Resources on Mahayana Sutra

Heart Sutra and Four Noble Truth

Dear friends,

The Heart Sutra mentions on the " ignorance and no end of ignorance, and so on up to no aging and death, and no end of aging and death; no suffering, accumulation, cessation, or path....."

Is there any correlation between Heart Sutra and Four Noble Truth?

With metta,
gaik yen

Heart Sutra and the Four Noble Truths


The Heart Sutra (although a mere 260 words in the Chinese version) is the essence of the prajnaparamita texts which some say contain the teachings of the Buddha during the entire 22 year period of the prajna period of his career. It is therefore a concentration of the main doctrines of buddhism in general and an exposition of the concept of emptiness in particular. Which is a difficult feat and which is also why many great masters spend days, or weeks or months or even years to explain it. So we can forgive ourselves if we are unable to understand it fully in a short time since the doctrines are deep and not easy to understand, especially that of emptiness. Many people chant this sutra many times on a daily basis but only few can expound it fully.

However, limited though words and concepts may be in helping us to gain an understanding of emptiness, we still have to rely on them to do the job.

The Four Noble Truths (FNT) mentioned in the sutra refer to the Enlightenment of the Sravakas through the wisdom gained from the realisation of the FNT.* What is NOT meant by there being no suffering, origin, cessation and way to cessation of sufferng is that the effect of the realisation of the FNT is negated or that one should not realise the FNT. Instead, the sutra says that in striving for Enlightenment through the realisation of the FNT, the Sravaka treats the FNT and Nirvana as a goal to achieve and ever-existent and consequently as something to which to cling on. But Nirvana is the unabiding and unbinding. It is the absence of all attachments. For one to be attached to something even though it is Nirvana, one will forever not be able to reach Nirvana no matter how hard one practices.

And so it is said that the Sravaka while realising the wisdom of the emptiness of the self does not realise the wisdom of the emptiness of the dharmas (大乘悟我法二空...声闻人,虽不见有我,但还见到法: the Mahayana realises both the emptiness of the self and the dharmas...the Sravaka although realises non-self, still sees the existence of the dharmas) unlike the Bodhisattva who realises the wisdoms of the both the emptiness of the self and the emptiness of the dharmas, and ultimately the emptiness of wisdom itself.

This is very much similar in tone to Master Huineng's response to the following verse from Master Shenxiu:


“Our body is the bodhi tree,
And our mind is a mirror bright,
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.”

Master Huineng's response:


“There is no bodhi tree,
Nor a stand of mirror bright,
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

As mentioned, the Heart Sutra cannot be easily comprehended. This is how I think it relates to the FNT. Let me know if I have put anything incorrectly.

*the Pratyekas through the wisdom from the realisation of paticcasammupada and the Bodhisattvas through the wisdom from the realisation of sunyata.

Denis Wallez's picture

heart sutra and the noble truths

The two are totally compatible, they just are different teaching devices focusing on different points (for different audiences).

For example:
no ignorance = no essential inherent ignorance
= nirvana is reachable, there is no essential barrier (that cannot be overcome)
= 3rd noble truth
For example:
no end of ignorance = activity doesn't stop, there is work to do
= practice
= 4th noble truth
and also
no end of ignorance = entering nirvana doesn't stop death (Sakyamuni died, remember?)
= death will lead to forgetting the lessons learnt
= lessons forgotten means new ignorance appears
(possibly extended to… = rebirth = suffering = 1st noble truth)

For example:
No accumulation refers to accumulation of merits, and it reminds the audience that clinging (2nd truth) is the cause of suffering, and clinging to merits (or to the path, or to the idea of nirvana even!) is also a form of clinging… After all, the Buddha himself told the sangha not to accept teachings only based on the reputation of who's teaching… but it's quite easy to start practising (4th truth) and then cling to the path when one starts enjoying the fruits. Or it's easy to cling to definitions given to us of what nirvana is (or is not) and stop investigating for ourselves…

If you relate the four noble truths to the first turning of the wheel of dharma, and the heart sutra to the second, you might get a better perspective on how they are compatible.
The second turning is about going further than the first turning, either because practitioners have now acquired some confidence in their ability to progress (so they can now aim at a more ambitious goal without losing hope), or because some (subtle) misunderstandings are to be corrected. In both cases, this means the heart sutra needs to express things differently, it cannot just repeat the earlier teachings (this would not move the goal, and would not 'fix' mistakes by the auditors).
One way to look at it is that the four noble truths are a finger pointing to the moon, the heart sutra is another finger pointing to the moon. The two fingers are different, they might be in very different locations, they may have wildly different colours and shapes… but both point to the moon!

If nirvana was expressible, probably the various teachings (the fingers) would have only one definitive expression; but nirvana is inexpressible. The large variations in 'forms' (not in what they point to) between hinayana and mahayana are not contradictory, they only confirm that nirvana cannot be 'told,' only realised.

Resources on Mahayana Sutra

This is first time I saw the Mahayana Sutra in English.
That is wonferful in taking IBC e-learning and I can feel the dharma joy.
Thank you very much for the sharing.

With metta,
gaik yen

Resources on Mahayna Sutra

Dear Sis GY,

Thanks for showing the links.

I have read the Lotus Sutra in Chinese translation last semester.

It is really a great Sutra. I came to a lot of un-expectation about Buddha skilful means.

There are a lot of direct teachings (nitartha) by Buddha through his conversations with his disciples, Bodhisattvas, gods, humans, four assemblies, etc.

It really exercises our thinking to understand the nitartha in order to get Buddha’s ultimate meaning (paramartha).

You will find a lot of stories about Buddha Sakyamuni’s previous lives.
You will find complete and satisfied answers that you looking for so far.

It is not complete if you only read a few chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Read them all.
You sure will have a lot of Dharma joy reading the Sutra.

With metta, FS

Resources on Mahayana Sutra

Dear Sis Fong Seong,

Much appreciated your sharing. It is wonderful with all the teaching from the Buddha.
I am looking forward to read the Lotus Sutra.

With metta,
gaik yen