Sharing the Heart Sutra

In early November, Seattle’s Dharma Friendship Foundation (DFF) hosted “Profound Illumination – The Heart Sutra within Buddhism”, a weekend conference bringing together teachers and scholars from three primary Buddhist faiths: Tibetan Buddhism, Rinzai Zen, and the Mindfulness tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. The event was conceived by Yangsi Rinpoche, spiritual director of DFF, as a way to foster dialogue about one of the key sutras within Mahayana Buddhism. Below are excerpts from talks by the various teachers.

Eileen Kiera, Dharma heir of Thich Nhat Hanh, guiding teacher of Seattle’s Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound, and resident teacher at Mountain Lamp community in Deming, Washington.

“I’d like to tell a story. A monk named Xuan Zang met a beggar and did him some kindness. In return the beggar offered him the words of the Heart Sutra which struck him deeply. Xuan Zang memorized them and decided to go on pilgrimage to India to learn more about Buddhism.

“He set out in 629 A.D., journeying 10,000 miles across the Taklamakan Desert and the Hindu Kush Mountains, chanting the Heart Sutra for protection as he endured sandstorms, thirst, robbers on the Silk Road, avalanches, snowstorms. He made it to northern India where he studied for many years, returning to China in 645 A.D. with tales of protection from the mantra.

“On returning to China he stopped at the caves near Dunhuang and his translation of the Heart Sutra was written and sealed away, not discovered until the beginning of the 20th century.

“We don’t know who wrote the Heart Sutra. It was possibly written in Afghanistan. We don’t know who is speaking it or where it came from. It is asking us to enter into not knowing. Like the not knowing of Bodhidharma, the first Zen ancestor who came from India to China, who when asked by the emperor, “Who is this standing before me?”, replied, “I don’t know”, not the passive cop out “I don’t know”, but the “I don’t know” which asks us to engage in each unfolding moment of our lives, dropping our story, all our concepts, dropping all of our ideas, to just be, radically present. In the place where we have dropped all that, we don’t know. Then, we can truly say that we don’t know where we are going, where we have come from. We are open to that boundless spacious mind… We enter into what the Heart Sutra is inviting us to go to, beyond our personal story.”


Participants in Dharma Friendship Foundation's panel discussion on the Heart Sutra. From left: Genjo Marinello Osho of Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji in Seattle; Eileen Kiera of Seattle's Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound and Mountain Lamp Community near Bellingham; Ven. Thubten Chodron, Abbess of Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington; Dr. James Blumenthal, Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies, Maitripa College, Portland, Oregon.

Venerable Thubten Chodron, Founder and Abbess of Sravasti Abbey, a monastic community in Newport, Washington and former spiritual director of Dharma Friendship Foundation.

“Why is the Heart Sutra important? To understand that we must understand our present situation and what causes it, which leads us right into the Four Noble Truths. We are experiencing various levels of dukkha, (roughly translated as “suffering”), not just the ouch kind, but also what we call pleasure which lasts for a while, but doesn’t satisfy us, and the third kind of dukkha, merely having body and mind under the control of afflictions and karma.

“Our situation is beginningless, but its origin lies in ignorance. In everything we do there is this feeling of me as an agent: I am doing this and that, going here and there. And the objective world out there is perceived as separate from us. This worldview is so natural and spontaneous. We didn’t even learn it, but this worldview is a path to disaster. This concept of a real me and real everything is actually what lies at the basis of all of our misery.

“The Heart Sutra tells us to check on this assumption. This is what it is calling us to examine, investigate and probe: the path to freedom. If we are able to overcome this fundamental ignorant apprehension of how things exist, we gain real freedom, not bound by anger, jealousy pride, competition, and so forth. So it is very important to understand prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom, the wisdom that perceives things in the exact opposite way of how ignorance apprehends.

“Then we gain real freedom and aren’t forced to be reborn again and again under the force of ignorance and afflictions and karma. We see reality exactly as it is and can act in the world in a compassionate way at the same time. Then we can be of the highest benefit to all sentient beings. That’s why it is important to understand prajnaparamita which is the subject matter of the Heart Sutra.”

Seventh century Buddhist pilgrim, Xuan Zang.

Seventh century Buddhist pilgrim, Xuan Zang.

Dr. James Blumenthal, Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies at Maitripa College in Portland, Oregon and at Oregon State University.

“Interfaith dialogue is good and the Heart Sutra is a great topic since it is so widely appreciated in the Mahayana traditions.

“The Heart Sutra has had a variety of uses, including as protection on travels as mentioned by Eileen. Within Indian Buddhism it forms a part of a tantric sadhana. Atisha talked about using the Heart Sutra for exorcism. Also, it is used ritually before teachings on emptiness.

“The Heart Sutra is unique. There are two main translations. The translation we’ve used tonight is the shorter version. The longer version contains “Thus I have heard once” and puts the whole setting together with the Buddha present and spoken by Avalokiteshvara.

“The Heart Sutra is considered a Buddhist sutra even in the short version, without the standard “thus I have heard at one time” indicating that the person recounting this was present at the teaching with the Buddha. This is the only exception among hundreds of sutra, and the speaker is not the historical Buddha. This shows the openness of the Buddhist canon. What is important for Buddhism is not necessarily that it came from the mouth of the historical Buddha, but that the authority is an enlightened mind, enlightened wisdom. Avalokiteshvara’s voice is authoritative because his mind is enlightened. I think this is important as the Buddhist tradition gets passed down from teacher to student, ideally to enlightened masters, that we recognize that kind of authority.”

Genjo Marinello Osho, teacher in the Rinzai Zen tradition and Abbot of Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji, a residential Zen community in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.

“We chant the Heart Sutra every day. Whenever in doubt, we chant the Heart Sutra.

“Why? To settle the mind for meditation, to gain harmony. The key is the last line: Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha. A rough translation from a practice perspective: Those who have realized their bodhisattva nature will see the world as at once empty like a dream, like a fantasy, and at the same time be in awe of the myriad manifestations of this great emptiness. With this simultaneous view we can’t help but be compassionate to all beings great and small, animate and inanimate.

“We need to awaken to our bodhisattva spirit, having penetrated beyond outward experiences, penetrated to an alive emptiness. The Chinese character for emptiness is Mu, incomparably profound and minutely subtle…the reality prior to heaven and earth, and the reality that is heaven and earth. Coming awake to this reality is what the Heart Sutra is calling us to do.”

Yangsi Rinpoche, Founder of Maitripa College and spiritual director of Dharma Friendship Foundation.

“So, for a few days, you have been having this Heart Sutra conference. What a precious opportunity; particularly this topic, the Heart Sutra.

“The Dharma came from India to Tibet and all through Asia and now to the west and it is changing through the culture and language. So we need to come together and see where is the meaning in the center of all these changes. I rejoice in our opportunity to come together for this sharing. This is one of the most important sutras and in our discussions we should try to be grounded. Not just getting many different opinions and more knowledge, but how can we ground and deepen our wisdom?

“Our awareness is the most important thing. We need to take care of that and not feed the mind junk food. No matter how much healthy food we feed our stomach in a day, if we lose healthy thoughts and emotions, that takes over and ruins everything. It all comes down to training the mind. The key point of the Heart Sutra is that it is a way to create freedom, freedom within our own self, a way to transform our environment into a pure land. The Heart Sutra mantra is like propaganda: Hey we can go, we can go further, we can go to our unlimited potential.”

Complete audio files of the conference are available for listening and downloading on the DFF website. Reflections on the conference by Sally Zenka Metcalf can also be found in the Autumn 2011 issue of Dai Bai Zan Cho Bo Zen Ji’s quarterly publication, Plum Mountain News.

For more information about Dharma Friendship Foundation, please visit:

Contributor: Jordan Van Voast.
Photo: Jordan Van Voast.
Image: Wiki Commons.