The first noble truth
is the full understanding of suffering. Of course, in an obvious way,
people are aware of suffering and know when they have unpleasant
sensations such as hunger, cold, or sickness. But the first noble truth
includes awareness of all the ramifications of suffering. It
encompasses the very causal nature of suffering. This includes
knowledge of the subtle and the obvious aspects of suffering. The
obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the
Subtle suffering is more difficult to recognize because it begins with happiness. But by its very nature this happiness must change because it can’t go on forever. Because it must change into suffering, this subtle suffering is the impermanence of pleasure. For example, when I went to Bhutan with His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, I was invited to the palace of the king of Bhutan. The palace of the king was magnificent, the king’s chambers were beautiful, there were many servants who showed complete respect and obedience. But we found that even though there was so much external beauty, the king himself was suffering a great deal mentally. The king said that he was quite relieved that His Holiness had come and emphasized how much the visit meant to him because of the various difficulties with which he had been troubled. This is the subtle aspect of suffering.
One thinks that a particular situation will give one the most happiness one can ever imagine, but actually, within the situation, there is a tremendous amount of anguish. If one thinks of those who are really fortunate—gods or human beings with a very rich and healthy life—it seems as though they have nothing but happiness. It is hard to understand that the very root, the very fiber of what is taking place is suffering because the situation is subject to change. What is happiness? By its very nature it can often mean that there will be suffering later on. There is no worldly happiness that lasts for a very long time. Worldly happiness includes an element of change, of built-in suffering. For that reason the first noble truth of the awareness of suffering refers not just to immediate suffering, but also to the subtle elements of suffering.
The Buddha taught the truth of suffering because everything that takes place on a worldly level is a form of suffering. If we are suffering but are not aware of it, we will never have the motivation to eliminate this suffering and will continue to suffer. When we are aware of suffering, we can overcome it. With the more subtle forms of suffering, if we are happy and become aware that the happiness automatically includes the seed of suffering, then we will be much less inclined to become attached to this happiness. We will then think, “Oh, this seems to be happiness, but it has built-in suffering." Then we will want to dissociate from it.
The first truth is that we should be aware of the nature of suffering. Once we have a very clear picture of the nature of suffering, we can really begin to avoid such suffering. Of course, everyone wants to avoid suffering and to emerge from suffering, but to accomplish this we need to be absolutely clear about its nature. When we become aware that the nature of day-to-day existence is suffering, we don’t have to be miserable with the thought that suffering is always present. Suffering doesn’t go on forever because the Buddha entered our world, gave teachings, and explained clearly what suffering is. He also taught the means by which suffering can end and described a state of liberation which is beyond suffering. We do not have to endure suffering and can, in fact, be happy. Even though we cannot immediately eliminate suffering by practicing the Buddha’s teachings, we can gradually eliminate suffering in this way, and move towards eventual liberation. This fact in itself can help us gain peace of mind even before we have actually emerged completely from suffering. Applying the Buddha’s teachings, we can be happy in the relative phase of our progress and then at the end we will gain wisdom and liberation and be happy in the ultimate sense, as well.
The first noble truth makes it clear that there is suffering. Once we know what suffering is, we must eliminate that suffering. It is not a question of eliminating the suffering itself, but of eliminating the causes of suffering. Once we remove the causes of suffering, then automatically the effect, which is suffering, is no longer present. This is why to eliminate this suffering, we must become aware of the second noble truth, the truth of interdependent origination
truth of interdependent origination is an English translation of the
name the Buddha gave to this noble truth. It means “that which is the
cause or origin of absolutely everything." The truth of universal
origination indicates that the root cause of suffering is karma and the
disturbing emotions (Skt. kleshas). Karma is a Sanskrit word which
means “activity" and klesha in Sanskrit means “mental defilement" or
“mental poison." If we do not understand the Buddha’s teachings, we
would most likely attribute all happiness and suffering to some
external cause. We might think that happiness and suffering come from
the environment, or from the gods, and that everything that happens
originates from some source outside of our control. If we believe this,
it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to eliminate suffering and its
causes. On the other hand, when we realize that the experience of
suffering is a product of what we have done, that is, a result of our
actions, eliminating suffering becomes possible.
Once we are aware of how suffering takes place, then we can begin to remove the causes of suffering. First we must realize that what we experience is not dependent on external forces, but on what we have done previously. This is the understanding of karma. Karma produces suffering and is driven by the disturbing emotions. The term “defilement" refers mainly to our negative motivation and negative thoughts which produce negative actions.
The third noble
truth is the cessation of suffering through which the causes of karma
and the disturbing emotions can be removed. We have control over
suffering because karma and the disturbing emotions take place within
us—we create them, we experience them. For that reason, we don’t need
to depend on anyone else to remove the cause of suffering. The truth of
interdependent origination is that if we do unvirtuous actions, we are
creating suffering. It also means that if we abandon unvirtuous
actions, we remove the possibility of experiencing suffering in the
future. What we experience is entirely in our hands. Therefore the
Buddha has said that we should give up the causes of karma and the
disturbing emotions. Virtuous actions result in happiness and
unvirtuous actions result in suffering. This idea is not particularly
easy to grasp because we can’t see the whole process take place from
beginning to end.
There are three kinds of actions: mental, verbal, and physical. These are subdivided into virtuous and unvirtuous physical actions, virtuous and unvirtuous verbal actions, and virtuous and unvirtuous mental actions. If we abandon the three types of unvirtuous actions, then our actions become automatically virtuous. There are three unvirtuous physical actions: the harming of life, sexual misconduct, and stealing. The results of these three unvirtuous actions can be observed immediately. For example, when there is a virtuous relationship between a man and woman who care about each other, who help each other, and have a great deal of love and affection for each other, they will be happy because they look after each other. Their wealth will usually increase and if they have children, their love and care will result in mutual love in the family. In the ordinary sense, happiness develops out of this deep commitment and bond they have promised to keep. Whereas, when there is an absence of commitment, there is also little care and sexual misconduct arises. This is not the ground out of which love arises, or upon which a home in which children can develop happiness can be built. One can readily see that a lack of sexual fidelity can create many kinds of difficulties.
One can also see the immediate consequences of other unvirtuous physical actions. One can see that those who steal have difficulties and suffer; those who don’t steal experience happiness and have a good state of mind. Likewise, those who kill create many problems and unhappiness for themselves, while those who support life are happy. The same applies to our speech although it is not so obvious. But on closer examination, we can also see how happiness develops out of virtuous speech and unhappiness results from unvirtuous speech. At first, lying may seem to be useful because we might think that we can deceive others and gain some advantage. But the Sakya Pandita said that this is not true. If we lie to our enemies or persons we don’t get along with very well, because they are our enemies they are not going to pay attention to what we are saying anyway. It will be quite hard to deceive them. If they are our friends, we might be able to deceive them at first by telling a lie. But after the first time, they won’t trust us any more and may see us as untrustworthy. Lying therefore doesn’t really accomplish anything.
Then if we look at the opposite, a person who takes pains to speak the truth will develop a reputation for being a truthful person and out of this trust many good things will emerge. Once we have considered the example of the consequences of lying, we can think of similar consequences relating to other kinds of damaging speech: slander, and coarse, aggressive, and useless speech. In the long term virtuous speech produces happiness and unvirtuous speech produces suffering.
When we say “useless speech," we mean speech that is really useless, not just conversational. So, if we have a good mind and want someone to relax and be happy, even though the words may not have great meaning, our words are based on the idea of benefit and goodness. By useless speech we mean chatter for no reason at all. Worse than that is “chatter rooted in the disturbing emotions." When we say bad things about other people because of a dislike or jealousy of them. We just gossip about people’s character. That is really useless speech. Besides being useless, this very often causes trouble because it sets people against each other and causes bad feelings.
The same applies to “harmful speech." If there is really a loving and beneficial reason for talking, for example, scolding a child when the child is doing something dangerous or scolding a child for not studying in school, that is not harmful speech because it is devoid of the disturbing emotions, rather it is a skillful way of helping someone. If there is that really genuine, beneficial attitude and love behind what we say, it is not harmful speech. But if speech is related to the disturbing emotions such as aggression or jealousy, then it is harmful speech and should be given up.
We can go on to examine the various states of mind and see that a virtuous mind produces happiness and unvirtuous states of mind create unhappiness. For instance, strong aggression will cause us to lose our friends. Because of our aggressiveness, those who don’t like us or our enemies will become even worse enemies and the situation will become inflamed. If we are aggressive and hurt others and they have friends, eventually those friends will also become enemies. On the other hand, goodness will arise through our caring for our loved ones and then extending this by wishing to help others. Through this they will become close and helpful friends. Through the power of our love and care, our enemies and people we don’t get along with will improve their behavior and maybe those enemies will eventually become friends. If we have companions and wish to benefit others, we can end up with very good friends and all the benefits which that brings. In this way we can see how cause and effect operates, how a virtuous mind brings about happiness and how an unvirtuous mind brings about suffering and problems.
There are two main aspects of karma: one related to experience and one related to conditioning. The karma relating to experience has already been discussed. Through unvirtuous physical actions we will experience problems and unhappiness. Likewise, through unvirtuous speech such as lying, we will experience unhappiness and sorrow. With an unvirtuous state of mind, we will also experience unhappiness as was demonstrated by the example of having an aggressive attitude. All of this is related to the understanding that any unvirtuous activity produces unhappiness and pain.
The second aspect of karma relates to conditioning. By acting unvirtuously with our body, speech, or mind, we habituate ourselves to a certain style of behavior. Unvirtuous physical or verbal behaviors create the habit of this type of behavior. For example, each time one kills, one is conditioned to kill again. If one lies, that increases the habit of lying. An aggressive mind conditions one’s mind so one becomes more aggressive. In our later lives, that conditioning will continue on so that we will be reborn with a great tendency to kill, to lie, to engage in sexual misconduct, and so on.
These are the two aspects to karma. One is the direct consequence of an act and the other is the conditioning that creates a tendency to engage in behavior of that kind. Through these two aspects karma produces all happiness and suffering in life. Even though we may recognize that unvirtuous karma gives rise to suffering and virtuous karma gives rise to happiness, it is hard for us to give up unvirtuous actions and practice virtuous actions because the disturbing emotions exercise a powerful influence on us. We realize that suffering is caused by unvirtuous karma, but we can’t give up the karma itself. We need to give up the disturbing emotions because they are the root of unvirtuous actions. To give up the disturbing emotions means to give up unvirtuous actions of body (such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct), the unvirtuous actions of speech (such as lying, slander and harmful and useless speech), and the unvirtuous aspects of mind (such as aggression, attachment, or ignorance). Just wanting to give up the disturbing emotions does not remove them. However, the Buddha in his great kindness and wisdom has given us a very skillful way to eliminate the very root of all the disturbing emotions through the examination of the belief in the existence of an ego or a self.
The fourth noble truth is called “the truth of the path" because the path leads us to the ultimate goal. We do this step by step, stage by stage, progressively completing our journey. The Buddha’s teaching are called “the dharma," and the symbol of these teachings is the wheel that you see on the roofs of temples and monasteries. This is the symbol of the Enlightened One’s teachings. For instance, if you go to Samye Ling, you will see on the roof of the temple the wheel of the dharma supported by two deer. Why a wheel? Wheels take you somewhere, and the dharma wheel is the path that takes us to the very best place along the finest road. This wheel of the Buddha’s teaching has eight spokes because the path that we follow as Buddhists has eight major aspects known as “the eight-fold path of realized beings" or “the noble eight-fold path."
need to follow this eight-fold path and it is essential that we know
what this path is and how to practice on this path. These eight aspects
to the noble eight-fold path can be grouped into three areas: superior
conduct, superior concentration, and superior wisdom which make up
seven of the eight spokes with the eighth spoke, superior effort which
is the quality that supports the other seven. Superior effort is needed
for achieving correct conduct, correct concentration, and the
development of correct wisdom.
We can also divide the Buddhist path into five main stages because by traversing them we eventually reach our destination which is cessation of suffering. The Buddhist path can be analyzed through these stages called the five paths. The names of the five paths are the stage of accumulation, the stage of junction, the stage of insight, the stage of cultivation, and the stage of nonstudy. Properly speaking, the first four of these are the path with the fifth one being the fruition of the other four paths.
The first path is called the “path of accumulation" because we gather or accumulate a great wealth of many things. This is the stage in which we try to gather all the positive factors which enable us to progress. We try to cultivate diligence, the good qualities, and the wisdom which penetrates more deeply into the meaning of things. We commit ourselves to accumulate all the various positive aspects of practice. We gather the positive elements into our being while at the same time working in many different ways to remove all the unwanted elements from one’sour life. We also apply various techniques to eliminate the various blockages and obstacles which are holding us back. This is called the stage of accumulation because we engage in this manifold activity which gathers these new things into our life.
In ordinary life we are caught up in the level of worldliness. Even though we don’t want to be, we are still operating on a level of cyclic existence (Skt. samsara) because we are still under the influence of the disturbing emotions. They have a very strong habitual grip on our existence. We need to get rid of these disturbing emotions in order to find our way out of samsara. Of course, we want to find happiness and peace and we know it is possible. But even with the strongest will in the world, we cannot do it overnight. It is like trying to dye a large cloth that contains many oil stains on it. It requires a great deal of effort to change its color. So, first of all, in order to achieve the good qualities, we need to work on creating all the different conditions which will make these qualities emerge.
To develop the various insights of meditation and real wisdom, we need to develop great faith and confidence in the validity and usefulness of this wisdom. Once we are convinced of its value, we need to change our habits so that we have the diligence to do all the things necessary to make insight and wisdom emerge. Therefore, there are many factors and conditions we must generate within our life to bring about our happiness. To remove all the unwholesome factors binding us in samsara, we must uproot belief in a solid self, eliminate the various disturbing emotions which hinder us, and bring together the many different conditions that make this trans-formation and purification possible.
We talk about accumulation because we are assembling all the different conditions that make this transformation possible. We won’t be able to progress in a significant manner until we have gathered all these causes and conditions properly, completely and perfectly within ourselves. For that reason the purpose of this stage of accumulation is to complete all the necessary conditions by gathering them into our existence.
Eventually, because of the complete gathering of favorable conditions, we will reach the third path which is the “path of insight." This is the stage during which insight into the true nature of phenomena are developed. This insight is beyond the veil of delusion. Linking the path of accumulation and the path of insight is the second path of junction. Here our inner realization, the very way we perceive things, begins to link up with the truth of the actual nature of phenomena because we are gathering all the favorable circumstances that will eventually lead us to the actual insight itself. When we attain insight into the way things really are and this insight develops beyond the level of delusion and mistaken views, we realize that there is no self. Once there is no longer a belief in self, there are no longer any root disturbing emotions of attachment, aggression, or ignorance associated with the false belief in a solid self. Once there are no longer any disturbing emotions, we do nothing unvirtuous and have no more suffering.
Now, it is true that once we have that insight, all suffering is immediately removed, but in another way, that is not true. This is because the delusion of a self is a habit which has been built up for such a long time and is very, very hard to remove. For example, when we have realized that an unchanging self is a delusion fabricated by our mind, still when we hit our finger with a hammer, we experience pain. We still have the feeling, “I am suffering" because there is an enduring built-up association of “I" with the flesh of our body. Removal of that long established conditioning of self occurs through a long process of cultivating the truth of non-self. This is the fourth stage of the cultivation of insight.
The fourth stage is called the path of cultivation (gom lam in Tibetan). The word gom is usually translated as “meditation" but actually means “to get used to something" or “to accustom oneself." This is why it is translated here as “the path of cultivation," while other texts translate it as “the path of meditation." But in this stage it is the insight into the nature of phenomena and getting used to that insight. By becoming more and more familiar with the truth of phenomena, we can remove the very fine traces of disturbing emotions and the subconscious conditioning that still exist. Through gradually working on these, the goal of enlightenment will be attained.
Through the cultivation of
insight we eventually reach the goal of the fifth path which is called
“the path of no more study." Through cultivation we remove even the
subtlest causes of suffering. Once this is completed we have reached
the highest state and there are no more new paths to traverse making
this “the path of no more study" or “the path of no more practice."
To the first two quotations from the Buddha which have already been presented, two more can be added to sum up the last two noble truths: One should be aware of and know what suffering is. One should give up the origin of suffering. One should make cessation of suffering manifest. One should establish the path thoroughly in one’s being. We need to make the truth of cessation real, to manifest it in ourselves. We can’t just make it manifest by wishing, hoping, or praying for it. We can’t just pray to the three jewels (the Buddha, dharma, and sangha) for cessation and through their kindness they will just give it to us. The law of cause and effect, karma, makes that impossible. To attain the goal of cessation, we must be thoroughly established on the path and the path must be properly and thoroughly developed in ourselves.
One may wonder if the five paths overlap. Generally speaking, for nearly everyone, the stages of the path are consecutive and separate. Having finished the first stage, one progresses to the second stage and so on. Some texts such as the Abhidharma say that there are some individuals who can travel the paths simultaneously. But they are very exceptional persons; most persons need to complete one path at a time. For instance, in the path of accumulation one can start on the work that is primarily associated with the path of junction, developing insight into the truth. The principle purpose for separating these two stages is to enumerate the positive factors one must gather to complete the path of accumulation and to distinguish them from the development of insight and the level of the path of junction. These paths are not completely separate. So one cannot say they do not overlap, that there aren’t several things taking place at the same time.
The Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha are very important. One can compare them to someone who is sick. When someone is sick and has much discomfort, the first thing to do is to investigate the nature of the problem. What is the sickness? Is it in the brain? In the heart? etc. One needs to locate the actual problem and investigate the symptoms of the illness. Then in order to cure that person one also needs to know what is producing the disease. Only by attacking the cause of the symptoms can one actually cure the person.
This is a very good analogy for the first two noble truths. One needs to understand the nature of suffering and to know just what it entails. But just understanding the problem is not enough to bring an end to the suffering because one also needs to understand the causes of suffering, which are karma and the disturbing emotions. Then one needs to be able to eradicate the causes. The inspiration to overcome illness is, of course, to understand all the qualities of good health and to be free from the sickness. To continue the example, the Buddha shows one all the qualities of cessation (enlightenment); that is a healthy and wonderful thing. Once one knows that the remedy exists, then one applies the remedy to what has been blocking the state of good health. One applies the very skillful remedies of the path making it possible to deal with karma and the disturbing emotions in order to obtain that good mental health. For that reason the last two truths are like the medicine whose result is cessation of suffering.
The order of working through the Four Noble Truths is not a chronological order. They are ordered logically to help us understand. The first two truths relate to suffering and its cause (samsara). First of all, the character of suffering is explained. Once one understands the character of suffering, one will want to know what causes it so the suffering can be eliminated. The second two truths are related to nirvana. These are not arranged in order of experience because the cause of suffering must obviously come before the suffering itself.
Extract from “The Three Vehicles of Buddhist Practice"