Four Noble Truths

By Ven. John Eshin

All of us, I think, have a wish or urge to be happy, to fulfill ourselves, to be at peace in our life situation. This seems a very deep and natural desire we have. However, as we've grown up we've found difficulties in doing this. Our efforts to be happy haven't worked, certainly not for long. When we've relied on things or people for our happiness we've ended up being dependent for our happiness. We find our self-fulfillment stunted by situations, people, or our own doubting. We find it impossible to be at ease with our life situation when we perceive others thwarting or troubling us, or when things don't turn out the way we wish.

Without fully realizing it, we've ended up living in a limited or restricted way. At the same time we've found our potential limited we've lapsed into a set, rigid, and conditioned way of dealing with life.

To gain true happiness, peace and ease requires more than a personal 'me only' liberation. We must become liberated in the spiritual dimension as well. Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy, although it covers both areas. It is simply a collection of teachings, meditations, techniques, and ceremonies for us to become liberated of the tyranny of our conventional, unthinking standpoint.

Buddhism's founder, Shakyamuni, spent six years investigating spiritual liberation and salvation. He then gained deep realization in the fullest human and spiritual sense. He gave his first teaching to help his old spiritual friends at Deer Park. This teaching has come to be known as the Four Noble Truths. In ancient India medical knowledge was in the form of 1. Disease 2. Diagnosis 3. Cure 4. Treatment. The Four Noble Truths seem to be modeled on this, but apply to our spiritual wellbeing. The Four Noble truths are -

  1. Dukha (Suffering)
  2. Trishna/Raga (Origin of suffering - Craving)
  3. Nirvana (Cessation of suffering)
  4. Path that leads to the cessation of suffering (Noble Eightfold Path)

Dukha refers to conditioned things, things that arise and pass. It is not just physical pain or emotional suffering but includes subtle forms of discontent.

Some people think Buddhism is pessimistic on hearing the first truth, but :-

  1. this is only the first truth.
  2. if it were the last then it would be egotistical.
  3. it is not the opposite of happiness.

Trishna (Craving) is thirst or desire. We need to understand suffering, and how it arises from looking outside for peace and fulfillment. We tend to look for satisfaction outside, to a partner, wealth, possessions, climate/location, etc. We eventually find these are not sustaining our fulfillment in the long run. We then tend to then look for more. It's like a boy getting his desired toy, quickly getting bored and then wanting another.

Causes of suffering cover -

  1. Raga (Desire), desiring objects (including loved ones) for permanent solace.
  2. Dosha (Ill-will), avoiding objects that does not satisfy us.
  3. Avidya (Ignorance), not seeing things as they are and so wanting otherwise.

Ignorance is not just in the Western sense of being related to education and book knowledge. Ignorance means to be confused or deluded on how things truly are. When we see things as separate, we give rise to judging, liking/disliking, and this gives rise to suffering.  A rigid, self-centred self is the root of spiritual ignorance.

Nirvana is not a place like heaven. To end suffering is not to get something and then feel happy and peaceful. Nirvana cannot be explained, it must be experienced; for example, explaining chocolate is totally different from tasting it! The experience of the end of suffering is to end craving and ignorance. Nirvana, or the originally pure and clear universal self, then becomes manifest.

To be in this world, but without suffering, is result of practicing the Noble Eightfold Path.

Faith in our Buddha Nature is needed, not in a divine person or God. Therefore, it is up to us, to practise in a way that results in liberation for ourselves and all others.

Noble Eightfold Path

  1. Right Understanding/View
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

1 - 2 result in Wisdom/Prajna, which is true insight, intellect, and study from correct understanding.

3 - 5 are Sila/Good Conduct, which result in equality, reciprocity, and wholesome karma.

6 - 8 are Samadhi/Mental Development.

Mahayana view of the eightfold path -

  1. Right View - The complete insight into the Dharmakaya of the Tathagata.
  2. Right Aspiration - Detachment from representational thinking.
  3. Right Speech - Realization of the insubstantiality of all categories thus overcoming disputes.
  4. Right Conduct - Comprehending the emptiness of all things, to dispassionately act, speak, and think.
  5. Right Livelihood - To live as if things were illusory, having no reality.
  6. Right Effort - Not to commit oneself to physical practices realizing that physical action and skill are unproductive.
  7. Right Mindfulness - Not to differentiate between being and nonbeings, realizing that such states, according to the intelligent intellect, are fundamentally insubstantial.
  8. Right Contemplation - Not to accept any conclusion without arriving at self-evident seeing, thus accomplishing the end of all things.

We practise to wake up to the fullness of this moment and the fullness of our life. This is exactly the same thing as dropping our false views, limiting habits, resistance and avoidance of life, being overly full of ourselves, not being attentive to what we are doing - all the ways we all, each in our own way, have restricted the potentiality of ourselves. To glimpse what Buddhism calls emptiness is to let drop away the small, limited self. It is to glimpse the fullness of human potential. When there is no small self to get attached to itself or to emptiness, then we have become empty of emptiness. This is also the state of true or spiritual love, beyond our personal or sentimental love.

In other words, the problems we have are not caused by others or by the circumstances of our life. It is we that must grow and develop in a way so that can clearly and vitally be engaged in our lives. Develop in a way that lets our fullness unfold without causing harm to others or to our environment.

Cause and effect can be seen in the Four Noble Truths. The first two Truths are the cycle of cause and effect. Craving creates more suffering. Suffering causes more grasping. The fourth Truth is a cause to creating certain effects which are not suffering. On one side it is Karma that has resulted in how we are, in how our circumstances are. On the other side it is how and what we are now doing that will create who we become and how life becomes.