Being Our Own Protector
One of the main points His Holiness made in his teaching this morning was that in the practice of the Buddha Dharma to transform our minds and attain happiness, we need to act as our own guardians, our own protectors. He said that, right? If we don’t safeguard ourselves and, instead, look for someone else to protect us, then not even Buddha can provide us with protection. Therefore, we definitely have to become our own protectors. His Holiness has already spoken very profoundly about this topic, so there’s nothing more to add.
Buddha’s Gift of the Four Noble Truths
Among the many enlightening deeds of the Buddha, today is the day when we commemorate three of the greatest ones, such as his taking birth. These three most important ones all fall on this day. Buddha’s taking birth is especially precious because, having graced this world with his presence, Buddha enacted another of his enlightening deeds, he turned the wheel of the Dharma. This is why Buddha’s taking birth is so precious a deed.
Normally, when we celebrate someone’s birthday, even the Buddha’s, we present a cake or a gift and offer our congratulations. But if we think deeply about it, Buddha has given us a priceless gift. There is nothing that we can offer that can compare with it. The precious and rare gift that the Buddha has presented us with is the four noble truths. All the intermediate scope and advanced scope teachings fit into the framework of the four noble truths. The tantra practices fit into it as well.
So, Buddha has given us this precious gift. As for repaying Buddha’s kindness, His Holiness said this morning, didn’t he, that to repay Buddha’s kindness, we need to contemplate the teachings that Buddha delivered. So today, in order to repay Buddha’s kindness and His Holiness’s kindness, we’ll contemplate the four noble truths. This is the appropriate day to do this.
General Understanding of the Four Noble Truths
Most of us are able to enumerate the four noble truths and have contemplated them a bit. What is the most important point? For me, when I think about them – for instance, when I think about the first noble truth of suffering – I think of it as referring simply to suffering as something we don’t wish for. This is something we want to rid ourselves of, we want to eradicate it. Except for that, we don’t usually think about the truth of suffering as being the antidote against a reversed, mistaken thought.
Uncommon Explanation of the Four Noble Truths
When I was receiving teachings from one of my teachers, he explained one of the presentations of the four noble truths that is not the common one usually described. He explained why there are definitely four and the meaning behind that. Not to make it too complicated, in general, we can think of the first two truths, the truth of suffering and the origin of suffering, as describing how we engage in worldly or mundane affairs. For going beyond worldly affairs and engaging with supramundane ones, we talk about cessation and the truth of the path. That is the more common explanation of how the truths are specified as only four.
But as my teacher explained, the Tengyur contains a less common explanation. It explains the four noble truths in terms of four reversed views and that each truth is an opponent to the corresponding reversed view. And that’s why the noble truths are four in number.
The four reversed views that the four noble truths counter are the mistaken views of:
- A deluded outlook toward a transitory network
- Nothing needs to be done.
When I heard about this, I felt a little bit satisfied, because for a long time when we talk about suffering and the cause of suffering, I wondered why we always have to add “the truth of” to them. When I heard the explanation from my teacher, I felt my doubt was answered and I felt quite satisfied. But this is my own satisfaction. It could be mistaken; you have to also check.
How the First Noble Truth Acts as an Antidote
In terms of this uncommon explanation and how each truth acts as an antidote, let’s take a look at the first noble truth. How does it act as an antidote to counter the deluded outlook toward a transitory network? Normally, we usually speak of countering this mistaken view by meditating on the selflessness of persons or at least on impermanence. We don’t usually think in terms of meditating on the truth of suffering as an opponent to that mistaken view. How do we understand this?
When we accept that the aggregates are nonstatic and then ask ourselves are the aggregates the person, we think, no, they are not the person. Afterall, we find the explanation that the five aggregates are the truth of suffering, but we don’t find the explanation that the person is the truth of suffering. But suppose we think that there is a person that is extraneous to the five aggregates. The opposing view that counters that mistaken view is that the person is also the truth of suffering.
Why? Because what we call “a person” is something posited in reliance on the aggregates. Except for setting what are called “the five aggregates” as the basis for a person, is there something with the defining characteristics of a person that is other than the five aggregates? No. So, once we have stated that the five aggregates are characterized by suffering, it is decided for sure that the person is also characterized by suffering.
Now, when we talk about a deluded outlook toward a transitory network, it is the thought that there is a “me” that is not dependent on the five aggregates. So, when we recognize that the person, the self, is characterized by suffering, this is a special way of countering and damaging that reversed view.
How does it counter it? The aggregates are nonstatic and are characterized by suffering. Their being characterized by suffering is included in the four aspects of the truth of suffering – the aggregates have the characteristics of being nonstatic, suffering, devoid (empty) of being a self that is static, monolithic and can exist independently, and lacking a self that can be independently known. So, when we have thought very well about the five aggregates as being the truth of suffering, and we have also understood that there is nothing called “a person” that is extraneous to the five aggregates, then we will understand as well that a person is also the truth of suffering. This understanding is able to counter the belief that there is a “me” that exists extraneous to the five aggregates.
This way of thinking, then, is not our usual way of considering only the aggregates as being characterized by suffering. As I said, when we have understood more deeply that the aggregates are characterized by suffering, we immediately come to the understanding that the person is also characterized by suffering. When we have understood that the person is characterized by suffering, what do we understand? We come to the understanding that a person, being characterized by all four aspects of the truth of suffering, cannot be static, monolithic, and independently existing. Because we have understood this, then if we ask what the truth of suffering fundamentally opposes and damages, we can say that it is the antidote that counters the deluded outlook toward a transitory network.
The main point, then, is that we need to see the difference between meditating on suffering and meditating on the truth of suffering having four aspects.
How the Second Noble Truth Acts as an Antidote
Moving on to the second one. How does the second noble truth, the truth of the origin of suffering, act as an antidote to nihilism? Consider how we normally think all the time. We think that the aggregates are nonstatic and temporary, but that the person is static and eternal; the aggregates will cease to exist, but the person will continue. But, if we were to say that the person is the aggregates, then when the aggregates cease to exist, the person would also cease to exist. In response to that, we would say that there is no break in the continuity of the person. As for the aggregates, except for the aggregates of this lifetime getting exchanged, there will be further aggregates in future lives. If we ask what are the causes for that? They are karmic impulses and disturbing emotions – these two. Karmic impulses and disturbing emotions are the origins of suffering, right?
When there is the force of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions, then what is it that is pervasive that arises from them? It is pervasive that there will be the continuity of a mental continuum harmonious with them. Thinking well about this, we will understand that the truth of the origin of suffering, Buddha said, is the opponent that counters the nihilistic view that the person ceases to exist at death.
How the Third Noble Truth Acts as an Antidote
Following on from the second truth, we come to the truth of cessation, the stopping of suffering. What is the important point about it? The aggregates keep coming in a continuum, and if we ask why they continue to arise, they arise by the power of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions. If the aggregates keep on arising under the power of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions and that continuity keeps on going on and there is no way to make it cease, then there would be no cessation of them. They would be permanent in the sense of being everlasting and eternal.
There is a type of permanence that we usually speak of that is based on a beginningless and endless continuum. This thought of permanence, or eternalness, based on such a continuum raises a big doubt here. If there is something that continues to go on and cannot be stopped, then the thought may arise that the aggregates are permanent and eternal. In order to counter that, we need to understand that they don’t always continue.
For this, we find in our logic textbooks a very important syllogism: Regarding the subject, the obtainer aggregates – aggregates that contain the causes for obtaining more aggregates – it is not the case that there is no counterforce that is able to make their continuity in the same class cease. This is because there is a powerful, obliterating opponent force that can counter their continuity in the same class.
When we think about this line of reasoning, then in brief we think that between karmic impulses and disturbing emotions, karmic impulses arise because of disturbing emotions. As for the disturbing emotions themselves, their root is grasping for an impossible self. The mind that is the antidote that directly counters grasping for an impossible self is the discriminating awareness that apprehends selflessness. This discriminating awareness that apprehends selflessness directly blocks the manner in which grasping for an impossible self takes its object and thus damages it. Not only does it damage this grasping, but it is also a powerful obliterating opponent to it. It is powerful because it is something that causes the grasping never to arise again. When we think about this, we come to the truth of cessation, and this is the antidote that counters the view of eternalism.
How the Fourth Noble Truth Acts as an Antidote
The truth of the path is the opponent that counters the reversed view of nothing to be done. Countering this view of nothing to be done is the best one for us to apply when we are studying. My teacher has said that this is really of great benefit to our minds. How is it of benefit? When we think of a way to practice the Dharma, our mind immediately searches for a method that will immediately annihilate our disturbing emotions and bring us immediately right to the verge of attaining enlightenment. Except for that, it never enters our minds that the disturbing emotions, the three poisons, have been with us from previous lifetimes with no beginning, and so it is difficult for there to be some easy way to immediately get rid of them. But we don’t think of anything other than there being easy ways.
So, when we come under the influence of these disturbing emotions, up until now we only think of applying some easy method to turn them back. When the situation arises that we think of applying an easy method in the face of disturbing emotions, don’t we think at that time to quickly, quickly attain enlightenment in this way? But is there an attainment of liberation without putting in hard work? When we go into a mantra retreat on a tantric deity, then without doing anything difficult, we just imagine many figures above our heads with lights emanating from them and entering into us. Don’t we think at that time that this is a method for cleansing away our disturbing emotions? The reversed view that thinks like that is the view of nothing to be done. As the opponent to that, the Buddha declared the truth of the path.
In response to people thinking that in the face of disturbing emotions, the three poisons, they need only to apply easy methods, Buddha said, “My realization of voidness cannot help you.” As is said in a sutra, “Buddhas cannot wash away others’ negative potentials, nor remove their suffering like one would pull out a thorn from a foot. They cannot transfer their realizations to anyone. They can only indicate the way by teaching about reality.” This applies exactly to this point.
Additional Ways in Which the Four Noble Truth Act as Antidotes
Showing how the four noble truths function as antidotes to the four reversed views is one way of presenting them. But another way of explaining the reason why the number of noble truths is four is in terms of their countering:
- The reverse of the result
- The reverse of the cause
- The reverse of liberation
- And in relation to attaining liberation, the reverse of the method or path.
Buddha taught the four noble truths for the sake of countering these four.
The First Noble Truth
Now, concerning the reverse of the result, it is from being under the control of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions that we have tainted, obtainer aggregates. What is the essential nature of the aggregates? Their essential nature is that they are unclean, nonstatic, suffering and selfless. To take what is unclean to be clean, what is nonstatic to be static, what is suffering to be happiness, and what is selfless to have a self is to grasp at a reversed result.
What is the result of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions? It is the tainted, obtainer aggregates. Because their essential nature is established here in reverse as clean and so on, Buddha taught the truth of suffering as what can identify and counter this. This is the usual presentation of this first noble truth.
The Second Noble Truth
Instead of saying that the causes of the tainted, obtainer aggregates are karmic impulses and disturbing emotions, this is saying that they come from Indra or Brahman or from primal matter. This is asserting that a result can come from a discordant cause, which is something we shouldn’t think. So, to counter grasping at this reverse of the cause, Buddha taught the truth of the origin of suffering.
The Third Noble Truth
Now, we get to the reverse of liberation. What is the reverse of liberation? Leaving aside both karmic impulses and disturbing emotions, it is thinking that it is enough to cut off merely karmic impulses. There’s not even the thought of depleting the disturbing emotions, just restraining karmic impulses.
Relying on certain quintessence teachings, for example, learned masters of various non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems, especially Samkhya, teach methods for attaining liberation. But they teach methods that bring the reverse of liberation. Why do they bring the reverse of liberation? It is because they don’t obliterate the disturbing emotions that are the cause of suffering. If they don’t obliterate the disturbing emotions, then there is an example we use. Chopping off the branches of a poison tree doesn’t exterminate the tree.
So, if we want to exterminate suffering, we first have to investigate what is its root. The root from which it arises is grasping for an impossible self. Until we have depleted ourselves of grasping for an impossible self, this grasping will act as a circumstance for disturbing emotions to arise.
In short, no matter how much effort we put into a method or path, if it does not function as an antidote to grasping for an impossible self, it is the reverse of a method or path, and it leads to the reverse of liberation. This is the important point of Buddha’s teaching the truth of cessation.
The Fourth Noble Truth
Next is the reverse of the path or method. The antidote against the reverse of the path is the truth of the path. The reverse of a path or method is one that is mistaken. It is a mistaken method for attaining liberation. What mistake is there with such a method for attaining liberation? If it doesn’t function as an antidote to grasping for an impossible self, if it doesn’t take grasping for an impossible self as its target and doesn’t annihilate it, then it doesn’t matter how much effort we put into such a method, it is a mistaken one. Buddha spoke like that. Even if we put a great deal of effort into doing a hundred thousand prostrations and a hundred thousand mantra recitations, and even if we meditate for years and years, if these don’t damage our grasping for an impossible self even a little, the whole lot of them are the reverse of the path.
To start out on the practice of Dharma, there are the various initial scope teachings. But the essential quintessence teachings of Buddhism actually begin with the intermediate scope ones beyond the initial scope. Where do the best intermediate scope teachings begin? They begin with the methods indicated for depleting the disturbing emotions. That is because what is called “the uncommon Buddhist view” is set out there. That being the case, unless the method or path we follow functions as an antidote to grasping for an impossible self, any method less that that we employ to attain liberation is the reverse of the path. The truth of the path was declared in order for us to understand what the reverse of the path is. This is how the four noble truths are the antidotes against these four reversed views.
The Sequence and Cause and Effect Aspects of the Four Noble Truths Applied to Our Practice
Once we familiarize ourselves over and again with these two ways in which the noble truths are set as four in number, then it’s not a matter of whether or not we hold these two sets of reversed views, we need to think over and again in what way we actually do have them. When we think that we have one of these reversed views, we need to bring to mind the specific truth that Buddha indicated as the antidote to that. Only then will this teaching be of benefit. Only then will the Dharma benefit our minds. Otherwise, our way of studying a lot and practicing a lot is when it says that there is something called “suffering” and something called “liberation,” we think that these are somewhere out there, only in the texts. Except for that, it is difficult for us to think about how this is talking about how our own disturbing emotions come about and how to cause them to stop arising. In fact, it says we don’t ever think about that. So, I request you all, please definitely familiarize yourselves with this.
Afterall, Buddha set the count of the truths as four in this way in terms of the order in which we would practice them. For this, there is the analogy. We need to distinguish ourselves as being sick patients. We need to also distinguish the Buddha who teaches the four truths as the doctor, the Dharma as the medicine and the Sangha as the nurses. When we distinguish them in this way, then on top of that, we need to think about what our own individual sufferings are. We need to think about what the cause is that our sufferings come from. We need to think about whether or not there is a cessation of these sufferings. We need to think about what the method could be that could make our suffering cease.
In general, then, the Buddha set the order of the four truths in terms of their order as cause and effect. So, Buddha taught these two explanations of how they are ordered in terms of the order of our practice. He ordered them in this way for the sake of our practice. Please keep this in mind.
Now our time is up, and we are almost finished. There are a few more things to say, but time is very important because the scientists say about how the brain works that anything more than an hour gets wasted. [laughter] That’s a great excuse to stop here.
So, thank you very much for this opportunity. I don’t know how much benefit the way I described the four noble truths today has been to you, but from my side – there’s a little bit of self-cherishing there – due to your kindness I had the opportunity to listen to my teacher explain this topic and I feel very fortunate. So, there is some benefit there.
Some Highlights from His Holiness’s Teaching
The most important thing is what His Holiness said today regarding how he studied, how he practiced, and how he is feeling so confident in his practice. He tried to explain in a very humble and simple way based on our capacity to relate to it. Please take the words of His Holiness seriously to see how much tremendous hard work and effort he’s put in and realize that we can do the same. Seeing the positive signs that have come from his practice, we can be certain that we too are capable of achieving the same. We need to have strong confidence in this.
When we think about voidness, our minds become a bit nervous. I experience like that. I don’t know about anyone else, but my mind becomes unsettled. And when, in our bodhichitta meditation, we wish that all sentient beings be happy, we don’t feel any joy ourselves. But today, His Holiness said that when he thinks about how the basis from which attraction, repulsion and bewilderment arise has nothing that it ultimately rests on, then based on that, he develops a real sense of joy in his mind. His Holiness said that, didn’t he?
And even though we don’t have thoughts about the welfare of all sentient beings from the perspective of the Dharma, nevertheless, when His Holiness thinks, from the perspective of the Dharma, about working for the benefit of all sentient beings, and some are left out, he develops the courage not to leave out anyone. He speaks like this again and again.
These are the highlights of what His Holiness said. His Holiness doesn’t directly say that he has already developed full bodhichitta, does he? He says he is just about to develop it. He doesn’t say he has realized voidness. He says he is just on the verge of realizing it, right? What is the purpose of his speaking like this? If he were to declare that he had already realized it, that would not be of any help to us at all, if we speak honestly. He says instead that he now has reached the point of having the feeling of voidness – this is something that we also need to get. These are the pieces of advice from His Holiness that you need to familiarize yourselves with over and again. Thank you.