Curriculum Lectionary


GilgameshGenesisBiblical prophetsGospelsQur'anRumi and Kabir
Bhagavad GitaUpanishadsDhammapadaHeart and Lotus SutrasTao Te ChingAnalects


Session 1
Defined by Emptiness: The Heart Sutra
Session 2
Turning the Wheel of the Law: The Lotus Sutra
Session 3
The Heart of Compassion: The Lotus Sutra

Leader Notes

The Heart Sutra focuses on a major theme of the Buddhist faith, the fundamental emptiness of all phenomena. This idea will likely be quite familiar to some students and very new to others. Balancing the needs of those two groups will be one challenge of teaching this lesson. Discussion questions in this lesson are divided into basic and advanced questions to accommodate both types of participant.

The Heart Sutra is a very short text (260 Chinese characters), and it may be helpful to ask participants who are unfamiliar with Buddhist literature to read through it once before attending the first session. We will be using the Red Pine translation (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004). There are many versions to be found online, including the classic translation by Edward Conze at http://www.kr.buddhism.org/zen/sutras/conze.htm.

Words Used in Today’s Reading:
bodhisattva – one who vows to remain within the cycle of death and rebirth until all
     sentient beings achieve liberation
dharmas – the teachings of the Buddha

Five Skandhas – in Buddhism, the phenomena that serve as the basis for a sense of
     self. Namely, they are: form, sensation, perception, memory, and consciousness.
nirvana – the perfect state of being free from attachment and suffering
Prajnaparamita – perfection of wisdom

  • To become familiar with the historical and religious context of the Heart Sutra
  • To consider emptiness from both a personal and Unitarian Universalist point of view
  • To experience a spiritual practice that is not dependent on intellectual understanding
  • Review the historical background in Leader Resource 1 for use in Activity 1.
  • Print copies of the readings for this session from Leader Resource 2, if necessary.
  • Listen to the excerpt from Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. This resource is available for download from iTunes. The relevant part is Chapter 1, from 2:03 – 10:05. The text of a version of this excerpt is included as Leader Resource 3.
  • Familiarize yourself with Leader Resource 4: The Mantra
Leader Resources
Leader Resource 1 - Historical Introduction -
Leader Resource 4: The Mantra -
Leader Resource 3:The Heart of Understanding -
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
  • Chalice with candle and matches
  • Tingshas or a bell
  • A copy of The Heart of Understanding and a means of playing it
  • Notecards and pens for all participants
  • A large writing surface like a whiteboard or easel pad, and something to write with
If You Only Have One Hour
  • In Activity 2, play a slightly shorter excerpt from The Heart of Understanding (5 minutes or so), and limit the discussion to 10 minutes.
  • Skip Activity 3 altogether. Simply explain a little about the mantra and proceed directly to the closing chant.

Chalice lighting and opening meditation (5 minutes)

Introduction to the Heart Sutra (5 minutes)

Activity 1: Reading the Heart Sutra (25 minutes)

Activity 2: Empty and Interconnected (25 minutes)

Activity 3: That which Cannot be Thought About (20 minutes)

Chalice extinguishing and closing chant (10 minutes)

Chalice Lighting

Ask a participant to light the chalice as you read the passage below. Invite participants to spend a few moments in silent meditation on its meaning.

[F]orm is emptiness; emptiness is form;
emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from
          whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.
The same holds true for sensation and perception, memory and

                                 The Heart Sutra

After a few moments have passed, ring the tingshas to signal the end of the meditation.

Activity One

Introduction to the Heart Sutra

Introduce the overall purpose of the class (to consider a classic of spiritual literature in a Unitarian Universalist context.) Drawing on Leader Resource 1, give a brief historical introduction to the text. How much detail you wish to get into should depend upon your group’s level of experience with Buddhist thought.


Activity 1: Reading and Discussion

Have a participant read the Heart Sutra from Leader Resource 2.

Ask participants to discuss what they think the Sutra means. As time permits, you may introduce the following questions into the discussion:

Basic Questions

  • This sutra describes an experience of enlightenment, a moment in which a great truth is revealed. Has anyone here had a moment of such enlightenment? What was its effect?
  • It is implied that, by understanding the nature of all phenomena (that all things are “empty”), suffering is alleviated. Is this true? Is suffering a matter of point of view?
  • Amongst those phenomena that are deemed empty are: sensation, perception, memory, consciousness, the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, and the mind – all components of a human being. Do you identify with one or more of these elements (like your consciousness, your body, or your mind) as constituting your being? What if that element is, indeed, empty? Who are you then?

Advanced Questions

  • The Heart Sutra says there is “no suffering, no source, no relief, no path.” What do you make of this refutation of the Four Noble Truths?
  • There is a longer version of the Heart Sutra, which is introduced with the question “How should one practice the perfection of wisdom?” Does the Heart Sutra answer this question to your satisfaction?
Leader Resources
Leader Resource 1 - Historical Introduction -
Leader Resource 2: Readings -
Activity Two

Empty and Interconnected

Especially if they are unfamiliar with Buddhism, participants many have, up to this point, equated emptiness with nihilism. Hearing the perspective of a contemporary Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, may help them to reform that point of view and understand why Buddhists regard the recognition of emptiness as an alleviator of suffering, rather than a cause of depression.

Have participants listen to the excerpt from The Heart of Understanding . Alternately, participants could take turns reading aloud the excerpts from Leader Resource 3. Then, guide participants through the following:

Basic Questions

  • In describing “emptiness of independent existence”, Hahn talks about a piece of paper. What other objects are like this? (If someone suggests an object, explore it a little. How, specifically, is it not independent? Invite suggestions from the group.) Is everything like this?
  • Hanh’s concept that things “inter-are” is remarkably similar to the UU idea of the “interdependent web of all existence.” Are you surprised by the similarity? Are there differences between the two ideas?
  • If everything not only interdepends, but actually interexists, what are the implications for you, personally? How would truly believing that this is the nature of everything change your actions?

Advanced Question

  • Hahn says that the observation that even something as small as a piece of paper contains the whole universe within it is not different than the idea that everything is empty. What does he mean by this? Do you agree that these ideas are the same?

Leader Resources
Leader Resource 3:The Heart of Understanding -
Activity Three

That Which Cannot Be Thought About

         Introduction – 5 minutes
         Creating a Mantra – 10 minutes
         Chanting a Mantra – 5 minutes

Draw participants’ attention to the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra and, drawing on Leader Resource 4, explain a little about it.

Creating a Mantra
Pass out note cards and pens and guide participants in creating a mantra for themselves by writing down words, phrases or sounds that they associate with wisdom and/or compassion. These can be from any language or none at all. If participants get stuck, write a few words (owl, heart, Om, for instance) and lead the group in a brainstorming session. Participants can then select the words that most appeal to them. Encourage participants to write neatly and embellish with colors or drawings so the mantra will be pleasing to look at.

Chanting a Mantra
Lead participants in chanting the mantras they have created. As there will be different people speaking different mantras, you will need to encourage participants to concentrate and to speak in a low tone. Lead them through the following process:

1. Sit quietly, close your eyes, and breathe deeply for a moment.
2. Begin reciting your mantra slowly and quietly with a vibrational tone in your voice.
3. Continue saying your mantra as you visualize its transformational effects.
4. After five minutes have passed, take a few deep breaths and sit quietly until you are ready to open your eyes. 

Leader Resources
Leader Resource 4: The Mantra -
Chalice Extinguishing

Practice pronouncing the mantra a few times through. Here is a transliteration, which can be found at http://www.wordiq.com/definition/Heart_Sutra:

gate       gate       paragate           parasamgate               bodhi    svaha
gah-tay  gah-tay  pah-ra-gah-tay  pah-ra-sahm-gah-tay  bo-dee  swah-hah

When everyone is comfortable, chant the mantra as a group. Have a participant extinguish the chalice.

Before Session 2
Ask each participant to post their personal mantra somewhere that they will see it often and use it as a visual cue to remind them to practice chanting it daily.