The four noble truths

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A multi-part course based on Open Heart, Clear Mind given at Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day from April 2007 to December 2008. You can also study the book in depth through the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) online learning program.

Dukkha and the causes of dukkha

  • The importance of seeing the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence
  • Causes of cyclic existence
  • How to practice the noble eightfold path

Open Heart, Clear Mind 06a: Four noble truths (download)

Questions and answers

Open Heart, Clear Mind 06b: Q&A (download)

Let’s generate our motivation. It’s especially important to remember that when we do a spiritual practice, we want to have a big motivation that reaches out and connects with all living beings, feeling that interconnectedness and interrelationships with all living beings, how our life depends on them, how they’ve been kind to us. Let’s generate the motivation to make our spiritual practice one that repays the kindness of others, because by improving ourselves, we become more capable of being of benefit. By progressing on the path to Buddhahood, no matter how long it takes, the benefit we can be to others increases dramatically. Remember this altruistic intention as we embark on listening to the teachings.

This week [the teaching] is the four noble truths. This is one of the basic teachings in Buddhism. All the Buddhist traditions of whatever region or variety adhere to the four noble truths. These are the first teachings that the Buddha gave in which he outlined the whole context for his [inaudible] or his doctrine. The first two of the four noble truths talk about our present experience and the last two talk about an alternative experience.

The reason they’re called noble is not because the truths themselves are noble. For example the first truth is the truth of dukkha, sometimes translated as suffering. And there’s nothing noble about suffering. But they’re called noble because the noble ones, in other words the beings who have received emptiness directly, have perceived these as true. So that’s why they’re called the four noble truths. They’re true as perceived by the people who have meditative equipoise that knows reality. So, [they are] reliable.

I’ll just outline them and then go back through them. The first is the truth of dukkha. Dukkha means unsatisfactory. It’s often translated as suffering, but that’s not a very good translation. Sometimes I say suffering because unsatisfactoriness is just too unwieldy. The truth of unsatisfactory is not a good English phrase. So sometimes I just say dukkha. It’s the Pali Sanskrit word. The second one is the origin of this dukkha, of this unsatisfactoriness. The third is the cessation of that, the liberation from it. The fourth is the path leading to that cessation.

The first truth—the noble truth of dukkha and its origin—that’s our present experience. The cessation and the path to cessation is the alternative experience. We always start out contemplating our present experience because it’s important that we see very accurately what it is. We have a lot of resistance towards doing this. It’s our very raw experience, and we don’t want to look at it. We just don’t want to look at it.

What’s our raw experience? Well, we get born, old, sick and die. Who wants to talk about that? You see what I mean? You know how we just avoid it. If it was light and love and bliss, we’d all sign up. But birh, aging, sickness, and death —it’s like blah! But it’s really important that we understand what the situation is, otherwise we’re not going to have any motivation to get out of it. We have so much resistance to looking at our situation that we just completely live in la la land most of the time.

That’s why we keep ourselves so busy, don’t we? We go to the movies and we’re surfing the internet and all of our social engagements and go here and go there and do this and that basically because who likes to be alone and look at their own mind and look at their own situation? So we keep ourselves very well intoxicated in this country with one distraction after another. And when the moment comes when we just have to be alone and look at what our situation is, it’s like aaahh! Turn on the TV, turn on the radio, call somebody up, go to the movies—do something.

I think we have that reaction because we’ve never been taught any tools. We don’t know any tools for how to look at our situation in a beneficial way—how to deal with it, how to remedy it. Because we really don’t have any tools, we prefer not to look at it. Or should I say the tools we have are imperfect. The tools we have to deal with aging, sickness and death part are medical science, and medical science tries hard, but we all die, don’t we? And the cryonics, where they freeze part of your body and restore you later on—you know, it’s a nice effort, but I wouldn’t count on it.

And then all the things that we do to prevent sickness, the medical profession declares them good this year and then next year, the things that are the cure become the causes for sicknesses. It’s true, isn’t it? I mean they try hard, but each year—“Oh well, we approved this drug, but now we see it actually causes this and that and the other thing to occur as side effects that are worse than the initial disease.” So it’s a good effort on their part, but the whole situation of being born, getting sick, getting old and dying is one that is just the nature of having this body.

As soon as we’re conceived, they all happen. As soon as we’re conceived in our mother’s womb, from the moment we’re conceived, we’re already aging. Aging is going on all the time. You don’t grow younger, you grow older. Aging starts the moment after conception. Sickness comes in. We’ve all been sick. And then death is the grand finale. And if we had our druthers about it, this is not what we would sign up for. If somebody said sign up here to get born, old, sick, and die, would you do it? I don’t think so. I don’t think we’d sign up for that. We were just born into the situation.

So how did we get born into this situation? What causes it? Somebody told me—very cute—that life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease. That’s kind of it, isn’t it? So, what causes it? Well, it wasn’t just our mother and father messing around. And it wasn’t the stork. And Buddhism says it wasn’t a creator being either, because if there was some independent creator that signed us up for birth, aging, sickness, and death, then we should definitely impeach him. Don’t you think if there was somebody controlling your life that set you up for this, wouldn’t you want to be free or oust whoever it was?

Well, the way Buddhists saw it was that it was not anything external that got us into this situation. Rather, it is our own afflicted mental state. So when Buddha taught the second noble truth, the truth of the origin of the cause, what he pinpointed was ignorance. Ignorance is an affliction, an afflicted mental state that apprehends things in the exact opposite way from the way they actually exist. The thing is that we are so ignorant that we do not understand that we’re ignorant, and as we begin to do some investigation, it really becomes rather shocking how little we understand of our situation and how much we just follow ignorance.

For example, things exist dependently. This we can kind of understand. The cup depends on—what are ceramic cups made out of—clay? Clay and glaze and an oven and somebody who made it. The bell is made out of metal and different alloys—whatever they are, I forgot all my science—synthetic material here at the top, the different materials that made up the bell, the cloth is—this is some kind of synthetic cloth—different things we invented. Everything is dependent upon its parts; it’s dependent upon the material which composes it.

I mean we can see that. When we look at our body: our body is dependent on the sperm and the egg and all the fruit I ate. So from one part we can understand that. The body is caused. It depends on its causes and conditions. It depends on its parts. It’s a dependent phenomenon. We can understand that intellectually, but when we relate to our body on a day-to-day basis, do we relate to our body as if it were a dependent phenomenon? Or do we just kind of assume that our body’s the same body today as it was yesterday? When you look at the people that you know, do you think, “Oh, their body’s changed from yesterday?” No. When you look at them, do you think, “Oh, their body’s dependent? Their body has parts?” Do you start thinking of their parts—kidneys and intestines and lungs? No. We just look at the skin on the outside. So you see on one part, intellectually, oh yes, the body’s dependent. But the way we just relate to our body and others’ bodies on a day-to-day basis, we just assume it’s kind of the way it was before, like some kind of independent body out there. We don’t think of it having causes.

When you look at somebody you know, do you imagine when they were a zygote in the womb? I don’t think you do that too often, do you? “Oh, you must have been such an adorable zygote!” I don’t think so. That body today depends on that body in the womb, the embryo for life there. See how we don’t relate our present body to the previous moment’s body. We just look at the body, and there it is. Everything we look at in our life, we just assume, “Oh yes, it’s there, it has its own essence, it has its own nature, something in it that makes it what it is, independent of everything else.”

We call that existing from its own side. It exists from the side of this—this is a cup from its own side. It has nothing to do with my mind coming along and perceiving it or my mind labeling it. We look at as a cup from its own side. We look at people and think, “Oh there’s a real person inside that body with some kind of real personality, some kind of real essence, maybe even a soul in there somewhere.” Don’t we? When you look at people, do you think that they’re dependent? No. They look like a real person out there that has their own entity, their own nature, and we’re just kind of happening along and seeing them. But when we analyze a little bit, we realize, “No, that’s not it. There’s no permanent, immutable personality in there.” Unless you think you have the same personality that you did when your mom was pregnant with you. I don’t think so.

You know, it’s nice that our personality changes. Isn’t it nice that we change from when we were a baby. We learned how to say something else besides “Waaaahhhh!” You know, we change. We’re not some fixed personality, some fixed thing. But this ignorance grasps at everything, as if it has its own nature independent of everything else.

And so once we start doing that, then that opens the door for us projecting a lot of other fallacies on to things. We not only see things as having their own nature inside of themselves, but we see them as inherently attractive or inherently unattractive. When we look at something, the mind automatically goes, “Attractive/unattractive/neutral” doesn’t it? And we think it comes from the side of the other person. Or we look at food and we go, “Good/bad/eeehhh” as if it came from the side of the food. Or we look at anything that we’re attracted to, and it seems like the happiness is in that object. Somebody puts a hundred dollar bill here on that desk and we go,”Wow!” So much attachment to it as if it had worth in and of itself. It’s only paper and ink, but we look at the money and oh, it has special worth and the more pieces of paper like that I have, the more powerful I’m going to be, the more influential I’m going to be, the more successful I’m going to be, the more other people are going to look at me and admire me and look up to me. We impute all that stuff on those pieces of paper, don’t we? Do those pieces of paper have any of that? No.

It’s just completely our mind that’s creating social roles for all of this, but we don’t realize it, and instead we think that things have that nature in themselves, they have happiness in themselves, they have value and worth in themselves, independent of us. But when we look, that’s not it.

So under the influence of this ignorance, we impute inherent beauty in some things, so we get attached to things, and then when we’re attached, we get greedy, we get demanding, we have all sorts of expectations, we get disappointed, we get disillusioned. Attachment doesn’t lead to happiness. But sometimes we get a little buzz from it, and so then when somebody steps in and interferes with us getting what we think is going to make us happy, then we think that that person or that situation has unhappiness in them, and they are inherently negative, and then we want to destroy them. So then we create enemies. We create things we don’t like, and when so much aversion and animosity and hostility comes in our life, we start pushing things away. Then we’re involved in this incredible trip in our life trying to get some things and push other things away. And so the whole life is just concerned with that. You know, grab this, push that, grab this, push that. And you can see, in the morning when we wake up, this is basically what’s happening. Watch your mind when we have our potluck lunch. Watch what your mind does. You start scanning that way, and then you, “Oh, that one I like! I want to get that one. I hope the people before me in line don’t get it first.” But as you scan it and you see something else and you go,”Oh, that would have been so good if they only hadn’t put the…” whatever ingredient it is that you don’t like “in. Oh, why did they have to ruin that chili by putting beans in it?” So automatically, just by looking at the food, already the mind is grasping and pushing, grasping and pushing. All day long like this, not really much peace in the mind. And it seems to us like the whole purpose of our life is just to grasp and push.

What kind of meaning and purpose of life is that? At the end of the day, when we finally leave this life, what do we have to show for it? Only the remnants of our most recent grasping and pushing, but you have how many years past of grasping and pushing that you don’t even have at the time you’re dying, but when you were grasping and pushing at those things, it seemed really important.

Remember when you were little and you had favorite toys and maybe you had a blankie? Did everybody have a blankie? Oh, you didn’t have a blankie. We better get you a blankie. Most of us had blankies, didn’t we? Or our favorite stuffed animal or something like that. And you know all we have to do is ask our parents how much we bellowed when our parents forgot our blankie or our stuffed animal because we were so attached to it. “Oh, I can’t live without my blankie, without my stuffed doggie, or whatever, my stuffed elephant.” Whatever it was. That was an incredible importance to us at that moment in life. Do you think about your blankie now? I hope not! Later in life what we were attached to earlier in life is like, “Forget it, throw that thing out.”

But now, we have our own version of a blankie, don’t we? It might be a house, it might be sports equipment, it might be computer equipment. We have lots of different things that we hang on to and think, “This is my thing, and I feel secure when I have this.” So our blankie, in quotes, it changes year by year. When we’re attached to it, we’re very attached. But if it had inherent attractiveness inside of itself, we would still be there with our blankie. And the thing is, everybody else would find our blankie as beautiful as we find it. If it had inherent beauty in it, everybody would see it like that. So, same way with anything that we cling to, that we’re attached to. If it actually had those qualities in itself, independent of our perceiving mind, then everybody would see everything the same way, wouldn’t they?

If this clock were beautiful from its own side, then everybody would see it the same way—beautiful, gorgeous thing from the teacher’s table. Piece of paper, tape recorder [inaudible], some people get attached. Cheesecake. Delicious cheesecake that doesn’t make you fat. Let’s just imagine—we can visualize it. If the cheesecake had beauty in and of itself, everybody would look at it the same way. Does everybody like cheesecake? No. So we just look at those people and say, “They’re just not thinking correctly.” Of course, they like something else that we find disgusting. So then they think we’re not thinking correctly. But you see how just attraction and aversion are. It’s all stuff that is based on our imputing things, projecting them.

Same thing with aversion. Think of somebody that you really don’t like, and then remember that somebody else loves that person. Somebody that, to us, appears despicable, somebody else thinks is wonderful. Just our own experience shows that these good and bad qualities don’t exist inherently inside the object.

All this projection that we do, this misapprehension that we have, causes us so much turmoil in our lives. Then, based on the grasping, with attachment and greed, and the pushing with aversion and hostility, we do all sorts of actions. We steal, we cheat, we talk badly behind somebody else’s back, we take more than our fair share of stuff. We do all sorts of stuff.

That leads all those actions to what we call karma. The actions leave imprints on our mind, and then those ripen into what we experience. That’s how life goes on like that. From the Buddhist viewpoint, it’s not just this life; it’s many lives. We talked about rebirth and karma in a previous session. We just keep on doing this same rerun many, many lifetimes fueled by the ignorance, the mental afflictions, and the karma.

That’s our present situation. The Buddha said we have to look at it squarely and face it so that we will have the inspiration and the energy to get ourselves out of it. Because if we don’t recognize it as something unsatisfactory and satisfactory, and we don’t realize that the causes are there in our own minds—if we don’t realize these two things, then we’re going to continue to be deceived by the external world and by our own mind’s reaction in relationship to it. We’ll just create more and more and more misery for ourselves and others.

So this is the first two noble truths. It’s interesting: in our monastic robes, there’s a pleat that we put behind, that’s usually two pleats, but some of us just put one pleat, and then there’s two pleats that we turn ahead on this side. The two pleats that we put behind are the truth of unsatisfactoriness and its origins. That’s what they represent. And on the front side, the truth of cessation and the path, what we want to attain, what we want to go forward to. Our robes are reminding us of the four noble truths.

What do we want to go towards are true cessations and true path. True cessations are the absence, the absence of various levels of dukkha and, more specifically, the absence of the causes of that dukkha—the ignorance, the afflictions, the karma. When you get really technical, the true cessations actually refer to the empty nature of the mind of a noble being who has realized, who has cleansed their mind of these various levels of afflictions. It’s said that these true cessations are very peaceful.

The ultimate true cessation is nirvana. There are different levels of nirvana. Another synonym for nirvana is peace. It’s called peace because we’re no longer rocked or catapulted back and forth by the afflictions, the karma, the ignorance. There’s some actual peace in our minds, peace in our lives. We’re free from those afflictions and the influence that the karma exerts on us in terms of causing rebirth.

If you look at it on a more practical level, if you want to get some idea of what nirvana could possibly be like, think of never getting angry again. What would that be like? Never to get angry again. Somebody could call you any name in the book, they could do anything horrible to you, and your mind would be such that there would be no anger arising. Would that be a nice state of mind to have? Wouldn’t that be nice? No anger. Well that’s a quality of nirvana.

Or think about how we get so attached to things—the greedy mind, the clinging mind, the “I want, I’ve got to have, I want, I want, I want.” That mind. And how unsettling that mind is because it never has enough, so it breeds all kinds of discontent and it breeds all kinds of fear, because whatever we have, we’re afraid of losing it, whatever we don’t have that we want, we’re afraid of not getting it. Imagine what would it feel like not to have that clinging attachment and its accompanying dissatisfaction and fear. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be nice? Whatever you have, your mind’s peaceful. Whatever you have, totally okay about it. Including this body, whether I have this body or not, it doesn’t matter. Wouldn’t that be nice? Compared to how we are now, “Oh my body, it’s got to be comfortable all the time, and I worry so much about it, and I’ve got to make it look good.” The whole trip we do about our body. Wouldn’t it be nice just to have equanimity towards this body? Time of death comes, no problem. In fact our whole ego identity that we created for ourself, “I am this person with this social ranking and this…” We have so many identities, don’t we? And to not be attached to any of those identities. People could call you any name in the book, you could be high class or low class, you could be rich or poor. It doesn’t matter to you. Wouldn’t that be nice? Not to have that attachment that clings on to those identities, so that when your identity is threatened, you don’t get all bent out of shape.

We get pretty bent out of shape when our identity is threatened, don’t we? We think, “I’m in charge of this.” Then somebody comes and offers an opinion. “Who asked you for your opinion?” Or we get defensive, “What I’m doing is okay.” We get so attached to these kinds of things, and so just imagine that they exist conventionally and there’s absolutely no attachment to them. It would be kind of nice, wouldn’t it?

Then when there were other beings you saw that were miserable, you could actually extend yourself to be of benefit to them because there would be no worry or fear for what’s going to happen to me if I help them. “What’s going to happen to me if I give them this?” There won’t be so many expectations when we help others. “OK, I gave you something—you better like me now.” There won’t be any of that.

If we think a little bit about nirvana in that way—what it’s a freedom from, we can get some kind of feeling for it. It’s actually nothing that we can really conceptually grasp at this point, but at least we can get some feeling for the kind of peace and freedom that would be there.

That’s the third noble truth. The fourth is the true path—how do we get there? The path actually refers to our consciousness, what our mental states are that we want to cultivate and actualize in order to attain that state of peace. Now, if we are professionals in anger and resentment and hurt feelings, what we want to do is become professionals in benevolence and ethical conduct and mindfulness and things like that.

There’s a definite path to follow and a prescribed method of training. You practice this and this and this and this and this, and it’s a roadmap that’s all laid out for how to develop our mind so that we can eliminate the ignorance that is the source of all of this. The path is commonly talked about as the three higher trainings. In other words, the higher trainings in ethical conduct and in concentration and in wisdom.

There’s another way of speaking about it in which we talk about the noble eightfold path. So again, “noble” because this is the practice of the noble beings, the aryas who have perceived emptiness directly. The noble eightfold path is: to have a correct view, correct intention, correct livelihood, correct actions, correct speech, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct concentration. Those eight are things that we want to cultivate as a way of practice. If we look deeply into those, we also find that there’s a lot of love and compassion implicit in them because when we think of practicing the path to liberate ourselves, we want to practice the noble eightfold path. When we look around at the situation of other living beings, then we have love and compassion for them. We want to practice that path for their benefit because we want to liberate not just ourselves from this situation, but all beings from this situation.

Let’s just look briefly at the noble eightfold path. The first one, correct view, is to have a correct view of the four noble truths: what is unsatisfactoriness, what causes it, how do we get out, and what destination are we going to. Letting go any kind of wrong notions of our misery being caused by external beings or other people or some kind of external creator or chance or anything like that, but really discerning the correct view.

The second of the noble eightfold path, right intention, is the intention of non-harmfulness: going through our life without harming others, and the intention of renunciation. In other words, giving up clinging, giving up attachment to things and having an intention of benevolence. Having love and compassion and an altruistic intention—wishing others well.

And then correct livelihood: how we earn our living, how we get the requisites for life—food, clothing, shelter and medicine— how we get those in an honest way, not through cheating, not through some kind of business that harms others.

Correct actions: abandoning harming others physically, stealing their things, unwise or unkind sexual expression.

Correct speech: abandoning lying and using our speech to create disharmony, using harsh words and idle talk. Instead, cultivating truthfulness and kindness in our speech, speaking when it’s appropriate, using our speech to reconcile others.

Right effort: instead of putting effort into making a lot of money and helping our friends and harming our enemies and glorifying our own ego, we want to put our effort into practicing the path. One of the inmates wrote me something about that. I’ve forgotten. I’ll have to go look it up. He made a very, very good analogy about right effort. Sorry, I can’t remember it right now.

Mindfulness: being aware of our body, our feelings—happiness, unhappiness and neutral feelings— and our mind—the levels and states of mind and all phenomena. Developing a wisdom that understands and is aware of how these things operate. Developing the ability to concentrate on the objects of our wisdom so that we can actually break through the ignorance and the afflictions and karma that bind us. Developing single-pointed concentration that we join together with wisdom that can really penetrate the nature of reality and by meditating on that over time, use that to cleanse the mind. We use the fourth noble truth to cleanse the mind of the second noble truth. By that we attain the third noble truth, which is the opposite of the first noble truth.

That’s just a brief outline of the four noble truths. There’s a lot actually to go into in discussing them in depth.

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