The Four Noble Truths

  • The Four Noble Truths

Last week we concluded the exploration of the Factors of Awakening by defining “awakening” within the cultural context of our everyday lay lives; living a balanced, kind and skillful life.

Formal meditation practice cultivates the aspects of mind that lead to awakening by bringing us face-to-face with the sticky, struggling, contentious mind right alongside the smooth, peaceful and relaxed mind.  Getting to know and navigating our own minds so our actions reflect wise and appropriate choices, are critical elements for living an awakened life. But it is not the end of the story.

In the next section of the Satipattana Sutta, The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the Buddha moves into the seminal teaching of the Four Noble Truths, his profound and far-reaching understanding of the reality, cause and remedy for the suffering that is inherent in all our lives. Suffering here refers to the challenge, difficulty and anxiety that are the result of our natural resistance to the continual and constant changing conditions of our lives.

The Buddha has been compared to a physician of the mind in his ability to diagnose, identify the cause, give reassurance for the possibility of relief, and provide a specific prescription for the ailing mind.[1]The teaching on the Four Noble Truths was actually the first sermon the Buddha gave after his awakening. It is known as “Turning the Wheel of Dhamma,” the text of which can be found in many sources. I particularly like Stephen Batchelor’s translation in his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. A very common way the Truths are quoted and translated are as follows:

“There is Suffering. There is the Cause of Suffering. There is the End of Suffering. There is the Path to the End of Suffering. These Four Noble Truths teach suffering and the end of suffering.”

               -The Buddha[2]

I am also particularly fond of how Sylvia Boorstein explains the Truths.  She offers a logical, accessible and matter-of-fact way of relating them to our lives.  

I.                 Life is challenging. For everyone. Our physical bodies, our relationships – all of our life circumstances – are fragile and subject to change. We are always accommodating.

II.               The cause of suffering – is the mind’s struggle in response to challenge.

III.              The end of suffering – a nonstruggling, peaceful mind – is a possibility.

IV.              The program – the Eightfold Path – for ending suffering is:

1.      Wise Understanding: realizing the cause of suffering

2.      Wise Intention: motivation – inspired by understanding –to end suffering

3.      Wise Speech: speaking in a way that cultivates clarity

4.      Wise Action: behaving in ways that maintain clarity

5.      Wise Livelihood: supporting oneself in a wholesome way

6.      Wise Effort: cultivating skillful (peaceful) mind habits

7.      Wise Concentration: cultivating a steady, focused, ease-filled mind

8.      Wise Mindfulness: cultivating alert, balanced attention[3]

Another intriguing view comes from Stephen Batchelor, a Western scholar, teacher and former monk. He sees them as Tasks, not Truths because “truths” can be interpreted as dogma. The Buddha was clear that what he taught he learned by studying his own mind, not through blind faith in what someone else insisted as the accepted ‘truth.’ He consistently encouraged his followers not to believe what he said, but to explore it for themselves to discover on their own what is true. This is precisely why the Buddha’s teachings have become so widely known and practiced. It is specifically not dogma; it’s a practice with tangible, accessible and profound consequences for decreasing suffering and living a kinder more peaceful life. Here are the Four Tasks:

1.      Embrace

2.      Let Go

3.      Stop

4.      Act

“This template can be applied to every situation in life. Rather than shying away from or ignoring what is happening, embrace it with mindful attention; rather than craving to seize it or get rid of it, relax one’s grip; rather than getting caught up in a cascade of reactivity, stop and stay calm; rather than repeat what you have said and done a thousand times before, act in an empathetic and imaginative way.”

             -Stephen Batchelor, 
               Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

This is an overview of the Four Noble Truths. In the coming weeks we’ll look at each of the factors of the Eightfold Path in detail, the “tasks” for living an awakened life.

[1] Satipattana; the Direct Path to Realization,Analayo, 2003.

[2] The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield, 2008.

[3] Pay Attention for Goodness’ Sake, Sylvia Boorstein, 2002.

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