The Heart of Buddha's Thought

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The Heart of Buddha's Thought

By Wilson Hurley

Homage to Arya Bhagavati Prajnya Paramita!

Last year, I wrote a brief article about the Heart Sutra based on the perspective of Tibet's great scholar and adept, Je Tsongkapa, as illuminated in his composition entitled "The Three Principal Paths," in which Je Tsongkapa summarizes the entire course to enlightenment into three main realizations: Renunciation, Bodhicitta, and Correct View. In Renunciation, the practitioner gains a thorough understanding of the pitfalls of cyclic existence, which leads to constant striving, day and night, for liberation. In Bodhicitta, the practitioner takes on the supreme goal of striving for total enlightenment in order to release all beings from the beginningless rounds of suffering in samsara. And finally, with Correct View, the practitioner gains the realization of the interplay between dependent origination and emptiness, thus becoming capable of severing the root of cyclic existence.

I mentioned in last year's article that, in the Heart Sutra, there are lists of phenomena that are described as empty: no form, no feeling, no discernment, no compositional factors, no consciousness, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind, etc. If you mistakenly think that the Heart Sutra is denying the existence of these things then you have fallen into the extreme view of nihilism: mistakenly thinking that something which does exist does not exist. On the other hand, if you mistakenly think that these things have an independent self-nature, then you have fallen into the extreme view of eternalism: mistakenly thinking that something which has no self-nature has a self-nature. The key to gaining a proper understanding of the Heart Sutra is to correctly realize the object(s) being refuted and negated.

This year, I would like to focus on a particular passage of the Heart Sutra that, if misunderstood, can lead to profound problems. The text says "there is no suffering, no source of suffering, no cessation of suffering, and no path to that cessation." Every Buddhist knows that Lord Buddha taught the four truths of suffering, the causes of suffering (karma and the mental afflictions), true cessations (of the causes of suffering and therefore of suffering itself), and true paths to those cessations. Is the Heart Sutra contradicting these four truths which are seen by all realized beings? The answer is: of course not! Then what does this passage mean? 

For an answer to this question, I would like to turn to another text composed by Je Tsongkapa on the morning of his own realization of the ultimate truth. It is entitled, "Praise to Lord Buddha for the Essence of his Excellent Speech." This text is also known as "Praise of Dependent Origination." In it, Je Tsongkapa praises Lord Buddha for his teachings on dependent origination through which the aspirant can gradually come to a proper understanding of Buddha's teachings on emptiness. In particular, Je Tsongkapa says, "Anything which depends on conditions, by that very thing's nature is empty." So what exactly is a thing that depends on conditions empty of? Later in the same text, Je Tsongkapa answers this by saying "nondependence is like a sky-flower." A "sky-flower" is something that does not exist. A real flower depends on the seeds from whence it came as well as on the soil, moisture, and warmth from which it grows. This means that a flower is dependently originated, and that a nondependent "sky-flower" could not exist. So, Je Tsongkapa is asserting that things which rely on conditions are empty of nondependent status. In other words, they are empty of independent self-nature. That is the object being refuted.

By realizing that all phenomena are dependently originated, we can realize that they therefore must have no independent, self-existent nature. Therefore, they are empty. They are merely labeled as existent on an appropriate basis of designation, which is also empty of self-nature. For example, the word flower is an appropriate label for that which has a stem and petals and which grows depending on a seed, soil, moisture and warmth. In the Sagathavagga section of the Samyutta Nikaya, there is a Sutta entitled "Devatasamyutta." Bhikku Bodhi translates a certain verse by Lord Buddha as follows: "If a bhikkhu is an arahant, consummate, with taints destroyed, one who bears his final body, he might say 'I speak,' and he might say, 'They speak to me.' Skilful, knowing the world's parlance, he uses such words as mere expressions." In other words, such beings know that such labels as "I" or "me" are mere labels on an entity that is empty of self-nature.
With the above interpretation in mind, let's look again at the section of the Heart Sutra that says "there is no suffering, no source of suffering, no cessation of suffering, and no path to that cessation." Suffering exists, we can see it all around us. What the Heart Sutra is telling us is that suffering does not exist independently. It does not have self-nature. It depends upon its causes. Therefore, there is "no suffering" which exists independently of its causes. What are the causes of suffering? Karma and mental afflictions. These are the true origins of suffering. If true origins of suffering were independent and if they possessed self-nature, they could not produce suffering, they could not change, nor could they be eliminated by true paths. It is by the very nature of the emptiness of self-existence of karma and the mental afflictions that they are capable of producing effects (suffering) and of being eliminated (true cessations). Therefore, "no source of suffering" means that there is no such thing as an independent, self-existent cause of suffering. The causes of suffering are dependently arisen.

If we look at the last two truths in the same light, we can see that cessation of suffering is possible if we can find and employ the right methods to eliminate the causes of suffering. This means that true cessations depend upon true paths: true methods to eliminate suffering and its causes. Therefore, "no cessation" means that there is no such thing as a cessation that arises independently, without relying on true paths. And "no path to that cessation" means that the paths to true cessations also depend on causes and conditions. They do not exist independently because, if they did, they could not produce the results of true cessations. Understanding the Heart Sutra in this way will bring the realization that everything that Lord Buddha taught was, and continues to be, correct and non-contradictory. His teachings, in all of their variety, are the true path to the elimination of suffering for all beings. Understanding this, one can appreciate Je Tsongkapa's exclamations of praise for Lord Buddha: "Wonderful teacher! Wonderful refuge! Wonderful supreme speaker! Wonderful protector!"

(This was written by Wilson Hurley in response to a request for papers for the International Visakha Festival 2001 in Washington D.C.)