The Four Noble Truths
The Third Noble Truth
The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha defines the cessation of suffering as the following: “It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.” In the second noble truth the Buddha said that the cause of suffering was this thirst or craving and that it should be abandoned. Here in the third noble truth he is talking about the result that comes from abandoning craving which is the cessation of craving and therefore the cessation of suffering. As I mentioned in the second noble truth, our ignorance of our true nature is reinforced when we act on craving and aversion, i.e. when we act on craving and aversion we are reinforcing the sense of separation and painful loneliness that results from that. If we engage in the practice of abandoning craving, however, and act on wisdom and compassion instead, then the experience of separation is no longer being reinforced and it begins to weaken. Our ignorance of our true nature starts to subside. If this process is carried out steadily over a long period of time then, according to the teachings, our ignorance will eventually be uprooted and we will fully realize our true nature.
Let’s say a person is meditating and he thinks of someone at work that makes him angry. He is aware of his anger and is able to observe it without identifying with it and feeding it with his thoughts, he is able to go go back to just being with the unpleasant sensations, eventually the unpleasant sensations go back down. His anger has passed into cessation. Now let’s say this person is able to do this practice steadily over a long period of time both on and off the meditation cushion, both at home and at work with the very person that has made him angry in the past. Eventually his anger gets smaller and smaller until it just doesn’t come up any more, even if the very thing that made him angry in the past happens again it doesn’t affect him. So his anger has gone to a deeper level of cessation. Instead he feels a sense of contentment and peacefulness. He is able to connect better with his workmates and even have compassion for the ones that used to make him angry. It doesn’t mean he is a wimp and lets people walk all over him, on the contrary, he is more clear and sharp and able to assert himself strongly when need be but without being caught in ill will. So we can say that on this ground of peacefulness and contentment he is able to act with wisdom and compassion.
Now to take this example one step further, let’s say this man is able to abandon most of his craving and aversion when it comes up. When he meditates he is no longer reacting to the thoughts and emotions that come up, he is able to just be with them. As a result he feels a spaciousness and a peacefulness inside. He is no longer identifying with his thoughts and emotions. He starts to experience and underlying awareness or presence or stillness or silence. This presence has been there all along but because he was caught up in his thoughts and emotions he never really noticed it. As he continues to meditate on a regular basis this silence and stillness becomes more clear and vivid. This ground of being, this awareness is his true nature. It is not an object of thought like an idea that comes and goes in our head. It is not an object of the senses that can come and go either. It is not an object of awareness that can be perceived by a subject. In fact, the subject is a manifestation of the this awareness as well. So this awareness cannot be grasped by our minds but it can be experienced. When our craving and aversion cease, this is what is left over.
The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this cessation of suffering should be realized. The Pali word for cessation is nirodha. It is another word for nibbana which in sanskrit is nirvana. The Buddha said that the mind inclines towards nibbana. The mind can not grasp it, it can only surrender to it. As we let go of craving and aversion on deeper and deeper levels this ground of being which is our true nature manifests more and more and ultimately uproots the ego, the identification with conditioned reality. That uprooting is not something we can cause to happen with our own will, we can only create the conditions that make it favorable to happen. Ultimately it is out of our hands. The uprooting of the ego is the cessation of suffering at its deepest level.
The Fourth Noble Truth
The fourth noble truth is the path which leads to the cessation of suffering. In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha defines this path as the following: “It is simply The Noble Eight Fold Path, namely right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.” In the eight fold path the Buddha gives practical instructions on how to live our life so that we may cultivate wisdom and compassion and overcome our ignorance, craving, and aversion. This is not a set of rules or commandments with a judgement of good or evil behind it. It is simply a set of guidelines for us based on the Buddha’s experience of what works and what doesn’t work in terms of spiritual development. It is out of the awareness that certain actions tend to cause suffering and should be avoided. Often it is actions that may provide some temporary high or relief but in the long run leave us worse off then when we started. It is up to us to give these guidelines a fair try and see for ourself if following them makes us happier or not. So with that in mind I will elaborate on the eight fold path.
The eight fold path can be seen as a wheel with eight spokes, each spoke being a part of the path leading to the center of the wheel. We should not look at the eight parts of the path as sequential but as simultaneous, i.e. we should be cultivating all aspects of the eight fold path at the same time. The first spoke is right view. This is also translated as right understanding and also right insight. In the beginning this means having an intellectual understanding of the four noble truths, i.e. having a conceptual understanding of the spiritual path and its goal. As we progress in our spiritual development then this understanding becomes more and more experiential until finally it culminates in the ultimate insight or wisdom of enlightenment. The second spoke is right thinking. I think a better translation for this though is right intention. In buddhism the intention behind our actions of body speech and mind is very important. It is the intention behind the action which sews the seed of karma. The importance given to intention can be seen in our modern legal system. A person convicted of first degree murder must face a much stiffer penalty than a person convicted of manslaughter. Through our daily practice we must try and cultivate more and more awareness of what the intention is behind our action. We must feel in our heart what the energy is behind the words we are about to speak or the physical action we are about to make. If we can do this well then we will not cause ourselves and others to suffer. We will not be caught up in an idea of what we should or shouldn’t do because often our idea may be in conflict with what is actually good for us. Right intention is always based on wisdom and compassion and not craving or aversion. .
The third spoke is right speech. Many buddhists include thought here as well as the spoken word. We can’t control the thoughts that pop up into our minds but we can control wether we actively engage in them or not. If we are getting caught up in thoughts based on craving and aversion then the practice is to let go of them. We should not try and suppress them or judge them as that will just create tension and more negativity, we just stop actively feeding them. If they are particularly strong we can gently think of something positive to counterbalance the negative energy. If we are having thoughts based on wisdom and compassion and we notice that these thoughts increase our sense of well being then we should allow ourselves to be nourished by the feelings that come up with those thoughts. With the spoken word we do our best not to engage in false or harmful speech. This includes lying, gossiping, and unfairly criticizing someone. We should speak in a way that brings happiness and well being. Our words should be at the right time and in the right place. There may be times when we have to speak very strongly to bring balance and harmony to a situation, so right speech is not always soft and gentle. As to the question of white lies, come people argue that we should never tell a lie even if it is a white one, others say it is o.k. to tell a white lie in order not to cause someone to suffer unnecessarily. For me the main thing is not to try and avoid some short term discomfort that will bring a greater disharmony in the long run.
The fourth spoke is right action. This includes not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not ingesting intoxicants. Not killing first means not killing humans, then animals, then needlessly killing plants, and then needlessly wasting natural resources. In terms of not killing another human, obviously killing someone for personal gain will generate negative karma and so is not good to do. But what about a soldier or a police officer being asked to kill in the line of duty or a person killing in self defense or to save another person innocent person. These are all grey areas. Some teachers say you should never kill no matter what, and others say you should do what will prevent the most suffering in the long run. I remember Thich Nhat Hanh answering a question posed to him by a young man in the Israeli Army. He said if a terrorist came into a cafe and was about to kill many people there then he, the soldier, felt he had to kill the terrorist first. Thich Nhat Hanh said that yes, sometimes the situation called for drastic measures but only as a last resort. He also said that if you were someone who had a lot of wisdom and compassion you might see a solution to a situation that would not require killing. He also said that we should be looking at the bigger picture that is causing a terrorist to come into a cafe and try and do something to prevent the terrorist from getting angry in the first place and wanting to kill. As another example, Ammachi a contemporary saint from Kerala South India, once had her life threatened by her own cousin. The cousin was jealous of her growing popularity and one day pulled a knife on her and said he was going to kill her. She said that her body could be killed but that the Self (her true nature) could never be killed. The young man tried to stab her, she did not resist, but at the moment the tip of the knife touched her chest, the young man felt an intense pain in his own chest and fell down in agony. Ammachi went to visit him in the hospital later and forgave him. He died and was reborn and became her devotee.
Most of us are not faced with the decision to kill another human by our own hands but we do pay taxes to a government that kills in our name and we buy products or invest in companies that may have blood on their hands. We should be aware of the consequences when we cast a vote or spend a dollar. With regard to animals, the consumption of meat causes an immense amount of suffering to the animals that are raised and slaughtered and to the people who have to work in the meat industry. The meat industry also uses a tremendous amount of water, energy, and land to produce the meat and also generates an enormous amount of pollution. A diet with a lot of meat in it is also bad for your health. Just by becoming vegetarian a person can make a significant contribution towards restoring balance to the environment and generating good health in their own body. In ayurveda, the traditional Indian health science, it is said that eating meat increases the craving and aversion in a person. I have been vegetarian for over ten years now and I can say that I feel more healthy and peaceful in body and mind as a result and I feel good about not killing animals or needlessly damaging the environment.
Not stealing means not taking what belongs to others and being generous. We should not take something we don’t need for a short term gain. We should not over consume. We should not accumulate a lot of possessions that we don’t need. If we are content spiritually the we will not feel the need to fill in the hole by buying things. Our sense of happiness and well being will not depend on the kind of car we drive or clothes we wear. Of course we all need food clothes and shelter but we should know when we have enough and be content. It is a great happiness to live simply and not be weighed down with a bunch of stuff to look after. It is also good to keep moving in the direction of sustainability. If we are buying or building a house we should make choices that will result in less use of natural resources to maintain the house. There are a growing number of people in America who are building houses that cost little or nothing to heat and cool and use water very efficiently. I will write in a later blog about sustainable building.
Not engaging in sexual conduct traditionally means not committing adultery. Thich Nhat Hanh updated that to not having sex without love and a long term commitment. He also added not sexually abusing someone and doing our best to prevent others from committing sexual abuse. I would add to that not ingesting pornography. The point of this training is to help us have deep meaningful relationships that will bring us more fulfillment and happiness and not to act on lust which may provide some temporary pleasure but will leave us feeling empty and depleted. Ultimately no relationship will bring us the deepest level of fulfillment that we need, only spiritual realization can do that. In my opinion we all have to face a painful loneliness that is inside of us to progress spiritually and our relationships should support us in doing that.
Not ingesting intoxicants originally meant no alcohol but the tradition has gone on to include other intoxicants so now all narcotics would be included in this. Again these things my provide a quick and easy high and or a temporary relief from our suffering but we are left worse off than where we started. The happiness that comes from a pure body and mind and is deeper and more fulfilling. There may be a painful withdrawal period but if we stick to it we can reach a point where we naturally don’t want intoxicants.
I will continue in the next blog on the eight fold path.