The Heart Sutra


This sentence deals with the Void as the ground of the Four Noble Truths. What are they? Suffering, Cause of Suffering, Cessation of Suffering and The Path. The teaching transcends the mundane and provides access to sainthood. A saint from the Theravada tradition attains the path and the fruit on the basis of his/her practice of The Four Noble Truths. The Mahayana attainment is in the realm of the supramundane. The suffering spoken of is the suffering in this world. Its causes are, likewise, of this world, the path is operative in this world and Nirvana or cessation of suffering is our exit from this world. The path provides the right causes for the Tao and the practice is aimed toward enlightenment.

The first of the Noble Truths is presented in three aspects: 1. As ordinary suffering. In this aspect it includes all forms of physical and mental pain and ache. 2. The outcome of the impermanent nature of life. All the fleeting pleasures are illusory and temporary and subject to change. 3. The five aggregates or the conditioned states. Matter, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, the last being based on the first four, are constantly changing, hence impermanent, and what is impermanent is, inevitably, suffering.

The six realms of existence comprise three good or happy ones, and three unhappy or evil ones. The first three are the realm of heavenly beings, the realm of humans and the realm of asuras (titans). The latter three consist of the realm of hell, the realm of hungry ghosts, and the realm of animals. The form sphere and the formless sphere both provide much longer life continuity than this world. and more happiness as well, but they are still subject to birth, death and suffering consequent of action. The sphere of desire in the human realm provides equal parts of happiness and suffering, while the asuras, though enjoying blessings, are without morality and their good fortune will eventually end.

The inhabitants of the three happy realms made good causes in their former lives, and depending on how they benefit others, they will receive rewards accordingly in this world. There is no need to explain the three unhappy realms. All we need to say is that there is a great deal of suffering there. The suffering of those inhabiting unhappy realms is the present effect of causes from their previous lives. All suffering is produced by the mind. One reaps as one sows.

What is the cause of suffering? The second of the Noble Truths posits the cause or the origin of suffering as craving or thirst which produces re-existence and re-becoming, accompanied by passionate clinging. Numerous causes come together, and we know that our present suffering is the effect of previous causes. Likewise, our present behavior is the foundation for future effects.

What effect has the supramundane on the cessation of suffering? The third of the Noble Truths follows logically from the first two. If craving is removed or transcended there will be no more suffering. Cessation means calmness and extinction, or Nirvana: It is inviting, attractive and comprehensible to the wise. The one who understands the source of suffering thoroughly knows that it is generated by one’s own self; yearning for Nirvana, he/she resolves to practice and attain the path and the fruit, i.e., Nirvana.

What is the cause of the Noble Truth of the Path? Having analyzed the meaning of life, the Buddha demonstrated to his disciples how to deal effectively with suffering. The fourth Noble Truth makes the teaching a complete whole. Those who focus their desire on attaining the supramundane Nirvana can break off the causes of suffering and practice toward enlightenment.

The practitioner of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths should reach understanding of the cause of suffering and direct his/her efforts toward the dissolution of the cause of suffering, resolve to attain Nirvana and from then on practice wholeheartedly. Following his enlightenment the Buddha taught the Avatamsaka, but some hearers had difficulty understanding it, and therefore he applied expedient means to accommodate them. His teaching of the Four Noble Truths was threefold: 1. By means of contemplation of the manifestations of suffering, 2. By exhortation, 3. Using his own attainment as an example and as encouragement.

1. Contemplation of the manifestations of suffering.

There are several kinds of suffering people are forced to endure in order to survive and to get the basic necessities of life; The ordinary form of suffering includes birth, old age, sickness, death, parting from what we love, meeting what we hate, unattained aims and all the ills of the five skandhas. Where does the suffering come from? It is generated by one’s own self.

The cause of suffering is a cluster of six root defilements: Greed, hatred, ignorance, pride, doubt and heterodox views. The lesser defilements are diversified varieties of the six root defilements. The twenty secondary afflictions are belligerence, resentment, spite, concealment, deceit, dissimulation, haughtiness, harmfulness, jealousy, miserliness, non-shame, non–embarrassment, non-faith, laziness, non-conscientiousness, lethargy, excitement, forgetfulness, non-introspection, and distraction; the six root defilements and the twenty secondary afflictions together cause all the suffering in the world.

Cessation of suffering can be attained; it is possible to end the cycle (allotment) of birth and death, put aside the four conditions of mortality and attain the appealing, joyful Nirvana. To follow the Theravada practice means, however, not to halt the mortal changes of the round of births, and to have some obstruction regarding Emptiness.

Those who resolved to practice and attain because of their ardent wish to reach Nirvana should observe the thirty-seven conditions leading to Bodhi. The three studies or three pillars of practice – discipline, meditation and wisdom – represent the thirty-seven conditions in condensed form. The practice of discipline removes the obstacle of greed, meditation reduces delusion and the two combined foster wisdom. Without diligent practice the Buddha’s follower does not get very far on his journey.

2. By exhortation:

Using the expressions and the tone of a concerned teacher or a parent the Buddha would, at times, urge his followers: “You should understand how people are forced to endure their predicament…” or “the cessation of suffering can be attained, you ought to make the effort, you should practice…” and so on.

3. Using his own attainment as an example and as encouragement:

“The problem of suffering can be resolved; look, I did it and so can you.”

“The causes of suffering are cumulative. The sooner you eliminate or transcend them, the quicker you will be free once and for all; I freed myself and now I don’t have to worry any more” and such like.

At the time the Buddha set the wheel in motion by teaching the Four Noble Truths, the hearers (Sravakas) attained sainthood (Arhatship). After years of teaching, the Buddha taught the Dharma of Emptiness (Sunyata) to promote the understanding of the supramundane Void of True Existence. We have seen the emptiness of the five skandhas, and at present we perceive the Dharma of the Four Noble Truths to be void as well. There is no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering and no path. They are only the reflection in the mirror; without reflection there is not the ability to reflect. The reflection is not separate from that which reflects it; the reflective surface and the reflection are one. To understand this means to be close to enlightenment.