"No suffering, no origination..."

No suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain.

This is the most shocking rejection yet of the Hinayana approach to Buddha's teaching which had insisted that the totality of Buddha's teaching was contained in the first teaching he gave to his five former colleagues soon after his enlightenment. This teaching is called the First Sermon or the Sermon of the Four Holy Truths. In this schema, the four Noble Truths are:

  1. existence is dukkha (pain, suffering, discomfort, dis-ease, sense of incompletion.

  2. dukkha is caused by "thirst" (Sanskrit: tanha)--desire to be, desire to have.

  3. the thirst can be stopped (nirvana).

  4. it can be stopped by walking the eightfold path (namely--right understanding, right thoughts, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration).

The Mahayana disciples had no quarrel with the insight contained in any of these classifications but what precipitated a conflict for them was the Hinayana insistence on a monastic elitism which declared itself to be the sole custodian of Buddha's teachings and their interpretation. Through the innovation of sunyata, both as the ontological and transcendent nature of reality, the Mahayana followers declared all categories, and hence their interpretations, as dualistic, thus null and void. By positing a simple faith in the thought of enlightenment and diligent practice, they sought to make the Buddha's enlightenment experience available to any and all, laypersons and monastics alike.

This passage then is a declaration that suffering, origination of suffering, and the stopping of suffering by following a certain path are empty categories; at the same time, it is an affirmation that in the pure experience of sunyata, there are no dualities or distinctions between suffering and its stopping, between suffering and the so-called path to liberation. The sutra declares, almost ruthlessly, that there is no cognition or attainment with nothing to attain. Hinayana tradition had seen in the person of the arhant an embodiment of great spiritual attainment, and he was a model to be emulated. Historically, however, soon after the death of the Buddha, a controversy emerged over the status of the arhant and at the Second Council (held about a hundred years after the death of the Buddha); one of the key issues debated at the Council was whether or not it was possible for an arhant to relapse. The consensus, controversial though it was, was that an arhant can indeed relapse. Subsequent Mahayana literature built upon this limited capacity of the arhant and extended its belief system to include the transience of all categories of existence, including suffering, its cessation, and any attainment to come out of such cessation.