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Buddhism and Me: The Four Noble Truths 
8th-Dec-2011 08:00 am

1. Introduction
2. The Three Refuges

Suffering happens. Suffering has a cause. I can be free from suffering. By following the Eightfold Path.

If you know anything about Buddhism, you’ve probably heard of the Four Noble Truths: the very core of the Dharma, which makes the whole thing look very simple indeed. Because it’s really all about one thing, when you get down to it. The Buddha could have chosen to teach all sorts of truths to his followers, but instead he chose something that many people were, are and will always be, primarily concerned with: suffering.

The First Noble Truth: All living beings suffer

There is suffering: Dukkha
Suffering should be understood.
Suffering has been understood.

And whenever was there a truth so self-evident?

The First Noble Truth talks about Dukkha, which means “incapable of satisfying,” and is the universal constant that unites every living thing, from myself to a New York pigeon. Significantly, though, it unites every single human being. I have many things in common with many people, but what I have in common with every single human who ever lived and ever will live, is suffering.

Suffering inspires compassion. To know that another being suffers – to really know and to understand it is to feel alongside them, in the infinite compassion that Buddhists tend to talk a lot about. I find it nearly impossible to be angry or hateful towards someone if I remind myself that they are people, and they suffer greatly, and I genuinely, honestly wish that they have a good day.

Suffering is not pain. Pain is not suffering. If you stand on my toe, the physical pain that shoots into my brain is one thing. The annoyance, anger and frustration I feel towards the pain, my toe, and your clumsy self is why I suffer. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to tell you to get off my toe, of course. Pain is there to tell us something, and sometimes that thing is “get off my foot!”

This isn’t an Absolute Truth designed to create hopelessness and despair. Suffering is a part of life, but once we recognise that, we can understand it, and its causes.

The Second Noble Truth: Suffering is caused by attachment

There is the origin of suffering, which is attachment to desire.
Desire should be let go of.
Desire has been let go of.

There is a book by Suzuki-roshi, the title of which sums up his view of Buddhist practice in three words: Not Always So. Everything in life is tangible, and nothing is forever. I may be healthy now, but I will lose this health. I may have money in my bank account, but I will spend it. I may be alive, but I will die. Some things change dramatically in a matter of seconds, like my favourite mug when I drop it to the ground. Some things erode away slowly over millenia, but no thing in the world is eternal.  (A lot of religions and philosophies include something; a being or a tao, that is eternal. I suggest that these are not Things.)

But from the point of view of a living being, this transience sucks. We like being alive – we like our friends being alive, so the fact that everything dies causes suffering. We like being healthy, or happy, or being in loving relationships, or our current living arrangements. None of these things are permanent. But we want them to be.   So we cling to them; we develop this desire to make them permanent, and we try to hold on to them. And when it slips away, like everything does, that’s when we get rope burn.

It’s not just clinging to the pleasant things in existence that cause suffering. Clinging to the unpleasant parts of life; our pain, physical and emotional, loss, regret. If we grab on to them too tightly, they cut into us. The tighter we hold on to everything in life, the greater our suffering because of it.   So to end suffering, we need to loosen our grip, and to ease this attachment.

The Third Noble Truth: There is an End to Suffering

There is the cessation of suffering, of dukkha.
The cessation of dukkha should be realised.
The cessation of dukkha has been realised.

So, if all beings suffer, and we suffer because we cling to things, then it follows that if we can stop clinging to things, we can stop suffering, right?   We’ll put this one firmly in the ‘easier said than done’ category, shall we?

Nirodha is the cessation of worldly attachments and through that, of suffering. It is not an easy thing to attain, but as I mentioned when talking about the Three Refuges, I have faith that it can be attained. It’s just going to take some work. And while I probably won’t complete Nirodha in this lifetime, I can make a go of it.

It is not the end of compassion, because the opposite of compassion is a pushing away and aversion, and that is itself a form of clinging. Instead, the end of clinging comes through, among other things, the boundless compassion that is a natural consequence of understanding that all beings suffer.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The end to suffering comes through the Eightfold Path

There is the Eightfold Path, the atthangika magga – the way out of suffering.
This path should be developed.
This path has been fully developed.

The story goes that Siddhattha, on his path to Enlightenment, spent 29 years as a Prince with expansive material wealth, then gave up all this to live the life of ascetic – shunning all material wealth. Neither of these turned out to be helpful to him, so after meditating and obtaining Enlightenment, he laid out the Middle Way: the Eightfold Path. This gives way to neither complete abstinence nor total indulgence; these are just opposite sides of the same desire coin, and the Middle Way is a way to being free of that coin altogether.

There are two reasons to go down a road, both literal and metaphorical: to get to where you want to go, and also to savour the journey. The Eightfold Path is a road to take for either reason. It is a Path with an end, certainly, and that end is the end of suffering, but it’s also a Path worth following for the journey itself, because every step I take down the path, every moment I spend in practice, is a step taken and a moment spent with a slightly cleaner mirror.

The Eightfold path is represented by the largest part of my bracelet:

There are three main sections to the Eightfold Path: the first, that of wisdom, of morality and of concentration, that cover behaviours and practices in the realms of the mind, the body (action) and the heart:

Wisdom:Right view; Right Intention
Morality: Right Speech; Right Action; Right Livelihood
Concentration: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

Note that “Right” in this sense does not denote a moral absolute, because there are no moral absolutes in a sense as broad as these. It doesn’t mean ‘right’ s in ‘good’, but ‘right’ as in ‘appropriate’ or ‘correct’. When you’re doing something with a goal in mind, it’s important to carry out the procedure in the right way – the way most likely to give the results you need. This is an instruction manual, remember – there isn’t really an ‘evil’ way to clean a mirror, but there sure as heck are ways that won’t get it particularly clean.

Note also that the Path is Eightfold, not Eight-Step. It’s not something that is to be done one at a time, perfecting each moment before I go to the next. Instead, it is a path that is followed with all parts of it embraced fully. It needs to be understood and accepted and known before it can be followed. Like reading a map, it’s good to know exactly where you’re going before you start your journey.

And once you have insight the Four Noble Truths – once you really understand and get them and take them to heart: Well, that’s the Right View (or Right Understanding), and that’s the first part of the Path.

Noble Truths links

Buddha Net
The Big View

Zencast 07 The Four Noble Truths

Next: Right View (redux)

This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

9th-Dec-2011 06:28 am (UTC)
These posts are very thought-provoking and helpful. Thank you for writing them.
9th-Dec-2011 02:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for commenting. It is encouraging.
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