Heart Sutra

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by Yuan Dynas...
Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by Yuan Dynasty artist and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322 CE) via Wikipedia

The Heart Sutra is the shortest of 40 texts which make up the Prajnaparamitra-sutra, important to Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. It is recited by monks and nuns throughout China, Japan and beyond.

The Heart Sutra contains the famous assertion, “emptiness is form, form is emptiness,” which is often cited in New Age circles and probably taught in just about every undergraduate Oriental philosophy course.

Although this may seem a simplistic, unsophisticated claim, it’s arguably relevant to recent discoveries in sub-atomic physics where matter and energy are observed as two different forms of one mysterious underlying reality.

But this idea cannot account for spiritual experiences (and possible realms) that extend beyond and above that somewhat basic level of cosmic – not heavenly – mystery.

Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, in the Siddh...
Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, in the Siddhaṃ script. Replica of a palm-leaf manuscript dated to 609 CE via Wikipedia

Quite different from Jewish, Islamic and Christian heavens, Buddhist heavens are not taken as everlasting abodes. Buddhist heavens are just so many stops on a road towards the ‘nothingness/fullness’ of Nirvana.

So the oft-overlooked question remains: Are all of the heavens mentioned in different world traditions the same in character and quality?

Some find this simple, straightforward question troubling, preferring to focus on the apparent commonalities among world religions. While this is an admirable approach, one arguably shouldn’t turn a blind eye to religious differences.

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by scholar an...
Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by scholar and calligrapher Ouyang Xun, dated 635 CE via Wikipedia

Meanwhile, some tend to embrace politically correct beliefs about religious homogeneity instead of really thinking carefully about religion.

Additionally, we have those who conflate national pride with absolute truth. The semiologist Roland Barthes asked several decades ago, for instance, whether the ‘Holy Spirit’ and the ‘American Spirit’ connote the same thing. Along these lines history reveals that personal imaginings, political correctness and zeal for one’s nation rarely make good bedfellows with the sincere pursuit of truth, not only in religion but in just about any discipline.


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