So the Heart Sutra is one of the most popular sutra in Mahayana Buddhism, said to be the summary and heart of the Prajna Paramita Sutra. It was popularized by the famous monk Xuanzang. It was said that he chanted this sutra when he was lost in the Taklamakan Desert on the way from China to India.

Apart from its terse nature and convenience for chanting. Why is this Heart Sutra so important to Mahayana Buddhism?

Some people even describe the sutra as a kind of 'crazy wisdom' that seems to intentionally tear down all purposeful cultivation.


It was even jokingly described as the 'heart attack' sutra.

"Also, there is no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering or of the path. There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever"

Why would this sutra be helpful or useful - when it basically denies the fundamental teachings of the Buddha on the Four Noble Truth?

Presumably the message of the Heart Sutra was so troubling that Thich Nhat Hanh had to 're-translate' the sutra into something that fit in with his own conception of Buddhism:


What is the purpose of this sutra? Is it just sheerly for the shock factor? Maybe like a Zen Master whacking a student with a stick? I find other Prajna Paramita sutras such as the Diamond Sutra just as troubling.

Note: I do enjoy some of the messages of Mahayana Sutras such as Amitabha Sutra and Universal Gate Chapter of the Lotus Sutra and is from a Chinese Mahayana Chan organization.

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    true realization transcends all concepts – sova May 13 '16 at 3:41
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    have you considered its composition might be due to ignorance since concepts are not related to suffering? – Dhammadhatu May 13 '16 at 5:04
  • @Dhammadhatu I have considered a lot of possibilities, including the fact that Nagarjuna may not have been enlightened when he created (or retrieved them from the Naga realms as the story goes) the Prajna Paramita teachings. None the less people are taking it very seriously and I would like to know why. – Yinxu May 13 '16 at 5:54
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    Hey, don't argue against me here. If you have an answer to the question just state it there. I want to know why they see this as important not whether I agree with it. – Yinxu May 13 '16 at 6:35
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    @Yinxu let us not confuse bridges and destinations – sova May 13 '16 at 16:46

Maybe because Clinging/Upadana is such a powerful destructive force even advanced practitioners still have a tough time dealing with. So the non-clinging theme reflected thru insight into Emptiness/Sunyata throughout the sutra would be a great way to remind us about it. That's why in many Mahayana temples, this sutra is usually recited at the end of any session, after other sutras have been recited, sort of a reminder to the practitioner of the Clinging elephant in the room. Anyway, don't worry too much about why it's the most popular or most important. It's a pretty common stock phrase in Mahayana to say this or that sutra is the most popular or most important. You'll see the same thing being said in the Lotus Sutra, the Amitabha Sutras series, etc. Afterall the spirit of the sutra doesn't seems to deviate from the Buddha's teaching about the 3 characteristics inherent in all conditioned dhammas: impermanence/anicca, unsatisfactory/dukkha, and non-self/anatta. And the sutra simply reminds us that it indeed holds true for all "conditioned dhammas", including the Five Aggregates, the Twelve Ayatanas, the Eighteen Dhatus, the Twelve Nidanas, and even the Four Noble Truths!

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  • I thought that the Flower Sermon was the most important. It certainly is the best one. – user2341 May 16 '16 at 3:21


its terse nature and convenience for chanting (quote from your question)

is the exact reason that it is popular. I believe all the Prajnaparamita sutras point to the same thing in the same kind of way. Why wade through the perfection of wisdom in 8,000, 25,000 or even 100,000 lines when you can pop the Heart sutra in your pocket and off you go. It's why I know it and haven't read any of the others.

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  • If you don't know where you are going, any Rose will get you there. (It is a reassuring thought.) – user2341 May 16 '16 at 3:22

So I posed this question to my teacher at the temple yesterday, and the answer floored me!

I asked her what is the meaning of "No suffering, origination, cessation of suffering, path" in the Heart Sutra, and if it was some kind of crazy wisdom. She replied:

"No, this is an understanding of emptiness, that is an understanding that things are caused through causes and conditions (dependent origination). Like a cup of coffee implies the existence of coffee beans, although coffee beans by themselves do not necessarily result in coffee because you require other conditions such as the sun or farmers. When the seed is removed, the fruit does not exist. When a person attained peace and happiness and resolved their suffering, the suffering they had is in the past and no longer exist in the present. Because of the awareness of this, a Boddhisattva can work to liberate beings with no fear of suffering in Samsara because he knows that ultimately suffering is impermanent."

And as the sutra goes:

"He passes far beyond all confused imagination and reaches Ultimate Nirvana"

Mind blown. I can understand why Xuanzang put so much emphasis on this sutra based on his difficult experiences on his journey now.

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  • You might like to Google for "three dharma seals" as opposed to "four dharma seals", I don't know where it's explained further but for example there's a brief introduction here on Wikipedia: "As suffering is not an inherent aspect of existence sometimes the second seal is omitted to make Three Dharma Seals." – ChrisW May 15 '16 at 10:19
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    Also notice "suffering is not an inherent aspect of existence..." is a personal opinion by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh as mentioned in the footnote of the wiki page. The Dhammapada clearly mentions Dukkha in verses 277-279 (ref: accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.20.budd.html ) – santa100 May 15 '16 at 15:16

In my opinion, the sutra has no hidden or mysterious purpose. Instead, in my opinion, the sutra is a product of 'bright delusion' or 'white darkness'.

The sun provides light to enable people to see. But if people look directly at the sun, their eyes become 'blinded by the light'. Similarly, certain states of samadhi or concentration give rise to 'bright delusion' or 'white darkness'

The temporary liberation of the illusion of 'non-conceptuality' gives rise to the conception that non-conception is liberation; similar to how, before his enlightenment, teachers of the Buddha regarded the sphere of 'nothingness' as Nibbana.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as non-perception or non-conception (unless in nirodha sampatti, which is a state of samadhi induced unconsciousness). If something can be experienced & described, it has been perceived & conceived. In MN 43, it is said: "wisdom & consciousness are co-joined". Yet the Heart Sutra declares there is 'no cognition'. If there was 'no cognition', such 'non-cognition' must be cognised for there to be the cognition that there is 'no cognition'.

The Pali version of Buddha defines sunnata as 'empty of self'. Yet Nargujana appears to have defined shunyata as 'empty of inherent existence'. Nargujana regarded Nirvana & samsara as the same, thus appearing to negate both.

Therefore, in my opinion, the sutra has no hidden purpose. Instead, the sutra is an idiosyncratic conception about (a 'non-existent') enlightenment since it appears to conform with the conceptualizations (philosophy) of Nargajuna.

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  • Perhaps the Mahayanists got carried away. – user2341 Apr 9 '17 at 2:07

Given that all the sutras are skillful means, one would imagine the heart sutra is popular because it works, or at least gives the impression of doing so.

I like it.

Buddhist philosophy isn't, and doesn't need to be, an analytic argument, because it is there to be realised in meditation, not (just) studied and unpacked.

So instead of trying to unpack it, why not ask what the rest of the canon has that it lacks? Given that it mentions, as you say, the basic terms of buddhism (emptiness, the noble truths), perhaps it can encapsulate those teachings, by denying them.

I think the key phrases are

There is No Wisdom, and There is No Attainment Whatsoever... The Buddhas... Have Attained Supreme Enlightenment

Which suggests (to me) that enlightenment is void, form.

Whether or not that means that it is anything beside (fearless) verbal quiescence, I really don't know.

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  • We take up a set of concepts because they are useful. So with Buddhism, we use the concepts to develop our awareness. But the concepts in themselves are not significant, any more than you eat the knife you used to make a sandwich. When the Heart Sutra denies the reality of the basic Buddhist ideas, this is what is being said. Years ago I read Julia Cameron's poem at the beginning of her book "Walking in This World" and I did not get it. Then came the experience in and writing of Zulaikha Mahmud's Pop Poem, and I happened across Cameron's poem again, and there was unity. – user2341 May 16 '16 at 3:35

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