The Heart Sutra is perhaps the central chant of every Mahayana Buddhist temple throughout Asia, certainly those in Northeast Asia. It is chanted twice a day, and some times three times (during the noon rice-offering ceremony). It is also the only chant that is done in traditional-minded Zen temples where chanting is normally avoided during retreats.
Here is a first-time release of our Zen Center Regensburg family chanting the Heart Sutra. I am so happy with the energy and feel of this recording. Please play it loud:
Here is the Anglicized text for the chant, to follow along:
The Heart Sutra in Korean
ma-ha ban-ya ba-ra-mil-ta shim gyong
kwan-ja-jae bo-sal haeng shim ban-ya
ba-ra-mil-ta shi jo-gyon o-on
gae gong do il-che go-aek
bul-saeng-bul-myol bul-gu-bu-jong bu-jung-bul-gam shi-go gong-jung-mu-saek
mu su-sang-haeng-shik mu an-i-bi-sol-shin-ui mu saek-song-hyang-mi-chok-pop
mu-an-gye nae-ji mu-ui-shik-kye
mu-mu-myong yong mu-mu-myong-jin
nae-ji mu-no-sa yong-mu-no-sa-jin
mu go-jim-myol-to mu-ji yong-mu-dug-i
mu-so duk-ko bo-ri-sal-ta ui
ban-ya ba-ra-mil-ta go-shim-mu gae-ae mu-gae-ae-go mu-yu-gong-po
wol-li jon-do mong-sang gu-gyong yol-ban sam-se je-bur-ui ban-ya
sam-myak sam-bo-ri go-ji ban-ya
ba-ra-mil-ta shi dae-shin ju
she dae-myong-ju shi mu-sang-ju
shi mu-dung-dung ju nung je il-che go
jin-shil bur-ho go-sol ban-ya ba-ra-mil-ta
a-je a-je ba-ra-a-je ba-ra-sung-a-je mo-ji sa-ba-ha a-je a-je ba-ra-a-je ba-ra-sung-a-je mo-ji sa-ba-ha a-je a-je ba-ra-a-je ba-ra-sung-a-je mo-ji sa-ba-ha
ma-ha ban-ya ba-ra-mil-ta shim gyong
(A complete PDF of the transliteration in English can be obtained here:)
When a Korean monk chants the Heart Sutra solo, the chant flows like softly rippling water. When chanted by a group, it has an uplifting, carrying sound: a legion of bodhisattva strivers swimming together against the tide of samsara.
For an excellent example of group chant, here is a recording from the temple where I did 5 of my 90-day ango meditation retreats in Korea — the great Songgwang Sah Temple. When 70 monks all chant together — and many of them young newbies, filled with fresh faith and spirit for The Way — it sounds like this:
(It is hard to locate full professional recordings of Korean nuns’ chanting, which can be absolutely soul-gripping stuff. I will update this if any are found later.)
A Western friend who recently heard this version of the Songgwang Sah Sunims belting it out remarked how it had the feeling of some Gregorian chant.
I have been SO carried away doing this chant during the daily rice offering in my retreats at Songgwang Sah, I had to be gently corrected by some senior monks. Doing the chant together with everyone at the conclusion of the daily offering of rice to the Buddha at the traditional time of his singular daily meal, I would have goosebumps running up and down my arms, and the micro-stubble on the back of my neck felt like it had been sprayed with a spiritual-Viagra mist: everything in the nervous system was fully electrified, stimulated, Dharmically tumescent, erect. I would chant with such gusto, so fully and completely carried away by the collective presence and meditative direction (meditative d-erection) in a large Buddha Hall, swimming and pulsing in a sea of fellow-monk voices flowing as one soul, and so moved, very much to tears, that my voice would sometimes dominate in a way that the elder monks way up front (we were stacked in fixed rows by Dharma age, natch!) noticed. At first, the elders were bemused by this enthusiasm, and would comment over tea sessions: “Ohhhh, Hyon Gak very strong faith! Great enthusiasm! Great faith!” Then, as the days of the 90-day retreat ticked by, and they had to hear this rant at every mandatory session before lunch, the verbal pats on the back turned to, “Oh, Hyon Gak voice is strongest,” then “Hyon Gak maybe little too loud”, and then the elder-monk-to-younger-monk polite equivalent of “COULD YOU PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP WE KNOW YOU ARE FILLED WITH FAITH BUT YOU ARE REALLY GETTING ON OUR FUCKING NERVES, OK?” Totally embarrassed, I would instantly ratchet it down from the next day, but then things would just build up over the next few days, and we would be right where I started within another week, tops — basically, chanting like a faith-filled Joe Strummer.
That is the group-chant of the Heart Sutra, which is normally the way it is done in temple.
There is also a great solo version of the Heart Sutra which played a singular role in the days when I was transitioning from lay-life to monastic (1990-92, and, well, basically ongoing — still a work-in-progress). It is a very well-known recording by an elder Korean monk, Sae Min Sunim, who was known for his “golden tongue.” Sae Min Sunim was so revered for his melodic voice that he could command large fees for chanting at big ceremonies. He eventually built a large temple in one of the richest districts of Seoul, almost entirely due to the attractive power of his chant.
Sae Min Sunim’s chanting tapes (cassette tapes!) were what I first encountered playing from the Buddhist stores and temple entrances during the first travels to Korea in the way-early 1990’s. It seemed like Sae Min Sunim’s chanting was omnipresent — basically, this one recording (and his simultaneous versions of the other main chants). I remember buying about 15 of just this very recording down in the “moktak stores” in front of Chogye Sah Temple right after completing the first 90-day ango at Shin Won Sah (1990-91). I brought them back to the States as precious “booty” from my first contact with “real” (!) Buddhism in Asia, and handed them out almost as sacred gifts to practitioners back home who cherished them gladly. Popping this into the cassette deck from time to time during the final year of study at Divinity School, I was flooded again with the full-on feel of the misty mountains and musty Buddha halls where I had sweat out so many thousands of bows in an attempt (vainly!) to melt some of my vast mountains of karmic suffering. Yes, hearing this was part of an early romanticization of the practice and its culture. But who could deny the effect on the soul of a voice as expressive as this? There was always this “homesickness” to return to that atmosphere of the lonely temple with a monk chanting forlornly in some crumbling Buddha hall in a valley, and Sae Min Sunim’s provided a spiritual soundtrack, an aural “way back”.
It wasn’t many months before I escaped obligations and headed back to the mountains. If there was a soundtrack for that whole shambolic run back, I would like to think it was this deep spiritual longing which we can easily feel in exactly this chant by Sae Min Sunim. (Though he is NOT responsible for how terribly I broke with relations in the West in order to head back.)
Hearing this chant by Sae Min Sunim, perhaps you can feel why Dae Soeng Sunim — the California-born early student of Dae Soen Sa Nim, one of my closest Dharma brothers — and I would often joke that particularly adept and soulful Korean chanting monks were probably Mississippi Delta blues singers in some past life. There is something forlorn, searching, and rhythmic in an almost otherworldly way in Sae Min Sunim’s voice and those of others of his level in the art. It is soul soul soul, pure and simple.
Every country’s particular expression of the Heart Sutra has its own texture, rhythm, and feel. I always connected very strongly with the Korean version of it, though I have also liked chanting the Japanese version when I was practicing with Shodo Harada Roshi, in Sogenji Temple, Okayama, Japan. Here is a typical version of the Japanese style:
Yet, the Japanese style is too flat, too monotone, too militaristic for me: it seems to emphasize power, and focus. In short, it feels too cold. Maybe it was because I was raised on Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Korean flow, I cannot “connect” with the heart of the Japanese Heart Sutra. The Korean soul flows like a compassionate river, coming — as it does — from the ancient Korean chant tradition called oe sahn (literally, fish-in-water: the natural vibrato of the chanting voice mimicking the wavering body of a fish swimming, wading-in-place against the current of a mountain stream, which embodies the action of the spiritual practitioner, wavering and falling back in bits as it moves “against the stream” of life-and-death, social convention, the thinking-mind, karma, whatever). I will always feel so totally at home in the Korean style. The Korean Heart Sutra is full of SOUL: the wavering big-heart of the Korean soul, wedded to the natural movement of creatures in the natural world; the Japanese style feels too hard-edged, even militaristic.
There is one version of the Japanese style which I have recently connected with. Many people have shared this viral video of a Japanese monk and his band performing the chant. This really touched my soul — it seems that a lot of other people the world over have been similarly moved by this: it has millions of views.
(For years, I have wished that a nun/monk in the Korean tradition would do something similar — years before I saw this. I so wish that Korean monastics would bring the timeless wisdom of the Heart Sutra into the mainstream by chanting it in a packaging where it could enter the modern consciousness, especially of our urban sophisticates — why not? But Korean monastics just seem way too timid, unadventurous, unexploratory: It is not a cultural which rewards risk-taking and deviation from the norm. It seems that anyone who gains liberation by the teaching “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form” would naturally be inspired to want to have the sweet freedom of that reality waft from every radio and speaker. Instead, the monks and nuns of Chogye are content to let it stay shuttered up in some tradition-bound formalism that denies a great number of thirsty sentient beings from making some contact with its sweet, liberating waters. Seeing this video of the Japanese chanting to an enthralled audience of his fellow Japanese, clearly in an urban context, you instantly can understand why Japanese Zen was able to spread and connect so deeply in the West: in Japanese culture, there is this natural willingness to embrace modernity, and that is so refreshing. They will always succeed, in this regard, and the Korean mentality — despite its perhaps more profound expression of the emotional spirituality — will remain somewhat ghetto-ized by its own inability to see something outside its own narrow blinders. Pity!)
And here, now, is how we are “paying it forward”: the Heart Sutra in modern Greek. This is an astonishing experience of great cosmic force breathed into existence together with our Zen beauties, the astounding Ashtangi/Zen souls from the mystical realm called by humans “Greece”, who are currently flocking together frequently for long silent retreats at the ancient teat of the Buddha’s warm technology recently established in Regensburg. (I have posted this chant on this very site some weeks ago, but repost here due to today’s topical relevance.) In a future post, I will present the video-progression as we worked with a first-translation, from our first tentative chants together (there were no models to guide us) in Dimitra’s apartment overlooking Thessaloniki, to a (mostly) fully-formed group-rhythmus that you can enjoy here presented. Just by listening to this, you are touching the still-wetted lips of a new history in the transmission of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s extraordinary Dharma (which, it must be said, was inspired so profoundly by Socrates’ “the only thing I am certain of is this not-knowing” — the very very first line of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s timeless The Compass of Zen opens with the telling of the story of Greek Socrates walking around the Athens agora telling people, “You must understand your true self! You must understand your true self! You must understand your true self!”.
The development of our Greek Heart Sutra began, and matured, on a balcony located just a few hundred meters from the location where Paul is reputed to have evangelized the first Christian communities in Roman-occupied Thessaloniki.
Here follows “[Paul’s] Heart Sutra [to the Thessalonians]”:
But back to the practice of it: Dae Soen Sa Nim and his early Western students record their chant of the Heart Sutra back in the early 1980s. How interesting to note that the recording below was made in Sprague Hall, on the campus of Yale University in the late 1970’s, where, on Mansfield Street in 1986, I moved into an off-campus apartment one door down from the New Haven Zen Center. Coming back from dance parties late on a Saturday or Sunday morning, after a night of loud music and dancing, too much alcohol and cigarettes, I and my friends would often see the shaven-headed practitioners gathering in the second-floor meditation room at 5 am-ish to begin chanting. Little did I know, at the time, that the gathering in that room would — some years later, after graduating — be my doorway to first tasting Dae Soen Sa Nim’s practice. But I was hooked from the first chant. I followed the practice up to the Cambridge Zen Center when I matriculated at Harvard Divinity School in 1989. Within weeks of first starting practice there, I ditched my apartment and took up residency in the Cambridge Zen Center and did these chants twice a day, until moving to Asia, cutting my hair, and entering monk’s life. “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.”
Chanting the Hear Sutra together with the assembly of monks at the conclusion of the 90-day Summer Kyol Che (ha ango) at Su Dok Sah Temple, on Dok Seung Sahn Mountain, South Korea, August 2006: