The Four Noble Truths

After the Buddha gained enlightenment, the first sermon he preached was the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. The cause of suffering
  3. The ending of suffering
  4. There is a way to stop the suffering

The 1st Noble Truth Suffering, dukkha exists

Before we go any further, let’s make a clarification the Buddha is not advocating pessimism. Buddhism brings our attention to the many different types of suffering we encounter in our life. Suffering is a constituent of life. It is like an unlimited fuel source burning our body and mind. Once we know the truth of suffering, we will seek the way to overcome suffering. Once we accept suffering exists we are on the path to liberate ourselves.

What do we mean by suffering? Many of us may have a misinterpretation that only people who live in poor country, and don’t have any food to eat, or people who sleep on the street, people who are tortured under a dictatorial government. We call this suffering.

But let’s not look too far out there, let’s bring the attention back to our daily live. How many of us are free from stress and anxiety? We compete with time to meet the deadline of our project, we don’t feel secure in our jobs, we worry about our future, and our children’s future, we are afraid we don’t live up to our parent’s expectations, we measure our success with outcome and results, we compare our achievement with our peer group, we see our limits as flaws, we take our failure as shame. All these things trap us in the confinement of distress and unhappiness. We have little or no control over our lives. This is what the Buddha meant by suffering.

Suffering, if uncured, can be like cancer spreading and infecting the whole body, and our life will undergo a continuing process of pain, conflict and torment.

The magnitude of suffering varies. It can be accumulated over a period of time. This is typical of emotional suffering. If one keeps feeding and nourishing sadness, for example, it will grow and transform into depression.

Human life is attacked by spiritual, physical, economic, and other forms of suffering. Is there anyone who is not caught up in life’s affliction?

The Buddha described two kinds of suffering; internal sufferings and external sufferings. Internal sufferings include physical pain, anxiety, fear, jealousy, suspicion, anger and so forth. External sufferings are things that come from outside. These include wind, rain, cold, heat, natural disaster such as draught, flood, wars and so on.

Suffering can be classified into various categories, the Buddha classified eight sufferings that human beings experience regardless of their status, whether they are rich, poor, average, or gifted.

1. Birth. Birth can be a painful experience. This starts from the moment we were born, the forceful discharge from our mother’s womb. The painful sensation of a newborn’s tender skin, which has come in contact with the external environment aftermany months nestled inside the womb.

2. The agony of growing old. Vitality, vigour and freshness of youth gives way to fear of getting old, fear of being unloved and unwanted, fear of loneliness and dependence, financial insecurity as well as the physical feebleness.

3. The attack of sickness.

4. The phobia of death. For many people, death is a passage unknown into the future. Whether we like it or not, we have to embark on this journey one day.

5. Losing those we love. We all have or will experience the loss of someone we love some time in our live.

6. The suffering that comes when one has to work with people we dislike and despise, talk to them or even live under the same roof that we try so hard to avoid associating with them.

7. Not getting what one desires. People chase after material wealth, power, fame, or position etc, very often these things are out of bound for many of us. To desire something and not being able to get it is painful.

8. The seven types of suffering come from the Five Skandas. The Five Skandas are life components, which are made up of the elements of forms, sensation, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. They make up our body and mind. These Five Skandas are like armed robbers invading and robbing our peace of mind, giving rise to the various kinds of suffering and afflictions.

We know these various kinds of suffering, but what causes them? The Buddha said, if you look deeply into the nature of suffering you will know how it has come to you. This we will discuss in next month’s issue of the Second Noble Truth; the cause of suffering.

The 2nd Noble Truth – The Cause of Suffering

The cause of suffering is our attachment or clinging. The many dissatisfactions of life are caused by our greedy nature of wanting something our own way, and when things don’t turn out the way we expected them to, we get angry. This is due to our ignorance, which is the root of all afflictions and turmoil.

In Buddhism, ignorance doesn’t mean not knowing anything. It means certain knowledge we generally have is distorted, for example, perceiving impermanence as permanence, believing false as true. When we don’t understand cause and effect, karma and its outcome, we crown our illusion as reality and live in a world of confusion and suspicion.

Greed, anger and ignorance are the three poisons that invade the mind and the cause of our suffering. They operate together and feed off each other.

Technology and scientific invention have brought people around the globe closer together. High economic growth has uplifted our standard of living but the quality of our lives has been degraded. Our desire brings out attachment. Attachment is fine as long as it does not harm other people and when the intention is good. However when this attachment becomes excessive it can cloud our judgement and obscure our clear vision. Very often by being attached we will commit an act for self benefit which can be detrimental to others.

The world we perceive is a reflection of our mind. Life will always be imperfect if we don’t have understanding, loving-kindness and compassion for other people. We will never be content as long as our desires are misdirected, unfulfilled and selfish.

According to the Buddha, all strife and troubles in this world, from small disputes to war between nations arise out of greed. Greed is the basic disease of all beings. It is based on ignorance and cannot function without it.

Greed is manifested in various forms and gives rise to all kinds of suffering. The various conditions that lead to greed are desire for things we cannot have, attachment to sense-pleasure, obsession with fame, power or material wealth, attachment to our ideas, concepts, principles, ideals and belief. Most of these conditions are normal aspects of our life. We are not saying these aspects should be avoided, however, these conditions enslave us and control our lives if we become attached to them.

Greed has its subtle ways of turning pleasure into disappointment and drowning happiness with anxiety and fear. It is far better to let life flow where it should and not try to hang onto every little thing we think we must have.

One of the very damaging effects of greed is that it can lead to anger, this gives rise to resentment, hatred, jealousy, cruelty and revenge.

When the seed of anger resides in our mind, it will manifest when it is stimulated by external factors. However, anger can also arise for no reason, this kind of anger is not provoked by any external conditions but comes from within the mind. The seed of anger has the potential to grow and develop in a very destructive way. It is a form of energy, if it is left uncured; it has the power like a raging fire capable of burning everything to ashes including all good deeds. But if it can be utilised and transform into positive energy, it will then be the source of reform, progress and creation in our life.

Anger and greed are exactly the opposite of each other. Anger is the impulse of strong dislike and aversion while greed is a form of attraction and desire brought on by something we like. Without ignorance, greed and anger do not have the opportunity to manifest and jeopardize our peace of mind.

How do we get rid of ignorance and reclaim sovereignty? Is there any method or guideline that can lead us to tranquil salvation, the state of nirvana and the extinction of suffering?

Yes, there is a path that we can follow to end the afflictions in our lives.

The 3rd Noble Truth – The Cessation of Suffering

We live in a world of delusion assaulted by life’s affliction. This is caused by our craving and dissatisfaction. Attachment to desire plagues our peace of the mind. The Third Noble Truth aims at annihilation of craving so that we are no longer enslaved by it. When cessation of craving is attained, the cessation of suffering will follow.

Affliction is like a big tree. To get rid of this tree we have to chop it down. This requires first of all cutting the various branches and finally its root. If we leave the root untouched, it will sprout and grow into another big tree when conditions such as sunshine, water and fertiliser are available.

The root of affliction is ignorance, which gives rise to craving and craving in turn brings out attachment. Attachment to a deceptive ego/self is the cause of our misery. However, ego does not exist by itself. When we realise there is no self that we can identify with and cling to, we will set aside the illusory self. As attachment is dissolved, craving is relinquished, wisdom and compassion will arise spontaneously.

When we become aware of the ego’s powerful damaging effect we will seek a way out by transforming ourselves. Transformation of the external world is limited and its effect on our inner world is also limited. Lasting happiness cannot be achieved without transforming oneself. The significant factor of changing oneself is the mind. It is the mind that feels happy or sad. It is the mind attaches to things. It is the mind needs to be set free. We may not be able to change things around us but we can change our responses. A shift of perspective, a change of attitude will alter our whole outlook. What we perceive is a reflection of the mind, a calm and peaceful mind sees everything as wonderful and beautiful. Isn’t it true that when you are happy and light-hearted, people who you don’t like appears a very lovely person.

Transformation of the mind cannot be achieved without realising the true nature of life. Everything in the universe is in the process of constant change. Reflect on the fact of impermanence, and bring our attention to the truth that everything that arises is subject to ceasing. This insight leads to an understanding of the futile effort of attachment. We can then let go and abandon craving. Things that have caused us a lot of anguish, disappointment or distress will cease naturally. Our pride, arrogance and vanity will vanish.

When cessation is reached we experience nirvana. Nirvana is peace and happiness. It is the state of infinite purity and complete stillness, the extinction of all anxiety, stress, sorrow, grief and difficulty. It is the liberation from the fire of desire.

When we immerse in the bliss of nirvana, nothing can disturb us.

The 4th Noble Truth – The Path to the Cessation of Suffering

Buddhism is called the Middle Way because it teaches us to travel on a path that lies midway between the extremes. Although the Buddha emphasised that we are responsible for our own happiness, he taught methods through which we can transform ourselves into a joyful, pure and wholesome person. One of his methods is the path leading to the end of suffering. It is called the Eightfold Path of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. There are eight steps to follow and they are all linked to each other.

These eight steps should be developed and practised simultaneously according to the individual’s capacity.

The first one is Right View. The word view here means how we see life or understand it. Right view means we understand that all phenomena are impermanent and they exist when favourable conditions are present, when these conditions fall apart, things no longer exist. So nothing has an independent self of its own, this leads to the understanding of dependent origination, which is the central idea in Buddhism. We need to understand the law of karma, which is the driving force for the cycle of rebirth. We reap the consequences of what we sow and everyone is equal under the law of cause and effect.

Worldly knowledge is vital in today’s society, but sometimes it can mislead us. Knowledge can be like a sharp knife, if it is not used properly, sometimes it can hurt us and others. Therefore, it is very important to know how to transform knowledge into wisdom and right view.

The path of Buddhahood begins with the right view. It’s important to have right view because our view drives the particular action we take. These views lie behind our decisions and goals, and our effort to make these goals from ideas into actuality. Right views steer us in the right direction. In essence, right view involves correct understanding of the Dharma and Buddha’s teaching.

Once we have right view it will guide us to the second step of developing Right Thought. Wisdom comes from learning while right thought is the real wisdom gained from right understanding and thinking, analysing clearly without a biased and judgemental mind.

Right thought arises from right view, which motivates us to strive on the path toward liberation. This intention will be realised if we let go of our ego and our attachment to desire.

To keep the elements of desire at bay, we should remain mindful of the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. We should not nourish their roots so that they do not grow into a big tree.

Within the framework of right thought, it enables us to see that everything arises and ceases from a combination of conditions. This brings us to the realisation of impermanence, and how the agony of life rises and falls according to external factors. We no longer build our happiness on life’s transient nature. This leads to the abandonment of desire. Renunciation in Buddhism doesn’t mean giving up everything. It’s a positive outlook on life accepting things and letting go with ease.

Intention to attain realisation will lead us to the three fundamental areas that control our life; Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. Beginning with the intention of language Right Speech, we should begin by paying attention to words that we utter, be more aware of the motive behind our speech, are we saying things just to justify our views, to cover our flaws, to protect our ego or are we hiding the truth for fear of revealing to others or ourselves what we really are?

As we recognise and be more aware of the power of our speech, we are on the path of progressing onto the second stage of saying things to create a harmonious and joyful environment around us. And we would not lie, slander others, gossip or use abusive language.

A common proverb says, disease enters through our mouth? disaster brings forth from our mouth. Our mouth is a very sharp weapon, if we say something inappropriate, we not only can hurt others but also hurt ourselves. Speech can be like a handle that we use to take hold of all areas of our lives.

The Yogacharabhumi Sutra says:

If your speech is always soft and agreeable and if it is in harmony with the feelings of others, then your behaviour will be supported by it and you will not be likely to harm others through your body or mind. Good speech is like a flowering tree; in time its fruits will be sweet and beautiful.

Right Action basically means following the Five Precepts. No killing to develop compassion for all beings, no stealing to cultivate generosity, no lying to practice truthful communication, do not engage in sexual misconduct that will cause disruption to you life or the lives of others, do not take intoxicants of any kind that may harm yourself or others.

Beside in abstaining from doing any bad deeds, we need to actively perform good deeds, since action influences our destiny in the future. In order to improve the quality of our life, we need to reflect on our actions with mindfulness and use wisdom to prevent action becoming tools of the defilements.

Right Livelihood is the fifth step, which refers to the proper way of making a living. Abstaining from unethical occupation of making profit by disadvantaging other such as slave trading, drug dealing, etc. It means having an occupation engaging in promoting life instead of destroying it.

When we follow the steps of right view, right thought, right speech, right action and right livelihood, our life will be in order and we will naturally begin making progress. This is Right Effort or Right Diligence. This means we direct our effort towards detachment and developing virtues such as loving kindness and compassion. The Buddha described four kinds of right effort to practice to attain liberation. Firstly to prevent evil that has not germinated, second to eradicate all evils that have arisen and thirdly to nurture the good that has not fully developed and fourthly to maintain and multiply the good that has already arisen. What this means is that our effort should be directed into improving our mind. In the study of the precepts, right diligence is the effort we put into keeping the precepts. In meditation practice, right diligence is the constant effort of training our mind preventing distraction and obtaining clarity. For true wisdom, right diligence is the effort applied into acquiring right view and right thought.

The seventh step in the eightfold noble path is Right Mindfulness. Right mindfulness is to be fully aware of the activities of the body, the sensation, the activities of the mind, all ideas and phenomena. We must keep our mind in continued self-examination. We have to be mindful when the mind is scattered we must collect it and bring it home. To start with, focus the mind on the Four Foundation of Mindfulness.

1) Contemplate on the fact that our body is prone to disease and illness

2) Contemplate on the feelings and be aware of its strong manipulation on our state of mind

3) Contemplate on the impermanence and brevity of thought

4) Contemplate on the non-self nature of all phenomena

In the Shurangama Sutra there is a section in which Ananda and the Buddha have a dialogue about the location of the mind. Ananda suggested seven different possibilities for its location, but the Buddha rejected everyone of them and said to Ananda the mind cannot be located at any specific place.

When we observe our mind, we notice all thoughts rise and subside. Our conditional mind responds to positive and negative conditions as they appear in the moment. When we can understand everything in our life comes into existence under a combination into existence under a combination of right conditions and when any of these conditions are altered things are not the same. This brings us to the realisation of the interdependence of all phenomena. The process of change is very common in our life and it is important that we do not dwell in our illusion that things will last forever.

When right mindfulness is accomplished we attain Right Concentration. This is the very advanced level of meditation that leads towards nirvana. Right concentration refers to the four stages of meditative concentration. What it really means is that we practice meditation and use our wisdom to focus and purify our mind to reach concentrated state of total freedom.

The Eightfold Path gives us guidance and treatment for our defilement and delusion. It is up to us to take this treatment and be ready to undergo a long period of training the mind to attain enlightenment. If we fully master the eight elements of the Eightfold Path we will reach the summit of Buddhahood with ease.

(Source: FGS Nan Tien temple’s webpage “The Four Noble Truths”)