The Scripture of Great Wisdom, also known as the Heart Sutra, is probably the most well-known and the most frequently recited of all Buddhist scriptures. Its Sanskrit name is Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra. Prajnaparamita means the realisation, or the perfection, of wisdom, and hridaya means heart, in the sense of core or essence. It is the shortest and most succinct of a collection of Prajnapramita scriptures of varying lengths.
The author of the scripture is unknown, though it was likely that it was composed during the first century CE in Northern India or thereabouts. In the centuries following the Buddha’s death (he is believed to have died in 483 BCE or, alternatively, around 400 BCE) a body of analytical Buddhist texts known as Abhidharma was written, examining physical and mental phenomena – dharmas – in a systematic and technical way. Around the beginning of the Common Era, Mahayana Buddhism began to appear, emphasising the practice of prajna (wisdom) over jnana (knowledge). In his book The Heart Sutra (see below) Red Pine points out that the sequence of the lines of this scripture follows the exact sequence of conceptual categories used in the Sarvastivadin Abhidharma (the Sarvastivadins were one of the early Buddhist schools), and thus it would appear that the scripture was written as a direct reaction to the emphasis on jnana of these earlier schools.
The narrator of the scripture is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the personification of the enlightened quality of compassion, the one who hears the cries of the world and responds to the suffering of sentient beings. Avalokiteshvara is a major figure in the Mahayana tradition and therefore a very appropriate choice to voice this teaching.
The teaching is addressed to Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s actual disciples, who is said to have served as his chief assistant and was considered the foremost of the Buddha’s disciples in knowledge and possibly the founder of the Abhidharma tradition.
The theme of the scripture is the wisdom of emptiness, the word “emptiness” being a popular translation of the Sanskrit word shunyata. Rev. Master Jiyu translates shunyata as “pure” in the version of the scripture that we use in the OBC. Shunyata refers to the emptiness of separate, independent existence; all things are connected, nothing exists in isolation, just as a wave cannot exist apart from the ocean from which it arises. I’ll talk more about this doctrine in the next blog post and go through the scripture line by line. You can see the text of the scripture here: The Scripture of Great Wisdom
There Is No Suffering, by Chan Master Sheng Yen
The Heart Sutra, by Red Pine
The Heart Sutra, by Kazuaki Tanahashi
The books by Red Pine and Kazuaki Tanhashi are the source of much of the information in this post. They both contain a large amount of historical detail and scholarship in addition to analysis and commentary on the text of the scripture. The book by Chan Master Sheng Yen, in contrast, is primarily a commentary intended to encourage contemplation of the scripture in order to deepen one’s meditative practice.