Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, pp. 187-206. A discussion of shunyata.

The Heart Attack Sutra by Karl Brunnholzl (Snow Lion, 2012)

Echoes of Voidness by Geshe Rabten (Wisdom Publications, 1983), pp. 20-45. A commentary in the traditional Tibetan style.

Selected Sayings from the Perfection of Wisdom, translated by Edward Conze. A useful anthology arranged by topic.

The Heart Sutra Explained by Donald Lopez (SUNY Press, 1988).


sutra (San.): The hinayana and mahayana texts in the Buddhist canon that are attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha; the teaching often takes the form of a dialogue between the Buddha and one or more of his disciples.

heart: The essence or key point. Because this sutra is one of the shortest and pithy expositions of prajnaparamita, it is referred to as the “heart.”

transcendent knowledge (San. prajna-paramita; “perfection of knowledge” or “knowledge gone to the other shore”): The highest kind of prajna, which sees the nature of shunyata. Paramita means “gone to the other shore”; that is, having transcended samsara and attained nirvana.

shunyata (San. “emptiness”): Shunyata is the principal theme of the sutra. Shunyata mean emptiness of any inherent existence or solid reality, either in oneself or in phenomena. It is an awareness that apparent phenomena are without origination or basis; it is freedom from conceptuality. In particular, it is the realization of threefold purity: that there is no “I” as actor, no action, and no “other” to be acted upon. It is very important to understand that shunyata is not the nihilistic idea of nothing, or voidness. As the sutra says, it is inseparable from the appearance of perceived objects such as forms.

prajna (San.; Tib. sherap, “superior knowledge”): Prajna, or “discriminating awareness,” in this case is the perception of shunyata. The perception of shunyata is simultaneous with the experience of the great warmth of compassion.

Thus have I heard: All sutras, or reports of the Buddha’s oral teachings by his disciples, begin with this formula. It is said to have been uttered by Ananda, the Buddha’s constant attendant, who later recounted his master’s teachings.

Blessed One (San. bhagavat): Buddha Shakyamuni.

Rajagriha: Modern town of Rajgir in Bihar, northeastern India.

Vulture Peak: Small mountain near Rajgir where the Buddha delivered the mahayana teachings of the second turning of the wheel of dharma, all of which emphasize shunyata.

sangha (San.): Community of Buddhist practitioners. The term sangha originally was applied only to the monastic community. It is said that the arhats, those who had attained full hinayana realization, died of heart attacks when they heard the Buddha’s teaching on shunyata, because they were attached to their own realization.

bodhisattvas (San.): Practitioners committed to the mahayana teachings, who vow to attain enlightenment in order to work for the benefit of sentient beings.

samadhi (San.): The meditative state.

Avalokiteshvara: The bodhisattva of compassion. Through his own great power of meditation, the Buddha causes a profound realization of the nature of reality in Avalokiteshvara, who then becomes his spokesman for presenting the teachings on shunyata.

mahasattva (San. “great being”): A bodhisattva who has attained the seventh bhumi or beyond.

skandhas (San. “heaps”): These are the five heaps of the aspects of experience that make up the individual and his world: form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness.

Shariputra: One of the Buddha’s principal disciples; he often figures in sutras as the person who asks questions and provokes the teachings.

dharmas: In this context, dharmas refer to phenomena, rather than to the Buddha’s teachings.

characteristics: Any name or label or description that could be attached to a thing; any qualities perceived with fixation.

birth: Arising, or coming into existence, of apparent phenomena.

cessation: Destruction, or fading out of existence, of apparent phenomena.

eye . . . mind: The six sense organs, which include mind.

appearance . . . dharmas: The six types of sense objects, which include mental objects or thoughts. The six organs and six objects together are referred to as the twelve ayatanas, or “sense fields.”

eye dhatu . . . mind consciousness dhatu (San. “element”): There are eighteen dhatus, which include the six sense organs, the six kinds of sense objects, and the six consciousnesses associated with them.

ignorance . . . old age and death: The twelve nidanas, or links in the chain of samsaric cause and effect: ignorance, karmic formations, consciousness, name and form, the six senses, contact, feeling, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, and old age and death.

no suffering . . . path: The four noble truths.

attainment and nonattainment: That is, of meditative realizations, the highest of which is enlightenment itself.

mantra (San. “mind protection,” according to the Tibetan tradition): Sanskrit words or syllables that express the quintessence of various energies, whether or not they have conceptual content as words. In vajrayana, mantra is explained as that which protects the vajra mind, the indestructibly awake nature of mind.

OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA: This Sanskrit mantra represents the quintessence of the sutra beyond concept. It means: “OM gone, gone, gone beyond, completely gone beyond, awake, so be it.”

tathagatas (San. “ones thus gone”): An epithet of the buddhas, or fully awakened ones, who have “gone to the other shore in this very way.” Those who have journeyed on the same path as all the enlightened ones and reached the goal: freedom from the two obscurations of conflicting emotions and mistaken views about reality.

gods . . . gandharvas: In other words, various inhabitants of the six realms of existence.

asuras (San. “demigods”): The jealous gods.

gandharvas (San.): Celestial musicians who derive their sustenance from smells.