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Contemplating the Four Noble Truths

Lam, I’ll be travelling to Bodh Gaya and Sarnath in November, and I am interested to know more about the Buddha’s first teaching – the Four Noble Truths.  How should I contemplate them at the sacred sites? 

Pilgrim, Thimphu

Well, soon after the Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya he walked to Sarnath, where he met the five ascetics with whom he had earlier practiced meditation. He gave them a teaching based on his insights, which later became known as the Four Noble Truths.  

These truths are as follows:

The Noble Truth of Suffering

The Noble Truth of the Causes of Suffering

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

The Noble Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering

When we consider the first Truth, we should clearly understand that the Buddha did not teach his disciples how to escape suffering, nor did he recommend that they remain in suffering. Instead, he advised them to know suffering. Basically, he wanted people to contemplate their lives and understand that suffering is an unavoidable part of non-enlightened existence. 

When you read this teaching, you might agree that you suffer when you have a headache or lose a job, but you may believe that are not suffering at the present moment. In fact, you may be happily anticipating your trip to Bodh Gaya. In reality, though, you should understand that even happy moments contain a certain degree of suffering. For example, you will have hopes and expectations about your time in India, right? And, with every hope, there is a flip-side – a fear that these hopes will not be realized, and this is a kind of suffering, not matter how subtle. 

Furthermore, there is the suffering associated with change and impermanence. We cling to relationships, health, and wealth, but all these things are compounded and so impermanent. Ok, this sounds complicated, and so as an example think about the newspaper that you are reading. The paper came from wood that grew from a seed through its interaction with sunlight, moisture and soil. Basically, there is no permanent and independent entity called newspaper – just an object that is composed of various elements, which will disintegrate once these elements dissipate. In reality, this is not only true for a newspaper, but for all phenomena. Not accepting this reality and clinging to material things and our bodies is a cause of suffering.  

Actually, everything we can see, touch, hear, or even think does not exist as a permanent and independent entity, but, like the newspaper, is made of factors that temporarily join together. In this respect, nothing is any more real than, say, a rainbow or mirage (which exist merely through the joining together of moisture and heat). Failing to recognize this point, however, we invest much time and energy in seeking material goods, only to feel disappointed when they do not meet our expectations. Still, our disappointment rarely causes us to consider the nature of phenomena. Instead, we convince ourselves that our sense of dissatisfaction is due to insufficient possessions and so, rather than pausing and reflecting, we accelerate our efforts to accumulate material goods. In this respect, we are like a man who does not investigate the nature of a mirage when it does not provide the water he seeks, but instead pushes onto the next mirage and then to the next. Does this mean, then, that we should totally stop buying or producing goods? No, not at all, but we do need to maintain the right view that while mirages or rainbows are not a source of suffering in themselves, our mistaken assumption that they can bring us lasting joy is. 

This brings us to the second noble truth – to know the causes of suffering. After we gain some insights into the way the universe functions, we contemplate the causes of suffering. Basically, due to our mistaken view that our physical bodies and the world around us are permanent and substantial, we respond to situations in an inappropriate way and, in so doing, plant the seeds for future suffering. 

A common Buddhist example compares our ignorance and inappropriate action to that of a man who enters a room in the evening and sees what he believes to be a large snake. He is terrified and wonders whether he should run, standstill, or perhaps attack the snake? He spends the entire night fearfully thinking over his options. At sunrise, light enters the room and he sees the coil clearly. It is not a snake at all, but a piece of rope. He is overjoyed. Furthermore, he realizes that all the responses that he considered throughout the night were useless. 

We are like this man. We see the world incorrectly and so act inappropriately. Basically, our ignorance of the nature of our world causes us to strive for material goods in a way that a deluded person might struggle to capture a rainbow or to reach a mirage. Through contemplation, we begin to realize that the things that we desire are insubstantial and impermanent, and so we slowly dissociate with them. Basically, we loosen our attachments to the material world and so remove the causes of our negative action. This connects to the third noble truth – the Cessation of Suffering.

Through understanding how our ignorance of the world causes us to develop inappropriate thoughts, words and deeds, we learn to examine our responses. If we continue with the earlier example, we investigate the coil of rope in the room rather than merely reacting to it. That is to say, we observe our life and so slowly realize how thoughts, words or deeds that perpetuate the wrong view cause suffering. Anger, for example, is a means to protect the false view of a permanent and independent self (ego). Basically, someone criticizes us. We feel hurt and respond with anger. Instead of reacting in this way, we could instead examine why the words hurt or, better yet, what is hurt by the words. In this way, we probe the real source of the problem, and not merely react to its symptoms. Desire, anger, ignorance, pride and jealousy all stem from our wrong view.       

While it may not be too difficult to intellectually grasp that wrong view is the cause of suffering, it is not easy to correct. We will not, for example, jump out of bed one morning and shout, “Hey, I’ve held a wrong view my entire life. From this moment, I will see things correctly”. That isn’t going to happen, and so we need a path. This is the final Noble Truth – The Noble Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering. 

In respect to these four truths, the Buddha has been compared to a doctor. The first truth is the diagnosis, the second is an explanation of the causes of the disease and the third prescribes a remedy, while the final truth offers a programme for restoring the patient’s health. 

Happy contemplations!

Recommended reading: ‘What to Do at India’s Buddhist Holy Sites’ (Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche) – 

http://siddharthasintent.org/assets/pubs/HolySitesDJKR.pdf

 

 

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programmes.

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