"The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
By Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
Of the three yanas the first is the Theravada path which is often called the 'Hinayana.' 'Hinayana' literally means 'lesser vehicle' but this term should in no way be a reproach or be construed to in any way diminish the importance of these teachings. In fact, the teachings of the Hinayana are very important because they suit the capacities and development of a great number of students. If it weren't for these teachings, which are particularly appropriate for those with limited wisdom or diligence, many persons would never reach the Mahayana path. Without the Theravada teachings there would be no way for practitioners to enter the dharma because they would not have had a way to enter the Buddhist path. This path is similar to a staircase: the lower step is the first step. This doesn't mean it is not important or should be ignored because without these essential steps one can never gain access to the upper stories. It should be very clear that this term 'lesser'vehicle is in no way a pejorative term. It provides the necessary foundation on which to build. The fundamental teachings of the Theravada are the main subject matter of the first turning of the wheel of dharma. These teachings were given mainly in India in the town of Sarnath which is near the Indian city of Varanasi which is also called Benares. The main subject matter of these teachings were the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths
If the Buddha had taught his disciples principally by demonstrating his miraculous abilities and powers, this would not have been the best way to demonstrate the path to liberation. The best way to help them attain wisdom and liberation was to point out the very truth of things; to point out the way things are. So he taught the Four Noble Truths and the two truths (conventional and ultimate truth). By seeing the way things really are, the students learned how to eliminate their wrong view and perceive their delusion. By eliminating wrong views and the causes of the delusion automatically the causes of one's suffering and hardships will be destroyed. This allows one to progressively reach the state of liberation and great wisdom. That is why the Four Noble Truths and the two truths are the essence of the first teachings of the Buddha.
The First Noble Truth
The first noble truth is the full understanding of suffering. Of course, in an obvious way, people are aware of suffering and know when they have unpleasant sensations such as hunger, cold, or sickness. But the first noble truth includes awareness of all the ramifications of suffering. It encompasses the very causal nature of suffering. This includes knowledge of the subtle and the obvious aspects of suffering. The obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the moment.
Subtle suffering is more difficult to recognize because it begins with happiness. But by its very nature this happiness must change because it can't go on forever. Because it must change into suffering, this subtle suffering is the impermanence of pleasure. For example, when I went to Bhutan with His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, I was invited to the palace of the king of Bhutan. The palace of the king was magnificent, the king's chambers were beautiful, there were many servants who showed complete respect and obedience. But we found that even though there was so much external beauty, the king himself was suffering a great deal mentally. The king said that he was quite relieved that His Holiness had come and emphasized how much the visit meant to him because of the various difficulties with which he had been troubled. This is the subtle aspect of suffering. One thinks that a particular situation will give one the most happiness one can ever imagine, but actually, within the situation, there is a tremendous amount of anguish. If one thinks of those who are really fortunate'gods or human beings with a very rich and healthy life'it seems as though they have nothing but happiness. It is hard to understand that the very root, the very fiber of what is taking place is suffering because the situation is subject to change. What is happiness' By its very nature it can often mean that there will be suffering later on. There is no worldly happiness that lasts for a very long time. Worldly happiness includes an element of change, of built-in suffering. For that reason the first noble truth of the awareness of suffering refers not just to immediate suffering, but also to the subtle elements of suffering. The Buddha taught the truth of suffering because everything that takes place on a worldly level is a form of suffering. If we are suffering but are not aware of it, we will never have the motivation to eliminate this suffering and will continue to suffer. When we are aware of suffering, we can overcome it. With the more subtle forms of suffering, if we are happy and become aware that the happiness automatically includes the seed of suffering, then we will be much less inclined to become attached to this happiness. We will then think, 'Oh, this seems to be happiness, but it has built-in suffering.' Then we will want to dissociate from it. The first truth is that we should be aware of the nature of suffering. Once we have a very clear picture of the nature of suffering, we can really begin to avoid such suffering. Of course, everyone wants to avoid suffering and to emerge from suffering, but to accomplish this we need to be absolutely clear about its nature. When we become aware that the nature of day-to-day existence is suffering, we don't have to be miserable with the thought that suffering is always present. Suffering doesn't go on forever because the Buddha entered our world, gave teachings, and explained clearly what suffering is. He also taught the means by which suffering can end and described a state of liberation which is beyond suffering. We do not have to endure suffering and can, in fact, be happy. Even though we cannot immediately eliminate suffering by practicing the Buddha's teachings, we can gradually eliminate suffering in this way, and move towards eventual liberation. This fact in itself can help us gain peace of mind even before we have actually emerged completely from suffering. Applying the Buddha's teachings, we can be happy in the relative phase of our progress and then at the end we will gain wisdom and liberation and be happy in the ultimate sense, as well. The first noble truth makes it clear that there is suffering. Once we know what suffering is, we must eliminate that suffering. It is not a question of eliminating the suffering itself, but of eliminating the causes of suffering. Once we remove the causes of suffering, then automatically the effect, which is suffering, is no longer present. This is why to eliminate this suffering, we must become aware of the second noble truth, the truth of interdependent origination
The Second Noble Truth
The truth of interdependent origination is an English translation of the name the Buddha gave to this noble truth. It means 'that which is the cause or origin of absolutely everything.' The truth of universal origination indicates that the root cause of suffering is karma and the disturbing emotions (Skt. kleshas). Karma is a Sanskrit word which means 'activity' and klesha in Sanskrit means 'mental defilement' or 'mental poison.' If we do not understand the Buddha's teachings, we would most likely attribute all happiness and suffering to some external cause. We might think that happiness and suffering come from the environment, or from the gods, and that everything that happens originates from some source outside of our control. If we believe this, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to eliminate suffering and its causes. On the other hand, when we realize that the experience of suffering is a product of what we have done, that is, a result of our actions, eliminating suffering becomes possible. Once we are aware of how suffering takes place, then we can begin to remove the causes of suffering. First we must realize that what we experience is not dependent on external forces, but on what we have done previously. This is the understanding of karma. Karma produces suffering and is driven by the disturbing emotions. The term 'defilement' refers mainly to our negative motivation and negative thoughts which produce negative actions.
The Third Noble Truth
The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering through which the causes of karma and the disturbing emotions can be removed. We have control over suffering because karma and the disturbing emotions take place within us'we create them, we experience them. For that reason, we don't need to depend on anyone else to remove the cause of suffering. The truth of interdependent origination is that if we do unvirtuous actions, we are creating suffering. It also means that if we abandon unvirtuous actions, we remove the possibility of experiencing suffering in the future. What we experience is entirely in our hands. Therefore the Buddha has said that we should give up the causes of karma and the disturbing emotions. Virtuous actions result in happiness and unvirtuous actions result in suffering. This idea is not particularly easy to grasp because we can't see the whole process take place from beginning to end. There are three kinds of actions: mental, verbal, and physical. These are subdivided into virtuous and unvirtuous physical actions, virtuous and unvirtuous verbal actions, and virtuous and unvirtuous mental actions. If we abandon the three types of unvirtuous actions, then our actions become automatically virtuous. There are three unvirtuous physical actions: the harming of life, sexual misconduct, and stealing. The results of these three unvirtuous actions can be observed immediately. For example, when there is a virtuous relationship between a man and woman who care about each other, who help each other, and have a great deal of love and affection for each other, they will be happy because they look after each other. Their wealth will usually increase and if they have children, their love and care will result in mutual love in the family. In the ordinary sense, happiness develops out of this deep commitment and bond they have promised to keep. Whereas, when there is an absence of commitment, there is also little care and sexual misconduct arises. This is not the ground out of which love arises, or upon which a home in which children can develop happiness can be built. One can readily see that a lack of sexual fidelity can create many kinds of difficulties. One can also see the immediate consequences of other unvirtuous physical actions. One can see that those who steal have difficulties and suffer; those who don't steal experience happiness and have a good state of mind. Likewise, those who kill create many problems and unhappiness for themselves, while those who support life are happy. The same applies to our speech although it is not so obvious. But on closer examination, we can also see how happiness develops out of virtuous speech and unhappiness results from unvirtuous speech. At first, lying may seem to be useful because we might think that we can deceive others and gain some advantage. But the Sakya Pandita said that this is not true. If we lie to our enemies or persons we don't get along with very well, because they are our enemies they are not going to pay attention to what we are saying anyway. It will be quite hard to deceive them. If they are our friends, we might be able to deceive them at first by telling a lie. But after the first time, they won't trust us any more and may see us as untrustworthy. Lying therefore doesn't really accomplish anything. Then if we look at the opposite, a person who takes pains to speak the truth will develop a reputation for being a truthful person and out of this trust many good things will emerge. Once we have considered the example of the consequences of lying, we can think of similar consequences relating to other kinds of damaging speech: slander, and coarse, aggressive, and useless speech. In the long term virtuous speech produces happiness and unvirtuous speech produces suffering. When we say 'useless speech,' we mean speech that is really useless, not just conversational. So, if we have a good mind and want someone to relax and be happy, even though the words may not have great meaning, our words are based on the idea of benefit and goodness. By useless speech we mean chatter for no reason at all. Worse than that is 'chatter rooted in the disturbing emotions.' When we say bad things about other people because of a dislike or jealousy of them. We just gossip about people's character. That is really useless speech. Besides being useless, this very often causes trouble because it sets people against each other and causes bad feelings. The same applies to 'harmful speech.' If there is really a loving and beneficial reason for talking, for example, scolding a child when the child is doing something dangerous or scolding a child for not studying in school, that is not harmful speech because it is devoid of the disturbing emotions, rather it is a skillful way of helping someone. If there is that really genuine, beneficial attitude and love behind what we say, it is not harmful speech. But if speech is related to the disturbing emotions such as aggression or jealousy, then it is harmful speech and should be given up. We can go on to examine the various states of mind and see that a virtuous mind produces happiness and unvirtuous states of mind create unhappiness. For instance, strong aggression will cause us to lose our friends. Because of our aggressive-ness, those who don't like us or our enemies will become even worse enemies and the situation will become inflamed. If we are aggressive and hurt others and they have friends, eventually those friends will also become enemies. On the other hand, goodness will arise through our caring for our loved ones and then extending this by wishing to help others. Through this they will become close and helpful friends. Through the power of our love and care, our enemies and people we don't get along with will improve their behavior and maybe those enemies will eventually become friends. If we have companions and wish to benefit others, we can end up with very good friends and all the benefits which that brings. In this way we can see how cause and effect operate, how a virtuous mind brings about happiness and how an unvirtuous mind brings about suffering and problems. There are two main aspects of karma: one related to experience and one related to conditioning. The karma relating to experience has already been discussed. Through unvirtuous physical actions we will experience problems and unhappiness. Likewise, through unvirtuous speech such as lying, we will experience unhappiness and sorrow. With an unvirtuous state of mind, we will also experience unhappiness as was demonstrated by the example of having an aggressive attitude. All of this is related to the understanding that any unvirtuous activity produces unhappiness and pain. The second aspect of karma relates to conditioning. By acting unvirtuously with our body, speech, or mind, we habituate ourselves to a certain style of behavior. Unvirtuous physical or verbal behaviors create the habit of this type of behavior. For example, each time one kills, one is conditioned to kill again. If one lies, that increases the habit of lying. An aggressive mind conditions one's mind so one becomes more aggressive. In our later lives, that conditioning will continue on so that we will be reborn with a great tendency to kill, to lie, to engage in sexual misconduct, and so on. These are the two aspects to karma. One is the direct consequence of an act and the other is the conditioning that creates a tendency to engage in behavior of that kind. Through these two aspects karma produces all happiness and suffering in life. Even though we may recognize that unvirtuous karma gives rise to suffering and virtuous karma gives rise to happiness, it is hard for us to give up unvirtuous actions and practice virtuous actions because the disturbing emotions exercise a powerful influence on us. We realize that suffering is caused by unvirtuous karma, but we can't give up the karma itself. We need to give up the disturbing emotions because they are the root of unvirtuous actions. To give up the disturbing emotions means to give up unvirtuous actions of body (such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct), the unvirtuous actions of speech (such as lying, slander and harmful and useless speech), and the unvirtuous aspects of mind (such as aggression, attachment, or ignorance). Just wanting to give up the disturbing emotions does not remove them. However, the Buddha in his great kindness and wisdom has given us a very skillful way to eliminate the very root of all the disturbing emotions through the examination of the belief in the existence of an ego or a self.
The False Belief in a Self
We cannot easily understand this belief in a self because it is very deep-rooted. But if we search for this self that we believe in, we will discover that the self does not actually exist. Then with careful examination we will be able to see through this false belief in a self. When this is done, the disturbing emotions are diminished and with the elimination of a belief in self, negative karma is also eliminated. This belief in a self is a mistaken perception. It's an illusion. For example, if one has a flower and were to interrogate one hundred people about it, they would all come to the same conclusion that it is indeed a flower. So one could be pretty sure that it is a flower. But, if one asked a person 'Is this me'' he would say, 'No, it's you.' A second person would say, 'It's you.' One would end up with one hundred persons who say its 'you' and only oneself would consider it as 'me.' So statistically one's self is not verifiable through objective means. We tend to think of 'me' as one thing, as a unity. When we examine what we think of as ourselves, we find it is made up of many different components: the various parts of the body, the different organs, and the different elements. There are so many of them, yet we have this feeling of a single thing, which is 'me.' When we examine any of these components and try to find something that is the essence of self, the self cannot be found in any of these parts. By contemplating this and working through it very thoroughly, we begin to see how this 'I' is really a composite. Once we have eliminated this incorrect way of thinking, the idea of an 'I' becomes easy to get rid of. So, all of the desire rooted in thinking, 'I must be made happy' can be eliminated as well as all the aversion rooted in the idea of 'this difficulty must be eliminated.' Through the elimination of the idea of 'I' we can annihilate the disturbing emotions or defilements.3 Once the disturbing emotions are gone, then the negative
karma which is rooted in the disturbing emotions will cease. Once the negative karma ceases, suffering will no longer take place. This is why Buddha said that the root of suffering needs to be abandoned. The first two noble truths may be summed up with two statements: One should be aware of and know what suffering is. One should give up the origin of suffering. To summarize, once we recognize what suffering really is, then we begin by removing its causes. We do this by stopping doing unvirtuous actions which create suffering. To stop these unvirtuous activities, we eliminate them at their root which is the disturbing emotions and various unhealthy attitudes. To eradicate the disturbing emotions we need to remove their heart, which is the belief in a self. If we do that, then we will eventually come to realize the wisdom of non-self. By understanding the absence of a self, we no longer create the disturbing emotions and bad actions and brings an end to that whole process. This is highly possible to achieve; therefore there is the third noble truth, the truth of cessation. The very essence and nature of cessation is peace (Tib. shewa).4 Sometimes people think of Buddhahood in terms of brilliant insights or something very fantastic. In fact, the peace we obtain from the cessation of everything unhealthy is the deepest happiness, bliss, and well-being. Its very nature is lasting in contrast to worldly happiness which is satisfying for a time, but then changes. In contrast, this ultimate liberation and omniscience is a very deeply moving peace. Within that peace all the powers of liberation and wisdom are developed. It is a very definitive release from both suffering and its effect is a definitive release from the disturbing emotions which are the cause of suffering. There are four main qualities of this truth of cessation. First, it is the cessation of suffering. Second, it is peace. Third, it is the deepest liberation and wisdom. Fourth, it is a very definitive release from cyclic existence or samsara. Cessation is a product of practicing the path shown to us by the Most Perfect One, the Buddha. The actual nature of that path is the topic of the fourth noble truth, which is called the truth of the path because it describes the path that leads to liberation.
The Fourth Noble Truth
The fourth noble truth is called 'the truth of the path' because the path leads us to the ultimate goal. We do this step by step, stage by stage, progressively completing our journey. The Buddha's teaching5 are called 'the dharma,' and the symbol of these teachings is the wheel that you see on the roofs of temples and monasteries (as shown on the cover of this book). This is the symbol of the Enlightened One's teachings. For instance, if you go to Samye Ling, you will see on the roof of the temple the wheel of the dharma supported by two deer. Why a wheel' Wheels take you somewhere, and the dharma wheel is the path that takes us to the very best place along the finest road. This wheel of the Buddha's teaching has eight spokes because the path that we follow as Buddhists has eight major aspects known as 'the eight-fold path of realized beings' or 'the noble eight-fold path.' We need to follow this eight-fold path and it is essential that we know what this path is and how to practice on this path. These eight aspects to the noble eight-fold path can be grouped into three areas: superior conduct, superior concentration, and superior wisdom which make up seven of the eight spokes with the eighth spoke, superior effort which is the quality that supports the other seven. Superior effort is needed for achieving correct conduct, correct concentration, and the development of correct wisdom."