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Four noble truths: An overview

Four noble truths: An overview

Part of a series of teachings given during the Happiness and Suffering Retreat, a retreat on the four noble truths, at Kadampa Center in Raleigh, North Carolina in 2013.

  • The meaning of the word “dukkha”
  • An overview of the 16 aspects of the four noble truths
  • The first eight points related to the first and second noble truths

Let’s generate our motivation, and breath by breath really appreciate being alive, appreciate having this opportunity and time to encounter the Dharma, to study it, practice it. Let’s have a strong resolve to make our life very meaningful for however long it lasts. The best way to do this is to generate the bodhicitta aspiration based on impartial love and compassion for all beings. And wanting to get involved in improving their situation and seeing that attaining full awakening is the best way to do that, then having the aspiration for full awakening. Let’s make that our long-term motivation for sharing the Dharma together this evening.

I was asked to talk about the four noble truths which are the foundation of the Buddha’s teachings and the foundation of all the different Buddhist traditions—the teachings found in the Theravāda or the Pāli tradition, in Chan or Zen, in Hua-yen, in Tibetan Buddhism. Everybody traces whatever practice they do back to the four noble truths. If we learn the four noble truths well then we have a very good understanding of the Dharma. Some of you have also studied the lamrim so you’ve heard the teachings expressed in terms of the beings of the three capacities. It’s interesting to think of what’s the relationship between the teachings of the beings of the three capacities and the four noble truths. I say this because there’s also a way of describing the teachings for each of the three capacity beings as their own four noble truths. In other words, what’s suffering/what dukkha is, what is its origin, and what is the cessation, and the path. Maybe we’ll get into that a little bit later.

Translation issues

In talking about the four noble truths there’s a little bit of translation stuff that we have to talk about first. First of all, the translation of the four noble truths is not a very good one because people say, “What’s noble about suffering?” Also the word “suffering” isn’t a good translation. Here what noble means it refers to ārya beings—those who have realized the nature of reality directly. So these are four facts that the ārya beings see as true. It doesn’t mean that suffering is noble. That’s kind of strange sounding, isn’t it? It also doesn’t mean that ignorance is noble because it’s the cause of suffering. No, it just means four things that are seen as true by noble beings who realize emptiness directly.

The four truths are commonly translated as suffering, origin, cessation, and path. The first one—suffering—that’s a horrible translation. I think we should really abolish it because although everybody’s familiar with it, it’s extremely misleading. When we hear the word suffering in English what do we think about? We think, “I’m in pain.” That’s not the meaning of the Sanskrit and Pāli word dukkha.

The dukkha of pain

Dukkha, which I will use instead of the word suffering, refers to unsatisfactory. It means unsatisfactory. There are three levels on which things are unsatisfactory. One is that some things are painful. We can’t say everything is painful, can we, because everything’s not painful. This is how Buddhism sometimes gets a bad rap because of these weird translations. I went to a college class once and this student raised their hand and they said, “Buddha said life is suffering so what’s the use?” Well, if it’s translated like that it sounds pretty weird. The Buddha didn’t say, “Life is suffering.” The Buddha said our conditions in cycle existence are unsatisfactory but we’re not in overt pain all the time, are we? So overt pain is one level of how things in cyclic existence are unsatisfactory.

The dukkha of change

Another level is what we call the unsatisfactoriness or the dukkha of change—that whatever pleasure we get doesn’t last for a long time. In fact, whatever pleasure we have is kind of something painful. But when it’s still small in the sense that—for example, right now you feel good sitting down, right? Well, after a couple of hours how are you going to feel? You might be thinking then, “I want this lady to be quiet. I want to stand up.” So you stand up finally, “Oh, I get to stand up,” and your feeling is, “Oh, pleasure.” But when you keep standing up for a long time then what happens? Then the initial pleasure you had doesn’t last—and actually things become painful. This is what is meant by the unsatisfactoriness of change. It’s because whatever situation we put ourselves in, it might seem pleasurable at the beginning, but if we do it long enough it becomes actually painful.

If you think of the absolute best pleasure you’ve had in cyclic existence and then you imagine having that 24/7, then what happens? Consider this scenario: Maybe you had a good meal; and you keep eating and eating. Then what happens? We can see that eating itself is not the cause of pleasure because if you keep doing it after a certain point it becomes painful. Here’s another example: You fall in love. Prince Charming showed up, finally. It’s a little bit late but better late than never. Initially Prince Charming is fantastic—better than sliced bread as they say. But if you’re with Prince Charming 24/7, what happens? “Can I have a break?!” It’s like, “Go, do something else, leave me alone for a while.” That experience that was so wonderful becomes, after a while, intolerable. It’s another level of dukkha.

The dukkha of pervasive conditioning

Then the third level is what’s called the dukkha of pervasive conditioning. This means just being under the influence of afflictions and karma. It’s just the fact that our lives are governed by our ignorance that misapprehends reality; and that this ignorance gives birth to all sorts of other afflictions like clinging, jealousy, greed, and arrogance. Then through these kinds of mental afflictions, we also create karma. Then that karma ripens in us taking rebirth again and again. So just the fact that we aren’t really free.

Now, we Americans think we’re free, don’t we? Maybe we could call it this “conceit of freedom.” We think we’re really free. In other words, we’re free to follow any foolish ridiculous thought that enters our mind. Is that freedom? That’s captivity, isn’t it? That’s captivity. Our minds are not free. A thought enters the mind and we go, “Oh, that sounds good.” I mean, look at these two brothers setting off the bomb in Boston. This thought entered their mind and they thought, “Hmm, that sounds interesting. Why not?” Look what happened.

Our thoughts may not lead to things like that but we all have our own “stupidagios,” don’t we? These thoughts that come in our mind and we just follow them out and wind up in big messes. Have you ever just gone along in your life and then you reach some point and you go, “Wait a minute, how come I’m in this situation? How did I get here? I don’t want to be in this situation. How did I get here?” Have you ever had that happen to you? Well, how did we get there? Ignorance, afflictions. Then we made certain choices and decisions that were foolish—and there we are in the middle of situations we don’t want to be in. All of this is what’s meant by the dukkha of pervasive conditioning.

That’s the short rundown of what true dukkha, the first of the four noble truths, is. What I wanted to do—because I’m sure many of you have heard these teachings before—I wanted to go into a little bit more depth talking about the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths. This isn’t always explained so much, although sometimes it is. In the Tibetan teachings, the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths are rooted in an explanation by Vasubandhu (in the Abhidharmakośa) and by Dharmakīrti (in his Pramāṇavārttika). Then what’s interesting in the Pāli tradition, they also have the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths—but they’re different and the source commentary is different. I was thinking if we have time then I might go through the sixteen from the Pāli tradition too, because it’s quite interesting to see the differences and the similarities.

Why the Buddha’s first teaching was the four noble truths

Before I go any further, we have the four: true dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha and its causes, and the path leading to that cessation. Most of us when we come to Buddhism the first thing we hear about is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and we go, “Oh, yes,” [disparagingly] don’t we? “I don’t want to hear about unsatisfactoriness. I live in the middle of unsatisfactoriness. I want to hear about light and love and bliss. I want to be inspired and float in the clouds,” and so on. But that’s not the first teaching that the Buddha gave. The first teaching was this one on the four noble truths; and the first thing he taught was true dukkha. He didn’t teach light and love and bliss. So why did he do that? Wouldn’t he have been more popular teaching light and love and bliss? Didn’t he know that we Americans are looking for that? Hmm.

The Buddha wants us to really look very clearly at what our situation is. This is one thing that really attracted me to the Dharma from the very beginning—is that you have to be really honest. If you’re going to practice, you have to be honest. You have to be honest with yourself. Our ego tries every which way to get out of looking at something and to justify and rationalize and resist, but eventually we just have to be honest.

The first thing we have to be honest about is the nature of our existence and that it’s unsatisfactory. Many of us, we would rather not look at that. Like I said, we think, “I live in the middle of it, please don’t explain it to me.” That’s the whole point. We need to see our situation very clearly for what it is so that we will generate the aspiration to get out of it. If we don’t see it clearly, we won’t really aspire for liberation. This is part of the problem—that we like our cyclic existence, our saṃsāra, don’t we? It’s like, “I like the shopping mall. I have a good sex life,” (Well you do, I don’t). But there’s nice food, movies, “I want this but then I also want some kind of transcendental experience of light, love and bliss stuff. I want to have both of them at the same time. I don’t want to really give up my chocolate cake.” When we have that attitude it’s because we don’t clearly understand what our circumstances are. We haven’t been totally honest with ourselves about our situation because it’s kind of scary to be really honest. It’s scary to our ego. It’s relief to our wisdom mind, but it’s scary to our ego. The Buddha is saying to look, you have to really look at your situation very clearly and you have to look at what causes it. See how all of this is functioning moment by moment in your life. To be able to look at it and say, “Oh, I don’t want to continue in this way. I want out. I want real freedom.” When we want real freedom, then to hear about nirvāṇa or true cessation and the path leading to it—we have a lot of energy to practice the path and attain nirvāṇa.

As long as we think our cyclic existence, our saṃsāra, is nice then our practice doesn’t become totally heartfelt. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, why can’t we get ourselves to the meditation cushion in the morning? How many of you have problems getting to the cushion in the morning? It’s hard to get yourself to the cushion in the morning. Why? If your hair were on fire would it be hard to get into the shower to put the fire out? No, you wouldn’t lie in bed and say, “I’ll do it tomorrow morning.” You see the pain and you see what’s going to happen if you don’t stick your head in a bucket of water and get that fire out. With our saṃsāra, which is actually a worse condition than having our hair on fire, we don’t really see it as something that bad. So getting out, “I’ll get around to it later. I’m enjoying life right now.” For that reason then it’s hard to get to the cushion in the morning. We’d much rather sleep an extra half hour or read the newspaper. We’d much rather read about war and exploitation and everything in the newspaper than sit down and meditate. It’s crazy, isn’t it? So this thing of really facing our situation is why the Buddha taught dukkha and its origins in the beginning.

The five aggregates

Let’s get into a little bit more depth about these. When we talk about the sixteen aspects there are four for each of the four noble truths. True dukkha has four aspects; and when we talk about these four aspects the example that we’re going to use are our five aggregates. Our body and mind are the example that we use to look at these four attributes. The five aggregates: our body first of all—we know what that one is. Then there are four mental aggregates. One is feelings—so those are feelings of pleasure, pain, neutral. The next one is discrimination—the ability to discern what different things are. The next one is called compositional factors, which is a term that tells you nothing. What it refers to is everything that is not the other three mental aggregates; so that’s why the term tells you nothing. What it includes is all of our emotions and then just different mental factors that help cognition occur. All of our emotions are included in what they call compositional factors or volitional factors. That’s another translation. Then consciousness is the fifth aggregate and this applies to primary consciousness that just sees objects of sight, audible objects, smellable objects, tasteable objects, touchable objects, and mental objects. The five aggregates are what constitute the person. In other words, in dependence upon these five—the body and then the mind (which is the other four)—then we label person. We label “I” or “you” or “he” or “she” or “it.’

The four attributes of the first noble truth, the truth of dukkha

  1. Impermanent

    The first of the sixteen is the polluted aggregates are impermanent because they undergo continuous momentary arising and disintegration. Here when we say polluted aggregates it means our body and mind that are under the influence of ignorance, mental afflictions, and then the polluted karma—the polluted actions that we do. Our present body and mind are impermanent. Here impermanent means momentary; they change moment by moment. Permanent and impermanent doesn’t mean eternal and noneternal. It just means either changing moment by moment or not changing moment by moment. Why are they impermanent? It’s because they undergo continuous momentary arising and disintegration. Even from the scientific viewpoint if we think of our body, our body is changing every single nanosecond, isn’t it? We can’t see it. We feel like this body is unchanging, it’s the same thing. Science even tells us that the electrons are whirling around, the protons are moving, the neutrons are bubbling, all the other quarks and different things, everything is changing moment by moment. True? Very true, isn’t it? On a very small level everything is changing moment by moment. Then because of that, on a gross level, everything’s changing moment by moment too.

    What’s strange is when we look at things on the gross level; everything looks quite stable, doesn’t it? We look at the table and this is the same table that was here yesterday. When you look at it, those of you who were here last night or last week, it’s the same table. Nothing has changed about it. It’s just there. My body? Nothing has changed about it. It’s the same body. That’s the way things appear to us—as if they’re static. But all we have to do is reflect a moment and we see, “Well, no.” On a microscopic level everything has been changing the whole time. The table, our body—everything’s been changing the whole time, hasn’t it? We’ve eaten different food. We’ve excreted different things. We’ve sweated. New things have come into our body. New things have gone out of our body. It’s changing moment by moment.

    On the mental level too—our mind is changing all the time, isn’t it? We feel like, “Well, no. I’m just me. I have the same ideas, opinions, and personality as yesterday.” Wrong. We’re not the same person as we were yesterday, are we? We’re different. We’ve had different experiences in the last 24 hours. There’s a continuity with who we were yesterday; but in fact, moment by moment, there’s been change from yesterday to today.

    Even though everything looks to us and appears to us to be quite stable and steady and predictable, actually it’s not. It’s changing all the time. It changes by its very nature. At the same time something is coming into existence, it is simultaneously going out of existence. “No,” our mind says, “Wait, wait, wait. First there’s the past, then there’s the present, then there’s the future.” This is the way we think: In the past something arose, then in the present it stays stable, then in the future it declines, it disintegrates. That’s the way we think, right?

    Exactly when is the present? Can you isolate the present moment? The only time we ever live is the present. But when exactly is the present? Can you find the present? Hmm. When something is arising, it’s arising in the present, isn’t it? But that present moment is also disintegrating at the same time that it’s arising. It’s arising and disintegrating by its own nature. You don’t need another cause to come in and make it change. It’s not like something arises, then it’s permanent for a while, and then another cause comes in and goes boom—now you’re going to disintegrate and it goes crash. It’s not like that. At the very same present moment that something is arising it’s also disintegrating. At the time it is coming into existence it’s also going out of existence when we look at a very minute level. It’s quite interesting in our meditation to try to figure out exactly when the present moment is. When is something arising, when is it abiding, and when is it disintegrating? You can sit with that in your meditation a little bit. It’s quite interesting.

    Everything is in this momentary flux—and in that way it’s quite insubstantial. Our senses are deceptive. Our senses can’t detect that subtle change so we think everything is the same. It’s like even in a gross way how you know planet Earth is turning around and whizzing through space, yet we feel that everything is standing still, don’t we? We don’t feel like we’re whizzing through space, but in fact we are. There’s a disconnect between how our gross senses are perceiving things and how things really exist.

    One of the distortions we have that keeps us quite bound in cyclic existence is that we see things that are in fact momentary and impermanent by nature as static, as unchanging. That misperception, that misconception or misapprehension leads us to have a lot of problems because we assume everything is stable and non-changing. Then when it changes, we freak out. You get a new car. Here’s my new car—stable, permanent, gorgeous, unchanging. Then somebody scratches it and you go, how did that happen? That wasn’t supposed to happen. That’s breaking the rules of the universe. My new car is not supposed to get dented or scratched the day after I buy it. We get very upset, and we get angry. It’s all rooted in our thinking that our car is static and unchanging and unscratchable, undentable. We can see the same thing when somebody dies—how shocked we are, even when we know somebody is terminally ill. Even when we know. Even when we go to the hospital day after day and see them declining. On the day they die, we go, what happened? This isn’t supposed to happen. You’ve had that experience? We think, “Wait a minute, I know they were dying but they weren’t supposed to die. They were just going to stay in this dying situation forever. They weren’t supposed to be dead,”—we kind of freak out.

    Again and again if we look, the times when we are emotionally upset, very often it’s because something’s changed that we didn’t expect to change. We expected it to be fixed, permanent, predictable; and low and behold it changed. We reject the reality of the change; and that’s what our anger and upset and grief is about. It’s like, “No, I refuse to accept this change. This relationship is not going to break up. It’s not supposed to break up.” “My car is not supposed to get dented.” “Spaghetti sauce is not supposed to be on my white new carpeting.” “My mother is not supposed to die.” “My child is fixed at this age, oh my god, a teenager forever,”—that’s when you want impermanence. “If I can just get them out of their teenage years.” We look at things and everything’s fixed. Then it changes and we go, what happened? It wasn’t supposed to change.

    Have you ever looked in the mirror and gone, “Who’s that person?” It’s like, “Wait a minute. Yesterday I had brown hair; how come today it’s white? Yesterday the skin didn’t look like this, there weren’t so many wrinkles. How come today it’s like this?” We’re surprised and yet moment by moment the aging process is going on. So that’s the first of the sixteen aspects. Our body and mind are momentary.

  2. Unsatisfactory

    The second one, the polluted aggregates are unsatisfactory. They’re dukkha because they are under the control of afflictions and karma. Here dukkha refers to the three kinds of dukkha I explained at the beginning: of pain, of change, and then the dukkha of pervasive conditioning—so those three that I explained. Our aggregates are unsatisfactory because they’re under the control of afflictions and karma. So when we experience these three kinds of dukkha it’s because of our ignorance, which gives rise to the afflictions, which gives rise to the karma.

    Self-grasping ignorance

    I want to talk a little bit about that because this is an important kind of sequence for us to understand. When we hear the word ignorance in Buddhism it means something very particular. It doesn’t mean the ignorance of voting for the wrong political party. Dare I mention who that is? I better not… [inaudible] …conceives of some kind of object and gives it a name. So whereas things are dependent in their very nature, ignorance apprehends them as having an independent nature that doesn’t depend on any other factors.

    When you look at the flower, for example, does it automatically appear to your mind and you think this arose due to a seed, light, soil, and rain? Does that appear to your mind when you see the flower? Do you think about that when you see the flower? No. It looks like it’s a flower out there independent of everything. Of course, we know it arose from the seed and sunlight and those things. We know that intellectually but our gut feeling, “Well, it’s just there.” When you look at the flower do you think, “Oh, it depends on parts.” Do you look at it and say, “Oh, this is just a combination of petals, pistils, and stamens?” Do you think that when you look at the flower? Do you look at the flower and say, “This is just a combination of oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen?” No. It’s a flower, independent there. Right? When we see the flower do we think, “Oh, that flower depends on my mind putting all those petals together?” Mentally putting the petals together and conceiving of it as one object? Or do we think of it as a flower having the nature of flowerness radiating out from its own side?

    When you look at a person do you think of another person as a collection of parts? No. It looks like there’s a person inside there from their own side. So this is ignorance. Ignorance misapprehends things and thinks they have their own nature independent from their own side. When we just examine a little bit we see that nothing actually exists in that way. That everything that exists, exists dependent on other factors. Are you following me? This is the fundamental ignorance. We call it the ignorance grasping inherent existence—the ignorance grasping true existence or the self-grasping ignorance. There are a bunch of different names for it—but based on that fundamental misapprehension, especially of “I,” who we are.

    When you think “I,”—or sit there and say, “Me.” Say your name for a minute—whatever your name is. Do you think, “Oh, I am dependent on other things?” Or do you think, “I’m here and I’m in control.” Which way do you think of yourself? Do you think, “I exist only because the causes of me exist?” No. Forget causes, “I’m here.” Forget conditions, “I’m here. I am real.” It’s true, isn’t it? It appears that there’s this me somewhere here that’s in control, wants happiness, doesn’t want to have suffering—and is going to get my happiness and get rid of everything that makes me suffer. From that we get attachment we get anger.

    There’s a real me. This real me needs to be protected. I need to protect me. I need to give me pleasure. I want this, and I want this, and I want this. I get attached to different things and I do all sorts of stuff to get the things that I want. Sometimes I may lie. Sometimes I may steal. Sometimes I bad mouth somebody to get what I want or to protect what I am. If somebody gets in my way of getting what I want or takes away my happiness I am enraged. When I am ticked off, beware. I will call you every name in the book. I will lie. I will scream. I will humiliate.

    You may say, “Well, she’s exaggerating. I’m not that bad.” Check up. We can be pretty nasty. Of course we sugarcoat our nastiness. We make it look like actually we’re right and the other person deserved it. We’re doing it out of compassion for them. This person at work who got the promotion that I’m very jealous of, he’s so arrogant and his arrogance is really going to hurt him so he needs somebody to bring him down a notch or two for his own good. Out of compassion I’m going to say all these horrible nasty things about him behind his back because he got in the way of my happiness, this idiot. It’s all for his benefit and I’m not that bad—right.

    So from ignorance then we get the clinging attachment. We get the anger, jealousy, arrogance, all of these lovely emotions that cause us so much misery. Then due to those emotions—these disturbing emotions—we do actions. There’s lying and stealing, sleeping around, this and that and the other thing. Then we wonder why we have problems. Why do we have problems? Why don’t people like me? I’m such a nice, sweet, adorable, loveable person. I just tell people off when they need it. Why do people get upset when I sleep around? There’s nothing wrong with it as long as they don’t find out. How do they find out? They’re not supposed to find out. I’m just expressing myself. We get in all these predicaments and then we ask ourselves, “Why do I have problems?” Well, basically our mind is the source of our problems.

    Our polluted aggregates are unsatisfactory because they’re under the control of afflictions and karma. That’s what that means. We don’t have real freedom, do we?

    I work with inmates in prison and it’s very interesting to ask them what freedom means. When you’re in prison you think freedom means being able to walk on the streets again and do what you want when you want to do it. Stuff like that. It means not being locked up 23 hours a day and being able to get outside more than one hour, three times a week. But the inmates who really get into the Dharma, they begin to see actually that that’s not freedom. Being able to just go around on the streets and do what we want, that’s not real freedom. No. They see that our prison is a mental prison. We’re imprisoned by our afflictive emotions.

    Would you say you’re imprisoned by your afflictive emotions? When anger comes up do you have any say so or does anger just sweep you away? It’s difficult isn’t it? When we’re jealous, do we have much say so? Again, the emotion gets so strong it’s just like a flood of energy pushing us. We’re not really free—no matter what the Declaration of Independence says.

  3. Empty

    The third one, the polluted aggregates are empty because of not being a permanent, unitary, and independent self. The word emptiness has different meanings according to different philosophical tenet systems. One meaning that is common to all the different Buddhist tenet systems is a self that is permanent, unitary, and independent. This is a self or a soul. The atman—like it’s taught in Hinduism; or a soul—like it’s taught in Christianity and the theistic religions.
    When we have the idea of a soul it’s something we think, “My soul,”—something permanent and unchanging, don’t we? It doesn’t change moment to moment. It is me. Always has been, always will be, never change. It’s one thing; it’s not something made of parts. When we were little kids and we were taught you have a soul, and it’s one thing. It’s one thing that’s me, that’s unchanging, and that doesn’t depend on causes and conditions. A permanent soul. A permanent me. The essence of me-ness. We’re taught that this exists while we’re alive and then this permanent, unchanging, independent soul picks up and, if you’re Hindu, it picks up and goes into another body. If you’re Christian, it leaves the body and it goes to heaven, and then you’re with your relatives for all eternity.

    Is there such a soul like that? We may have been taught that when we were kids, but is it possible for something like that to really exist? When our body and mind are changing momentarily and not remaining the same is it possible that there’s something that is really me, that is permanent and unchanging; that doesn’t have parts; that doesn’t depend on causes and conditions? What could that thing be and still be me, and still not depend on my body and mind? When we really analyze and ask ourselves, “Is it possible for that kind of self or soul to exist,” we have to say, “Kind of difficult logically to assert the existence of that kind of self or soul.” We may have been taught it, but just because we think it exists doesn’t mean it exists—thus the title of my book Don’t Believe Everything You Think. That’s one meaning of emptiness that all the different Buddhist systems agree on—and especially here in the context of the four noble truths.

  4. Selfless

    The fourth characteristic is the polluted aggregates are selfless because they lack a self-sufficient substantially existent self. It’s a mouthful: self-sufficient substantially existent self. (I abbreviate it SSSE because if you’re writing notes it’s too long.) There’re different levels of fabricated selves that we believe in. The grossest level was the one we just talked about—the permanent, partless, independent one—the soul. This self-sufficient substantially existent one is a little bit more subtle. This is the one that changes [it’s impermanent], but it’s also the controller or the ruler of our body and mind.

    Do you have some sense of feeling of there being a me that tells your body what to do and a me that tells your mind what to do? Do you have that kind of sense inside? That somehow there’s this me that says, “Body move your fingers,” and then the body does like this. Then it says, “Body don’t eat chocolate ice cream,” and body says, “Forget it.” We still feel like there’s a controller in there but we really can’t control that much. The controller says, “Don’t get angry,” and the mind says, “Shut up. If I want to be pissed off I can be. Don’t tell me what to do.” Strange, isn’t it?

    Who is this self that feels like it can boss the body and mind around, but actually doesn’t have that much control. We can’t say to our body, “Stop your digestion.” We don’t have that kind of control. You saw by doing the breathing meditation at the beginning of the session, wasn’t it easy to just focus on your breath? [laughter]

    This idea of some kind of self-sufficient substantially existent person that’s there—that’s another fabricated self that we believe in, that we grasp onto. So this fourth condition is saying that, in fact, our body and mind are selfless in that they lack being or having some kind of self-sufficient substantially existent controller self. We think that somewhere in the body and mind there’s that kind of self. Or that maybe one of these—our body or mind or something—is that self. When we examine, is our body our self? Are your feelings yourself? Are your discriminations yourself? When we go through the different aggregates, we see that none of them are really me. I don’t exist independent of them, but I’m also not them. So the polluted aggregates are selfless because they lack a self-sufficient substantially existent self.

Those are the first four of the sixteen. Let me pause right now and see if you have any questions or anything you want to talk about regarding what we’ve covered so far.

Audience: I’ve never understood how emotions fit into the volitional factors because to me volition means will. But when I feel anger I don’t will to feel anger. It just comes up pushing like a wave that knocks me over. Before I even know I’m angry I’ve flared out at somebody and then I go, “Oh, I’m experiencing anger.” Then it still doesn’t make any difference, I still feel that sensation for several minutes afterwards before it passes away—and I can’t say, “Stop feeling anger.” I know I’m angry so to stop feeling anger? Because physically it’s there, that chemical change. I have to stick with it until it goes away by itself.

Venerable Thubton Chodron (VTC): So you’re saying, “How is that volitional?” When they’re talking about volition here it doesn’t mean that we chose to be angry or we chose to be greedy. It means that greed and anger are the motivating factors for our actions. It’s like, I’m bad-rapping somebody behind their back—what is motivating that is resentment or jealousy or anger. Those are the volitional things that are affecting my intention. That’s the meaning of volition there. It’s like the volition is affecting the intention—making the mind move, making the body and speech move in a direction.

Audience: It doesn’t have to be consciously willed then.

VTC: No, in the sense of, “Now I am choosing to be angry.” No. I think if we look really subtly there is a moment of choice in there, on a very subtle level there is a moment of choice. So the volitional factors mean these are the things that motivate us to act.

Any other comments, questions? Then I’ll go on.

The four attributes of the second noble truth, the truth of the origin of dukkha

Now we’re talking about the four attributes of true origins. I already explained that this means ignorance, afflictions, and the karma—the polluted karma that it creates. Here craving is an example of true origins. You noticed that when we did the true dukkha that the five aggregates were the example. The five aggregates are impermanent. The five aggregates are in the nature of dukkha. The five aggregates are empty. The five aggregates are selfless. Here the example is craving.

Craving is the principle example of the cause or the origin of our dukkha. So why craving? Ignorance is the root, but why is craving? Well, because when we look at our mind most of the time we are craving something. We are craving not to be separated from pleasant things, aren’t we? We are craving to be separated from unpleasant things. When everything’s kind of neutral, we’re craving for that not to change. Our mind is constantly craving. It’s wanting. The mind is sticky. The mind doesn’t just say something’s there. It says, “Oh, that thing gives me pleasure; that thing gives me pain; that thing doesn’t affect me.” So therefore, I crave to have it; I crave to get rid of it; I crave for it not to change—always this craving. Do you get what I mean? Do you have that sense inside? The mind is never peaceful is it? It’s always wanting something.

Craving is an important mental factor that comes on very strongly at the time of death. At the time of death we’re separating from the body and mind. The ignorance freaks out. Our ignorant mind freaks out and says, “If I don’t have a body and mind who am I going to be?” So we crave. We crave not to be separated from the present body and mind. We crave to get a new body and mind. This craving causes the karma to ripen. When the karma ripens, then that throws us into whatever our next rebirth is going to be. According to what we’re craving for at the time of death, then certain karma ripens. That makes a certain kind of rebirth appear very attractive to our mind and the mind heads for that situation.

At the time of death it isn’t like there’s this soul that kind of floats above, out of the body, and sits on a cloud, looks down and says, “Who are my parents going to be? I’m taking interviews, applications. Who wants to be my parents? Oh, you? No, thank you. You? Well maybe.” It’s not like that. The mind is craving, the mind is restless, the mind is wanting an identity, wanting a body. That makes the karma ripen and according to what karma ripens we’ll either be attracted let’s say to a human body, or an animal body, or any other kind of body in the different realms. Craving is very potent. They always say be careful what you want, you might get it.

  1. Causes

    If we look at the four attributes of true origins, craving and karma are the causes of dukkha because they are its root and due to them dukkha constantly exists. When we contemplate this—that craving and karma are the causes of our dukkha—it helps us see that our dukkha, whether it be all the unsatisfactory conditions, whether it’s the dukkha of pain, dukkha of change, or dukkha of pervasive conditioning, that all of that has causes. It doesn’t just happen randomly or without causes. You know how when something bad happens, we always go, “Why me?” When we realize craving and karma are the causes of dukkha because they are its root and due to them dukkha constantly exists—when we understand that, we don’t say, “Why me?” This is because we now know, “Why me? It’s because I have ignorance, and so I have afflictions. These drive my actions. I acted out of that and that created the cause for me to have this painful situation right now. There’s nobody else to blame. The true source, the true origin of all my misery is inside.”

    This is a big thing to understand. I say this because we are constantly attributing the source of our misery to someone or something outside of ourselves, aren’t we? Why am I unhappy? Because my mother does this and my father does this. Why am I unhappy? Because my kids do that and they don’t do this. Why am I unhappy? Well, because the government—forget it, the government doesn’t work. That’s why I’m unhappy. Our government doesn’t work these days, does it? When did it? Well, we had the illusion. I had the illusion before. When you’re like in fifth grade, you have that illusion there really is liberty and justice for all. Then you grow up and it’s like, huh!

    So, yes, we always think, “I have problems because of someone or something outside, and if only the external world changed. If only everybody listened to my wise advice; and did what I wanted them to do when I wanted them to do it, then the world would be wonderful,” right? That’s kind of how we live our life. We’re always trying to get everybody and everything to do or be what we want them to do or be—and the world never cooperates with us. But we don’t give up trying. We keep on trying to line up our duckies. I always have this image, remember when we were a kid in the bathtub? You had your little plastic duckies and you line up your little duckies. In our life we’re always trying to line up our duckies. The pink one and the blue one—and get them in the order we want. But then the duckies all move. Our little plastic duckies don’t go where we want them to go and we get incredibly frustrated.

    This first one is helping us to understand that all of our dukkha doesn’t arise spontaneously, randomly, without causes. It arises due to causes that are within ourselves, not due to other people. When we see this, this actually has a very powerful effect. This is because it means you’ve got to stop complaining. Can you imagine that, stop complaining? What are we going to talk about all day? I have my Ph.D in complaining. If you ever need a complaint, I can come up with one, or two, or a hundred, like this! Nothing is ever satisfactory and so I spend a great deal of my life complaining. Do you? So when we really realize that our suffering isn’t random and causeless and that the real cause is inside—then it means we’ve got to stop complaining. Wow!

    We not only stop complaining; we’ve got to accept responsibility for our own lives. We’ve got to say, “Why am I unhappy? It’s because of the choices I made.” I’d much rather blame other people. Psychology taught me the first people I blame are my parents. So it’s, “That’s why I’m so screwed up because of my parents.” How do you ever become a good parent if all you do is blame your own parents?

  2. Origin

    Second one, craving and karma are the origins of dukkha because they repeatedly produce all the diverse forms of dukkha. Afflictions and karma create not just a little bit of our problems and difficulties, but all of it. So understanding this dispels the idea that our unsatisfactory conditions come from only one cause, like your ex-husband or ex-wife. No, I’m joking. Well, maybe not. It dispels the idea that dukkha comes from one cause—such as some primal substance or something like this. People have all sorts of different philosophical ideas of the cause of their misery. Instead, things actually depend on not just one cause, but on many causes and many conditions, don’t they? For a plant to grow you don’t need just the seed. You need the water, the fertilizer, the sunshine. You need many factors. In the same way, for our suffering to happen and for our happiness to happen, they depend on many causes and conditions, many factors—not just one—multiple. I’ll go quickly through the other two so at least we’ll finish two of the four noble truths.

  3. Strong production

    Craving and karma are strong producers because they act forcefully to produce strong dukkha, strong unsatisfactory conditions. Understanding this dispels the notion that our dukkha, our unsatisfactory conditions, arise from discordant causes—in other words such as things like an external creator. Many people think when they have problems it’s God’s will. You hear this all the time, don’t you? This child died. Why? It’s God’s will. Oh my goodness, God doesn’t sound like a very nice guy, does he?

    This noticing that craving and karma are strong producers (because they act forcefully to produce all of our unsatisfactory conditions) helps us to understand that our misery is not due to some kind of external creator. An external creator who manipulates us like puppets, who makes things happen or makes things not happen in our life. But instead our own mind, our own craving, our ignorance, our afflictions, our karma, these are the things that form our experience. Like I was saying before, whenever something bad happens we say, “Why me?” Whenever something good happens we never say, “Why me?”

    But we should say, “Why me? Why do I have enough to eat today? Why do I have friends? Why do I have the fortune to come to Dharma teachings?” It’s because I created some kind of virtuous actions in the past. These actions were still influenced by ignorance because I didn’t have the understanding of how things actually exist. But I still had virtuous mental states, and created many good causes—for I have many favorable conditions in my life right now. Those favorable conditions didn’t happen by chance. They didn’t happen because of some substance that permeates everything. They didn’t happen because of some external force like a creator God. Those good circumstances I experienced came out of my own actions, my own virtuous intentions.

  4. Condition

    Then the fourth one, craving and karma, are conditions because they act as the cooperative conditions giving rise to dukkha. Understanding that our dukkha depends on both causes and conditions—the seed, plus the water and fertilizer and stuff—dispels the notion that our dukkha is fixed and unalterable. This is an important thing because often when we experience very gross suffering we feel like our suffering is fixed and unalterable, don’t we? When our feelings are hurt and we feel a lot of mental pain, do we think, “Oh, this is going to change and pass away?” Is that idea in your mind? When you feel depressed do you think, “Oh, this is just a passing mental state?” No. We make everything so heavy, so solid, so concrete. We feel like things just can’t change and we kind of give up on ourselves and give up on other people.

    Actually, when we understand this—that craving and karma are conditions because they act as the cooperative conditions for our unsatisfactory circumstances—we begin to see that because things depend on causes and conditions, if you change even the cause or any of the conditions, the result has to change. This can be really helpful especially in family situations when you feel there’s this family dynamic that is just cast in concrete and is totally dysfunctional. Do you ever have that feeling? It’s like, “I’ve tried everything to change this family dynamic and it can’t change.” That’s a wrong conception. We have that conception because we don’t see that things depend on causes and conditions; and if you change any of the conditions in that family dynamic, the whole thing changes. If we stop playing our role, other people cannot continue playing their role.

    The challenge to us is for us to stop playing our role because we’re very habituated, very stuck in our role in the family dynamic. Also we want other people to change without us changing. “You change first, then I will.” Later we think, “I change first, but I don’t know how to change. I don’t know that I want to change. If I change who am I going to be? You mean I have to be nice to my brother, or whoever it is?” We have to understand that things depend on causes and conditions and so, therefore, if we change even one circumstance, the whole thing has got to change.

We’ve finished two of the four noble truths. We’re half way there. We did the unsatisfactoriness and its causes, and tomorrow we get liberation and its causes. That’s the carrot. You’ve got to come back tomorrow morning. You can’t just jump ship tonight. Tomorrow’s the good stuff. The love and light and bliss is coming tomorrow.

Any other questions anyone might have?

Audience: Would you repeat the second one for the second noble truth?

VTC: Craving and karma are origins of dukkha because they repeatedly produce all the diverse forms of dukkha.

Maybe I should give a little sneak preview commercial. What I’m teaching from is a chapter from a book that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is doing that will come out, hopefully, sometime soon by Wisdom Publications. That’s the sneak preview. [This book later was published by Wisdom as Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions.]

Audience: Do you mean there the habitual karmic force or do you mean something else? Could you clarify a little bit about karma?

VTC: What I mean by karma is action—volitional action. It can be mental action, by which we’re planning something. It can be verbal action, how we communicate. Or it can be physical action. Karma is nothing mystical and magical. It just means the actions we do with our body, speech, and mind. We’re acting all the time and we have intentions for these actions. According to the kind of intention we have, then the action becomes virtuous, non-virtuous, or neutral—or wholesome, unwholesome, or neutral. When an action finishes it leaves some, we could say for lack of a better expression (although this isn’t totally accurate) some residual energy. It leaves some kind of trace. The fact that the action happened is important and that having happened, the action is going to propel something else to happen in the future. That’s why it’s not that we just act and then the only effects of our action is what comes in the next five minutes. The effects of our actions can happen later this life, they can happen in future lives. I mean, we know that even on a practical level. Let’s say you don’t file your income tax. It isn’t that the result of that happens in the next five minutes. The result may happen later on. But there’s going to be a result.

Audience: Including the mindful choice of action so that includes its context or…?

VTC: Yes, karma can also include mindful chosen action coming from a virtuous motivation. Here what’s happening then. There’s still ignorance present because we still see things as independent, as external objectively existent, but we relate to them in a virtuous way. There may be a thought of, “Oh, I want to be generous. I want to give something.” Or, “Here’s the opportunity to help somebody. I want to be kind.” Or, “This person needs encouragement, I can give some encouragement.” Karma also can be for our virtuous actions that create the cause of happiness but within saṃsāra. This is polluted karma in the sense that it creates happiness within cyclic existence. To have the happiness of nirvāṇa, then we need unpolluted karma that isn’t affected by this ignorance that misapprehends reality. Does that answer your question okay? Mindful chosen action, I mean that’s certainly the beginning of the path for us, isn’t it? Instead of just acting “on automatic” under the influence of whatever idea pops in our mind, to step back and have some space. Like, “That idea came to mind and now let’s assess what’s the value of acting that out, what’s the value of not acting,”—then making wise decisions in our life.

That’s it for this evening. Come back tomorrow morning. But in the meantime think a little bit about what we talked about.


Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.