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Four Noble Truths

July 26, 2012

by Stephen Damon

Two weeks ago, a young man who came to our group for the first time, asked me to tell him what Buddhism was.  We didn’t have much time left, but he seemed very sincere so I thought I would try to give him some sort of answer to a question that has, in many forms, been one of the central questions of my practice. 

Questions about Buddhism always lead to questions about myself. As Dogen says: To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.   So, when I close the Dharma book I’m reading and  sit down on my zafu I find myself asking, “What am I doing here.”  This and other similar questions first brought me to Buddhism and now bring me to face the basic question of my life: “What am I.” The young man was a beginner so I had to come up with something more basic then Eihei Dogen. 

So I told him that the entire Buddhist teaching could be found in the Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment: The Four Noble Truths.  This simple teaching contains, or at least leads to, all of the ideas found in Buddhism in all its forms.  It tells us about how bad things are (dukkha), the cause of why things are the way they are (samodaya). It tells us that our suffering can end (nirodha) and it shows us how to end it (magga). 

The young man didn’t return this Monday, but I did give a talk on the Four Noble Truths, which generated a very good discussion. It is, I think, always good to go back to basics so I thought I would offer a condensed version of what we talked about.

The First Noble Truth or dukkha is often translated as suffering, but it is better described as a sense of unease or dissatisfaction with our lives.  Sometimes we can’t quite put a finger on what is bothering us.  As Shakespeare said, There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. We may feel that we are missing something, but we have no idea what that “something” is.  Sometimes our suffering is very obvious:  we are hungry, thirsty or sick; we are lonely or poor.  This is called the suffering of suffering.  The second kind of suffering has to do with our reactions to change and impermanence.  We see over and over again that nothing last forever.  We are getting older and frailer.  We lose friends and loved ones.  The third type of suffering is called all-pervasive.  It exists because of how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world.  As long as we perceive ourselves as distinct from others we have the underlying sense that something is off, no matter what we do, no matter where we are.  This aspect of suffering is the most profound.  It is what brings us to a practice such as Zen.  

The Second Noble Truth or samodaya  says that the cause of our suffering is mental clinging or desire.  The Buddha said that there are three kinds of desires: the desire for sense pleasure (kama tanha), the desire to become (bhava tanha) and the desire to get rid of (vibhava tanha). We continually search for something outside ourselves to make us happy, but no matter how successful we are, we never remain satisfied. Desire never ends, but only increases.  We are always fighting and struggling with life as it is. If it is something we want, we try to hold onto it, and if it is something we don’t want, we push it away. So we are always pushing or pulling instead of accepting.  I have found it very interesting to try to get a sense of whether I am pushing or pulling, at any given moment of the day.  The cause of our suffering is that we resist life as it is each moment. 

The Third Noble Truth is that there is an end to suffering.  There is a way to be free.  We need to wake up and become who we truly are.  We need to make contact with the part of ourselves that sees things as they are with wisdom, clarity and compassion, beyond the imprisoning effects of self-absorption. As we continue to practice, our suffering subsides as our experience shifts from ego-centeredness to interconnectedness. 

The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is an eightfold path to liberation from suffering which contains guidelines for our viewpoint, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. The last three are specific to our meditation practice. When these last three are practiced properly, they lead to right understanding, which is the first of the eightfold path. Each part of the path is interconnected to the whole, so a deeper understanding leads to deeper intention, which leads to deeper effort, and so on. Each of these parts is equally important, supporting and reinforcing each other. The eight categories of practice can be divided into three subcategories: wisdom, morality, and practice.

Wisdom: Pursue an understanding of the way things are.

  1. Right View: Experience reality as it truly is, using the key tenets of Buddhist teaching such as dependent origination, karma, impermanence, selflessness, and emptiness.
  2. Right Intention: Always intend to be present in the moment, without any desire to change anything. There are three aspects to right intention: renunciation, lovingkindness, and harmlessness.  Without renouncing desire, we can never free ourselves from its grasp.  We continually desire something to get rid of another thing which then creates another desire. When we become fully aware of the suffering of everyone we meet, loving kindness and compassion flourishes.  Our intentions are set in order as we try to help. Having right intention is, of course, dependent on having the right view. Right view and right intention form the wisdom aspect of the path.

Morality: Live in a way that supports your pursuit of wisdom.  Always refrain from doing anything that might harm others.

  1. Right Speech:  Do not lie, gossip or speak in ways that may harm others.  The Buddha said,  If you know anything that’s hurtful and untrue, don’t say it.  If you know anything that’s helpful and untrue, don’t say it.  If you know anything that’s hurtful and true, don’t say it. If you know anything that is helpful and true, find the right time.
  2. Right Action: Action, like speech, is based on intention and view. Do that which promotes harmony and unity, not divisiveness and separation.
  3. Right Livelihood: Choose a way of supporting yourself that does not harm yourself or others.  You must refrain from doing anything that might transgress the five precepts: do not kill, steal, indulge in sexual misconduct, do not make false speech, do not take intoxicants.

Practice:   As Dogen said, we must practice continually.  That is, our practice must fill our entire life with nothing left over. There  should not be a “hairsbreadth” deviation between our practice and our life.  The last three points are those from which all  Buddhist methods of practice derive.

  1. Right Effort: Try to be present in every moment of your life.  The Buddha said that there are four “supreme” efforts: Not to let an unwholesome thought arise, which has not yet arisen.  Not to let an unwholesome thought continue, which has already arisen.  To make a wholesome thought arise, which has not yet arisen.  To make a wholesome thought continue, which has already arisen.  
  2. Right Mindfulness: Maintain an awareness of your body, speech, and mind always. Mindfulness is paying close attention to what is going on around you and within you—in your heart, mind, and body.  It is not thinking about these things; it is about seeing what is happening without any judgment or interpretation. Mindfulness is being present and awake to our lives.  As Suzuki Roshi said, “Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine.” It’s not about producing or doing anything; it’s just a matter of seeing what is already here.  So, mindfulness is seeing.
  3. Right Meditation: Traditionally, meditation is considered to be a  mental exercise of concentration or method for training the mind to attain a state whereby all of one’s thoughts and delusions would disappear, leaving a person free and undisturbed.  But Zen goes further. It says that there is no duality between meditation and realization. We don’t sit to get enlightened—we just sit. This is the secret of Zen practice. Sitting is an expression of our original nature, our original face, which is hidden from us by layers of delusion. In “Bendowa,” Dogen says that a beginner’s whole-hearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice. . . Since it is already the enlightenment of practice, enlightenment is endless; since it is the practice of enlightenment, practice is beginingless. In “Zazengi,” he says, Sit stably in samadhi. Think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Beyond-thinking. This is the way of doing zazen in accord with the dharma. Zazen is not learning meditation. Rather zazen itself is the dharma-gate of great peace and joy. It is undefiled practice-realization.                                                                                              

While the Four Noble Truths are the foundation of the entire Buddhist teaching, the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma, we should note that Mahayana Buddhism, especially Zen, changes everything with the idea of emptiness.  In the Heart Sutra it says, No suffering.  No Origination. No stopping. No path.  While it is important to get a basic understanding of the Four Noble Truths, eventually we must let that go of that and just sit.

From → Zen Buddhism

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