The Four Noble Truths
(First presented September 18, 2000, as a Monday night dharma talk. The version that follows is edited for web publication.)
The Four Noble Truths is the central and pivotal Buddhist teaching. Though easy to understand, its application grows richer, more profound and more nuanced with practice.
In the Discourses, the Buddha is often referred to as a doctor, and The Four Noble Truths are formulated according to the ancient Indian medical model:
1- There is an illness
2- There is a cause(s) of illness
3- There is a possibility of a cure of the illness
4- There is a prescription i.e., what we need to do to bring about a cure
The brilliance of this medical model is that the Buddha offers a complete spiritual path that does not depend on metaphysical speculation or belief—no speculation or belief about God. No leap of faith is required. The illness the Buddha refers to is a particular kind of suffering, and there is nothing metaphysical about it. We all experience it. In fact, it is said that the Buddha would never enter into a metaphysical discussion. He stated, “I teach one thing and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering.”
The Four Noble Truths are also very practical. They have everything to do with the present moment, and how we relate to it.
The First Noble Truth
The First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering. The Pali word—(the Buddha’s language)—is dukkha.
Although dukkha usually is translated as suffering, I often find imperfection to be more applicable. Other working definitions of dukkha are unsatisfactory, insubstantial and impermanence.
The Buddha said there are three kinds of dukkha. The first two are inevitable—the third is optional.
The first is dukkha-dukkha ordinary suffering. These include what the Buddha calls the three great teachers: sickness, old age and death, and the loss of a loved one.
The second is viparinama-dukkha. We all confront impermanence, literally, from moment to moment. One instant, we are happy, having a good time, and the next we are aware that our happiness will pass. For me, this awareness is often tinged with sadness, and explains why the Buddha says that even happiness is dukkha.
The third is samkhara-dukkha—the suffering of conditioned states. With samkhara-dukkha, we clearly see that the mind has a mind of its own. Corrado Pensa, a beloved teacher warns, “Be careful when you enter your mind, it may lead you behind enemy lines.” This is the dukkha that we can do something about. This is the illness that the Buddha is talking about in his medical model.
The Second Noble Truth
In the Second Noble Truth, the Buddha elucidates the four causes of this third suffering.
Here the Buddha talks about tanha-thirst. Thirst is a good thing because it leads us to seek nourishment. It even may be what brings us to practice. However, if we are not mindful, thirst transforms into grasping, aversion, drivenness, addiction—states I am sure we have all experienced.
Our attachment to sense pleasure is the first cause of suffering. However, this is not a teaching about avoiding sense pleasure. We simply do not want to be controlled by our desires. For example, just try putting down your fork between each bite of something delicious.
As meditators, we are likely to be attached to the sense pleasure of sitting comfortably. We desire calm and ease of mind and body. Think about how you would feel if you were without your favorite sitting gear at a retreat.
Our attachment to views and opinions is the second cause of suffering. Again, there is nothing wrong with having views and opinions. We all do. This becomes suffering for ourselves and others when we become attached. The following quote from D.H. Lawrence reflects this:
“Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of point is to ruin everything. Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve which flows on, pointless.”
Our attachment to traditions, religious practices and ethical behavior is the third cause of suffering.
For instance, as practitioners, we may become attached to metta—to loving-kindness and to presenting ourselves as someone who has a loving and compassionate heart.
Larry Rosenberg, a very inspirational teacher, advised me “Don’t wallpaper anger, resentment, disappointment with metta.” He cautioned that, as practitioners, we have to be careful not to be Buddhist but to be a Buddha.
The fourth cause of suffering is the one that is the most intractable. It is our attachment to self—who we think we are, how we want others to be, and how we want life to treat us. Some people expect life to make them happy; others expect life to make them miserable. Our emotions, and how we view the world and experience life, flow from this attachment.
I have been doing couple therapy for many years, and I look at couples through the lens of the Four Noble Truths. I first ask how they met, what attracted them to each other, and to describe their honeymoon period. Usually, I hear that each was exactly what the other wanted, and each liked who they were in the relationship. Here we see the attachment to self gratified.
How long did the honeymoon period last? Never long enough. When we discuss what brought the couple to therapy, what emerges is that they could not maintain the idealized picture of the other or themselves. Such relationships cause people much suffering and disappointment—and offer an opportunity for becoming awake. One of the great contributions of Western Dharma is seeing relationship as spiritual practice, since in relationship we see our most tenacious attachments.
The Third Noble Truth
The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering—the cure mentioned in the Buddha’s medical model. What we have available to us is the present moment. There are two aspects of experience in the present moment:
1. What is happening—things just as they are
2. How we relate to what is happening
We can change how we relate to the present moment. We can cultivate the skill to rest in mindfulness, rather than in grasping and aversion. In so doing, we free ourselves from suffering.
I collect two things: teapots and quotes, reflections, stories, anecdotes, poems and Zen koans that reflect the Third Noble Truth and the great insight it conveys.
One of the most famous reflections is the Discourse: The Contemplations of Feelings - One or Two Arrows.
There is one arrow. This one arrow can come from the inevitable two causes of suffering that I discussed: dukkha-dukkha or viparināma-dukkha. There is an injury and we feel it. The second arrow is when the conditioned mind gets involved and we add insult to injury. The practice is about not putting in the second arrow.
A quote from the Discourse just mentioned:
Bhikkhus, for those Noble Disciples who already know, not when they feel pangs of unpleasant sensations, they are not sorrowful nor mournful, they do not wail, lament, nor beat their breasts crying, nor do they become deranged. They feel only physical sensations, not mental torment.
It is like the hunter who shoots a person with an arrow and shoots yet another arrow that misses. When this is the case, that person will feel the sensations of only one arrow. The Noble Disciples who already know are like this.....
They only feel physical pangs and remain unscathed by the mental ones.
Consider a favorite quote from the Buddha:
I know of no other single thing so
conducive to misery
uncultivated, untrained mind.
I know of no other single thing so
conducive to well-being
cultivated and well-trained mind.
From T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
And from Yogi Berra, “Slump, I ain’t in a slump. I just ain’t hitting.”
The Fourth Noble Truth
In the Fourth Noble Truth, the Buddha’s medical model gives us the prescription. The prescription is the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path consists of Right Understanding and Right Thought, which allow us to cultivate panna--wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood allow us to cultivate sila--ethical behavior. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration allow us to cultivate samadhi--mental discipline.
The Noble Eightfold Path enables us to adjust our lives to be in harmony with our deep intention to be happy and free. Gil Fronsdale, a teacher at Spirit Rock, suggests another formulation of the Four Noble Truths--there is happiness and causes for happiness.
Macbeth was not blessed with an understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Near his death he says about life:
It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (Act V. sc.v 27-30)
Contrast this with the perspective the poet Wun-Men speaks of when we have refuge in the Four Noble Truths:
Ten thousand flowers in spring
the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer,
snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.