From the Two Truths, the Four Truths

Working toward a Spiritual Goal

There are two ways that we can work toward a spiritual goal:

  • On the basis of faith – we have faith that it’s possible to achieve that goal. On the basis of this faith you work toward it, and as you proceed further in your training, you eventually become convinced that it’s possible to achieve the goal. For instance, if your goal is to overcome and eliminate suffering forever and you have faith that it’s possible, as you work toward it, if your suffering declines, you become convinced that it is possible to achieve your goal. As part of your progress, you study and meditate more, and through this, you also become convinced logically that the goal is attainable.
  • On the basis of conviction – you first become convinced through reason and logic that the goal is attainable, and then you work toward it.

These are the two approaches usually discussed in terms of the two methods for developing bodhichitta, if we want to put it into the classical Buddhist formula.

First, we develop relative bodhichitta, aiming for our own future enlightenment, which hasn’t happened yet, but can happen. We want to do this to benefit everyone, because we see that the only way we can really help everybody is to attain this state in which we fully understand cause and effect and the most effective ways to help others. In addition, we have faith that it’s possible to attain it.

As we progress further and further, we develop what’s called deepest bodhichitta, which refers to an understanding of voidness (emptiness) – the fact that things don’t exist in impossible ways. We understand reality, and see that the nature of the mind is capable of not projecting fantasy, but of actually just perceiving reality itself. By understanding that, we become convinced logically that the goal is attainable. Our faith then turns into conviction.

The other approach is first to develop this understanding of reality, where we understand that enlightenment is possible – so deepest bodhichitta first. On this basis, we are convinced that we can attain enlightenment and, because of this conviction, we work toward achieving it. This second approach is found in one of the texts by Nagarjuna, a great Indian master, called “A Commentary on Bodhichitta” (Skt. Bodhichitta-vivarana).

This approach is presented in the verse we’ve looked at, of how we derive the Four Noble Truths from the two truths, and from the Four Noble Truths – the Three Precious Gems. The purpose of this presentation is to help us understand that liberation and enlightenment are possible, since they are based on reality.

  • Liberation means the state of being free forever of uncontrollably recurring rebirth: totally free of samsara, so that we become free from suffering forever. Those who have attained liberation are “arhats,” liberated beings.
  • Enlightenment is the state of being free forever of all obscuration that prevents you from understanding the most effective ways of helping all limited beings also to attain liberation and enlightenment. Enlightened beings are known as “Buddhas.”

Once we’re convinced that not only is it possible, but that we too – not just Buddha Shakyamuni – can achieve liberation and enlightenment, it gives us a great deal of strength and stability in our spiritual practice. Still, it’s not terribly easy to understand, but nobody ever said that it was!

The Two Truths

In our first session, we discussed the first line:

By knowing the meaning of the two truths, the foundational way in which all things abide,

The foundation on which the entire discussion rests is the presentation of the two truths, which concern how everything exists and functions – in other words, the way in which all things abide. These two truths, about everything, are both valid and therefore true:

  • Relative truth: things arise dependently on causes and conditions. Of course, there are other levels of what things depend on, such as their parts and the concepts that refer to them. Here the main point is cause and effect in an experiential sense, particularly in terms of our experience of happiness and unhappiness in relation to the compulsiveness of karma.
  • Deepest truth: although things might not appear to us as dependently arising, nevertheless those deceptive appearances of impossible ways of existing do not correspond to reality. An actual reality that corresponds to our projections is totally absent. This total absence of things existing completely on their own, independently of causes and conditions, is known as “voidness” or “emptiness.”

The Four Noble Truths

On the basis of the validity of the two truths, Buddha was able to understand and formulate the Four Noble Truths. This is shown in the second line:

We gain certainty about how, through the four (noble) truths, we keep entering, but also can reverse our recurring rebirth.

The Four Noble Truths are seen as being true by highly realized beings. This is an interesting point, because it means that it’s not just Buddhas who see these facts as true, but even those who reach a certain stage before Buddhahood, actually quite a long way before. It occurs when we have a non-conceptual cognition of voidness, or in other words, deepest reality. This understanding is totally accurate and totally decisive. As it’s non-conceptual, it means that we’re not perceiving things through categories.

When we think through a category, like “dog,” you have something that represents a dog. This representation can be slightly different for each person, but when we see a dog in the street or anywhere, we perceive it through this category. Through the image we have of a dog – not necessarily a specific visual one – we fit the perception of dog together. When we perceive something non-conceptually, it’s without the filter of any category or something that represents it. That’s why it's called “bare cognition.” You perceive things without fitting them into boxes.

Highly realized beings or aryas in Sanskrit, perceive reality without putting it into the box of “reality” as in, “Now I’m seeing reality.” They understand fully, accurately, and decisively what they’re perceiving – reality – without having to put it in any box or category. It’s not so easy. Even if we might not verbalize the boxes we put things into, it’s the usual way we perceive everything. We put it all into boxes, as if things existed in the boxes all by themselves, separately from everything else.

There’s no need here to explain further about conceptual cognition. The point is that you don’t have to be a Buddha to perceive reality in this way. When we perceive reality non-conceptually, we will see the Four Noble Truths as being true, and we’ll be certain about them.

What are these four truths? The first one is suffering. The second one is the cause of suffering. The third one is the stopping of suffering and its causes. The fourth is the path or understanding that will lead to the stopping of suffering. These are called truths as in “true suffering,” “true cause,” and so on.

This entire discussion is within the context of rebirth – beginningless and endless mental continuums. Rebirth is the foundation. We talked about the moment-to-moment individual experiencing of things, which if it operates in terms of cause and effect, cannot have an absolute beginning where it starts from nothing. Likewise, there can’t be a last moment where it turns into nothing. It’s impossible. From just the basic truth of cause and effect, we would have to conclude that individual mental continuums have no beginning or end, and so rebirth must be true.

True Suffering

There are three aspects to true suffering:

  • First is our usual unhappiness, which we call the suffering of suffering. We’ve all experienced unhappiness. Unhappiness is not necessarily the same as pain. Happiness and unhappiness and pleasure and pain are two different sets of things. Pleasure and pain are physical sensations, whereas happiness and unhappiness are states of mind. Someone might experience pain but be happy about it, like after a strong physical workout, while someone might experience pleasure but be very unhappy about it, like when being forced to have sex. So these are two different variables. Here we’re talking about unhappiness, which all of us know, and it’s described in terms of worse types of rebirth filled with all sorts of suffering.
  • The second type is called the suffering of change, and it refers to our ordinary happiness. The problem with our ordinary happiness is that it never lasts or satisfies us. We always want more, but if we have too much, we get annoyed and it turns into unhappiness. An easy example is eating too much of your favorite food, which makes you sick. Then you don’t want to eat anymore, and you feel unhappy. So the problem is that our ordinary happiness is not satisfactory or stable. Our ordinary life goes up and down, and sometimes we’re happy and sometimes we’re unhappy, but there’s no security in this. Regardless of what’s going on around us, we never know how we’re going to feel in the next moment. All of a sudden, we might feel unhappy or bored or depressed. It continually goes up and down, up and down.
  • The third type of suffering is called the all-pervasive suffering, and it’s the basis for our experiencing the ups and downs of unhappiness and ordinary happiness. The basis is our uncontrollably recurring existence or rebirth, known in Sanskrit as samsara. We keep on being reborn over and over again with a type of body and mind that is the basis for experiencing the ups and downs or ordinary happiness and unhappiness of life. This is the true suffering, our true problem. This is the main suffering we would see, if we saw reality.

True Causes of Suffering

If you see reality, you’ll see as true the fact that what we experience goes up and down, with a basis that also just goes on and on. When we see this, we’ll understand that it has to come from a cause. The main point of relative truth is that all things arise from causes, so what’s the true cause for us continually entering uncontrollably recurring rebirth, as it mentions in the verse? In other words, how does it happen? What is the cause for perpetuating this repeating cycle?

In our last session, we saw that if we experience unhappiness, it’s the result of destructive behavior, and if we experience ordinary happiness, it’s the result of constructive behavior. To this we add karma, which I often translate as compulsiveness. So we’ve got compulsive destructive behavior, and compulsive constructive behavior. This is not like the constructive behavior of a Buddha – but behavior that is compulsive, where we compulsively do good based on an ego trip, or compulsively have to be perfect and do everything right. This is quite neurotic.

If we’re acting in a compulsive way, it’s because we’re under the influence of disturbing emotions and attitudes, which we already discussed in terms of compulsive destructive behavior. Out of anger, we kill someone; out of greed, we steal something; out of naivety, we think that our actions have no consequences, as in “I’m not going to get caught. It doesn’t matter. If I steal, it’ll be fun!”

Behind this compulsive destructive behavior lies unawareness, a term often translated as “ignorance,” but it doesn’t imply that we are stupid, just confused. What are we unaware of? Firstly, we’re unaware of cause and effect, which if we really understood and were convinced of, we wouldn’t act destructively. We would instinctively know that it will end up causing us suffering, which is not a punishment, but simply the result of causes we create.

Actually, there are two types of unawareness. Either we don’t know that acting destructively will ultimately bring unhappiness, or we think in a reverse fashion, as in, “If I act destructively, it’s going to bring me happiness. If I steal what I want, it’s going to make me happy. If I kill my enemy, it’s going to make me happy.” Even though immediately after acting destructively we might feel happy – “Ah, I killed that mosquito, now I can relax!” – nevertheless, as for long-term consequences, namely feeling unhappy no matter what’s going on, this is due to destructive behavior like this. So, destructive behavior comes from unawareness of cause and effect, in other words unawareness of relative truth. I’m not going to pretend that all of this is easy to understand, because it’s not, but it’s something we can work on.

If we summarize this point, the reason why I often feel unhappy is because I haven’t understood cause and effect. When my mind is full of anger, greed, jealousy and so on, it leads me to act compulsively in a destructive manner. This is actually self-destructive, because as a result I feel unhappy a lot of the time. This is the connection we need to make.

The happiness we experience also comes from an unawareness, but in this case, unawareness of the deepest truth of things. To be more accurate, we have to say that unawareness underlies both constructive and destructive behavior. For destructive behavior, we’re unaware of both the deepest truth, and relative truth. For constructive behavior, we just have unawareness of deepest truth. There’s a sort of voice in our heads, who thinks, “What should I do? I want to get my own way! I’m worried.” It seems like there is a truly findable little “me” in there that is talking. But this doesn’t correspond to reality. There’s no such thing. There’s just a verbal component of our thoughts and no little “me” doing the complaining and worrying. When we’re unaware of how we exist, we’re unaware of the deepest reality, and we identify with this projection of a fantasy “me” inside us. Because it doesn’t correspond to reality, we’re insecure about it, and try to make ourselves secure. Of course, we can never succeed.

One mechanism we use to try to make that imagined little “me” secure is our disturbing emotions. We feel, “If I can just get something, I’m going to be secure,” and so we have greed and attachment and lust. Then we feel, “If I can just get that away from me, I’ll be secure,” and so we have anger and repulsion. Or we might be naive and think, “If I just pretend that whatever’s threatening me doesn’t exist, it’ll make me secure.” On this basis we also have destructive behavior, like when we ignore our growing level of stress. On the basis of anger we yell, hurt, and even kill others. With greed, we steal or engage in inappropriate sexual behavior that hurts others. With naivety, we become workaholics, eat an unhealthy diet and never exercise. So all of this comes from naivety about the deepest truth – how we exist – and of cause and effect.

As for constructive behavior, even if there might not be a basis of disturbing emotions, there is still this naivety underlying it all. We try to prove or establish our existence by being perfect or good, by being the best parent or whatever – “This will make this little ‘me’ in my head feel secure” – which never succeeds. We never feel secure. Although we’ll feel some happiness from helping others, it’s still ordinary happiness and so it won’t last. We’ll never be satisfied with it, because we inevitably still feel we aren’t good enough, we aren’t perfect enough. We still feel we have to prove something. It’s clearly based on this unawareness at the deepest level of how we exist.

For the third type of suffering, the basis of experiencing the ups and downs of unhappiness and ordinary happiness, we have a very complicated scheme called the “12 links of dependent arising,” which I won’t explain here in any detail, but it deals with how karma works.

In the simplest way, karma refers to compulsiveness, on the basis of which we act in certain ways, destructively or constructively. What does compulsion actually mean? Compulsion has the connotation that you don’t really have control over something, like someone compulsively tapping their fingers. This arises from feeling like doing something. The Tibetan word just means “I want to do it, I wish to do it, I like to do it,” like feeling like yelling, or hugging, or eating. Then the factor of compulsion comes in, and we do it. Simply, this builds up a certain tendency to repeat the action and a tendency to experience unhappiness if it was a destructive action, and happiness if it was a constructive action. This tendency will be activated at some point by certain conditions. It ripens, and then we feel happy, or we feel unhappy, or we feel like yelling again, or we feel like hugging again.

This is a perpetuating scheme, which goes on and on and on, because we’re constantly experiencing this wish to continue this type of behavior. The pattern of behavior then repeats without end, because we are constantly reinforcing and strengthening it. And so we’re always experiencing this up and down of happiness and unhappiness.

Here, the most relevant question is, how do these tendencies get activated to produce the result, so that we feel like repeating the behavior? This is explained very elegantly with the 12 links, even if it’s very complex. We constantly have this up and down, and it doesn’t have to be particularly dramatic. Even when we’re asleep, maybe we’re in an in-between state where we’re not sleeping well, and we’re not very happy. So what is our state of mind when we’re experience unhappiness, and ordinary happiness? The Sanskrit word for it is trshna, which means “thirst.” It’s usually translated as “craving,” but the actual word just means thirst.

Basically, when we experience unhappiness, we’re dying of thirst to get rid of it, just like you want to get rid of being thirsty. When we experience happiness, we don’t want to be separated from it, but are thirsty for more. It’s like when you’re really thirsty and you take that first sip – well, that’s not enough, is it? You don’t want to be parted from it, but want more and more. Then, what kicks in is a grasping at a solid me, where we think, “I have to get rid of this unhappiness,” “I have to not be rid of this happiness,” and this activates the karmic tendencies. This is the true cause of all-pervasive suffering. So, the tendencies to experience happiness and unhappiness and so on, come from our compulsive behavior mixed with disturbing emotions, which themselves come from our unawareness of reality at its deepest level – how our feelings exist (they change all the time) and how we actually exist (not as some findable insecure entity in our heads that somehow could be made secure by grasping).

This unawareness is the basic cause, and it’s linked with both our constructive and destructive behavior. It’s the real troublemaker that causes the tendencies to be happy, unhappy, and to repeat our behavior, to actually exist. If we look at this thirst, it is intrinsically linked with this unawareness of how we exist. We think, “I’m ‘me,’ the only one who is important, and so I mustn’t be parted from this happiness. It’s so important that I’m not unhappy,” rather than, “Okay, I’m happy or unhappy... so what?” The true cause for our perpetually continuing uncontrollably recurring rebirth is simply our unawareness of the two truths.

True Stopping of the Causes of Suffering

The third truth is true stopping, where the causes of suffering are stopped, and so suffering is also stopped. How is it possible to remove forever this unawareness about reality? When you perceive what doesn’t correspond to reality, there’s no foundation for it. It doesn’t correspond to anything real, and so there is nothing upholding it.

For instance, when you have some scenery in a theater production, there are sticks behind that hold it up. The Tibetan term means that there’s nothing like these sticks holding up our projections of what’s impossible. When there’s nothing holding up the scenery, what happens? It falls down.

Once you are able to focus on the fact that there’s nothing holding up the false projections we have, then with practice, eventually you can stay focused on this realization forever. There’s no way that the scenery could ever stand back up. This drama of the little me inside my head worrying, “What should I do?” and “I have to be perfect” and “I have to get my own way,” will stop. When we see that there never was anything holding up our projections, then our mind no longer projects anything that is impossible. On this basis, we’re not going to activate any of those tendencies anymore, because there’ll be nothing to activate them. There won’t be anymore: “Me, me, me. I have to be happy, and I can’t be unhappy!”

If there’s nothing to activate the tendency, then you can’t say you have the tendency anymore. Something can only be a tendency for a result if there can be a result. In other words, the whole concept of a tendency is dependent on there being a result. If there’s no result, there can no longer be a tendency producing it.

This is how we can reverse uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Even though our minds have been filled with tendencies from beginningless time, if there’s nothing to activate them, then they don’t exist anymore. When we stay with awareness of reality, we simply don’t build up compulsive behavior that would bring about more tendencies. Thus, uncontrollably recurring rebirth and the basis for our up and down feelings are gone, finished forever. This is a true stopping and we attain liberation.

True Pathway Mind to Bring about a True Stopping

The fourth noble truth is usually translated as the “true path,” and it refers to states of mind or understanding, that, like a path, lead you to a goal. This is the correct and decisive understanding of the two truths. The more we can become accustomed to it, so that eventually we have it all the time, it will become a pathway that brings about the true stopping of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.


This is the way in which we derive the four truths from the two truths.

How do we enter samsara? According to the verse we’ve been looking at, it’s discussed with the first two of the Four Noble Truths, that is, true suffering and true causes. Basically, we enter samsara out of our confusion about the two truths. Either we don’t know reality, or we imagine it to be quite different from what reality actually is. How do we get out of this? The third and fourth Noble Truths, or true stopping and the true pathway minds. So from not knowing the two truths of reality, we get the first two of the Four Noble Truths, and from knowing it, we get the second two.

Although this is a very complex topic, this is the way we work with the Buddhist teachings to try and gain some conviction that it’s actually possible to achieve the goals that Buddhism describe, and that we’re aiming for with our practice. Once we understand it all accurately, we can put it together with all the other things it implies. Through meditation, then, we familiarize ourselves with it: we make it a habit to see reality.

On this basis of listening, thinking and meditating, we can gain conviction that the goal we’re aiming for with our practice is actually possible, that it is fact, that it can be attained and that we ourselves can attain it if we put in enough effort. In this way, our practice becomes much more stable, because it’s not just based on a shaky belief that what we’re aiming for might be possible. Instead, we become certain.