In the Theravada tradition:

  1. There is no self in all phenomena (including the five aggregates).
  2. The five aggregates and the rest of nature and the world is always changing and not permanent (anicca).
  3. Emptiness is only about the emptiness of self in all phenomena (including the five aggregates). The aggregates and the world definitely exist. These are not empty.
  4. Suffering definitely exists (first noble truth).
  5. The Theravada practitioner has to strive to become free from suffering. Nibbana exists, and is permanent and unchanging.

Whereas, in the Mahayana tradition:

  1. There is no self in all phenomena (including the five aggregates).
  2. The five aggregates and the rest of nature and the world is always changing and not permanent (anicca).
  3. Emptiness refers to the emptiness of everything (including Nirvana) - the self, the five aggregates, the world, nature etc.
  4. According to the Heart Sutra, "There is No Truth of Suffering, Of the Cause of Suffering,Of the Cessation of Suffering, Nor of the Path."
  5. According to the Heart Sutra, "There is No Wisdom, and There is No Attainment Whatsoever."

So, why should the Mahayana practitioner strive for anything at all, if everything is emptiness (nothing really exists), and there is no suffering at all, and there is no wisdom to be gained, and there is nothing at all to attain?

  • 1
    well, this is the best question that will ever appear on this site. i hope it works ;-)
    – user2512
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 14:31
  • The Heart Sutra is not really to the point for most people. It is like getting to the end of your medical training and having the final lecture say: "...and by the way, everybody dies eventually." Yes, but, we still practice medicine.
    – user2341
    Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 23:37
  • It is a good question @user3293056 but represents the view of nihilism. The proponents of the Middle Way and the Heart Sutra are not nihilistic. It is only misunderstanding that regards them as so.
    – user13375
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 19:23
  • sure @YesheTenley i agree, a good question!
    – user2512
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 11:05

9 Answers 9


Well in Mahayana, just like in Theravada, we strive for the end of striving. As @ChrisW said, Heart Sutra is written from the perspective of completion, the end of striving. This is called "taking the result as the path". Meaning, instead of discovering the result step by step, you try the result on, like a hat, until you internalize it through getting used to it.

Another point of Heart Sutra is to serve as an antidote for attachment and reification of the raft of Dharma. Mahayana's issue with Theravada is that they sometimes get so obsessed with Dharma concepts to the point that Dharma becomes a problem, an obstacle in itself. So by reminding of its inherent emptiness we are hoping to help the student come back to the natural state, so they can experience the groundlessness and positionlessness in which there is no more need for striving.

Now, to just abandon all effort without having mastered the peaceful mind would be fooling oneself. Which is why in real life most Mahayana practitioners have to work on essentially the same practices as Theravada, whether before or after realization of emptiness.

Wouldn't it be nice if one could attain dispassion and unbinding upon hearing that everything is contrived and absolutely pointless? But habitual patterns and karmic inertia are difficult to overcome...

Although certainly in the absolute sense the universe does not care if you're enlightened or still suffer. It remains as lacking any solidity or certainty to rely on as it always were.


I'll preface my answer by suggesting that you find a qualified teacher. That is to say, someone with years of formal study in a monastic setting leading to a qualification such as Geshe or Ajahn or equivalent.

Comparing Theravada and Mahayana is going to get you a lot of biased answers. The two traditions organize ideas in different ways and use terms differently, and this can lead to confusion. Pick one, and ignore the other until you get to the point where you have a really good handle on the teachings.

One of the problems we have in studying Buddhism (or any "foreign" philosophy for that matter) is that we use English words for concepts that don't really match those words precisely, and our understanding is tainted by the English meaning. It is often better to use the Pali or Sanskrit (or even Tibetan) terms instead, so as to avoid this taint.

"Emptiness" doesn't mean nothingness.

When we say "emptiness" we mean "devoid of inherent existence". That piece of hardened clay you call a "cup" and immediately ascribe properties to such as "used for drinking coffee" and "beautiful" isn't a cup from it's own side. You project those properties onto it. To that fly on your wall, it isn't a cup at all.

Similarly, you think of yourself as "me" rather than recognizing that "you" are a collection of physical components and mental processes none of which individually contain the an independent or eternal "you-ness".

So then, if we only really have as much "self" as a pile of leaves, why do we need to help each other? Because we all still suffer. Just because that suffering is also temporary and dependent on causes and is therefore also empty, doesn't mean it doesn't suck in the moment.



I think the Heart Sutra may be analogous to the Brahmana Sutta (SN 51.15):

So it is with an arahant whose mental effluents are ended, who has reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and who is released through right gnosis. Whatever desire he first had for the attainment of arahantship, on attaining arahantship that particular desire is allayed. Whatever persistence... Whatever intent... Whatever discrimination...

Before that happens:

In that case, brahman, let me question you on this matter. Answer as you see fit. What do you think: Didn't you first have desire, thinking, 'I'll go to the park,' and then when you reached the park, wasn't that particular desire allayed?"

"Yes, sir."

"Didn't you first have persistence, [etc.]

One way in which the Mahayana might be supposed to differ from the Theravada, perhaps, is that the Heart Sutra is ascribed to Avalokiteśvara ("who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas").

But the Theravada tradition too has an answer to the question "why would a Buddha, why did the Buddha, strive?" (e.g. for those who have little dust in their eyes; or Mahayana for all sentient beings).

Maybe some Mahayana practitioners don't strive: see for example this answer; see also this answer.

To give a more specific or less theoretical example, why did Thich Nhat Hanh strive?

Oprah: Thank you for the honor of talking to you. Just being in your presence, I feel less stressed than when the day started. You have such a peaceful aura. Are you always this content?

Nhat Hanh: This is my training, this is my practice. And I try to live every moment like that, to keep the peace in myself.

Oprah: Because you can't give it to others if you don't have it in yourself.

Nhat Hanh: Right.

Oprah: I see. I know that you were born in Vietnam in 1926. Is there any wonderful memory of your childhood that you can share?

Nhat Hanh: The day I saw a picture of the Buddha in a magazine.

Oprah: How old were you?

Nhat Hanh: I was 7, 8. He was sitting on the grass, very peaceful, smiling. I was impressed. Around me, people were not like that, so I had the desire to be like him.


Sure, why not? It's like one strives to not strive. It would be nice if we could just rip the coating of defilement off of ourselves to reveal the Buddha inside. It take's awhile to get naked, we got to strive but we don't have to strive to be a Buddha that is wearing a defilement suit.


There is No Truth of Suffering, the Cause of Suffering, the Cessation of Suffering, Nor of the Path.... There is No Wisdom, and There is No Attainment Whatsoever

These kind of teachings are correct but can be misleading. The teachers mean that none of these things exist in "ultimate reality" but they do exist in "conceptual reality". We aren't trying to vilify conceptual reality. The idea is to experience ultimate reality and know the difference between The conceptual and ultimate realities. If we didn't have conceptual reality then we wouldn't be able to talk to each other , no step by step directions, there would be no BuddhismSE forum and there could be no suttas.

-Metta :)


Because no amount of truth is going to keep unrealized people from suffering from delusion. The real work is the liberation of all sentient beings.

  • 1
    But first the real work is to liberate yourself. How can one half in mud get another out?
    – user4878
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 16:42

Emptiness refers to the emptiness of everything (including Nirvana) - the self, the five aggregates, the world, nature etc.

Indeed it does. Everything is empty of inherent existence. Nothing exists inherently or essentially. Not the Buddha, not Nirvana, not the 4NT, not suffering, not the cessation of suffering... Why? Because inherent existence is an impossible mode of existence.

Still, all of these definitely exist: the Buddha, Nirvana, the 4NT, suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

According to the Heart Sutra, "There is No Truth of Suffering, Of the Cause of Suffering, Of the Cessation of Suffering, Nor of the Path."

You are missing an important caveat that is stressed again and again in all the commentary literature on the Heart Sutra. There is no inherent or essential Truth of Suffering, no inherent or essential Cause of Suffering, no inherent or essential Cessation of Suffering, and no essential or inherent Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering.

There... fixed to avoid misunderstanding.

So, why should the Mahayana practitioner strive for anything at all, if everything is emptiness (nothing really exists), and there is no suffering at all, and there is no wisdom to be gained, and there is nothing at all to attain?

Because illusion-like suffering, wisdom, and attainments do exist. Again, if you insist upon falling to the extreme of nihilism or insist that this is what proponents of the Middle Way are doing, then you are indicting the Buddha himself as you yourself know he propounded the Middle Way free from the extremes.

Consider: essentialists who believe in atman can and do regularly use entirely analogous misunderstandings and logics to indict the Theravada. That they are capable of these misunderstandings does not render them true and correct :)


There's different answers, and different people even will tell you different things, let alone different texts.

I have two answers. The 1st is that, because of meditation and good teachers, sentient beings can have faith in their Buddha Nature, and work to fully realise that, like anyone can work at their ideals, without fully understanding them.

Also maybe parinirvana (the complete extinction of the skandhas) may have some value.

  • any comment on the downvote?dogma
    – user2512
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 18:04
  • 1
    I didn't downvote, but I didn't understand the last sentence. And, to help tie the previous sentence of the answer the question, how can "there is no attainment" etc. be compatible with "working at their ideals" -- what ideal?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 18:31
  • In Theravada I think that parinirvana means "nirvana without remainder" i.e. death. I read (a translation of the) Pali Maha-parinibbana Sutta, but not the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra: so if (assuming) your use of "parinirvana" has any special (Mahayana-specific) meaning, then I didn't understand that; but it was saying "may have some value" that I especially didn't understand; what value? And how does it relate to the question? I notice that the Pali sutta ends with, "Strive heedfully" (Appamadena sampadetha) but I don't know how to use that to explain why Mahayana practitioners strive.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Oct 1, 2017 at 19:37

The way I understood emptiness was through the framework elaborated by the Dalai Lama in his books. Within this framework, emptiness doesn't mean 'nothingness', but rather emptiness of intrinsic nature. This means, by the philosophy of Nagarjuna, that things are dependently originated. They arise as conditioned by cause and effect.

Also, the framework of Nagarjuna distinguishes between conventional and ultimate reality. Conventional means how things appear in the everyday, while ultimate truth is perceiving reality from a perspective of wisdom. So, for example, there are conventional realities, a chair does exist, and this is within the view of dependent origination linked with causality. However, there is an ultimate reality whereby things exist as emptiness, that is lacking intrinsic essence.

I would liken this to a chair existing as a chair (conventional) but also as interacting forces at different scopes, i.e. atoms, molecules, perceptions, etc. all interacting together in a non-definable way (ultimate).

So, to answer your question, there are people suffering in the world, but these individuals lack intrinsic essence: ultimately, when analyzed with discriminating wisdom, these individuals fail to intrinsically exist. In simple terms, there are people needing help but they exist in a way reliant on emptiness.

The Heart Sutra, once again from the Dalai Lama's books, would be definitive rather than requiring interpretation. In this sense, it explains reality from the point of view of emptiness, from ultimate reality. So, indeed, from ultimate reality nothing exists, and the Heart Sutra is elaborating upon that reality, is showing this reality. We don't need to interpret within it: ultimate reality is portrayed in it. However, the conventional reality of every day appears in stark contrast with its tenets. (But in a sense, not really. Reality is ultimate, just as atoms are 'truer' than the chair: it is our perception that shows us the conventional.)

So ANSWER PART 1: There is a conventional reality underlying the ultimate nature of phenomena. There are real dhammas like striving in this reality.

Then, I would suggest the Mahayana viewpoint emphasizes compassion. I would liken compassion and emptiness' interaction as a bunch of moths flying around a lamp. The shadows of these moths are like the suffering of beings, tied with the moths. And, sometimes these shadows reflect the moths in form (conventional) but sometimes the shadows don't even resemble the moths (ultimate). However, these are the SAME shadows, only in different moment, different aspects. Compassion is like the lamp: it always interacts with the suffering, the shadows, but not necessarily in an obvious, categorically separate way.

So, no matter if the shadows are distinct, fused into a mass, light, dark, discernible or vague: in all cases, compassion brightens and relieves suffering as the lamp dispels the shadows. What changes is whether we are categorizing the shadows as intrinsic entities, distinct dhammas (e.g. moths), or merely seeing them as they actually are: a bunch of shadows.

Hence, after this perhaps too elaborate simile, ANSWER PART 2 is that compassion targets suffering even without individual entities to strive for. It connects with suffering causing positive karma, future positive rebirth, and striving altogether.

Hopes this helps,


PS: The books I refer to are here, here, here, and here.


Theravadin Buddhism does not refer to sunyata (emptiness). It is best viewed as a psychology of karma and method of overcoming misleading karma (suffering). Mahayana Buddhism strives to overcome self-centeredness. The experience of sunyata is considered to be the only way to thoroughly erase this self-centeredness. Hence the Mahayana practitioner does indeed have a goal. The fact that you raise the question you have asked indicates a very superficial understanding of Mahayana Buddhism. Understanding karma would be a far more profitable pursuit of insight.

  • What one is taught depends on the teacher not really the school. Overcoming self centeredness IS overcoming misleading karma, you know that right? One helps themselves by helping other beings. One sees themself as just another being .
    – Lowbrow
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 14:58
  • I have known only a few teachers. It would be unfair of me to promote only the teachers I know. So I stick to talking about the schools and try to be as fair as possible to them. Of course, self-centeredness is sankhara, as taught by both Theravada and Mahayana. I was merely pointing out that sunyata is not a source of psychological insight (which is a form of relative truth). I do not see where we disagree. Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 16:02
  • Me either. I was pretty sure you new that but I get curious.
    – Lowbrow
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 22:18
  • I don't think Ruben has a superficial understanding at all... He is struggling just like all of us ordinary beings with understanding suchness, but his questions suggest a subtlety that many other ordinary beings lack.
    – user13375
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 19:31
  • @YesheTenley Everyone deserves to be loved. We all do our best. There are many important psychological insights not found in the Buddhist teachings. But I stick to the purpose of this Buddhist exchange and that is to discuss Buddhist concepts that are defined in detail by traditional Buddhist texts. One such concept is the view that Absolute Truth is not a form of Relative Truth. Many people make the mistake of claiming "There is no attainment whatsoever" to be a Relative Truth. This claim is a false belief and a classical hindrance to Mahayana view of Enlightenment. If Ruben believes this cla Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 22:33

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