Why the Heart Sutra?

Domyo Burk, a Zen priest, wrote: "if - or when - I am gravely ill at my deathbed, I hope my fellow Buddhists will come and chant the Heart Sutra for me".

"To give you a sense of the importance of this text in Buddhism: If – or when – I am gravely ill or on my death-bed, I hope my fellow Buddhists will come and chant the Heart Sutra for me. It’s fewer than 250 words long, and it’s considered to present the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. However, its meaning – and its attraction to Buddhists – may not be immediately evident! The text, particularly because it is so short, is written in a kind of code. That is, it uses Buddhist terminology to refer to significant and complex aspects of Buddhist teaching in condensed form. It also seems to focus largely on negation, talking about how all things are “empty” – a subtle concept I’ll need to explain."

Alex Kerr, is a writer who recently came out with a book entitled "Finding the Heart Sutra: Guided by a Magician, an Art Collector and Buddhist Sages from Tibet to Japan". He writes of meeting Marguerite Yourcenar, the famous French novelist.

One day, while walking through Kyoto with her, he buys her a fan inscribed with the Heart Sutra.

Marguerite Yourcenar’s Fan

"One day sometime in the early 1980s, Tamasaburo, who had by then become a friend, asked me to come round to his backstage room at the Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo to interpret for a visitor from France. She was an elderly writer who was fascinated by the cult of evanescence in Japan – the idea that all things exist just for a precious moment, like cherry blossom petals that bloom only for a week and then scatter in the wind – and wanted to ask Tamasaburo some questions about kabuki. Entering the room, my heart skipped a beat as I realized that this was no ordinary visitor but the renowned French author Marguerite Yourcenar."


"When I was a teenager, I used to go up into the dusty attic in our house in Alexandria, Virginia, to read books that my parents had stored there, and one of them was Yourcenar’s grand historical novel Memoirs of Hadrian about the Roman emperor Hadrian."


"Eventually Yourcenar suggested that we do a book together about the Heart Sutra: I would brush calligraphy for it, and she would write. But it never happened. She returned to France, and not long afterwards I heard she had died. They told me that the object she kept with her until the very end was the fan inscribed with the Heart Sutra."