The Heart Sutra and the Two Levels of Truth (Part 4 of 5)

The previous post explored the nature of emptiness, shunyata, and closed with a few observations that could be thought of as either clarifying descriptions or logical conclusions, as the case may be. Essentially, when we’re experiencing emptiness we realize that our usual quantitative or qualitative judgments about things simply don’t make sense anymore. Ideas regarding young and old, small and big, bad and good, are just that – ideas; and ideas need not necessarily be grounded in reality.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) illustrates this quite well with his examination of the life cycle of one of our most beloved flowers, the rose. We normally think of a bunch of plump blossoms in full bloom as being the ultimate state of existence for roses. After due consideration, however, we can see that the subsequent wilting, dying, and decaying of those very blossoms creates ‘new’ soil that makes possible ‘new’ life – ‘new’ roses, ‘new’ food, ‘new’ habitat for animals. Thus, the wilting of flower blossoms in no way signifies the end of life; it is merely transformation. When we examine the entire life cycle of a rose – from soil and seed, to bushy green plant, to unfolding blossoms, to withering and wilting, to decay and apparent disappearance – we can see that when we think of any particular aspect of that cycle as being more beautiful than all of the others we are simply allowing our ideas to cloud our vision of reality. No aspect of the life cycle just described is inherently more important, more beautiful, or more meaningful than any other. In fact, by breaking that life cycle down into various aspects for separate consideration, I have already begun to see emptiness less clearly. And that is the reason for my use up above of single quotes around the word new. What does new even mean, after all, when everything is merely a seamless transition from moment to moment?

So, now that we’re warmed up once again to the depth of meaning of that word, shunyata, let’s continue our exploration of the Heart Sutra – beginning here with what Conze (1959) refers to as the 3rd Stage of the “dialectics of emptiness” (p. 162):

Rosan Yoshida’s translation via the Missouri Zen Center website:

D of E, 3rd Stage:        Therefore, Shariputra, in Shunyata,

                                    no form, no feeling, no idea, no formation,

                                    no consciousness;

                                    no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, mind;       

                                    no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, mind-object;

                                    no eye-realm and so forth

until no mind-consciousness-realm;

no nescience, no extinction of nescience,

and so forth until no old age and death;

no extinction of old age and death;

no suffering, origination, cessation, path;

no knowledge, no grasping.


Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation via The Heart of Understanding:

D of E, 3rd Stage:        Therefore, in emptiness

                                    there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perception,

nor mental formations, nor consciousness;

                                    no eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind,

                                    no form, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,

no object of the mind;

no realms of elements (from eyes to mind-consciousness);

no interdependent origins and no extinction of them

(from ignorance to old age and death);

no suffering, no origination of suffering,

no extinction of suffering, no path;

no understanding, no attainment.

Edward Conze’s translation via Buddhist Scriptures:

D of E, 3rd Stage:        Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness

there is no form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse,

nor consciousness;

no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind;

                                    no forms, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables,

or objects of the mind;

no sight-organ-element, and so forth,

until we come to: no mind-consciousness-element;

there is no ignorance, no extinction of ignorance,

and so forth until we come to: there is no decay and death;

no extinction of decay and death;

there is no suffering, no origination,

no stopping, no path;

there is no cognition, no attainment, and no non-attainment.

This passage is essentially a ten-second sweep over vast swaths of the Buddha’s teaching, beginning with a reaffirmation of the emptiness of the five aggregates of form, feeling, idea, formations, and consciousness. From there the passage drills into the nature of consciousness – finding it empty at every turn. First of all, the six sense organs upon which the six respective consciousnesses rely are found to be empty. Our naming of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind is merely an arbitrary partitioning of an otherwise empty reality. Secondly, the objects that our sense organs might apprehend are empty. Perhaps worthy of special mention here is that mind-objects are those that are apprehended by the sense organ of the mind. Thirdly, given the emptiness of the various sense organs and their respective sense-objects, we find that the six consciousnesses resulting from contact between each pair are, likewise, empty. (Contact, phassa, is one of the links of the twelve-fold chain.)

From there we move on to the twelve-fold chain of dependent origination. It is referred to rather cryptically, but it’s there. The statement (as per Yoshida roshi’s translation) that there is “no nescience, no extinction of nescience, and so forth until no old age and death; no extinction of old age and death” refers to the first link, the last link, and every link in between – links in between being referred to by the “and so forth” phrase. The other translations convey this in slightly different ways, but there is no doubt as to the intent. Recall that the twelve-fold chain was devised to show us precisely how it is that suffering arises and how it can be stopped. It, too, is empty. (Please see Dependent Origination and the Teaching of No Self for a more complete treatment of the twelve-fold chain.)

And that brings us to the Four Noble Truths… Yes, they are there, as well! “No suffering, origination, cessation, path” refers to, respectively, the emptiness of suffering, its origin, its cessation, and even the Noble Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of suffering. Is nothing sacred? How can it be that this most fundamental of Buddhist teachings is empty? But that’s not all. Even in this Heart of Prajnaparamita – a sutra that we might expect would afford us a modicum of wisdom – we find no knowledge, no understanding, no cognition; we find nothing to be attained and nothing to hold onto.

Of course, all of this simply begs the question: Why did the Buddha bother elucidating all of these various teachings – teachings that are considered central to the practice of Buddhism – if all we have to do in order to be released from our suffering is realize the true nature of shunyata?

Two Levels of Truth, and Expedient Means

In Mahayana Buddhism we have the recognition of both mundane truth and supramundane truth – conventional truth and the truth of ultimate reality – that which is agreed upon to be true in the course of our day-to-day lives and that which relates to the fundamental nature of reality even in the absence of the existence of our human lives and social structures. Snelling (1991) describes the two levels as follows;

  1. Conventional truth – everyday common-sense truth, basically distorted but open to skillful manipulation [expedient means] in order to point to
  2. Absolute truth – the way things really are, as buddhas behold with enlightened eyes: empty, beyond thought and description. (p. 87)

When the Buddha gave us such teachings as those related to consciousness, dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, etc. he was providing us with roadmaps to lead us away from our mundane way of viewing our lives and the world and towards the realization of supramundane truth. Of course we usually only need a roadmap when our destination is far outside our field of vision, when our journey is long and involved and we might easily lose our way. Isn’t that precisely how Buddhist practice is most often viewed? Perhaps, then, in addition to the various metaphors of the Buddha’s teachings being a roadmap to lead us to our destination or a raft on which to make our way across an ocean of samsara, we might also think of the teachings as star charts by which to navigate the seas on our long and arduous maritime journey. Compared to roadmaps and rafts and star charts, however, The Heart Sutra is more like a wormhole to the other side of the universe! (Readers who may not necessarily be all that familiar with developments in astrophysics or its associated science fiction writing should note that wormholes are like pinpricks in the spacetime continuum through which we might pass on our way to destinations far too distant for us to ever reach even if we could travel at the speed of light. But I digress.) Realize emptiness, shunyata, and you will have realized the destination. Right here, right now.

An artist's rendering of a wormhole showing shortcut (green path) and normal trajectory through spacetime (red). 

Practically speaking, however, our karma is so very strong that even after we’re led by the hand right up to the wormhole to ultimate truth we still can’t make adequate use of it. We might know of its existence in intellectual terms, we might like to make use of it, we might even stand on this side peering into it – perhaps catching a fleeting glimpse from time to time of the supramundane truth on the other side; but the strength of our karma – our habit energy – keeps us from stepping on through. And that is why we keep on practicing – making use of teachings that speak to us here on this level of mundane truth as well as those that reflect the more fundamental nature of reality.

Now, let’s not let all of this talk regarding mundane and supramundane truth go to our heads and have us thinking that some glimpse into the emptiness of all phenomena will somehow grant us a free pass from the consequences of our abuses of power; e.g. “There’s really no me and no you, so what actual harm would be done by me hitting you over the head and taking your money? All is emptiness, right?” The Mumonkan, a collection of Zen koans, contains a story that is pertinent to precisely that question: Chinese Zen master, Hyakujo Osho (720-814), was the abbot of a mountain monastery. For a time an old man would follow the monks to the main hall to hear Hyakujo deliver his talks, but the old man would quickly disappear after the talks had ended. One day, though, the old man remained behind and told Hyakujo his story (Sekida, 1977, pp. 31-34):

I am not a human being. In the old days of Kashyapa Buddha [the Buddha prior to Shakyamuni Buddha], I was a head monk, living here on this mountain. One day a student asked me, “Does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation [is he still subject to the laws of karma] or not?” I answered, “No, he does not.” Since then I have been doomed to undergo five hundred rebirths as a fox. I beg you now to give the turning word [direction toward right understanding] to release me from my life as a fox. Tell me, does a man of enlightenment fall under the yoke of causation or not?” Hyakujo answered, “He does not ignore causation.” (p. 31) 

In other words, a wise person keeps in mind both levels of truth as he or she goes about living ‘his’ or ‘her’ life.

Regarding expedient means: In the passage of the Lotus Sutra that I referred to last week, Shariputra comes to the realization that “we failed to understand that the Buddha was employing expedient [skillful] means and preaching what was appropriate to the circumstances. So when we first heard The Law of the Buddha, we immediately believed and accepted it, supposing that we had gained something” (Watson, 1993, pp. 47-48). Shariputra realized the position that the Buddha was in. He had awakened to a truth that was previously unheard of – a truth of such depth and profundity that it is beyond the realm of words. How does one convey this truth to people of all different intelligence levels and karmic backgrounds? And so, over the course of his long career, the Buddha set about making his teaching understood in various ways, with analogies and stories and so forth, all pointing towards ultimate truth – even if they don’t reveal it with the directness of the Heart Sutra, for instance. These teachings constitute what Shariputra refers to as “expedient means” by which the Buddha inspires people to strive to reach and move towards a destination which is largely inconceivable.

Okay, I think we only have two outstanding questions remaining: One, what does the realization of emptiness have to do with the relinquishment of suffering; and, two, how is it that the realization of emptiness gives rise to compassionate action? Thank you all for reading, and I wish you a beautiful week!  


Anguttara Nikaya 10.92. Vera sutta: animosity (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 4 July 2010,

Blum, M. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Conze, E. (1954). Buddhist texts through the ages (ed. Conze, E.). Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library.

Conze, E. (1959). Buddhist scriptures. Penguin Books.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1988). The heart of understanding: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita heart sutra. Parallax Press.

Peacock (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Sekida, K. (1977). Two Zen classics – Mumonkan and Hekiganroku (ed. Grimstone, A. V.). Weatherhill, Inc.

Skilton, A. (1994). A concise history of Buddhism. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Windhorse Publications.

Snelling, J. (1991). The Buddhist handbook: A complete guide to Buddhist schools, teaching, practice, and history. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Inner Traditions International.

Trainor, K. (2001). Buddhism: The illustrated guide (ed. Trainor, K.). Oxford University Press, Inc.

Watson, B. (1993). The Lotus Sutra (tr. Watson, B.). Columbia University Press, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1979). Sutra of the heart of great perfection of insight (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Photo credit:

Wormhole image courtesy Wikimedia Commons via:

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. I'm starting to see how everything is connected - with the Four Noble Truths and the chain of dependent origination, but I'm still having trouble grasping the concepts. This sounds silly, but I feel like once I understand the Heart Sutra, then I'll be able to understand more as I continue my studying. It would be like a bridge to more knowledge!

    You might find this interesting:

    Hope you're well!

  2. Hello Kristen. Yes, I suspect going back and forth amongst those various teachings will allow your understanding to deepen. It takes time for some of these truths to really settle into our 'being'. There is a metaphor that is sometimes used to describe the process of gradual enlightenment: it's like when you're out walking on one of those dewy, misty days and you don't even realize it, but by the time you get home you are soaked through and through.

    Perhaps it would be fruitful to dig into that feeling of gaining more knowledge and understanding. What exactly is going on there? Why does it feel good? Mind you, I'm not arguing about the existence of that feeling; rather, I'm wondering about its nature.

    The PBS link sounds awesome! Thanks for posting it! I hope that you are well, also. Are your dogs going to get a good walk in the sunshine today?

  3. I took the dogs for a short walk before I had to go into work. You should come with us sometime!

    As to the nature of my feeling, I'm just going to take some time to sit with it and figure it out. If I come up with any brilliant insights I'll let you know! :D


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