It was in a Shugendo ceremony when I first heard it. I did not know what the Yamabushi were chanting. I didn’t know the meanings of the words, but I tuned in to the chant. I learned later that it was the Hannya Shingyo or the Heart Sutra.
A Sutra is a sacred text imparting spiritual wisdom. The Heart Sutra is a revered text in Mahayana Buddhism. It is part of a much larger collection of texts called the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras. It is a short text that condenses central teachings in Buddhism. There is debate about whether it was composed in India or China. It was written at the beginning of the current era. The earliest extant Heart Sutra, engraved in a stone in China, is dated to the year 661 CE.
In the text, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, in Japan also known as Kannon Bosatsu, speaks to Shariputra, who was an important disciple of the historical Buddha. The Bosatsu describes the non-substantiality, emptiness or boundlessness of all phenomena. A central message is that everything is impermanent and interdependent.
I share here an English version.
Heart of Great Perfect Wisdom Sutra
The Bosatsu of the true freedom, through the deep practice of the Great Wisdom,
understands that the body and the five skandhas – feeling, perception, thought, activity, consciousness – are nothing more than emptiness and through this understanding he helps all those who suffer.
Sariputra, phenomena are no different to emptiness; emptiness is no different to phenomena.
Phenomena return to emptiness; emptiness becomes phenomena. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. The five skandhas are also phenomena.
Sariputra, all existence is emptiness. There is no birth, no beginning, no purity, no blemish, no increase, no decrease.
Because of this, in emptiness, there is no form or skandha, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no consciousness.
There is no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of thought.
There is no wisdom, no ignorance, no illusion or the cessation of illusion, no decay or death,
no end to decay, no cessation of suffering.
There is no knowledge, no benefit, nor no benefit.
For the bosatsu, thanks to this wisdom that leads us to the other side, fear and dread do not exist.
All illusion and all attachment has been cut, and he can understand the ultimate end of life, Nirvana.
All the budhhas of the past, the present and the future,
can reach the understandiing of this supreme wisdom which frees us from suffering and allows us to find reality.
This incomparable mantra tells us:
“On, on, together, further than beyond, to the shore of Enlightenment.”
Heart of Wisdom Sutra.
I found on the web several Japanese recitations of the Heart Sutra: a chorus of monks; a modern musical interpretation; and a fast-pace Yamabushi chant. But for learning the Sutra, I find useful a slower recitation, like the one below.
If you want to read along, click HERE to display a Romanized version of the sutra.
For some, the Heart Sutra is a Dharani: a mystical verse believed to affect change in or for the person reciting it. It also ends with a mantra: a sacred utterance believed to have magical or spiritual effects. This may sound strange but, to a certain degree, it is not so different from the way that, for example, Catholics make the sign of the cross or pray before facing an uncertain situation with a potential negative outcome.
In the image below, you can see the Heart Sutra or Hannya Shingyo in Japanese.