It is often said that the Buddha"s very first discourse, the "Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Truth" contained the entirety of the teaching – that all subsequent teachings can be seen to derive from principles contained therein. This is a statement not only made by Elders of the Southern School but also by such esteemed Mahayana and Vajrayana masters as H.H. the Dalai Lama. It was in that sutta that the Buddha first articulated the Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths.
There is a famous simile, called "the elephant"s footprint" which also expresses the all encompassing quality of these humble principles. The Ven. Sariputta 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.
The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant"s Footprint, M 28.2
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.
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. This 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 proclamation meaning “Dukkha has absolute, real 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, even though we might feel, “I"m suffering!” the fact is that it"s not just me who is experiencing dukkha; 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 Mahayana 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, even though one might be faithfully trying to do the right thing, it can drift into seeing our own suffering as more significant and more real than anybody else"s, simply because it"s the suffering that we have the power to resolve completely. The Mahayana teachings arose, in contrast, to say: “My suffering is felt "here" yet I"ve got to remember that my suffering can"t possibly be any more important than anybody else"s. All beings are undergoing a similar experience.”
Even though we have been looking at this question from a large scale, social view, it is also 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 Nibbana in this lifetime; I"m deeply weary of the human condition and I"m determined not to be born again.” Given the classic Theravadan vernacular that"s the "right attitude," a worthy thing; it would have been reasonable to expect the teacher to respond, “Sadhu! Good for you, Sumedho – anumodana!”
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, firstly, that he (Ajahn Sumedho) was the more spiritually advanced, secondly he alluded to the fact that there is a value in the "caring for all beings" approach, and, to cap it off, 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, then 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 centered nihilism.
In 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 Brahmajala Sutra, it addresses this 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 Mahabodhicittasattva, 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 Mahabodhicittasattva is condensed to Bodhisattva (in Chinese, further condensed to Pu Sa).
Commentary to The Brahma Net Sutra, p 25,
Ven. Master Hui Seng
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 Prajna Paramita Sutra, or Heart Sutra for short.
This is probably the most well known teaching on emptiness in the Northern Canon and has been recited for centuries from India to Manchuria, and from Kyoto to Latvia, as well as, nowadays, at Buddhist centers 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 very 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 very 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.
Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra
The Sutra thus takes the words of the Four Noble Truths and, from the transcendent perspective, empties it 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 extending 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 – endeavor to give voice to those particular dimensions, of emptiness and altruism, that were implied in the Pali but were getting lost through dukkha and its partners becoming held in a narrow, personal and overly concrete way. The Mahayana movement was an effort to balance things out.