by Wayne Ren-Cheng
With the Four Ennobling Truths, Siddhartha set the groundwork for all Buddhists who would follow his teachings. In pragmatic Buddhism we use ennobling rather than the traditional translation of noble because like fertile ground the Truths are empty until used. Ennobling is an adjective, one that brings recognition that the Four Ennobling Truths are only furrows in a field. It isn’t until one is willing to plant the seeds, cultivate the ground, and experience what grows there is only emptiness.
Contemporary Buddhist scholars like Stephen Batchelor and David Kalupahana experience Siddhartha as presenting not a list of observations that if one believes their truth then that person can join the Buddhist club. Instead they experience the truths as a sequence of dependent origination or causality. The first Truth is, so the second is, the third is, the fourth is, and the fourth leads back to the first; and forms a causal loop. They are the truths that reveal the reality of how things are and of what works best in the here and now.
Why do we think this is what the Buddha meant? By looking at each of the ennobling truths we can see the corresponding action it requires.
#1 Unsatisfactoriness exists for human beings.
You must become fully aware of all the types of suffering that plague mankind and the world he lives in. Only by fully knowing unsatisfactoriness can we recognize the causes. You must accept that all human beings will encounter moments of suffering.
#2 The cause of unsatisfactoriness is craving, unnatural attachments and dualistic thinking that neglect an understanding of dependent origination,
You must look within (rigorous self-honesty) and without for the causes. The realization that nothing arises from nothing is where we begin. Craving for permanence and fear of change, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Universe works, and an attachment to ego must be recognized as that cause.
#3 There is a path that leads to the cessation of craving and unnatural attachments of the mind, and thus there is a way to positively transform unsatisfactoriness.
The lessons of the Middle Path will lead us to the realization that suffering can be alleviated. You discover through experiential verification that the realities of the causal process of the Universe coupled with impermanence empower you to make the changes needed, to engage in positive transformation.
#4 This path is Eightfold.
In the Eightfold Path you find the dispositions of human beings that directly effect HOW you interact in an interconnected world. Like all Buddhist “lists” the Eightfold Path is not meant to stand alone but to be a dynamic and integral part of Buddhist practices, all which have an impact on HOW a Buddhist lives their life in relation to the causal Universe. The ideals of encompassing and corrective view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration when applied in conjunction with the Six Refinements become a “power tool” in the Buddhist toolbox.
The English Buddhist monk Novera said, “The four truths are not to be understood or known, they are injunctions in which we are directed to ACT!”
Wisdom, the sixth refinement is gradually developed as you practice generosity, morals, tolerance, energy and meditation, and acting with wisdom also helps us gradually develop those characteristics. For example the wise application of generosity takes more than just giving. You must learn to develop a clear and realistic view of the situation, what is needed as opposed to what is wanted. To start there will be a level of self-regard to your giving and that is a part of the gradual turning from that self-regard to selfless compassion. Your intent will undergo that change if you are mindful. The other aspects of the Eightfold Path – speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration – also have value in determining acts of generosity. Looking deeply into the Eightfold Path you’ll recognize the elements of the Six Refinements. View and intention are acts of wisdom. Speech, action and livelihood are acts of morals and ethics. Effort, mindfulness and concentration are acts of a meditative bodymind.
Like all Buddhist teachings meant to be useful and productive in the alleviation of suffering, their intent should lead us back to the ideals of the Four Ennobling Truths.