A New 100% English Translation — June 2018
My recent study of Buddhism and practice of Zen put me in touch with what in Sanskrit is called the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya Sutra (pronounced: Praj-na Paramita Herdaya). This piece of writing is of equivalent importance to Buddhism as the Lord’s Prayer or the Sermon on the Mount is to Christianity. The translations I found I did not like, but luckily I have translated works from Sanskrit into English before (as well as from Ancient Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Latin). At the end you can find depth explanations for why I used certain words or phrases for major Sanskrit words and concepts.
The Heart of Wisdom That Goes Beyond
While meditating Avalokiteshvara had an epiphany. He saw clearly that all things, on their own, are empty and thus relieved all suffering.
He spoke to Sariputra, one of Gautama’s chief disciples,
“Sariputra, my body by itself is clearly empty,
And my body’s emptiness itself is itself my body.
Form on its own is empty and form’s emptiness is itself form.
“Besides body, the other four dimensions of experience —
feelings, perceptions, volitions and notions —
are also on their own, all empty,
and their emptiness is nothing more than each of these dimensions.
“Oh Sariputra, all things and teachings taken on their own are empty:
Nothing absolutely arises, or ceases,
is absolutely pure, or impure,
absolutely increases, or decreases.
“Therefore, Sariputra, there is never only body,
or feeling, or volition,
or perceptions, or notions.
There is never only eyes, or ears,
or nose, or tongue,
or body, or mind.
There is never only seeing, or hearing,
or smelling, or tasting,
or touching, or thinking.
There is never only sights, or sounds,
or smells, or tastes,
or objects, or thoughts.
“In this same way, there is neither ignorance, nor the end to ignorance.
There is neither old age and death, nor the end to old age and death.
There is neither suffering, nor the cause of suffering,
nor the end of suffering, nor the eightfold path.
There is neither attainment of wisdom, nor wisdom to attain.
“Those who enter the stream of suffering and compassion
search for true wisdom and meet no obstructions;
without obstruction, they proceed without fear, and harbor no delusions,
and extinguish all unease in gentle awareness.
“All accomplished practitioners, past, present, and future,
rely on the search for true wisdom,
and live fully in gentle awareness.
“The search for wisdom that goes beyond is the greatest practice;
the clearest practice,
the highest practice,
the practice that ends of all suffering and unease.
“This is a truth that cannot be doubted, and so we say:
“Beyond, Beyond, all over and gone, for all beyond and gone. Awaken! Amen!
When I first read this sutra, from the title I guessed this sutra was going to be a romantic poem about cultivating compassion. Maybe like the love child of Rumi and the Bhagavad Gita. However, the sutra’s dry, sparse metaphysical content threw me completely and I didn’t try to read it again for over two years. “Where was the heart in the heart sutra?” I thought.
The title literally means “The Heart of Perfect Wisdom.” The sutra is “at the heart” of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in the metaphorical sense of being at the center and containing the concentrated or seminal teaching of the tradition. Indeed in a tradition with thousands of pages of scripture, getting the basic idea down in a few lines is a miracle. However, the sutra is very metaphysical and dry and succumbing to the seduction to put the English word “Heart” in the title risks throwing the English reader the way I was. Nevertheless, the word Heart in the title means both “the important, condensed center” and “warm, caring, compassion.” The metaphysical truths suggested in this sutra explain why we should cultivating compassion for all beings. So in translating, I did not want to succumb to putting the word Heart in the title, but I also wanted to leave the door open to the reader finding the secret heart of this sutra which is its inextrible connection to the cultivation of compassion.
Then I went with “Core” for over 2 years. The core of something is its “important, condensed center” and the word also means “heart” in Latin (cor). I like the use of the word Core better because it matches the shape of the sutra. Metaphysical concepts up front, compassion coming later. Like the sutra itself “Core” starts out sounding very literally like “this is the essence of Mahayanan Buddhism” but then through its connection to Latin, a more careful English reader will find the warmer, more compassionate underlying meaning.
Finally I just went back to “Heart” — its just a great translation.
I struggled the most with what word or words to use for the sanskrit concept Sunyata. The word literally means “emptiness” or “void” and is popularly translated as “Empty.” However, these translations are far from ideal. These words have too strong of connotations of depression, meaninglessness, uselessness, and valuelessness. Moreover, spiritual seekers are generally familiar with Nihilism and don’t like it, so they don’t want words that have Nihilistic connotations. But the word sunyata does denote vacuity and physical emptiness so what to do?
Here are some ideas I threw out Emptiness, Groundlessness, Without Priority, Bootlessness, Baselessness, Hazardous, Insufficient, Indefinite, Incomplete, Full of Potential, Conditioned (slippery slope to relativity), Unabsolute, Finite, Imperfect, Feral, Uncanny, Undomesticated, Beyond Definition (anti-knowledge), Renegade, Openness (a little frothy).
At first I liked “full of potential” the best since it literally means ‘empty (but with infinite possibilities)’. And this full-emptiness or empty-fullness is exactly the connotation of sunyata. Something that is full of potential is inchoate, incomplete, novice, at the beginning, incomplete in itself and empty of wisdom, experience, and certainty. Something that is full of potential is exciting, interesting, engaging, but also needs to be left alone, watched over, cultivated, and has its own life and existence that is interdependent on what is around it and with which it will go about making itself into itself. One drawback is the etymology of the word “potential” is potens Latin for “power” or “capability” which doesn’t really have any business here, but I believe that the Latin root here is obscured by the use of the English idiom and the English speaker also will hear the prevalence of the word “potential”’s meaning in physics — i.e. “potential energy” — over the Latin root.
However, in my meditations on this concept during a 7 day sesshin, the word “Ordinary” arrived. What is it like for something to be ordinary? Ordinary things are part of simple contexts, they are explainable, have know causes. They are not heroic and they are not mystical or special. They are ordinary. An ordinary pair of pants are just pants. They are exactly that. I feel like this word says in American English what sunyata means in a complex indian metaphysical sense. Ordinary stuff is “empty” of any special, heroic, or super-independent nature. Everything is in a way ordinary. With a little knowledge of probablity it is actually inevitable that life exists and that someone would be there to experience it — namely US! And other sentient beings. Suffering of growing old, getting sick, and dying is totally ordinary and has always happened to everyone. That’s not to say that in a paradoxical way ordinary things are special. Think of those ordinary pants again. Now think of the Cat Steven’s lyric:
Oh very young
What will you leave us this time
You’re only dancing on this earth for a short while
And though your dreams may toss and turn you now
They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans
Denim Blue fading up to the sky
And though you want him to last forever
You know he never will
(You know he never will)
And the patches make the goodbye harder still
Those ordinary pants can be mighty special. . . But they are still ordinary and still special (and still ordinary).
Ordinary on second thought is not so good.
We use the word empty in a way similar to sunyata namely an “empty threat” or “empty words” meaning “threats or words that look like they have substance but do not”. This is not outright deception or lies or untruth. Empty threats and words are said in order to have an effect, to be the placeholders of sincere words and dangerous threats. They are the representations or masks or statues of real things. More than just representations, empty words and threats are unreliable. An empty threat, you can guess, does not threaten you, the insincere lover won’t be there the following spring. But beings are not “unreliable” they rely on each other to come into being. “Empty words or threats” mean “unreliable words or threats”, but if we search in this metaphor for a description in English of a metaphysical characteristic of reality, then we must search for another phrase. Stated factually beings do not have independent substance, beings are conditionally arisen both in time causally and simultaneously they are conditioned by other beings that contrast with them or make them possible. For example the giver, receiver, and the gift are interconditioned — you can’t have one without the other. Likewise your body is not a body if there is not air, water, earth, and fire around to support it.
To simply state the principle of conditioned arising would be a yawn at the point in Buddhist history when this sutra emerged. Instead the sutra is making a much more profound claim. Even the elements of Buddhist metaphysics and the teachings of the Buddha are also conditionally arisen. And the consequences of this understanding is the stake wedged between the Theravadin and Mahayanan teachings. The sutra claims that two sets of things are empty: the skandas which make up the totality of existence, and the teachings of the Buddha — the four noble truths and eight-fold path. The sutra says that these are each unreliable. Moreover the sutra makes claims about unreliablity. Form itself has the nature of being empty, of being unreliable, of being without independent substance. Just body, just mind, just senses, just thoughts are without independent substance. And the four noble truths and the eight fold path are also without independent substance. Perhaps even the refuges themselves are without independent substance.
This leaves us at the interpretation that Thich Nhat Hanh presented with the translation of sunyata of “interbeing”. But this is so close but what a utilitarian word. Instead I preserve the word “Empty” since it is so apt, but I add the adjective “alone” to the objects called “empty” so as to supress the sesation of nihilism and provoke the contemplation of conditioned arising.
Body alone is empty, all things and teachings alone is empty. I like to negate “aloneness” at the risk of promoting an inordinately communitarian perspective.
The choice in the first stanza is to take a more metaphysical perspective of “Form and Nothingness” or a more particular perspective of “My Body and Not My Body.” Since Avaloki Teshvara is practicing meditation and this sutra should teach people meditation, I chose to go down the more particular path of realizing that the extension and presence of my life (of this body) is completely fragile and conditioned and then bridge line by line to a more abstract concept of “From.”
Traditionally translated very accurately as “Aggregates,” I decided to use the phrase “Dimensions of Experience.” Skandas do not just arbitrarily group beings. Skandas collapses subjective and objective reality and defines the five self-evident boundaries of this radically subjective and complete universe. I also considered using “Collection.” However, collection is very accurate to the Sanskrit but has the benefit (or the trouble) of referencing the Greek word logos and Heidegger’s definition of Being, both of which, I would like to avoid so as not to mix up very different and complex traditions.
The word “consciousness” is too loaded and “mental formations” is to unwieldily. I chose to use “notion” because it is an elegant, simple English word based on the the Greek word for mind: nous. I actually can’t believe I have never seen this word used. I deploy the words Mind, Imagine, and Notions as related Subject-Verb-Object parallel to Eyes, See, Sights and Nose, Smells, Smells.
Generally considered untranslatable, I am committed to removing all foreign words so here I use the phrase “All things and teachings.” The translation is both very general and includes the positive and normative aspects of Dharma.
Because of the poetic power of the word “suffering” and its history in the early adoption of Buddhism in the west it is impossible not to deploy this word especially when the sutra echoes the four ennobling truths. However, it is important to describe the general ducca of existence as “unease” since few happy people will agree that “Life is suffering,” but more people will agree that there is a background static of “unease” that permeates life.
Traditionally translated as Perfect Wisdom or Unstained Wisdom, in order to deescalate this Buddhist jargon and doctrinaire concept into something of use for a modern person, I transformed it into a pursuit: the search for true wisdom which, after all, is what Siddhartha Gautama was doing.
Both Buddha and Bodhisattva are sexy words, and beautiful concepts. Far be it from me to want to remove it from common parlance and the liturgy among Buddhists, however for the purpose of this translation I wanted to remove all doctrinal jargon and foreign words. Giving Bodhisattva its own Sanskrit word makes it sorta like a saint (which is why I preseved the word in the first line referring to Aloketishvara), but really becoming a Bodhisattva (or a Buddha) is really not that hard. Buddha himself said that it is 1000 times easier to “awaken” than to stay plagued with delusion. The true hard work is being deluded. So I translate Buddha more humdrum as “accomplished practitioner” and Bodhisattva as “those who enter the stream of suffering and compassion” or “stream entrant” for short.
Traditionally translated “Enlightenment” — this is in my opinion a very misleading translation. The connotations of “Enlightenment” in English are a very strong and contradictory mix of rational and mystic concepts both which run contrary to the actual denotation and connotation of the word nirvana or nibanna. Literally this word means “extinguishment” as of a candle. It connotes the ending of restlessness, anguish, and unease. I use the phrase “gentle awareness.” Although this phrase smacks of modern mindfulness, I believe that in general nirvana is the “goal of Buddhism” (if one could say that). And the goal of Buddhism is to be on the path of attaining greater awareness of yourself and the world that softens the inevitable suffering of life and inspires compassion for oneself, others, and other beings. “Gentle awareness” sums up this goal well by uniting compassion and awareness into one phrase. Hence I have departed completely from the denotation but cleaved closely to what I believe is the connotation in scripture and in lived experience.