A Dhamma article by Ajahn Amaro – The View From the Centre

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A Dhamma article written by Ajahn Amaro in 2008 –

‘Don’t be an arahant, don’t be a bodhisattva, don’t be anything at all – if you are anything at all you will suffer’ [Ajahn Chah].

A student of Buddhism asked: ‘Which do you think is the best path: that of the arahant or that of the bodhisattva?’ Ajahn Sumedho replied: ‘That kind of question is asked by people who understand absolutely nothing about Buddhism!’

One of the larger and more significant elephants in the living-room of Buddhism in the West is the uneasy and often unexpressed disparity between the classically stated goals of the Northern and Southern schools. These goals can be expressed in various ways. For the Northern Tradition the goal is most often formulated as the cultivation of the bodhisattva path for the benefit of all beings, developed over many lifetimes and culminating in Buddhahood. For the Southern Tradition the goal is the realization of arahantship, ideally in this very life.

The main reason for delving into this thorny disparity is that questions akin to the one asked of Ajahn Sumedho, quoted above, come up so often. This chapter therefore aims to shed a little more light on the landscape of the goal of Buddhist practice, recount some of what the scriptures and traditions have said over the centuries and outline some of the questions that have been asked. Hopefully this multi-faceted aim will enable the reader’s intuitive wisdom to integrate these elements into a clearer quality of understanding of how these various points might fit together and balance with each other. It is explicitly not the intention here to argue towards some particular position and then defend it.

Views from the North, Views from the South

For those who live, study and practise in the style of the Northern School (aka Mahāyāna/Vajrayāna), it is totally normal and expected to take bodhisattva vows and precepts. The scriptures and liturgies of that lineage are thickly populated with the bodhisattva principle, both in the presence of bodhisattvas as great spiritual beings and in the bodhisattva ideal as the informing spirit of much of the teachings and the texts. For those who practise in the style of the Southern School, the spiritual ideal that is extolled with equal regularity and vigour is that of the arahant, and the bodhisattva principle is hardly ever spoken of outside the Jātaka stories of the previous lives of Gotama Buddha. If it is discussed at all, it is usually only with reference to the emphasis of the later Mahāyāna schools.

Nowadays these two views and practices often have occasion to meet, particularly in the West. A wide spectrum of Buddhist teachings is available and many people have practised in several different traditions, or at least been inspired by teachings from accomplished masters of widely different lineages. We read a book which encourages us to free our heart from greed, hatred and delusion, to see escape from the endless cycles of rebirth as the finest thing we can achieve in our life, and the heart sings, ‘Yes, that’s it!’ Then we read of the compassionate heart which is so vast and unselfish that its chief concern is to stay in the world to relieve the suffering of other beings, and again the heart leaps, ‘That’s wonderful!’ So questions arise: are these two ways opposed or compatible? Are they parallel tracks, equally good but leading to different goals, or is their goal maybe the same? Are they actually the same track but simply called by different names?

Over the centuries the Southern and Northern lineages have developed critiques of each other’s way of practice which have been passed on and adopted as received knowledge. When we can only base our own ideas on information from books or the established outlook portrayed by particular lineages, these critiques seem to be reasonable. Some of the most common Southern points of view argue that the Mahāyāna schools are not real Buddhism; they developed their own scriptures and have wandered from the Buddha’s true way, i.e. practising the Eightfold Path to realize Nibbāna and end rebirth. The voices from the North argue that the Southern Theravādans are the ‘Small Vehicle’, Hīnayānists who only practise according to the Buddha’s most basic teachings, and are narrow-minded and selfishly concerned only with winning the peace of Nirvāna for themselves. The Buddha gave far superior and more refined teachings, those of the Great and Supreme Vehicles, and it is they which should be held in the highest esteem. It is most noble and altruistic to vow to stay in the world as a bodhisattva, developing the pāramitās until full Buddhahood is reached. Both sets of practitioners often struggle over these apparent differences, and wrestle with such issues as whether they’re conceiving a deeply obstructive wrong view by believing the criticisms of arahants, or pointlessly tying their hearts to an erroneous ideal if they don’t take the bodhisattva vows

In addition to this type of issue, which is concerned more with personal dilemmas and one’s gut response to the perceived differences in ideals, the plot thickens when we look at the scriptures on a more scholarly level. On examination, we find some curious and significant anomalies in the teachings of both the Northern and Southern schools.

Firstly, for followers of the Southern school, there is the roaring silence regarding the concept of the bodhisattva path in the Pali Canon, except for the Jātakas. It seems impossible that in the Buddha’s forty-five years of teaching thousands of disciples, the subject of his bodhisattva training never came up. If someone is studying with a spiritual teacher such as the Buddha, it is the most natural thing in the world to want to emulate that person. However, there is no record of anyone even asking him about the bodhisattva path. This absence is almost comparable to writing an extensive biography of Winston Churchill but omitting to mention his periods as Prime Minister. In the entire Pali Canon there is no instance where anyone asks the Buddha such questions as: ‘What made you choose to become a Buddha.’ ‘Could an ordinary person like me undertake the effort to become a Buddha too?’ ‘How does one train as a bodhisatt a?’ ‘Should I aim for Buddhahood or the more accessible goal of arahantship?’

Equally interestingly, not once does the Buddha proffer any comment on this part of his own background and how it might apply to others. He never says: ‘It is good to strive for Buddhahood’, or ‘I set this intention and pursued it, but it’s not an appropriate undertaking for everyone.’ Nothing. Not a syllable. Even if the Buddha’s silence was based upon the reflection that saying anything would only confuse people: just let them practise the Dhamma, and when they awakened to the Path they would see for themselves what the proper course was; still, someone would surely have been curious. Furthermore, it’s not as though such questions were considered as too stupid to have been included in the Canon, which contains numerous accounts of brahmins being confuted or bhikkhus disabused of their wrong views. But on this subject there is an eerie rather than a noble silence; no directions or recommendations ever come from the Buddha on what would seem to be an axiomatic issue of spiritual training. This inevitably raises the question of why the issue is never mentioned.

Secondly, for followers of the Northern Tradition there is an equally mysterious anomaly. Immediately following his enlightenment, the Buddha’s first inclination was not to try to teach other living beings. He saw the ubiquity and degree of attachment as so great, and the subtlety of his newly discovered insight as so refined and counter-intuitive, that should he try to teach others would not understand, and it would be ‘a trouble and a weariness’ to him. It might seem strange that if compassion for the welfare of other beings was his prime motivation in developing the pāramitās for so many lifetimes (over a span of ‘four incalculable periods and a hundred thousand aeons’ according to one scripture), he should feel there was no point in even trying to teach others. Very mysterious …

According to the scriptures of both the Northern and Southern schools, a high deity discerns this train of thought in the mind of the newly-awakened Buddha and is moved to appeal to him. He asks the Buddha to make the effort to share his profound new understanding ’out of compassion for the world and for the sake of those with only a little dust in their eyes.’ The Buddha then casts his vision over the world and, seeing that the deity has spoken truly, agrees to ‘beat the drum of Deathlessness’ for the sake of the few who might understand. Interestingly, to this day this exchange is re-enacted in monasteries and temples of both Northern and Southern Buddhists when requesting Dhamma teachings.

Given that these incongruities manifest within both traditions, one might imagine that they would lead people to investigate their own preferred beliefs a little more closely, and to wonder whether the standard views of their own and other traditions are reliable. Unfortunately, this is not the usual result; more often these anomalous elements are ignored or dismissed, and the familiar and preferred version of reality re-established.

The Trouble with Tribalism 

This chapter aims to look into some of the core principles raised by these problems and explore ways of resolving them. Perhaps the first question is: what’s the problem?

When one looks directly at the source texts extolling the virtues of the arahant and the bodhisattva, they both appear as extraordinarily fine and noble human aspirations. How wonderful and marvellous that we can develop the heart to such degrees of purity and wisdom! Clearly it is not the ideals themselves which are the root cause of any conflict; rather, the cause of the apparent problem is people, more specifically, the issue of tribalism.

That’s the great mine-field; it’s through a tragically misguided sense of faithfulness to our group – this is my team, my tribe, my lineage – that we bring the intricacies of intellect to defend it, even to the point of bending the facts and the philosophy for the sake of winning the argument. Whether the area of dispute involves football teams, family feuds or Buddhist philosophy, the dynamics are identical. First we seize on a few features of the opposition to criticize and make fun of; then we lose ourselves in the overheated labyrinth of position-taking; and finally, we miss the reality of the bone of contention.

The intention behind an exchange or relationship might be very noble or refined, but the emotional tone permeating it can in contrast be deeply instinctive, territorial and viscerally aggressive. So we argue about the best way to build a free clinic, the true nature of Christ in relationship to God, the best way to bow or even to chop carrots. We might observe proper standards of etiquette, but the heart has been taken over by the reptile brain.

Most often the real issue is not philosophy, it’s hurt feelings. An amicable spiritual discussion which began around 100 BCE about different approaches to the Buddha’s path of practice somehow evolved into bitter rivalry a few centuries later. Mutually critical comments were bandied back and forth and degenerated into insults, until the various factions were ‘stabbing each other with verbal daggers’ (to use the Pali Canon’ own phrase), and the stereotyping of the opposing group became a fixed view: anyone who aspired to arahantship must be a selfish nihilist, while all those who took the bodhisattva vows were obviously heretical eternalists.

Many different spiritual traditions tell the tale of the blind men and the elephant (it’s found in the Pali Canon at Ud. 6.4). Several blind men are each allowed to touch just one part of an elephant’s anatomy, and each describes the whole elephant in terms of that part. Because they don’t agree, they then begin to fight. Isn’t it revealing that when we read the story we rarely think of ourselves as one of the blind? We prefer to see ourselves as the monarch watching the sorry squabbling of the sightless. It’s humbling how easily the heart is pulled into exactly this kind of position-taking and deluded certainty, based on our attachment to views and opinions. This is especially true when the heart asserts, ‘This is not an opinion, it’s a fact!’ But even if the ‘fact’ is 100% valid in conventional terms, if we use it as a point of contention with others it becomes, as Ajahn Chah would say, ‘Right in fact, but wrong in Dhamma.’

Sometimes it is devout faithfulness rather than criticism or condemnation which drives us into such dualism. When Ajahn Chah was visiting England, a woman who had had a long involvement with the Thai Forest Tradition came to see him. She was very humble and sincere, but also very concerned: ‘I respect your wisdom and your practice as a monk immensely, but I feel uncomfortable receiving your teachings and taking Refuges and Precepts with you; it makes me feel as though I’m being unfaithful to my teacher, Ajahn Mahā-Boowa.’ Ajahn Chah replied: ‘I don’t really see what the problem is – Ajahn Mahā-Boowa and I are both disciples of the Buddha.’ It is in this spirit that I will now endeavour to explore these teachings and traditions we can fully appreciate the broad landscape of the Way of the Buddha through eyes that are ‘right in Dhamma’.

Not Clinging to Any View

As soon as we select one element of the elephant and blindly cling to it, contention is born. A notable instance of this is recounted in the Bahuvedanīya Sutta, ‘The Many Kinds of Feeling’ [M. 59.5]. Pañcakanga the carpenter and the monk Udāyin are having a dispute about whether the Buddha teaches in terms of two or three kinds of feeling. Neither can convince the other. Ven. Ānanda overhears this and takes the question to the Buddha, who responds by saying that both Pañcakanga and Udāyin are correct:

I have talked in terms of two kinds of feeling in one presentation; I have talked in terms of three … five … six … eighteen … thirty-six … 108 kinds of feeling in another presentation. That is how the Dhamma has been shown by me in different presentations.

The realm of string theory in sub-atomic physics offers a similar analogy. Although there are something like five distinct brands of string theory, until the mid-nineties it seemed that like the elephant to its blind handlers, all five were separate and unconnected. Now things have begun to look a little different:

‘… there is a web of unexpected relationships, called dualities, between the models. These dualities show that the models are all essentially equivalent; that is they are just different aspects of the same underlying theory, which has been given the name M-theory …

‘These dualities show that the five superstring theories all describe the same physics … they are all expressions of the same underlying theory, each useful for calculations in different kinds of situations.’ [Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell, p. 57]

If one simply substitutes ‘underlying reality’ for ‘underlying theory’ the description could also accurately describe our contending religious philosophies. The question then arises: how exactly do we find this mysterious Middle, the place of non-abiding, the place of non-contention?

‘When a bhikkhu has heard that “nothing whatsoever should be clung to”, he directly knows everything; having directly known everything, he fully understands everything; having fully understood everything, whatever feeling he feels, whether pleasant or painful or neutral, he abides contemplating impermanence in those feelings, contemplating fading away, contemplating cessation, contemplating relinquishment. Contemplating thus, he does not cling to anything in the world. When he does not cling, he is not agitated. When he is not agitated, he personally attains Nibbāna … Briefly, it is in this way, ruler of gods, that a bhikkhu is liberated by the destruction of craving, one who has reached the ultimate end, the ultimate security from bondage, the ultimate holy life, the ultimate goal, one who is foremost among gods and humans.’ [M. 37.3]

Perhaps the heart of the sutta quoted above, ‘nothing whatsoever should be clung to’, is the best place to begin our investigation. For just as the difficulty which has arisen in this area over the centuries can be attributed to contentious position-taking, so its solution, or at least the way to its reduction, can be through the sublime quality of non-contention.

Bhikkhus, I do not dispute with the world, it is the world that disputes with me. A speaker of Dhamma does not dispute with anyone in the world.’ [S. 22.94]

‘Dandapānī the Sakyan, while walking and wandering for exercise, went to the Great Wood … he went to the young bilva tree where the Blessed One was and exchanged greetings with him. When this courteous and amiable talk was finished, he stood at one side leaning on his stick and asked the Blessed One, “So, what does the samaṇa assert? What does he proclaim?”

‘“Friend, I assert and proclaim such a teaching wherein one does not contend with anyone in the world …”

‘When this was said, Dandapānī the Sakyan shook his head, wagged his tongue and raised his eyebrows until his forehead was puckered into three lines. Then he departed, leaning on his stick.’ [M. 18.3–5]

‘“Does Master Gotama have any field of view at all?”

‘“Vaccha, ‘field of view’ is a term with which a Tathāgata has nothing whatsoever to do. What is seen by a Tathāgata is this: such is form, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is feeling, such its origin, such its disappearance; such is perception, such its origin, such its disappearance; such are formations, such their origin, such their disappearance; such is consciousness, such its origin, such its disappearance. Because of that, I say, a Tathāgata is liberated, with the exhaustion, fading out, cessation, giving up and relinquishment of all conceits, all excogitations, all ‘I’-making and ‘my’-making and tendencies to conceit, without clinging to any of them.”’ [M. 72.15]

Such a spirit of non-contention and non-clinging approaches the core principle of the Middle Way. The skilful refusal to pick one particular viewpoint and cling to it reflects right view; it also expresses the effort that is essential to arrive at resolution.

The Middle Way

The following seminal exchange between the Buddha and Mahā-Kaccāna, one of his enlightened disciples, elaborates on this expression:

‘At Sāvatthi. Then the Venerable Kaccānagotta approached the Blessed One, paid respects to him, sat down to one side, and said to him, “Venerable sir, it is said, ‘Right View, Right View.’ In what way, Venerable sir, is there Right View?”’

“This world, Kaccāyana, for the most part depends upon the dualism of the notions of existence and non-existence. But for one who sees the origin of the world as it really is with right understanding, there is no notion of non-existence with regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world as it really is with right understanding, there is no notion of existence with regard to the world.

‘“This world, Kaccāyana, is for the most part shackled by bias, clinging and insistence. But one such as this [with Right View], instead of becoming engaged, instead of clinging – instead of taking a stand about ‘my self’ through such a bias, clinging, mental standpoint, adherence and underlying tendency – such a one has no perplexity or doubt that what arises is only dukkha arising, and what ceases is only dukkha ceasing. In this their knowledge is independent of others. It is in this way, Kaccāyana, that there is Right View.

‘“All exists, Kaccāyana, this is one extreme. All does not exist; this is the other extreme. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathāgata teaches the Dhamma by the Middle Way: with ignorance as condition, volitional formations come to be; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness comes to be … Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering.

‘“But with the remainderless fading away, cessation and non-arising of ignorance there comes the cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, when there are no volitional formations, there is the cessation of consciousness, consciousness does not come to be … Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”’ [S. 12.15]

Interestingly, there seems to be a very close connection between the principles embodied in this discourse to Ven. Mahā-Kaccāna and the words of Ācārya Nāgārjuna in his Mūlamadyama-kakārika, ‘The Treatise on the Root of the Middle Way’. This text is considered as a cornerstone of the Mahāyāna movement and has informed the philosophy and practice of the Northern School for around 1,800 years. Ironically, it makes no mention at all of such characteristic Northern elements as bodhisattvas and bodhicitta. Furthermore, it clearly extols Nirvāna as the goal of the spiritual life and does not distinguish it from bodhi in the way other Northern texts tend to do. In fact, Nāgārjuna’s chapter on Nirvāna immediately follows his chapter on bodhi.

‘No letting go, no attainment, no annihilation, no permanence, no cessation, no birth: that is spoken of as nirvāna.’ [Mūlamadyamakakārika, 22.3][1]

So even though Nāgārjuna is taken as a standard-bearer for the Mahāyāna, scholars such as Kalupahana and Warder have pointed out that actually there’s nothing particularly ‘Mahāyāna’ in what he says. Significantly, his teachings about self and the Middle Way seem to be informed directly by the Pali Canon. Both teachings point out how to understand the feeling of self, how to recognize what it is and learn to see through it and, ultimately, break free from the tyrant. They both indicate that clinging to the sense of self is what obstructs from knowing the Middle Way, the pure essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

The discourse to Mahā-Kaccāna is the basis for Nāgārjuna’s discussion on the error of clinging to beliefs in existence or in non-existence. In his ‘Essence’ chapter he writes:

‘Existence’ is the grasping at permanence; ‘non-existence’ is the view of annihilation. Therefore, the wise do not dwell in existence or non-existence. [Mūlamadyamakakārika, 14.10][2]

So although we might have had an insight into selflessness, realizing that the ego is transparent and insubstantial, still questions can arise. Do I not exist? Is this whole thing just a dream, an illusion? And if it is, then who or what is experiencing the illusion? Something definitely seems to be happening here, wherever ‘here’ is. Whether we call it a self or not, there appears to be something going on, and it feels like some kind of a being. This is the knot that the Buddha and Nāgārjuna unpick using the awl of the Middle Way.

What these teachings point to is the fact that yes, there is the experience, the feeling of selfhood; but that feeling of the ‘I’ is dependently arisen. So emerges the insight that it’s not an absolute truth and it’s not a complete delusion. This leads us to ask what exactly is going on. There might be the feeling of ‘I’, but like all feelings it arises and then ceases. Along with its dependent arising there is also its dependent cessation. The experience of being, the experience of ‘I’, arises due to causes. These causes are habits rooted in ignorance and fired by the compulsions of craving. Furthermore, when the causes for the ego to come into existence are not created, it does not arise. It’s not a permanent ‘thing’.

Nāgārjuna’s treatise is considered as a core teaching on emptiness in the Northern tradition, but while it’s a brilliant piece of philosophical analysis, this teaching is really most significant as a meditation tool. It helps us to see that ‘Do I exist?’ or ‘Do I not exist?’ are irrelevant questions. Instead the perspective shifts to cultivating and maintaining a mindful awareness of the feeling of ‘I’ arising and ceasing. This is the essence of vipassanā, insight meditation.

The blissful experience of seeing through the conceit of ‘I am’ was described by the Buddha as ‘Nibbāna here and now’ (Ud. 4.1); and most significantly, along with that blissful experience, abundant, exalted, immeasurable kindness and compassion for other beings naturally arise. Through unselfishness the heart attunes to caring for all beings. The direct knowing of the Middle Way thus resolves itself into two very simple qualities: emptiness and altruism.

The Four Noble Truths: Universality and Transparency

It is often said that the Buddha’s very first discourse, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,‘Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth’ , contains the entirety of his teaching, that all subsequent teachings can be seen to derive from principles contained in it. This is stated not only by elders of the Southern School, but also by such esteemed Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna masters as HH the Dalai Lama. It was in this sutta that the Buddha first articulated the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths.

In another sutta there is a famous simile called ‘the elephant’s footprint’ which also expresses the all-encompassing quality of these humble principles. Ven. Sāriputta is speaking:

‘Friends, just as the footprint of any living being that walks can be placed within an elephant’s footprint, and so the elephant’s footprint is declared to be the chief of them because of its great size; so too all wholesome states can be included in the Four Noble Truths.’ [Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta, The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant’s Footprint M. 28.2][3]

‘That both I and you have had to travel and trudge through this long round is owing to our not discovering, not penetrating, four truths. What four? They are: (I) the noble truth of suffering, (II) the noble truth of the origin of suffering, (III) the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and (IV) the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’ [D. 16.2.2]

The vast scope of these Truths is based on two essential insights: a) they are relative, not absolute truths; and b) they are not just personal but also universal. The first insight reveals that for example, the statement, ‘There is dukkha’ describes a relative, dependently arisen experience. It is not intended to be taken as a proclamation that dukkha has a real, absolute existence. This is one of the reasons why the Buddha referred to these Truths as ‘noble’ (ariya) rather than ‘ultimate’ (paramattha). The second insight refers to the fact that though we might feel, ‘I’m suffering’, the fact is that it’s not just me who is experiencing dukkha; thus the delusion that my experience of dukkha could be more significant than yours is shattered. All beings are in the same boat. The Truths are a universal natural law.

It seems that over time the understanding of these two principles shrank. Dukkha became regarded as an absolute reality, and thus, together with the perceived need to terminate that dukkha, a new and narrower diameter for the footprint was formed. And it appears that it was because of this shrinking footprint that the impulse for renewal arose, eventually forming what is now known as the Mahāyāna movement.

In the Pali scriptures the endlessly repeated implication is that the best thing we can do for the world and for all beings is to be totally enlightened. But if that’s grasped in the wrong way, though we might be faithfully trying to do the right thing, we may drift into seeing our own suffering as more significant and more real than anybody else’s, simply because it’s the suffering which we have the power to resolve completely. The Mahāyāna teachings arose to say, in contrast: ‘My suffering is felt “here”, yet I must remember that my suffering can’t possibly be any more important than anybody else’s. All beings are undergoing a similar experience.’

In individual human terms 

We have been looking at this question from a large-scale social viewpoint, but it is good to recollect that a movement is composed of human beings; and whether one is referring to matters on a broad level or a personal one, the development of the Path always involves identifying habits, supporting the useful ones and counteracting the destructive ones.

During his early years as a bhikkhu in Thailand, Ajahn Sumedho once declared to Ajahn Chah: ‘I’m totally committed to the practice. There is absolutely no turning back. I’m determined above all things to fully realize Nibbāna in this lifetime; I’m deeply weary of the human condition and I’m determined not to be born again.’ Given the classic Theravādan vernacular, that’s the ‘right attitude’, a worthy thing; it would have been reasonable to expect the teacher to respond, ‘Sādhu! Good for you, Sumedho – anumodanā!’ Ajahn Chah, however, replied: ‘What about the rest of us, Sumedho? Don’t you care about those who’ll be left behind?’ In one stroke he teased his disciple by suggesting that Ajahn Sumedho was the more spiritually advanced, while also alluding to the fact that there is a value in the ‘caring for all beings’ approach. And to cap it off he lovingly chided his disciple for his narrowness. Ajahn Chah could detect that there was a nihilistic aversion rather than a Dhammic detachment in Ajahn Sumedho’s ‘deeply weary of the human condition’ state, and as long as that kind of negativity was active, the delusion it implied guaranteed painful results. Ajahn Chah thus reflected that attitude back to him by reversing the balance, tilting the view in the other direction so he could see that self-centred nihilism.

When considering this encouragement towards a more expansive attitude, it is highly significant that the Four Bodhisattva Vows are actually an explicit extension of the Four Noble Truths. In the Chinese version of the Brahmajāla Sutta this is addressed quite directly. A contemporary elder of the Northern Tradition explains the connection:

‘Yesterday I explained the Sutra title, The Buddha Speaks the Brahma Net Sutra. Today I’ll go on to explain the title of the Chapter, which is “The Bodhisattva Mind Ground”. The full form of “Bodhisattva” (Pu Sa in Chinese) in Sanskrit is Mahābodhicittasattva, which means “One with a Great Way Mind who brings living beings to accomplishment”. Another translation is “One who enlightens sentients”. It also translates as “great knight” or “great scholar” and “beginning scholar”. Why is he called by these names? It is because, relying on the Four Noble Truths, he brings forth the Four Great Vows of a Bodhisattva. The Four Noble Truths are:



‘Extinction, and

‘The Way.

‘The first Noble Truth is Suffering, and since all living beings are suffering, he brings forth the first Vast Vow, which is,

‘Living beings are numberless;

‘I vow to save them all.

‘The second Vast Vow is based upon the second Noble Truth, Accumulation. Accumulation means accumulation of afflictions. The second Vast Vow is,

‘Afflictions are endless;

‘I vow to cut them off.

‘The third Noble Truth is that of Extinction, and based upon this, the Bodhisattva brings forth the third Vast Vow,

‘The Buddha Way is unsurpassed;

I vow to accomplish it.

‘And the fourth Noble Truth is The Way, and based on that truth he brings forth the fourth Vast Vow, which is,

            ‘Dharma-doors are numberless;

            ‘I vow to study them all.

‘So, above he seeks the Buddha Way, and below he transforms living beings. This is a reciprocal function of compassion and wisdom. For the sake of simplification, the Sanskrit word Mahābodhicittasattva is condensed to Bodhisattva (in Chinese, further condensed to Pu Sa).’ [Ven. Master Hui Seng, Commentary on The Brahma Net Sutra, p 25][4]

This expression of the Four Noble Truths thus explicitly spells out their natural extension into the realm of universal concern. With the promulgation of the bodhisattva vows there also arose, in the same epoch, a corresponding teaching that spelled out the strictly relative nature of the Four Noble Truths; this was the Heart of Prajña Pāramita Sutra, or Heart Sutra for short. It is probably the most well-known teaching on emptiness in the Northern Canon, recited for centuries from India to Manchuria, and from Kyoto to Latvia , as well as, nowadays, at Buddhist centres throughout the world. It is the natural partner to the bodhisattva vows; indeed, the Heart Sutra and the four vows are often recited in the same devotional ceremonies each day.

The Heart Sutra embodies the natural extension of the Four Noble Truths in the reverse direction; it reminds us that the Four Noble Truths are essentially empty, transparent, not absolute truths. ‘Suffering’ is a relative truth, but it is noble because it leads to liberation. Sometimes people faithfully say, ‘Everything is suffering’ as if dukkha was an absolute truth, but that’s not what the Buddha was teaching. The Heart Sutra states:


Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Form is not separate from emptiness.

Emptiness is not separate from form.

So too feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness …

‘There is no suffering,

there is no origin of suffering,

there is no cessation of suffering,

there is no Way;

there is no understanding and no attaining

for there is nothing to attain.’

The sutra thus takes the words of the Four Noble Truths and from the transcendent perspective empties them all out. Ultimately there is no dukkha. We think we’re suffering, but in ultimate reality we’re not – actually there isn’t any dukkha.

The Pali tradition encapsulates both of these implications. On the one hand it extends out from the personal to include all beings; on the other hand the noble yet relative quality of dukkha, its cause, its end and the way to its end are just empty appearances, like all other conditioned phenomena. These Northern teachings of the Four Vast Vows of a Bodhisattva and the Heart Sutra endeavour to give voice to those particular dimensions of emptiness and altruism which were implied in the Pali, but were being lost because dukkha and its partner becoming were being held in a narrow, personal and overly concrete way. The Mahāyāna movement was an effort to balance things out.

Self-View, the Reliable Troublemaker

It is the sense of self which primarily obscures the Middle Way. It is this same sense of self which ultimately drives the tribal and divisive politics that have been passed on to the present day. But ironically, though the reforming movement aimed at removing the encrustations of self which it perceived, the problem nevertheless persisted. These tribal politics are like family heirlooms of dubious worth, yet hard to discard because they are so much part of our collective histories.

The source of this conflict, along with the other ten thousand woes and struggles to which the human mind is prone, is conceiving the arahant and the bodhisattva in terms of self. When we no longer look at the issue through the lens of self-view, the picture changes radically.

‘Bhikkhus, held by two kinds of views, some devas and human beings hold back and some overreach; only those with vision see.

‘And how, bhikkhus, do some hold back? Some devas and humans enjoy being, delight in being, are satisfied with being. When the Dhamma is taught to them for the cessation of being, their minds do not enter into it or acquire confidence in it or settle upon it or become resolved upon it. Thus, bhikkhus, do some hold back.

‘How, bhikkhus, do some overreach? Now some are troubled, ashamed and disgusted by this very same quality of being and they rejoice in [the idea of] non-being, asserting, “Good sirs, when the body perishes at death, this self is annihilated and destroyed and does not exist any more – this is true peace, this is excellent, this is reality!” Thus, bhikkhus, do some overreach.

‘How, bhikkhus, do those with vision see? Herein one sees what has come to be as having come to be. Having seen it thus, one practises the course for turning away, for dispassion, for the cessation of what has come to be. Thus, bhikkhus, do those with vision see.’ [Iti 49]

As long as self-view has not been penetrated in either its coarse form of sakkāya-ditthi (identification with the body and personality) or the more refined asmimāna (the conceit of ‘I am’), the mind will miss the Middle Way.

The ‘no more coming into any state of being’ ideal will thus tend to be co-opted by the nihilist view (uccheda-ditthi), while the ‘endlessly returning for the sake of all beings’ ideal will tend to be pervaded with the eternalist view (sassata-ditthi).

When the two extremes are abandoned and the sense of self is seen through, the Middle Way is realized. Whether we talk in terms of utter emptiness, the arahant of the Pali Canon, or the absolute zero of the Heart Sutra, or in terms of the infinite view of the four bodhisattva vows, there is a direct realization that these expressions are merely modes of speech. They all derive from the same source, the Dhamma. They are simply expedient formulations which guide the heart of the aspirant to attunement with that reality of its own nature. That attunement is the Middle Way.

The View From the Centre

There are many teachings which illuminate this non-dualistic, selfless perspective. Firstly, some verses often quoted by the Dalai Lama:

‘With a wish to free all beings

I shall always go for refuge

To the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha,

Until I reach full enlightenment.


‘Filled with wisdom and compassion,

Today in the Buddha’s presence

I generate the mind for full awakening,

For the benefit of all sentient beings.


‘As long as space remains,

As long as sentient beings remain,

Until then, may I too remain

And dispel the miseries of the world.’

[Śantideva: Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, Ch. 3]

In the light of our discussion, this last verse might cause some debate among Theravādins. Why? It appears to run completely counter to the principle of escaping from the burning house as soon as one can. We have our own idea of the best thing to do – practise and develop as much mindfulness as we can and realize enlightenment as soon as possible. That’s it – game over.

In the Pali scriptures the most we ever learn about what happens to an enlightened being after the death of the body is found in such comments as:

‘Such a one passes out of the sphere of knowledge of gods and humans.’ [D. 1.3.73]

Or in the Buddha’s response to Upasīva:

‘One who has reached the end has no criterion by which they can be measured. That by which they could be talked of is no more. You cannot say, “They do not exist.” But when all modes of being, all phenomena are removed, then all means of description have gone too.’ [Sn 1076]

The Buddha thus leaves this mystery powerfully undefined.

So to the average Theravādin the verse of Śantideva, ‘As long as space remains…’ might seem anathema. However, the practice of the Middle Way involves taking up these kinds of compassion teachings together with their partners, the emptiness teachings. These two elements are like the wings of a bird – they can’t function properly without each other. If we take a moment to reflect on the words of the verse, another layer of meaning opens up. As long as the mind sees the concepts of space and identity as having substantial reality, it hasn’t realized enlightenment. Enlightened insight is based on recognizing that three-dimensional space, time, and being are all illusory; they are imputed realities, but without any absolute existence.

So if we’re hanging onto the Southern idea of ‘me going’ but ‘others being left behind’, that idea by definition misses the mark. Similarly, if we cling to the Northern view and think, ‘This individual being will persist through infinite time for the sake of all beings’, that is also falling drastically into wrong view.

Many subtle layers of clinging may be involved here too; the habits of overreaching and holding back die hard. No matter how subtly the heart might be identified with feelings of ‘I actually do want to get out of saṃsāra’ or ‘I’d really love to stay and help’, that pure chord of the Middle Way has not yet been struck.

The correct practice of the Middle Way therefore aims at breaking up that delusion whereby ‘I’ can ‘go’ and ‘others’ can ‘stay’, or vice versa. In fact, ‘I’ can’t ‘go’ unless the concepts of being and space are radically reconfigured. So the aspiration may indeed validly be: ‘As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, until then, may I too remain…’ But what if space no longer remains? What if living beings no longer remain? If their essential nature is recognized as conceptually contrived and dependent, what would that say about the supposed ‘I’ who would be staying behind?

Thus when we reflect on the deeper meaning of the verse, it has the ironic flip-side that as soon as there is the realization that time, space and beings have no substantial reality, the ‘I’ is ‘gone’ too: gone to Suchness, come to Suchness, Tathāgata.

Śri Ramana Maharshi also has a wise perspective on this subject:

‘People often say that a liberated Master should go out and preach his message to the people. How can anyone be a Master, they argue, as long as there is misery by his side? This is true. But who is a liberated Master? Does he see misery beside him? They want to determine the state of a Master without realizing the state themselves. From the standpoint of the Master, their contention amounts to this: a man dreams a dream in which he finds several people. On waking up he asks, ‘Have the dream people also woken up?’ How ridiculous. In the same way, a good man says, ‘It doesn’t matter if I never get liberation,’ or ‘Let me be the last man to get it, so that I may help all others to be liberated before I am.’ Wonderful! Imagine a dreamer saying, ‘May all these dream people wake up before I do.’ The dreamer is no more absurd than this amiable philosopher.’

This analysis astutely captures the presumptions which are being made, for it’s only when the heart is free that it can really, unequivocally attune itself to all things. One of the expressions of that attunement is ‘caring for all beings’, so a precise and exquisite balance is needed.

One of the scriptures that speaks skilfully on this topic is the Vajra Prajñā Pāramitā Sutra; here are a number of pertinent passages from that scripture.

‘The Buddha told Subhūti, “All Bodhisattvas, Mahāsattvas, should subdue their hearts with the vow, “I must cause all living beings … to enter Nirvāna without residue and be taken across to extinction. Yet of the immeasurable, boundless numbers of living beings thus taken across to extinction, there is actually no living being taken across to extinction. And why? Subhūti, if a Bodhisattva has a mark of self, a mark of others, a mark of living beings, or a mark of a life, then they are not a Bodhisattva.”’ [Ch 3, ‘The Orthodox Doctrine of the Great Vehicle’]

‘The Buddha said, “Subhūti, they are neither living beings nor no living beings. And why? Subhūti, living beings, living beings, are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no living beings, therefore they are called living beings.”’ [Ch 21, ‘Spoken yet not Spoken’]

‘Subhūti, what do you think? You should not maintain that the Tathāgata has this thought: “I shall take living beings across.” Subhūti, do not have that thought. And why? There are actually no living beings taken across by the Tathāgata. If there were living beings taken across by the Tathāgata, then the Tathāgata would have the existence of a self, of others, of living beings, and of a life. Subhūti, the existence of a self spoken of by the Tathāgata is no existence of a self, but common people take it as the existence of a self. Subhūti, common people are spoken of by the Tathāgata as no common people, therefore they are called common people.’ [Ch 25, ‘Transformations without what is Transformed’][5]

The way we save all living beings is by realizing there are no beings. To establish the heart in true wisdom is to see this fact; ultimately there is no self, no other, no living beings, no arahant, no bodhisattva, no life, no death. Realizing emptiness is the seeing through of all that. It’s an intuitive process whereby, though the heart might be given to compassion, it is only when we also recognize and surrender to this wisdom element, and hold it simultaneously, that there will be true freedom.

We need to be careful not to make our traits into a religion of their own. Rather, we develop insight into them and train the heart in order to balance them out.

If we’re a wisdom type, intent on realizing Nibbāna, practising for our own benefit to get out of saṃsāra as quickly as possible, it’s necessary to train the heart to think in terms of altruism. We need to counteract the obsession that there’s nobody here, nothing to do, nowhere to go, and start moving towards people and things. If we’re more of a compassion type, determined to stick around and help all beings, we need to incline towards the emptiness of things.

It is in the unutterable equipoise of the Middle Way that both these realities, the infinite and the void, are sustained. They complement and balance with each other

She knows that she’s not real

The scene: a large Buddhist conference in Berlin. As well as the many dialogues, speeches and presentations, some teachers have come to give workshops and perform pūjās. One such teacher is an eminent Tibetan lama; he has been giving instruction on The Praise to the Twenty-One Taras to both his experienced students and a small crowd of other attendees. After a long pūjā and a series of visualizations and explanatory teachings, it is now time for questions and answers.

A young man with furrowed brow asks to speak. He asks in broken English: ‘Rinpoche, for many years now I have been your student. I am committed to the practice, but I have the doubt. I am very willing to do the pūjās, the visualizations, the prostrations, but it is very hard to have the whole heart in it, because I have this doubt: Tara, is she really there? Sometimes you talk like she is a real person, but sometimes you say she is the wisdom of Buddha Amoghasiddhi, or just a skilful means. If I could know for sure, I would redouble my efforts. So, Rinpoche, Tara, does she really exist or does she not?

For a few moments the lama rests his chin on his chest, then raises his sparkling eyes to meet those of his inquirer. A smile spreads across his broad wrinkled face. He responds, ‘She knows that she’s not real.’

When we bring our mind to that place of realization, we can see that conventionally speaking there’s a reader here and a page out there, but we can also recognize that this is a complex web of sight, sound, taste, touch, images appearing/disappearing, sounds coming/going and changing. This is just the play of phenomena happening within awareness. They have no substantial reality. The more we practise and learn to hold the play of forms in that gentle way, the more attuned we become to what’s going on. Then we begin to get the feel.

The Middle Way is appreciated as a finely felt sense. It’s nothing to do with geography or splitting the difference, as when a piece of music moves us and the heart sighs, carried by the music. We can’t describe what it is except to say, ‘Oh, it’s perfect!’ But even in saying, ‘It’s perfect’, once again we’ve almost lost the feeling. Equally, if the rational mind is still struggling to obtain some more precision, as Louis Armstrong responded when asked, ‘What’s jazz?’ – ‘Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.’

The Middle Way is that wordless quality of pure and vibrant harmony.


1               Stephen Batchelor trans.

2               Ibid.

3               Bhikkhu Bodhi & Bhikkhu Ñānamoli trans.

4               Buddhist Text Translation Society trans.

5               Ibid.