Monday, June 18, 2007

Is “Magic” There in the Heart Sutra?

Well, of course there is magic in the Heart Sutra, in the sense there is magic in a sunset, a mountain stream, bird’s call, a blade of grass, a child’s smile, a dew drop, etc. But does the word “magic” appear in the Heart Sutra, that most pithy of Buddhist scriptures? This question has come up for me because I was recently reciting the Heart Sutra in English with a Zen group using Red Pine’s translation of the Heart Sutra in which he translates the relevant passage describing the Heart Sutra's mantra as: “You should therefore know the great mantra of Prajnaparamita, the mantra of great magic, the unexcelled mantra, the mantra equal to the unequaled, ....” [fn. 1.]

When I read “the mantra of great magic” I cringed. Is the Heart Sutra a mantra of great “magic”? The definition of magic is "1 a : the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces b : magic rites or incantations 2 a : an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source b : something that seems to cast a spell : ENCHANTMENT 3 : the art of producing illusions by sleight of hand." [fn. 2]

My connotations to the word “magic” don’t correspond with the meaning and wisdom of the Heart Sutra. As I see it, supernatural powers are not part of the Heart Sutra. And for me, magic, when not taken as a supernatural power, is the third sense of the word as what is done my magicians to fool people. Magic is illusion. The Heart Sutra is not a gospel or mantra of “great illusion.” The Heart Sutra is one of the Prajna Paramita Sutras whose essential purpose is to expose the truth about illusion, about the artificial magic of the wizard behind the curtain, the house builder of the house of illusions, as Buddha says in the Dhammapada, “I see you, oh Housebuilder...” As I see it, to call the Heart Sutra “a mantra of great magic” is just the same as calling Buddha “a great magician.” In Zen parlance this kind of language is quite acceptable as a faux-insult, but should that type of Zen idiom be used in the translation of a Buddhist sutra? I don’t think so.

And in fact, that Zen idiomatic usage is not the sense of the term “magic” that Red Pine is using. He is putting forward the word “magic” as the legitimate translation of the Sanskrit term “vidya”. The Sanskrit for the passage (as translated by Red Pine above) is “tasmaj jnatavyam prajnaparamita mahamantro mahavidyamantro anuttaramantro asamasamamantrah,...” Here are a few translations of the phrase “mahavidyamantro” that Red Pine translates as “the mantra of great magic”: “the Great Wisdom Mantra” (by Zuio H. Inagaki), “the Mantra of great knowledge” (by Georg Feuerstein), “the mantra of great knowledge” (by Thupten Jimpal for the Dalai Lama’s book on the Heart Sutra.), “the mantra of great knowledge” (by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.), “the spell of great knowledge” (by Edward Conze), “great clear charm” (Dr. Michael E. Moriarty), “the mantra of great wisdom” (from Sunrise magazine, December 1996/January 1997 by Theosophical University Press), “the great bright mantra” (by Mu Soeng Sunim).

Thus in the above examples the word vidya is rendered into English as “knowledge” (most frequently), “wisdom,” “clear,” and “bright.” The Chinese translation of the Sanscrit vidya (which is used in the Japanese version of the Heart Sutra) uses the ideograph 明 ming2 (J. myo, Unicode: U+660E) which means, “[1] bright; light; brilliant [2] clear; understandable; [v] clarify; understand; obvious; evident [3] intelligent; clever [4] eyesight; seeing faculty [5] day; daybreak; dawn [6] [v] state; show; assert [7] next (day or year)” [fn. 3.] That is why some translations relying on the character ming will translate the word as “clear,” “light”, “bright,” or “brilliant” which are not found in the Sanskrit meaning of vidya.

Here is the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon (CDSL) entry [fn. 4] for vidya:

2 vidyA f. knowledge (cf. %{kAla-jAta-v-}) , science , learning , scholarship , philosophy RV. &c. &c. (according to some there are four Vidya1s or sciences , 1. %{trayI} , the triple Veda ; 2. %{AnvIkSikI} , logic and metaphysics ; 3. %{daNDa-nIti} , the science of government ; 4. %{vArttA} , practical arts , such as agriculture , commerce , medicine &c. ; and Manu vii , 43 adds a fifth , viz. %{Atma-vidyA} , knowledge of soul or of spiritual truth ; according to others , Vidya1 has fourteen divisions , viz. the four Vedas , the six Veda1n3gas , the Pura1n2as , the Mi1ma1n6sa1. Nya1ya , and Dharma or law [964,1] ; or with the four Upa-vedas , eighteen divisions ; others reckon 33 and even 64 sciences [= %{kalAs} or arts] ; Knowledge is also personified and identified with Durga1 ; she is even said to have composed prayers and magical formulas) ; any knowledge whether true or false (with Pa1s3upatas) Sarvad. ; a spell , incantation MBh. Ragh. Katha1s. ; magical skill MW. ; a kind of magical pill (which placed in the mouth is supposed to give the power of ascending to heaven) W. ; Premna Spinosa L. ; a mystical N. of the letter %{i} Up. ; a small bell L. (cf. %{vidyAmaNi}). 1.

Here’s the much more concise entry in Capeller's Sanskrit-English Dictionary [fn. 5]:

3 vidyA f. knowledge, learning, a discipline or science, esp. sacred knowledge (threefold) or magic, spell.

So the word vidya primarily means “knowledge” “learning,” etc., with a minor meaning of magic or a magical skill or tool (e.g., spell or pill). The question arises, whether it is legitimate to use the lesser meaning of “magic” when translating vidya in the Heart Sutra, or is using the word English word “magic” simply the equivalent of mistakenly using the word Sanskrit word for “sexual intercourse” in a reverse translation into Sanskrit of the English word “knowledge”? Certainly vidya includes the meaning of “magic” just as the word knowledge includes the meaning of “sexual intercourse,” but is that the correct meaning? Or has Red Pine wrongly used a minor meaning in the exuberance of translation? Certainly when every other translator who has translated from the Sanskrit has used the word “knowledge” (or a variant such as “wisdom”) and where the translator was not interpreting the Chinese version with the character ming2 and using a variation of “bright” or “clear,” there is a strong reason to question Red Pine’s use of the word magic.

Here’s Red Pine’s explanation of his use of the word “magic”:

The word vidya is derived from vid, “to understand,” and includes every kind of mastery from science to practical arts to magic. Among Buddhists, the term vidya is often used as equivalent to the word mantra because it, too, encapsulates a system of mastery, though one that surpasses the ken of ordinary mortals. But vidya is also distinguished from mantra as referring to the mastery of female deities, while mantra refers to that of male deities. Thus, the term mahavidya (great master/magician) has become an appellation for many of India’s most popular goddesses, including Kali, Tara, Durga, Sarasvati, and Lakshmi (cf. Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas, by David Kinsley, pp. 57-60). The reason for such usage is that mantras (or vidyas) have the power to give birth to a new state of consciousness. Thus, each of these mahavidyas is associated with a particular form of spiritual awareness and only appears when her mantra is chanted, just as a genie only appears when its magic lamp is rubbed. But not all mantras give rise to such deities, only mantras that possess great magic. In this case, the mantra does not give rise to Prajnaparamita but becomes her womb and thus the source of the greatest of all magic, the appearance of a Buddha. [fn. 6]

While it is true that the magical formulas or incantations are known as Vidya, Mantram, or Dharani the question remains whether the use of vidya in the Heart Sutra is referring to such a magical formula or to knowledge.

The CDSL has an entry for “mahavidya” but it too refers first to a “great science” with the secondary meanings of names for female deities or the plural of a class of personifications of the Shakti female energy of Shiva.

1 mahAvidyA f. a great or exalted science MW. ; N. of Lakshmi1 VP. (= %{vizva-rUpo7pA7sanA} Comm.) ; of Durga1 Ma1rkP. ; of a Mantra Cat. ; pl. of a class of personifications of the S3akti or female energy of S3iva (10 in number) RTL. 187 ; %{-dIpa-kalpa} m. %{-prakaraNa} n. %{-prayoga} m. %{-sAra-candro7daya} m. %{-stava} m. %{-stotra} n. N. of wks. ; %{-ye7zvarI} f. N. (perhaps a form of Durga1) Cat.

Well first, is Red Pine correct to equate the term vidya with “mastery” or “magic” rather than “knowledge”? As the CDSL indicates, vidya is used as an inclusive term that includes the branches of learning and knowledge as well as for knowledge in the whole. Thus, there are four, five, 14, 18, 33 or 64 vidyas, depending on how knowledge is categorized or outlined in one’s taxonomy of learning. But there is no indication that the idea of mastery of that knowledge is assumed in vidya. Thus there is no basis for Red Pine’s preference that mahavidya means “great master” or “great magician” when it actually means “great knowledge” or “great science” (cf. science means “having knowledge” and, like vidya, comes from a root meaning “to know”).

If one presumes, like Red Pine does, that “a mantra is like a magic lamp” and “if you rub it correctly, its resident genie will appear.” [ fn. 7]. then one may not be faulted too much for assuming that the use of vidya in the phrase great-vidya-mantra here is referring to magic rather then knowledge. But is that a Buddhist assumption, or is it just the assumption of folk-superstition? The phrase great-vidya-mantra occurs as the second in a series of four phrases designating adjectives for the type of mantra that is the Heart Sutra: (1) mahamantro (great-mantra) (2) mahavidyamantro (great-knowledge-mantra) (3) anuttaramantro (unsurpassed-mantra) and (4) asamasamamantrah (unequaled-equal-mantra). Since mantra is applied in all four instances there is no internal basis to assume that vidya means “magic” rather than “knowledge” since there are no magical connotations to the other three adjectives in the list, “great,” “unsurpassed,” and “unequaled equality.”

Instead, these three adjectives do have direct Buddhist connotations rather than folk-magic connotations. “Great” (maha) is of course the keystone adjective for the branch of Buddhism, the Mahayana, that considers the Heart Sutra to be an essential teaching of the Buddha. “Unsurpassed”(anuttara) is known in the phrase anuttara-samyak-sambodhi that epitomizes the meaning of Buddhism as “unsurpassed complete perfect enlightenment.” The term asamasama meaning “equal to the unequaled,” “unequaled,” or “incomparable” is an adjective familiar in Buddhist usage, because asamasama is one of the titles of the Buddha (“the incomparable One,” “the unique One” or “the One of unequaled rank”) and his incomparable enlightenment, so it fits as an adjective of the incomparable mantra that expresses the essential heart of Buddha’s enlightenment. [Zen Buddhists will see in asamasama, the Sanskrit title of Buddha as “a person of unequaled rank,” the origin of the Chinese phrase “a person of no rank” popularized by Zen master Linji Yixuan (Lin-chi I-hsuan; J. Rinzai Gigen) (d. 867 C.E.).]

So, while the three other adjectives all have direct Buddhist references, is there a basis for mahavidya to be interpreted as “great magic”? Even when mahavidya is considered in Hindu Tantra it is taken as “great wisdoms” or “great knowledges” and not “great magicians” and as such refers to the ten “wisdom” Goddesses not “magical” Goddesses. [fn. 8] All ten forms of the Mahavidyas, whether in her gentle or terrifying aspect, are worshiped as avatars of the universal Mother appearing in the ten directions. So, even without considering the lack of reference to “magic,” there is no basis to ascribe or include this Hindu mythological belief in goddesses, with its anthropomorphic imagery, to the Buddhist usage of mahavidya in a primary Buddhist scripture like the Heart Sutra.

In Buddhist usage vidya refers to knowledge or wisdom and avidya refers to ignorance or unenlightenment. [fn. 9] Vidya-carana-sampanna or “Perfected in Wisdom & Action” (J. Myogyosoku) is another title for the Buddha. In Buddhist tantra practices such as “creation process yoga,” “the meditation leads to a realization that Intelligence (vidya) is spontaneously everywhere, though nowhere localized; that even inanimate matter breathes with potential intelligence —— a Consciousness that is evolving in all energy.” [fn. 10] There is no reference to “magic” here, where vidya is taken in Buddhist tantra to refer to the knowing intelligence of the universe.

The inclusion of folk “magic” into Buddhism by way of calling the Heart Sutra a “mantra of great magic” is inherently suspect as a non-Buddhist interpretation. It is not that the Heart Sutra is illuminated as a tool of magic when it is called a “mantra” but that the form of mantra itself is illuminated by Buddhism as an expression of wisdom by the Heart Sutra being called a mantra of great knowledge. The “great knowledge” that is expressed in the Heart Sutra is not the folk magic of summoning a genie by rubbing a magic lamp, but is the knowledge of awakening to transcendent wisdom (prajnaparamita) expressed in the Heart Sutra as the awareness that “Everything has the aspects of emptiness: not arising not ceasing, not stained not immaculate, not deficient not excessive.”

The mantra of great knowledge that is included at the end of the Heart Sutra is “TADYATHA OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA” To view Buddhist use of this mantra as a magical tool to conjure up the appearance of a Buddha is to go backward in the evolution of religious understanding that the Heart Sutra embodies. Mantras are not infrequently appended to Mahayana sutras. The Indian commentator Prasastrasena explains why the mantra is called mahavidya: “Because it naturally understands and clears away all the signs of external objects, it is the mantra of great knowledge.” [fn. 11]

The eleventh century Indian commentator Vajrapani, known as a master of the Tantric practice of mahamudra, wrote in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, “The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is not a mantra for pacification, increase, power, or wrath. What is it? By merely understanding the meaning of this mantra, the mind is freed.” [fn. 12]

The practice of deity yoga that Red Pine advocates in his book is a form of the tantric Mantra Vehicle and is not considered part of the practice of the Perfection Vehicle (paramitayana) of the prajnaparamita sutras. [fn. 13] Advocates of Mantra Vehicle usually consider it to be superior to the Perfection Vehicle, and perhaps vice versa. I, for one, consider the idea that the mantra is a magical incantation to be practiced like the rubbing of a magic lamp, as Red Pine says, to be a non-Buddhist intrusion into the Buddha Dharma. From point of view of One Vehicle (Ekayana) Buddhism the image of a magic lamp can be an expedient means of communicating to non-Buddhists or Buddhists of immature understanding and encouraging them to engage with the Dharma through the hope of magical conjurations of the supernatural power and appearances of Buddha, but the literalization of such supernatural powers as magically derived, while it may be the way of Vajrayana, is not the Zen way of the One Vehicle.

As Zen ancestor Linji said, even the supernatural powers of deities are karmic and dependent. “They are not the six supernatural powers the Buddha possessed: entering the realm of forms without being deluded by forms; entering the realm of hearing without being deluded by sounds; of smelling without being deluded by smells; of taste without being deluded by tastes; of touch without being deluded by touch; and of mental configurations without being deluded by mental configurations. Therefore the six fields of form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and mental configurations are all formless; they cannot bind the man of true independence. Though the Five Skandhas are leaky by nature, yet mastering them they become your supernatural powers here on earth..” [fn. 14] This is the direct Dharma of the Heart Sutra’s perfection of wisdom, and has nothing to do with rubbing magic lamps or magical incantations of deities, including the anthropomorphic conception of prajnaparamita as the mother of Buddhas.


[fn. 1] The Heart Sutra, The Womb of Buddhas; Translation and Commentary by Red Pine; 2004; Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington D.C.; page 3.

[fn. 2] Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary at


[fn. 4] Using the Dictionary menu set to Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon and entering “vidya” in the “Word in Primary Language“

[fn. 5] Using the Dictionary menu set to Capeller's Sanskrit-English Dictionary and entering “vidya” in the “Word in Primary Language“

[fn. 6] The Heart Sutra, The Womb of Buddhas; page 148.

[fn. 7] The Heart Sutra, The Womb of Buddhas; page 147.

[fn. 8] See, for example, the Wikipedia entry on Mahavidya at and the entry at the Rudra Centre website at

[fn. 9] A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms by William Edward Soothill and Lewis Hodous.

[fn. 10] From the website of the Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa

[fn. 11] The Heart Sutra Explained by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.; 1988; State University of New York Press; page 109. According to Lopez nothing is known about Prasastrasena other than his moderate length commentary on the Heart Sutra.

[fn. 12] The Heart Sutra Explained; page 112.

[fn. 13] The Heart Sutra Explained; page 113.

[fn. 14] The Zen Teaching of Rinzai translated by Irmgard Schloegl; 1976; Shambala Publications,Berkeley CA; pp. 39-40.

1 comment:

amateur dharmatics said...

I just came across this post - thanks for the effort you've put into looking at this question! I've read Red Pine's translations of the Heart and Diamond Sutras and I very much admire both of them. But I too did a double take when I got to the line 'mantra of great magic'.

I don't want to demean Buddhism which believes in the salvatory power of supernatural forces/deities. But equally I'd never seen a translation which used the terminology or concept of 'magic' in this way. So, while perhaps it suits my own preconceptions, for myself I appreciate that someone's done the linguistic research which shows that there's some foundation to feeling uncomfortable about that translation.

Thanks again!