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The Four Noble Truths

Excerpted with permission from The Three Vehicles of Buddhist Practice by Ven. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

 

When the Buddha taught, he was not teaching as a great scholar who wanted to demonstrate a particular philosophical point of view or to teach for its own sake. His desire was to present the very essence of the deep and vast teachings of Buddhism, and for that reason he gave teachings which suited the varying abilities of his disciples. All the teachings he gave, some long and some short, were a direct and appropriate response to the development of the disciples who came to listen to him. Of course, people have very different capacities and different levels of understanding. They also have very different wishes and desires to learn and understand the dharma. If the Buddha had taught only the very essence of his own understanding of those vast and far-reaching teachings, then, apart from a small number of disciples who had great intelligence and diligence, few people would have ever understood the Buddhist teachings. The Buddha taught whatever would enable a person to develop so he or she could progress gradually towards the very deep and vast teachings. When we analyze all the Buddha's teachings, we see that they fall into three main approaches or vehicles.

The Buddha's teachings helped each student in a way appropriate for his or her level. On the relative level4 each student received some benefit from what the Buddha taught. On the absolute level, all of the Buddha's teachings have the same goal. When one analyzes the Buddha's teachings on the relative level, one finds that there are three levels. But, when one examines them from the absolute level, one sees there is only one level, or yana, because all beings are directed towards the same goal.

THE HINAYANA

Of the three vehicles or yanas in Sanskrit, the first is the Hinayana. Hinayana literally means "lesser vehicle," but this term should in no way be a reproach or be construed to any way diminish the importance of the 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 who have limited wisdom or diligence, many persons would never be able to travel the Mahayana path. Without the Hinayana teachings there would be no way for practitioners to progress in the dharma, because they would have never entered the path. The path is similar to a staircase: the lower step is the lower step. This doesn't mean it is not important or should be ignored, because without this lower step one can never reach the top of the stairs. One can never gain access to the upper stories of a building without that lower step. It is very necessary. It should be very clear that this term "lesser" vehicle is in no way a pejorative term. It just puts the path into a realistic context.
The fundamental teachings of the Hinayana 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 Varanasi, which is now called Benares. The main subject matter of these teachings is the four noble truths.

THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS

If the Buddha had taught his disciples principally by using his miraculous abilities and various powers, it would not have been very effective in helping human beings on the path of liberation. The best way to show them that wisdom and liberation was to point out the very truth of things; to point out the way things really are. So this is what he did: he showed the truth through the four noble truths and the two truths (relative and absolute truth). By seeing the way things really are, the students learned how to eliminate their mistakes and their delusions. Eliminating one's mistakes and delusions automatically destroys the causes of one's suffering and hardships. 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, knowing when they have unpleasant sensations of hunger, cold, or sickness, and recognize these as things that they don't like. But the first noble truth includes awareness of all the ramifications of suffering, because it encompasses the very nature and essence 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 understand, 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, subtle suffering is the impermanence of pleasure.

For example, when Thrangu Rinpoche went to Bhutan with His Holiness Karmapa, he was invited to the palace of the king of Bhutan. When he arrived there, the palace was magnificent, the king's chambers were beautiful, there were many servants who showed complete respect and obedience. But he and Karmapa found that even though there was so much external beauty, the king himself was suffering a great deal mentally and had many difficulties. The king himself 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.

We think that a particular situation will give us the most happiness we can ever imagine, but actually, within the situation, there is a tremendous amount of anguish. If we think of those who are really fortunate-those 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 are able to 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 involved in an attachment 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 one should be aware of suffering and 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 will always be present. Suffering doesn't go on forever, because the Buddha entered the world, gave teachings, and demonstrated clearly what suffering is. He also taught the means by which suffering can be ended and described the state beyond suffering which is liberation. We do not have to endure suffering and can, in fact, be happy. Even though we cannot immediately emerge from 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 make us happy, even before we have actually completely emerged from suffering. Applying the Buddha's teachings, we can both 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 one knows what suffering is, one must eliminate that suffering. It is not a question of eliminating the suffering itself, but of eliminating the causes of suffering. Once one removes the causes of suffering, then automatically the effect, which is suffering, is no longer present. This is why, in order to eliminate this suffering, one becomes aware of the second noble truth, the truth of universal origination.

THE SECOND NOBLE TRUTH

The truth of universal origination is an English translation of the name Buddha himself 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 negative karma and the kleshas. Karma is a Sanskrit word which means "activity" and klesha in Sanskrit means "mental defilement" or "mental poison." If one does not understand the Buddha's teachings, one would most likely attribute all happiness and suffering to some external cause. One might think that happiness and suffering come from the environment, or from the gods, and that everything that happens originates in some source outside of one's control. If one believes this, then it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to eliminate suffering and its causes. On the other hand, when one realizes that the experience of suffering is a product of what one has done, that is, a result of one's karma, eliminating suffering becomes possible. Once one is aware of how suffering takes place, then one can begin to remove the causes of suffering. First, one must realize that what one experiences is not dependent on external forces, but on what one has done previously. This is the understanding of karma. Negative karma produces suffering and is driven by the defilements. The term "defilement" refers mainly to one's negative motivation and negative thoughts, which produce negative actions.

THE THIRD NOBLE TRUTH

The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering through which it is explained that the causes of karma and the defilements can be removed. We have control over suffering, because karma and the defilements 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 means that if we do unvirtuous actions, we are creating suffering. It also means 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 negative karma and the defilements. Virtuous actions result in the external state of happiness and unvirtuous actions result in suffering. This idea is not particularly easy to grasp, because one 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 one abandons these three types of unvirtuous actions, then one's 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 they care about each other, protect each other, and have a great deal of love and affection for each other, so 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 bring 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 or love, and sexual misconduct arises. This is not the ground out of which love arises, or upon which a nice home can be built in which children can develop happiness. One can readily see that from the lack of commitment to sexual fidelity, many kinds of difficulties will arise.

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 protect 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 from unvirtuous kinds of speech. At first lying may seem to be useful because we might think that one can deceive others through lies and gain some advantage. But 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 do not like us they are not going to believe us anyway. It will be very 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 think that we have been a hypocrite. So we see that lying doesn't really work. Then if we look at the opposite, a person who takes pains to speak the truth will develop a reputation of being a truthful person who can be relied on. Out of this trust, many good things will emerge.

Once we have considered the consequences of lying, we can think of similar consequences relating to other kinds of damaging speech: slander and coarse, aggressive, and useless speech. Except for the immediate and the short-term consequences virtuous speech produces happiness and unvirtuous speech produces suffering.

When we say useless speech, we mean speech that is really useless, not just conversational. If we want someone to relax and feel comfortable it is all right to talk without the conversation having great meaning as long as our intentions are to benefit that person. However, if we just chatter for not reason, that is "useless speech." Worse than that is "chatter rooted in the defilements" when one is saying bad things about other people because of dislike or jealousy of them or when one sets people against each other. When one just gossips about the character of people, 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 scolding, for example, a child when he is doing something dangerous or not studying in school, that is not harmful speech because it is devoid of the defilements. Rather it is a skillful way of helping someone. If there is a genuine, beneficial attitude and love behind what one says, it is not harmful speech. But if speech is related to the defilements such as aggression or jealousy, then it is harmful speech and is something to give 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 aggressiveness, our enemies will become even worse enemies and the situation will become inflamed. If we are aggressive and hurt others and they have friends, then eventually those friends will also become our enemies. On the other hand, if we wish to benefit others, goodness will come out of it through the power of caring for our loved ones and then through wishing to help them develop goodness. 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 those enemies may 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 a unvirtuous mind brings about suffering and problems.

There are two main aspects of karma: one related to experience and one related to conditioning. The experience of karma has already been discussed. Through unvirtuous physical actions, one will experience problems and unhappiness. Likewise, through unvirtuous speech such as lying, one experiences unhappiness and sorrow. Through unvirtuous states of mind, one also experiences unhappiness. This was demonstrated by the example of an aggressive attitude. All of this is related to the understanding that any unvirtuous activity produces unpleasantness or unhappiness.
The second aspect of karma relates to conditioning. By being unvirtuous with our body, speech, or mind we habituate ourselves to a certain style of behavior. Unvirtuous physical or verbal behaviors add to the habit of doing things. For example, each time we kill, we are conditioned to kill again. If we lie, that increases the habit of lying. An aggressive mind conditions our state of mind so we become more aggressive. In later lives, then, that conditioning will emerge so that we will be reborn with a great tendency to kill, to lie, to engage in sexual misconduct, and so on. These are 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 the happiness and the 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 defilements 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 defilements because they are the root of unvirtuous actions. To give up the defilements 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 aggressive, covetous, or ignorant mind). Just wanting to give up the defilements 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 defilements through the examination of the belief in the existence of self or ego.

We cannot easily understand this belief in a self because it is very deep-rooted. First of all, we have to search for this self that we believe in, and through this search we can discover that the self does not exist. Then we will be able gradually to eliminate the belief in a self. When this is done, the defilements are also eliminated because with an elimination of the belief in self, unvirtuous karma is also eliminated.
This belief in a self is a mistaken perception. It's an illusion. For example, if one had 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 this as "you" and only oneself would consider it as "me." So statistically one's self is on very wobbly ground.

We also 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 those components and try to find something that is the essence of self, the self cannot be found in any of these bits and pieces. By contemplating this and working through it very thoroughly, we begin to see how this "I" is really an incorrect perception.
Once we have eliminated this wrong 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 defilements. Once the defilements are gone, then unvirtuous karma that is rooted in the defilements can go. Once the unvirtuous karma is gone, suffering will no longer take place. This is why Buddha says that the root of suffering needs to be abandoned.
To summarize, once we recognize what suffering really is, then we begin by removing its causes. We stop doing unvirtuous actions that create suffering. To stop these unvirtuous activities, we dig out their root, which are the defilements and the various unhealthy attitudes. To eradicate the defilements 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. Through understanding the absence of a self, we no longer create the defilements and negative actions and this brings an end to that whole process. This outcome is certain, thus this is the third Noble Truth of Cessation.
The very essence and nature of cessation is peace. Sometimes people think of Buddhahood in terms of brilliant insights or something very fantastic. In fact, the peace one obtains 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 exciting for a time, but then changes. In contrast, the ultimate liberation and omniscience of cessation is the most 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 result, and is a definitive release from the defilements, 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. 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 truth of the path is called "the truth of the path" because a path leads one to the ultimate goal. One does this step by step, stage by stage, progressively completing one's journey. The main stages of Buddhism are called "the five paths" because by progressively traversing them, one eventually reaches one's destination which is cessation. This path of the Buddha can be analyzed through its five main stages which are called the five paths. The names of the five paths are the stage of accumulation, the stage of junction, the stage of insight, the stage of cultivation, and the final stage of no more learning. Properly speaking, the first four of these are the path, with the fifth one being the effect.

The first path is called the "path of accumulation" because on this path we accumulate all the positive factors one to progress. We try to cultivate diligence, good qualities, and wisdom which penetrates more deeply into the meaning of things. We commit ourselves to accumulating all the positive aspects of practice. We gather the positive elements into our being while at the same time working on many different ways to remove all the unwanted elements from our life. We also apply various techniques to eliminate the blockages and obstacles that are holding us back. This is called the stage of accumulation because we engage in this manifold activity and gather all of these new things into our life.

In ordinary life we are caught up in worldliness. Even though we don't want to be, we are still operating on a level of conditioned existence (Skt. samsara) because we are still under the influence of the defilements. They have a very strong habitual grip on our existence. We need to get rid of these defilements in order to find our way out of samsara. Of course, we want to find happiness and peace and we know it is possible. But even with the strongest will in the world, we cannot do it overnight. It is like trying to dye a large cloth, in that one needs to bring many different elements together to change the color.

So, first of all, in order to gain good qualities, we need to work on creating all the different conditions which will make those qualities emerge. To develop the various insights of meditation and real wisdom, we need to develop great faith and confidence in the validity and usefulness of that wisdom. Once we are convinced of its value, we need to change our habits so that we have the diligence to do all the things necessary to make insight and wisdom emerge. Therefore, there are many factors and conditions we must generate within our life that will bring about our happiness.

To remove all the unwholesome factors binding us in samsara, we must uproot belief in a self, eliminate the various defilements which are hindering us, and bring together the many different conditions that make this transformation and purification possible. We talk about accumulation because we are assembling all the different conditions for this transformation. We won't be able to progress in a significant manner until we have gathered all these causes and conditions in a proper and completely perfect way within ourselves. For that reason, the purpose of this stage of accumulation is to complete all the necessary conditions by gathering them into our existence.

Eventually, because of the complete gathering of favorable conditions, we will reach the third stage which is the "path of insight." This is the stage during which insight into the way things actually are is developed, beyond the veil of delusion. Linking the path of accumulation and the stage of insight is the second path of junction. Here our inner realization, the very way we can perceive things, begins to link up with the truth of the actual nature of phenomena, because we are gathering all the favorable circumstances that will eventually lead us to the actual insight itself. When we attain insight into the way things really are and this insight develops beyond the level of delusion and mistaken views, we realize that there is no self. Once there is no longer a belief in self, there are no longer any root defilements of attachment, aggression, or mental darkness associated with the idea of self. Once there are no longer any defilements, one does nothing unvirtuous and has no more suffering.

Now, it is true that once we have that insight, all suffering is immediately removed, but in another way, that is not true. This is because the delusion of self is a habit which has been built up for such a long time and is very, very hard to remove. For example, when we believe in the self and we hit our finger with a hammer, it hurts. Even when we have realized that an unchanging self is just a delusion fabricated by our minds, still when we hit our finger with a hammer it hurts. We still have the feeling, "I am suffering," because there is an enduring built-up association of "I" with the flesh of our body. Removal of that long established conditioning of self is carried out through a long process of accustoming oneself to the truth of non-self. This is the fourth stage of the cultivation of insight.
The fourth stage is called the path of cultivation. The word gom is usually translated as "meditation" but actually means "to get used to something" or "to accustom oneself."5 This is why it is translated here as "the path of cultivation," while other texts translate it as "the path of meditation." But this stage is the idea of getting used to the insight into the nature of things. Through becoming more and more familiar with the truth of things,6 we can remove the very fine traces of defilements and subconscious conditioning that still exist. Through gradual working on these, the goal of Buddhahood will be attained.

Through the cultivation of insight, we eventually reach the goal of the fifth path that is called "the path of no more learning." Through cultivation, we remove even the most subtle causes of suffering. Once this is completed we have reached the highest state and there are no more new paths to go along making this "the path of no more study" or "the path of no more learning."

The Three Vehicles of Teachings of the Buddha


Copyright © 2001 by Thrangu Rinpoche. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. For more information on Thrangu Rinpoche, visit the Thrangu Rinpoche website at www.rinpoche.com.
Buddhism consists of the teachings of the Buddha, which are known as the "buddha-dharma," meaning "teachings of the awakened one."
The Buddha established the spiritual tradition of Buddhism after he attained the complete realization of the true reality of all phenomena.
Buddhism in India developed rapidly in four phases and soon spread throughout Asia and subsequently to other countries throughout the world
The Four Noble Truths, the first teachings of the Buddha, are the foundation for all Buddhist practice.
The whole corpus of teachings today have come to be known as the Three Yanas (vehicles), or cycles of the buddhist teachings.
Buddhism in Tibet developed when teachers from India brought Dharma to Tibet beginning in the 7th Century CE, which developed into the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism— the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Geluk.
Another way of looking at the major continuing traditions of Tibetan Buddhism divides them into eight major practice lineages called the Eight Chariots.
Ten Tibetans are singled out for their foundational role in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet. They are known as the Ten Pillars.
 

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