The Heart Sutra is one of the most popular scriptures in all of Mahayana Buddhism.  I have a theory that the secret of the Mantra in the Heart Sutra is jolly goodness.

My morning alarm ringtone is a Chinese-language recitation of the Heart Sutra.  Hence, I wake up most weekday mornings meditating on the Heart Sutra.  That way, I can at least claim to be a Buddhist on (most) weekdays.  More importantly, though, it gives me a chance to get into a good meditative state right before I begin my day.

I find the Heart Sutra ideally suited for accompanying my first morning meditation, mostly because it is so short (at only 260 Chinese characters).  More importantly, though, the Heart Sutra is a literature of the prajna paramita group of Buddhist scriptures, which for the uninitiated, means that everything in it is simultaneously the most absurd nonsense and the most exalted truth at the same time.  For example, it says things like, “Form is Emptiness, and Emptiness is Form”, and “There is no suffering, no wisdom, no attainment whatsoever.”

It is all utter nonsense.  It begins to make sense, however, when the mind enters the state of “no self”.  “Self” is a mental construct that the mind continuously creates in reaction to thoughts and sensations.  When the mind reaches a certain threshold of calmness, however, the formation of “self” becomes weak, sometimes the sense of “self” is not formed at all.  Even in the weak version of “no self”, prajna paramita begins to make perfect sense.

That is why I like to do this meditation as the very first thing in the morning, when the mind is clear from being freshly awake and well rested, but is still subtle enough that self-formation is weak.  This mind is most receptive to the prajna paramita.  The highest wisdom.  Or whatever nonsense it’s called.

The final phrases in the Heart Sutra is a mantra.  In the Chinese version, that mantra is left untranslated, it is merely transliterated from its original Sanskrit.  Why?  Because according to the Chinese translators, the mantra is so profound that it cannot be translated and that the mere sound of the mantra is sufficient to bring the mind into a deep samadhi followed by awakening.

Probably true, but I’m an engineer, so a thousand years of Chinese wisdom is not enough to stop me from at least trying.  Call me a fool.  Anyway, here is the mantra in its original Sanskrit:

Gate gate.
Bodhi svāhā!

And here is my own translation of it:

Let’s go, vamonos.
Beyond the limited mind.
Everybody let’s go.
Welcome to enlightenment!

One morning, while sitting in my bed in stillness meditating on the mantra, I figured something out.  My mind was in a lighter mood than usual, and in that mode of extra jolliness, I realized that this is a jolly good mantra.  It does not work if the mind approaches the mantra in seriousness, it only works if the mind approaches it with jolliness and humor.  If you approach thinking the mantra is funny, then upon contemplating the words, the mind suddenly opens up to awakening and compassion.

I suspect this was the original intention of the wise person who wrote that mantra, but nobody got the joke.