Form is (Not) Emptiness: The Enigma at the Heart of the Heart Sutra.

Jayarava Attwood


 Connections between Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra and Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra suggest a new interpretation of an important passage in the Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya or Heart Sutra. I am able to show that the four phrases exemplified by “form is emptiness” were once a reference to the well-known simile, “Form is like an illusion” (rūpam māyopamam). As the Prajñāpāramitā corpus expanded, the simile became a metaphor, “form is illusion”. It was then deliberately altered by exchanging “illusion” for “emptiness”, leading to the familiar phrases. This connection opens the door to reading the Heart Sutra, and the early Prajñāpāramitā sutras more generally, along the lines of Sue Hamilton’s (2000) epistemological approach to the Pāḷi suttas; i.e. as focussed on experience and particularly the meditative experience known in the Pāḷi suttas as dwelling in emptiness (suññatā-vihāra). In this view, the Heart Sutra makes sense on its own terms without having to invoke paradox or mysticism.

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