|The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths|
A Concise Introduction to The Four Noble Truths
Explained in Ordinary Language
In accordance with the request that was made to me to talk about my Buddhist studies and the view, about how I practice based on them and what I believe, I wish to take this occasion to talk about what I think.
With regard to Buddhist studies, initially I was a student. After my studies, I became a teacher of the Buddhist doctrine and also worked as a representative of the school principal. Based on this experience I found that I could be only of slight benefit to others.
Within Buddhist traditions, we have many reflections on the ordinary human life and on the benefit associated with the ways of spending one’s life. It is beneficial to explain them and usually those reflections are as follows.
In this world, there are many different human races and societies. Even within societies, there are many different ways of thinking. Therefore I believe that although the religions, races and cultures are diverse, they all share the same goal. No matter what type of person one may be, everyone is similar in wishing to achieve happiness and in not wanting suffering.
In terms of the wider view, one may say that there are many religions in this world and each of these religions has numerous distinct views and ways of asserting their philosophical positions. For example, even within Buddhism many debates took place in India in the past. There were also many debates in Tibet among individual scholars about the way of practicing the Buddhist view and asserting its philosophical tenets. Sometimes however those kinds of debates are not very relevant. Within societies, the priority is the need to develop a good heart.
Having first presented the importance of generating a good heart as being at the root of all Buddhist views, I will now elaborate on this further.
In this world, many wars come about in the name of religions and there are many disputes about economics and politics. What is the root of all these conflicts? The main cause is that the natural character of human beings is to be dishonest, false, to have strong selfish desires and only small inclination to benefit others. As a result, considerable unhappiness comes about in this world. This becomes obvious when one investigates this through logical reasoning.
There are many different religions in this world; the main ones being Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. However, because there are different ways of asserting the views of these religions, one tends not to accept the other’s position. Yet, the unique foundation of all these religions is loving-kindness, and altruistic mind, a mind directed towards awakening, helping others, avoiding harming other sentient beings – in short, an attitude of benefiting others as much as possible. There are the basic foundations present in all religions. Therefore, we are able to infer that these religions have the same aim. For example, within Buddhism, the teacher of the Buddhist doctrine, the Blessed One, and similarly the leaders who teach the paths of other religions, all teach, sincerely and in a genuine way, the path of not harming others. Those teachers themselves have already walked along that path and they teach us, their followers, that path which we certainly have to follow. Nevertheless, although we, the practitioners, rely on the teachers’ instructions, we are sometimes unable to follow these exactly and our practice becomes distorted. When applied incorrectly, we are unable to practice according to the instructions of the teachers of our individual religions and so cannot follow them authentically. For these reasons, whether we are religious followers or not, we all share the same aim. Whether we are religious or not, we all have the innate feeling of needing to achieve happiness and to avoid suffering. When we think within the Buddhist framework, we understand the fact of not wanting suffering and wishing for happiness. Therefore, it is relevant at this point to reflect upon the necessity of how to abandon suffering and how to achieve happiness. In that respect first, the teacher (the Buddha) taught the Four Noble Truths. If one asks, do we have in us the ability to get rid of all suffering, the ability to abandon it, the ability for it to be exhausted? Yes we have. That is the Truth of the Path, and its sequence is considered to be in that way. No matter if one is religious or not, everyone needs to apply the teachings of the religions. There might be different terms that are used in different religions for the basic principles of a practice, but this explanation concerns the practice common to all religions.
When explaining suffering, it can be said, that there is a coarse type of suffering which we, ordinary sentient beings, are able to feel and experience. Yet, ordinary sentient beings cannot feel that there is a subtle type of suffering within this coarse consciousness.
There are two types of suffering that can be experienced – one subtle and one coarse. When we speak about the coarse type of suffering, it is usually about great sickness in terms of our body. We know that this is suffering. When we experience difficulties and unhappiness in our mind, we are also able to feel that this is suffering. Moreover, if we are not able to accomplish our personal needs, great mental distress arises. Suffering is also created when things that we do not need or with for occur. These kinds of things are the coarse type of suffering. Without needing to think too much about it, as soon as we are suffering, we are able to recognize it as such. This is referred to as the coarse type of suffering.
What is usually called the subtle type of suffering also exists in us, but we are not able to feel it within our present, coarse consciousness.
Generally speaking, all sentient beings have five aggregates: an aggregate of form, of feeling, of perception, of formation, and of consciousness. As soon as we are born in any world, we naturally have these five aggregates as the basis of our being, which is the arising place for the coarse type of suffering. We are talking now about all the coarse types of suffering. From the beginning there is a foundation, a single root, from which all coarse suffering arises. If we did not have that, coarse suffering could not arise in us. There is also a subtle type of suffering associated with this foundation, the arising place of coarse suffering. When can the subtle type of suffering be seen? When we earnestly engage in many studies regarding the present consciousness, our awareness gets steadily clearer and clearer. In this way this present consciousness will not remain coarse. We should evaluate to what degree we are able to see the subtle suffering. After studying and contemplating the present consciousness, the quality of our mind will increase. Eventually, when the qualities of our mind have increased, the mind will not remain untamed as it is now. When the mind becomes clear and calm, one will be able to understand directly, based on experience, what is the foundation, the arising place of all coarse suffering – the so-called “subtle suffering” – actually is. Therefore, in order to understand the subtle type of suffering, it is primarily necessary that we train our mind.
From where did the teacher (the Buddha) start, when he taught the Dharma? From the fact that we need to understand suffering. This is the root. There is not even a single sentient being that desires suffering. For this reason, what kind of aim do we need from the beginning? It is very important at the beginning to reflect upon the fact that we do not need suffering and that suffering is not real. Therefore, we should think, “I do not want suffering and I must abandon it!” While we reflect upon this thought, when we adopt an attitude that wishes to be freed from suffering, what methods are there to allow us to abandon it immediately? There are no immediate ones but at the same time we need to abandon this suffering. Once you decide that you do not want it, you should timely investigate where this suffering initially comes from. For that it is important to recognize the foundation, the root which is the arising place of suffering. The second point in this context is about the cause and the root of suffering, which are clinging to self and negative emotions.
There are negative emotions that disturb our mind. These negative emotions that disturb us and others are thoughts of hatred, anger and jealousy. When the mind becomes entirely coarse and evil it can also make the mind of others coarse, evil and unhappy. A mind like this has no peace and happiness. Doubts and misery constitute this dark, negative mind. It is said that this is the root of all your suffering.
In our world, even animals, which are non-human beings, have from the beginning a problem due to the notion of “I”; first, “I” need something good for me. Because of the notion of “I”, “I” think to have great hardships and discontentment is not desirable, and how great it is to be joyous and happy. However, “I” think very little about the fact that it is not good whenever others are suffering and “I” faintly have wishful thoughts about how good it is if others are joyous and happy.
Most people think that when suffering occurs to them it is not good and that it is good if joy and happiness comes about. Therefore, there is always great ego-fixation and great clinging to their self in their minds. All the disturbances of the entire world come out of that fixation and clinging. The Buddhist name we use to describe it is “snyon mongs” – negative emotions. Whenever these so-called negative emotions make the mind coarse, then no happiness or joy can be generated in that mind. As soon as these negative emotions have made the mind unsuitable, even obvious joy and happiness that we might feel will come to an end. After they are exhausted, they will turn into suffering, unless authentic joy and happiness are permanently present. We might be happy for days, weeks or months, but for as long as we are, it will always be transitory and thus we are never permanently joyous and happy. In that way joy and happiness are going to change. Because there is nothing other than suffering, it will turn into suffering and is therefore referred to as negative emotions. In order for us to have authentic happiness, we have to give up our self-grasping, ego-fixation, and have an altruistic mind, and sincere love for others. If we generate a mind that loves, cares and benefits others as much as we care for ourselves, we can attain joy and happiness. If this is not the case, if joy and happiness could be attained by chasing after abundance and wealth, reputation, accomplishments and charisma, the entire world should be happy. However, this is not the case, because even if there is wealth, reputation, power and authority, suffering does not decrease. That is why authentic happiness is to have a good heart, a mind that loves and cares for others – in short to be able to care for others in the same way as we care for ourselves. If one is able to increase such thoughts towards all beings, not just humans, within this world, joy and happiness can come into being. We can reach this conclusion if we think about our own experience. Therefore we should know in the present context that the cause of suffering is negative emotions and the main one among them is clinging to a self. Besides the main cause of suffering that I have presented, which is clinging to a self, there is also suffering created in the context of the conduct of our body and speech. It is said that the untamed behavior of body and speech, which was caused by that ego clinging and inflicts harm on others, is the source of all karma. In these two words I have mentioned suffering and the cause of suffering. When we think about suffering and its cause, we might think that there are methods to directly overcome this suffering, but such methods are not genuine ones. Why is that? Suffering arises in us again and again, and there are no ordinary means in our world to be able to permanently exhaust it. Because of that, it is very important to apply the most profound method, which implies that we abandon our evil nature, and our coarse and untamed mind. Confidence can grow through experiencing this.
After we resolve the method to exhaust suffering, when we investigate where it comes from, we understand that this suffering arises from negative emotions. If we overcome and abandon those negative emotions, we can exhaust the suffering, which results from it.
I will now explain the truth about the cessation of suffering. If we have abandoned afflictions and self-clinging that cause the mind to be coarse, suffering will completely be exhausted as a result. We will then be able to attain authentic joy and happiness, and permanently and completely terminate suffering, regardless of the circumstances. It is said that we can definitely attain authentic, permanent joy and happiness.
Then, what kind of method should be taught to exhaust suffering and the negative emotions which are the cause of that suffering? Next, as I speak about the sequence of the method and other related issues, I am going to discuss the truth of the path. Within the path, there are many Buddhist views to study – the views and the philosophical concepts pertaining to the different vehicles, the lower, the great, and so forth. As there are many, we cannot study all of them and it is also not really necessary. We need to condense them into one essence. The essence of every path we all need to understand is generally called the Buddhist view. It consists of three sections. The first is renunciation. Initially however one should understand that samsara is suffering. However much we try to accomplish joy and happiness, we are never able to achieve it, nor to permanently and lastingly eliminate suffering while we stay within samsara. Having reflected upon that, it is taught at the very beginning that one should be able to recognize that samsara has the nature of suffering, that it is defective, and that because its nature is suffering, one is never separated from suffering while remaining in it.