2020-05-13: Four Noble Truths: Samudaya (3 of 5) The Inconstancy of Suffering
4:01PM May 13, 2020
four noble truths
So good morning, everyone. Good day. And before I begin this talk, I want to mention that when I finished giving the morning talk yesterday, I thought that I didn't really have my words together well, or it wasn't quite as clear as I probably could have been. And maybe it was a little confusing the way I talked about conditionality. So I did record it again, or do another recording of the same presentation, similar. And hopefully it's improved and clear. And if you are interested in hearing it again, probably later today, it'll be substituted for what I did yesterday.
So today is today. I'll take a little detour first. There was a Japanese priest in Japan town in San Francisco in the early 1960s, of a sect of Japanese Zen that was different than Japanese Buddhism, different than Zen. But he went to visit the Zen master nearby. This priest was young, and he went to visit Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen center. And since he was a Buddhist priest, he had studied Buddhism and so at some points Suzuki Roshi asked him if he'd give a talk at his Zen temple in English and the other preist said, "No, no, my English is not good enough."
The next time the priest came to listen to Suzuki Roshi give a Dharma talk, Suzuki Roshi's talk went like this. "Today is today. Today is not yesterday. Today is not tomorrow. Today is today." Maybe there were seven or eight words in English that he used. That was the entire Dharma talk. And the priest was there. He told me the story that he believes Suzuki Roshi gave him an example of how to give a Dharma talk with very little English.
And I say it today because of this way of letting each thing be discrete. Today is today, just today. Today is not yesterday. It's not tomorrow. This moment can be just this moment. It's not two minutes ago, two seconds ago, it's not two minutes in the future. The discreteness, the uniqueness of each moment. And of course, there is a past and future. But there's a way in which the past and the future belongs, or is reconstructed, in our memory, in our ideas, our stories. We sew it together. Once the present moment is gone, it exists as kind of a memory in ideas and stories to a great extent.
As the meditative mind becomes quieter, we're more and more living just in the present. And as the meditative mind stops the activity of making stories, it's more and more just this experience of the moment that happens. And deeper and deeper, at some point what we start seeing is that all the experiences we have, as experiences, are coming and going, appearing and disappearing. Not because we're searching for that or looking for that, but because it's very quiet, very still.
The Buddha said (instructing his monks), "Develop concentration. For those who have concentration will see things as they are. They will see suffering, the arising of suffering, the ceasing of suffering, and the practice of the ceasing of suffering." So, that looks like the wording that we're familiar with in the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the truth of the arising of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, the truth of the practice leading to the cessation of suffering.
What's interesting is that, the Buddha begins by saying: "Develop concentration," which means samādhi, meditative mind. With a concentrated, clear, quiet mind that's not sewing things together, constructing things with the thinking mind - then we'll see things as they are. We'll see the inconstant nature of phenomena, how things come and go, arise and pass. And we'll see into the nature of impermanence, inconstancy - the change of phenomena. And the Buddha repeated this many ways. He's sometimes was explicit. He said: "Develop concentration; you'll see things as they are. Then you'll see inconstancy or impermanence - the coming and going of experience."
Develop concentration, then you'll see things as they are, you'll see things appear and disappear. But he also had this expression, "You'll see suffering, the arising, the ceasing and the practice leading to the ceasing." The Buddha said this, about the insight, the understanding, the deep knowledge, of this experience of suffering, it's arising, it's ceasing and realizing this is the practice for the cessation of suffering, hundreds of times in the suttas.
It refers to seeing moment-to-moment, in the discrete moments of this experience - seeing how experiences come and go, arise and pass, and that nothing is nothing in our experience is constant. It might be continuous in that it keeps reappearing. But it's like those ants that are discrete, each one.
So, the insight into whatever suffering, distress, or discomfort we have - in a meditative mind, to see that in the moment to moment, the way it unfolds before we overlay our ideas on top of it and sew it together - it's actually not so solid. It comes and goes and rises and passes. This, the Buddha described, is the insight that leads to liberation. So I call it liberating insight. He talks about this over and over and over again.
Generally, when people read the suttas, they think that, when Buddha talks about suffering, the arising of suffering, the ceasing of it, and the practice leading to the ceasing of it - most Buddhists think he is talking about what we think of as the Four Noble Truths. And then there are all these talks about suffering, the aggregates of clinging. There's a cause for suffering; it's in craving. There's the cessation of suffering. And then there's the Eightfold Path which is the path leading to the cessation of suffering. That's the common understanding.
Surprisingly, given the strong emphasis on the Four Noble Truths, that this is more or less the explanation, is the common teaching of the Buddha, the most central teaching the Buddha. But in the ancient texts, the Buddha almost never taught about the Four Noble Truths that way. If it was so central to a teaching, you'd expect him to teach it a lot. He only explains the Four Noble Truths five times in these ancient texts. Five times. And each time it's different. Three of them are very, very similar. The differences are minor. But it's surprising how little the Buddha teaches it.
It's given pride of place because it's said to be the Buddha's first sermon. But really what's recorded as his first sermon couldn't have been - because he teaches all these ideas, complex, Buddhist ideas, Buddhist words that would have been unfamiliar to people who were just brand new to Buddhism. So for this to be his first sermon probably didn't make sense. It's also a genre of writing that belongs to a period about 100 years after the Buddha died. So scholars genuinely believe that the so called first sermon doesn't really belong to the Buddha. It's possible that what the Buddha did emphasize over and over and over again, was a deep insight into impermanence - deep insight into seeing things come and go.
This is liberating, because when things arise and pass in experience, then we have a much clearer sense of how we want to tie it together, how we want to hold on to it, how we resist it. We see that, in the appearing and disappearing of things, there's space around them. There are times when they're not there. They're unique phenomena. They are not anything to hold on to. They support the movement of the mind in meditation to not sew things together, to keep letting go, to keep allowing things to be there and be there and be there. And that cultivates very deep equanimity, very deep non-reactivity to experience.And this non-reactivity, just seeing the coming and going of phenomena, leads to the mind letting go in the deepest possible ways.
So, one of the interpretations or one of the understandings of what's called the Four Noble Truths is not the cause of suffering, not the conditions that lead to suffering, but rather it's a deep insight into the nature of suffering - that whatever it is that we call suffering, or experiences suffering - the nature of it is a process of inconstancy, of change, of coming and going. And somehow seeing into the nature of that is deeply liberating.
That doesn't require us to find the cause of it, or the conditions of it. But there is a very deep, letting go of clinging, letting go of craving, that does go on there. But it's not because we've understood that craving is the cause. What we've understood is that is the changing, inconstant, impermanent nature of suffering. We realize that suffering is not an inherent part of the human experience. And that what we can do is to let go. This was the Buddha's big insight.
So what I'm offering here now, on the third day, is a variety of different understandings for the Four Noble Truths. All of the understandings are great. What we're doing is expanding the range of how we can use this framework of the Four Noble Truths to understand our lives in different ways. In different circumstances, different ways are useful. And we're maturing, growing, and understanding our life better in all the ways possible to interpret the Four Noble Truths. They are the central framework to organize our human experience on the path to freedom.
So thank you very much. And tomorrow I'm going to give a little bit known to most classic explanation of the Four Noble Truths as found in the first sermon of the Buddha. And it's also fascinating to see how this works out. So thank you all very much, and I look forward to our time tomorrow.