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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Heart Sutra
Format: Hardcover|Change


on 18 March 2017
would recommend
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 September 2013
The most famous of all Buddhist Scriptures, the Heart Sutra encompasses endless wisdom and spiritual guidance within its enigmatic 35 lines. The Heart Sutra is chanted several times daily at Mahayana Buddhist monasteries and temples throughout the world. It is work that will reward repeated and sustained attention. The Heart Sutra has been the subject of extensive commentary, both ancient and modern. One of the finest modern commentaries is the work of the American scholar and translator Red Pine which I will discuss in this review.

Red Pine's translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra is a worthy successor to Pine's earlier translation and commentary on the Diamond Sutra, a work emanating from the same "Perfection of Wisdom" group of Buddhist teachings as does the Heart Sutra. Both of Pine's studies work carefully and closely with the text, and both helped me in my approach to these difficult teachings.

Pine's study opens with his own translation of the text of the Heart Sutra. This is followed by an introduction in which Pine discusses what is known about the composition, date, and original language of the work. He reviews some of the scholarly controversies over these matters and places the origin of the Sutra in northwest India in about 150 A.D. He believes that the work was originally written in Sanskrit, in contrast to some recent scholars who believe it of Chinese origin.

Pine follows his historical review with an overview of the text and its purpose. Fundamentally, the Heart Sutra is concerned with teaching wisdom rather than mere knowledge. Specifically, the Sutra is concerned with transcendent wisdom which, as Pine explains it, "is based on the insight that all things, both objects and dharmas, are empty of anything self-existent. Thus, nothing can be characterized as permanent, pure or having a self. And yet, neither can anything be characterized as impermanent, impure, or lacking a self." (p. 21) The wisdom of the Heart Sutra lies beyond mere reasoning and is in the realm of insight and sustained meditation and ethical practice. Pine makes this point eloquently, and it is basic to approaching the Heart Sutra.

Pine divides the Heart Sutra into four sections each of which are explored in the four commentarial sections of his book. Each section includes a line-by-line discussion of the text of the Heart Sutra, beginning with Pine's own comments followed by the comments of other students of the work, both ancient and modern.

The first part of the work (lines 1-11) set the backdrop of the Heart Sutra in the philosophical commentary of earlier Buddhist tradition known as the Abhidharma. Pine finds the Heart Sutra was written to correct the overly rationalistic approach of certain Abhidharmic texts. In this section, Pine describes briefly the nature of Abhidharmic thought and relates it to the protagonists of the Heart Sutra: Avalokiteshvara, the principle bohdisattva of Mahayana Buddhism who is usually seen as the figure of universal compassion, Prajnaparamita, a name both for the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and of the goddess who personifies these teachings, and Shariputra, the Buddha's chief disciple who receives the teaching of Prajnaparamita from Avalokiteshvara in the Heart Sutra.

The second part of the Heart Sutra, (lines 12-20) consists of a discussion of the conceptual categories of the Abhidharma, which the teachings of the Heart Sutra reject (or transform). Pine's commentary expands upon the nature of these categories, allowing the reader a means of approaching the key teaching of the Sutra that "form is emptiness, emptiness is form."

The third part of the Heart Sutra in Pine's study, lines 21-28, discuss the bodhisattva path to wisdom and to the realization of Buddhahood, constrasting these goals with the goals of Arahantship and Nirvana in earlier Buddhist teachings. These lines teach that bodhisattvas are "without attainment" and that they live "without walls of the mind". Pine's commentary casts light on this difficult and suggestive teaching and way of understanding.

The fourth and final part of Pine's analysis deal with lines 29-35 of the Heart Sutra including the obscure mantra with which it concludes: "Gate, gate, paragate,parsangate, bodhi svaha." In his commentary, Pine discusses the meaning and significance of this mantra and its relationship to the rest of the text. According to Pine, this mantra "reminds and empowers us to go beyond all conceptual categories. ... With this incantation ringing in our minds, we thus enter the goddess Prajnaparamita, and await our rebirth as Buddhas". (p. 7)

The study concludes with a useful glossary of terms and of people mentioned in the text and with a translation of a slightly later and longer version of the Heart Sutra.

In its detail and concentration, this book would not be the best choice for the beginning student of Buddhism. But for those readers with some basic grounding in the earlier forms of Buddhism which the Heart Sutra critiques and with the Mahayana tradition this book is invaluable. It is a book to be read and studied. Pine gives a thoughtful, well-organized, and learned account of the Heart Sutra that will help the reader approach this seminal text.

Robin Friedman
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on 17 March 2010
I found this book too complicated, and it is also no use to a beginner. If you thought the Conze version confusing then dont even think about getting this edition. After reading pages on a verse you are still left wondering what he is on about. Pine tends to quote Chineese sources on nearly every page. Why cant you just say it simple so that a child can understand. Forget this and get THE ESSENCE OF THE HEART SUTRA by H.H.The Dalai Lama, it explains things clearly and is a pleasure to read. Take my adice if you are thinking getting this version, you will be making a big mistake.
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on 8 February 2010
The Heart Sutra, along with The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom (also available translated by Red Pine), are arguably the two most popular works of the Prajnaparamita group of Sutras. Indeed they are among the most popular Sutras within the Mahayana cannon as a whole.

Red Pine (an award winning translator) always seems to take great care and give a good deal of thought to all his translations. I certainly value all the works of his that I own. I don't think that any translation of a text can be considered definitive but I think this one may come as close as any translation can.

Not only do I like the translation of the core text but I find the introduction and commentaries extremely helpful/interesting too. The commentary draws on the work of a number of buddhist commentators on the Sutra. Among the commentators quoted are Chen-k'o (1543-1603) who is considered one of the four great monks of the Ming Dynasty. Speaking of the Heart Sutra He said:

"This Sutra is the principal thread that runs through the entire Tripitaka (the Buddhist Cannon). Although a person's body includes many organs and bones, the heart is the most important"

Another quoted commentator is Fa-tsang (643-712). Perhaps best Known as the principal patriarch of the Hua-yen (Avatamsaka) school of Chinese Buddhism, Fa-tsang's commentary, composed in 702, became so popular that is was, itself, the object of commentaries. speaking of the Heart Sutra he said:

"The Heart Sutra is a great torch that lights the darkest road, a swift boat that ferries us across the sea of suffering."

An excellent work. Thank you Red Pine.
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on 20 November 2012
At present, I am probably the most active scholar in the world with respect to this text. See recent issues of the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (see also Huifeng's article in the same journal). A few more of my articles will appear in 2017 and 2018. So when I comment on it, I am commenting as someone who has forensically examined the text in Sanskrit and Chinese and had my views published in a quality peer-reviewed journal (associated with Oxford University).

One of the crucial facts about this and other purported translations from Sanskrit, is that Conze made a number of simple grammatical errors (See e.g. JOCBS 2015) which rendered the text unreadable and untranslatable. For example, a word is in the wrong case in the first sentence of Conze's edition which destroys the meaning of the sentence as a whole. And yet translators like Pine did not notice such simple errors and produced translations of sentences that they could possibly have understood without first fixing the Sanskrit text. Pine is not the first to commit such intellectual fraud, and probably will not be the last, but he should be publicly censured for it.

Red Pine completely misunderstands Jan Nattier's argument that the text was composed in Chinese and makes up his own story about the history of it, based on a non-existent recension in a different Sanskrit idiom that he has invented for this purpose. The irony is that on p.137 when he cannot understand the text (due to another error on Conze's part - a full stop in the wrong place) Pine ignores Sanskrit grammar and translates the Chinese text (T251) instead. Clearly in practice he takes the Chinese text as authoritative, no matter what he says about the Sanskrit text.

His first Sanskrit blunder comes on the first page of the translation (p.29) where Pine tells us that prajñā is cognate with prognosis and thus means 'foreknowledge'. It does not. It is cognate, but here pra is acting as an intensive (based on the metaphor of forward motion). Prajñā, as any dictionary could have told him, means "understanding, knowledge" and in a Buddhist context "insight into the nature of experience". On p.31 the etymology of paramitā suggests that param is an accusative with a past participle in ita, but this is based on a folk etymology which sees the meaning as 'gone beyond' (Edward Conze has a lot to answer for). The word is an abstract noun meaning 'perfection' and thus the tā is the usual abstract noun suffix with parami, from parama 'the higest, the furthest'.

One of the more egregious errors comes on p.94 where he seems to have failed to even consult a Sanskrit dictionary (one suspects he's really working from the Chinese here). Pine fails to correctly parse "anūnā aparipūrṇā", i.e. an-ūna 'not deficient' (where ūna means 'deficient) and a-paripūrṇa 'not fulfilled'. Pine seems to think there is a word "nuna", but as any Sanskrit dictionary could have told him, there is not. What is worse he seems confused about which word has which meaning, he cites "not complete (nuna)... not deficient (paripurna)" - and it comes as no surprise to learn that the words are this way round in the Chinese text. .

Errors in Pine's understanding of Sanskrit appear on almost every page. Evidence that he is, in fact, relying on the Chinese text on every other page. The reader is being cheated.

Red Pine is folksie writer who is clearly popular. However he is strongly biased towards a Japanese Zen reading of the text which is anachronistic at best. He is also prone to stating that he has made something up and then treating it as a fact (i.e. he is a fantasist). His grasp of Sanskrit morphology and etymology is weak. He has a tendency to prefer Buddhist mythology over philology where there is a conflict; and to prioritise the Chinese text over the Sanskrit when the Sanskrit is confused (as it often is because of mistakes introduced by Conze and the original translator).

Ultimately this is a facile book about modern Japanese Zen, it is *not* a serious book about the Heart Sutra. The trouble is that almost every other book is as bad if not worse.
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on 31 August 2010
This book confirmed me as a devotee of the Heart Sutra. I particularly liked that the meaning of each Sanskrit word is discussed at length as are alternative versions of the sutra. Red Pine also goes into the history and background of the Sutra in the light of modern scholarship. I have now re-read the book several times and got new things out of it each time. My only criticism is that I would have liked the book to contain the Sanskrit written out in full with each line juxtaposed with his translation. I have instead had to piece it together myself. This does not stop me wanting to give this five stars.
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on 1 September 2008
This book is a work of literary art. It is not just a translation of the Heart Sutra (considered one of the most important of all Buddhist texts), but a line by line analysis. The author describes the possible origins, interpretations and then explains why he settled on the translation given. The text is concise, so it's easy to read it without being lost in the writing.

It may not be the best "first" Buddhist book, but for those who want to increase their depth of understanding on Buddhism, read it now!
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on 25 May 2014
Over the last two years I must have read this book four or five times, not because it's exciting or a gripping read, no, but because it is the heart, the root of all Buddhism. Inside these covers are pearls, jewels of reality as we understand it. If Buddhists the world over truly understood the Heart sutra then Buddhism would vanish in one or two generations. Read this book...and other translations too. This is the heart of the Way.
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on 22 September 2013
Red Pines commentary of "The Heart Sutra" is a word for word explaination of what has come to be the fundamental teaching of the Prajnaparamita. This Commentary is no different to any other and is not something to rush through or expect to get to grips with in just one read but something to study throughout ones life.
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on 13 September 2016
Very fine piece of scholarship and kind to the reader, too - usually the two are incompatible. But Red Pine pulls it off with great care, patience and elegance. Highly recommended - a sutra which is enigmatic to say the least: because what on earth does it mean?
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