Author Topic: The 4 Noble Truths - The hidden structure and meaning in them  (Read 3979 times)

Offline Optimus Prime

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The 4 Noble Truths - The hidden structure and meaning in them
« on: February 03, 2010, 05:28:16 am »
Many people these days pass off the 4 Noble Truths as easy stuff - beginner's Buddhism.  So they dismiss it and don't give it a second thought, "The 4 Noble Truths?  That's easy as anything!  I study advanced Buddhism!"  But little do they know that within the 4 Noble Truths is a precise condensation of all that is needed to be enlightened - after all once the Buddha spoke it, one of his companions, Anna Kondanna (also called Ajnata Kaundinya in Sanskrit) was enlightened.  It gives us the foundation for right view (i.e., proper understanding) that is so crucial to understanding the other teachings that the Buddha gave.  So many Buddhists have heard of the 4 Noble Truths but don't know how to USE them in their own practice, and so, they don't see how important they are.

There are a few important things to notice when reflecting on the 4 Noble Truths:
1.  The wording that is used is very important to be aware of - it's worded from the perspective of anatta (not-self)
2.  There is a hidden structure to it that most people are not aware of.  This structure was intentionally used so that people would use these 4 Truths for reflection (as opposed to believing them on face value).
3.  Because of the reflective structure that they're presented in, these are Noble Truths - not absolute Truths.  In the process of reflecting on them and practicing them, we are ennobled.

The Precise Wording of the 4 Noble Truths from the Perspective of Anatta (not-self)
Ajahn Sumedho's gives some insights on what happened just after the Buddha's enlightenment:
After Brahma Sahampati's visit, the Buddha was on his way from Bodh Gaya to Varanasi when he met an ascetic who was impressed by his radiant appearance. The ascetic said, "What is it that you have discovered?" and the Buddha responded: "I am the perfectly enlightened one, the Arahant, the Buddha."

I like to consider this his first sermon. It was a failure because the man listening thought the Buddha had been practising too hard and was overestimating himself. If somebody said those words to us, I'm sure we would react similarly. What would you do if I said, "I am the perfectly enlightened one"?

Actually, the Buddha's statement was a very accurate, precise teaching. It is the perfect teaching, but people cannot understand it. They tend to misunderstand and to think it comes from an ego because people are always interpreting everything from their egos. "I am the perfectly enlightened one" may sound like an egotistical statement, but isn't it really purely transcendent? That statement: "I am the Buddha, the perfectly enlightened one" is interesting to contemplate because it connects the use of "I am" with superlative attainments or realisations. In any case, the result of the Buddha's first teaching was that the listener could not understand it and walked away.

Later, the Buddha met his five former companions in the Deer Park in Varanasi. All five were very sincerely dedicated to strict asceticism. They had been disillusioned with the Buddha earlier because they thought he had become insincere in his practice. This was because the Buddha, before he was enlightened, had begun to realise that strict asceticism was in no way conducive towards an enlightened state so he was no longer practising in that way. These five friends thought he was taking it easy: maybe they saw him eating milk rice, which would perhaps be comparable to eating ice cream these days. If you are an ascetic and you see a monk eating ice cream, you might lose your faith in him because you think that monks should be eating nettle soup. If you really loved asceticism and you saw me eating a dish of ice cream, you would have no faith in Ajahn Sumedho anymore. That is the way the human mind works; we tend to admire impressive feats of self-torture and denial. When they lost faith in him, these five friends or disciples left the Buddha - which gave him the chance to sit under the Bodhi tree and be enlightened.

Then, when they met the Buddha again in the Deer Park in Varanasi, the five thought at first, "We know what he's like. Let's just not bother about him." But as he came near, they all felt that there was something special about him. They stood up to make a place for him to sit down and he delivered his sermon on the Four Noble Truths.

This time, instead of saying "I am the enlightened one", he said: "There is suffering. There is the origin of suffering. There is the cessation of suffering. There is the path out of suffering." Presented in this way, his teaching requires no acceptance or denial. If he had said "I am the all-enlightened one", we would be forced to either agree or disagree — or just be bewildered. We wouldn?t quite know how to look at that statement. However, by saying: "There is suffering, there is a cause, there is an end to suffering, and there is a way out of suffering", he offered something for reflection: "What do you mean by this? What do you mean by suffering, its origin, cessation and the path?"

So we start contemplating it, thinking about it. With the statement: "I am the all-enlightened one", we might just argue about it. "Is he really enlightened?....I don't think so." We would just argue; we are not ready for a teaching that is so direct. Obviously, the Buddha's first sermon was to somebody who still had a lot of dust in his eyes and it failed. So on the second occasion, he gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

The Hidden Structure within the 4 Noble Truths

Each Noble Truth has 3 aspects/insights to it:
1.  The statement
2.  The practice
3.  The result of the practice
So notice that this is a reflective form.  This form is telling us to look at each Truth that's presented, practice it and look at what the result of practicing it is.  These 3 aspects apply to each of the 4 Truths.  So 3 aspects x 4 Truths = 12 insights in total when using the 4 Noble Truths for reflection.

For example, when looking at the 1st Noble Truth of Dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness), the 3 aspects are:
1.  The statement =            There is suffering
2.  The practice =               It should be understood
3.  The result of practice =   It has been understood

So, notice that the 1st Noble Truth is NOT "'I am' suffering" or "Life is suffering" or "All life is suffering" or "Everything is suffering" as you sometimes may find it presented.  "'I am' suffering" is coming from the self view, isn't it?  And "Everything is suffering" is like an absolute statement, an absolute truth that can make us feel depressed and think "Is this what Buddhism is about?  What a bunch of sad cases Buddhists are!"  Once again, the 4 Noble Truths are not absolute Truths but Noble Truths meant for reflection.  If we reflect on this statement "Everything is suffering", then we see that not all of life is suffering is it?  When we look at life, it's usually pretty neither here nor there and this is punctuated by peaks of happiness and troughs of sadness and suffering.

So let's look at the 3 aspects of the 1st Noble Truth.  Ajahn Sumedho explains it in more detail:
The first insight into the 1st Noble Truth
For the First Noble Truth, "There is suffering" is the first insight. What is that insight? We don't need to make it into anything grand; it is just the recognition: "There is suffering". That is a basic insight. The ignorant person says, "I'm suffering. I don't want to suffer. I meditate and I go on retreats to get out of suffering, but I'm still suffering and I don?t want to suffer.... How can I get out of suffering? What can I do to get rid of it?" But that is not the First Noble Truth; it is not: "I am suffering and I want to end it." The insight is, "There is suffering".

Now you are looking at the pain or the anguish you feel - not from the perspective of "It's mine" but as a reflection: "There is this suffering, this dukkha". It is coming from the reflective position of "Buddha seeing the Dhamma." The insight is simply the acknowledgment that there is this suffering without making it personal. That acknowledgment is an important insight; just looking at mental anguish or physical pain and seeing it as dukkha rather than as personal misery — just seeing it as dukkha and not reacting to it in a habitual way.

The second insight of the First Noble Truth is:
"Suffering should be understood." The second insight or aspect of each of the Noble Truths has the word "should" in it: "It should be understood." The second insight then, is that dukkha is something to understand. One should understand dukkha, not just try to get rid of it.

We can look at the word "understanding" as "standing under". It is a common enough word but, in Pali, "understanding" means to really accept the suffering, stand under or embrace it rather than just react to it. With any form of suffering — physical or mental - we usually just react, but with understanding we can really look at suffering; really accept it, really hold it and embrace it. So that is the second aspect, "We should understand suffering".

The third insight of the First Noble Truth[
/b] is:
"Suffering has been understood." When you have actually practised with suffering - looking at it, accepting it, knowing it and letting it be the way it is — then there is the third aspect, "Suffering has been understood", or "Dukkha has been understood." So these are the three aspects of the First Noble Truth: "There is dukkha"; "It is to be understood"; and, "It has been understood."

This is the pattern for the three aspects of each Noble Truth. There is the statement, then the prescription and then the result of having practised. One can also see it in terms of the Pali words pariyatti, patipatti and pativedha. Pariyatti is the theory or the statement, "There is suffering." Patipatti is the practice - actually practising with it; and pativedha is the result of the practice. This is what we call a reflective pattern; you are actually developing your mind in a very reflective way. A Buddha mind is a reflective mind that knows things as they are.

We use these Four Noble Truths for our development. We apply them to ordinary things in our lives, to ordinary attachments and obsessions of the mind. With these truths, we can investigate our attachments in order to have the insights. Through the Third Noble Truth, we can realise cessation, the end of suffering, and practise the Eightfold Path until there is understanding. When the Eightfold Path has been fully developed, one is an arahant, one has made it. Even though this sounds complicated - four truths, three aspects, twelve insights - it is quite simple. It is a tool for us to use to help us understand suffering and non-suffering.
The Four Noble Truths by Ajahn Sumedho
So this is the basic reflective form - the statement, the practice, the result of practice - that's repeated for each of the 4 Truths.
« Last Edit: February 03, 2010, 05:30:42 am by Optimus Prime »

Offline Monkey Mind

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Re: The 4 Noble Truths - The hidden structure and meaning in them
« Reply #1 on: February 04, 2010, 09:33:29 pm »
Thanks, OP. I've spent a couple of days trying to absorb this material. I think I will spend a few hundred more contemplating it.

Offline Optimus Prime

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Re: The 4 Noble Truths - The hidden structure and meaning in them
« Reply #2 on: February 05, 2010, 05:44:05 am »
Where did these 3 reflections to each Noble Truth come from?  They come straight from the Buddha's first teaching - the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta:

What is the Noble Truth of Suffering?
Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering,
dissociation from the loved is suffering,
not to get what one wants is suffering:
in short the five categories affected by clinging are suffering.
There is this Noble Truth of Suffering:
such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing, light
that arose in me about things not heard before.
This Noble Truth must be penetrated by fully understanding suffering:
such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing, and light
that arose in me about things not heard before.
This Noble Truth has been penetrated by fully understanding suffering:
such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing, and light that arose in me about things not heard before.
[Samyutta Nikaya, LVI, 11]

So that's how we get:
1.  There is suffering
2.  It should be understood
3.  It has been understood

How do we use the 3 reflections on the first Noble Truth?  
Remember, these 4 Truths are be contemplated on with regards to Dukkha - so we are actually using the Dukkha in our everyday lives to enlighten ourselves.  And it doesn't have to be major suffering that we can learn from because sometimes, major suffering is too hard for us to handle.  So we start looking into the little sufferings that we encounter everyday (e.g., the dissatisfactions, the discontent, the bordedom, the irritations, frustrations etc...) to see if we can get a little bit of insight into how it works.

Worked example on the 1st Noble Truth
For example, one little suffering that we might have is anger.  So, how do we reflect using the 1st Noble Truth with regards to anger?

Remember the pattern of reflection is like this:
1.  There is suffering
2.  Suffering should be understood
3.  Suffering has been understood

So let's say something makes us angry or irritated.  So the 1st reflection on the 1st Noble Truth with regards to anger is:
1.  There is anger
Now notice that the first reflection is NOT "I am" angry.  It is "There is" anger.  Notice the difference in how your mind feels using both approaches.  If you say, "I am" angry, then you think that the anger is an intrinsic part of you, e.g., you say things like "I am an angry person" or "You bet I'm angry!" - listen to this way of talking - it's all coming from the self view isn't it?  It's coming from me, my, mine, mistakenly assuming that the anger is a part of you.

But the 1st reflection of the 1st Noble Truth isn't "I am angry", is it?  It is "There is anger".

And because you can sit back and watch your anger, you recognize that you are not your anger, are you?  Because you can take a step back and observe this feeling of anger, you can see that anger is something separate from you.  But that which is aware of the anger - that which knows and can observe the anger - is not angry is it?  That's how they're separate.  So, here, we can see directly that anger is anatta - it is not you, it's not yours, it's not an intrinsic part of you.  It's just an energy, a feeling that comes and goes.

Now, the 2nd reflection of the 1st Noble Truth is:
2.  Anger should be understood
So you recognize, "Oh, anger is just a feeling, isn't it?  It's a feeling that comes and goes.  Feelings naturally have a certain amount of energy - this energy is finite, so when it's all used up, it dissipates by itself, doesn't it (as long as you're not adding more fuel onto the fire of anger).  So because it changes, you know that anger is an impermanent phenomenon - it changes.

If you're mindful enough and the anger is not too strong, you can actually try to feel the actual feel the feeling of anger itself.  What does it feel like to observe?  So you feel the anger itself and you realize anger is like this.  So this is what we mean by "understanding" anger.  You're not trying to get rid of it but getting to know it.  You'll notice that the actual feeling of anger is not constant - the amount of intensity of the anger actually changes with each passing moment.  Therefore anger is impermanent.  It's an energy that comes and goes.  You can't really sustain 100% maximum anger forever because its energy fluctuates and eventually fades.

Now with some approaches to anger, people might think that they have to get rid of anger.  But this can sometimes be like using anger to fight anger.  With impermanence though, we know that all that arises will eventually cease.  And so, we know that anger too arises and will eventually cease - so we can have a reflections like this, "Oh, there's anger.  It's causing my body to stress out a little bit - so I'm getting all these stress chemicals flooding my body.  But anger is just anger - it comes and goes and won't stay forever.  All I gotta do is calm down a bit, get away from the source of this anger and I'll be right.  Those stress hormones will gradually dissipate from my system of themselves and then I should be back to normal".  So that's a brief example of how you can play around with reflections on each Noble Truth.

So here, we are using anicca and anatta to reflect on anger and understand it a little more.

Now the 3rd reflection:
3.  Anger has been understood
So here, it's important to actually realize the point where you've understood the anger.  Because once you understand something, really know it inside and out - it doesn't delude you anymore and won't give you the problems it used to.  Once you understand anger, you'll see through it and it becomes much less of a problem.  And once you've seen through something, it's that much easier to let that problem go - non-attachment.  You recognize also, "When there is no anger, it's like this" and you observe what your state of mind is like.

So that's a worked example of how to use the 3 insights into the 1st Noble Truth, choosing the dukkha of anger as the subject.  This way of reflecting can be used for any type of dukkha though, be it sadness, loneliness, discontent etc...  It's a good idea to try to use the 4 Noble Truths to reflect on the small sufferings in our lives.  Because we can get a little insight into the little problems in life and develop a bit of skill reflecting on these little problems, then when the big problems come, they'd be far easier to handle.
« Last Edit: February 05, 2010, 06:39:30 am by Optimus Prime »

Offline Sound-of-silence

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Re: The 4 Noble Truths - The hidden structure and meaning in them
« Reply #3 on: February 08, 2010, 06:40:20 pm »
 ;D Wow, this was very nice and precise way of explaining the four noble!


Offline Dairy Lama

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Re: The 4 Noble Truths - The hidden structure and meaning in them
« Reply #4 on: February 16, 2010, 06:33:47 am »
Many people these days pass off the 4 Noble Truths as easy stuff - beginner's Buddhism.  So they dismiss it and don't give it a second thought, "The 4 Noble Truths?  That's easy as anything!  I study advanced Buddhism!"  

I agree.  They are worth studying in detail and reflecting on regularly, particularly the first two Noble Truths.  And of course the fourth truth, the 8-Fold path is the basis for Buddhist practice.

"My religion is very simple - my religion is ice-cream"


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Re: The 4 Noble Truths - The hidden structure and meaning in them
« Reply #5 on: February 16, 2010, 07:12:01 am »
This approach seems very similar to the Lam Rim meditations as used within the Gelugpa. Suffering is viewed through close examination of Anger, Attachment and Ignorance as they appear as obstructions to practice.


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