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.
on 20 November 2012
I know this book is popular, but I really recommend using one of the other translations and/or commentaries.
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 that he has invented for this purpose. He also makes up a story about Avalokiteśvara being a reincarnation of the Buddha's mother. (p15).
The first Sanskrit blunder comes on the first page of the translation (p29) where Pine tells us that prajñā is cognate with prognosis and thus means 'foreknowledge'. It does not because here pra is not acting as a cognate of Latin 'pro' (before) but merely as an intensive (based on the metaphor of forward motion). On p31 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'. And so on, on almost every page of the book.
One of the more egregious failures of Pine's Sanskrit comes on P 94 where he seems to have failed to even consult a Sanskrit dictionary (and this is not the only place where one suspects he's really working from the Chinese). Pine fails to correctly parse "anūnā aparipūrṇā" - which are an-ūna 'not deficient' (where ūna means 'deficient) and a-paripūrṇa 'not fulfilled'. Pine seems to think there is a word "nuna" which is nonsense (as any dictionary could have told him). He seems confused about which is which citing "not complete (nuna)... not deficient (paripurna)".
Red Pine is folksie writer who is clearly popular. However he is prone to stating that he has made something up and then treating it as a fact. His grasp of Sanskrit morphology and etymology is weak. He has a tendency to prefer Buddhist mythology over sound philology where there is a conflict. This gives him a particular appeal to non-Sanskrit reading Buddhists who take the Buddhist texts to be the word of the Buddha. But anyone who is interested in what the Sanskrit text says is in a difficult position. Pine is not a reliable guide, but then neither is Conze who is in a world of his own when it comes to reading these texts.
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!
on 15 November 2009
I had decided that I was Buddhist about 18 months ago, I began learning Chinese about 8 months ago, and I decided that I would like to translate the Heart Sutra from the original Chinese characters into English to see whether I could gain a better understanding of the Sutra. I was about 80% successful, but some of the characters seemed to have changed their meaning since they were first used.
This book is full of erudite learning and offers a translation based on both Sanskrit and Chinese versions of the Heart Sutra.
For anyone who wants to understand some of the background to the sutra and the reason why certain phrases were chosen in its constitution, this book is a must.
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.