The Four Noble Truths
Buddha lived about 2500 years ago in India. Because his disciples had varying dispositions and capacities, he taught each of them in an individual way that would best suit how they would understand. But the first thing that he taught for everyone was about his basic insight of how he became enlightened: he taught what he called the “Four Noble Truths.” These are four true facts about life that ordinary people would not see as being facts, but highly realized beings (aryas) who have seen reality non-conceptually would see that they are true. In brief, these four truths answer the following questions:
- What are the true types of sufferings and problems that everyone experiences in life?
- What are their causes?
- Is it possible to actually get rid of these problems, to achieve a stopping of them so that they will never recur again?
- What is the understanding that will bring about that stopping because it would get rid of the causes of suffering?
The answers to these questions constitute the basic structure of what Buddha taught in depth for the rest of his life, and this is what he taught first.
When we look these Four Noble Truths, they don’t exist in isolation all by themselves. They follow from a basis, and lead to a goal when fully understood. In simple words, the basis for these four truths – these four facts of life – is reality.
If we want to summarize Buddhism with one word, then, as one of my friends who is also a Buddhist teacher said, that one word would be “realism.”
If we could see reality and understand and accept it without projections of something impossible and unreal, we would be able to deal with our problematic situations in life in realistic ways.
So teachings on reality are the basis for these four truths. Reality, however, encompasses various levels of how things exist and how they function in life. Buddha taught about all that.
The Three Precious Gems
From these Four Noble Truths what becomes clear is the direction we need to put in our lives in order to overcome suffering and problems. This direction is indicated by what Buddhist jargon calls the “Three Precious Gems” or “Three Jewels of Refuge” – Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Each has several levels of meaning, but on the deepest level, they signify:
- The Dharma – the goal that we are striving for, namely ridding ourselves of our problems and their causes, and attaining the full understanding that will rid us of them forever
- The Buddhas – those who have achieved that goal in full and who teach how to do that ourselves
- The Sangha – those who are following these teachings and have reached the goal in part, but not in full.
Requests to the 17 Nalanda Pandits
His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote a very beautiful text as a request for inspiration from 17 great Buddhist masters from the great Buddhist monastery of ancient India. It was called Nalanda and lasted for about a thousand years. Run like a monastery, it was the most famous university of its day and produced the greatest masters of the Indian Buddhist tradition. The Dalai Lama wrote this text in the form of a prayer to each of the 17 most famous of these masters: “Inspire me to follow in your footsteps.” After these verses of individual request, His Holiness concluded with several more general verses addressed to all of them.
What I’d like to present is a commentary on one of those concluding verses. It summarizes what I just explained about reality (the two truths), the Four Noble Truths, and the Three Jewels of Refuge. Refuge just means that if we go in the direction indicated by these three, we will save ourselves from suffering and problems.
The verse reads:
By knowing the meaning of the two truths, the foundational way in which all things abide,
“Abide” means how things exist, how things function. In other words, knowing reality.
We gain certainty about how, through the four (noble) truths, we keep entering but can also reverse our recurring rebirth.
If we understand reality, we will understand, through the four noble truths, how we perpetuate our problems, as well as how we can rid ourselves of them.
Brought on by valid cognition (of this), then our conviction becomes stable that the Three Refuges are indeed fact.
Remember the Three Refuges are formulated in terms of the actual goal that we can achieve – a complete stopping of all our problems so that they never recur again and the understanding that will bring that about.
If you want to practice the Buddhist path, you’re aiming for a goal. How do you know that that goal is possible to achieve? Is it just a fiction? Is it a nice story or is it actually fact? Many people will strive for the goal just based on faith: “My teacher said it was so. And okay, I want to believe, so I believe.”
That can work for many people, but it is not always the most stable way of practicing. After practicing over a long period of time, what frequently happens is that you start to question, what am I doing? This is because you still experience anger, attachment, selfishness, and more – the real troublemakers – and they’re really difficult to get rid of. So progress is very slow. But you need to realize that progress is also never linear: it always goes up and down. Some days it goes better and some days worse. If you’re practicing the Buddhist methods just on the basis of faith, you can become discouraged because it doesn’t look as though you’re getting anywhere. Then you would question, “Well, is it really possible to achieve the goal?”
That’s why this verse says, “brought on by valid cognition.” In other words, when you really have understood – based on logic and reason – that the goal does exist and that it actually is possible to achieve it, then your conviction about the goal, the feasibility of achieving it and that there are people who have actually achieved it becomes very firm. You believe that these points are fact, not just because they’re written in some holy book. You’re convinced that they’re true because the two truths are reality, and the four truths and three refuges follow logically based on reality.
Inspire me, please, to implant this root of the pathway minds that lead to liberation.
You plant a seed, but here you implant a “root,” not a seed. This choice of words indicates that the structure of the two truths, four truths and three refuges is the root for the entire Buddhist spiritual path, since everything follows from it. With this root firmly implanted in your mind, all your practice is based on conviction. You understand what you’re doing, you understand that it is possible to achieve the goal, and you understand what that goal is.
I think that this is a very important approach to Buddhism, because if we’re going to follow a spiritual path, it’s very important to be convinced that it’s realistic. It’s not some sort of idealistic fantasy that we’re drawn to out of emotion, but which is utterly impossible. If we’re convinced that what we’re doing in our spiritual life is realistic, we can put healthy emotion into it. We need a balance of the two: understanding and wholesome emotion, such as compassion, enthusiasm, patience, and the like.
The Two Truths
Relative, Conventional Truth
By knowing the meaning of the two truths, the foundational way in which all things abide,
The first line in the verse speaks about the two truths: “relative truth” or “conventional truth” and “deepest truth” – in other words, two true facts about the reality of everything. One is the more superficial, surface level, and the other is the deepest level. Both are valid, but from different points of view. There are many presentations of the two, but let’s follow here the one that His Holiness the Dalai Lama often uses when addressing a general audience.
Cause and Effect
What is the surface level of truth about everything we experience? This is that everything we experience is presently occurring only because of its relation with its prior causes. In other words, everything arises or happens dependently on cause and effect. Physics also teaches this principle of causality, but only regarding physical phenomena, such as the relation between kicking a ball and the ball moving. This relation is simple mechanics, cause and effect.
Causality, of course, can be explained on a much more complex level when you consider all the factors that bring about the occurrence of something. For instance, if you look at economic problems, global warming, regional wars, and so on, it’s obvious that they don’t come from just one cause. They also don’t come from no cause at all, nor do they come from irrelevant causes. Instead, all such situations arise dependently on many different factors. These include not only what’s going on at present, but also what has happened in the past. Like here in this country, Ukraine, you can’t separate the present situation from the Soviet past or the Second World War and all of that. The economic and ecological situations today have arisen as a consequence of everything that has occurred throughout history. So you can’t say that what’s happening now is the fault of just one person or one thing that happened. Things arise dependently on a huge network of causes and conditions. This is reality, isn’t it?
Or if you look in terms of psychology: if you have a problem in a family, then again you can’t say that it comes from just one cause or no cause. Each member of the family has contributed in a causal fashion to the family problem. Likewise, you can’t say that the way that each of them is behaving has nothing to do with what is happening to them at work, at school and with their friends. Everything exerts an influence. Moreover, the family situation doesn’t exist in isolation from society and its political, social and economic systems. All of these, in one way or another, influence the problem as well.
Here, then, realism refers to the fact that everything is interconnected and influences everything else. Everything that occurs is happening as a result of a huge complex network of causes and conditions. That’s reality.
If this is the case with physical objects, as well as with global issues and family problems, then what about on an individual scale with each of us personally? What about happiness and unhappiness? Do they have a cause? Do they come from no cause? After all, sometimes I feel happy, sometimes I don’t feel happy, and there’s no way of knowing what I’m going to feel in the next moment. So is that happening from no cause? Or is it happening dependently on just what I’m doing at the moment? Well, that doesn’t make sense, does it? I could be eating the same thing two different days, and one day I feel happy while eating it and another day I feel miserable while eating it, so it’s not coming from the food. I could be with someone I love the most and still sometimes feel happy, sometimes unhappy. I could be wealthy and things go well with me, and I could still be unhappy.
So where do this happiness and unhappiness come from? Are they being sent by some higher being that presses a button so that sometimes I’m going to feel happy and sometimes unhappy? Pardon me, I don’t mean to be offensive. I’m taking it to a silly extreme. But, if everything you experience – like physical objects moving or your hand getting burned and hurting when you accidently touch a hot stove – follow the laws of cause and effect, then shouldn’t happiness and unhappiness also follow from understandable laws of causality? This is the question and the main point about reality in the reference to relative truth in the context of this verse. It refers to the reality of the causal relation between our behavior and our experience of happiness or unhappiness as the result.
This brings us to the basic Buddhist teachings on karma. What is karma? This is not an easy topic. There are several explanations and a lot of misunderstandings, but basically:
Karma refers to the compulsiveness that drives and characterizes our ways of acting, speaking and thinking.
Our behavior, whether destructive, constructive, or even neutral, is rather compulsive, if you think about it.
- I’m annoyed and feel like yelling at someone and then, compulsively, I yell.
- I’m overprotective and feel like looking in to see if the baby is okay and then, compulsively, I repeatedly check, far more than is necessary or healthy.
- I’m hungry and feel like going to the refrigerator to get a snack and then, compulsively, I just go.
Where does this compulsion come from? And, what does it lead to? These are the questions that the teachings on karma ask. The Buddhist explanation is that when you act, speak or think in a compulsive manner, it builds up potentials and tendencies on your mental continuum that continue there with each moment of your experience afterwards. When triggered by various circumstances, they lead to your feeling like repeating the pattern of behavior. Based on that feeling, the compulsion arises that uncontrollably draws you into repeating the action. This compulsion is the actual karma involved.
Of course you can also explain this phenomenon on a physiological level: acting in a certain way builds up and reinforces a neural pathway, so that subsequently you more easily follow a pattern of behavior. Buddhism certainly doesn’t deny this physical basis; it just approaches the phenomenon from the experiential point of view, but still analyzes it as a further example of cause and effect.
What about happiness and unhappiness? Buddhism explains these as well in terms of karmic cause and effect. If you experience unhappiness, it’s the long-term result of your compulsive destructive behavior committed under the influence of disturbing emotions. If you experience ordinary happiness – the type of happiness that doesn’t last and never satisfies, but yet still feels good – it’s the long-term result of constructive behavior done under the influence of positive emotions, such as patience and kindness. It’s still compulsive, however, because it was mixed with confusion about how we exist, as in being a compulsive do-gooder or compulsive perfectionist.
How do we understand these causal relationships? First of all, we need to understand the difference between constructive and destructive behavior. The distinction between the two is not drawn in terms of the effect your behavior has on somebody else. For example, if you’re very angry with someone and you stab them with a knife, that’s destructive. On the other hand, if, as a surgeon, you cut somebody open with a knife to perform a life-saving operation, that’s constructive. Obviously, the action of sticking a knife in someone is not the determining factor here of whether the act is constructive or destructive. It all depends on the motivation: the state of mind with which the action is done and the goal that you intend to reach by the act.
If the action is motivated by a disturbing emotion, such as anger, attachment, greed, naivety, jealousy, arrogance, selfishness, and these sort of things, then it’s destructive, even if you’re doing something that in and of itself is nice. For example, if you give somebody a nice massage out of longing desire and the wish to sexually molest them, your act is destructive. On the other hand, if the action is relatively free of these disturbing emotions, then it’s constructive, even if the action itself is not nice at all. For instance, as a parent, you send your misbehaving child to their room, not out of anger, but out of love and concern to teach them not to be naughty. In most cases, however, the constructive act will still be compulsive because of being mixed with an unconscious drive to derive from your act a sense of true identity – in this case, as a good parent.
How, then, do we understand the causal relationship between unhappiness and destructive behavior based on disturbing emotions, and the causal relationship between happiness and constructive behavior that is relatively free of disturbing emotions? This is not only a very interesting question, it’s also a very crucial one, because Buddha identified karma, disturbing emotions and confusion about how we exist as the causes for how we feel. They are the causes for unhappiness and unsatisfying ordinary happiness. We need to go beyond both in order to be free of the suffering that both types of feelings entail.
Let’s think about it. When you’re acting, speaking or thinking about something or someone with anger, for example, are you at ease? Is your energy calm? No, it’s not calm at all; it’s agitated. Are you happy at such times? I don’t think anybody would say they’re happy while experiencing anger or any of the other disturbing emotions. Likewise, if you observe your energy when you’re feeling greedy, you’re not at ease; you’re afraid you won’t get enough. When you’re very much attached to someone and missing them terribly, you’re also not at ease; your energy is very disturbed. Whereas when you’re not feeling any anger, greed, selfishness or such things, and you’re just trying to be kind, your mind is relatively calm, your energy is smoother, isn’t it? You basically feel happy, though this might be a subtle level of happiness, nothing dramatic. Even if you’re a compulsive “do-gooder” and want to make everything perfect, your energy is more relaxed and you are happier doing something beneficial, than when you are acting out of anger. Of course, if while doing something positive you are afraid of making a mistake or of not being good enough, then you are certainly not at ease with such thoughts and worries.
What is noteworthy, here, is that this feeling of unhappiness or relative happiness lasts for a short while even after your action has ended. That indicates that what you feel even when you are doing something else can be affected by what you did previously. When Buddha spoke about the relation between karma and the level of happiness or unhappiness you experience, however, he was not referring primarily to what we feel shortly after some act. He was speaking about much longer-term results. However, we can start to appreciate his point when we think about the relation between our compulsive emotional behavior and the way our energy is flowing in our bodies.
The relative truth about everything we experience, then, is that everything arises dependently on causes and conditions, including our general state of mind and not only what we feel like doing, but also whether we are happy or unhappy. This is one aspect of reality – the line in the verse calls it the foundation, the way in which all things abide – so, the way in which everything exists, functions, and works.
The second truth about everything focuses on a deeper level. Although things might appear to exist and function in impossible ways because of our projections of fantasy, the impossible ways in which they appear to exist do not correspond to reality.
That total absence of something findable that corresponds to our projections is called “voidness,” often translated as “emptiness.”
Although there are many levels of subtlety in the impossible ways of existing that our minds project out of habitual confusion, we can start to work with this deepest truth by working with it on the most general level: things don’t exist in impossible ways. How could they? The reality is that there’s nothing that corresponds to the impossible nonsense that our confused minds project. It’s totally absent, there’s no such thing.
Consider a classic example: A child thinks that there’s a monster under the bed. Actually there’s a cat under the bed, but the child projects onto the cat that it’s a monster. Then because the child believes that there actually is a monster there, despite it being nonsense, the child is very frightened. So projecting this nonsense has an effect on the child, but it certainly doesn’t make the cat an actual monster, because there are no such things as monsters. Voidness, then, is the total absence of a real monster that corresponds to the child’s fantasy. There never was a monster and there never can be one. But take away the projection, and there’s still a cat under the bed; it’s not that there’s nothing there.
We imagine, out of habit, that things exist in the way that they actually appear to us. We’re only aware of what’s right in front of our eyes or what we’re actually feeling at the moment. For instance, I might be feeling unhappy now, and it appears as though that just arose by itself for no reason at all. I’m just unhappy. I don’t know why. I feel bored; I feel blah; I’m unhappy and it doesn’t seem to be related to what I’m doing or to the people I’m with. Just all of a sudden I feel blah; I feel unhappy. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. It can be a low level feeling of dissatisfaction. So how does it appear? It appears as though there’s no cause. But that’s impossible. That doesn’t correspond to reality. That’s the deepest truth.
The conventional, relative truth, then, is that everything, including my unhappiness or happiness, arises from a process of cause and effect. Although that’s the reality, it doesn’t appear like that to me. It appears as though what I feel comes out of nowhere for no reason at all. The deepest truth is that how it appears to me doesn’t correspond to reality – it’s a projection of something impossible. That really is very profound if you think about it.
Let me give another example. Suppose I have a close friend who sometimes yells at me. We have a wonderful relationship, but all of a sudden my friend is angry about something and yells at me. How does it appear to me? It appears as though “you don’t love me anymore.” I become very upset because all that appears to my mind is my friend yelling at me and I identify him totally with just that and nothing more. But that projection doesn’t correspond to reality. That yelling didn’t arise from nothing, existing completely separately from being just an incident in the context of our long-term friendship. Maybe this has happened to you too.
What happens is that we lose sight of the entirety of the relationship we have with our friend – all the other times we’ve been with this person, all the rest of our interaction. But that isn’t the only thing; we also lose sight of the larger picture. We’re not the only person in our friend’s life and our friendship isn’t the only thing happening in his life. Our friend has a whole life besides me and this also affects how he feels and acts. Maybe he had a difficult day at work or there was some problem with his parents and this put my friend in a bad mood and so he yelled at me. The deepest truth is that what I projected is impossible: it’s just not reality that his yelling at me existed totally by itself, independently of the context of the rest of our friendship and the rest of what was happening in his life. An actual reality corresponding to that appearance of independently existing events can’t possibly exist, there’s no such thing. The total absence of such a mode of existence is called “voidness,” “shunyata” in Sanskrit, which is the same word as the word for zero.
In terms of the two truths, then, when things are devoid of existing isolated and independently from each other, then cause and effect works. This is because cause and effect only exist relative to and dependently on each other. Something can’t exist as a cause unless there is a possible effect from it. If something cannot produce an effect, how can it exist as a cause of anything? The relative truth, then, of things, namely their causal relations, can only function because of the deepest truth about everything: nothing exists in the impossible way of being disconnected from everything else.
The fact that the two truths support each other in this way is, as mentioned in the verse, the foundation, the way in which everything abides. “Foundation” also indicates that it’s the foundation for what comes in the next line. It’s on the basis of seeing reality, namely the two truths, that Buddha then understood the four truths.
Experiencing True Reality
Is it possible to experience directly true reality, where you don’t have any false conceptions? Or is it something impossible?
No, no, it is possible. Although our mental activity makes everything appear to exist in impossible ways, nevertheless, since they don’t correspond to reality, it is possible to get rid of what’s causing that distortion. This is because there is such a thing as reality and because distorting reality is not part of the basic nature of mental activity. It is possible for mental activity to function without any projections or distortion.
On that basis, we understand that when our mental activity distorts reality, that causes us problems, suffering and unhappiness. But since it’s possible to stop our minds from projecting that distortion, we will no longer create and experience problems for ourselves. Once we understand that our minds are capable of attaining this goal, then we have attaining it as the safest direction to put in our lives in order to avoid and prevent suffering. This safe direction is our so-called “refuge.” But we can only aim for the goal when we are convinced that it actually is possible to attain it. Our conviction comes from realizing that all that I’ve mentioned is based on reality and our ability to perceive it.
But it requires a very long training to familiarize ourselves with reality so as to cut through the mental blocks. This is where meditation comes in. Meditation, in this context, is a training to familiarize ourselves with reality by building up seeing reality as a beneficial habit. If you build up that habit, then, whenever you meet anybody, you have accustomed yourself to seeing them not just in the way that they actually appear in front of your eyes. Rather, you are fully aware that they were once a baby, they had a childhood and an adult life, and many things influenced them throughout their lives. And they will probably become older and be influenced by even more things. In this way, you see the reality of the entire context of the person’s life, and see that everything that has happened in it is interrelated. This view of the reality of the person allows you to interact in a much more beneficial and realistic way than just shortsightedly viewing them like a still photograph before your eyes.
But you need to train yourself to do that. Undoubtedly you actually don’t know all the details of their life and its influences, but that doesn’t matter. Just being aware that this person has a past history with many influences and will most likely have a future opens you up very much to the reality of the person. So, if you see a baby, for instance, you don’t just see the baby as a baby; here’s a potential adult, and everything that I do now is going to affect how this baby becomes an adult. You look at the whole picture. You’re in touch with reality.