Make-Your-Own Heart Sutra

Tomorrow night is the last meeting of my class on emptiness. At last week’s meeting, the instructor suggested–I’m not quite sure how ironically–that we each write our own Heart Sutra. Several of my fellow students encouraged me to actually try it, but I didn’t think I’d have the time (spending the weekend basting in my own anger as I was). But I found that, in the midst of my mindfulness of my anger, it was nice to have something else to ponder occasionally. I kept coming back to the sutra, thinking about what it said, what it seemed to mean, and how I might say it, and I finally decided to give it a try.

I wanted to see if I could render the sutra entirely in English, and entirely in English that could be understood by someone who hasn’t studied Buddhism. All of the translations I’ve seen tend to be frustrating to the lay reader for two reasons. First, there are several terms (skandha, nirvana, bodhisattva, karma, and so on) that translators generally don’t translate from the Sanskrit, either because the terms are already widely used in English or because there’s no ready equivalent in English. Second, many words are translated into English words or phrases that are either unusual or not being used in their usual sense (mental formations, warrior, emptiness, and so on). Ignoring the vast accumulated wisdom of all those translators, I’ve eschewed those approaches, with one exception. I couldn’t find a way to translate emptiness any more directly.

Since I don’t actually speak Sanskrit, I started with Red Pine’s translation and commentary, stealing his structure whole, and changed anything that wasn’t, as Molly Bloom would have it, “plain words.” I’m happier with the results than I thought I’d be. There are only two lines that I really couldn’t get to work (can you guess which two?). What do you think?

The Mother of All Buddhas
based on a translation by Red Pine

Avalokiteshvara, Awakened One–
reincarnation of Maya, Mother of Shakyamuni–
while practicing the Perfection of Awareness,
looked upon the aspects of reality mistaken for a self
and seeing they were empty of self-existence,
said, “Here, Shariputra,
matter is emptiness, emptiness is matter;
emptiness is not separate from matter, matter is not separate from emptiness
whatever is matter is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is matter.
The same holds true for energy and emotion, thought and spirit.

“Here, Shariputra, all reality is defined by emptiness
not started or finished, natural or artificial, sacred or profane.

“Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no matter,
no energy, no emotion, no thought, and no spirit;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no hand, and no mind;
no image, no sound, no smell, no taste, no feeling, and no idea;
no perception, from visual recognition to abstract understanding;
no causation, from ignorance to decay and death,
and no end of causation, from ignorance to decay and death;
no symptom, no cause, no cure, no treatment;
no wisdom, no achievement, and no failure.

“Therefore, Shariputra, without achievement,
awakened ones know Perfect Awareness
and live without cave walls.

“Without cave walls and so without fears,
they go beyond delusions and even Paradise.

“All buddhas past, present, and future
also know Perfect Awareness
and realize unsurpassed, simple enlightenment.

“You should therefore know the great spell of Perfect Awareness,
the spell of great magic,
the unsurpassed spell,
the spell containing what cannot be contained,
which resolves all suffering and is true, not false,
the spell of Perfect Awareness said this way:

“‘Gone gone, beyond gone, entirely beyond gone, awakening is so.‘”

3 Replies to “Make-Your-Own Heart Sutra”

  1. A graceful translation. The language doesn’t draw attention to itself at all, except maybe the last line: “Gone gone, beyond gone, entirely beyond gone, awakening is so,” sounds a little, um, arty or something.


  2. Well, that line is meant to be poetry, so I don’t know that there’s any way to render as anything but arty without robbing it of most of its meaning (or at least of most of the meaning of which I haven’t already robbed it). The two lines I’m still unhappy with are the first one (actually two as I’ve rendered it here) and this one:

    no perception, from visual recognition to abstract understanding;

    It’s a little too technical, but I can’t figure out what else to do with it.


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