Museum Dictionary

The Heart Sutra

Have you ever heard of the Journey to the West? This is a famous Chinese book about a Buddhist monk named Tripitaka ("three baskets," San Zang in Chinese) who travels with three disciples, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy across China and over the mountains of Central Asia into India. They take this long journey in order to get the holy scriptures of Buddhism, called sutras, and bring them back to China. The sutras are documents that record the Buddha's teachings. Often they are memorized and chanted as a kind of prayer.

Journey to the West is based on the travels of a real monk named Xuan Zang (600 or 602-664 A.D.).

  • Xuan Zang
    Xuan Zang (Tokyo National Museum)

Xuan Zang lived over 1300 years ago in an age with no airplanes or cars. He made his trip entirely by horseback and on foot. Along the way, he had to cross very difficult terrain such as the Gobi Desert and the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim Basin. He must have been so determined to carry out his mission that he was willing to die for it!

Xuan Zang left for his journey in 629 A.D. from the Chang'an, the capital of China at the time. It took him more than three years to reach India! There, he began to study the teachings of Buddha with all his might, and sixteen years later he returned to China, loaded down with Buddhist sutras.

The sutras Xuan Zang brought back from India were written not in Chinese, but in Indian languages such as Sanskrit and Pali. Therefore, after returning to China, Xuan Zang spent twenty years translating seventy-six series and 1347 volumes of sutras from Indian languages into Chinese. One of the Sutras he translated is called the Heart Sutra. (Essence of the Prajnaparamita Sutra).

These Chinese sutras were later brought into Japan by Japanese monks who traveled to T'ang China in the Nara and Heian periods. However, at that time there were no printing presses in Japan, so many people had to copy the sutras entirely by hand using only paper, brushes and ink.

This is a handwritten copy of the Heart Sutra that dates back over 1200 years ago!

  • Heart Sutra
    Heart Sutra (Sumidera Heart Sutra)

It is called the "Sumidera Heart Sutra" and was said to be written by Kobodaishi Kukai (774-835 A.D.) in a temple in Nara called Sumidera (or Kairyu-o-ji). In actuality, however, it was written even before that time in the Nara period by a "scribe," or professional hand-copyist. You can see this from the strong, well-formed characters.

The sutra is written entirely in Chinese characters, so it is probably kind of confusing, but let me try to explain a few points. Sutras are written from top-to-bottom and read from right-to-left. That means the beginning of the sutra is in the upper right hand corner where the title, , meaning "Heart Sutra" is written vertically. This is the nickname for the "Essence of the Prajnaparamita Sutra." The next column begins with the characters , beginning the story of the meditations of the Kannon Bosatsu (Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva) that starts the main body of the sutra. The sutra ends at the bottom of the fourth column from the left, with the characters, .

Count the number of characters in any column of the main body of the sutra. Every line has seventeen characters doesn't it? Every sutra has a set number of characters in each column; the Heart Sutra always has seventeen. The only line with more characters is the final line of the sutra, the fourth column from the left, beginning with . This line is a kind of incantation with special powers. It is always written in one line, regardless of the number of characters. The final three lines are not really part of the sutra; they tell the religious merits and benefits of reciting this sutra. These three lines are not written on most copies of the Heart Sutra.

There is one more interesting point about sutra copies. As I said at the beginning, sutras are written in vertical columns from right to left. This is because they are rolled into scrolls. Why do you think they roll the paper instead of folding it? The answer to this question is actually visible in the paper itself!

If you look carefully at the paper used to copy sutras, you will see that there are faint, vertical, rectangular frames in which to write.

Naturally these frames are there partially to act as guides so you can write in straight lines, but there is another reason such frames are written on sutra-copying paper. In the old days, before paper was even invented, the Chinese used to write vertically on thin, rectangular, wooden tablets, just about the same size as the length on this paper. These tablets would be woven together with string at the top and bottom of each board. When not in use, the tablets could be rolled up. Did you guess the connection? If you guessed that the frames on the sutra paper represent the writing-spaces on each tablet, you are right! You may have also guessed that the way sutra paper is rolled up into a scrolls is a vestige of the old tradition of rolling up wooden tablets when not in use.

The Heart Sutra is probably the best-known, most well-loved sutra in Japan. It is still hand-copied regularly by the Japanese today. If you ever go to a Japanese temple, maybe you can try writing the Heart Sutra too!

Text by Eikei Akao, Department of Fine Arts
English translation by Melissa M. Rinne, Department of Archives

A Message to Museum Visitors

↑ Back to Top