The Heart Sūtra and the Mahāyāna vs. Theravāda Traditions (In-class essay)

The Heart Sūtra encapsulates two of the main teachings of the Mahayana Buddhist thought and practice: emptiness and wisdom, wisdom being the understanding of emptiness. The final lines of the Heart Sūtra conclude that great knowledge and the cessation of dukkha, especially for all beings, “is true, for there is none lacking in it.” Once wisdom and understanding of emptiness are attained, then there is Awakening.

In order to understand the Heart Sūtra’s call to wisdom, the practitioner must first be familiar with its main tenet: that emptiness is form and form is emptiness (Heart Sutra). This statement speaks to the duality of the Buddhist belief in two forms of truth. The lower truth being what the rupa, or body, experiences. This is all that is encapsulated in the Five Skhandas, or Aggregates, which make up the body, tactile senses, emotions, worldview, and mental formations (What the Buddha Taught, 31). For example, everything a person can think, feel, or perceive exists on the level of Lower Truth. The Upper Truth disputes these things. It is the realization that thoughts have no physical form, so, while they come and go, they cannot be manipulated or removed by anything but other thoughts and concentrations brought about by, for example, mindfulness meditation. Therefore, they do not exist and are thus “empty.”

The very meaning of the word “empty” suggests the capacity to hold something. Therefore, emptiness connotes some kind of form to be filled up. In order to have emptiness, there must also be form. This is a difficult concept to understand, but it represents the coming together of the Lower and Upper Truths, a union that is crucial to understanding emptiness and gaining wisdom.

The Mahāyāna and the Theravāda Buddhists, though different in approach, both reach the same final destination, awakening. The Theravāda path is often referred to the “Pathway to Purification,” for it follows the Four Noble Truths, the Precepts, and the Dharma very strictly. In this path, a practitioner enters the sangha, or the stream, which will ultimately lead him to Awakening. This will take many, many lifetimes of being reborn into different realms and various states of being. However, the final-returners, or arhats, are those who will reach enlightenment and the end of their current lifetimes. The term arhat is extremely individual. It is singular in that it refers only to a certain individual who will reach enlightenment even though other beings have not yet reached their final lives, or perhaps, haven’t even entered the stream. For this reason, the arhat is often referred to as the “stream winner.” This translation is problematic, since it suggests that there are also losers, which does not seem to be in keeping with Buddhist thought.  In order to reach enlightenment, a practitioner must develop loving kindness, empathy, compassion, and wisdom. This must all be learned and acted out in the context of emptiness.

While an arhat is a more singular Theravāda concept, the Mahāyānan Bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be, is committed to the enlightenment of all beings. He will not reach his final Awakening until the rest of the beings that were, are, or ever will be, have reached enlightenment, and, as the Heart Sūtra says, “joy.” Implicit in the Bodhisattva’s mission is the expectation of an infinite amount of beings and an infinite amount of lifetimes of waiting, caring, and practicing until, he can finally reach enlightenment. However, this does not trouble the Bodhisattva, for he thinks, “We all have a common responsibility for our world and are connected with everything in it. This is why we can make an offering of it” (For the Benefit of All Beings, 23).

One may think, since the arhats are concerned with themselves and the bodhisattvas are so concerned with others, is one of them wrong? Are the arhats selfish and committed only to themselves? Do they even believe in the Heart Sūtra, which tells us that in order to reach enlightenment, we must let go of the desire to do so? These questions and their subsequent judgments are not relevant to Buddhist practitioners. Those who understand the Upper and Lower Truths realize that these thoughts only come about from people who do not yet understand them.

An arhat, while individual, still cares for all beings and the whole world. He meditates, “may all beings be happy” (For the Benefit of All Beings, 33). Since he follows the Eight Fold Path, he is aware of the cessation of dukkha—not just for him, but for all beings. He is aware that the dharma will be passed on, and he is aware that the merit and the seeds of karma that he plants in this life will flower in the lives of others. Though he may reach enlightenment before then, he is therefore still an active participant in the enlightenment of others. Arhats are not cold hearted or selfish. They understand that all beings have tathãgatagarbha, or “the potential for Buddhahood” (For the Benefit of All Beings 135). After all, no matter who enters the stream, so to speak, they do so with the understanding that all those who enter the stream will reach Awakening. The arhat, therefore, allows himself to turn away from civilization and practice meditation, understanding, and compassion in solitude, for the benefit of everyone.

The bodhisattva, who relies on “attentiveness” (to the dharma) and “application” (of the dharma) will go about attaining enlightenment in a different way. He is perhaps more directly involved in helping other reach enlightenment than the arhat seems to be. He is committed to following the six parāmitās, or perfections: generosity, discipline, patience, endeavor, meditative concentration, and wisdom (For the Benefit of All Beings, 7). All of these things he does with the expectation that it will help other buddhas-to-be embrace bodhichitta and further the universe’s journey to Awakening. The bodhsattva, like the arhat, is committed to engendering merit and karma to help every sentient being reach enlightenment.

Both buddhas-to-be turn away from negative thoughts and actions to reach Awakening and therefore generate enough positive intentions and karma to help others along the Path. Both paths emphasize meditation as a way to “turn away from negative actions of a physical level” (For the Benefit of All Beings, 23). Furthermore, they both renounce the eight worldly preoccupations (to use the Mahāyānan terminology): ‘gain or loss, pleasure or pain, praise or criticism, and fame or infamy” (For the Benefit of all Beings 23). Theravāda Buddhists, despite having a different word for this, do the same thing when they follow the Precepts and live in accordance with the suggestions for mindfulness, morality, and intention implicit in the Eightfold Path.

It is important to note that both paths discourage practitioners from negative actions and judgments. When we make a value judgment based on the wording of a translated definition or teaching, like arhat or bodhisattva, we stand to miss the real meaning of those words: what people feel and understand when they hear them. Arhats and bodhisattvas alike are worthy of much respect, since, even though they go about it in different ways, they strive for a better state of being for everyone, directly or indirectly.

Neither an arhat nor a bodhisattva would compare himself to the other and say “I am better because I care more about others.” The Dalai Lama himself urges, “when we see qualities in ourselves that make us better than others, we should exchange roles and destroy our feelings of superiority” (For the Benefit of All Beings 110). Only a mind invaded by negative thoughts would make such a comparison.  Furthermore, it is in the buddha-to-be’s nature to be forgiving and understand the one who has those negative thoughts.

“The root of negative emotions is the ignorance of believing that phenomena are real” (For the Benefit of All Beings, 21). Since we exist in a conditioned world, these negative emotions come from a conditioned state. The Heart Sūtra says that, since these thoughts and mental perceptions have no form, they are empty, and therefore they do not exist. They are empty and passing.  The Heart Sūtra reveals our dependence on the Lower Truth, which is also a Conditioned Truth. Anyone who reaches Awakening understands that love should be extended to every being despite his or her negative thoughts. Once a man’s negative emotions are distilled to anger, it is possible to realize the conditions that lead to that anger, which have nothing to do with the person himself.

Regardless of which path a Buddhist practitioner follows, both believe in the concept of the anatman, or non-self. There is no self with which to be concerned in the world of the Upper Truth, the world of Awakening and wisdom. In fact, to use the Dalai Lama’s words, “the universe that we inhabit and our shared perception of it are the result of a common karma” (For the Benefit of All Beings, 23). This common karma will help everyone reach enlightenment. The attitude of a Buddha-to-be is the attitude of compassion, love, and empathy. These things bring about an enormous amount of karma for the world; a karma that will reach everyone. The intentions of the arhats and the bodhisattvas are the same. When a Buddhist hears these words, he or she should be comforted and rejoice! Though they go about it in different ways, both buddhas-to-be are committed to helping every being reach Awakening. It seems to me that one cannot achieve Awakening himself until he understands this. The path to enlightenment, regardless of its twists and turns, hills, and valleys, is a call to love.


Works Cited:

  1. The Dalai Lama. For the Benfit of All Beings. Shambhala: Boston & London. 2009. Print.
  2. Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Grove Press: New York City. 1974. Print.
  3. The Heart Sūtra

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