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Introduction to the Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths in Sutra and Tantra

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, October 2006

Part Two: Questions and Answers

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:36 hours)

Question: Why sixteen and not fourteen or seventeen?

Alex: Well, there are four for each. Why there are four for each? I don’t really know. On the path of seeing, the seeing pathway mind, when you become an arya, then there are sixteen phases of that, but that is not correlated with these sixteen. What you’re doing there is working on, first of all, the disturbing emotions concerning the four noble truths that are associated with the desire realm. And then the disturbing emotions of the upper planes of existence, the form and formless realms, with respect to the four noble truths. And then the disturbing emotions and misunderstandings associated with each of these planes of existence – three plains of existence: desire, form, and formless realm. So you have disturbing emotions concerning these four noble truths in relation to the desire realm mind, and then disturbing emotions about the four in relation to the form and formless realm. That is eight. Now with each of these, you have a mind which is working to get rid of those disturbing emotions, and then a liberated mind that is liberated from those. So that makes two for each of the eight, so then you get sixteen. But just because they are sixteen in one list it doesn’t mean that that’s a reason for sixteen in another list. Why sixteen, I don’t know.

Question: You often talked about naivety, and she wanted the interpretation of that word. Why naivety?

Alex: So she asked about the disturbing emotion of naivety. This is the word moha in Sanskrit, one of the three poisonous disturbing emotions. When we speak about what is usually translated as “ignorance” or “unawareness” – “Unwissenheit” in German – there are two forms of this: one is with respect to cause and effect, and one is with respect to the nature of reality, how things exist. Then there are two ways of understanding unawareness. One is that you just don’t know: “I just don’t know about cause and effect; I just don’t know about how things exist.” And the other way of explaining it is that we know these in an incorrect way. So it depends which set of commentaries you are following. So this is, in general, “unawareness.” And then when we speak about the poisonous attitude of moha, which I translate as “naivety,” this is the unawareness that accompanies destructive either behavior or speech or ways of thinking. Unawareness in general can accompany either destructive or constructive things. So when we speak about naivety as one of the three poisonous emotions or attitudes, it’s only with destructive things.

Obviously you can see from this type of explanation that it is very, very difficult to find a word that translates this. This is why in the way in which the Tibetans study Buddhism, which is based on how it was studied at the great monasteries in India, Nalanda for example, is that you must study the definitions of everything. If you don’t know the definitions it is very difficult to know precisely what Buddha and the great masters were talking about. It’s not only difficult in the original language to know what it means, but then when it gets translated into other languages it becomes even more difficult. The definitions are very, very important. And unfortunately not every school within Buddhism and not every master, even within one school, has the same definition. That’s why when you see a term in a Buddhist text you have to really understand it within the context of that text, that author, that school, and not bring in the definition from another context into the wrong context. Usually that is where most of your confusion comes from, that you’re understanding the word in a way in which the author didn’t mean it.

I will give you an example of a very simple word, “permanent.” Some authors say that the mind is permanent; some authors say that the mind is impermanent. You think that is completely contradictory; but it is not, because they mean something different by the word “permanent.” For the one that says it’s permanent, that means eternal, it lasts forever. For the one who says impermanent, they mean that each moment the mind understands something different, so changes from moment to moment. So both would agree with each other, but the way that they are using the word “permanent” and “impermanent” is different. So that’s, I think, a very clear example that if you don’t know the definition of how the author is using the word, you really get confused.

Let me add that we were speaking about renunciation. Renunciation is this determination to be free from my own suffering and the causes of suffering – the first two noble truths – based on really being convinced that it is possible. And when we speak about compassion, compassion is the exact same state of mind, but directed toward others. Just as we would want ourselves to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering, it is the wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering, based on understanding and being convinced that it is possible for them to be free of suffering and the causes. It is not just: “I wish you well, but I don’t think that you are ever going to get free of suffering.” It is possible because of the third and fourth noble truths: that there is a pathway, a way of thinking, that will get rid of the suffering and its causes; and there is actually a true stopping of them that is possible so that they never come back again. Well nobody said it was easy, of course, with many, many years of practice.

And so this is the compassion, and of course it is based on, as the Abbot said, without thinking of a solid isolated “me” or a solid isolated “you,” in terms of… there was a question earlier of: “Is it our responsibility to take care of others and their problems?” His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains this very, very well. He says that if we think of my problem: well, I have this problem and that problem – that’s one thing. But we can also speak, let’s say, of the problem of all Germans: there is a problem of all Germans in terms of the economy, in terms of welfare, social services, this sort of thing. So there’s a problem. Well, the problem of all Germans is also my problem because I am a German. So it’s totally fitting that I take care of that problem; and that problem it is not just limited to me, it is limited to everybody’s problem who’s German. Then there is a problem of all human beings. The environment: that actually is a problem of all living beings on this planet. So it is not really my problem or your problem, it is everybody’s problem. And since I am a living being on this planet, then it is fitting that I think of this problem in terms of this much larger sphere of everybody, because it is everybody’s problem. Therefore the great Indian master Shantideva said, “Suffering has no owner. You don’t get rid of suffering because it is my suffering or your suffering. We work to get rid of suffering simply because it hurts.”

There certainly is, I think, some emotion – what we in the West would call emotions and feeling – with compassion, but it is not a disturbing emotion. It is sad to see somebody who is suffering. It is not that we have no feeling or we feel happy seeing them suffering. And so we do try to imagine what it would be like if I had this problem. We try to imagine what it would be like if we had that problem; that’s why it is always associated with renunciation. This person wants to be free of that problem, the same as I would want to be free of that problem if I had it. And so that same concern and intensity that we would have if it were my problem, we transfer it to somebody else.

There are many levels that are involved here. There is a practice done in Mahayana which is called giving and taking – in Tibetan, tonglen – in which we imagine taking on the suffering and the problems of others and giving them our happiness. And that practice is not usually so successful. Unless you have a strong karmic connection with someone, you can’t really remove their suffering. If that were possible, Buddha would have removed everybody’s suffering already. But it is to develop the courage of a bodhisattva to actually deal with the difficult problems of others. And so we imagine taking it on, and you actually try to feel that suffering without being afraid of it, as our friend says. It is very important not to be afraid of it. And then think in terms of the nature of the mind and that suffering. It’s not that you keep it inside you, but it quiets down. And then on the basis of what the Abbot was saying, the natural joy of the mind, it’s on that basis that you give them happiness. It is like if our child is crying you feel very sad, but we don’t start crying ourselves. And even though we might feel sad that our child is crying: nevertheless we try to comfort and show some warmth to the child. So I think we can understand that from our own experience: that on the one hand, you feel sad and you wish that I could take on – let’s say if my child has a cold or a fever – I wish I could take it on; we feel sad, but nevertheless we try to show warmth and comfort to the child. So it sort of works like that. There is feeling there. The equanimity is in terms of no favorites: I don’t want to just help this one and not that one. So we have this equanimity, this equal attitude to everybody, but it isn’t as though you do it with no positive feeling at all.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always makes jokes out of all of this. Just recently, His Holiness was teaching about this and he said that there was one great practitioner who did this practice with a dog – the dog had been bitten on the leg – and this practitioner was so advanced in this practice that he got the bruise on his leg where the dog had the bruise, and the dog was free from the bruise. This is a classic story. So then His Holiness says, “I wonder what this practitioner would have done if the dog got bitten on the tail!” So we can’t be too literal with all these practices.

Also I think that compassion has a great deal to do with the four noble truths because, as I said, it is not just, “Oh, I am sorry that you have this suffering.” You have to recognize what really is the problem, what really is the cause, and be convinced that it is possible to get free of it, and to know what method to use to get free of it. On that basis, then you can have the Buddhist compassion. It’s not just feeling sorry for somebody and wishing, “Oh, I wish you didn’t have cancer.” That is the type of compassion that is held in common with all religions. It is important to understand the difference between compassion, or concentration, or any of these things that is found in every religion and what is the specific Buddhist form of it. The specific Buddhist form of compassion is with an understanding of the four noble truths.

Question: [inaudible; question about feeding ourselves to a starving tiger]

Alex: In terms of do we feed our body to a tiger, or can we do more good than the tiger can do, and so on, there is one aspect of karma that has to do with the amount of benefit that the other person can do. In other words if you help an ant or you help Mahatma Gandhi, obviously helping Mahatma Gandhi is a stronger action, has stronger effects, because Mahatma Gandhi can help so many more people in this lifetime than the ant can. That is there in the karma explanation. But another factor that we have to bring in here is what we find in the tantric vows. One of the tantric vows is, in practices within tantra, is to value your aggregates – this body, and so on – and not abuse it, not just give it up for some silly reason, or not take care of it, and so on; because on the basis of this human body that we have, we can reach liberation and enlightenment.

So when you put these together, then what seems to come from that is that you are looking for what is going to be the greatest purpose, the greatest aim. “What can I accomplish? I am nowhere on the path, and if I feed my body to the tiger I am going to get really angry and really attached and very, very upset, and my state of mind is going to be terrible in trying to feed the tiger my body. It will have bad effects in terms of my own future striving toward enlightenment.” And the tiger, as you’ve been saying, what does a tiger do? It eats other animals. But that is why, when you are not at that stage to be able to do it, it’s always said, “A fox doesn’t jump where a lion can jump.” But if you see the greater purpose, and the greater purpose is not so much what the tiger can do in this lifetime, but the greater purpose is I’m at that stage, as a bodhisattva, where I am not going to get so upset and freak out if I feed myself to the tiger, but this is going to bring me, in my future lives, much closer to that enlightenment, then there is a greater purpose given to that sacrifice, and that’s not just frivolously giving up these aggregates. So one has to weigh what will be the result of this action and where will the greatest benefit come. In terms of not so much whether I can help others or the tiger can help others, but just look at the whole situation as a whole. So where will the greatest benefit – what solution to this existentialist dilemma: here you are, and there is the starving tiger, what do I do? And so a bodhisattva would look and see what solution to this dilemma will bring about the greatest benefit in the long term. And if one has trained oneself as a bodhisattva with this type of thinking for so long, then it is obvious. So it becomes spontaneous what you do in that sense; otherwise, we have to think about it.

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: This question about if the Buddha is looking in terms of the long-term benefit, and the person, and so on, isn’t there some solid person that is involved here, and the personality, and so on. This is a very important point in the teachings on: no such thing as this impossible self, or the impossible “soul.” You have to differentiate between the “me” that doesn’t exist and the “me” that does exist. The “me” that does exist is individual; it is a continuity of experience, an individual mental continuum that one moment follows the next of experience, based on cause and effect, basically: karma and various actions. So that is individual. It is like one movie one frame after another frame. There is nothing solid that endures, but there is an individual continuity and we, from our perspective, are giving the name “Buddha” to it. Shakyamuni certainly wasn’t called that in a previous lifetime. It is just a name; names change all the time. But there is still an individual, but there is nothing solid there. That would be the inflation; that is the real “me,” the real Buddha that is going from one lifetime to the next lifetime. That is impossible; it is not like that. It is not like a piece of luggage moving on a conveyor belt in the airport – you know, the “me”, and then going from one lifetime to another lifetime. The image is more like a movie: one scene after another after another. Nothing solid there, but individuality is there.

Now it becomes a very interesting question. “Is there something” – this is what one investigates – “is there something inside me that makes me ‘me,’ that I have to find? I have to find myself. If I find myself, what is it in me that makes me ‘me’ and not ‘you?’” This is what one does in voidness meditation. You find that there is nothing from the side of me that makes me “me.” Nothing special; it is just continuity. And based on that continuity, we can refer to it as “me.” But there is nothing that makes me “me.” That is the really interesting thing that one has to investigate in meditation.

There’s a question about the six realms that I’d like to add something that may be of help. When it is explained that we can experience certain things similar to the six realms in this lifetime, on a human basis, that’s just experiencing something similar; that is not really experiencing the six realms. I think it is very unfair to Buddhism to reduce it to a psychology, a Western psychology, that says that it is only really talking about human beings. It is not talking only about human beings. It is talking about all these other life forms.

Now how do we understand that? The mind is capable of understanding things, of perceiving things. If you think of the different aspects of what the mind knows, of what the mind experiences – sight for example, light – there is only a small part of the light spectrum that this hardware of a human body can experience. If it goes too much into ultraviolet, x-ray, too much into infrared, this hardware, this type of body, these aggregates, can’t experience this: it’s limited. Other animals can see in the dark. We can’t see in the dark the way that an owl can see in the dark. Sound: we only, with this hardware of a human body, can only perceive a certain part of the sound spectrum. Dogs can hear much higher than we can. So there are different physical bases, different hardware, that can experience further on the spectrum of sight and sound and smell. A dog can smell much more than we can smell.

Now take the spectrum of happiness and unhappiness, pleasure and pain. With our human hardware, we are limited. When the pain riches a certain level we become unconscious; we can’t experience it anymore. When the pleasure, the bliss, becomes too strong we destroy it. If you have an itch, an itch is blissful. That’s happiness. An itch is happiness, but it is so strong that you have to scratch and destroy it. Or, think about orgasm. As the bliss gets more and more intense, what does the body do? It destroys it. It ends it.

Now that doesn’t mean that it is not possible for the mind to experience beyond the boundary of what the human hardware can experience. Just as the mind, if it is in a dog body, can experience higher sounds; also, if it is in a heavenly body, it can experience more bliss. If it is in a hell body, it won’t get unconscious when the pain gets stronger and stronger and stronger. It will stay conscious and experience it. So I think this is a way – at least it helps me – for accepting that mind itself is capable of experiencing the whole spectrum from unbelievable suffering and pain to unbelievable pleasure. And the six realms are talking about the hardware, physical hardware, that is capable of experiencing different parts of that spectrum. That, I think, is much closer to the Buddhist view. And in each lifetime we are going to get a different hardware that will be able to experience different parts of the spectrum.


When we look at the four noble truths the way that it was studied in the Indian monastic universities and in Tibet, we look at various aspects of it – there are four associated with each – and we analyze quite deeply. When we look at suffering, the true suffering, we are looking not just at the first two types of suffering, which is our ordinary unhappiness, this unsatisfactoriness, etc; we look not only at our ordinary happiness, which never satisfies; but we look much more specifically at the all-pervasive suffering, which is that all-pervasive suffering of having this type of body and mind, and all the feelings and things that are associated with it which are the basis for ordinary unhappiness and ordinary happiness.

To just want to overcome ordinary unhappiness – even animals have that, so that is no special Buddhist thing. To overcome our ordinary happiness – that is also not a special Buddhist thing. There are many religions which talk about overcoming worldly happiness and going to some paradise. What is very important is to understand what really makes this Buddhist. And what really makes it Buddhist is looking at this deeper level of suffering which is involved with rebirth: of over and again having the type of body and mind which attracts the other two types of suffering like a magnet. That’s the true problem. And when we look at the true cause of it, the true origin of it, it is the mechanism that causes rebirth to keep on going over and over and over again, with the same repeating problems; and that we have to look at in terms of karma.

Karma is when we act under the influence of disturbing emotions: longing desire or attachment. Not just that we want something, but what is involved with that is an exaggeration of the good qualities of something. We make it into the most wonderful thing in the world. We make it into some solid thing, and some solid “me” on this side: “I have to have it,” because somehow that piece of cake is going to give me everlasting happiness, or whatever. We exaggerate it. And then longing desire is, “If I don’t have it, I have to have it.” Attachment is, “If I have it, I don’t want to let go.”

Anger, the same thing. We exaggerate the negative qualities of something: it’s the worst thing in the world. We’ve got to get rid of it, got to destroy it. “You are not doing what I like. I have to destroy that, it’s the worst thing in the world.” We make it into a big solid thing, “me.” A big solid thing over there: “‘I’ have to be rid of that.” And naivety: we just don’t know, or we understand in a completely false way. When we act on the basis of that: “I have to get rid of that,” so we kill or hurt somebody; we yell. “I’ve got to get that.” so we steal. Or “I’ve got to get your love,” so we are nice to the person. So it could be being nice to them.

This builds up different types of habits by causing unhappiness, by being destructive, that causes us to be unhappy. That’s how we experience the ripening of that. By acting nice to somebody, but on the basis of some self-interest, we experience the second type of suffering: our ordinary happiness which never satisfies. And that goes up and down all the time. We have the tendencies, the habits of these karmic actions; they last, they continue afterwards. And we activate them at the time of death to make another impulse of energy that is going to bring us to another rebirth – more aggregates, more body and mind, as the basis for these problems. So what activates it is this thirst, what I was calling “craving.” This thirst which is: when I experience this unhappiness that is the result of my negative actions, I exaggerate it – big solid “me” – “‘I’ have to be rid of that.”

When we experience the happiness that changes all the time as a result of our positive karmic actions, then we exaggerate it – “this is so fantastic! I have to keep on having it” – big solid “me,” another form of thirst. And then thirst to just continue to exist – go on and on and on – and that whole cluster of the karma and the karmic aftermath, the tendencies, this grasping, this thirst – all of that is the real origin of continued rebirth, the basis for all the other sufferings. That is the true origin. That is what we want to get rid of. So here we have cause and effect in the disturbing side, the deluded side.

But then what is going to get rid of that? We want to achieve a true stopping. True stopping is where all this karma, karmic aftermath, all these disturbing emotions that would activate it – all of it is pulled out forever. Like pulling out the root of a plant so it’s never going to grow again. We want to achieve that state. And that state actually is possible; it exists. That is the true stopping: it will last forever on the basis of our continuing experience into liberation and enlightenment.

And what will bring it about, the true pathway, is correct understanding of, of course, these eight factors and so on; but specifically the correct understanding of all these aspects of the four noble truths, and specifically that there is no solid “me” and nothing exists in all these impossible ways – that our mind makes them appear that way, and that we believe in. And that understanding is the exact opposite of not understanding. So if we can have correct understanding all the time, then there is no chance for incorrect understanding or not understanding – the two are the exact opposites. And the correct understanding is stronger than the false understanding: it has the backing of logic, it has the backing of experience, and so on.

What are we aiming for is to get this true pathway mind, this correct understanding, all the time. And if it is there all the time, then we are free. And when it is there all the time there is, of course, this true stopping. There’s the absence of the “not knowing,” it is not there anymore. We can’t have the two together. So that is the way out. It is the way out whether we are following Theravada, whether we are following Mahayana. We can speak about a slight different understanding of what is false, but from the deepest Mahayana point of view the understanding is the same whether we are aiming for our own liberation or we are aiming for enlightenment. In Mahayana we are aiming for enlightenment – the ability to help everybody, because anger is not just my problem, it is everybody’s problem. Rebirth is not just my problem, it is everybody’s problem. I am one of “everybody.” It is our problem. So we work for everybody. The solution is not just my solution, it will be the solution for everybody.

So the only difference between a Theravada path and a Mahayana path, from this point of view, is the motivation behind. How strong is that motivation? If I have a headache and I want to get rid of it, because I have a headache and I don’t feel good, my energy is one level. If I have a headache, but I have my children to feed, my motivation is much stronger. If it is only myself, well I’ll just go to bed and forget about dinner. If my children need to be fed, I will say that it doesn’t matter that I have a headache, I have to feed them. I have much more energy. So because the energy is stronger, then that understanding is able to cut through not just the disturbing emotions and karma that cause my rebirth, samsara, but also we are able to cut through the habits of this confusion that is responsible for my mind making all these wrong appearances of how things exist as if everything is some solid, independent entity, an island. Everything is an isolated island not related to anything else.

Then when we look at this on the tantra level, we are working with the energies of the mind that are responsible for making these false appearances, and working with special methods with these energies to get that to stop. That is basically what I was speaking about.