Emoji Heart Sutra

« previous post | next post »

From the Library of Congress International Collections FB page (Saturday 7/17/21):

Click on "See More" for additional information about how the symbols function. I myself do not really understand exactly how they work in this particular text, so I would welcome explanations from any and all readers who think they can explain some aspect of how to read this most unusual writing system.


Suggested readings

  • "Ornamental Manchu: the lengths to which a forger will go" (4/24/21)
  • "Faux Manchu: Ornamental Manchu II" (6/23/21)
  • Diana Shuheng Zhang, "The Reins of Language: The Mantra of the Heart Sutra in The Journey to the West," Sino-Platonic Papers, 286 (June, 2019), 1-61 (free pdf)
  • Jan Nattier, "The Heart Sūtra: a Chinese apocryphal text?" Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 15.2 (1992), 153-223. (online)
  • Victor H. Mair, "The Heart Sūtra and The Journey to the West", in Wang Gungwu, Rafe de Crespigny, and Igor de Rachewiltz, eds., Sino-Asiatica: Papers dedicated to Professor Liu Ts’un-yan on the occasion of his Eighty-fifth Birthday. Canberra:  Faculty of Asian Studies, The Australian National University, 2002), pp. 120-149.  Detailed study and complete translation of the preface to the Heart Sūtra on Dunhuang manuscript S2464 which shows, inter alia, that it constituted a prototype for Journey to the West, the earliest kernel of the great Ming Dynasty novel.  Also featured in this paper are Liang Wudi, Xuanzang, Avalokiteśvara, and Amoghavajra.  In addition, the paper accounts for the narrative elaboration and fictionalization of Xuanzang's pilgrimage to India and demonstrates clearly how the Heart Sūtra ultimately lies at the core of the novel.
  • "Heart Sutra" (Wikipedia)


[Thanks to Nathan Hopson]



  1. jhh said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 12:27 pm


  2. John from Cincinnati said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 1:47 pm

    This LL post does not display productively for me. After your first line, ending with 7/17/21 and a colon, there is your second paragraph beginning Click on "See More", but nothing between them. When I tell the browser to view source, it shows a div with class fb-post and an href link to facebook, but none of that displays here. Oh, and when I manually go to that URL, I'm told by facebook that I must log in to continue. Does everybody in the world except me have a facebook account? Because I can easily conjure my mother's voice asking me if everybody else did would I do it too. No.

  3. John from Cincinnati said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 1:49 pm

    Sorry, I forgot the rules and used angle brackets. Intended to say … asking me if everybody else did (insert something silly here) would I do it too. No.

  4. david said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 3:29 pm

    Anther non-FBer here, same issue. It's surprising that the LOC would have a FB page that wasn't generally accessible. All of our taxes pay for their presence.

  5. Ross Presser said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 4:42 pm

    I also don't have a Facebook account. Worse yet, while browsing from my work computer, the company-enforced proxy completely blocks Facebook altogether. So I have absolutely no idea what is being linked.

    Would it be out of the question to ask for a screenshot of the Facebook post, even a partial one?

  6. Duncan said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 7:18 pm

    And here I thought it was my uBlockOrigin and/or other security settings…

    I suspect the problem is that FB prevents "deep linking", except to those logged in. I got the same login-to-continue when I tried the full manual link here. However, the FB article is (currently) still new enough that it's the second article listed at the link to the general LOCIC FB page. (Sorry, that won't help help you Ross P. I could take a screenshot but I have to find somewhere to put it to link to… maybe an image-hoster, but let me post the general LOCIC link first…)


  7. Duncan said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 7:37 pm

    Here's one of the photos (of two). Will this link work? Will LL dump the post as spam?

    The blurb (the go.usa link at the end is to the LOC listing…)

    Today, for World Emoji Day, we revisit a popular post from a few years ago.
    An example of Buddhist emoji from 18th-century Japan? This unusual rendition of the Heart Sutra, one of the most popular Buddhist scriptures in East Asia, is titled “Heart Sutra for the Illiterate” (mekura shinkyō). Its creator aimed to make the sutra readable for those with no formal education by relying on pictures of familiar items to serve as a guide for pronunciation. Because these pictures represent sounds, rather than objects or ideas, they don’t really act as pictograms the way emoji do. But in their icon-like appearance, succinct and functional, they do bear a resemblance to our use of emoji today. Tachibana Nankei (1753-1805) reproduced this unique text from northeastern Japan in his 1795 “Travelogue of East and West” (Tōzai yūki), https://go.usa.gov/xF3mx.

  8. Josh R said,

    July 18, 2021 @ 7:51 pm

    The text is essentially a series of visual puns so that, if you know how to say the Heart Sutra in Japanese, you can decode the images.

    So, for example, the Sanskrit phrase "Prajñāpāramitā" is rendered "Hannyaharamita" in Japanese. "Hannya" here is written with a drawing of the hannya demon mask from Noh. "Harami" appears to be a picture of a body (mi) in an abdomen (hara), and then "ta" is a picture of a ricefield (tanbo, the "ta" of many Japanese names, like Tanaka and Toyota). Few of the pictures represent any of the actual meaning of the words of the sutra (with the seeming exception of five lines representing "go"). Rather, they suggest homophones. The five vertical lines and four horizontal lines make 9, i.e., "ku", which is then used to represent "苦 ku, suffering" as well as "空 kuu, emptiness."

  9. Jayarava Attwood said,

    July 19, 2021 @ 2:37 am

    Thanks to Josh R for decoding this. I've never understood it.

    Re the suggested reading. I've published ten peer-reviewed articles on the Heart Sutra since 2015, covering Sanskrit and Chinese philology, history, and philosophy. My articles can be found on my Academia dot edu page: https://independent.academia.edu/JayaravaAttwood

    I'm still working on the text and should see at least three more publications.

    See also Huifeng 2014: https://www.academia.edu/8275423/Apocryphal_Treatment_for_Conze_s_Heart_Problems_Non_attainment_Apprehension_and_Mental_Hanging_in_the_Praj%C3%B1%C4%81p%C4%81ramit%C4%81_Hrdaya

    Also the Wikipedia page very much reflects the views of the Chinese-speaking religious fanatic who has taken over editing it and bullies all those who try to make improvements he doesn't approve of. He relies heavily on his own translations of Chinese texts.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    July 19, 2021 @ 7:15 am

    Here's the LOC bibliographical record for this item:


  11. Frank Chance said,

    July 19, 2021 @ 1:43 pm

    What puzzles me about this post is the conflation of rebus writing with emoji. Should we not disambiguate them, and should the Library of Congress not be held to a little higher standard? Of course they probably do not have any very old examples of emoji texts to put up on "World Emoji Day" since emojis were not invented until c. 1997, but could there not be a "World Rebus Day" celebration as well?
    For quick reference see the Wikipedia articles on Rebus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebus#Japan) and emoji (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emoji)

  12. John Swindle said,

    July 21, 2021 @ 4:18 am

    They don’t use the word “rebus”—it might have been helpful to do so—but they do describe the principle and how these differ from emoji.

  13. Jonathan Silk said,

    July 22, 2021 @ 2:15 am

    There is a whole book about this, Victor:

    Watanabe Shōgo 渡辺章悟. 2012. Etoki Hannya shingyō: Hannya shingyō no bunkateki kenkyū 絵解き般若心経- 般若心経の文化的研究 (Tokyo: Nonburusha ノンブル社).

  14. k said,

    July 25, 2021 @ 3:12 am

    I don't think there's any need or possibility to differentiate emoji and rebus writing. Idea that emoji are used only as pictograms doesn't stand confrontation with reality where is notoriously used as a verb just like pre-emoji 〼 have been. The old -based puns are also usable, and my favorite unexpected emoji spelling I once encountered was “合”. The primary difference is really just in the use of color.

RSS feed for comments on this post