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Buddhadharma : Summer 2008
25 summer 2 00 8 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly Sumedho was the more spiritually advanced and then al- luded to the value of a “caring for all beings” approach. He had lovingly chided his disciple for his narrowness. Ajahn Chah detected there was a nihilistic view rather than dhammic detachment behind Ajahn Sumedho’s com- ment. And as long as that kind of negativity was active, it guaranteed painful results. Ajahn Chah reflected that atti- tude back to him by tilting the view in the other direction, highlighting the self-centered negativity. In considering this encouragement toward a more expan- sive 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 Brahmajala, or Brahma Net Sutra, it addresses this quite directly. Venerable Master Hui Seng, a contemporary elder of the Northern tradition, explains the connection in his commentary to the sutra: [R]elying on the Four Noble Truths, he brings forth the Four Great Vows of a Bodhisattva. The Four Noble Truths are: Suffering, Accumulation, 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 accumula- tion 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 Vo w, 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. — The Buddha Speaks the Brahma Net Sutra, by Master Hui Seng This expression of the four noble truths spells out their non-personal, expansive quality. In the same epoch, a par- allel teaching arose that also spelled out the strictly relative nature of the four noble truths: the Heart Sutra. Probably the most well-known teaching in the Northern Canon, the Heart Sutra has been recited for centuries from India to Manchuria, from Kyoto to Latvia, and nowadays throughout the world. It is the natural counterpart to the bo- dhisattva vows, and indeed, they are often recited together. The Heart Sutra states: “There is no suffering, no origin, no cessation, and no way.” The sutra thus takes the four noble truths and points out their empty aspect: ultimately, there is no dukkha. We think we’re suffering, but in ultimate reality there isn’t any dukkha. The Heart Sutra reminds us that the four noble truths are essentially transparent; they are relative, not absolute truths. Sometimes people faithfully proclaim, “Everything is suffering,” as if dukkha were an ultimate truth, but that’s not what the Buddha taught, as is evidenced in the scriptures of both the Southern and Northern schools. “Suffering” is a conditional, relative truth; it is “noble” because it leads to liberation. Self-View, the Reliable Troublemaker It is the sense of self that ultimately drives the tribalistic politics that exist today. Ironically, even though the reform- ers aimed at dispelling the self-centeredness they saw, the problem nevertheless persisted. These divisive politics are like dubious family heirlooms—hard to discard, being so much a part of our collective histories. The conflict essentially arises as a result of conceiving the arahant and the bodhisattva in terms of self-view. When there is no clinging to any view, the picture radically changes. The Buddha said, “Held by two kinds of views, some hold back and some overreach; only those with vision see.” The former means some people are life-affirmers, delighting in the things of the world. When teachings refer to letting go and cessation, their minds recoil and hold back. By “some overreach,” he means nihilists who rejoice in the idea of non- being, asserting that when the body dies, this self is annihi- lated. They feel this will be true peace. “Those with vision” see what has come to be as having come to be. They cultivate dispassion toward that and are at ease with its cessation. As long as self-view has not been penetrated, the mind will miss the middle way. The “ending of rebirth” ideal will tend to get co-opted by the nihilist view, whereas the “end- lessly returning for the sake of all beings” ideal will tend to become permeated with the eternalist view. When the sense of self is seen through, the middle way is realized. Whether we talk in terms of emptiness of the arah- ant of the Pali Canon, or in terms of the absolute zero of the Heart Sutra or the infinite view of the four vows, these