On at least two occasions, the Buddha said that all he taught was dukkha and the ending of dukkha (MN 22; SN 22:86). This means that if you want to understand his teachings, dukkha is a good word to know.
Its primary meaning is simple enough—pain—but it covers all levels of pain, from acute physical suffering and mental anguish to subtle levels of stress in very refined, even blissful, states of mind. Unfortunately, there’s no single English word that can encompass all these levels of intensity. Fortunately, though, the fact that we have separate words for pain, suffering, and stress helps to clear up some of the difficulties that the Buddha faced, given that his language had only one word to cover all these things. In the course of this book, I will usually translate dukkha as suffering, but occasionally I’ll use pain or stress where they seem to fit better into the context.
The main point to remember, though, is that dukkha is the primary focus of everything the Buddha taught. If you’re interested in solving the problem of suffering, then his Dhamma, or teaching, is where to look. If you’re interested in other issues, you can look somewhere else.
In his first talk, the Buddha taught that the path to the end of suffering started with right view concerning four noble truths: suffering, its origination, its cessation, and the path to its cessation.
Here, too, it’s good to look at the words the Buddha used for “truth” and “noble”: sacca and ariya.
The early Buddhist texts define sacca as whatever is undeceptive and doesn’t turn out to be other than what it seems. The way the texts use this word shows that a “truth” can mean either (1) a fact as a reality in and of itself or (2) an accurate statement about that reality. This double meaning is important to keep in mind for two reasons. The first is that it’s directly related to the solution of the problem of suffering. In the search for an end to suffering, you’re looking for accurate statements that describe how to reach the reality of suffering’s end. The second reason is that the Buddha made statements about truth that sometimes seem contradictory if you assume that “truth” can be only a reality or only a statement. But once you realize that the word has these two meanings, the seeming contradictions disappear.
And not only that: Understanding the Buddha’s insight into the relationship between pain as a reality and the words inspired by that reality, helps you understand how best to make use of the four truths in practice.
The Buddha called these truths ariya, noble, for at least four reasons. The first is that they inform a path of practice that leads not just to the temporary ending of individual pains, but to a deathless dimension where all pain and suffering is transcended for good. Only a search that seeks the deathless, he said, can be rightly called noble (MN 26). Any search aimed at a lesser happiness was, in his eyes, not noble at all because that lesser happiness would inevitably lead to disappointment. The noble truths are noble because they show the way to the noblest of goals: a happiness that would never disappoint.
The second way in which the truths are noble has to do with the fact that the Pali word for noble also means universal. These are truths that apply to all beings everywhere, regardless of gender, race, nationality, or cultural background—they’re true even for beings on other levels of the cosmos—because they focus on the structure of how suffering is caused in any mind.
Because these truths are universal in serving the noblest of goals, they’re also noble in the sense that they’re preeminent. On the one hand, they’re preeminent in the world at large in pointing to the unique way to the best goal possible: deathless happiness. All other truths are subordinate to them in this regard. On the other hand, they’re preeminent specifically in their relation to the other truths the Buddha taught. Even though he learned many, many things in the course of his awakening, he realized that all the lessons with the potential to lead others to awakening were contained within these four truths (SN 56:31). So they form the context in which all the other truths he taught have to be understood. An image from the Pali Canon, the earliest extant record of his teachings, states that just as the footprint of the elephant can contain all the footprints of all land animals, the four noble truths contain all skillful teachings (MN 28).
And finally, the truths are noble because they’re ennobling. They require you to adopt a noble attitude toward your suffering. To begin with, this means admitting the suffering inherent in the way your mind normally clings and craves. To adopt the truths is to step back from your likes and dislikes, and to acknowledge that they’re precisely the things causing you to suffer. At the same time, the truths also ask you to become noble in taking responsibility for ending your sufferings in a way that harms no one. In so doing, they put power in your hands and show you how to use that power responsibly. They open the possibility of finding happiness with true dignity.
When the Buddha explained the four noble truths in his first talk, he noted that each truth carried a duty: Suffering was to be comprehended, its origination abandoned, its cessation realized, and the path to its cessation developed. Once he had fully completed these four duties, he stated, he knew that he was fully awakened. He was now released from suffering of every sort (SN 56:11).
What this means is that the truths are not just interesting facts. They’re a call to action.
Because the four noble truths form the context for all the Buddha’s other teachings, they’re like sorting boxes to determine what that call to action means in any given instance. Once you know which box a particular teaching is in, then you know what to do with it: Is it a teaching that helps you comprehend suffering? Or is it one that helps to abandon its cause? Only when you know what to do with a teaching can you reap its full benefits.
But even though the four noble truths form the context for understanding and applying all of the Buddha’s other teachings, the truths themselves fall into the larger context of his teachings on truth and the normal human response to pain (MN 95; AN 6:63). Once we understand these larger contexts, we can better make use of the four noble truths. In particular, to grasp why the Buddha formulated the truths in the way he did, it’s good to know how he understood the mind’s normal reaction to pain—both what was normally wrong with that reaction and what was potentially useful toward providing an opening for going beyond pain and suffering altogether. To grasp the role he had in mind for the truths, it also helps to know how he saw the social dimension of telling the truth and learning the truth in the context of the search to find a reality that truly ended the reality of pain.
This is the main purpose of this book: to explain the four noble truths (1) in and of themselves, (2) as the context for understanding the Buddha’s other teachings, and (3) in the light of the larger context provided by the Buddha’s understanding of the mind’s natural response to pain and how that response shapes the desire for truth.
I hope that understanding the words of the four noble truths in this way will provoke insights leading to the deathless reality to which they point.