2020-05-04: Four Noble Truths: Dukkha (1 of 5) Introduction to the Truths
5:49PM May 4, 2020
four noble truths
So welcome to the beginning of a four-week series of talks on the Four Noble Truths. I will be offering talks each week on one of the noble truths. And this week will be on the first noble truth. Today, I'll say some introductory words about the Four Noble Truths in general.
The Four Noble Truths are for many people oftentimes said to be the core teachings of Buddhism. When I was studying Zen in Japan, I was given a primer for high school students. I was living in the monastery and given a book in Japanese about Buddhism, and it talked about how the Four Noble Truths were the core teachings of Buddhism. And that they claim that even a child could understand what they are. But even an old person with lots of life experience might not understand the depths of how powerful these are and how significant they are in their life. And I think that something like that is true because the Four Noble Truths are an ever-developing, growing series of insights, ways, perspectives for understanding our life.
There's not just one teaching on the Four Noble Truths. There are many of them. In the history of Buddhism, there's different interpretations, different applications of these four noble truths, different elaborations of how they apply to all kinds of areas of our life. And that idea that there's different elaborations goes back really to the ancient times as well. And so the Four Noble Truths are a wonderful framework within which to begin studying our lives, looking at our life in a deep way. In that regard, one of the teachings around these four noble truths has to do with there being tasks, a particular task for each truth. I'll talk about that in a few moments.
The Four Noble Truths have to do with suffering and the end of suffering. And maybe it's not a coincidence that this discussion now about suffering follows the week where we talked about care as a form of love, compassion, and goodwill--how to care for ourselves and be rooted in our care as an approach to look at suffering. For human beings, suffering is a deep part of life. It's really central to the human experience. To value and care for our lives and the lives of others is to value and care for our personal suffering, the suffering of others, and our collective suffering as well. And how to do it from someplace of groundedness, of centeredness, of non-reactivity, how to deal with it in a wise way, and in a way that leads to a better future and freedom from suffering.
It's said that the Buddha, when addressing his suffering and the suffering that he encountered, that he was searching. And his search was considered the noble search. And this idea that there's a nobility or dignity or worthiness in the very addressing and meeting of suffering, and finding a way through it and coming out the other side--that this is not to suffer so we have become greater victims of suffering or to diminish ourselves, but there's really a kind of growth and dignity and mobility and happiness. The Buddha said that when he was looking for the alternative to suffering, he was looking for happiness. He was looking for a long-term happiness, which we can understand to be happiness that's not dependent on the vagaries and the changing circumstances of our life--that we're tossed around in the seas of change.
So we're going to address this topic we're going to do for these next four weeks on the foundation of last week's topic of care. And if those of you who've been doing all seven weeks now of these early morning sittings, remember that the first week began on the topic of faith, a whole week on faith. And that's also considered as a foundation for looking at suffering. In fact, one of the meanings in English of 'belief,' the etymological early meaning of the word 'belief'--which I like to ressurect and call forth as we look at suffering--is that to have a belief originally meant to have something that you loved, what was beloved, is what belief originally meant.
So what is your beloved? What is it that you love? The idea that care and love is a deep, heartfelt involvement with this topic that's really touching something deep inside--as opposed to looking at it as a series of propositions, or tenants of Buddhism that you have to believe or adhere to like a creed or something. We're talking about something that will hopefully touch us all in some deep way. I like the word "tender," a tender spot within. Our value, our nobility, our dignity, our worthiness has a chance to really touch and feel and experience the full depth of the challenges and the potentials we have as human beings.
So we use this word 'suffering' a lot in talking about Buddhism and the Four Noble Truths. And it's possible it's not the best translation for the word 'dukkha.' But it's a translation I'll use today, since it's the most common one. Tomorrow I'll talk about an alternative. But I want to say that some people hear the word 'suffering' and immediately think about the big suffering of life. And it just seems maybe a little bit not relevant for how they're going about their daily life perhaps, and it seems a little overwhelming to hear the word. The word 'dukkha,' translated as 'suffering,' is meant to be the full range of ways in which we feel stress and feel distress and are challenged by this life of ours, from the smallest to the greatest. If we study it and look deeply into this suffering, we can find an alternative, a different way of living in the world, where something about how we suffer doesn't have to be there. And what that is is part of the exploration, discussion, and hopefully experiencing that we'll do as we go through these four weeks.
I want to clarify that the word 'dukkha' defined as 'suffering' also points to the large, big sufferings that we have, the ones that are most challenging for us and may not be a part of our ordinary, everyday lives; the ones that sooner or later we will encounter and can anticipate we will encounter, or the kind of things that sometimes when we're young we don't think about so much.
The Buddha was said to have lived a life of privilege, protection and luxury. And he didn't really know about the large existential challenges of sickness, old age, and death. It was when he escaped from the palace, as the myth goes, and saw sickness, old age, and death for the first time, supposedly, as a man who is 27 years old. (Imagine living protected from life for that long.) And maybe because he was so protected, it came as a shock to him. And maybe some of you have been shocked by your encounter with these things. Sometimes there are sudden losses and deaths and changes that happen, that turn our lives upside-down.
I like to think that the Buddha designed the Dharma, not so much as a place to deal with the everyday stresses of life--certainly it addresses that--but in fact to really prepare us, help support us, to really address with care and love; with rootedness, groundedness, steadiness, and courage, to be prepared for the biggest challenges that come existentially in this life. In this regard, when the Buddha laid out some examples while addressing suffering, he used powerful words. So I want to read these words to you in the English translation: "grief, mourning, pain, distress, and anguish."
In looking at the Four Noble Truths, we're looking at the truths of grief, mourning, pain, distress, and anguish. And we're seeing that these powerful things are doorways, are vehicles, are conduits to something that is on the other side of them, something that the Buddha called 'freedom' or 'peace.' Not disrespecting these things, but rather maybe Dharma practice is a very deep respect and acknowledgement that allows us to really see and understand these things well. So we're stepping into tender areas, difficult areas, challenging areas. And we have to do it with a lot of care and faith and stability and groundedness to really do this in an effective way. This idea of a simple presence of connectivity, of groundedness, is really a central aspect of all this--and not to don't talk about this in the abstract or, or as if it's easy to do all this stuff.
What's interesting in this list, and in many of the lists the Buddha has, that somehow explicate what dukkha is, 'suffering' -- fear is not mentioned. And I don't know why that is, except that maybe fear by itself is not always exactly a problem. It doesn't always arise out of attachment and clinging, that there is healthy fear and appropriate fear and biological fear that exists, that the fear of survival is not necessarily rooted in greed, hate, and delusion, or attachment. It's kind of a core thing in human life. However, the Buddha did say that the world of clinging, the world of our attachments, is something that gives rise to tremendous fear. So to really delve into these deep topics of the Four Noble Truths, is also to address fear, or the kind of fear that is rooted in attachment.
The Four Noble Truths, in the early layer of Buddhism that's described in the teachings of the Buddha-- scholars will say that there's different layers of how these truths were laid out. And the earliest layer was very simple. It said, "This is suffering. This is the arising of suffering. This is the cessation of suffering, the end of suffering. And this is the practice leading to the cessation of suffering." So it's very simple and direct.
Then later, the word 'truth' was added: "This is the truth of suffering. This is the truth of the arising of suffering. This is the truth of the cessation of suffering. And this is the truth of the practice leading to the cessation of suffering."
Then later, this word 'noble' was added: "This is the noble truth of suffering. This is the noble truth of the arising of suffering. This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. And this is a noble truth of the practice leading to the cessation of suffering."
What we find is that these wonderful statements, little formulas, have no pronouns to them. And I personally am very inspired by this, that the idea of addressing suffering is not directional. It's wherever we encounter it. Certainly the suffering we have in ourselves is a place we can take the most responsibility, the place we can delve most deeply into the very roots of what it's all about. But it also addresses the suffering that we encounter in the world. And that's also something that we want to attend to and understand and look at.
So as we go through these four noble truths, we want to be inclusive of the world and have our practice be part and parcel of the wellbeing and freedom and happiness of all beings. I want to end with a statement, which certainly has a great value for me and, I beleive, for us as we begin this study of the Four Noble Truths. Whether how universal it is, we can maybe discuss some other time. Here is the statement: "Your suffering is my suffering. My suffering is your suffering. Their suffering is our suffering. Our suffering is their suffering. Your welfare is my welfare. My welfare is your welfare. Their welfare is our welfare. Our welfare is your welfare."
Let's care for the welfare of all. Thank you.