The Four Noble Truths BACK
Programme two- Robert Thurman(bbc)
The Buddha's two foremost disciples were Shari Putra and Modi Aliaiana. They started out their search for an enlightened teacher long before they met the Buddha. One day, they met an old monk whose name was Ashva Jid, who had been one of the Buddha's first disciples. He had a kind of light about him, he looked good, and so they asked him: "Well who is your teacher and what does he teach?" He told them he was a simple mendicant and that he couldn't really say much and they should go and meet the Sakyamuni Buddha themselves and ask him, but they insisted that at least he must be able to give them some epitome of the Buddha's teaching, so finally he did, and what he said was: (Speaks in Sanskrit). I repeat this in Sanskrit just for good luck over the airway, because over millennia, this has become a mantra of the Buddha teaching. You find it painted on the back of Tibetan tankers. You find it embedded on scrolls inside Buddhist stupas all throughout Asia, and what it actually says is very, very surprising. The translation is 'About all things that arise from cause, the enlightened Lord declared what those causes are, and also how they reach cessation. Such is the teaching of the Great Transcendor.' Now, this in a way, expresses the essence of the Buddha's teaching, his discovery of causation. The second of his noble truths, which is our task today to discuss, is the noble truth of causation. The Buddha, therefore, is celebrated in a root mantra of his tradition, not as a religious saviour, not as a deity, but as the planet's first discoverer of causation, a century or so before Hypocrites and many of the Greek philosophers and scientists.
Why is discovery of causation a momentous thing? Because before that, people tended to feel that their fate was controlled by a deity. Human beings felt helpless. They had to go to the priest and have the deity placated by some ritual. In a sense, they felt helpless before unknown powers. Once they discovered causation, which happened Eurasia-wide, not only in Greece, as westerners tend to think, they began to assert a certain amount of control over their lives. They began to try to analyse things in terms of how they happened, and this enabled them then to interfere with those processes of causation and to create a better outcome for themselves.
Now, when the Buddha gave his teaching, he started out with the framework of what are called 'The Four Noble Truths', although these could also be translated as 'The Four Noble Facts'. The first of them, which you've already heard about, is a recognition of the human predicament, the Buddha's statement that the unenlightened life is suffering. The second of them is a diagnosis of that unenlightened human condition, why we have suffering and what is the reason for it. The third of them is the prognosis of our human potential, how we can become, what we can become if we do free ourselves from suffering. And the fourth of them is the therapy or methodology, enabling human beings to realise his or her potential.
People have often thought that Buddhism is a very depressing religion or teaching, because they hear the first Noble Truth as being that all life is suffering, but the Buddha didn't really say that all life is suffering. He said that the unenlightened life is suffering. As the Dali Llama says: "To tell people that all life is suffering when they are simply doomed to suffer, would be like going 'Nyah, nyah,' to those beings, like someone who is in prison and has no way to get out and you just go and wave, wave at them and say: 'Ha, ha, you'll never get out." What the Buddha actually said was that the unenlightened life is suffering, and therefore implying and directly stating that the enlightened life is bliss, happiness, Nirvana.
The most important of the Four Noble Truths, of course, is the Third Noble Truth, the Buddha's discovery that there is such a thing as complete freedom from suffering, a very unusual thing for people to claim on this Earth. Most teachings, either religious or scientific, tell people that they are doomed to a certain type of suffering. Perhaps they can have pie in the sky after death, in Heaven, if they believe in such and such a saviour, but mainly it is suffering until they are extinguished, let's say, in death, whereas the Buddha claimed that it is possible for living beings and especially in, from their human embodiment, to become completely understanding of their own reality, and through that understanding to become completely free of suffering. Along with the misunderstanding that the Buddha was a pessimist and a depressed person who said that everything is suffering, goes the idea that therefore, Buddhism could only have been popular in Asia, where people were depressed because Asia was underdeveloped or something, whereas the truth of the matter was that in the Buddha's time, India was by far more wealthy than Greece or any other part of Europe, and that for a millennium or so, it was in fact more wealthy than the West, and therefore Indian people were more jolly, less depressed actually, and therefore more open to a teaching of happiness, actually.
Buddhism is the art of happiness and the concept of Buddhism as the art of happiness is not just some sort of contemporary Buddhist pap. So now with that misunderstanding out of the way, let's look at the way in which we do become free of suffering, which is namely by understanding the cause of suffering, the Second Noble Truth, and getting rid of it. The Second Noble Truth might be thought, therefore, as something very complicated, but really it is very simple. It is the truth of ignorance, really. What the Buddha discovered was that the reason that beings suffer is that they do not know their own real condition. They think that reality is one way, when actually, it is another, and the key element of that distorted understanding and perception of reality is that each of us perceives ourselves to be the centre of our reality. Each of us thinks that we are some sort of fixed, independent, real entity. When we hear Descartes say: "Ah ha, the one thing I can be sure of, is I think, therefore I am," and that, that effect that 'I am' is the one indubitable thing in the universe. The Buddha said that is a perfect expression of ignorance, of misknowledge, as he would put it, a wrong knowing of the nature of the world.
That wrong knowing of the nature of the world puts us in an impossible situation. What is the impossible situation? Well, if I'm the one really true thing and I'm the most real thing in the world, that makes me the most important thing in the world to me. It will be universally recognised that not a single other person in the world will agree with me on that point, that they believe they are the most important things in the world. The world itself is a giant bunch of rocks and dust, the material world anyway, and it doesn't pay that much attention to me as some sort of embodiment, and time doesn't pay much attention to me as a temporary, ephemeral embodiment or mind and body complex, and therefore the world in a way is against the reality that I perceive to be what is most important, so therefore I am in conflict with the world all the time, from my basic perception of things, and being in conflict with the world, which includes other beings, which includes inanimate things, I am going to lose that conflict always.
If you think you're the greatest, the most important, the most real and the world disagrees, you are going to lose that argument with the world, you will die, you will get sick, you will not prevail, people will not like you, people will not do what you want, and you will be forced to do what they want and so on, and therefore you will suffer; and so that's really very simple, and in fact, if it was true, the way we habitually perceive ourselves that we are the most important things, we are the real things here in the world, that other things are less real than us, then we would be doomed to eternal suffering, in fact. It would be logical that we would conjure up an image of some being who is more important than the world, as many of the world's religions do, and somehow feel that that being will take care of us. It sort of fits with our feeling of ourselves being more important, then we kind of can collapse that into this imaginary being that is more important, and by being saved by that being, then we are somehow going to be OK some other time, but Buddha did not settle for such a solution, because he didn't consider it realistic. Instead, he investigated the nature of himself, he investigated whether it really was true that he could not doubt about his own real existence, and what he discovered was that he very much could doubt how real was his existence. He could look for himself as being there in that independent, self-sufficient way that he habitually was feeling, as we habitually feel, and when he did so with great concentration, with great investigation, with scientific exploration, thought experiments and so on, that sense of self that he held, dissolved and disappeared, and he was liberated from that sense of separated self.
Once liberated from that sense of separated self, did not mean that he became non-existent, simply, that he, sort of he and the world were obliterated in some sort of happy annihilation. Not at all. But it meant that he now began to perceive himself as part of the world, as one sort of relational element in the world, not more important than the world, not in conflict with the world, sometimes perhaps under some stress, but capable of harmony with the world, harmony with other beings, harmony with the inanimate elements in the world.
That discovery, apparently, I know it sounds a little incredible, but that discovery of something not just simple oneness and not just simple difference, but a kind of complex, relative difference within ultimate oneness, that discovery gave him the supreme bliss, the total cessation of suffering, and that's why that wonderful smile is on the face of the Buddha as we see in all of his representations in art and in history and in legend. The happy Buddha comes from that realisation, the overcoming of the state of stress and conflict, of being in competition, let's say, with the universe.
So that, therefore, really is the truth of causation, that once we perceive ourselves as a separate, real being and that we come into disagreement with the universe, when we are in disagreement with the universe, we fight with the universe. When we fight with the universe, we lose. The only way we can get out of that is not just by believing that we are one with the world or something, or going against our habitual perception of ourselves as separate from the world, but it is by investigating our habitual perception, analysing it, and experiencing its falsity, which we can empirically do. The Buddha assured us that over the centuries, many millions of Buddhists also tried this methodology and also assured us that it worked to some degree or another, and thereby achieved some degree or another of freedom from suffering.
Now, the last thing I want to say is that the fact that this is called 'The Noble Truth of Causation, the Noble Truth of Suffering,' et cetera, means that the Buddha in telling us this is aware that this is not true for people who are not yet noble. In his meaning of the world 'noble'. That is to say, for people who are ordinary, that is to say ordinary, egocentric persons, it isn't true that I am only a relative entity in the world and not an absolute independent, self-sufficient, self-centred being. To me, that's not true. It's also not true that everything about my life is suffering, even though I'm unenlightened. When I have some relief from some immediate pain, when I have some pleasure, I feel that I am happy, so that's why he called it 'Noble Truth'.
Once I realise, though, the higher happiness of being truly relational with the universe, of realising other beings as in some way inseparable from myself, of liberating thereby my true feeling of compassion and love for those beings, and a feeling of friendliness from those beings, because no longer feeling so threatened by them, then I become really happy in a new way, in an inner dependent, an inner directed way, not into some, depending on some temporarily pleasant stimulants; and at that time, I perceive my old way of being as, even when I was having temporary pleasure, I perceived that as being unhappy, actually, and I realised that is was a suffering..
They say that for the ordinary person, the state of suffering is like when you have a grain of sand on the palm of your hand. You don't really know that it's suffering, because it doesn't really bother you on the palm of your hand, but they say that when you become a noble person and you have a higher sensitivity and sense of reality to the world, what was formerly pleasure is like a grain of sand in your eye, your sensitivity is so much greater, it bothers you so much more, and that's when you become aware of the truth of that Noble Truth.