The 4 Noble Truths and 12 Links of Dependent Arising

We’ve gone through a general explanation of the twelve links of dependent arising. We need to develop more and more familiarity with this system in order to be able to actually work with it. Therefore, it is a very worthwhile topic to study and to contemplate over and again.

Unawareness of How We Exist

All our true sufferings are based on unawareness of how we exist. We project impossible ways of existing onto the conventional “me.” Instead, we need to understand voidness and that these impossible ways of existing don’t correspond to anything real. They’re false; they don’t correspond to reality. When we’re convinced of that, then gradually we will no longer have grasping for an impossible way of existing. We’re no longer unaware.  

If we’re no longer unaware, then we don’t have the disturbing emotions. If we don’t have the disturbing emotions, we’re not building up more karmic potentials and not activating the ones that are there. If there’s no way of activating something that is a cause of suffering, then it’s no longer a cause. A cause is relative and can only exist as a cause in relation to an effect. If there is no effect, there can’t be a cause. Like that, we realize that it is possible to get rid of the tainted aggregates and attain a true stopping of uncontrollably recurring rebirth. You follow that? This is what we need to understand to attain a true stopping. It’s not that we go off into some deep trance with perfect concentration or something like that.

Ridding Ourselves of Disturbing Emotions

Rebirth will recur if we haven’t gotten rid of disturbing emotions but have only suppressed them. We don’t want to just suppress them. We can’t just forget about them, hoping that they’ll go away by themselves. They don’t go away by themselves. We want to attack the basis for them. “Attack” may be a very strong a word, but a lot of military terminology is used in the Buddhist vocabulary. Buddha came from the ruling warrior caste. Buddha is “The Victorious One, The Triumphant One.” We want to destroy the disturbing emotions as they’re the true enemy. Our true enemy is not some external enemy. This is the common imagery, but don’t interpret that to mean we need to develop aggressive anger at the disturbing emotions and so on. It’s just using forceful imagery, basically thought to be based on the type of caste the Buddha was born into and the way that he was raised.

Stopping Uncontrollably Recurring Rebirth

To stop the links that are true suffering, these tainted aggregates, we have to stop the links that are their true causes. To do so we have to stop having more activated karma. That is link number ten, the one of further existence. To stop that, we have to stop what activate this, the disturbing emotions and attitudes that are links eight and nine. This is thirsting and an obtainer. We also need to stop link two, affecting impulses, which is the compulsion, the karma that affects what we do. That’s building up more and more karmic potentials and tendencies. We have to stop activating what’s there and stop building up more. To do that, to get rid of all of these links, we need to get rid of what is underlying all of this. We have to stop link number one, unawareness of how we and others exist. Follow that? That’s how we get rid of this uncontrollably recurring rebirth. 

The true stopping of the suffering of uncontrollably recurring rebirth is not going to happen from suffering and rebirth running out of energy as if some battery eventually runs out. Samsara doesn’t eventually run out, because it’s self-perpetuating in a sense. What we will need to develop is a non-conceptual cognition of these four noble truths and recognize what it is we have to get rid of.

Non-Conceptual Understanding

We need to develop what will get rid of suffering and be convinced of what it means to be rid of it so that we don’t stop halfway. That means we need to develop non-conceptual cognition of voidness (emptiness), not just a conceptual understanding of it, even if that conceptual cognition apprehends voidness accurately and decisively. 

Non-conceptual means cognizing voidness not in terms of some category, but straightforwardly. When a cognition of something is conceptual, as in thinking of something, the cognition fits its object into a category and has something mentally appear – an image or often just the mental sound of words – to represent the category. For example, when we think of a dog, there’s the category “dog” and then each of us is going to have some different mental representation that represents a dog for us. Everybody is going to have something different to represent what a dog is. But, we all have the category “dog.” 

Likewise, when we conceptually focus on the aggregates as true suffering, for instance, we have an imagined mental representation of our aggregates arise, for instance an image of our body, and perhaps the imagined mental sound of the words “true suffering” as well, and we focus on them through the category “true suffering.” 

But, when we focus non-conceptually on the aggregates as true suffering, there are no imagined mental representations, no imagined mental words, and no categories. We focus straightforwardly with mental consciousness on our aggregates and take them to mind as being true suffering. Although all cognitions involve a mental hologram of their object, nevertheless non-conceptual cognition does not entail imagined mental fabrications (spros-pa, Skt. prapanca) such as mental representations and mental sounds of words.

Further, being an apprehension, which means an accurate and decisive cognition, our non-conceptual cognition of the aggregates as true suffering has both explicit and implicit apprehension of them. What is explicitly apprehended arises in the cognition – so here it would be the understanding of them as being true suffering. What is implicitly apprehended is the exclusion or negation of what they are not, such as clean, a source of true happiness, and so on. In this way, with the exclusion of what the aggregates are not, our cognition decisively specifies that the aggregates are nothing other than true suffering. 

In addition, our non-conceptual cognition is not merely with mental consciousness, but with a mental consciousness having a joined pair – another technical term – a joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana. Now we have to bring these two in.

Shamatha and Vipashyana

Shamatha is a stilled and settled state of mind and vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind. With a stilled and settled mind, we are focused on these four noble truths with perfect concentration, without wandering, dullness, flightiness, or anything like that. The energy is sort of going internally, focused on them. Our state of shamatha has a sense of fitness, a serene exhilarating happiness or bliss of body and mind. That mind can stay focused on anything for as long as we want, and the body is not going to feel any pain and can just stay fixed.

Once we attain that, then the state of vipashyana is in addition. The state of vipashyana is attained within that focus. It’s like opening it up and the energy is a bit more going outward, distinguishing their general characteristics of the four noble truths with gross detection (rtog-pa) and discerning all their distinctive characteristics with subtle scrutiny (dpyod-pa). To attain this, of course we must have analyzed and understood all the details of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths and sixteen distorted ways of embracing them beforehand in order to apprehend the noble truths as what they are and exclude what they are not.

A joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana may be either conceptual or non-conceptual. So here, for attaining a true stopping of suffering, we need to have the pair be non-conceptual. That is what we want and are aiming to achieve in order to break the chain of the twelve links and attain liberation.

Voidness of an Impossible “Me”

If we’re speaking just in terms of general liberation, as asserted in the non-Prasangika tenet systems, then what we need to have as the fourth noble truth – a true pathway of mind – is non-conceptual cognition, with joined shamatha and vipashyana, focused on the voidness of an impossible “me” that is experiencing the four noble truths in terms of the twelve links. In other words, our focus is on the voidness of the person experiencing the links that are true suffering, the links of the true origins of suffering and who can experience the true stopping of them through a true pathway of mind of non-conceptual cognition of the four noble truths. Prasangika adds that, for liberation, we need to have this non-conceptual cognition of the voidness of all phenomena, including not only the person experiencing the four noble truths, but also the four noble truths themselves and the mind on which they occur. Let’s focus in our discussion on the voidness of merely the person experiencing the four noble truths. 

Conventionally, who’s suffering? I’m suffering, it’s not you who are suffering. However, it’s not some impossible “me” that is experiencing true suffering. It’s not some impossible “me” that is experiencing happiness and unhappiness and is the one that is clinging or thirsting. It’s not the impossible “me.” It’s the conventional “me” that mistakenly thought it was the impossible “me” that was doing that.

Liberation is not liberation of some impossible “me.” It is liberation of the conventional “me.” Who has the understanding? Is it some impossible “me” that now understands that it was a little bit mistaken? No; we have to understand the voidness of the “me” that is experiencing the four noble truths. Voidness in this context is not just the voidness of “me” in general; it has to be the voidness of “me” in relation to the four noble truths.

The Four Noble Truths and the Conventional “Me”

It’s very easy to conceive of these four noble truths in terms of an impossible “me” that is suffering. “Poor impossible ‘me,’” who is so stupid because it’s having all these causes of suffering. With ignorance, we want this impossible “me,” a “me” that seems to be coated in plastic and existing all by itself, to be free from all of this. We imagine that all that encapsulated “me” has to understand is what’s really going on and then it will be freed and can leave samsara, to put it in very simplistic terms.

We need, instead, to approach the understanding of the four noble truths in terms of the conventional “me” that does exist and understand that there is no impossible “me” that is experiencing or undergoing samsara or that can be liberated. Follow that? We can make it even simpler. We have a misconception, we imagine ourselves as an impossible “me.” For example, “I am God’s gift to the world.” That’s certainly a misconception about “me.” To continue the example, “As God’s gift to the world, I’m truly suffering, and I am building up the causes, the true causes of it. That’s why nobody likes me; nobody appreciates me as God’s gift to the world and I am just grasping for recognition and other people to like me. So, if I realize as God’s gift to the world that I don’t need any of that – others liking me or anything like that, because I’m God’s gift to the world – I’ll be liberated from it by realizing that it’s all nonsense.” 

Clearly, that’s not a correct understanding of the four noble truths. Of course, we’re not talking about God’s gift to the world who feels, “I’m suffering because people don’t know that I’m God’s gift to the world.” However, this is the type of misconception involved about the conventional “me.” Therefore, when you hear this seemingly strange statement that the four noble truths are devoid of an impossible soul of a person, this is what it’s talking about. Okay?

Question about the Impossible “Me”

Can you explain the definition for that impossible “me” a bit more?

The impossible “me” would be that we exist in some impossible way. For example, existing as the loser, “I’m a loser.” That’s an impossible way to exist, that our true identity is as a loser. But we need to understand in a deeper way what are the impossible ways in which we misconceive and project that we exist. There are several levels in which this is presented. We need to progressively understand that each of them is nonsense. But we need to do that step by step to get more and more subtle. This is the process; we can’t go immediately to the subtlest level because then what often happens is that it’s trivialized. “Where is the ‘me?’” Is the ‘me’ up my nose, is it under my arms? There’s no ‘me’ to be found inside.” 

Just saying that we can’t find the “me” is trivializing this point into seeming that all we have to realize is that we can’t find “me.” So what? We need to go step by step by step. An impossible “me” would be that “I’m God’s gift to the world, the most important one and everyone should pay attention to me and like me.” These are simply ordinary examples, like “I’m a loser,” meaning that I’m truly and inherently a loser to absolutely everybody. My dog considers me a loser, I was born a loser, and it will never change. We exist like that independently of anything. That’s impossible.

The more significant examples are that “I’m an eternal soul that can be liberated and go off to some liberated state,” or something like that. That’s the real crucial question, of course. What is it that we imagine is this impossible “me?” We have to identify it in order to refute it and understand that it’s not referring to anything real; it doesn’t correspond to reality. It doesn’t correspond to anything.  

Our misconceptions about ourselves often lead to narcissism, like “I’m God’s gift to the world, I’m the most beautiful one, I’m the one that everybody should pay attention to, I must tweet every single thing that I feel and post a picture of everything I eat on Instagram, because the whole world of course is interested and wants to know what I had for breakfast, or whether I liked this TV show or not.” That’s real narcissism.

No Such Thing

What is voidness? Voidness is a total absence of impossible ways of existing. As it is a total absence, or no such thing, we need to focus on no such thing. We project specifically some impossible ways of existing in which the conventionally existent self could exist. Well, conventionally we do exist. I’m here, I’m talking to you. You’re here, you’re listening to me. But we project onto that conventional “me” some impossible way in which we exist, or to use the technical jargon, some impossible way in which we are established as existing.  

Established (grub-pa, Skt. siddha) is the word that is being used here all the time and that’s not a very easy word to understand. It can mean either “what the ‘me’ is established as existing as,” for instance as an “atman” or “soul” as defined in one of the traditional non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy. Or it can mean “what establishes the ‘me’ as existing like that.”

For example, we might think that there is a soul, and that I’m established as being a soul and that’s “me.” We then believe that “me” as a soul has certain characteristics; but in fact, there is no such thing as such a soul. The word “me” refers to someone, but a “me” having these characteristics does not correspond to anything real. 

The difference between “refer to something” and “correspond to something” is quite subtle and very important to understand. For example, very briefly, if we have a movie and the title of the movie is “Star Wars,” that title refers to something. It refers to an actual movie. But it doesn’t correspond to something just existing solidly, independently by itself, as if there weren’t individual frames all put together and a lot of work by a huge number of people that went into making it. Such a movie doesn’t correspond to anything real. No movie exists as an object to love or hate as a concrete whole, independently of each frame, each actor, and each person who worked on it. Nevertheless, in spite of that, “Star Wars” does refer to a movie that we can watch.

Here, however, we are concerned only with refuting an impossible “me.” Although the conventional “me” refers to someone, an impossible “me” or false “me” does not correspond to anything real. For instance, if I think I’m God’s gift to the world, well there is no such thing. No one exist in that impossible way. Nevertheless, I do exist: I eat, walk and sleep. 

No person exists in impossible ways that don’t correspond to reality. What we’re working with here is understand no such thing: that’s the understanding of voidness. There is no such thing. Essentially, we come to that understanding on the basis of logic. If there were such a thing as a person existing in that way, the person would have to be like this or would have to be like that. There are only these possibilities, and if such a person is neither like this nor like that, then since there are no other possibilities, we conclude that it just doesn’t make sense that a person exists in that way. It is logically impossible and what we imagined was really just nonsense.