How To Course In Prajna Paramita

Recently someone asked what I thought of scholar Jan Nattier’s proposal that the Heart Sutra is a Chinese apocryphal sutra, and my response was that it’s not an issue for me. Since we know that none of the Mahayana sutras has a direct connection to the historical Buddha, I don’t really care if they are Indian or Chinese in origin. To my mind, what is far more critical is the content. Does the text impart something significant for wayfaring on the path? Is it relevant for today? Whatever its origins, the Heart Sutra certainly qualifies as a important Buddhist teaching.

The Heart Sutra (Maha Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra) is based on the voluminous Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra, which consists of approximately 600 scrolls. As far as I know there is no information suggesting the latter is not an Indian text, although its exact origins are unknown. Wikipedia says the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra is “usually attributed to Nagarjuna.” I’ve seen this elsewhere and I think they must be confused with Nagarjuna’s Maha Prajna Paramita Sastra, (“sastra” means treatise) a commentary on the sutra, also rather voluminous, that may or may not be an authentic work by that great Buddhist philosopher. I’m under the impression that most scholars feel that the earliest Mahayana sutras, including the Prajna Paramita, were composed around the 1st century BCE.

In any case, I thought it might be interesting to present the passage from the “Great Transcendent Wisdom Sutra” that the Heart Sutra is based on, where the basis for the famous phrase “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” is found. It also includes the term sunyata-svabhava or “empty of own-being,” which occurs in the Heart Sutra at the beginning as “While practicing Prajna Paramita, Avalokitesvara clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty [of own-being].” And there are a few other things that found their way into the Heart Sutra here as well.

Obviously, the composers of the Heart Sutra introduced a number of elements not found in the “large” Prajna Paramita: the appearance of Avalokitesvara, borrowed from the Lotus Sutra; the inclusion of the mantra; and the Buddha’s relegation to a supporting role. If you have read the longer version of the shorter Heart Sutra (with the prologue and epilogue), then you know that instead of posing his question to the Buddha, Shariputra instead asks Avalokitesvara what is the best way to practice, or course in Prajna Paramita. The reason the compilers of the Heart Sutra did this was so they could take a little dig at the so-called “Hinayana” by having the Buddhist foremost Hinayana disciple seek guidance from a Mahayana Bodhisattva.

Edward Conze (1904-1979)

Those readers familiar with the Diamond Sutra (also based on the Maha Prajna Paramita Sutra) may also notice some seeds of that text in this passage.

This comes from Edward Conze’s translation, “The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom,” published in 1975 by the University of California Press. It’s the first section in Chapter 3, “Observations.” Conze uses the word “review” for “sees repeatedly” (“truly a Bodhisattva, does not review a Bodhisattva”, etc.), and I find his reasoning for that a bit confusing, so I have changed it to simply “see.” I’ve never been crazy about using “the Lord” to reference the Buddha, but I’ve let that pass.

If you’d like to compare this passage with the Heart Sutra, you can click here and it will open a new window to my Heart Sutra page.


Sariputra : How then should the Bodhisattva, the great being, course in perfect wisdom?

The Lord: Here  the Bodhisattva, the great being, coursing in the perfection of wisdom, truly a Bodhisattva, does not see a Bodhisattva, nor the word “Bodhisattva”, nor the course of a Bodhisattva, (nor the perfection of wisdom, nor the word “perfection of wisdom”. He does not see that “he courses”, nor that “he does not course”). He does not see form, feeling, perception, formative forces, or consciousness. And why? Because the Bodhisattva, the great being, is actually empty of the own-being of a Bodhisattva, and because perfect wisdom is by its own-being empty. And why? That is its essential original nature. (For it is not through emptiness that form, etc. is empty.) Nor is emptiness other than form, etc.

And why? The very form, etc., is emptiness, the very emptiness is form, etc. And why? Because “Bodhisattva”, “perfect wisdom”, “form”, etc. are mere words. Because form, etc., are like an illusion. Illusions and mere words do not stand at any point or spot; they are not, do not come into being, are false to behold. For of what the own-being is seen to be an illusion, of that there is no production or stopping, no defilement or purification. Thus a Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in the perfection of wisdom, also does not review the production (of any dharma); nor its stopping (or abiding, its decrease or increase), defilement or purification. (He does not review form, etc., nor “enlightenment”, nor what is called an “enlightenment-being”.) And why? Because words are artificial. People have constructed a counter-dharma. They express it conventionally by means of an adventitious designation (which is imagined and unreal, and they settle down in that conventional expression). A Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in perfect wisdom, does not review (that which is said to correspond to) all those words, (does not get at them). Not reviewing them, (not getting at them, he does not mind them), does not settle down in them.

Furthermore, a Bodhisattva, a great being who courses in the perfection of wisdom, does not consider the fact that these are mere words, i.e. this “Bodhisattva”, this “enlightenment”, this “Buddha”, this “perfection of wisdom”, this “coursing in the perfection of wisdom”, this “form”, etc. Just as one speaks of a “self, and yet no self is got at, and no being, soul, personality, person, individual, or man, etc., on account of unascertainable emptiness.  And why? Because there a Bodhisattva does also not see that by means of which he would settle down. Coursing thus, a Bodhisattva, a great being courses in perfect wisdom.


2 thoughts on “How To Course In Prajna Paramita

  1. Excellent post.

    Just for good order’s sake, I want to point out for those that might not be aware, that Jan Nattier’s point is not that the Heart Sutra is a fake in any way, but that, in her words, “it was created a a separate scripture in China, composed as an extract from the Large S?tra of Kum?raj?va (itself a translation of the Indian Pañcavi??ati-prajñ?p?ramit?-s?tra) together with an introduction and conclusion composed in China– this in no way undermines the value that the text has had for Buddhist practitioners.”

    1. That is correct. I am not sure that Nattier completely proved her point, but it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other, because as she says it does not undermine the value of the text. However, she does provide some very interesting food for thought.

      Here the pdf version of Nattier’s article: The Heart S?tra: A Chinese Apocryphal Text?

      And the html version is here.

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