The Four Noble Truths BACK
Programme three - Christina Feldman(bbc)
The essence of Buddha's teaching can be described in this simple statement: "I teach just one thing. There is suffering and there is an end to suffering." The cessation of suffering is the Third Noble Truth and lies at the heart of all Buddhist practice and teaching. The Third Noble Truth is inextricably linked to the first two Noble Truths. There is unsatisfactorineness in life and there is a cause of suffering. All the varieties and dimensions of pain and unsatisfactoriness we can experience in this life, are not independently arisen, but can with wisdom and clarity be traced back to the roots of ignorance and craving. When the cause of suffering is penetrated and dissolved with wisdom, we can discover a way of being in this world and in ourselves, in which suffering ends.
More than twenty five hundred years ago, the young Prince Siddartha sat down beneath a Bodi Tree in India, with the resolve to remain unmoving until he understood the nature of genuine freedom. Throughout the night, he was besieged by the forces of Maura or illusion, in the guises of lust, anger, fear, craving and doubt. The Prince remained still and unshakeable. Facing Maura without flinching, able to say simply: "I know you."
As the night went on, Siddartha's meditation deepened and he began to understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, freedom from suffering and the path to the end of suffering. When he rose in the morning from his night of meditation, he said: "My liberation is unshakeable. I have done what needs to be done." Throughout his life, the Buddha described his enlightenment as the understanding of the deathless, as unconditioned, timeless, the highest peace and happiness, the end of all suffering and as Nirvana.
The volumes of words written about Nirvana are only signposts, directing us to deeply understand the nature of ourselves and our life. A wakening for each of us is a profoundly intuitive path that asks us to dive deeply into our own hearts and minds to see for ourselves where suffering is, how it's caused and to see its end experientially. No one can substitute for us on this journey. All the knowledge or opinions we can gather about awakening will not bring suffering to an end. In discovering for ourselves the profound freedom of heart and mind, through letting go of the causes of suffering, we're liberated and our understanding is unshakeable.
Siddartha's experience beneath the Bodi Tree was not the first of his awakenings. In his life as a prince, sheltered from the storms of life in his palace, he'd come to understand that none of his wealth, possessions, or the spectrum of pleasure and distraction that filled his life, could protect him from the realities of change, ageing, sickness and death. It was this first profound realisation that motivated him to enter a homeless life. He understood that genuine liberation, peace and wisdom lay within in his own heart and not, as he'd previously believed, within the multiplicity of events and things he could gain or possess.
The Third Noble Truth is the teaching that's continued to inspire the spiritual journeys of countless people over the centuries. As human beings, we long to be free, to find the end of pain and discover an abiding peace and balance. The Third Noble Truth affirms that this is a genuine possibility for all of us. The Buddha taught that the causes of sorrow and the causes of joy lie within our own hearts. Suffering, the Buddha taught, is not a life sentence or a terminal condition. Its continuation relies upon the continuation of ignorance and craving. Its end comes with the cessation of ignorance and craving.
Underlying all the debates and arguments about the nature of liberation, there are several key elements of agreement. The Buddha stressed repeatedly that freedom is not reserved for a fortunate minority of people, who have the appropriate portfolio of spiritual achievement. Liberation, he emphasises, is available for anyone willing to commit themselves wholeheartedly to cultivating goodness of heart and depth of understanding. We can all learn to let go in this life. We can all cultivate the honesty, integrity and dedication that makes us more enlightenment-prone, rather than prone to confusion and suffering. We can learn to be awake in our lives, present and curious, to the moment-to-moment arising and passing of suffering. Too often, we're so involved in trying to escape from pain, struggle and anguish, that it doesn't occur to us that it might be a good idea to stop running.
Our willingness to be present with curiosity, commitment and calmness in all the moments of our life, is the first step on the path of liberation and understanding of cessation of suffering. Integral to the Buddhist teaching of freedom is the emphasis upon immediacy. Enlightenment is not some distant goal, its realisation to be postponed until we have the ideal life and accomplishments. Time is not intrinsically a factor in awakening. In teaching the path of awareness, the Buddha instructed that this is a direct path to the surmounting of lamentation and sorrow, to the disappearance of pain and grief, for the realisation of Nirvana.
Another key element in the discovery of liberation is the enduring encouragement of the Buddha to turn towards our life, to discover the freedom we seek for. It's not a teaching of transcendence, that demands that we divorce ourselves from the world. Nor is liberation described as some separate dimension. In everything he taught, the Buddha invited us to embrace our bodies, hearts and minds with mindfulness and investigation. It is here we discover unshakeable liberation, the liberation of our hearts through loving kindness, the liberation of our minds through wisdom.
Contemplating the nature of our bodies, minds and hearts, we contemplate the nature of all life. Within our life, we see the truths of change, of suffering, its cause, and the absence of any enduring sense of self. The implications of this understanding are profound. Within the unalterable waves of change, we can never find any enduring refuge or freedom. Much of the suffering in our life is optional, born of grasping, clinging and the demands that life conforms to our desires. Seeing the absence of any enduring centre of self is an understanding that has the power to liberate us from fear, from self-protection, and to see the transparency of all the painful divisions that live between self and other.
Nirvana is the cessation of clinging, craving and ignorance. It doesn't equate with annihilation. Liberation's not a device to make life go away, nor will it guarantee that we will then have a continuum of only pleasant sensations experienced as thoughts and feelings.
The Buddha's enlightenment, it didn't exempt him from an ageing body, illness and death. It did allow him to meet all of life's adversity, challenge and unpredictability with equanimity, compassion and balance. It is the cessation of clinging, demand and attachment, born of understanding, that allows us to embrace all the moments of our life with poise, fearlessness and care.
Enlightenment is not the same. It's not caring. It's not clingy. There are moments in all of our lives when we catch a glimpse, no matter how fleeting, of the deep freedom that is the nature of letting go. We emerge from bouts of obsession or anxiety, letting go of the thoughts and fears that have gripped us, and we feel ourselves emerging into a sense of freedom. We open a clenched fist, breathe out after moments of holding our breath, feel able to relinquish some demand or goal that has consumed us. In all of these moments we have a taste of freedom.
At times, the Buddha described enlightenment as 'awakening from a dream'. It's a dream born of ignorance. Ignorance in Buddhist teaching is not a personal insult or intended to imply an absence of knowledge. It's the ignorance of not understanding the way things actually are. Through contemplating our life on a moment-to-moment level, we are learning to penetrate the veils of ignorance that can create so much unnecessary sorrow. The Buddha defined ignorance in a number of ways: mistaking pleasure for genuine happiness. We can spend our lives prowling the world in pursuit of a succession of pleasant sensations, events and experiences. We can be equally intent on avoiding the unpleasant. We can feel so gratified and bolstered by the pleasant and equally threatened by and fearful of the unpleasant. It's the birthplace of craving and aversion.
No matter how successful we are in avoiding the unpleasant and attaining the pleasant, somehow the quest for enduring happiness remains unsatisfied. Craving is an unquenchable thirst and one of the building blocks of pain. We try to hold onto and maintain what we cherish, want and depend upon, yet we see that none of our clinging prevents the crumbling of everything that arises.
It really only takes a few moments of contemplation for us to see experientially that everything that arises in this life will also pass. For every birth, there is a death. Impermanence is a simple but profound truth from which nothing in this world, including ourselves, is exempt. Ignorance is a denial of this reality. We seek the unchanging within the changing, the eternal within the ephemeral, the constant within the fluid, and so we struggle and suffer. We think that we suffer because of change. In truth, we suffer because of our refusal to embrace the truth of change.
Demanding that life stands still for us, trying to grasp the ungraspable and demanding immortality within the mortal, is a recipe for endless, unnecessary pain. The implications of deeply embracing the reality of change are that we learn to let go more freely and fully in this life. It's an act of compassion for ourselves. We are letting go of ignorance and suffering.
We can go through life living within a constructed illusion of being an independent, unchanging self, living within a world of equally independent selves, separate and apart from us. We can feel so confined and limited by the solution, yet it's also one we fiercely protect. As we contemplate our sense of self, we see that it's constructed essentially of everything we grasp hold of. If we were invited to write a short autobiography, each sentence beginning with the words: "I am," what we most dearly grasp hold of would be revealed to us. We identify with our bodies, our emotions, our perceptions, states of mind, our opinions, our gender and race. Some of this identification has a long history, some of it borne on a moment-to-moment level. We see that each moment we grasp hold of a thought, a feeling and a body sensation, our personal story of the moment is born, and with it born, the limitation of confinement of that story.
As we explore this sense of self more closely, we also see that it changes according to the grasping of the moment. Our sense of self in the midst of sadness may be so radically different than how we would describe ourselves in the midst of exhilaration. With mindfulness and equanimity, the tendency to grasp hold of anything at all within the changing world of experience is released. So, too, is the suffering born of grasping.
The cessation of ignorance is a cessation of suffering, separation and struggle. It's the liberation of the heart and mind, the highest happiness and peace, the unshakeable refuge and the birthplace of compassion.