The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries

The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries

by Thich Nhat Hanh

Paperback(Revised Edition)

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This new translation of the Buddha's most important, most studied teaching offers a radical new interpretation.
In September, 2014 Thich Nhat Hanh completed a profound and beautiful new English translation of the Prajñaparamita Heart Sutra, one of the most important and well-known sutras in Buddhism.
The Heart Sutra is recited daily in Mahayana temples and practice centers throughout the world. This new translation came about because Thich Nhat Hanh believes that the patriarch who originally compiled the Heart Sutra was not sufficiently skillful with his use of language to capture the intention of the Buddha's teachings—and has resulted in fundamental misunderstandings of the central tenets of Buddhism for almost 2,000 years.
In The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries, Thich Nhat Hanh provides the new translation with commentaries based on his interpretation. Revealing the Buddha's original intention and insight makes clear what it means to transcend duality and pairs of opposites, such as birth and death, and to touch the ultimate reality and the wisdom of nondiscrimination. By helping to demystify the term "emptiness," the Heart Sutra is made more accessible and understandable.
Prior to the publication of The Other Shore, Thich Nhat Hanh's translation and commentaries of the Heart Sutra, called The Heart of Understanding, sold more than 120,000 copies in various editions and is one of the most beloved commentaries of this critical teaching. This new book, The Other Shore, supersedes all prior translations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941529140
Publisher: Parallax Press
Publication date: 07/18/2017
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 196
Sales rank: 140,089
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most revered Zen teachers in the world today. His best-selling books include Be Free Where You Are and Peace of Mind. He lives in Plum Village in southwest France. Nhat Hanh has been teaching the art of mindful living for more than 70 years.

Read an Excerpt

The Other Shore

A New Translation of the Heart Sutra With Commentaries

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Parallax Press

Copyright © 2017 Unified Buddhist Church
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-941529-14-0



If You Are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there can be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. "Interbeing" is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix "inter-" with the verb "to be," we have a new verb: inter-be.

The word interbeing was born while I was leading a retreat at Tassajara Zen Center in the mountains of California in the 1980s. I was teaching about emptiness and I did not have a sheet of paper with me to illustrate the point, so I used an empty wooden chair. I invited everyone to look carefully into the chair to see the presence of the forest, the sunshine, the rain and the clouds. I explained that the chair was not subject to birth and death, nor could it be described in terms of being or nonbeing. I asked them whether there was a word in French or English that could describe how the chair existed along with all the other non-chair elements. I asked if the word 'togetherness' would do. Somebody said that it sounded strange, so I suggested the word "interbeing."

The insight of interbeing can help us understand the Heart of the Prajnaparamita Sutra more easily and the teachings on emptiness more clearly. Interbeing takes us beyond the dualistic notions of being and nonbeing, and helps us not to be afraid of nonbeing.

When people hear the word "emptiness," they often panic because they tend to equate emptiness with nothingness, nonbeing and nonexistence. Western philosophy is preoccupied with questions of being and nonbeing, but Buddhism goes beyond the dualistic notions of being and nonbeing. I often say, "To be or not to be, that is no longer the question. The question is one of interbeing."

If we continue to look into the sheet of paper, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. Without the sunshine, nothing can grow, not even us. So we know that the sunshine is also in the sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. Looking more deeply, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. We also see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread. So the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. The logger's father and mother are in the paper as well. Without all of these other things, there would be no sheet of paper at all.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are also in the paper. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper becomes the object of our perception. It is becoming more and more clear to neuroscientists that we cannot exactly speak of an objective world outside of our perceptions, nor can we speak of a wholly subjective world in which things exist only in our mind. Everything — time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat, and anything else you can think of — is in that sheet of paper. Everything coexists with it. To be is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone; you have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. If we returned the sunshine to the sun, would the sheet of paper still be possible? No, without sunshine the tree cannot be. If we returned the logger to his mother, then we wouldn't have a sheet of paper either. Looking in this way we see that the sheet of paper is made entirely of "non-paper elements" and if we return any one of these non-paper elements to their source there would be no paper at all. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe. So the one contains the all. But the Heart Sutra seems to say the opposite. In it, Avalokitesvara tells us that things are empty. Let us look more closely to see why.


Empty of What?

Avalokitesvara while practicing deeply with the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore suddenly discovered that all of the five skandhas are equally empty and with this realization he overcame all ill-being.

Avalokitesvara is the name of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion; the one who knows how to listen deeply to relieve the suffering of living beings. Avalokita means "looking deeply," and isvara means "master." Together they mean the one who has mastered him or herself through the practice of looking deeply into the heart of reality, attaining the greatest possible freedom. Bodhi means "being awake," and sattva means "a living being," so bodhisattva means an awakened being. All of us are sometimes bodhisattvas and sometimes not. Avalokitesvara is neither male nor female, sometimes appearing as a man and sometimes as a woman. In Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, Avalokitesvara is known as Guanyin, Quan Am, or Kannon respectively. Thanks to Avalokitesvara's capacity to look and listen deeply, this bodhisattva can understand his or her own suffering, and from this deep understanding arises great compassion. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva has transcended all fear through a profound understanding of the nature of reality. In the Heart Sutra, he reveals this profound understanding, prajndpdramitd, to Sariputra, traditionally the foremost disciple of the Buddha in teaching the Dharma.

Prajnd means insight or understanding. Pdramitd means going or gone to the other shore. So prajndpdramitd is the insight that brings us to the other shore. Insight, here, is not the same as knowledge. Understanding and insight, like water, can flow, and can penetrate. Views, and the knowledge we cling to, are solid, and can block the flow of our understanding. In Buddhism, knowledge is regarded as an obstacle for true understanding. We have to be able to let go of our previous knowledge in the same way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think that we are already at the top, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views in order to progress on our path.

According to Avalokitesvara, this sheet of paper is empty; but according to our analysis, it is full — full of everything. There seems to be a contradiction. Avalokitesvara found the five skandhas — our form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness — to be empty. But, empty of what ? To be empty is always to be empty of something.

If I am holding a cup of water and I ask you, "Is this cup empty?" you will say, "No, it is full of water." But if I pour out the water and ask you again, you may say, "Now it is empty." But empty of what? Empty means empty of something. The cup cannot be empty of nothing. "Empty" doesn't mean anything unless you know "empty of what?" The cup is empty of water, but it is not empty of air. So to be empty is to be empty of something. This is quite a discovery. Therefore, when Avalokitesvara claims that the five skandhas are equally empty, we must ask, "Dear Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, empty of what?" The five skandhas, which may be translated into English as five heaps or aggregates, are the five elements that comprise a human being. These five elements are like five rivers constantly flowing: the river of form, which means our body; the river of feelings; the river of perceptions; the river of mental formations; and the river of consciousness. They are always flowing. So Avalokitesvara, looking deeply into the nature of these five rivers, suddenly saw that all five are empty. "Empty of what ?" we ask. And this was the reply: "They are empty of a separate self."

The King and the Musician

There is a story of a king who, upon listening to a musician playing a sixteen-string sitar, was moved to the depths of his soul. The music touched him so deeply that he wanted to discover exactly where it was coming from. When the musician departed, he left his sitar with the king, and the king ordered his servant to chop the instrument into small pieces. No matter how hard they tried, though, they could not find the source of the beautiful sound, the essence of the music. Just like the king looking into the sitar, the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara looked deeply into his own five skandhas and discovered that they were empty of a self. No matter how wonderful something is, when we look deeply into it, we see that there is nothing in it we can identify as a separate self.

We have the tendency to believe that within the five skandhas there is something constant and unchanging, even though the five skandhas are continually flowing, being born, growing, fading away, and dying. Our feelings arise, stay for a while and then change or pass away. Our anger may flare up, but after a while it fades and disappears. Our body ages and grows old. Yet we cling to the wrong perception that everything is constant and unchanging. We continue to believe that our five skandhas do not change, that they have a self-nature, and that we are a separate self, a separate individual. The Buddha is always telling us that such a self is not there. If you break up the five skandhas, like the king did to the sitar, and try and find a self inside them, you won't succeed. There is no soul, no "I" no person inside the five skandhas. When we see that the five skandhas do not have a core substance or self, all suffering, distress, and fear disappear right away.

To say that our five skandhas — our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations and our consciousness — are empty of a separate self is also to say that none of these five rivers can exist by itself alone. Each of the five rivers has to be made by the other four. It has to coexist; it has to inter-be with all the others.

This is not theoretical speculation; arguments and theories do not lead to freedom. It is a matter of looking deeply: using mindfulness and concentration to penetrate the heart of reality. Practicing mindfulness in daily life means to stop the endless chatter of our discursive mind, bringing our attention back to what is happening in the present moment, in the domain of our body, our feelings, our thoughts, our perceptions, and our consciousness. When we can stably maintain our mindful observation of these five rivers, we become concentrated, and the impermanent and selfless nature of the five skandhas is experienced directly. We can all agree intellectually that the five skandhas are constantly changing, but looking deeply is more than mere intellectual understanding — it is different from listening to a lecture or studying a text. Looking deeply means to see for yourself what is difficult to see.

In our bodies we have lungs, heart, kidneys, stomach, and blood. None of these can exist independently. They can only coexist with each other. Your lungs and your blood are two things, but neither can exist separately. The lungs take in air and enrich the blood, and, in turn, the blood nourishes the lungs. Without the blood, the lungs cannot be alive, and without the lungs, the blood cannot be cleansed. Lungs and blood inter-are. The same is true with kidneys and blood, kidneys and stomach, lungs and heart, blood and heart, and so on.

Full of the Cosmos

When Avalokitesvara says that our sheet of paper is empty, the bodhisattva means it is empty of a separate independent existence. It cannot just be by itself. It has to inter-be with the sunshine, the cloud, the forest, the logger, the mind, and everything else. It is empty of a separate self. But empty of a separate self means full of everything. So our observation and that of Avalokitesvara do not contradict each other after all.

Avalokitesvara looked deeply into the five skandhas and discovered that none of them can be by itself alone. Each can only inter-be with all the others. So our body is empty of a separate self but full of everything in the cosmos. Our feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness are all empty of their own separate nature and at the same time full of everything that exists.


The Way of Understanding

And with this realization he overcame all Ill-being.

When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and become one with it in order to really understand. If we want to understand a person, we have to feel their feelings, suffer their suffering, and rejoice in their joy. The sutra uses the word "realization" to mean "full or perfect comprehension." The word "comprehend" is made up of the Latin roots com, which means "together in mind," and prehendere, which means "to grasp or pick up." So to comprehend something means to pick it up and be one with it. There is no other way to understand something.

If we only look at the sheet of paper as an observer, standing outside, we cannot understand it completely. We have to penetrate it. We have to be a cloud, be the sunshine, and be the logger. If we can enter it and be everything that is in it, our understanding of the sheet of paper will be perfect.

There is an ancient Indian story about a grain of salt that wanted to know just how salty the ocean was, so it jumped in and became one with the water of the ocean. In this way, the grain of salt gained perfect understanding.

If we want peace and we want to understand another country, we can't just stand outside and observe. We have to be one with the citizens of that country in order to understand their feelings, perceptions, and mental formations. Any meaningful work for peace must follow this practice: to go in and be one with, in order to really understand.

In the Sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha recommended that we observe in a penetrating way. He said we should contemplate the body in the body, the feelings in the feelings, the mental formations in the mental formations. He used this kind of repetition because you have to enter and become one with what you want to observe and understand. Nuclear scientists are beginning to say this also. When you enter the world of elementary particles you have to become a participant in order to understand something. You can no longer stand on the outside and remain just an observer. Today many scientists prefer the word "participant" to the word "observer."

We need to use this same practice to understand other people. If you want to understand your beloved, you have to put yourself in their skin, otherwise you won't be able to truly understand them. Without understanding, true love is impossible, so if you think you love someone but you do not really understand them yet, then it is not true love; it is something else.

Overcoming Suffering

With understanding and realization comes relief. The practice of stopping and looking deeply is intimately connected to the transformation of our suffering. The ill-being we experience can be transformed by our insight into the nature of emptiness. If we study the Heart Sutra intellectually, as philosophy, it will not have any effect on the suffering that we carry inside us. But if we are able to read every word and phrase of the Heart Sutra in the light of our suffering and our deepest aspirations, it will become meaningful. If we know how to apply our understanding of emptiness to our daily life and the many challenges and difficulties we encounter, we will be able to overcome our suffering and experience relief and happiness. This understanding will have the power to liberate us.

Avalokitesvara was a human being just like us, and suffered just as we do. This is why the bodhisattva undertook the practice of looking deeply, and by doing so discovered the nature of emptiness. Once Avalokitesvara had this deep insight into the nature of emptiness, suffering ceased to manifest, all by itself. With such a deep realization we will, like Avalokitesvara, not only be able to transform our own suffering and touch peace, freedom, and happiness, but also help others to do the same.


Long Live Emptiness

Listen Sariputra, this Body itself is Emptiness and Emptiness itself is this Body. This Body is not other than Emptiness, and Emptiness is not other than this Body. The same is true of Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations, and Consciousness.

The essence of The Heart Sutra lies in the formula: This body itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is this body. If we can understand this phrase, it will not be difficult to understand the rest of the sutra.

The word rnpa in Sanskrit is usually translated as "form," hence: form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Here, rüpa, as one of the five skandhas, specifically refers to the body — and by extension, to living matter. This is why, in this translation, we have replaced the word "form" with "body."


Excerpted from The Other Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh. Copyright © 2017 Unified Buddhist Church. Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword to the first edition Peter Levitt 9

Foreword to the new translation and commentaries Sister Annabel (Chân Dúc) Laity 13

Author's preface: The Cloud and the Cave 15

The Heart Sutra: The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore 23

1 Interbeing 27

2 Empty of What? 30

3 The Way of Understanding 34

4 Long Live Emptiness 37

5 The Mark of Emptiness 42

6 Happy Continuation 46

7 Can You See the Sunflowers? 54

8 Roses and Garbage 60

9 The Moon Is Always the Moon 66

10 What's in a Name? 74

11 Stars Are Consciousness 79

12 Everything Is a Formation 84

13 The Path of Happiness 91

14 Chasing Butterflies 96

15 Freedom 102

16 No Longer Afraid 105

17 Who Is Enlightened? 110

18 The Mantra 115

Conclusion: A Tangerine Party 121

Appendix 1 The Sanskrit Version: A Literal English Translation 124

Appendix 2 The Heart of Perfect Understanding 128

About Thich Nhat Hanh 130

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