Talk by Bruno Nua

Public Lecture

“Passages from the Heart Sutra: The Main Philosophical Teachings of Mahayana Buddhism”

by Bruno Nua

Room 706, Boromratchakumari Bldg., Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University
December 6, 2012, 1:30 to 3 pm

More about Bruno at


Heart Sutra

I planned to blog about the Heart Sutra for quite some time, and now I am attending a seminar at my Faculty and there is a computer at the back so I got the opportunity to write about it now.

The key message of the Heart Sutra is nothing less than the key message of Buddhism itself. Let’s look at some of the most important passages from the Sutra:

Body is nothing more than emptiness,
emptiness is nothing more than body.
The body is exactly empty,
and emptiness is exactly body.

Volumes and volumes have been written on what the Sutra is supposed to mean, but the key here is that words alone are never enough. One will not be able to attain Nirvana through intellectual understanding alone. That is, attaining Nirvana is not something you can achieve by thinking and ratiocinating. One has to “see” reality, but it is not the kind of reality that we are accustomed to. It’s on the one hand the same reality, but on the other hand it’s completely different. It’s the kind of reality that one sees when one goes beyond all conceptual distinctions. This is not something that we can do just by deciding to do. It’s a highly advanced skill that requires a lot of effort and practice. The Buddha laid down the path toward realizing this skill through his teaching of morality, meditation and wisdom.

But the point I would like to emphasize here is the ultimately paradoxical character of the Buddha’s teaching: Emptiness is form; form is emptiness. What is there is exactly speaking what is not there, and what is not there is what is there. This way of speaking is not a play on words; it is the most direct expression of the core of the Buddha’s teaching. Some scholars try to interpret the paradox away, saying that the ultimate message beyond the paradoxical sentences is devoid of the paradox. But in fact the paradox is there, staring us at the face. Our task is not to shy away from it, but to face it and live with it and ultimately try to realize that the real truth is the paradox itself. The truth is what the Sutra says: Form (or the body in this translation) is emptiness and emptiness is form. We try to see the truth of the paradox, trying to realize its inevitably impossible and contradictory nature. It is through the contradiction that the point of the Buddha is carried through.

So this is all I can say about the Heart Sutra. So this is not quite a commentary because the point is that no commentary is possible. The Heart Sutra can also be used as a tool for those who meditate. You can memorize the whole text and when the mind is stilled within deep meditation, perhaps a breakthrough can happen. But that is not what we are looking for. The spirit of the Heart Sutra is that there is no goal while in fact there is a goal. It’s of course difficult, but one can certainly try.

Three Types of Compassion

When I was staying at the Khadiravana Center someone I had known before came to visit the Center and talked with me for a while. He was a student of Buddhism and used to translate a number of Tibetan Buddhist books. He had an interesting question which he told me many monks and scholars could not answer. It has to do with compassion and emptiness. Since everything is empty, that is, lacking in their inherent existence, when we have compassion, what exactly are we having the compassion for? If everything is empty, isn’t the thing for which we have compassion empty too? If it is empty, then wouldn’t our compassion be directed to an empty object, a compassion to nothing?

This is clearly a clever question, and it shows that someone who does not understand the Buddha’s teaching thoroughly could get mired in these conceptual web. Not that the Buddha himself planted these webs, but it seems that some of his followers created these webs for themselves because of their attachment and preconceptions.

In any case this question needs to be fully answered, and the answer is not an easy one. The question rests on a very fundamental tension in the Buddha’s own teaching – the tension between taking things as they appear, on the one hand, and seeing their ultimate nature as being empty through and through on the other. This tension lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching.

On the side of taking things as they appear, there certainly are beings who need compassion. They are suffering; there are innumerably many of them. They are beings in samsara. Clearly they are there as objects of the Buddha’s and bodhisattva’s and our own compassion.

On the other hand, things are empty of their inherent character. What this means is that things do not stay the same forever, and even at a moment when they are what they are, they are what they are only because of their being dependence of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are no exception either; they depend on other causes and conditions too, and so on ad infinitum. In the end everything is what it is because of their dependent nature, which for Buddhists means that they are empty of their inherent character which would make them truly what they are without such dependency. Since this has no exception, any object of compassion, any suffering being, is ultimately empty too. So when we feel compassionate toward them, what exactly are we compassionate toward?

One way out of this is to treat things at two levels – that of ‘conventional’ truth and of ‘ultimate’ truth. This is the path Nagarjuna takes. In fact talking about levels is rather misleading, for in fact things do not present themselves in levels. They are one and the same things, but described differently. According to one way of describing, they are there as objects of reference and certainly of compassion, but according to the other description, they are empty. Since all things do not possess any essential properties from the beginning, there is no contradiction in the two descriptions.

However, there is another way of looking at this which is perhaps less philosophical. According to Deshung Rinpoche in The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception, when we practice compassion, we should do it with the realization that there are three types of compassion. We should always take into account all these three types whenever we feel compassionate toward other beings and practice compassion. The first type is the ordinary compassion we have toward other beings. The second type is the realization that these beings suffer because they are mired in avidya or fundamental ignorance. The third and most refined type is the realization that in ultimate reality there is no one to be compassionate to, no one who is being compassionate, and no such thing as compassion.

The trick is that the third type is classified as a kind of compassion. This neatly solves the problem that my friend asked me before. The tension between compassion and emptiness is only apparent and arises only if the first type is understood to be the only type. But when one takes into account the second and third types, then the tension dissolves, because the realization of emptiness is a kind of compassion too.

This needs to be unpacked. Buddhist teachers usually say that compassion and emptiness (or wisdom) are the two wings that enable a bird to fly. A bird cannot fly with only one wing, so one cannot attain Buddhahood with realization of either compassion or emptiness only. One needs both to attain Buddhahood. And a way to achieve this is suggested in Deshung Rinpoche’s teaching that the third type of compassion is just this realization of the wisdom of emptiness itself.

How is this so? It arises from the understanding that the truly genuine way for true compassion to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to achieve the wisdom of emptiness – the realization that ultimately all beings are of one nature. Furthermore, it also arises from the understanding that the only way the wisdom of emptiness to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to have genuine compassion toward other beings. When one has genuine compassion, the apparent boundary separating oneself from the world and every being breaks down, but that is just emptiness in action.

So in the end the two, compassion and emptiness, are one and the same. Thus the question I mentioned earlier arose only out of some misconception. But it is a very strong misconception. This is why the practice of compassion is so crucial in Mahayana Buddhism. Without it there will absolutely be no way toward Buddhahood.

More of Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche on Happiness

Here is the remaining portion of Nyima Dakpa Rinpoche’s talk on “Path to Happiness” at Chulalongkorn University that I talked about in the previous post. May all beings be happy and meet with causes of happiness!


Ordinary relaxation depends on external situation, but real happiness comes from inner realization. This is what the Buddhas teach. We have to use our opportunities for good causes. Material things can be either negative or positive, depending on how they are going to be used. We can use the material things to benefit people; we can make differences in their lives through these material things. This is a way to gain merit. Thus wealth can be meaningful. When you die you are left only with your own store of merit. You cannot bring your bank account with you when you die. You can use only another kind of account, the merit account that shows how much merit and demerit you have accumulated in your lifetime. So having wealth is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be a force for good and a considerable amount of merit too, if the wealth is used wisely, which is to benefit those who are in need.

Happiness only comes when you wish and act so that other people become happy. If you think only of benefiting only yourselves, thinking only that you yourself alone shall be happy, then you won’t be happy at all.

Be satisfied with your life. Be content and happy at every moment. Look into yourself. Look at your own mind, and then you will become more relaxed. Do not look up to other people. Don’t think that you need to be as rich as they are, as intelligent as they are, and so on. If we do, then there is no end. We will always look up, up and up and we will not be satisfied with what we have at all. You may aim at a certain level, but once you reach that point, there will be more and more higher up so you will always feel lacking and deprived, no matter how much you have already. Moving up, you will never be able to touch the sky.

Do not waste your life. It is very difficult to be born a human being, so let us not waste this very precious moment when we are human beings who are intelligent enough to understand the Buddhas’ teaching.

Things are always impermanent; they are always changing at every moment. However, many of us do not get this point so they act as if things are always permanent. The result is that they are mired in all sorts of suffering, including wandering around in samsara.

So when you are stressed or depressed, practice meditation. With proper way of practicing meditation, the genuine door toward real and lasting peace and happiness will lie open for us. The goal is to perceive things as they actually are, without any fabrications. Stay focused on things as they simply are. Discover the deep silence inside when your mind becomes still. This silence inside is none other than the happiness that we have been seeking. In that state of true meditation, your mind will simply dissolves into this state of pure, deep state of silence. But if you do meditation incorrectly, you will be full of endless chatters – your mind, instead of being calm and still, will be all the busier and noisier.

During your meditation, all kinds of thoughts will arise. They come spontaneously; they just come. So don’t be alarmed or stressed when thoughts arise. This is a very natural occurrence. What we need to do is just to leave those thoughts where they are, and then they will go away on their own. Don’t try to force the thoughts out of your mind. You will never succeed in doing that. It will only invite more and more thoughts. Then we will realize that there are actually no boundaries between thoughts – all thoughts dissolve into one another. This is the direct entrance into Emptiness, śūnyatā.  This is the state where we are truly free from all stresses, all fabricating thoughts, all defilements. We have full potential, full energy. This is the best way to combat the problem of unhappiness.

We need to practice in order that we can overcome the five poisons that have been afflicting us for so long. Then you don’t need to run around searching for cures anymore. The cure is already there inside your mind.

How did “Zero” Give Rise to Everything?

While I am writing this, I am now in Singapore with my son Ken. I have attended the workshop on “Bright Dark Ages,” which is organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies here. Their aim is to rethink what is known as the “Grand Question” posed by the work of British historian of science Joseph Needham. For those who may not know him already, Needham is widely known for his monumentally huge work on science and civilization in China. And the Grand Question here is why it is the case that, given the tremendous advances made by the Chinese civilization in matters of science and technology for the past millennia, modern science did not develop there.

Many of the participants debated and analyzed this question from many angles, but I won’t focus on this point here in this post. I would rather talk about one of the papers presented in the workshop on the numeral ‘zero.’ As is well known, zero originated in India around the Middle Ages. However, the author, George G Joseph from the UK, pointed out that the use of the concept “zero” was found in many other cultures which were contemporary or even older than India. For example, the Egyptian had the concept nfr, which means ‘beautiful’. This happened when the account sums up the costs and expenses of some transaction and found that the two were equal. So the word ‘nfr’ is written instead of a numeral.

Back to India, Joseph told us that the numeral ‘0’ originated from the Buddhist conception of “sunyata” or “emptiness.” So this was what perked up my attention. The idea is that from zero everything comes to be, and the zero is prevalent in anything and everything. I was immediately reminded of Nagarjuna’s dictum that emptiness gives rise to everything in the world, and that everything in the world resolves back to emptiness. Mathematics and reality are much more closer to each other than I thought previously.

So how did zero give rise to all other numbers? I don’t remember what Joseph said here in detail. Perhaps I have to look at his paper. But the idea is that without the zero, no mathematical computation that would give rise to more and more numbers than there are symbols for was not possible. If you have a symbol standing for a fixed number only, then you will have to have an infinite number of different symbols standing for an infinite number of numbers. That is certainly impossible. With zero, you can have the positional system of representing number, whereby the position a numeral is placed signifies the number times by the nth power of the base, which is usually ten. So the numeral ‘2’ in 20 represents the number 20 but not number 2, and so on.

For Nagarjuna, emptiness gives rise to all things because for anything to be a ‘thing’ at all, it has to be delineated and outlined in such a way that its boundary is clearly marked from all other things. Without emptiness, such boundary construction would not be possible. There is a saying quoted in Joseph’s paper that emptiness must be there so that the architect could work on defining an area with walls — otherwise this defining an area would not be possible. Furthermore, one can also see that emptiness is also everywhere in anything. Since all things change their forms, their characters and so on, their “empty” feature needs to be present as a condition which makes the changes possible.

We can talk quite a lot about these things, but I’ll keep this for the later posts.

Perceiving Emptiness

There’s a story in the Suttas or the Discourses of the Buddha, which I am particularly interested. It’s a story about Bahiya. He used to be a merchant, but one day his ship was wrecked and he could barely made it alive on a shore. However, all his clothes were gone and he had to use some wooden planks to wrap himself with. He walked to a village that way and begged for food and clothes. The villagers saw him in that condition and thought that he was an “arahant” or one who had already vanquished all desires because he wore no clothes. So they worshipped him and provided him with a lot of things. Bahiya thought that the reason why the villagers came to worship him was that he was wearing the wooden planks, so he decided not to let go of the planks and actually enjoyed the status given to him by the villagers. Furthermore, he was afraid that the villagers might lose their respece if he returned to the normal way of life.

However, he encountered the god Brahma, who rebuked him a lot saying that he was wrong to deceive the villagers like that. Brahma told Bahiya in no uncertain terms that he was not an arahant. Bahiya then asked how he could really become one and Brahma said that he needed to meet Lord Buddha who could give teachings which would really enable one to become the real vanquisher. Having said that (and perhaps seeing Bahiya’s own potential), Brahma used his magical power to transport Bahiya thousands of miles away to were the Buddha was staying. It was said in the Sutra that Bahiya travelled these thousands of miles in only a single day. Bahiya then met the Buddha when he was walking in a morning alms round with his disciples. Realizing that there was no time for him, Bahiya came to the Buddha and entreated him to give a teaching that would enable him to become realized and an arahant. The Buddha replied that this was not the time, since he was on an alms round. Bahiya, however, said that there was really no time for him and asked the Buddha to give a short teaching so that he would not be too much distracted from his round. Seeing that Bahiya was really sincere, the Buddha then gave the following teaching:

Bahiya, when you see things with your eyes, just see them. When you hear things, just hear them. When you smell, taste or touch anything, just hear, smell and touch. And when you perceive your mental states, just perceive them.

While he was listening to this teaching, Bahiya then became liberated and actually became an arahant on the spot. He then asked the Buddha’s permission to become a monk. The Buddha then asked him to get the robes and all other necessities for a monk. However, while Bahiya was searching for these things, he was gored to death by a raging bull. The Buddha found his body and told his disciples that Bahiya was the one who realized the arahantship the fastest.


So the Buddha’s teaching quoted above is a very powerful one. The key word here is the word ‘just.’ When you perceive anything, try it so that you just perceive it. Do it without any fabrication, without any thoughts. This is also known as to perceive Emptiness itself. There is in fact no such thing as Emptiness. It is only a word, a signpost so that we can communicate about the Buddha’s teaching here. When you see anything, for example, when you see a pleasant object like a rose, try not to fall for it and see it just as what it is. The reason why we are wandering around in samsara is precisely because we have not learned to perceive things just as what they are. When we see a rose we typically associate so many things with it — love, romance, sex and so on. The result is that we are entangled by the perception, taking all these to be real. But in fact they are not. Consequently our minds are always deluded and are always mired in this unsatisfactory state called “dukkha”. The word is usually translated as “suffering” but it is a very broad kind of suffering. Its meaning includes not only the kinds of suffering we are very accustomed to, but also the state of things in the world in so fas as they are always conditioned by their causes and conditions. Realizing that as a matter of fact there is no such thing as dukkha and that all things are just what they are and nothing more is thus a certain way ultimately  to become liberated from the cycle of deaths and rebirths. This is what the Buddha told Bahiya, who got the message very fast before he met his gory end.