The Four Noble Truths

Maybe it would be good to start with the life story of the Buddha. He engaged in the twelve major activities, such as taking birth, attaining enlightenment, and teaching the dharma. His example shows that any being can attain enlightenment. He gained enlightenment on the fifteenth day of the fourth month, according to the Tibetan calendar. After attaining enlightenment, he did not teach for forty nine days. On the forty ninth day heavenly beings requested that he teach. So he taught the four noble truths at Varanasi.

On the forty ninth day the divine beings, including Indra, gave a golden wheel to the Buddha and requested that the dharma wheel be turned. His first five disciples were the yogis who accompanied the Buddha when he practiced austerities before his enlightenment. His first teaching was the four noble truths. Buddha explained the four noble truths three times First he set them out. Then he said that they needed to be practiced. Then he taught the essential emptiness of the four noble truths. The target of these teachings were the shravakas. These teachings provide the basis of all the higher teachings of Buddhism.

There are two sets of cause and effect in the four noble truths: suffering and its cause, which explains samsara, and liberation and its cause, which explains nirvana. There is a logical progression in these truths. Most of the time we don’t understand the nature of suffering. Buddha explained that there are three types of suffering: the suffering of suffering,. the suffering of change, and all pervasive suffering. Then we inquire if suffering has a cause or not. We see it does, which is the second truth. If it has a cause, then logically it can be eliminated, which is the third truth. And the method to do this is the fourth truth. The Buddha likened the four noble truths to a doctor treating a sickness. First the doctor tells you you have a disease and explains its cause. Understanding the cause we see the possibility of cure and the treatment which will cure you.

There are three types of suffering. The suffering of suffering refers to what we ordinarily understand as suffering. In meditation we are told to meditate not just on our suffering, but the suffering of all six realms,. Even in the heavenly realms, one suffers knowing that birth there is temporary and one will then take rebirth elsewhere. So there is suffering in all the six realms. The next suffering is the suffering of change. In conditioned existence there is no lasting happiness. All is subject to change and changes to suffering. If you are cold, you want to get into the warmth, but then you get too hot and want to cool off. So what causes suffering? Afflictive emotions and negative karma caused by these emotions. The Buddha taught the six root and twenty branch afflictive emotions. Karma is three types, good, bad, and unwavering karma. Afflictive emotions are called afflictive because they are propelled by a false sense of an existence of a self. Positive actions which are not free of afflictive emotions lead to rebirth in higher realms, Negative actions accompanied by afflictive emotions lead to rebirth in the lower realms, and unwavering actions plus afflictive emotions lead to rebirth in the formless realms.

Actions are also of four types, whether their result ripens in this life, in the next life, in another future life, or in an indeterminate lifetime. The actions which give rise to results in this life can be directly verified through experience. Those giving rise to results in the next lifetime can be understood by the twelve links of conditioned co-production. For example, through ignorance one commits an action, which creates a potential in your mind. At the point of death one experiences clinging and attachment, so you take rebirth with name and form, then develop the sense faculties, have contact with perceptions, give rise to feelings and attachments which lead to another birth and death. To be reborn as a person requires great positive karma. And to be able to study the teachings is very precious. So this life is termed a precious human birth. Karma is very critical in Buddhist thought and practice. Negative karma leads to negative rebirth and positive karma to positive rebirth. In order to secure a higher rebirth in our next rebirth we need to practice positive actions in this life. There are two types of karma: throwing karma and completion karma. Which realm one is born in is determined by throwing karma. But although we are all reborn as human, we have different qualities. This is the result of completion karma.

Positive actions can be afflicted if they are accompanied by afflictive emotions. But one should not refrain from positive actions, but instead should strive to eliminate afflictive emotions. They are caused by an afflicted way of thinking and can be eliminated. Their elimination is enlightenment. The path leading to enlightenment is the three teachings of morality, concentration, and wisdom.

They are called superior teachings because they lead to liberation from conditioned existence. The Buddhist wheel of life depicts these teachings. The inner hub symbolizes morality. The rim symbolizes concentration, and the spokes symbolize wisdom. Wisdom cuts through the root of afflictive emotions, grasping at a self. Grasping at a self is the most fundamental affliction, because all other afflictions are based on it. Understanding selflessness is the most important endeavor in Buddhism. There are two ways to understand selflessness: intellectually and directly. There are five paths on the way to liberation: the paths of accumulation, application., seeing, meditation, and no more learning. On the first two paths you see emptiness intellectually and on the last three you see it directly. There are two ways of clinging to a self: through philosophical concepts and inherent clinging. The philosophical is cut through on the path of seeing but you must practice the path of meditation to eliminate the inherent sense of self. Once you do this you reach the path of no more learning. So this is a brief introduction to the four noble truths. Understanding the nature of suffering, you see its cause. Seeing the cause you infer that it can cease.

Q: Is the eightfold path the practice we should do?

A: Yes, the eight spokes in the wheel symbolize the eightfold path. They are included in the paths of morality, concentration, and wisdom.

Q: I would suggest everyone study what the Dalai Lama has taught on the four noble truths

A: Yes, the four noble truths are the foundation of all other Buddhist practices.

Q: What are the similarities between Buddhism and Vedanta and Saivism?

A: There are many similarities between all religions in morality. But the similarities are stronger with Hinduism, because Buddhism is like a reformed Hinduism. But there are differences. In Hinduism the gods have always been perfect, but in Buddhism we evolve to perfection.

Q: Could you explain all pervasive suffering?

A: All pervasive suffering refers to conditioned existence, the five aggregates. Human personality is the combination of the five aggregates, It is suffering because it is the basis of the other two sufferings. If there is no attachment to the self, there is no suffering.

Q: Could you explain what daily life in your monastery is like?

A: Monks get up at five o’clock and start memorizing their texts. Then around six they gather for prayer. After the conclusion they are served breakfast. Up until eight they recite texts. At eight there is another prayer. Then they go to class until eleven, when they are served lunch. From two to four they go class again and at five there is debate time. At ten is time for recollection, study, and meditation.

Q: Could you explain more about debate?

A: The purpose of debate is to quickly gain an understanding of the teachings you have memorized. And you try to defeat your opponents, not to tear them down, but to gain conviction about the teachings. For example, the concept of rebirth is debated. Some non-Buddhist schools deny this. So you find a common proposition you accept with your opponent. For example both accept mind and body are different, so the mind must have a separate cause, which cannot be of this life.

Q: How much time each day is spent in meditation?

A: There is no group meditation except for congregational prayer. There are two types of meditation, stabilizing meditation and analytical meditation. Prayer is a type of analytical meditation. How the person meditates is up to them. In the monastery the emphasis is on gaining analytical understanding. Meditation is encouraged after gaining the analytical understanding.

Q: If you are born with a mental affliction that cannot be cured, what is the meaning of that?

A: From a Buddhist perspective, it is because of the karma from a previous life, the completion karma. Throwing karma determines what type of being you are born as. Completion karma determines your qualities in this life.

Q: What is the purpose of saying a prayer before eating?

A: The purpose is to offer the meal to the three jewels.

Q: Is there a good text to study to perform analytical meditation?

A: You can study lam rim.

Kensur Lobsang Chojor
December 10th 2005
Susquehanna Yoga Center