The Heart Sutra and Meditation

The Heart Sutra and Meditation — by Shin-Ichi Matsuyama, 2015

The Heart Sutra (Hanya Shingyo in Japanese) can be seen as a meditation guide. As an instruction manual it has a lot in common with the meditation books old and new, whether they be from the west or from the east.

Note from Ito: The Heart Sutra is often used during funerals. It may be used as a bridge between this world and beyond. It is very short, so many of the older people in Japan and in the rest of the East and Southeast of Asia have memorized it, and recite it in the morning and in the evening during the mourning period as a kind of prayer so that the soul of the person may transit from here to there without any problem.

Here, Matsuyama provides three examples of guidelines for meditation — which at first sight seem very different. He tells us that actually they are very similar. But each takes a completely different approach.

Clear as morning air


(Japanese pronunciation: Chou Tetsu)

(Chinese pronunciation: Zhao Che)

There is a meditative state called Chou Tetsu (Zhao Che) — a state of consciousness as clear as the air in the morning — which many people try to reach. However according to Chuang Zhou, this state is not the goal, but rather the point from which consciousness grows. The process he describes to progress beyond this starting point has a lot in common with the meditation approaches adopted over time by several wisdom traditions.

What you are asked to observe in a deep meditation state is quite common to many religions. When we enter deep meditation, we immerse ourselves in the here and now, and we absorb ourselves in the things as they are. Ordinarily, we cannot see what happens around us without adding our own mental interpretation.

But in this state we do not add or affect anything. We are simply present and experience the world without any filter. The details of what we see and feel have no big importance. What is really important is that we keep our consciousness awake whatever manifests itself through it. This is essential so as to allow our real consciousness to develop.

There are many ways to express these concepts. One is to use a very simple language, almost like a koan:

The body I have is not my real self

The senses I have are not my real self

The thoughts I have are not my real self

The mind I have is not my real self

I realize that there is no self

I am Existence-Consciousness



(Japanese pronunciation: Shin Sai)

(Chinese pronunciation: Xin Zhai)





Gankai (Yan Hui), a disciple of Confucius, asked him:

« I would like to know your interpretation of Shinsai (Xin Zhai). »

Confucius answered:
« Observe your own aspirations. Do not listen with your ears, but with your heart. And after that, do not listen with your heart, but with your Ki (Qi). With your ears, you can only hear the sounds, and with your heart you can only understand (and perceive) what comes from outside. But Ki (Qi) is naturally empty, so it can receive all and anything. Dao collects in vacuity, and vacuity is Shin Sai. »

The disciple then said: « before I knew Shinsai, I was Gankai, but now that I know Shinsai, there is no more Gankai. »

Note from Ito: “Emptiness” may seem different from “Clear as morning air”. But Matsuyama suggests that if we think about it, we shall see that both are actually two sides of a same thing.

We could paraphrase this as « I knew many things about myself at a certain point. But when I saw how things really are, I realized that “myself” never even existed. »

No Life, No Death


(Japanese Pronunciation: Einei)

(Chinese Pronunciation: Ying Ning)



Confucius says:

After three days of meditation with Shin Sai (Xin Zhai) I ended up separated from the world. I felt humble, and continued for seven days, and separated from the material world. I continued to meditate and after nine days I separated from life and from death.

After this, I felt I had finally arrived at Chou Tetsu (Zhao Che) — like a wakening morning.

After Chou Tetsu, I could experience Doku (Du) a perspective from which I was independent from and not influenced by things around me.

After experiencing Doku (Du) the past and the present had disappeared. After the past and present had disappeared, I could enter the domain of no life, no death.

It went like this:

No death for those who see life without beginning

No birth for those who see life without end

When they come in touch with the material world

Nothing is not let go, therefore everything is let go

Nothing is not welcome, therefore everything is welcome

Nothing is not bound to disappear, therefore everything is bound to disappear

Nothing is not given birth, therefore everything is given birth

This state can be called Einei (Ying Ning). The person who has reached Einei (Ying Ning) is empty, and only appears when he or she gets in touch with the material world.

Matsuyama thinks: Einei means that all things are let go, all things are welcome, all things are bound to disappear and all things are given birth. In other words, all things are true when they are seen in their true state.

Einei is not easy to understand, and it is often misinterpreted. The Japanese scholar Kanaya Osamu interprets that it is about « staying calm in the battering storm of material things », the Chinese scholar 郭嵩燾 says thatmeans to keep your heart undisturbed even when harassed from inside as well as from outside, and the Chinese scholar 馬叙倫 says that the old charactermeans to be at peace even when surrounded by 寧.

Scholars live in a world of difficult ideas, therefore they find this idea difficult as well. But Shintaidoists have learnt to live in wakame, and that makes it easy to keep a quiet heart when many things are moving around us.


About the author

From 1997 to 2001, Shin-Ichi Matsuyama was researcher in biology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. After studying the molecular mechanisms of social behaviour, he moved to Osaka, Japan, in 2001 where he continued his research on the evolution of symbiotic systems. In 2004 he left scientific research to devote himself to the study of traditional Japanese acupuncture, natural medicine and Shintaido.


The following people have contributed to this text

  • Original text by Shin-ichi Matsuyama
  • English translation by Lee Seaman
  • Proofreading of the Chinese text by Clélie Dudon & Yi Shiu Liu
  • French translation by Patrick Bouchaud
  • Final English version by Tomi Nagai-Rothe