Book Review: The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra (Thich Nhat Hanh)

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A new interpretation of an ancient text.

TL;DR – A skillful breakdown of the Heart Sutra, making an important piece of Buddhist scripture more accessible.

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Why I read it…

I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s work, I find the man totally inspiring, so I’ll read basically anything of his. I read this specifically because I wanted to start reading Buddhist scriptures, and not just commentaries.

The Book…

The book is broken down into several parts. First up, we have introductions to the book and a very brief background to the Heart Sutra itself. Next we have what I suppose technically needs to be classified as a re-interpretation of the text. It’s more or less a translation but with some sections tidied up for better clarity. What follows is a series of chapters, each focusing on a few lines of the sutra, explaining what the text means and how we are to understand it. Then to finish up we have the original text in romanised sanskrit, and then a literal English translation and finally an English version of the text that was used for chanting at Plum Village from the 1980’s to 2014.

What I liked…

This book has Thich Nhat Hanh’s typical easy-to-read style of presentation. The concepts presented in the sutra are difficult and on their own, really confusing. But the text is broken down into sections, never more than a few short lines, and it’s content is fully explained clearly and carefully and allow even a novice reader to take away some important understanding from this text.

The purpose of this book was to clear up some confusion about the common interpretations of this sutra.

This rewording is needed because to say “in emptiness there is no form, no feelings, no mental formations, no consciousness…” is not in accord with the ultimate truth. Emptiness means only the emptiness of self, not the nonbeing of self, just as when a balloon is empty inside it doesn’t mean the balloon doesn’t exists.” Extract, p20

Apparently it is very common to get hung up on the sutra’s wording and get the wrong idea, and frankly having read it for myself I can absolutely see why people would get confused, it is a tough one. However, Thich Nhat Hanh has altered the wording of his translation (hence calling it a reinterpretation) to help clarify some of the finer points. It can get a little repetitive but it the commentaries are extremely helpful in aiding understanding of the text.

What I disliked…

The inclusion of 3 different English translations/transliterations/interpretations or whatever is a little peculiar. The commentaries focus exclusively on the first interpretation, which makes life easier, but I don’t fully understand why the others have been included and unless I missed it, I can’t find any explanation for it either. It’s nice to have more information of course, but 3 slightly different versions of the same text seemed a little unnecessary.

Final thoughts…

This is definitely a book I will come back to over time. I’m sure there are countless things I have missed and not quite understood fully. This book is, as far as I am aware, an excellent introduction to the Heart Sutra and a great jumping off point for the Buddhist canon in general.

Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

One thought on “Book Review: The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra (Thich Nhat Hanh)

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