Pain, Meditation, and Enlightenment: a new version of the Heart Sutra

posted by Martin Boroson on July 19 2011

For several years, I have been working intermittently on writing a new version of The Heart Sutra, one of the most important texts in Zen Buddhism. One of my central concerns was the nature of pain, and the role of pain in spiritual practice.

I was interested in doing this primarily because the version of the sutra that I am accustomed to chanting mentions the word “pain” twice, and that bothered me. I assumed that it was a mistranslation of dukkha (better translated as suffering or dissatisfaction) but wanted to find out more.

When my mother died suddenly, this past May, and my family planned a “participatory” funeral service on the beach, I decided that I would finish my new version and read it at that service. I found that working on this text was deeply soothing, which I now believe is its intent.  And when I read this text at the service, as we stood in a small circle around the urn that contained my mother’s ashes, it felt just right. The urn was made of pink salt, and the sutra seemed particularly appropriate to that moment at which people are suffering the insubstantiability of form, the impermanence of life.

You can download it here … or keep reading … and there is some juicy stuff in the footnotes …


The Heart Sutra

Adapted for my mother, Florence Boroson
on the occasion of her funeral, May 30, 2011

(from the literal translation by Edward Conze)

The Lord Avalokita
(who hears the cries of the world)  [i]
Looked down from on high,
And while practicing the Perfection of Wisdom,
Clearly saw that everything is empty—
Nothing solid, nothing permanent,
Nothing separate from anything else, [ii]
And in that moment, everything was okay. [iii]

Speaking to the monk, Shariputra, she put it this way:

O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other than form.
Form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.
Feelings, perceptions, intentions, and awareness—
Are just like this, too.

What you call “real” [iv] is empty, insubstantial [v]
Not born, not destroyed,
Not impure, not pure,
Not complete, not lacking.

In emptiness,
There is no form, no feeling, perception, intention, awareness,
No eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind,
No color, sound, smell, taste, touch,
No “thing that can be thought,”
No ignorance and no end to ignorance,
No aging and death and no end to aging and death;
No suffering, no cause of suffering, no end to suffering;
No path, no wisdom, no getting it, and no not getting it. [vi]

With no thought of getting it, [vii]
Those who rely on
The Perfection of Wisdom
Live without delusion.
Seeing clearly, they feel no fear.
They just get it [viii]
This, as it is, right now. [ix]

Truly, anyone at any time [x]
Can practice the Perfection of Wisdom [xi]
And awaken in this way. [xii]

Therefore know
The Perfection of Wisdom
Is the great practice [xiii], the utmost practice, the unrivalled practice.
For in truth—What could possibly be out of place? [xiv]

So, practice the Perfection of Wisdom
Practice the Perfection of Wisdom, and say:
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Go, go, far beyond, far beyond ‘beyond’[xv]
Awakening thus!



[i] I added this line (“The one who hears the cries of the world”) in order to help those readers who are not familiar with Avalokitesvara’s archetypal role. Knowing something of her compassionate nature seems to me to be quite important to appreciating this sutra. One reading of the sutra is that, in it, the archetype of compassion encounters the perfection of wisdom.

[ii] This two-line elaboration of emptiness is not in the original text, but I added it because the meaning of the word “emptiness” is so confusing to many people.

[iii] In the version of the Heart Sutra that I am accustomed to chanting, this line is “thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.”  I have had a persistent uneasiness about that line, primarily because I assumed that “pain” was a mistranslation of dukkha, which is more conventionally translated as “suffering.” And there is a big difference in meaning between pain and suffereing.

According to the Dalai Lama, an even better translation of dukkha than pain or suffering would be  “unsatisfactoriness.”  But this is not the most poetic word, so I first tried “unease”, which gave me something like, “And all unease was relieved.” From there, it was a small step to, “And everything was okay.”

I also wanted to counter any suggestion that Avalokitesvara’s realization might relieve pain or suffering for all people at all times, for when read by people in a Judeo-Christian culture, this might imply that Avalokitsevara is the world-redeemer (or messiah), and I don’t think that is what is intended in this sutra.  I believe that Avalokitesvara’s realization must be renewed constantly, by each person, now. In other words, the realization did not happen in the past and does not magically relieve suffering for all people forever more. It’s up to you, now.

The phrase that I ultimately chose, “And in that moment, everything was okay,” attempts to embrace both of these points. Although it may seem prosaic, I prefer to think of it as “down to earth,” which seems appropriate to the meaning of the sutra, and a nice thing for someone who is “on high” to realize. And when I read this version at my mother’s funeral, as we stood in a small circle around the urn containing her ashes, the phrase, “everything was okay” was quite meaningful, poignant, and soothing.  The point is that one can be “suffering” the death of a loved one, with the realization of the Heart Sutra, even this becomes “okay.” (Interestingly, Conze points out that the word satyam, conventionally translated as truth, comes from the root to be, and corresponds to the English to sooth.  In other words, realizing the truth is inherently soothing—a rather nice concept.)

However, having said all that, when I actually checked the Conze translation for this phrase, I discovered that the phrase is not in the original text at all. So I think it would be preferable to remove the whole phrase altogether. But as I have become quite fond of my new version, I left it in. (A nice alternative would be:  “And in this realization, everything is okay.”)

[iv] Conze suggests dharmas, which he says should not be translated as “things” because this does not refer to ordinary objects such as chairs and tables. The reasons for this are complex; he doesn’t explain them fully and I don’t understand them. But he suggests that dharmas, in this context, actually refers to those things that are considered in Buddhism to be ultimately real.  To honor this, I came up with this phrase, “what you consider real.” It also adds a certain rhetorical impact.

[v] I added “insubstantial” here as an elaboration of the term “empty.” But it was particularly appropriate when read at a funeral, as we looked at an urn. And it also sounds nice when you read it out loud.

[vi] At this point in the sutra, I am accustomed to hearing here the phrase, “no gain.”  But “gain” can suggest material gain, and Conze says the correct translation is “no attainment,” and that this specifically refers to the “obtaining of ecstatic meditation, of the four paths … and of the enlightenment of Buddhahood.” But as “attainment” is rather clunky, I wanted to find a different phrase, but one that would manage to express three things inherent in Conze’s explanation:  a) that there was striving; b) that the striving was specifically spiritual; and c) that there is a belief (however misguided or not misguided) that one has indeed “got” what one was striving for. So I settled for “getting it.”  Note that Conze also says that this line should include its negation, i.e. “no attainment and no non-attainment.”  This adds a nice extra reminder to the spiritual seeker, and is consistent with the text before it.

[vii] Conze suggests here “nonattainmentness.” In other words, whatever is used in this line must refer back to what was said in the previous line, and indicate a state that is beyond both sides, i.e. attaining and not-attaining.

[viii] In this line, it is important to preserve the word used for “attainment” above.  Again, the point is that by getting out of the whole attainment, you attain.

[ix] The literal translation is:  “And in the end he attains to Nirvana.”  But how to translate “Nirvana”?  First of all, I wanted to avoid the other-worldly or blissed-out connotations that the word “Nirvana” has for some people, for the sutra seems to me explicitly against that understanding of Nirvana.  The point is not release from the cycle of birth and death in some mystical escape, but that release from the cycle of birth and death means full presence right here. So I eliminated the word “Nirvana” altogether, and tried to focus on what I believe is the heart of this sutra, as follows:

Avalokitesvara is considered the boddhisatva of compassion because, on the verge of complete release from the cycle of birth and death, she chooses to wait until all beings can enter that state, too. Her name also means the “Lord looking down from on high.”  Putting these together, it is easy to imagine her sitting at the very far edge of the world of form, almost “out of here.” Her initial position assumes that there is, indeed, some kind of place beyond the world of form.

But it seems to me that the point of this sutra is that, through practicing the perfection of wisdom, she lets go of that stance. She lets go of even the idea of Nirvana that is somehow beyond the cycle of birth and death, or outside of form. With the letting go of the emptiness/form dualism, and any transcendent release, she has only one true option: this moment. The sutra relieves suffering precisely because suffering is ultimately caused by the thought of somewhere else—i.e. the idea that there is a state of emptiness or Nirvana that is “beyond” form. And without the form/emptiness dualism, or the samasara/nirvana dualism, there is only this.

[x] The conventional translation of this line would be, “All past, present, and future Buddhas  practice the perfection of wisdom.” My first step was to consider the issue of time, so I changed “past, present and future” to “all times.”  I then realized that this really is the same thing as “any time” or even “this time” or “right now” (see Dogen).  “Right now” was indeed tempting, but I settled on “any time.” My next step was to change “all Buddhas to “awakened beings” or “wise beings,” in order to make it more accessible – for we are each Buddhas (or becoming Buddhas). But then I realized that, given this truth, I might as well just say “all people.”  This then emphasizes that Avalokitesvara’s realization is actually available to you—the person reading this sutra, right now. This also makes the text more immediate, for it is about you rather than “those Buddhas over there” or some “Great Big Avalokitesvara in the Sky.”

[xi] This line could, instead, simply be “rely on the perfection of wisdom” or “rest in the practice of the perfection of wisdom.”

[xii] Conze gives, “fully awake to the utmost, right, and perfect enlightenment.”

[xiii] It decided to try to translate the word mantra, as it causes confusion for many people.  And although the word “practice” is not in any way a literal translation of mantra, it seems better to me than “prayer” or “charm,” and at least it conveys the sense that a mantra must be used and inhabited. Using the word “practice” also makes sense with the rest of the poem, linking to the earlier use of practice (“Lord Avalokita … while practicing the Perfection of Wisdom.”) and my later uses of practice.

[xiv] I am accustomed to hearing the following phrase at this point: “It completely clears all pain. This is the truth, not a lie.”  First of all, as I have noted, I have issues with the use of the word pain (see note 3). But according to Conze, the literal translation is, simply:  “in truth—for what could go wrong?”  So, consistent with what I did earlier, I started by removing the word pain. But suffering (dukkha) isn’t mentioned here either. But Conze’s phrase, “what could go wrong?” also posed some problems for me, because the word “wrong” is so charged, particularly in an Abrahamic culture.  So I settled on, “For in truth, what can possibly be out of place?”  An alternative would be, “For in truth, what could be amiss?”

[xv] This is translated by Conze as “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. I took the liberty of changing this first to “Go, go …” in order to make it more direct, and fit in with my substitution of “practice” for “mantra.”  In other words, you arebeing urged to practice, to meditate deeply, and this requires that you actually “go,” rather than reflect on being “gone.”

More importantly, I took the liberty of adding to this line the phrase: “… far beyond ‘beyond’.”  In doing this, I wanted to emphasize that the teaching of this sutra is that we must go beyond all delusion, even—especially—the delusion that there is a “beyond.” This sutra is about getting beyond the concept of “emptiness” being a mystical state different from form. As I said in Note 9, Avalokitesvara begins at the edge of beyond, looking down on the world, but in her realization, she lets go of this construction of beyond (“emptiness is no different than form”).  In other words, we must go beyond all form until we reach, not the point at which there is no beyond, but the point at which even the thought of beyond is revealed to be illusory, and then there no up and no down—just this.


Translation (c) 2011, Martin Boroson



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