The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra
Verses and Commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua
Arpil 20 ~ September 12, 1969
at Buddhist Lecture Hall, San Francisco
Therefore, know that prajna paramita is a great spiritual mantra, a great bright mantra, a supreme mantra, an unequalled mantra. It can remove all suffering; it is genuine and not false.
Therefore, know that prajna paramita is a great spiritual mantra. Because of all the various principles discussed above, one knows that the prajna paramita, the wonderful wisdom, a dharma which arrives at the other shore, is a great spiritual mantra.
What is the meaning of great? This is the great with nothing beyond it; if there were something beyond this great, it would not count as great, but would be small. Since this great has nothing beyond it, there is nothing greater.
What is the meaning of spiritual? “Spiritual” is inconceivable. The meaning is just about the same as “wonderful;” nonetheless, “wonderful” (miao ) has the meaning of “unmoving,” while “spiritual” (shen ) has the meaning of “moving;” there is a kind of movement. The wonderful is unmoving, yet moves everything totally and comprehends everything totally. It doesn’t function through movement. However, if the spiritual doesn’t move, then it is not the spiritual. The spiritual must move. The same word appears in the compound shen tong , which means psychic power; the Chinese literally is “spiritual penetration.” The “penetration” means a going through; there is movement. But in the wonderful there is knowledge without movement.
The Buddha teaches and transforms living beings in other Buddha-countries to realize the Way and to enter nirvana. He knows everything. The wonderful is right here; without using movement, he knows. But with the spiritual you must go to the place to know about it. The spiritual gets to wherever it is going like a rocket going to the moon. When you arrive on the moon, you know what the moon is made of and you know what the creation of the moon was about. That is to have a little bit of the spiritual. With the wonderful, without having to go there, you still know what the moon is like and what it is all about. It is not necessary to use the powers of science to come to a conclusion about it. You just know. Without moving the Bodhimanda, the Way-Place, you are enlightened about everything and understand everything. With the spiritual, it is necessary to move the Bodhimanda.
Someone with the psychic power of the heavenly eye should go to the space center and tell them beforehand what the moon is like. He should discuss the matter with them and tell them, “I have proof, and if you don’t believe me, I will bring back a clump of moon for you to see.” Hard to fathom fully: that is what the spiritual is like. In the last analysis, it has no perceptible characteristics.
It is a great spiritual mantra. What is a mantra? Does it tell you to recite it slowly, slowly (man-man in Chinese)? No. A mantra is also something inconceivable. It has four meanings:
1) All mantras are the names of god-kings and ghost-kings, like the pisaca and kumbhanda. You recite the names of god-kings and ghost-kings, and the small gods and ghosts all act reliably. Why? They wonder, “How do you know our ghost-king? How do you know our god-king?” When you recite the mantra, the little gods and ghosts don’t dare break the rules.
2) A mantra is like a soldier’s password. In the army, there is a different password every day, and only your own people know it. Others don’t know it. For example, today it might be “victory”. If, for instance, you meet a soldier whom you don’t know, you ask him what the password is, he says, “Victory,” and you say, “Right.” Everyone then knows that he is one of us. If you ask him the password and he says, “Lucky,” that’s not it, and you know that you will have to start fighting. Why? Because he isn’t one of us. Mantras are just like passwords. As soon as the gods and ghosts hear you recite the mantra, they say, “Oh, that’s our password,” so they all can be depended upon to follow the rules. Otherwise, they would all want to fight.
3) A mantra is a sort of secret language which others don’t know. Only a certain person knows. What does he know? For instance, there was once someone who was originally very poor and lowly, so he went abroad where people didn’t know him. Since they didn’t know who he was, he told them, “I am the king of a certain country, but the generals rebelled and there was a change in government, so I secretly made my escape and came to your country.” The king of the country he came to didn’t know whether what he said was true or not. Basically he was a phony, but the king supposed that he too was a real king, so he gave him one of the princesses for a wife. Since one of the king’s women was given in marriage to the poor and lowly person, he considered himself part of the king’s household. Basically he wasn’t a king, but he acted like it. Day in and day out he was always losing his temper. Since he couldn’t “eat bitter melons,” he got angry, and his temper was large. Then someone came who knew him and knew that he was a poor and lowly person. This newcomer said to the woman of the palace who was married to the imposter, “When he gets angry, you need only say these few sentences: ‘You were originally a poor and lowly person who drifted in from another country far away. Why must you have such a big temper?’ As soon as you say that, he will know, ‘Oh, she knows my origins,’ and will not get angry any more.” The third meaning of “mantra” is just the same. As soon as you recite the mantra, the gods and ghosts will assume that you understand their origins and that you know what they are all about, and so they don’t dare to break the rules where you are concerned.
4) There is another meaning. Mantras are the mind-seals of all Buddhas. They are the secret language of all Buddhas, which can be known only from Buddha to Buddha. Because all other living beings don’t know it, mantras are left untranslated. Therefore, it is said, “With one sound the mantra is proclaimed, and living beings perceive it according to their kind.” Living beings of every kind understand as soon as they hear the mantra. Although we people don’t understand, ghosts understand, gods understand, and animals and asuras all understand it. Therefore, when you recite the mantra, they are all dependable.
It is like the king who wanted something called saindhava. Saindhava is a Sanskrit word which has four different meanings: salt, water, chamber-pot, and horse. Saindhava can mean all four. When the king said, “I want saindhava,” the officials didn’t know whether he wanted salt, water, a chamber-pot, or a horse. When people who were wise heard him, they knew what he wanted according to the situation. For instance, if he wanted saindhava while he was eating, of course he wouldn’t have wanted a chamberpot; he certainly wanted salt. When he was going travelling and wanted saindhava, he certainly wanted a horse. If he was thirsty and wanted saindhava, then he certainly wanted water. And if you saw that he wasn’t thirsty, wasn’t eating, and wasn’t going travelling, then of course, he wanted a chamber-pot. As soon as people with wisdom looked, they knew. A mantra, too, has a lot of meanings; in short, therefore, when you recite it and people with wisdom and gods and ghosts hear it, they understand it and act accordingly.
Verse [by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua on the above Sutra passage]:
It is “a great
spiritual mantra,” hard to fathom fully;
“A great bright mantra,” illuminating a thousand times a thousand times a thousand world systems.
“A supreme mantra,” the utmost fruition of enlightenment;
“An unequalled mantra,” reaching the ultimate peak.
All suffering is removed, and the turning wheel comes to rest.
“Genuine and not false”: everyone progresses.
What has been spoken discloses the profound prajna,
And briefly explains the dhyana of the Patriarchs of the East and West.
It is “a great spiritual mantra,” hard to fathom fully. The meaning of “a great spiritual mantra” has already been discussed. “Hard to fathom fully,” means that the mantra is not at all easy to investigate. In other words, you aren’t able to imagine what this great spiritual mantra is like. There is no way its inconceivable realm can be known. Both the spiritual, which belongs to movement, and the wonderful, which belongs to stillness, are inconceivable; both movement and stillness are inconceivable. The inconceivability in movement is the spiritual and the inconceivability in stillness is the wonderful. Therefore, the spiritual is the wonderful, and the wonderful is the spiritual. Were it not the spiritual, then it would not be the wonderful, and were it not the wonderful, then it would not be the spiritual. Therefore, the spiritual and the wonderful are “hard to fathom fully.” They cannot be known. Because they are too spiritual and wonderful, there is no way to explain them so they will be understood. If they were not the spiritual and the wonderful, then you could talk about them, but you can’t talk about the spiritual and wonderful.
“A great bright mantra,” illuminating a thousand times a thousand times a thousand world-systems. The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra is also a great bright mantra. It is great brightness, the treasury of light of the Thus Come One; thus the great bright mantra illuminates and destroys all darkness. If you recite the Heart Sutra, you illuminate and destroy your darkness, ignorance, and affliction of life after life in limitless previous kalpas. The illumination and destruction of your own affliction and ignorance is done inwardly. When you recite this great mantra, you are also able to emit light outward which illuminates the great trichiliocosm – “a thousand times a thousand times a thousand,” or one billion, world-systems. Therefore, the verse says, “‘A great bright mantra,’ illuminating a thousand times a thousand times a thousand world-systems.” The trichiliocosm is the world outside. The afflictions within our very own nature, which can be illuminated and destroyed, constitute the world inside. Inside and out, outside and inside, all is light. Everywhere, inside and out, the bright light which is the original substance of your wisdom manifesting is itself the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra; it is your very own original wisdom illuminating a billion world-systems.
“A supreme mantra,” the utmost fruition of enlightenment. The mantra is said to be supreme because there is none higher, and because it reaches the fruition of Buddhahood. When you recite the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, you go step by step by step from the ground of the common person to the ground of Buddhahood, the fruition of enlightenment.
“An unequalled mantra,” reaching the ultimate peak. Originally the enlightenment of those of the two vehicles is known as equal enlightenment. “Unequalled” means that nothing can be its equal. In other words, the mantra reaches the very final and ultimate enlightenment, the highest peak of the mountain, “the ultimate peak.”
All suffering is removed, and the turning wheel comes to rest. What is most important is the removal of all suffering. Were the mantra unable to remove all suffering, it would not be of any great use. However, it can remove any suffering whatsoever – the three kinds of suffering, which are the suffering of suffering itself, the suffering of decay, and the suffering of the activity of the skandhas, and the eight kinds of suffering, which are the suffering of birth, the suffering of old age, the suffering of sickness, the suffering of death, the suffering of being apart from those you love, the suffering of being together with those you despise, the suffering of not obtaining what you seek, and the suffering of the flourishing of the five skandhas, which is the most difficult to remove, yet here it can also be removed. The mantra can remove all suffering. When “all suffering is removed, the turning wheel comes to rest.” If you can be liberated from the revolving wheel, then the wheel can stop. If you are not liberated from the turning wheel, then it cannot come to rest. You must end birth and death to leave the revolving wheel. “The turning wheel comes to rest,” means the ending of birth and death.
How do you remove the three kinds of suffering and the eight kinds of suffering? How do you put an end to birth and death and get out of the revolving wheel? These five dwellings must be ended:
1) The suffering caused by love of views (also known as the affliction of the love of views);
2) The suffering caused by love of desire (also known as the affliction of the love of desire);
3) The suffering caused by love of form (also known as the affliction of the love of form);
4) The suffering caused by love of the formless (also known as the affliction of the love of the formless);
5) The suffering caused by love of ignorance (also known as the affliction of the love of ignorance).
There must be an end to the five dwellings, and the two deaths must disappear forever.
The five dwellings were described earlier. The word “dwelling” indicates solidity and durability, a place that does not move. Because of the solidity, a kind of craving arises in your mind for situations that you come face to face with. Before you have encountered the situation, the craving doesn’t exist. As soon as you encounter it, the craving is generated. That is what is called dwelling in the affliction of the love of views. Dwelling in the love of desire refers to the heavens of the desire-realm. Dwelling in the love of form refers to the heavens of the form-realm, and dwelling in the love of the formless refers to the heavens of the formless realm. Although lifespans are long in the heavens of the formless realm, affliction and ignorance have not yet been cut off. These are called the five dwellings in affliction, because most people are very firmly attached to dwelling in them. If they were explained in detail, it would take a very long time to talk about them, so I am now just mentioning their names.
“The two deaths disappear forever.” Some people who have not listened to sutras before hear “two deaths” and think, “Oh, do you have to die twice?” The reference is to the two kinds of dying, not to dying twice. As I explained earlier, there is the birth and death of the delimited segment and the birth and death of the fluctuations.
What is the birth and death of the delimited segment (in Chinese literally “share-section”)? You have your share and I have my share; that is called “share.” You have your body section and I have my body section; that is called “section.” I am five feet eight inches tall, and there is a person here who is more than six feet tall. That is what is meant by you having your section and me having mine. This is what is called the birth and death of the delimited segment (i.e., of the share-section). From the day of birth to the day of death is a section, and from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head is also a section. Both are delimited segments. At the fourth stage of Arhatship, the birth and death of the delimited segment is cut off, but the birth and death of the fluctuations has not yet come to an end. Only the Bodhisattva is able to end the birth and death of the fluctuations.
“Genuine and not false”: everyone progresses. The birth and death of the delimited segment and the birth and death of the fluctuations have come to an end. “The five dwellings are ended, and the two deaths disappear forever.” That is genuine enlightenment. “All suffering is removed, and the turning wheel comes to rest:” that is the genuine Bodhisattva. “‘Genuine and not false:” it’s for certain that he isn’t phony. “Everyone progresses” – immediately go forward in your cultivation. Do you want to be a Bodhisattva? Then go forward and cultivate. Go forward with diligence and vigor.
What has been spoken discloses the profound prajna. The section of the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra which has already been discussed was spoken exoterically, while the part that follows was spoken esoterically.
And briefly explains the dhyana of the
Patriarchs of the East and West. The verses I wrote which have already been
discussed briefly explain the meditational method of the Eastern and Western
patriarchs. What method of meditation is it? The first verse on the text of the
Reversing the light to shine within, Avalokiteshvara Enlightens all the sentient beings; thus he is a Bodhisattva.
You should turn the light around to illuminate within. Everyone has the virtuous characteristic of the wisdom of the Thus Come One. But it is simply because of false thinking and attachment that ordinary people are unable to be certified as having attained it. If you wish to attain “the virtuous characteristic of the wisdom of the Thus Come One,” you must not be attached. If you are capable of non-attachment, turn the light within. Study these verses so that you are reasonably familiar with them, and then sit and look into dhyana – meditate. The doctrine of the patriarchs of the East and of the West is simply that.
India is said to be the West, and China the East. But the East and West of the present are neither India nor China. East remains east and West west, of course; the directions have not moved or changed, but the situation has. East refers to the people of the East and West refers to the people of the West. The West will now give birth to a patriarch, and the Eastern patriarchs are quite numerous. There are so many of them that they are like water which flows to the West. Whoever wants to be a patriarch shouldn’t sleep all the time; then it can be done. When one is awakened, East is not East and West is not West. North and South have also disappeared. Why? Now we have developed relations with the moon. So from this side, we don’t know which side we are going to. There is no north, south, east, or west. Now we have all become the original one, the center. Yet the center has no center. This is to change into the great with nothing beyond and into the small with nothing within. It is what I spoke about earlier:
There is no great or small,
No inside or out;
I cultivate, come to my end,
And make the arrangements all by myself.
That’s where you should get to. You should be able to do it and to see how wonderful it is. That is to truly have no troubles at all. Ultimately, what is it like when there is no great or small, no inside or out? If you already understand, you understand without my needing to say. If you don’t understand and I tell you, you still won’t understand.
That is why the mantra of prajna paramita was spoken. Recite it like this: Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!
Mantras are neither translated nor translatable. Since they fall under one of the five categories of terms which are not translated43, it is unnecessary to talk about them. Their meanings are inconceivable. Now I will talk about the mantra.
Verse [by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua on the above Sutra passage]:
As part of the esoteric, the mantra can’t be
It is followed by everyone together, like the edict of a monarch
And like a secret password among the troops.
If one’s reply to the question is not fitting, one is quickly put in line.
The wonderful truth of the Great Vehicle is apart from distinctions,
Yet ordinary people see false conditioned cause as true.
Guided by the finger, gaze at the moon; the finger is not the moon;
Borrowing the mantra, light the mind.
The mantra is the mind.
As part of the esoteric, the mantra can’t be thought about. The mantra belongs to the esoteric teaching, which is inconceivable. You cannot use any kind of thought to think about what it is. “The path of words is cut off, and the place of the mind and the nature is already destroyed”; there isn’t a way to think about it even if you try.
It is followed by everyone together, like the edict of a monarch. This analogy is one of the four explained above. When a monarch sends down an edict, it is respectfully received by all the officials.
And like a secret password among the troops. It’s as I said earlier: if the password for the day is “victory,” and when challenged you say, “lucky,” then the fighting begins, and they shoot you. Because there are so many people in the army, they use such secret passwords, one each day. In that way they don’t mistake outsiders for their own people. Mantras have the same meaning. If one’s reply to the question is not fitting, one is quickly put in line. If you don’t answer the password correctly, then they fulfill the responsibility of carrying out their orders.
The wonderful truth of the Great Vehicle is
apart from distinctions. The Great Vehicle belongs to the great vehicle Dharma.
Its wonderfully inconceivable principle contains no distinctions at all. It
destroys all dharmas and is apart from all characteristics. Whatever is said
disappears: that is prajna dharma. Whatever you say no longer exists after you
say it. Yet ordinary people see the false conditioned cause as true. Ordinary
people suppose that their kinds of knowledge and views, that their viewpoints,
which are generated by false thinking and self-seeking , are real. That is to
mistake a thief for your own son. It is to be attached to everything which has a
perceptible characteristic; it is to be attached to shadows.
Guided by the finger, gaze at the moon; the finger is not the moon. The sutra points out a road for you on which to cultivate the Way. It is like pointing out the moon with a finger. For instance, someone points at the moon with his finger and says, “There’s the moon.” Supposing that the finger is the moon, you people look at the finger and not at the moon. But “The finger is not the moon”; you shouldn’t think that it is. Although the sutra teaches you to cultivate the Way, you should not think that the sutra is the Way. Before you can have an attainment, it is necessary to cultivate the Way. You’re wrong if you don’t cultivate and if you suppose that the sutra is the Way.
Borrowing the mantra, light the mind. The mantra is the mind. Because the mantra is inconceivable, you can light up your mind by borrowing its power. You need only depart from the mind which makes distinctions, the self-seeking mind, the false-thinking mind, and recite the mantra and hold to it. To hold to the mantra is not to understand it, yet in that not understanding there can be true understanding. Therefore, borrowing the mantra enables you to light up your mind and see your nature. And “the mantra is the mind”: if you light up your mind and see your nature, then you will also understand the mantra’s meaning.
 Tang Dynasty Master of the Tripitaka Hsüan-tsang, whose translation of the Heart Sutra into Chinese is the basis of the present text, established five categories of words which should be left untranslated: the esoteric; words having multiple meanings; words for things not existing in China; words not translated in accord with already established precedent; and words left untranslated in order to give rise to whole-someness.
 pan yuan, “climbing on conditions,” i.e.,
scheming for one’s own benefit.
The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra with verses and commentary by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua