For this week, the topic is the Buddha's Noble Truths, the four truths. These are often seen as the pinnacle of the insights, the core insight of the dharma. The way they are worded is: "One understands, one knows dukkha as it really is. One knows the arising of dukkha as it really is. One knows the cessation of dukkha as it really is. One knows the practice leading to the cessation of dukkha."
The insight that these represent are not 1, 2, 3, 4 insights that are separate – like first you know one, then the other, then the other. The way the ancient tradition offers them is that these all happen together, in an instant. They are a singular understanding, singular insight, that can be explained, or parsed out, in these four different ways. Sometimes it is said that this occurs like lightning, just boom, there, "Wow. Now I understand something."
Some people find it very inspiring that this is one of the central teachings of the Buddha, that the emphasis is on suffering. Some people find, "Finally someone's talking about suffering. Stopping and taking good look. Willing to address it directly, rather than covering it over, ignoring it, or something."
It is not just a teaching. It is an insight. It is meant to be something to experience deeply for oneself. That might not seem so interesting – to experience dukkha, intimately and fully – so we could know its arising and ceasing, and the way to its ending.
These Four Noble Truths, down through the centuries, have been explained many ways. It seems like they are a wonderful template for all kinds of teachings – all kinds of ways of perceiving or understanding our human life. Part of the richness of them is their adaptability.
You can find modern books in English on the Four Noble Truths – people who talk about them – and start comparing how they say it, how they explain it. You see very quickly that people have different nuances and ways of teaching it. Theravādan Buddhists will teach it differently than Zen Buddhists. Zen Buddhists differently than Tibetan Buddhists. More traditional Theravādan Buddhists from Thailand might teach it differently than teachers in the West. You see it is changeable, malleable. I kind of trust that everyone is speaking from some idea or experience of what is most helpful for them, and then they present it that way.
In this ancient Buddhist tradition, there are two primary interpretations of understanding of the Four Noble Truths that I think are the most useful. One talks about the cause of suffering – there is suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the way. The other has to do with the changing, impermanent, inconstant nature of dukkha, suffering. We see it arise. We see it cease. We see it cease in a definitive way – in such an important way that something shifts and changes. There is a deep change in the psyche, in seeing the whole world of dukkha somehow crumble down, dissolve, drop away temporarily. Then we know something that is very powerful.
Some people in the ancient world felt that the Buddhist path only begins when there has been this deep enough insight into the Four Noble Truths. Now one really knows what the path is about. One has the personal experience of where it is going. Albeit a temporary experience, but now one knows. "Now I'm on the course. Now I know the practice leads someplace – it leads to this cessation of dukkha, of suffering."
Both of these – seeing the cause, and seeing the inconstant nature of it – are quite powerful for people. I will talk about both of them this week. Today, I want to say more about the First Noble Truth. The first one is understanding, as it really is, dukkha. What is "dukkha?" Often we say "suffering" in English. Some people find that troublesome because they only use the word "suffering" for huge traumas, huge catastrophic difficulties.
In the Buddhist term, the literal meaning of "dukkha" is "pain." Sometimes it is a lot easier to understand what Buddhists are talking about it, if we understand it to be pain or painful. For example, the classic description of what dukkha is, in the First Noble Truth, is that birth is painful. It is an adjective, the word "dukkha," so birth is painful. Sickness is painful. Aging is painful. Death is painful. Associating with what is not liked is painful. Not being able to associate with what we love is painful. Not getting what we want is painful. In short, clinging – clinging to the aggregates that we talked about some weeks ago – is painful.
Here is a statement that all these things are painful. It is not saying that it is always painful. They are so commonly painful. I think most people, if you say birth is painful, most mothers will say, "Yeah, it was painful. But that's not all it was." People die, and it is not necessarily painful to die, but to say it is painful, seems like, "Oh, yeah, that's often the case." Or there is something painful about it. Aging does not have to be painful, but I think most people, who start getting older, will discover that there is pain involved with getting older. This very human thing of being with what we do not like, being with something that is unpleasant, is painful. Not being able to be close to what we love, not being with our loved ones, can be painful. Naming a series of things in this human condition, I think what they are trying to do is to lay out the full range of where people experience pain, emotional pain. Oh, there is one more I did not list. Anguish, lamentation, pain, depression, despair, are painful. All these things are painful.
If that is all we do, is to name it, then it is depressing. Then we can have anguish, lamentation, pain, depression and distress, despair. But this is an honest look, an appreciation and recognition, that this is part of the human condition. There is something about this – that it is optional. It is not necessary to be caught in some aspect of this pain. There is some way of freedom, stepping outside of the game of what is pain and painful. There is an alternative. That alternative involves seeing the changing nature, the inconstancy of this pain.
Now inconstancy means it comes and goes. Maybe it is not good news – it means it is going to come back. But what it does – it allows some point for the mind to find a place of letting go. Someplace where it is not part of the game. Not part of the cycles of pain that keep appearing and appearing. It finds a place of rest, freedom, openness, expansiveness, or some other game in town. That changes the whole perspective.
What this Four Noble Truths is leading to, is a life that is free of a certain kind of pain – certain kind of dukkha, or suffering – that comes from how we relate to or live in this world of suffering. In a certain kind of way, we stopped living in it. The mind, the awareness, has found a place of refuge, a place of safety, that is not separate from it all, but is not identified with it. If it is identified with anything, it is identified with freedom. It is identified with peace, with happiness.
We start with a willingness to look clearly at dukkha. The text says, "One sees, as it really is, dukkha." Whenever the text says "as it really is," what it means is we are seeing the inconstancy, the changing nature of it. That is the key thing. That is what makes it a noble truth. Not that we see suffering and suffer more, but we see suffering, and somehow we are able to have the stillness, focus, clarity of mind, to see it as part of the inconstant flow, of the changing river of our experience.
If this makes sense to you, you might try today, as you go through your day, to observe the ways in which your dukkha comes and goes, appears and disappears, rises and falls, surges and recedes. Chances are your dukkha is not constant. If it is constant, then chances are you are holding onto something. What are you holding on to?
I am not saying that dealing with suffering is easy. But can you begin looking at it through a different lens, a different perspective than your usual one? Can you step outside of the yourself almost, to be able to look at dukkha as something that is flowing, changing, inconstant. Part of the stream of perceptions that are constantly shifting and changing. That sometimes comes back to dukkha, but then flits away. Begin breaking up the solidity of everything into the flow of the stream of experience.
If looking at dukkha today is too much for you, of course, you can stop. Do not do it too much. To understand what we are going to do for the rest of the week, this very important topic, you might see if you can gaze upon your dukkha in a new way. See what happens. Thank you, very much, and I look forward to meeting here again tomorrow.