Multi-Dimensional Aspects of the Four Noble Truths

By: Rev. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯

The following lesson on the Four Noble Truths was first published on the website Order of Engaged Buddhists.  It is re-posted here for our lay students and followers.  

There is an interesting dimension to Buddhist teaching which is both inspiring and fascinating, but which is not always apparent to either the beginning student or even the more experienced ones.  That is, how often do we hear specific Buddhist lessons presented that often mysteriously reflect other aspects of Buddhist thought other than the one presented.  Specifically I am thinking about the Four Noble Truths.  I have awakened to how the whole Buddhist path is a macrocosm that can be expressed and understood through each element of teaching within it, starting with the Noble Truths.  Consider for a moment the lessons inherent in the Jewel Net Of Indra.  Where each jewel reflects all the other jewels in the net of co-dependence,  and that this net is a metaphor for the nature of our Universe.  This is somewhat a revelation for some when they come to realize how Buddhist lessons can be studied and are often capable of showing how our practice reflects the essence of the entire Buddhist dharma.  This is also an example of the transformation of ideas that reflect how we must encounter and understand the lessons from different traditions in order to give us a chance for a clearer meaning to our understanding of the dharma in our contemporary lives.  Even if we do not adapt them to our own platform and practice.  The Dalai Lama expressed it this way, “Buddhism is more than an Asian religion.  As the teachings of the Buddha (dharma) become better know and practiced in Western countries, it is vital to understand their place in Western history and culture.”

The challenge of this realization comes when we consider that each Buddhist tradition has developed over time their own interpretations, selected and adopted suttas, and external concepts and practices outside the Buddhist Cannon.  But at the same time these external concepts become a part of the Cannon within their tradition, and are reflected along with the standard teachings that are common to all the other traditions.  For example, some traditions are more comfortable relying on mystical and metaphysical interpretations and beliefs and finding ways to integrate them into their common teaching, than are other traditions.   Yet, the underlying message is basically the same.  The Buddhist practitioner must decide which tradition best reflects their own worldview and practices, and then commit to follow the path according.  But we must always work to find the lesson that reflects Universal reality, or Dharma.  We must also remember that this is a mutual-causal Universe and we must leave room open for change as our own experiences, and expert research by others, points to a clearer understanding of the Dharma as time evolves.

I would like to explore the Four Noble Truths in terms of how they can be understood through other aspects of  Buddhist teaching.  Although it is said there are eighty-four thousand discourses that the Buddha used to teach his disciples over forty years, all of them are an expansion of details on this core teaching.  I choose this as they are fundamental to all Buddhist traditions.  Let me call your attention to the Sammaditthi Sutta from the Majjhima Nikaya.  This Sutra #9 is by Venerable Sariputta on Right View and speaks at length on the teachings of the Four Noble Truths.

Although the Four Noble Truths is the fundamental teaching and found throughout the Pali Nikayas, it can open out in great depth and subtlety as is demonstrated in almost every other Buddhist principle, when we learn to consider the philosophical nature bridging and connecting each Noble Truth to all the others.  We must not only consider what each Truth is teaching, but how do we move between each of the Noble Truths.  I will also be taking the key principle of the Heart Sutra as a way to explore these teachings.  It is often said that the essence of Buddhism is the statement made in the Heart Sutra: “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”.  Many other discourses in Buddhism seem an expansion of this and a method of approaching this theme.  For my lesson here I will define ‘form’ as meaning body-mind, and ‘emptiness’ as  meaning the insubstantive nature of self, (no-self), or that emptiness and the phenomena of this world are the same.  Using this approach, let’s look at the Four Noble Truths in terms of its essentials.  Thich Nhat Hanh expressed it this way, “After realizing complete, perfect awakening, the Buddha had to find words to share his insight.  He already had the water, but he had to discover jars like the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to hold it”.

Pragmatically, I would prefer to translate the word Truths to ‘Realities’, as in the Four Noble Realities.   In the West we interpret ‘Truths’ as unchanging.  But what the Buddha became awakened to and expressed in the principle of the Four Noble Truths, reflected the reality of the Universe as he and we know it today, but it is still subject to change as is all phenomena in this Universe.

For many years almost all scholars have interpreted this basic teaching as ‘The Noble Truth of Suffering,’ and it was interpreted to mean that life according to Buddhism is nothing but suffering and pain.  Both translation and interpretation are highly unsatisfactory and misleading as we know today.  It is because of this limited interpretation that many have been misled into regarding Buddhism as pessimistic.   First of all, Buddhism is neither pessimistic or optimistic.  If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and of the world.  It looks at things objectively.  It does not falsely lull us into living in a fool’s paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize us with all kinds of imaginary fear.  It tells us exactly and objectively what we are and what the world around us is, and shows us the way to freedom, peace, harmony, and happiness (human flourishing).   Also the mental culture that is achieved when considering this teaching culminates with the extremely high level of mindful awareness that is necessary for the achievement of wisdom and insight into things as they truly are.  In that state of mind know as wisdom, comes readiness for us to awaken to Dharma.

Reflecting on this principle teaching takes us far beyond the victimized sense of suffering and the way which passes beyond suffering.  The way in which the Four Noble Truths are some times understood tends to foster the idea that releases us from dukkha which lies beyond the body and the physical world.  But the Ulukha-mukah Sutra completely reverses this misconception, and lays open the vast possibility that is inherent in every aspect of existence.  In addition, the Eightfold Path is an expression of the Noble Truths, in its application to our lives, so let us begin by looking at them from this perspective too.  Consider if you will that the Eightfold Path is a shadow thrown by the Noble Truths.  The teaching of the Four Noble Truths was the first Siddhartha Gotama gave after fully realizing the non-dual nature of the Universe.  Non-dual is the expression that means the absence of thinking in terms of self and other.  He taught:
– the truth of unsatisfactoriness
– the truth of the cause for unsatisfactoriness
– the truth of the cessation of unsatisfactoriness
– the truth of the path to the cessation of unsatisfactoriness is eightfold.

The truth of the experience of unsatisfactoriness expresses the universal sense of suffering within dualistic terms, the unsatisfactoriness of the continually cycling patterns of distorted perception and our response to it which results in no lasting happiness.  It is pertinent not to misinterpret the First Noble Truth as a statement which denigrates the body-mind.  It does not state that the body and mind, or the world we live in, are in themselves unsatisfactory, but that our experience is characterized in that way through our own developed personal preferences, attachments, cravings, and unwholesome desires.  The Buddha calls this illusory, and that the world is excellent just as it is.  I want to avoid the word ‘perfect’ here as it connotes a state beyond change.  The world is always in the process of change.    But this notion of illusory perception is important and has depth of meaning.  In the Sammaditthi Stura Venerable Sariputta speaks of how consciousness can be viewed in the Noble Truths along with body.  Remember that body can not be separated from mind, which is why we often speak of body-mind.  In the Sutra it states, “..a disciple understands consciousness, the origin of consciousness, the cessation of consciousness, and the way leading to the cessation of consciousness, in that way he is one of right view … and has arrived at true dharma.”  The sutra goes on to define consciousness by relating it to the senses (like eye-consciousness).  When we use the senses we create consciousness.  With the use of our senses consciousness arises.  And with the taming of the senses we create the cessation of consciousness, and this is the way we step onto the path.  By taking this path is a way leading to the cessation of consciousness and therefore makes an end to suffering.

We are all frantically chasing our tails, trying to be happy.  We all want to be free of the experience of loss, pain, sorrow, and fear, in order to experience only pleasure and happiness.  This is a universal human expectation, but the question runs far deeper than the commonly experienced pleasures and pains of physical existence.  To truly experience the subtle nature of unsatisfactoriness, we need to have experienced the entrapping power of thinking in terms of dualism.  The Ego is good at helping us on this endeavor.  This results in a feeling that arises that the whole experience of life is vaguely hollow and that nothing is quite what it seems.  Many of us feel we have worked hard for the good things we have and live in reasonable comfort, yet we may become aware of a sensation of unsatisfactoriness about our lives.  We find that we can achieve whatever we set out to do, yet we still come to realize that these achievements are at best fleeting and not necessarily a sustained path to happiness.  There is something more to life than what appears on the surface.  The Buddha discovered this aspect of human nature, and called it the “hollowness of success”.   As a prince, the Buddha had to learn to excel at what ever he did in order to get ready for a public role as a leader.  From this perspective it was through his success that he came to view all accomplishment having given expectations.  Some traditions have come to believe his path was based on the unsatisfactoriness of success as a reference point, rather than on the notion of sickness, old age, and death.  It is not that these are not issues which can turn our attention to spiritual enquiry; it is rather that there is a more subtle level of unsatisfactoriness which needs to be perceived.  According to this interpretation, sickness, old age, and death cannot actually be described as unsatisfactory, but just the way the causal universe functions.  But it did act as a starting point in Siddhartha’s analysis of unsatisfactoriness as was driven by human expressions of greed, anger, hate, sorrow, and self-centered desires.

The First Noble Truth then, is awareness of universality of the feeling of unsatisfactoriness, and the way in which it may eventually undermine most achievements.  The Sanskrit word mostly translated as ’suffering’ is ‘dukkha’.  ‘Du’ means worthless, and ‘kha’ means hollow.  So ’dukkha’ actually encompasses much more than the misery of life not going well, the experience of pain and personal catastrophe.  It points to the illusory nature of the worthless-hollow self, which sounds depressing.   In some ways we create this unsatisfactoriness, it is not a natural element of our human nature though.

Siddhartha said that where there is dualism, change is often perceived as dukkha.  We don’t like the good things in our life to go away, but everything changes.  Always.  If we try to hard to grasp on to permanence, we experience it slipping away.     It is better to just let it go.  So in order to actually perceive dukkha, we have to have some measure of success and pleasure in our lives and yet still experience unsatisfactoriness.  The Buddha said that even a good thing, once it becomes a burden, must be discarded.  It is only then that we can begin to see the illusory and empty quality of this experience, and then begin to work to elevate it.   Thus the importance of a dedicated meditation practice.  So it is valuable to reflect on the First Noble Truth as much as possible in order to experience the Second Truth.

The Second Noble Truth is the cause of the experience of suffering as is suggested to us through experiencing the form and emptiness of unsatisfactoriness.  We come to realize that there is something about both the way we view and experience phenomena, which causes unsatisfactoriness.  In the Sutra texts, the cause of this suffering is karma.  Karma is another way of realizing the laws of cause and effect, which means that through distorted perception we respond inappropriately to our neurotic conditioning, and miss an opportunity to judge a situation by applying the ethical and moral principles inherent in Buddhist thought.  It is crucial not to misunderstand karma with some kind of metaphysical mechanism woven in the fabric of reality.  The Ulukha-mukha Sutra discusses karma in terms of perception and response rather than cause and effect but the essential meaning is the same.  If the cause which is our perception perceives a focus of attraction, aversion, or indifference, the effect will be the response to that cause.  There is no sense in which the actual circumstances of our lives are preordained according to a system of rewards and punishments for our previous actions.  This is a pre-Buddhist misconception, and one which would make enlightenment dependent upon karma.

When we believe in the idea that we exist as solid, permanent, separate and  continuous being, and that we deny any state of impermanence and inseparability, we experience dukkha.  We experience dukkha because we attempt to divide form and emptiness.  But once we have touched the idea that we create our own unsatisfactoriness through dualistic preconception (separation of self from other), the possibility of allowing our view of change comes into focus.  We can then let go of the form of unsatisfactoriness.  The Buddha spoke often on how critically important it is to realize that there is no-self or soul.

The Third Noble Truth is cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness which is the truth that if there is a cause of dukkha, then there must be a way in which we can stop creating the cause of dukkha.  We can cut the cause at the root.  We actively create our own suffering by continually defining our existence according to concrete ideas of how things should be and then act on them.  We refuse to let the ebb and flow of our existence be what it is.  But we can stop living this cycle of being and allow a view and experience to emerge in which form and emptiness define each other.  This will result in our completely altering our perception of our notion of pleasure and the path to human flourishing.  Within the non-dual perspective, pleasure ceases to be regarded as problematic simply because of its temporary nature.   Pleasure being considered in a wholesome sense here.

We can then discover that our ordinary lives really do afford glimpses of real happiness because an Egoless life can naturally occur.  There are times when we are one with the moment, or times of exhaustion when we let go and give up the effort of creating negative behaviors for a while.  Understanding the possibility of this view and experience inspires confidence that there is a state which can be attained where we are able to exist without the distorted perceptions of dualism generated by our uncontrolled Ego.  Through understanding that unsatisfactoriness is something we create, we can undermine this creation and allow the peaking through of awakened moments that illuminate the knowledge that there must be methods by which this opening can be continually nurtured.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the path of the cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness, and this path is the Eightfold Path.  It is important to notice the word used here.  We are not talking about a remedy or a cure, it is a path.  The word ‘path’ suggests something which has been found or laid down by someone who has gone this way before.  A path is something which has been taken and tested.  It is purposely designed to get us from where we think we are to where we actually are.  It is the path of the middle way: free from preferential extremes; and free of addiction to self-justification or self-denial.  The path is taught as having eight characteristics, but we must come to see them as a single way of learning how to express ourselves in each moment.  The fruit or destination of the path is the experience of knowing our true natures.

When we consider the Noble Truths we are describing the world as it is NOW so we can develop an intelligent and successful strategy to neutralize its difficult and painful expressions.  They are descriptions of the way the human world happens to be in this lifetime, on this planet, under the present circumstances.  Describing the universe today is not to also describe how the universe might be in the future, or in another universe for that matter.  When applying the teachings of Buddhism in a socially engaging practice, with the intent to help all living beings to realize a free, useful and productive life, it is possible to create a world free from suffering “in real terms.”  This will be a slow and challenging process only achieved over unknown time dimensions.    But it starts by each of us committing to step onto the path and find our way out of the woods and into clear awakening.  And then helping others on the path.  And that can be achieved in this life time.

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