9. The Four Noble Truths

8. The Three Trainings Revisited   |  10. Objects for Insight Practice

The four truths of the noble ones are: 

1) there is suffering or dissatisfactoriness

2) there is the cause of suffering 

3) there is the end of suffering

4) there is the path that leads to the end of suffering.

This list is at the heart of the message of the Buddha. He was fond of summarizing his whole teaching in relation to them. When asked to be even more concise, he would just refer to the first and third: suffering and the end of suffering. This was what he taught. Like the other lists here, this list of four has great profundity on many levels and is worth exploring in depth. They are truths stated from the point of view of awakening, pointers to those who would follow in that direction.

Truth Number One: There Is Suffering

The first truth is the fact of suffering, dissatisfactoriness, misery. Hey, didn’t we just see that in the three characteristics? Yes! Isn’t that great? We also just saw it in “The Three Trainings Revisited”. There must be something important but not immediately obvious about it for it to have inspired a teaching called “the four noble truths”. Why do we practice? We’re dissatisfied, we hurt, we sense there must be something greater, or a better way to address suffering, or we can no longer lie to ourselves about our situation and the stark predicament of what awaits us if it isn’t here yet, such as sickness, aging, and death. It is just that simple. Why do we do anything? Because of dukkha, variously translated as dissatisfaction, discontent, misery, suffering, stress.

Plenty of people balk at this, and say that they do lots of things because of reasons other than suffering. I suppose that to be really correct I should add in ignorance and habit, but these are intimately connected to suffering or dissatisfaction. Perhaps there is something more to this first truth that they may have missed on first inspection, as it is a deep and subtle teaching. To understand this first truth is to understand the whole of the spiritual path, so take the time to investigate it. 

The basic gist of this truth from a relative point of view is that we want things to be other than they are, and this causes pain. We want things that are nice to last forever. We want to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want. We wish bad things would disappear faster than they do. These are all contrary to reality. We all age, get sick, die, have conflicts, constantly scramble to try to get something (greed), get away from something (hatred), or tune out from reality altogether (ignorance). We are rarely if ever perfectly content with things just as they are. These are the traditional, relative ways in which suffering is explained. They are very important aspects of life to tune in to, and are considered essential points to reflect on to inspire us on the path and encourage some healthy measure of holding this transient world a bit more lightly, but these definitions can only take us so far.

At the most fundamental level, which is the most useful for doing insight practices, at some habitual level, we wish desperately that there was some separate, permanent self, and we spend huge amounts of time doing our best to prop up this illusion. This consumes surprising amounts of mental processing power. However, this wish for a stable “this” side, a stable observer, a stable “me” is largely unconscious initially. Our job is to make it conscious so we can see what it is doing and how that feels. For this largely unconscious process to function, we habitually ignore much useful sensate information about our reality and invest our mental impressions and simplifications of reality with more power and importance than they necessarily have. It is this illusion that adds a problematic element to the normal and understandable ways in which we go about trying to be happy. We constantly struggle with reality because we misunderstand it, that is, because reality misunderstands itself.

“So, what else is new?” we might say. Good point! It isn’t new, is it? This has been the whole of our life! The big question is, “Is there some understanding that can make a difference in my experience?” Yes, or we wouldn’t be bothering with all of this. Somewhere in the depths of our being there is a little voice that cries, “There’s got to be another way!” We can find this other way.

Connecting with the truth of suffering can be very motivating for spiritual practice. Most traditional discourses on the Buddha’s teachings begin with this. More than just motivating for spiritual practice, tuning in to suffering is spiritual practice! Many people start meditating and then get frustrated with how much suffering and pain they experience, never knowing that they are starting to understand something important about themselves and reality. They cling to the ideal that insight practices will produce peace and bliss, and yet much of what they experience is challenging. They don’t realize that things on the cushion tend to get worse before they get better. Thus, they get nowhere, as they reject the very truths they must deeply understand to obtain the peace they are seeking. They reject the valid insights that they themselves have gained through valid practice. I suspect that this is one of the greatest and most common stumbling blocks on the spiritual path. 

There is a flip side to suffering that can help, and that is compassion, the wish to be free of suffering. Wherever there is suffering there is compassion, though most of the time it is distorted by the confused logic of the process of identification and illusory separation which is based on poor perception. More on this in a bit, but it leads directly to the second truth of the noble ones, the cause, or source, of suffering.

Truth Number Two: There Is the Cause of Suffering

The second noble truth is the cause of suffering, in Pali tanha, variously translated as desire, craving, clinging, grasping, fixating, or attachment. These translations are mostly inadequate, but they are getting at something. From a relative perspective, we hang on to what is pleasurable and try to avoid or push away what interrupts that pleasure. We want things to be other than they are because we perceive the world through the odd paradigm of the illusion of the split of the perceiver and the perceived. We might say, “Of course we want things to be great and not miserable or problematic! What do you expect?” The problem isn’t quite in wishing for things to be good and not bad in the way that we might think; it is, in fact, a bit subtler than that.

This is a slippery business, and many people can get all into craving for non-craving and really fixating on detachment. This can be useful if it is done wisely and it is all we have to work with. But if common sense is ignored, craving non-craving can produce a refined yet toxic aversion that produces neurotic, self-righteous, repressed ascetics instead of balanced, kind meditators. A tour of any monastery, dharma center, or spiritual community will likely expose you to clear examples of both sides of this delicate balance. So, don’t make too much of a problem out of the fact that it seems that we must desire something to achieve it. This paradox will resolve itself if we are able to clearly perceive reality in this moment.

“Craving”, “attachment”, and “desire” are some of the most dangerous words that can be used to describe something that is much more fundamental than these terms seem to indicate. The Buddha did talk about these conventional forms of suffering, but he also talked about the fundamental suffering that comes from some deep longing for a refuge that involves a separate or permanent identity. We imagine that such a self will be a refuge, and so we desire such a self, we try to make certain transient sensations into such a self, we cling to the fundamental notion that such a self can exist as a stable and unchanging entity and that this will somehow alleviate our condition. The side effects of this manifest in all sorts of needless exacerbations of unskillful and unhelpful mind states and emotions, but these are side effects and not the root cause of suffering that the Buddha was pointing to.

As stated earlier, a helpful concept here is compassion, a heart aspect of the practice and of reality related to kindness. You see, wherever there is desire there is suffering, and wherever there is suffering there is compassion, the desire for the end of our own and others’ suffering. You can experience this. There is a close relationship between suffering, desire, and compassion. This is heavy but good stuff and worth investigating. 

We might conceive of this as compassion having gotten caught in the loop of the illusion of duality. This is sort of like a dog chasing its tail. Pain and pleasure, suffering and satisfaction always seem to be “over there”. Thus, when pleasant sensations arise, there is a constant, compassionate, deluded attempt to get over there, to the other side of the imagined split. This is fundamental attraction. You would think that we would just stop imagining there is a split, but somehow that is not what happens. We keep perpetuating the illusory sense of a split even as we try to bridge it, and so we suffer.

When unpleasant sensations arise, there is an attempt to get away from “there” (or even “here”), a mental pressure that attempts to widen the imagined split. This will never work, because the split doesn’t exist, but the way we hold our minds as we try to get away from that side is painful, and this is fundamental aversion.

When boring or apparently uninteresting sensations arise, there is the attempt to tune out altogether and forget the whole thing, to try to pretend that the sensations on the other side of the imagined split are not there. This is fundamental ignorance and it perpetuates the process, as it is by ignoring aspects of our sensate reality that the illusion of a split is created in the first place.

These strict definitions of fundamental attraction, aversion, and ignorance are very important, particularly for when I discuss the various models of the stages of awakening. Given the illusion, it seems that these unskillful mental reactions will help in a lasting way. Remember that the only thing that will fundamentally help is to understand the three characteristics to the degree that makes the difference, and the three characteristics are manifesting right here.

Do you remember reading above that suffering motivates everything we do? We could also say that everything we do is motivated by compassion, which is part of the fundamentally empty nature of reality. That doesn’t mean that everything we do is skillful; that is a whole different issue.

Compassion is a very good thing, especially when it involves ourselves and all beings. It is the flip side of the second noble truth. The whole problem is that “misdirected” compassion, which is filtered through the process of identification, solidification, and their related mental, perceptual, and emotional habits, can produce enormous suffering and often does. It is easy to think of many examples of people searching for happiness and trying to avoid suffering in the strangest of places and by doing the strangest of things. Just read any news source. The take-home is to search for happiness where you are likely to find it.

We might say that compassion is the ultimate aspect of desire, or think of compassion and desire on a continuum. The more wisdom or understanding of interconnectedness there is behind our intentions and actions, the more they reflect compassion and the more the results will turn out well. The more greed, hatred, delusion, or lack of understanding of interconnectedness there is behind our intentions and actions, the more they reflect the distorted aspect of desire and the more suffering there will likely be.

This is sometimes referred to as the “Law of Karma”. “Karma” is a word with many definitions, many nuances, many aspects, many associated qualifying terms, and many implications too numerous to go into here. In this case and for our limited purposes, karma has to do with our intentions and actions and the basic workings of causality. Some people can get all caught up in specifics, like speculating that if we kill a bug we will come back as a bug and be squished. Don’t. Cause and effect, also called interdependence, is just too imponderably complex. Just use this general concept to look honestly at what you want, why, and precisely how you know this.

When taking action of body, speech, or mind, examine what the consequences might be for yourself and others, and then take responsibility for those consequences. It’s a tall order and an important practice to engage in, but don’t get overly obsessive about it. Remember the simplicity of the training in morality, which boils down to: if you can’t help, at least do no harm. Train in kindness, generosity, honesty, and clarity, and gain balance and wisdom from the other two trainings as you go.

Sometimes exploring suffering and desire can be overwhelming. Life can sometimes be extremely hard. In these moments, try turning towards the heart side of the equation: compassion and kindness. Connect with the part of your heart that just wishes the suffering would end and feel that deeply, especially as it manifests in the body. Just this can be profound practice. There are also many other good techniques for cultivating a spaciousness of heart that can bear anything, such as formal loving-kindness practices. I recommend Sharon Salzberg’s Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness for instructions on basic practices designed to help us connect to the heart side of practice. Finding these techniques and practicing them can make the spiritual path much more bearable, pleasant, and rewarding, and this can help us to persevere, gain deep insights, be able to integrate them into our lives, and use them to benefit others. [Later, I will describe a challenging series of insight stages called the “Knowledges of Suffering” and the “Dark Night”. If you have a hard time in those stages, return here and reread this section.]

The point is to take the desire to be happy and free of suffering and use its energy to do skillful practices that can make this happen, rather than getting caught in old unexamined patterns of searching for happiness where deep down we know very well we will not find it. Also, if you can remember that everyone wants happiness and freedom from suffering, you will further facilitate the demolition of the false separation that ignorance imposes between “me” and “other”. This common bond of compassion is much more profound than it might initially appear to the intellect. Practices based on compassion facilitate and inspire all aspects of our practice to work for freedom from suffering for all involved. The three trainings are skillful and can inform the whole of our life. By following them we may come to the end of many forms of suffering and be in a much better position to help others do the same.

Truth Number Three: There Is the End of Suffering

This brings us nicely to the third noble truth, the end of suffering. Now, as noted before, there are three types of suffering pertaining to the scope of each of the three trainings. Traditionally, the Buddha talked about the end of suffering as relating to mastering the third training and thus becoming awakened. The first point is that it can be done and is done today by meditators like you from many spiritual traditions. Yes, there are awakened people walking around, and not just a rare few that have spent twenty years in a cave in Tibet. This is essential to have faith in and understand. The other point is that with the end of fundamental desire, the end of compassion and reality being filtered through illusory dualistic perception, there is the end of fundamental suffering. That’s it. Done is what has to be done. Gone, gone, gone beyond, and all of that. All beings can do it, and there is, to make a bit of a mystical joke, no time like the present.

Now, it must be said that the Buddha also praised those who had mastered the other two trainings to some degree and thus eliminated what suffering could be eliminated by those methods. Even very accomplished and transformed beings can benefit from mastering the concentration states. However, there are some complex and difficult issues related to eliminating all the ordinary suffering in the world while there are still living beings (such as yourself), and these issues are thus related to mastering the first training, which is an ongoing undertaking. It is because of this issue that such teachings as the bodhisattva vow arose.

Truth Number Four: The Noble Eightfold Path

The fourth noble truth is the noble eightfold path that leads to suffering’s cessation:

1. Right view

2. Right intention 

3. Right speech 

4. Right action

5. Right livelihood 

6. Right effort

7. Right mindfulness

8. Right concentration

Another list! Hopefully you have come to like these by now, and so one more should be viewed as another manageable guide on how to find the end of suffering. Luckily, we have already seen the whole of the noble eightfold path in other parts of some of the other lists, and it is summarized in the three trainings of morality, concentration, and wisdom.

The morality section is just broken down into three specifics: right action, right speech, and right livelihood. “Right” means skillful, or conducive to the end of suffering for us and for all other living beings. Be kind, honest, clear, and compassionate in your every action of body, speech, and mind and in all contexts, and if you can’t do that, at least do no harm. Notice that nothing is excluded here. The more of our lives we integrate with the spiritual path, the better. Easy to remember and a powerful guide. These practices are designed to eliminate ordinary suffering in this ordinary life by ordinary means.

The concentration section contains three things we saw in the five spiritual faculties and the seven factors of awakening: right energy, right concentration, and right mindfulness. These teachings are designed to facilitate attaining access to the jhanas and to be able to eliminate the suffering that those temporary but skillful states can eliminate.

The wisdom section has the two last parts of the path: right view and right intention. These two are often rendered in different ways, but the meaning is the same: understand the truth of your experience and aspire to kindness and wisdom in your thoughts and deeds. These eliminate the fundamental and all-pervasive suffering that comes from fundamental ignorance. Three types of suffering, three trainings to address them. Again, simple but powerful. 

8. The Three Trainings Revisited   |  10. Objects for Insight Practice