A word on the full title of the Sutra, which is Maha-Prajna-Paramita Heart Sutra. The first three words are Sanskrit, Mahaliterally meaning great, Prajna meaning wisdom and Paramita meaning having reached the farther shore. Maha here has the sense of ultimate, and Prajna means wisdom in the Buddhist sense, namely negation of all things, not the little intellectual wisdom of the world. So Maha-Prajna means: by the knowledge of ultimate Emptiness to make all things Emptiness. Through the power of the great wisdom, which makes absolutely everything Emptiness, to cross over to the other shore—Param-ita.
When it is said to make everything Emptiness, what is meant is human life, our actual life in society, with our crying and laughing, elation and sorrow. In Buddhism this life is called the world of birth-and-death. Buddhism is the desire to make this world Emptiness and to live, as far as it may be possible, without holding anything in the heart, in Emptiness. To seek to do that, to become like that, is the manifestation in the heart of the power of wisdom, the power of knowledge of ultimate Emptiness.
Through the power of ultimate Emptiness to cross to the other shore—this other shore is called in the Sutras Nirvana. Nirvana is the farther shore, and the world of birth-and-death is this shore. From the present illusory reality let us make the crossing to the shore of realization of Nirvana. Throughout Buddhism the idea is to cross from here to the beyond, to transfer our living from here to there.
All Buddhism, Mahayana and Hinayana alike, has the notion of passing over. It is in Zen also. Passing over does not necessarily mean being reborn in the Pure Land paradise in the west; it means to pass from the present illusory I to the I of the bliss of realization. The idea is a very sound one, but people today are not interested in being reborn. Instead they talk of living meaningfully, of how to live. But in their talk about how to live there seems to be a frank spirit of doing it at others’ expense, which is hard to justify. Religions which look at life on the basis of distinction between oneself and others always have this sort of exclusiveness of spirit.
The object being a rebirth of the I, Buddhism is of course extremely introspective. How can the I progress from the world of illusion to the world of realization? The basis of the process is self-introspection, self-reformation and thoroughgoing training. This is the passing over, this is the rebirth, and the idea runs through Buddhism. In whatever scripture you look you will find it, and not only in the Heart Sutra.
The word ‘heart’ in the title of the Sutra means the essence. Into a mere 264 words has been condensed the immense Great Prajna Paraarnita Sutra with its sections. So this little Sutra is called the heart. The Chinese character for Sutra (which is read in Japanese kyo) was selected by the first translators because it has also the meaning of eternal, and the sense is that the Sutra is an eternally immutable truth. All the teachings of the Buddha are given this appellation kyo, and from ancient times to the present, and from the present into the future, never do they change. The Heart Sutra is one of them, being the essence of the Great Prajna Paramita Sutra.