Dragon's Gate Temple Library

How the Heart Sutra should be chanted

Most of us are familiar with the Heart Sutra. If not, here are some links:
There are three places where the Sutra makes reference to lists. The first list is the five skandhas. The Sutra goes through a formula, "form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form", but then it just says "The same is true for feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness". In this example I am using Thich Nhat Hanh's translation, but that seems the standard pattern for translating the passage, with occasional minor variations in the English terms used.
Buddhism is not a philosophy or a body of abstract knowledge- it is a set of techniques that can make profound changes in those who correctly apply it. This Sutra is not intended as information, but rather as a practice. Comparing it to other Buddhist practices brings up some interesting ideas about how the Sutra should be used,
For comparison, let me describe the meditation on Metta (lovingkindness).
The meditator usually starts with him- or herself, reciting a set paragraph such as "I like myself. I wish myself well. I wish myself clarity of vision. I wish myself understanding. I wish myself release. May I, and all beings, attain Perfect Peace." The wording can be whatever best expresses goodwill and a sincere wish that you attain release from all attachments and suffering, but once you start, keep to the same pattern so that associations build up, After repeating the paragraph several times until you feel the emotion of goodwill toward yourself clearly, you substitute, instead of "myself" , the name of a friend, usually a close friend of the same sex with whom you have not recently had any arguments (that is to avoid getting other feelings mixed in to the lovingkindness). Repeat the paragraph thus modified until you feel the same sensation of kindness and goodwill toward the friend as you did toward yourself. If necessary, revert to the "myself" version for a few paragraphs to get the feeling clear in your mind again.
After that, go on to another friend, and another, until you use up all your friends. Then do your enemies, and finally those you don't care about (they're hardest).
The first few times you won't get through many people, but with practice, you will feel lovingkindness toward more and more people. You will find strangers on the street smiling at you.
If you have trouble getting the feeling clear about yourself, you can start with the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, or someone like that. I often jumpstart the process by starting with a small child, but not everybody reacts to kids the way I do.

Now, one thing stands out like a Rinpoche in a Zendo: if the Heart Sutra were intended as a practice, it would make more sense to repeat the formula "___ is emptiness, emptiness is ___, ___ does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from ___" filling in the blanks with the other things on the list in turn. That way, associations build up, just as they do in the meditation on Metta. The phrase translated as "The same is true for..." in Chinese could just as easily mean "(chant) the same way for...".
Later in the Sutra, it says there is no ignorance nor the extinction of ignorance, "until we come to" no old age and death nor their extinction. Here, reciting the same formula but substituting each step of the Twelvefold Chain of Causation is even more vital, since the Sutra as usually written does not list them all. Again, I suspect that we were originally intended to go through the whole list.

There are too many favorite translations around, including several chanted in English, so I am not trying to push one particular version, but as an example of what I mean, here is an English version with the lists filled in.
For devotional purposes, chanted during a service, the shortened form would work perfectly well. It is only when used as a meditation that I am suggesting the longer form. I am a Buddhist, not a scholar, and have no proof that the original intent of the Sutra was to go through these lists item by item, but it seems like an orchestra reaching an intended repeat in a piece of music, all yelling "Coda!" and going on to play the next section.
Unless more highly qualified scholars than myself (of which there are a vast number) find some proof of how the Sutra was meant to be chanted, we may never know which style is historical. I submit the suggestion so that you can instead decide for yourself which is a more effective practice.

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