocial practices in science, from cruelty to animals to environmental destruction and involvement in the technology of warfare. I think that an acceptable ethical framework, to be discussed and adopted by scientific communities, has its most likely origin in Buddhist ethics, a natural ethics based in intention and the consequences of behaviour rather than in scriptural commandments. Currently, scientists tend to govern their work with one eye on the law and the other on public opinion, but with little genuinely humanitarian ethical guidance.

Barash gives the impression of being an ethical man, and perhaps in a future work he will attempt to apply Buddhist ethics to his science. It may be for others to investigate how a fresh view of mental processes and their role in evolution, stimulated by Buddhism, could open up new avenues of research, as well as more creative ways of interpreting experimental results. More generally, Buddhism suggests a very open and provisional approach to concepts such as the gene, the species, and the individual organism. Constant reminders of impermanence, not self, and pratitya samutpada could release the creativity of scientists when they are entrenched in the “normal science” stage of struggling to fit research results into outdated theories, unwilling to let go of time-honoured biological concepts.

I would recommend Buddhist Biology to readers whose main allegiance is with science. It provides a friendly and engaging tourist guide to some of the features of Buddhism. We natives may chuckle at the guide’s simplifications and inaccuracies, but he points out impermanence, not self and interconnectedness; he shows how they apply to the biological sciences; and so he gives an authentic impression of Buddhism that may lead some of his readers to investigate it more thoroughly elsewhere, and to explore its practices in their own lives.

[1] Stephen Jay Gould, “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” Natural History 106 (March 1997): 16-22.

[2] accessed 1/1/14.

[3] D Papineau, “Social learning and the Baldwin effect” In A. Zilhão (ed.), Cognition, Evolution, and Rationality. (Routledge, 2005).  Also see Erika Crispo, “The Baldwin Effect and Genetic Assimilation” in Evolution 61-11: 2469–2479 (2007).


The Vimalakirti Sutra


Review by Ratnaprabha of The Vimalakirti Sutra, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, New York, 1997).

Towards the end of this great Buddhist classic, the Buddha remarks that ‘those who love varied phrases and literary embellishments … are beginners in the bodhisattva way’. However, highly experienced bodhisattvas are ‘not afraid of deeper principles, and [are] able to enter into the true meaning.’ The Vimalakirti Sutra is a repository of deep principles: its spiritual teaching catapults one way beyond familiar ground. Paradoxically (paradox is one of its methods) it also fascinates as literature. Descriptions of fantastic spectacle, verbal contests, and even slapstick humour, all revolve around Vimalakirti. Vimalakirti is an enlightened bodhisattva, devoted to establishing people on the Buddha way. This he does imperceptibly, irresistibly, because he adapts so well into their various ordinary lives. He can use anything as an ‘expedient means’ towards the benefit and enlightenment of others.

As a demonstration of the unsatisfactoriness of a life that identifies with this fragile body, Vimalakirti falls ill. The Buddha asks his disciples to visit the sick bodhisattva, but one by one they refuse, recounting how Vimalakirti had exposed the limitations of their approaches to Buddhism. All-wise Manjushri is the only worthy opponent to agree to go, and Vimalakirti magically transforms his sickroom to accommodate the crowds who come to hear a breathtaking series of profound exchanges, forming the central portion of the Sutra.

The comically bewildered monk Shariputra, representing a limited, self-centred view of Buddhist practice, stimulates Vimalakirti’s magical displays, all of which demonstrate the richness of an unlimited perspective. When Shariputra wonders where everyone is going to sit (‘did you come here for the sake of the Law, or are you just looking for a place to sit?’, Vimalakirti asks), Vimalakirti imports millions of vast thrones, and somehow fits them all into the room. Later, an enlightened goddess sprinkles Shariputra with flowers, not allowed to monks, yet he cannot brush them off. He is so impressed by her deep explanations that he asks her why she doesn’t become male (Buddhas being traditionally thought of as always male). In reply, she swaps gender with him, and then swaps back, to demonstrate that ‘all phenomena are neither male nor female’. Later still, Shariputra’s mind wanders again, this time to thoughts of lunch, and Vimalakirti sends a phantom bodhisattva to a pure land in a distant galaxy to fetch fragrant ambrosia for all.

Vimalakirti’s profound teachings bear the same message as his jokes and spectacular displays. Let go of restrictive viewpoints, he says, and the splendour of non-dual reality will simply become apparent in the here and now. Every emotion, every action, potentially displays the truth. Letting go into a true vision opens innumerable doors that enable one to help others in their turn to let go into truth, so that they will see every frustration, every grief evaporate. Like the Buddha, Vimalakirti teaches the altruistic bodhisattva ideal. He also universalises the goal of Buddhism: he displaces any thoughts of a personal escape into the relief of ‘Nirvana’ by demonstrating how the actual world one lives in can become, for everybody, a pure Buddha land, perfumed with bliss, vibrant with ultimate significance.

However, you will look in vain for detailed blueprints for ‘purifying the Buddha field’, even for instructions in living one’s daily life or in practising meditation. Instead, the Sutra seeks to stretch the mind with its refutations of plodding thought processes based on the rearrangement of labels, until, perhaps, the mind gives up, and yields to ’empty’ reality unmediated by labels. Then it swoops down from a different angle, and uncloses the sense of wonder with brilliant son-et-lumiére. As I go back again and again to the Vimalakirti Sutra, I might realise one day that ‘how things are’ is inconceivable and unimaginable simply because thinking is not everything, envisaging is not everything. ‘How things are’ is everything, and that can be appreciated only with one’s every faculty attending completely, right now.

Burton Watson’s new translation uses the Chinese version by Kumarajiva, who was renowned as Buddhism’s greatest translator because his own realisation was so deep, and because his style was so fluent. It may be that Watson saw the Vimalakirti Sutra as an inevitable addition to his acclaimed series of translations of Chinese classics: it does not seem to me to be superior to the one we already have, by Charles Luk. (The jacket notes are incorrect to claim that Watson’s is the ‘first ever translation’.) I really have to warn you of some of his odd renderings. Maitri (loving kindness) becomes ‘pity’, and is sometimes confused with compassion; upeksha (equanimity) is ‘indifference’; dana (generosity) is ‘almsgiving’; Mara is christianised into ‘the devil’, and Watson also chooses the biblical resonance of ‘the Law’ for the Dharma (truth and teaching).

The most reliable version in English, apart from the incredibly thorough scholarly text by Lamotte, is Robert Thurman’s from the Tibetan (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976), which also scores for its elegance and vividness. But there is something to be said for taking advantage of the filter of Kumarajiva’s mind. Like many texts of Indian Mahayana Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Sutra overflows with extended series of stock Buddhist lists, as well as the baffling intellectual subtleties of analysis and negation. Kumarajiva softens these, sometimes by shortening passages, sometimes with simpler, more direct glimpses of the Dharma.

Ruchiraketu’s verses praising the Buddha, from the Sutra of Golden Light


Illustration by Andy Gammon

O chief of the wise, your body is shining
With great deeds of the past
And fine qualities countless.
Your face is a prince’s, your gaze here inclining
Brings peace unsurpassed.
With a thousand sun’s brightness,
A blazing corona of sunbeams surrounds you:
Like a rainbow of gemstones,
Your precious form draws one.
Facets of crystal, snow-white, beryl, azure,
And the gold beams and coppertones
That flame o’er the dawn sun.
Like dawn sun, you light up the soaring snow ranges.
For all worlds, you’re the morning
Driving mist from the hilltops.
Your dawn calms the storms of despair and quenches
Hell’s fires; light transforming
Each tear to a dewdrop.
Your skin is unblemished and perfect your senses.
There’s no draining the draught
Of the dew of your presence:
A rose for the world, a foil for all fancies.

Your locks are as soft
Have that same iridescence
As the neck of the peacock, the down of the bee.
And like bees in a flower,
The curls of your tresses
Cluster, caressing your brow lovingly.
Your appearance the power
Of compassion expresses.
Through unstinting practice of deep meditation
And great loving-kindness,
Your merits are matchless.
The enlightenment-factors your ornamentation;
Purveyor of gladness,
Ideal of uprightness,
A bringer of blessings – a beacon of blessings!
A beacon whose fuel
Is profoundest nobility.
A beacon whose beams, without limit impressing
Each celestial jewel
In the crown of infinity
Ignite every seeker; as the halcyon’s plumage
Was fired by the sun’s fire.
Your face is the sun’s face
Rising, emerging behind Meru’s vantage.
Your body a great pyre,
Blazing mountain in dark space,
Visible clearly from cosmos to cosmos!

And your face is the sun’s face.
And a bright skein of snow geese
Traversing the sunrise – your smile.

Strung across
A seashell, a necklace
Of pearls. mouth of cerise,
Teeth milk-white — together, the rose-coloured dream
Of your smile.
White lilies by moonlight in a bend of the stream
Whose ocean is truth, is the Orphean theme
Is the echoing pledge
Of your smile.
A free rendering of

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.