I'm a Zen practicant and, as you may know, we recite the Heart Sutra of the Perfect Wisdom a lot. I really like this sutra, it is very meaningful.

However something I never understood is: why is the Boddhisattva Avalokiteśvara present in the sutra?

The sutra teaches about vacuity and originated dependence etc. And, as far as I am concerned, Avalokiteśvara is usually associated more with compassion. So why is he specifically in this sutra?

3 Answers 3


Q: Why is Avalokiteśvara the "main character" of the Heart Sutra?

There are a few different ways to approach this.

  1. Guanyin is the main character because he was the most popular Buddhist deity in China when the text was composed. Where an Indian Prajñāpāramitā text would usually only talk about bodhisatvas in the abstract, the Chinese author of this text felt that a personification would be more appropriate.

  2. Guanyin is the main character because the author, Xuanzang, was trying to curry favour from the Emperor Gaozong via his wife Wu Zhao (who later became Empress Wu, the first and only woman to take the Chinese throne). Gaozong was quite anti-Buddhist and had placed a number of restrictions on Xuanzang, including a board of censors empowered to edit his translations. But Wu Zhao was a Buddhist and also quite powerful, especially once Gaozong began to experience a series of debilitating illnesses. We can think of the Heart Sutra as a sample of what Xuanzang hoped to do with his translations. Xuanzang was old, not in good health, and eager to translate the cache of Prajñāpāramitā texts that he had retrieved from India. Xuanzang presented a gold-inked copy of the Heart Sutra to the Emperor on 26 Dec 656. This is the earliest literary reference to the Heart Sutra.

  3. My approach is to point out that as far as the standard text is concerned, Guanyin does not, in fact, speak. There are convention ways of indicating that someone is speaking using verbal forms like āmantrayate, avocat, or āha. Since these don't occur in the text, at face value, no one is speaking. However, most of the lines in the Heart Sutra are copied from the Large Prajñāpāramitā text. A well known and attested source. The lines in which Śāriputra is addressed by name, for example, are spoken by the Buddha in the Large text. The lines in which Prajñāpāramitā is a mahāvidyā etc are spoken by the Buddha to Śakra.

It is interesting to note, that in both of the extended versions of the text, lines are added to make sense of Guanyin speaking, so clearly people in China thought he was speaking.

  • Excellent. I did not previously know the above. I knew it is held the Heart Sutra had some Chinese origins but I did not know there was a Large Prajñāpāramitā. Page 56 of this link appears to be the relevant start of the Large Prajñāpāramitā, with the Lord Buddha speaking to Sariputta lirs.ru/lib/conze/… Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 11:53
  • So the first part was totally added by the translator? Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 20:48
  • 1
    @DhammaDhatu The Heart Sutra passage in Conze's Large Sutra translation can be found on p.61. It starts half way through the first para and ends halfway through the second. The passage in the Heart Sutra is abbreviated. The epithets passage can be found on page 237 of the same translation. The words are first spoken by Śakra and then repeated by the Buddha. The dhāraṇī comes from another text, T 901.
    – Jayarava
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 7:59
  • 1
    thank you Jayarava Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 8:54

The simple truth is that the sutra is not the words of the Buddha. The heart, perfection of wisdom/s and diamond (I think) sutras as well as many others came AFTER Nagarajunas philosophy of sunyata, which in of itself encompasses dependent origination and anatta taught by the Buddha.

So firstly as a standard writing practice and to try and make it seem like it is the actual words of the Buddha, to give authenticity they use the traditional premise(s) "thus it was once heard"....etc

Secondly to make it stick out as a "new and improved sutra that nagarajuna found in a lake that Buddha gave to naga spirits because people of the time of the Buddha did not have the karma and faculties to understand" it encompasses what is essentially a new repurposed hindu god...Aveloketishvara.

Lastly the point in the sutra of the Bodhisattva explaining the Buddhas teaching is to reaffirm the Trikaya philosophy, which ascertains the Buddha is the essential essence of all beings, so a person can do (teach) actions of/as a Buddha without being a Buddha.

To simplify it from my own understanding. Religious dogma, not authentic record keeping.

  • Hmm. This answer contains a number of factual inaccuracies. The "simple truth" is that no sutra is "the words of the Buddha". And this is irrelevant to the question in any case. It is religious special pleading. Perfection of wisdom predates Nāgāruna and is generally unrelated to his madhyamaka metaphysics. The myth of Nāgārjuna and the naga spirits comes from a much later period. This text has nothing to do with Trikaya theory.
    – Jayarava
    Commented Sep 30, 2023 at 8:06
  • The 4 nikayas are deemed as the teachings (words) of the Buddha, historical records drawn originally from oral remembrance of the people who were alive and recorded mentally and passed on what the Buddha taught as he was alive. They are written as such, people remembering what they heard of what a human being said. Later fantastical sutras like the prajnaparamita, heart, lotus and diamond sutras are clearly not like this (with the exclusion of the heart sutra) where it is a human being saying words, they are fantastical stories or metaphysical musings.
    – Remyla
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 22:37
  • The PoW (original 8k lines) may predate nagarajuna but it was nagarajunas philosophy who created this philosophical structure that the heart sutra is teaching. Which in turn the PoW also teaches as sunyata. The text itself does coincide with the trikaya philosophy as the very reason itself why it has any relevance and is listened to, taught and seen as the Buddhas teachings by Mahayanists is because despite sariputta and aveloketishvara being the ones who speak in the sutra, it is claimed as the words of the Buddha himself because of the Dharmakaya which allows aveloketishvara to speak "for"
    – Remyla
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 22:41
  • The Buddha. Which in the Sutra the Buddha says yeas this is correct... Essentially these are much later musings of philosophies not taught by the Buddha and amalgamated into a text that has become popular and accepted as the words of the Buddha (by Mahayana) because of these philosophies themself. Trikaya, 2 truth doctrine, madhyamaka etc.
    – Remyla
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 22:43
  • You are entirely wrong about the philosophy of the Heart Sutra. It owes nothing to Nāgārjuna. The oldest Prajñāpāramitā document is from the first century CE, the oldest Pāli document is from the sixth century. We don't know that Pāli is older than Prajñāpāramitā based on evidence. It's a presupposition. In my view, Prajñāpāramitā is older than Buddhism per se, since the Buddha learned the basic techniques from his pre-enlightenment teachers Āḷāra Kālāma and Udaka Ramaputra.
    – Jayarava
    Commented Oct 5, 2023 at 8:10

Avalokitesvara is Bodhisattva of compassion. He has perfected the quality of generosity (dana-paramita). As such, the sutra is given by him- it is out of generosity- the 'dana' of dharma is the highest dana (or at least one of the higest 'dana') which can be given. This, is a simple explanation, of why Aalokitesvara is the "main character" in the Heart sutra.

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