Chanting the Heart Sutra

This is a photo from a sutra book I frequently use for daily services. I bought this book years ago from the temple of Sensoji (a.k.a. Asakusa Temple) in Tokyo, Japan, a place that I have visited many times over the years.

A photo I took in 2016 of the famous market of nakamise-dōri. The actual temple is way in the back.
The temple just after New Year’s, taken in 2009.
Me carrying one tired little boy at the iconic kaminari-mon gate in 2016. Note the giant red lantern in the back.

It is still one of my favorite temples, even if a bit touristy, and of the Buddhist sutra books I own this is still one of my favorite to use.1 This sutra book uses the traditional Classical Chinese with Japanese pronunciation guides (furigana), which is pretty typical of Japanese-Buddhist sutra books. As you can see, it’s not a long sutra to recite. It is probably the shortest sutra in the entire Buddhist canon.

Chanting the Heart Sutra is something many Buddhists in the Mahayana tradition (everything you see from Tibet to Japan, and overseas) do both in group services and in home services. People chant it in many languages and styles. It’s simplicity, and general message about the nature of reality means that it tends to cut across sectarian lines and is popular in many sects and communities. Its cryptic and profound nature also means that for a one-page sutra it is the subject of intense study and research.

I have been reading Tanahashi’s book about the Heart Sutra and learning a lot about its various interpretations, how it’s conveyed in various languages, and various theories about its origin. I was fascinated to learn that there is a Mongolian version sometimes transcribed in Cyrillic. None of this is strictly necessary for the purposes of Buddhist practice, but it is fascinating.

As for chanting the sutra, I’ve been doing it for years, so I can more or less recite the Sino-Japanese version from memory, and am pretty comfortable doing it that way. I study the meaning of the sutra in English of course. I also have a PDF file for chanting in Sino-Japanese available for those interested.

I have also attended Zen centers on rare occasions (I tend to lean toward Pure Land Buddhism, to be honest) and seen the Heart Sutra recited using English. Learning the English meaning is very useful, but English doesn’t work as easily for the purposes of chanting due to lack of rhythm. It always sounds a bit awkward to me. However, your mileage may vary.

But regardless of what language you use, the Heart Sutra, like all Buddhist sutras, has a funny tendency to gradually “sink in” over time. The meaning may not make much sense at first, but over the course of months and years, it takes on new meaning as you go through life, and see the sutra in a new light. I believe that’s the real value of Buddhist chanting: to internalize key Buddhist teachings in a way that you can carry with you throughout life.

As for me, these days, I tend to recite a Tendai-style home service,2 and as part of that I rotate between chanting this and a certain, small excerpt of the Immeasurable Life Sutra called the shiseige (四誓偈) or juseige (重誓偈) in Japanese Buddhism. When I finish one, I put it under the other sutra book, so I don’t forget which sutra to recite next time as I might go a week or two before reciting again. As a short, traditional liturgy, I am pretty content.

As with any Buddhist practice done over a long period of time, I believe that it gradually polishes the mind, and dispels one self-centered viewpoint. It’s super simple to do, but its benefits last a lifetime. To paraphrase Nichiren, when dying cloth in indigo, the more you do it, the deeper the color becomes.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

P.S. It’s tempting for some to look for an original “Sanskrit” version of the sutra, but alas, the best we know today is that the sutra was compiled originally in China, using teachings and verses from the much, much larger Prajña-paramita sutras. The story of how exactly that came to be is a much-discussed subject in Tanahashi’s book.

1 Because it is devoted to Kannon Bodhisattva, this sutra book also includes (left in photo) a certain Japanese-Buddhist verse called the Jikku Kannon-gyō (十句観音経, “ten verse Kannon sutra”) popularized in the middle ages. The verses are:

kan ze on

na mu butsu

yo butsu u in

yo butsu u en

butsu ho so en

jo raku ga jo

cho nen kan ze on

bo nen kan ze on

nen nen ju shin ki

nen nen fu ri shin

A nice explanation of the meaning and history of the ten-verse sutra can be found here.

2 I like the Tendai approach to Buddhism because it encompasses all the things that are important to me, but avoiding a narrow, dogmatic approach that I found in the past and ultimately rejected.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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