Brief Introduction to the Four Noble Truths
translated by Alexander Berzin
revised and re-edited June 2007
Originally edited by Nicholas Ribush and first published, with notes for clarification by Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, in the souvenir booklet for Tushita Mahayana Meditation Centre’s Second Dharma Celebration, 5-8 November 1982, New Delhi, India.
Republished in Teachings from Tibet: Guidance from Great Lamas (Nicholas Ribush, ed.). Boston: Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2005: 109-118.
When the great universal teacher Shakyamuni Buddha first spoke about the Dharmain the noble land of India, he taught the four noble truths: true sufferings, true origins or causesof sufferings, true stoppingsor cessations of sufferings, and true pathway minds or paths leading to the stoppingsof sufferings. Since many books contain discussions of the four noble truths in English, they are very well known. These four are all-encompassing, including many aspects within them.
[Considering the four noble truths in general and the fact that none of us wants suffering and we all desire happiness, we can speak of an effect and its cause on both the disturbing side and the liberatingside of the four. True sufferings and true origins are the effect and its cause on the disturbing side of things that we do not want; true stoppings and true pathway minds are the effect and its cause on the liberating side of things that we desire.
We experience many different types of suffering. All are included in three categories: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and all-pervasive affecting suffering. The suffering of suffering refers to [the feeling of unhappiness and thus to]such things as headaches and so forth. Even animals recognize this kind of suffering and, like us, want to be free from it. Because beings have fear of and experience discomfort and unhappiness from this kind of suffering, they engage in various activities to eliminate them.
Suffering of change refers to [the feeling of tainted happiness – happiness deriving from disturbing emotions and attitudes – and thus to] situations in which, for example, we are sitting very comfortably relaxed and, at first, everything seems all right. But, after a while, we lose that feeling [of happiness]. It changes and we become restless and uncomfortable.
In certain countries, we see a great deal of poverty and disease: these are sufferings of the first category. Everybody realizes that these are suffering conditionsto be eliminated and improved upon. In many Western countries, poverty may not be that much of a problem. However, where there is a high degree of material development, there are different kinds of problems. At first, we may be happy having overcome the problems that our predecessors faced. But, as soon as we have solved certain problems, new ones arise. We have plenty of money, food, and nice housing; but, by exaggerating the value of these things, we render them ultimately worthless. This sort of experience is the suffering of change.
A very poor, underprivileged personmight think that it would be wonderful to have a car or a television set and, should he acquire them, would at first feel very happy and satisfied. Now, if such happiness were permanent, as long as he had the car and the television he would remain happy. But he does not; his happiness goes away. After a few months he wants another kind of car and, if he has the money, he will buy a better television set. The old things, the same objects that once gave him much satisfaction, now cause dissatisfaction. That is the nature of change: that is the problem of the suffering of change.
All-pervasiveaffecting suffering is the third type of suffering. [Of the three types of tainted feelings, it refers to a tainted neutral feeling. On a more general level, it refers to the tainted aggregate factors of experience – forms of physical phenomena, feelings of a level of happiness, distinguishing, other affecting variables, and types of consciousness that derive from disturbing emotions and attitudes]. It is called “all-pervasive” because it acts as the basis for the first two types of suffering.
There may be those who, even in developed countries, want to be liberated from the second type of suffering, the suffering of change. Bored with tainted feelings of happiness, they seek a totally neutral feeling. However, because of attachment to such a feeling, it leads to rebirth on the plane of formless beings. Beings on this plane of existence have only that tainted neutral feeling [as a result of the attachment from which it derived.]
Now, desiring liberation from the first two kinds of suffering is not the principal motivation for seeking liberation from samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Buddha taught that, of the three sufferings, the third kind of suffering is the root of all suffering. [Therefore, liberation from samsara requires ridding ourselves of the true suffering, namely all-pervasive affecting suffering. This is the object of renunciation.]
Some people commit suicide, thinking that their suffering is simply due to their present human life and that, by ending this life, there will be nothing afterwards. [But, this is not the case; there are future rebirths.]This third, all-pervasive affecting suffering [the tainted aggregates of future rebirths], comes about from the power of karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes. We can see, without having to think very deeply, that [our present tainted aggregates] have come about from the power of the karma and disturbing emotions of our previous lives. And, now at present, further anger and attachment [that will bring about the tainted aggregates of a future life] arise simply because we have these present aggregates.
Our tainted aggregates are like an enabler: they enable us to obtain the so-called “terrible state” – the terrible state of further karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes. In other words, since our tainted aggregates arose because of disturbing emotions, they are presently still associated or mixed with the terrible state of disturbing emotions. In fact, being under the control of these disturbing emotions and attitudes, these tainted aggregates support the generation of further disturbing emotions and keep us from generating positive states of mind. All our suffering, then, [both the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change,] can be traced back to these aggregates tainted with attachment and clinging.
Perhaps, when we realize that our tainted aggregates are the cause of all our suffering, we might think that suicide is the way out. Well, if there were no continuity of mind, no future lives, then all right. If we had the courage, we could take our own lives. But, according to the Buddhist viewpoint, that’s not the case: our consciousness will continue. Even if we take our life, we will have to take another tainted body that will again be the basis for experiencing the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change. If we really want to get rid of all our sufferings, all the difficulties we experience in our lives, we need to rid ourselves of the fundamental cause that gives rise to the tainted aggregates that are the basis of all suffering. Killing ourselves is not going to solve our problems.
Because this is the case, we must now investigate the cause of suffering. Is there a cause or not? If there is, what kind of cause is it: a natural cause that cannot be eliminated or a cause that depends on its own causes and therefore can be eliminated? If it is a cause that can be eliminated, is it possible for us to rid ourselves of it? Thus, we come to the second noble truth: true origins or true causes of suffering.
Concerning this, Buddhism maintains that there is no external creator and that even though a Buddha is the highest being, even a Buddha does not have the power to create new life. [In other words, a Buddha cannot create the all-pervasive affecting suffering of the tainted aggregates of a future rebirth.]So now, what is the cause of suffering?
Generally, the ultimate origin is the mind. Specifically, the mind that is influenced by disturbing emotions such as anger, attachment, jealousy, naivety, and so forth is the main cause of rebirth and all its related problems. However, there is no possibility of ending the mind, of interrupting the mental continuum itself. Furthermore, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the deepest, subtlest level of mind [the clear light mind] itself. [By nature, it is completely pure.]However, the deepest mind can be influenced by disturbing emotions and negative thoughts. Thus, the question is whether or not we can fight and control anger, attachment, and the other disturbing emotions. If we can eradicate them, we shall be left with a pure mind that is free forever from the causes of suffering.
This brings us to the disturbing emotions and attitudes themselves, which are types of subsidiary awareness or mental factors. There are many different ways of presenting the discussion of the mind; but, in general, [mind refers to mental activity and its] defining characteristic is “ mere clarity and awareness.” [This means the activity of simultaneously giving rise to mental appearances or mental holograms of objects and cognizing them, and nothing more]. When we speak of disturbing emotions such as anger and attachment, we have to see how they are able to affect and pollute this mental activity, the mind. What, in fact, is their nature? This, then, is main focus of the discussion of the true origins of suffering.
If we ask how attachment and anger arise, the answer is that, without a doubt, their arising is assisted by our grasping for the existence of things to be established truly and findably from their own sides: our so-called “grasping for true existence.” When, for instance, we are angry with something, we feel that the object is out there, solid, true, and unimputed, and that we ourselves are likewise something solid and findable. Before we get angry, the object appears ordinarily; but, when our minds are influenced by anger, the object looks ugly, completely repulsive, nauseating, something we want to get rid of immediately. Its existence as repulsive appears to be established from its own side, by its own self-nature. The object really seems to exist in that way: solid, independent, and very unattractive. This appearance of “truly ugly” fuels our anger. Yet, when we see the same object the next day when our anger has subsided, it seems more beautiful than it did the day before. It is the same object, but it does not seem as bad. This shows how anger and attachment are influenced by our grasping for the existence of things to be established truly and findably from their own sides.
Thus, the texts on Madhyamaka philosophy state that the root of all disturbing emotions and attachment is grasping for truly established existence, in the sense that this grasping brings about these mental disturbances and supports and sustains them. Thus, the naive unawarenessthat grasps for the existence of things to be truly established by their own self-natures is the basic source of all our sufferings. Based on this grasping at truly established existence, we develop all kinds of disturbing emotions and attitudes, based on which we act destructively and build up a great deal of negative karmic force.
In his Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Stanzas on) the Middle Way,” Madhyamakavatara, the great Indian pandit Chandrakirti wrote that first there is grasping for the truly established existence of the self, to “me,” and becoming attached to that “me.” This is then followed by grasping for the truly established existence of things and becoming attached to them as “mine” and to “me, as the possessor of them.”
In other words, at first there seems to be a very solid, independently existing “me” that is very big – bigger than anything else – establishing its own existence by its own power. This is the basis. From this, comes the false appearance of other objects [and persons] as if their existence as well were established from their own sides. Based on that, comes the appearance of the existence of a “me,” truly established as the possessor of them as “mine.” Then, because of our taking the side of that “me,” comes the appearance of “the other,” truly established as existing from his or her own side, for instance as “my” enemy. Toward “me,” “me, the possessor of things,” and “things as ‘mine,’” attachment arises. Toward him or her, we feel distance and anger. Then jealousy and all such competitive feelings arise. Thus, ultimately, the problem is this feeling of “me” – not the mere “me,” but the false “me” with which we become obsessed. This gives rise to thinking with anger and irritation, along with speaking harsh words, and the various physical actions based on aversion and hatred. All these destructive actions of body, speech and mind build up negative karma force.
Killing, lying, and all similar destructive actions also result from the negative motivation of disturbing emotions and attitudes. The first stage is solely mental: thinking destructive thoughts based on disturbing emotions and attitudes. In the second stage, this destructive thinking leads to destructive physical and verbal actions. Immediately, the atmosphere is disturbed. With anger, for example, the atmosphere becomes tense; people feel uneasy. If somebody gets furious, gentle people try to avoid that person. Later on, the person who became angry also feels embarrassed and ashamed for having said all sorts of absurd things, whatever came into his or her mind.
When we become angry, there is no room for logic or reason; we become literally “mad.” Later, when our minds have returned to normal, we feel ashamed. There is nothing good about anger and attachment; nothing good can result from them. They may be difficult to control, but everybody can realize that there is nothing good about them. This, then, is the second noble truth.
Now, the question arises whether or not these kinds of destructive mind can be eliminated. This brings us to the discussion of the third noble truth, true stoppings or cessations of sufferings.
As we have seen, the root of all disturbing emotions and attitudes [and the karmic impulses to think, speak, and act upon them] is our grasping for the existence of things to be truly and findably established by their own self-natures. Therefore, we need to investigate whether the mind that grasps for the existence of things to be established in this way is correct or whether it is distorted and cognizes phenomena incorrectly.
We can do this by investigating how the existence of the objects such a mind cognizes can actually be established. However, since this grasping mind itself is incapable of determining whether or not it cognizes objects correctly, we need to rely on another kind of mind. If, upon thorough investigation, we discover many other valid ways of cognizing phenomena that contradict or negate the way that the mind that grasps for truly established existence cognizes its objects, we can conclude that this grasping mind does not cognize reality correctly. Thus, with the mind that can analyze the deepest truth about things, we must try to determine whether the mind that grasps for the existence of things to be truly established by their own self-natures is correct or not. If it is correct, the analyzing mind should ultimately be able to find these self-natures on the side of objects in the way that they are grasped.
The great classics of the Chittamatra and, especially, the Madhyamaka schools contain many lines of reasoning for carrying out such investigation. Applying them, when we investigate whether the mind that grasps for truly and findably established existence is correct or not, we discover that it is incorrect. It is distorted because we cannot actually find the objects for which it grasps. Since this mind is deceived with respect to its object, it needs to be eliminated.
Through investigation, then, we discover no valid support for the grasping mind. However, we do find the support of logical reasoning for the mind that realizes that the grasping mind is invalid. In the internal spiritual battle, the mind supported by logic is always victorious over the mind that is not. The understanding that there is no such thing as truly and findably established existence is in conformity with how the clear-light subtlest level of mind cognizes things. On the other hand, the mind that grasps for the existence of things to be truly and findably established is in conformity with how the superficial fleeting levels of mind cognize their objects. [Thus, since the subtlest level of mind is the deepest level that continues uninterruptedly with no beginning and no end, whereas these fleeting levels are superficial; the latter can be removed, leaving the eternal continuity of the former.]
When we eliminate the disturbing emotions and attitudes, the cause of all suffering, we eliminate the sufferings as well. This is liberation, or the true stopping of sufferings: the third noble truth.
Since it is possible to achieve this true stopping that lasts forever, we must now look at the method for bringing about its attainment. This brings us to the fourth noble truth: true pathway minds or “true paths” leading to true stoppings of sufferings. When we speak of the true pathway minds that are shared in common by the three Buddhist vehicles of mind – Hinayana and, within Mahayana, Paramitayana and Vajrayana – we are referring to the thirty-seven factors leading to a purified state. When we speak specifically of the true pathway minds of the bodhisattvas’ vehicle of mind, Mahayana, we are referring to the ten bhumi mind levels and the six far-reaching attitudes, the so-called “six perfections.”
We find the practice of the Hinayana path most commonly in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Laos, and Cambodia. Here, practitioners are motivated by the desire to achieve liberation from their own suffering. Concerned for their own liberation alone, they practice to develop the thirty-seven factors leading to a purified state. These thirty-seven are pathway minds related to the five more general pathway minds.
- The four close placements of mindfulness, the four factors for attaining correct riddances, and the four legs for attaining extraphysical powers are related to the building-up pathway mind, the so-called “path of accumulation.”
- The five powers and the five forces are related to the applying pathway mind, the so-called “ path of preparation.”
- The seven causal factors for attaining a purified state are related to the seeing pathway mind, the so-called “path of seeing.”
- The eight factors of an arya pathway mind are related to the accustoming pathway mind, the so-called “path of meditation.”
Developing these true pathway minds in sequence, practitioners are able to completely rid themselves of disturbing emotions and attitudes, bringing about the true stoppings of the true origins of their sufferings and the attainment of their individual liberation. These are the pathway minds and their result in Hinayana.
The primary concern of Mahayana practitioners is not merely their own liberation, but the enlightenment of all limited beings. With this motivation of bodhichitta – their hearts set on attaining enlightenment as the best means of helping others – these practitioners develop the six far-reaching attitudes [generosity, ethical self-discipline, patience, joyful perseverance, mental stability, and discriminating awareness or “wisdom.”] They progress by developing, in turn, the ten bhumi levels of mind of arya bodhisattvas until they have completely rid themselves forever of both sets of obscuration [emotional and cognitive] and attained the supreme enlightenment of Buddhahood. These are the pathway minds and their result in Mahayana in general.
The essence of the practice of the six far-reaching attitudes is the unification of method and discriminating awareness so that the two enlightening corpuses – Rupakaya, a corpus of forms, and Dharmakaya, a corpus encompassing everything – can be attained. Since these two corpuses can be attained only simultaneously, their causes must be cultivated simultaneously. Therefore, we need to build up, simultaneously, a network of positive force, a so-called “collection of merit,” as the cause for attaining a Rupakaya, and a network of deep awareness, a so-called “collection of wisdom,” as the cause for attaining a Dharmakaya. In Paramitayana, we practice method held by the force of discriminating awareness and discriminating awareness held by the force of method; but in Vajrayana, we practice method and discriminating awareness as sharing the same essential nature.