Found at the end of one of the most well-known Buddhist teachings, the Heart Sutra is the mantra “Gate Gate Para Gate Para Sam Gate Bodhi Swaha.”
The Heart Sutra is a complex and foundational Buddhist teaching, and the last line is a well-known mantra that many Buddhists recite daily.
Before getting into the meaning of the mantra, it’s important to understand a bit about the Heart Sutra, so the context of the mantra is clear.
What is the Heart Sutra?
The Heart Sutra may be brief, but it contains fundamentals of Buddhist teachings, including the four noble truths, the skandhas, and the concept of emptiness, and the cycle of interdependence.
In the Heart Sutra, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or the Buddha of Compassion, is teaching a monk some of the most important components of enlightenment.
The concept of emptiness is imperative to grasp in order to continue on the path to enlightenment, but it seems a bit confusing at first. In simple terms, Avalokitesvara makes the point that everything that constitutes reality is not permanent, therefore everything is empty.
Awareness of emptiness is what opens the doors to the wisdom that leads to enlightenment.
It’s important to understand the basic concept of the Heart Sutra before diving into the closing mantra that wraps it up: “Gate Gate Para Gate Para Sam Gate Bodhi Swaha.”
This mantra, called the Prajna Paramita, is poetic and revolutionary; it speaks to the idea of life’s impermanence and the importance of accepting that truth. “Prajna” means wisdom, and “Paramita” means crossing over or going beyond.
With each word in the mantra having significant meaning altogether, the Prajna Paramita loosely translates to “Going, going, going on beyond, always going on beyond, always becoming Buddha.”
The Prajna Paramita takes the idea of enlightenment and represents it as a journey instead of a destination, championing the concept that enlightenment is a constant process.
This should give you hope as you embark on your journey to enlightenment and remind you that there is no finite end to enlightenment.
While it’s a tough mantra to directly translate, when you recite it and begin to understand it, you will be able to feel what it means to you exactly.
READ MORE: Green Tara Mantra Meaning
Lyrical breakdown: what do the words mean?
While the translation of the Prajna Paramita is difficult to perfect and even more difficult to truly grasp, each word in the mantra is powerful and will help guide you to enlightenment.
- Gate: Gate means gone
- Para Gate: this means gone to the further shore, “Para” is used to describe the riverbank opposite the one you are presently standing on.
- Para Sam Gate: taking it a step further, this signifies going completely to the other shore.
- Bhodi: Bhodi is a noun that represents enlightenment, awakening, and knowledge.
- Swaha: This is a word that cannot really be translated, but it is a sound that accompanies a Vedic sacrifice. It is similar to the term “Amen” in other religions.
If you feel a bit confused or overwhelmed in trying to understand the meaning, you’re not alone.
There’s a reason the Prajna Paramita and the Heart Sutra are such foundational teachings of Buddhism.
If they were easy to understand, they wouldn’t force learners to think differently and begin the journey to enlightenment.
Perhaps take a few moments to sit with these words, flipping the sounds around on your tongue and listening to how your heart feels as you do so. Isn’t this the whole point?
READ MORE: Great Compassion Mantra (Da Bei Zhou)
When to turn to Prajna Paramita
Without taking time to see how the Prajna Paramita resonates with you and trying to understand the broader teachings of the Heart Sutra, you may not understand the building blocks of enlightenment fully.
Understanding that the point is not to cross a finish line but to continuously expand and learn is the starting point of any successful Buddhist.
By encouraging yourself to let go and finding comfort in the emptiness of life, you will be well on your way to enlightenment.
Though the interpretation of Prajna Paramita and the Heart Sutra is personal, it seems that the one thing people agree on is that it never fully makes sense, and maybe that’s the ultimate lesson.
The Heart Sutra works to deconstruct our current belief framework and rational way of thinking and pushes us to think beyond; to understand the unexplainable.
Since it can never be fully understood, deep thinking and meditation on this mantra will force us to contemplate what it truly means.
Once you think you understand it, sit with it a bit longer, and more questions will arise, more confusion will stir.
Learn to be okay with that and learn to find your way back to Prajna Paramita regularly; get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
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Incorporating the Heart Sutra into your life
Perhaps the most powerful of all sutras, the Heart Sutra is not one to be overlooked.
While it’s shorter than many of its counterparts, it’s meant to convince you to ask questions on deeper and deeper wavelengths.
There is no right or wrong way to practice; the mantra should manifest differently for each person.
Whether you’re repeating it silently in your head or shouting it from the rooftop, take time to sit with how it makes you feel.
Maybe it makes you feel differently in one month than it does in another month, and that’s okay. Each time you sit with it, you will learn more about yourself and more about how to unravel the path to enlightenment.
A helpful tip in being successful with the Prajna Paramita is to not get frustrated with yourself when you leave a meditation feeling more confused than you did when you started.
The journey is beautiful, and the bumps in the journey are what make it worth it. We can feel enlightened and confused at the same time.
The space around us can feel full and empty at the same time. Two truths can exist together; take this as a hint when you try to understand the Prajna Paramita.
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