the doorway to emptiness

The Heart Sutra: Embracing Emptiness To Find Fulfillment

A quick guide to understanding “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom”

The Heart Sutra has been recognized as one of the most frequently used and recited texts in (Mahayana and Zen) Buddhism.  I am not a monk, nor even Buddhist; however, I still find this passage to be powerfully calming and useful.  Therefore, I am providing a simple summary of this sutra in hopes of making it more accessible and understandable for all.

The Origin

A sutra is an aphorism – a sort of rule or “wise saying – or collection of them that form a manual or scripture.  And they are the genre of ancient texts for Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. The exact time and location of the Heart Sutra’s creation is widely debated.  However, scholars indicate that it originated in either India or China roughly around 650 CE (AD).  It then became widely known in India during the following centuries, and it’s popularity increased with the spread with East Asian Buddhism.

Although the details of its origin may not yet be agreed upon, we should all agree that its long and wide-spread adoption points to its universally powerful message.


Some wise words and a reminder to Enjoy Today!


The Meaning of the Heart Sutra

The Sanskrit title of the Heart Sutra is Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya, which can be understood as “The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom”.  And can be thought of as a summary of a most important Buddhist concept… the perfected way to understand the true nature of reality.

When you are interested in reviewing the entire text, here is a resource that is easy to follow. 

People tend to study and think upon the the most famous line of the sutra, which states: 

“Form is empty, emptiness is form.”

It sounds deep!  But what does it mean?  In the “Essence of the Heart Sutra”, the Dalai Lama states that emptiness is “the true nature of things and events.”  But at the same time he also warns us to not think that “that emptiness is an absolute reality or an independent truth.”  He is hinting at the larger idea that the five aggregates of human existence (form, feeling, volitions, perceptions, and consciousness) are dependent upon each other.  Because all are related and interdependent, all are dynamic.  And further, if any were to cease to exist, all would cease.

Okay, that is deep. But that’s actually the point. Much like the rest of the Heart Sutra text, the line is meant to be a point of contemplation.  Specifically, the chanter or reader is supposed to reflect on the meaning. They may never even get a clear answer, but the exercise is to think. And hopefully this brings them closer to the reality of things.

The end of this sutra ends with:

“GATE GATE PARA GATE PARASAM GATE BODHI SVAHA!”   

This can be translated to: “Going, going, going on beyond, always going on beyond, always becoming Buddha.”  

The Om At Home

I like to read the text of the Heart Sutra sometimes before I meditate or stretch, of if I’m feeling overwhelmed.  It is interesting to think about the deepest meaning and the biggest picture of life.  The lines may not make perfect sense, but they remind me to not be so attached to things.  Be present.  Accept life as-is.  Embrace it and make the most of it. To keep going. And this invokes a feeling of calm and confidence.  

As powerful as that is, I find the listening to chanted sutras to be even more mesmerizing. Even without understanding the words, the tones and skill are moving.  Here are some versions that I’ve found online.  Depending on how you are feeling, they may be useful for meditation, yoga, working/studying, or just “cleansing the air” while going about other activities.  


I particularly enjoy the modern take by the monk artist Yogetsu Akasaka 赤坂陽月.  Certainly he demonstrates that classical teachings and traditions can be seamlessly integrated with present-day technologies for moving results.  And this reminds me that the truth may be empty, but it is also timeless.


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David Hughes

Contributing Editor and Author at Kaldzar

Certified Biologist and Data Scientist
Constantly curious. Curiously compassionate.


Main photo by Maël BALLAND

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