The First Three Noble Truths
The Buddha taught that the true suffering that we all face is that we perpetuate our experiencing the ups and downs of unhappiness and unsatisfying happiness, as well as repeatedly having the limited bodies and minds with which we experience them. The true causes of that are our unawareness (ignorance) about how we and these feelings exist. We project that they exist in impossible ways – for instance, as self-contained concrete entities – and believe that this deceptive way in which they appear to us corresponds to how they actually exist. This misconception triggers disturbing emotions, which in turn trigger compelling karmic urges to assert or defend what we imagine to be our “selves,” but which are merely illusions. This misconception, at the time of our dying, also triggers uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara) with a limited body and limited mind.
The Buddha realized and taught, however, that it is possible to eliminate these true causes and, thereby, these true sufferings so that they can never arise again. The fourth noble truth concerns the true antidote that will bring about such a true cessation.
Correct Understanding Is the True Path to Eliminate Ignorance Forever
Ordinarily, when we experience some feeling of unhappiness, unsatisfying happiness or nothingness, we make something extraordinary and concrete out of it, imagining that it will last forever. But, of course, there is nothing special about any feelings we experience – they are all nonstatic and impermanent. They continually change in intensity as long as they last, and eventually they will all naturally come to an end. Unaware of that fact and thinking the opposite, we are deceived by that voice in our heads loudly shouting, “I want never to be parted from this happiness; it’s so fantastic,” or “I want to be parted from this unhappiness; it’s so terrible, I can’t stand it,” or “I want this feeling of nothing never to decline; it’s such a relief.” This fixation on “me” and the inflation of “me” into some concrete entity triggers disturbing emotions and compulsive behavior, perpetuating our true suffering.
Ask yourself, why do you think that you exist as some sort of concrete entity, called “me,” which is self-contained, independent of a body and mind, and the author of the voice in your head? If you say, “Because it feels like that and, so, I think so,” ask yourself, is “because I think so” a sound reason for believing something? When we believe in some projection of fantasy, especially about ourselves, based merely on “because I think so,” why do we feel insecure about that? It’s because there is nothing backing up our misbelief; it’s not backed by either fact or reason.
The fact is that there is nothing special about any feeling of happiness, unhappiness, or nothing that we might experience when seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, physically sensing or thinking something. There is nothing to grasp after with any of them. Grasping after them is like grasping after a cloud – something totally futile. And there is nothing special about “me” and what I’m feeling at any moment. We don’t exist as some sort of self-contained concrete entity talking in our heads that needs to always get its own way. We do exist, but not in the impossible ways with which we misconceive that we do and believe in, simply because it feels like that and “I think so.”
To rid ourselves of this misconception and confused belief about ourselves we need an opponent that will obliterate them completely. Just to quiet our minds and stop thinking like that might temporarily suppress our confusion, but they do not prevent it from arising again. The true pathway mind to achieve a true cessation of this true cause of our true problems, then, must be a state of mind that is the mutually exclusive opposite of our unawareness. The opposite of unawareness is awareness. So, what do we need awareness of? Well, what obliterates the misconception that we exist as some sort of self-contained entity is the non-conceptual cognition that there is no such thing – the non-conceptual cognition of its voidness and not just a conceptual focus on voidness through some idea we have of it, even an accurate one. Awareness, based on reason and non-conceptual experience, that what we falsely believed was true does not correspond to reality obliterates the misbelief that it does correspond, based simply on “because I think so” and the unawareness that this is false. Because the tendencies and habits of unawareness are deeply embedded, their obliteration occurs gradually, in parts and stages.
The Four Aspects of a True Path
The Buddha explained that the true path can be understood in terms of the discriminating awareness (wisdom) that accompanies non-conceptual cognition of voidness. This mental factor discriminates what is true from what is false.
- Firstly, this discriminating awareness is a pathway mind, which gradually leads to the obliteration and total cessation of the various levels of unawareness. Initially, it rids us forever of the unawareness and confusion that is based on having learned and accepted a different system of beliefs and values, like those that are ingrained into us by our parents and society at large. It also includes those gained from commercial advertising and social media.
On social media, when you see selfies of people looking good and having a wonderful time, how does that affect your conception of how you should look and how your life should be? Does it make you feel good about yourself or feel bad? Discriminating awareness that those posts don’t reflect real life is a pathway for ridding ourselves forever of the misbelief that they do reflect it. As a result, it rids us forever of the unhappiness and depression that such misbelief creates when we compare ourselves to them and long to be like that.
Beyond this first step, when we become an “arya” or highly realized being, with further familiarity, this discriminating awareness then rids us forever, in stages, of the automatically arising unawareness that comes, for instance, from imagining that there is a findable, concrete entity, “me,” behind the almost constant voice in our heads. We attain liberation and eventually enlightenment. When we understand that the discriminating awareness of voidness rids us forever of these true causes of our true sufferings, it eliminates the misconception that there is no way to gain liberation from them.
- Secondly, the discriminating awareness that there is no such thing as a self-contained, concrete entity called “me” is the appropriate means for obliterating forever the unawareness and misbelief that there is such a thing. This is because it is the mutually exclusive opposite. You can’t believe that there is such a thing and that there is no such thing at the same time, can you? This point eliminates the misconception that this discriminating awareness is an inappropriate means for attaining a true cessation.
- Thirdly, the discriminating awareness of voidness is the means for actualizing the attainments of becoming, in stages, an arya, a liberated being, and an enlightened Buddha. This counters the misbelief that attaining one of the deep states of concentration is the means for actualizing these attainments.
- Lastly, this discriminating awareness is the means for attaining the definite removal, forever, of the disturbing emotions and even their tendencies and habits preventing our liberation and enlightenment. This counters the misconception that these are parts of the nature of our minds and can never be removed completely.
The true pathway mind of non-conceptual cognition of voidness, ascertained with discriminating awareness, is the obliterating opponent to the true causes of our true sufferings. Once attained, this true pathway mind rids us forever, in stages, of the unawareness and misbeliefs that are the true causes for us perpetuating the uncontrollably recurring arising of true sufferings in life after life. Isn’t the attainment of such a mind the most worthwhile thing we can strive for?