The Four Noble Truths

Today we want to start laying the foundation on which we can gradually build a more complete understanding of the multifold teachings of the Buddha. So, why not begin at the beginning?  We will start by considering the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path that arises from these truths.  Then we will examine the eight steps one at a time, all the way from Right View to Right Thinking, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Diligence, Right Mindfulness, and  Right Concentration.  That’s eight nouns we need to fill with meaning.  This will take time.  We won’t finish it today or next week.

Some of us will be quite familiar with the basic teachings and we might think, well, there’s nothing new to be had here.  But contemplating the Dharma is not a matter of gathering new bits of info, new data to be filed away in our memory bank.  Thây often reminds his students to put away the note pad and to simply let the Dharma rain soak into their being.  This is similar to listening to the sound of the bell:  We let its clear and beautiful vibration enter us and awaken us.  

Even if we can recite the Four Noble Truths and the eight steps of the Path forward and backward, each time we steep ourselves in these teachings, we enter them a little more deeply, or perhaps it would be better to say, they enter us more deeply. You may have already encountered this phenomenon with Thich Nhat Hanh’s written work.   When you re-read one of his books after having first read it two years before, you will discover completely new layers of understanding.  This holds true for all aspects of the Dharma. 

In order to begin at the beginning as promised, we have to take a look at the Buddha’s early life.  King Suddhodana had hoped that his son would some day inherit the throne.  A prophecy which would have pleased most other parents had cast a shadow over the king’s mind:  It had been predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great ruler who would assemble a mighty empire, or else a great teacher who would lead all beings to liberation.  Which of these divergent aims, he wondered, might his son choose to pursue?

The king saw the latter choice as a danger that had to be averted at all cost.  To distract Siddhartha from any spiritual goals, the father showered him with all manner of regal diversions and sheltered him from experiencing or even witnessing the slightest hint of suffering.  A young man of selfish disposition might well have succumbed to the opulent life, but Siddhartha felt profound compassion for anyone less fortunate than he. As he became more and more conscious of the ravages that sickness, old age, and death could inflict on people’s lives, he began to ponder the roots of suffering.  What was its origin?  What, if anything, could end it?

Siddhartha left his rich surroundings with a single goal in his mind: to discover the roots of suffering and to find a way to end suffering.  At first he did what many spiritual seekers did in those days.  Under the guidance of the most advanced teachers, he practiced grueling austerities that almost cost him his life.  In that period he formed a

strong friendship with five other seekers.  But in the end there was a parting of the ways.  Close to death, Siddhartha realized that extreme self-mortification, instead of

leading to enlightenment and to an end to suffering, would literally kill him.  He decided instead to practice the Middle Way, steering clear of both asceticism and self-

indulgence.  It is this path of moderation that eventually led him to the break-through under the Bodhi tree. The Dharma is always the Middle Way.  If it strays from the middle, if it slides towards extremism, it ceases to be the Dharma.

What was this break-through that the Buddha experienced?  It was nothing less than the discovery of the path that leads from suffering to joy, a discovery which, it is said, made the cosmos tremble, and I think it trembled in joyful anticipation.  In order to share his

insight with others, the Buddha cast it in the form that we know today as the Four Noble Truths.  Then he sought out his erstwhile companions, who were at that time staying at

Deer Park.  They had excommunicated him because he had abandoned their extreme ways.  When they saw him approaching, they resolved amongst each other to shun him as an apostate.  They tried studiously to ignore him.  But there was something in the Buddha’s bearing, in his appearance, his dignified demeanor, and his radiant countenance, that  broke down their resistance.  After listening to the first sutra the Buddha ever spoke, they became his first disciples by taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

The Buddha outlined the Four Noble Truths.  First, he said, we must acknowledge the terrible reality of suffering.  Birth is suffering, old age, sickness, and death are suffering, wanting what we cannot have is suffering, losing something we do have is suffering, not wanting something we have is more suffering.

And it is not only we who suffer.  Nature suffers, animals, plants, and even minerals suffer. This could be the something to meditate on:  What is the suffering of other beings?  Whole species of animals are threatened with extinction because their habitat is either poisoned or disappearing.  Plants succumb to global warming.  We can see it right here in British Columbia where the huge pine forests of the Interior all the way down to Manning Park have died because our winters are no longer cold enough to control the pine beetle.  The atmosphere and the oceans are being poisoned, and so is the earth and the soil on which we rely for nourishment.

Suffering is global in nature.  And when we look at the human sphere, we see the desperate suffering of billions of people through famine, abject poverty, disease, oppression, exploitation, violence, slavery, child labor, discrimination, and never-ending brutal wars.  Even in well-to-do countries such as our own, where we hardly even realize that at this very moment we are a country at war, there is widespread unhappiness: marriage problems, addictions, crime, depression, unemployment, homelessness, mental illness, loneliness, suicide, the hectic pursuit of external success and of greater and greater wealth and increased consumption, and a general sense of life as meaningless.  Then we try to cover up the malaise through diversionary tactics, by acquiring new possessions, seeking excitement, or gratifying the senses, or, if that doesn’t work, by dulling our senses. 

There is a short verse that is often recited in our sanghas; it is called The Five Remembrances, and it reminds us of the inevitability of suffering. 

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

I inherit the results of my actions in body, speech, and mind.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Suffering seems to be a law of nature. As long as we live in the relative dimension, suffering will continue.  It is part of Samsara, the world of life and death, and of opposites like good and evil, right and wrong, rich and poor, pain and  happiness, and so forth.  Suffering cannot end until all beings down to the very last being have been liberated.  So we can see that liberation is not a personal matter.  It can never be a selfish pursuit.

But, while we live in the midst of Samsara,

  • we can do a great deal to alleviate the suffering.
  • We cannot prevent earthquakes and tsunamis, but we can bring relief to those affected by natural disasters.
  • We can eliminate world poverty by changing our economic system so that the wealth of the planet is shared equally by all.
  • We can prevent many diseases.  We have the means to wipe out malaria and to feed every mouth on the planet, but as a society, we have other priorities.  We can slow global warming , but so far we lack the will.
  • And we can transform much of the gratuitous psychological suffering that pervades the so-called developed world, but the momentum of our delusion is too great.   

The First Truth states that all aspects of life in the relative dimension are susceptible to suffering.  It does not say that everything is suffering, or that everything ought to be suffering. If we misread this teaching, it can increase our suffering because, taken by itself, it has a depressing and hopeless ring to it.  Suffering is a fact of the relative dimension, and when we stray from the Path of the Middle, it can turn into “the ideology of suffering.”  And the Buddha did not teach ideology.  There is beauty in the world, there is love, and there is joy.  We need not make ourselves miserable by ignoring or denying the wonders of life.  But when suffering does visit us, we can examine it in mindfulness  There is no need to create it just so we can study it and meditate on it. It will come to us as surely as the next sunset.  We do not have to sit for 24 hours until our joints and muscles ache. We do not have to induce suffering by means of austerities.  Sleep deprivation and prolonged stress positions are based on the illusion that we can force the hand of the spiritual world to issue us a certificate of enlightenment.  In fact, we can only ready ourselves by means of the practices the Buddha has taught us, and those practices are never extreme.  Their whole direction leads away from suffering.

In the Second Truth, the Buddha goes on to explain that suffering has causes.  He says there is a path that keeps leading us into suffering, and that is the  path we know only too well, because as a species we have traveled it for ages, that path into suffering.   

What is causing suffering?  The Buddha identifies three categories of poisons:  greed, anger, and delusion. There is no form of inner suffering that is not an outcome of these three poisons—none.  Delusion is what the Buddha also calls ignorance—ignorance not in the colloquial sense of stupidity, but ignorance as “not knowing.”  Not knowing what?  Not knowing the True Nature of Reality, not knowing our own True Nature, not knowing that we are not separate selves even though it really looks and feels like that, and not knowing that we are part of Nature, part of a greater whole.  When we live in forgetfulness of Oneness, we create suffering in us and all around us.  That is what the Buddha calls ignorant or delusional.

The Third Noble Truth is where the sun breaks through the dark clouds.  It is, after all, in the nature of a path that it can be traveled in two directions.  If we can walk from here to the beach, we can also walk from the beach to where we are sitting now. So although we have gone far down the path that leads into suffering, we can turn around and go towards happiness and peace.  We do this by transforming the poisons of greed, anger, and delusion into the healing medicine of generosity, love, and insight. That is the message of the Third Noble Truth: The way out of suffering, the way of transformation, exists, and it consists of turning around and walking in the other direction.

Of course, this is a fairly general statement—not very specific, and that is why we need the Fourth Noble Truth, which lays out the eight very specific steps of the Noble Eightfold Path.  This is where the Buddha gets practical.  Here he answers the question of how we can end our individual suffering, the suffering of humanity, the suffering of Nature, and the suffering of the Cosmos.  That is the subject of the Noble Eightfold Path, and it is a path to joy.

Because each of the Four Noble Truths contains the word “suffering,” they have sometimes been misunderstood as being altogether pessimistic, but in reality they are four rays of hope in a dark world.

Presented to the Buddha-Dharma Sangha, Sunshine Coast, BC, January 20, 2015, “Awakened Heart of the Source”