The Desire for Truth
The search for truths about pain starts with a truth in the form of a reality: the experience of pain itself. As the Buddha explains it, there are two natural responses to this reality, bewilderment and a search (AN 6:63). The bewilderment comes from not knowing why the pain is happening. This is especially true for infants experiencing pain, but because the causes for pain can be so complex, unpredictable, and seemingly beyond our control, this bewilderment can last throughout life.
The search comes both because we’re bewildered and because we desire another reality: We want the pain to stop.
It’s in the psychological and social space defined by these responses that the Buddha formulates his teachings on truths in general, and on the four noble truths in particular.
The social space is defined by relationships: your relationships with other people, your relationship to the words you use to communicate with those people, the relationship between those words and reality, and the relationships among the realities you want your social interactions to influence.
These relations start within the context of a duality: the difference between pain and the cessation of pain. Because this is a duality of realities, the truths that take you to the second reality will have to acknowledge this difference: the cessation of pain differs from pain, and is preferable to the pain. Any teaching that denies this duality and the way we evaluate it won’t satisfy your desires or needs.
Within this duality, the Buddha articulates the search for the cessation of pain in these terms: “Who knows a way or two to the cessation of this pain?” (AN 6:63)
The way this question is articulated carries many implications. Three in particular stand out:
1. The fact that we’re looking for knowledge from other people brings in the personal dimension of our desire for the truth about pain: We interact with others because we’re looking for someone who has (a) true knowledge about the reality of ways to end the pain, and (b) the compassion to convey that knowledge to us. This is the context in which we begin to look for truth in the form of words: words that convey genuine knowledge, spoken by a person who truly knows the relevant realities and wants us to know them, too.
It’s important to note that our desire for personal relationships is strongly shaped by the fact of our suffering. The role of pain and suffering in shaping this desire is so basic and strong that it sometimes makes you wonder: If there were no such thing as pain and suffering, if our experience were already totally blissful, would we be interested in personal relationships at all?
For these reasons, truth in this social dimension is a matter of true relationships within two further dualities. First, assuming a duality between reality and words, we’re looking for a true relationship between the reality of the ending of pain on the one hand, and the words pointing to that reality on the other. The statements about that reality have to correspond to what that reality actually is. It’s because of this duality that the Buddha used the word truth with a dual meaning: the truth of the reality, and the truth of the words describing that reality.
Second, assuming a duality between ourselves and the people we hope will teach us the way to the reality of the ending of suffering, we want a true personal relationship, in which the person teaching us not only knows true words about the ending of suffering, but also has enough genuine compassion to teach us those words in a way that we can understand them and put them to use. We, in turn, will have to do our best to give the teachings contained in those words a genuine try. Only when a relationship is genuine on both sides like this can it be called true.
2. The fact that we desire the end of the pain is what shapes our attitude toward the words we’re taught about pain. We’re not interested in true words for their own sake. We want true words that help guide us to the reality we want. In this way, the words have to serve our desires. They prove their truth by genuinely leading us to a reality where those desires are satisfied.
3. The question behind this search divides reality into four parts, based on two dualities, one of which we’ve already noted: the difference between the reality of pain and the reality of the cessation of pain. One side of this duality, pain, is not desired, while the other side, the cessation of pain, is. The other duality relates to the fact when you think of a way that accomplishes an aim, you’re assuming two types of real events: causes and effects. The way you’re looking for is the cause; the end of suffering is the effect.
These two dualities, taken together, divide reality with regard to the problem of pain into four parts: the undesired effect (pain), the unskillful cause leading to the undesired effect, the desired effect (the cessation of pain), and the skillful cause leading to the desired effect.
In teaching the four noble truths, the Buddha takes all these considerations into account. To begin with, it’s because of the double duality in the last point that the noble truths are four, rather than three or five. The Buddha offers to teach us these four truths in words that correspond to the reality of how pain can be understood and brought to an end, and he promises to be truthful in conveying his knowledge of that reality. He teaches these words, not as ends in themselves, but as means to an end: the reality of the ending of suffering. As we will see, he identified true Dhamma as what passes the test in actually bringing that end about.
The fact that he devoted his entire teaching to these issues is what makes the Dhamma unique and radical in its focus.
But even though the question, “Who knows a way or two to the cessation of this pain?” sketches out the basic framework for how the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble truths is supposed to function, still it leaves many issues unclear. The way the Buddha clarified these issues is what makes the Dhamma unique and radical in its particulars.
If we separate the question into three parts, we can see where it’s unclear.
“Who knows a way or two…”: What kind of way are you looking for? Do you want the other person to take the pain away for you? Or are you willing to do the work yourself?
“to the cessation…”: Are you looking for a total ending of all pain? Or will you be content to settle just for the ending of this particular pain?
“of this pain?”: What kind of pain are you talking about? Physical? Mental? Both?
In presenting the four noble truths, the Buddha sharpens these three parts of the question, at the same time answering the question as a whole.
Let’s look at these three points in reverse order.
• We start with the nature of pain and suffering. In the first noble truth, the Buddha lists many events that count as suffering. The list starts with a combination of physically and mentally painful events—birth, aging, and death; sorrow, lamentation, physical pain, distress, and despair; association with the unbeloved, separation from the loved, not getting what is wanted. These are all forms of suffering familiar to everyone.
But when the Buddha summarizes what all these events have in common and makes them stressful, his analysis doesn’t sound familiar at all. The common thread in all these forms of suffering, he says, is the act of clinging to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, fabrication, and consciousness. We’ll discuss the meaning of this summary in Chapter 5, but here it’s enough to note that the suffering of clinging is primarily mental. Without clinging, none of the other events in the list, even though they might be physically painful, can cause suffering to the mind.
So mental suffering is the Buddha’s primary focus when he talks about the ending of suffering.
However, he states in the second noble truth that the cause of clinging is any craving that leads to further becoming: a self-identity in a world of experience. We’ll discuss this point in detail in Chapter 6, but here we can simply note that the craving leading to becoming not only leads to mental suffering in the present moment, but can also cause you to act in ways that will lead to both mental suffering and physical suffering in the future. When the mind is freed from craving, it opens to an unconditioned dimension in which there is no birth, aging, or death at all. This means that a fully awakened person, after the death of his or her last body, is freed not only from mental suffering but also from any and all physical pain. Because this deathless dimension lies outside of space and time, this freedom is total, once and for all.
• This connects with the second point. People, if asked for their most heartfelt desire around pain, would most likely respond that they’d want total freedom from all pain. That’s our most primal desire about pain: We’d never like to experience it ever again. But day-to-day life has led us to believe that that’s an unrealistic goal, as we go from one pain to the next and then the next. So we tend to lower our sights, abandoning our primal desire and trying to content ourselves with efforts to end individual pains as they occur.
The Buddha, however, felt that life would be worthwhile only if he could hold to the heart’s primal desire for a total cessation of pain and do his best to find it. The main message of his first talk was that he had succeeded in his search. This is the point of his third noble truth: The craving that causes suffering can be ended without leaving a trace, which is why the total end of suffering is possible.
• As for the way to the end of pain and suffering, even though we might prefer that someone else do the work for us, the Buddha found that that was impossible. We suffer because we haven’t completed the duties with regard to the four noble truths, which means that we suffer from our own lack of skill. No one else can make us skillful. Other people, like the Buddha, can point out the way to develop our skill, but we ourselves have to follow that way if we want to stop suffering (Dhp 276).
This way is described by the fourth noble truth. It consists of three basic mental skills—virtue, concentration, and discernment—divided into a total of eight factors. Discernment is divided into the factors of right view and right resolve; virtue, into the factors of right speech, right action, and right livelihood; concentration, into the factors of right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
These factors will be discussed in detail in Chapter 8, but here we can point out three important features of this path:
(a) The factors of the path are all fabricated or assembled from the same five aggregates that, when clung to, constitute suffering. Right view, for instance, is composed of perceptions and thought fabrications: the labels the mind applies to things and the thoughts it assembles from those labels. Right concentration makes use of all five aggregates. Also, an important part of right effort is the desire to master skillful action. This means that the path must be used strategically: The factors are developed until they have served their purpose, then they’re abandoned along with the cause of suffering. The Buddha’s image, which we’ll have reason to cite frequently in the course of this book, is that the path is like a raft: You’re currently standing on the unsafe shore of a river, while safety lies on the far shore. There’s no bridge to the other side, and no boat—no nibbāna yacht—to ferry you across. So you build a raft from the branches and twigs you find on this shore, hold on to it as you swim across the river, and then, when you reach the safety of the far shore, you put it aside to go on your way (MN 22; SN 35:197).
A more modern image would be of a load of bricks you’re carrying on your shoulders. To suffer is to refuse to put the bricks down. To follow the path is to take the bricks off your shoulders and use them to build a runway. When the runway is done, you can take off and fly.
(b) Right view is one of two factors that the Buddha highlights in his discussions of the path. To have right view is to see things in terms of the four noble truths. Because these truths are part of the path, this means that we will have to put them aside when we reach the reality on the other side. This connects to the point we made above: that the four noble truths are true because they work. The technical term is that they’re instrumental: They’re meant to be used for a certain task aimed at a certain goal, like a carpenter’s tools for building furniture, and then put aside when the task is done. Because they act directly or indirectly as guides to action, they contain inherent value judgments as to what’s worth knowing for the sake of actions worth doing.
(c) The other factor that the Buddha often highlights is right concentration. This factor he compares to food in that it gives you the strength to follow the path (AN 7:63). The levels of right concentration are defined by their feeling tone: levels of rapture or refreshment, pleasure, and equanimity. The fact that these feeling tones can be consciously fostered means that they can provide temporary relief from suffering as you follow the path. The path doesn’t save all its rewards for the end.
Still, it requires work. Even though the four noble truths respond to your desire for a total end to suffering, they don’t pander to your desire that the way there be easy or that it will follow your preconceived notions. This means that you need to be convinced that the path is at least worth a try. As the Buddha notes, the repeated reality of suffering and stress forces you to place conviction in at least some way to end suffering. For you to place that conviction in the Buddha’s analysis of suffering and the way to its end, you need to develop conviction in
—the person teaching the way and
—in the words explaining the way itself,
—to the point where you’re willing to give the way a genuine try.
These three issues define the social dimension of the four noble truths.
In the next nine chapters, we’ll discuss how the Dhamma analyses these three issues with the aim of arriving at the reality beyond the social dimension, where the desire for the end of suffering is fully met.