Chapter Four

Step by Step to the Truth

For many people at present, the four noble truths are among the first things they learn about Buddhism. This is ironic, because the Buddha himself often found that he first had to prepare his listeners to develop the right frame of mind for properly receiving the four noble truths. After all, he wasn’t concerned with teaching people about Buddhism. He was more focused on speaking to their needs—to overcome suffering—and to put them in the best frame of mind to receive and accept his teachings on the topic so that they would be willing to act on them and to reap their benefits. He did that by teaching them other topics beforehand. Only when they accepted his preliminary teachings and allowed their hearts and minds to be moved by them would they be willing to accept the four truths and to act on them.

This is because the four truths point out a duality about desire that many people find hard to accept: Their common desires—the ones they tend to follow willingly and happily—are actually the causes of suffering, whereas the desires that lead to the end of suffering require training.

The central role of desire in shaping the four noble truths can be seen in the similes the Buddha uses to illustrate his teachings as a whole. They’re all images of people acting on desire in a skillful way. We’ve already noted the image of the raft: Desiring safety, you want to escape from the dangers on this shore of the river, so you put together a raft that you can hold on to as you paddle across the river to the safety of the far shore. The words of the Dhamma are instructions on how to build the raft; the practice of the Dhamma is the raft itself.

Another image is that of a search: People search for objects—such as a strong bull elephant to do work, or the heartwood of a tree to build something solid—and the Dhamma shows them how to find the objects they desire.

Another image is that the Dhamma is your guide for how to act in battle so that you can attain a desired victory.

However, the image most relevant to the four noble truths is one in which the Buddha compares himself to a doctor desiring the health of his patient, and the Dhamma to medicine (Iti 100; AN 10:108). Many people over the centuries have noted how the four noble truths are like a doctor’s approach to a disease: The truth of suffering describes the disease’s symptoms, the truth of the origination of suffering diagnoses its cause, the truth of cessation gives the prognosis that the disease can be totally cured, and the truth of the path charts out the course of treatment to bring about that cure.

Given that the four noble truths are so focused on the issue of desire, the Buddha saw the need to urge his listeners to understand the value of abandoning the desires he criticized as ignoble and to develop noble desires in their place. As we’ll see, the first ignoble desire in his list of the causes of suffering is the craving for sensuality. Most of his listeners, though, saw this craving as their dearest friend and companion. As far as they could see, sensuality was their only avenue to escape pain. So he couldn’t simply instruct his listeners about the dangers of that friend. He first had to encourage them to change their feelings of allegiance. To induce this change of heart, he had to use performative truths that would expand their imagination to see that it was both possible and advisable to develop new and more reliable inner friends.

In short: He had to rouse within them the desire to adopt a nobler attitude in their search for happiness.

His means for doing this was called the step-by-step discourse (anupubbī-kathā). Interestingly enough, even though he gave this discourse many times in the course of his teaching career, the Canon never gives a full script of the discourse itself. All we have is a list of the main topics it covered (MN 156):




the drawbacks of sensuality, and

the rewards of renunciation.

One of the reasons for not recording the script may have been that the Buddha changed it on a case-by-case basis, treating these topics differently in line with his audience. And the Canon tells us that that audience varied widely: Once the Buddha taught this discourse to a king and a large crowd of his subjects; at other times he taught it to a wealthy moneylender, a rich housewife and her daughter, a poor leper, and even an archer hired to assassinate him. Given that this discourse was both descriptive and performative, it only stands to reason that a talk, say, on giving that would be persuasive to a king might not work with a poor leper. So the Buddha had to choose his words to fit his audience.

Yet even though we don’t have the script for this discourse, we do have detailed accounts of how he covered these individual topics on other occasions. These other accounts can give us at least a general sense of what the step-by-step discourse might have said.

One of the most important points that the Buddha made about giving is that you should give where you feel inspired. When discussing the topic of giving, he focused on occasions when the gift is voluntary, and not simply a matter of custom. The fact that a gift should be freely given was so important that, when designing the culture of his monastic orders, he made sure that the donor’s freedom to choose where to give was always protected. For example, if people approach a monk and ask where they should give a gift, he’s supposed to say, “Give wherever your gift would be well-used, or would be well-cared for, or would last long, or wherever your mind feels inspired.” (NP 30)

Still, the Buddha noted that the happiness that results from giving can be greatly multiplied by approaching the act of giving as a skill.

This skill has four dimensions:

your motivation in giving,

your attitude while giving,

your choice of the recipients for your gift, and

your choice of what gift to give.

With regard to motivation: The lowest motivation is to give a gift because you expect to get a similar item back after death, through the results of kamma. A higher motivation, the Buddha said, is the idea that it’s simply good to give. An even higher motivation is, “‘I’m well off. These people are not well off. It wouldn’t be right for me… not to give a gift to those who are not well off.” A motivation higher than that is when you realize that giving a gift makes your mind happy and serene. The highest motivation is when you give not because you’re expecting any return from the gift at all. Your generosity is simply an expression of the goodness of the heart and mind. (AN 7:49)

So, to get the most out of the gift, you try to develop increasingly higher motivations, although it’s important to note that the highest motivation applies only to those who have reached the penultimate level of awakening. Prior to that point in the practice, it’s good to focus on how the act of giving makes the mind happy and serene. That gives energy and further motivation to your practice.

The second dimension in giving as a skill is your attitude while you give. You give attentively, you give with conviction that something good will come of it, you give with empathy for the person receiving the gift, and you don’t have the attitude that you’re simply throwing the gift away (AN 5:148). When you give with the proper attitude, the recipient is glad to receive your gift and more inclined to use it well.

As for the third dimension—the best people to whom to give—the Buddha said that it’s best to give to those who are free of passion, aversion, and delusion, or to those who are practicing to overcome passion, aversion, and delusion (AN 3:24). These are the people most likely to make best use of the gift. When you see that, you’ll be happy you gave.

Finally, as to the gift that’s good to give, the Buddha said that you give in season. In other words, you give a gift appropriate for the time and place, and you focus on times when the recipients are especially in need. Also, you give without adversely affecting yourself or others (AN 5:148). In other words, you don’t give so much that you don’t have enough to use yourself, and you don’t steal the gift to give it to somebody else.

It’s worth noting that the Buddha never mentions the material value of a gift as a measure of the goodness it creates. He simply observes that, when giving a gift, it’s best to give things that are at least on a par in value with the things you yourself use. That way, you’ll feel more happiness when reflecting on the gift.

When you’ve developed giving as a skill, the act of giving makes your mind glad before you do it, bright and clear while you’re doing it, and gratified after you’re done (AN 6:37).

In this way, the act of giving in and of itself is a source of happiness. But it also provides further long-term results: People will find you charming, they’ll admire you, you’ll have a good reputation, and you’ll approach assemblies of people without being ashamed. These are benefits in the present life. As for future lives, the fact that you’ve been generous will tend to lead to a heavenly rebirth, where you’ll outshine those who weren’t so generous. If you return to the human level, you’ll tend to be wealthy and inclined to enjoy your wealth (AN 5:34).

Virtue, the second topic, refers to not intentionally breaking any of the five precepts:

against killing,

against stealing,

against illicit sex,

against telling lies, and

against taking intoxicants.

The Buddha notes that when you intentionally hold to these precepts in all situations, you’re giving universal safety to all. In other words, no one anywhere has to fear harm from your behavior. When you give universal safety in this way, you’ll have a share in that safety as well (AN 8:39).

The Buddha does note that there are times when observing the precepts may cause you to suffer loss in terms of your wealth, your health, or your relatives. For example, you may be put at a disadvantage in business dealings when you don’t lie, and you may meet with situations where you and your relatives will go hungry when you don’t steal. But in terms of your long-term well-being, that kind of loss is trifling compared to the loss that comes when you intentionally break these precepts (AN 5:130).

These precepts embody the principle of harmlessness. As with the act of giving, the act of holding to this principle, even when difficult, is a source of happiness in and of itself. This can be seen immediately in that it gives you a solid basis for healthy self-esteem. It also gives long-term benefits: If you conduct your life in a virtuous way, your wealth tends to be solid and lasting; you have a good reputation for being reliable; if you go to a meeting of people, you can expect that no one will have valid grounds for accusing you of misbehavior; and you die unconfused—in other words, you approach death with a clear conscience (DN 16).

As for the benefits after death, being virtuous tends to lead to a heavenly rebirth. If you return to the human world, you’ll be fortunate in line with each of the precepts you’ve followed: You’ll tend to have a long life, you won’t lose your wealth, you won’t face rivalry and revenge, you won’t be falsely accused, and you won’t suffer mental derangement (AN 8:40).

Strangely, even though the Buddha frequently mentioned the possibility of a heavenly rebirth, the Canon records very few descriptions of the pleasures of heaven. This may have been because the compilers of the Canon were more interested in emphasizing the fact that there’s a higher happiness than heaven: total liberation. All they have to say about heaven is that there are heavens of unalloyed sensual pleasure, where sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations are all exclusively pleasant. The happiness felt by the ideal king—wealthy, powerful, handsome, loving his subjects and loved by them—is only a small sliver of the happiness felt by heavenly beings (MN 129).

In contrast, the Canon has a lot to say about the drawbacks of sensuality. On the human plane, these drawbacks are easy to see. It’s because of sensuality that people have to work, often in difficult circumstances, even though there’s no guarantee that their work will yield the wealth they desire. Even if it does, they have to protect their wealth from being stolen or falling into the hands of hateful heirs, thieves, jealous rivals, or rapacious governments. It’s because of sensuality that family members fight with one another, that countries wage war with one another, that people commit crimes and suffer punishments when they’re caught, and that people act in ways that lead to a bad destination after death (MN 13).

However, given that, in the step-by-step discourse, this topic follows on the topic of heaven, the Buddha probably focused on the drawbacks even of sensual pleasures on the heavenly plane. On this level, the primary drawbacks are three:

One, sensual desires can never be fully satisfied. As the Buddha said, even if it rained gold coins, or you could possess two mountains of gold the size of the entire Himalayan range, it still wouldn’t be enough to satisfy your sensual thirsts SN 4:20; Dhp186).

Two, life in heaven doesn’t last forever. When the good kamma that sent you there runs out, you have to leave.

Three, heavenly beings enjoying the fruits of their past kamma tend to get careless and complacent. Rare are those who give thought to developing the goodness of their minds and actions any further. As a result, the vast majority of heavenly beings, on passing away from their heavenly realms, fall to planes lower than the human (SN 56:102–113).

It’s as if the round of rebirth were a sick joke: You practice the goodness of generosity and virtue for the sake of sensual happiness, but then that happiness corrodes your goodness and lands you back worse than you were before. Then you have to struggle to get to the human realm where you can practice goodness again.

Again and again and again.

Meanwhile, the tears you’ve shed through your many rounds of rebirth over the death of a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a son, a daughter, are more than the waters in all the oceans of the Earth (SN 15:3).

When you think in this way, you’re ready to look for a way out.

This would be when the Buddha would talk of the rewards of renunciation. Renunciation here does not mean renouncing happiness. Instead, it means finding happiness in ways that don’t involve sensuality. These would include the bliss and rapture that can be found by centering the mind in right concentration, leading to the even higher bliss of total liberation.

When finding happiness in these ways, you can live simply, without fear that others will be jealous of you or try to take your happiness away from you. These forms of happiness hold none of the dangers of sensuality. In particular, they never destroy your goodness. The happiness of right concentration may come and go, but the happiness of liberation never ends.

When you can accept the idea that this kind of happiness would be better than sensual happiness, you’re ready for the four noble truths that will show you how to get there.

Through the way he explains these topics, and the order in which he explains them, the Buddha is accomplishing two things.

• First, he touches on some basic principles of the Dhamma, at the same time putting them in their proper context.

The two main principles are kamma and rebirth, which are the two basic teachings of mundane right view: the view that leads to actions that produce happiness within the round of rebirth.

With his teaching on kamma, or action, the Buddha makes the point that your actions are real and have real consequences, and that those consequences follow a pattern: Skillful actions—based on a lack of greed, aversion, and delusion—lead to pleasant results; unskillful actions, to painful results.

At the same time, though, the pattern of consequences is not entirely deterministic. What you experience in the present moment is not totally shaped by what you’ve done in the past. Regardless of your past actions, you’re always free in the present moment to choose a skillful course of action. Without this freedom, you wouldn’t be free to choose the path to the end of suffering, and the whole idea of the Buddha’s teaching a path of practice would make no sense.

This is why he emphasizes the role of motivation and attitude in his discussion of generosity, and the role of intention in his discussion of virtue. It’s in your choice of motivation, attitude, and intentions that the freedom available to everyone in the present moment can be found.

As for rebirth, the Buddha’s discussion here is limited simply to asserting that it really happens, that there are many levels on which it can happen, that life in none of the levels can be permanent, that you go up or down through these levels based on your actions, and that these facts should be taken into account when you calculate what actions to do and what actions to avoid if you want long-term happiness.

This connects with the context for these teachings. The Buddha isn’t interested in teaching kamma and rebirth for their own sake. His emphasis is on the role they play in the search to find a reliable happiness and to put an end to pain. In other words, he’s showing how these teachings relate to the search that everyone has been engaging in ever since their first experience of pain: Who knows a way to its cessation?

Also, by starting with generosity and virtue he’s giving a preliminary answer to the questions that he says lie at the beginning of discernment: “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term harm and suffering? And what, when I do it, will lead to my long-term welfare and happiness?” (MN 135)

Here again, by defining discernment in the context of the desire for long-term happiness, the Buddha affirms the value of the search to avoid pain. And he’s also making discernment an issue of value judgment: What’s worth doing, and what’s not?

As for his answer to these questions: Acts of generosity lead to long-term welfare and benefit. By following the precepts, you avoid long-term harm and suffering. By touching on the principles of kamma and rebirth in answering these questions, the Buddha shows why these questions are wise—in assuming that long-term happiness and pain are possible and will depend on your actions—at the same time defining how long long-term really is.

So the Buddha, in his step-by-step discourse, is showing that his teachings are aimed at solving, in the largest possible context, the problem of pain. Whatever he teaches, if you want to understand it, you need to know where to place it in this context.

By establishing this as his context, he’s not only helping you to understand his teachings. He’s also helping you relate to them emotionally in the most fruitful way. In other words, he’s helping you to get both your head and your heart around them. Some people, on learning about kamma and rebirth, immediately think of the bad things they’ve done in the past, and see the teachings as negative: threatening—and justifying—punishment and retribution. That’s why they reject them.

But by introducing these teachings in the context of the search for happiness, the Buddha’s showing how they make that search possible and meaningful. If you didn’t have freedom of choice in the present moment, acts of generosity and virtue wouldn’t reflect any especially good qualities in the heart and mind. You’d do these acts simply because you had to. If you and those around you were annihilated at death, then in the larger picture, nothing would be accomplished by being generous or virtuous. All efforts to look for happiness in noble ways would ultimately lead to nothing.

So when the Buddha asserts that you do have freedom of choice, and that your good actions will have long-term benefits, he’s affirming that your noble intentions are meaningful, and that when you act on them, they yield long-lasting results. These thoughts lift the heart.

• This connects with the second thing that the Buddha’s accomplishing in his step-by-step discourse. He’s establishing a relationship of admirable friendship with his listeners, at the same time fostering their inner growth. He uses performative truths in hopes of having an influence on his listeners’ attitudes, both in heart and mind. But by placing that influence in the context of admirable friendship, he’s showing that he’s not doing it simply for the sake of power or control. He actually has his listeners’ best interests at heart. He wants them to be truly happy.

By starting the discourse with common, everyday activities, rather than abstract principles about the nature of reality, he’s connecting with his listeners’ direct experience. They’ve done actions in the past, and he’s affirming the power of their actions to make a difference in the amount of pleasure or pain they experience. Unlike many other teachers of his time, he doesn’t advocate a picture of reality that negates the power of human action. Instead, he tells his listeners that what they have seen from their own actions is true: You can make a difference by what you do.

And not only a difference, a good difference: By focusing on generosity and virtue in particular, he’s connecting with his listeners’ experience of looking for happiness in ways that are socially mature. When you find happiness in generosity and virtue, you make the people around you happy as well. In focusing on this point, he’s appealing to his listeners’ nobler side, affirming that it has meaning and serves a genuine purpose.

At the same time, by describing the sensual rewards of generosity and virtue, the Buddha is showing his listeners that he’s no prude. He does appreciate the pleasure they’ve already tasted in sensuality, and he understands their desire for even more. This makes them more willing to trust him when he eventually points out the drawbacks of even the highest sensual pleasures, and on how they would benefit by raising their sights and looking for happiness in ways that put sensuality aside. When the Buddha has accomplished this task, his performative truths have performed their duty.

In his own analogy, it’s as if he has washed his listeners’ minds in the same way that he would wash a piece of white cloth before dyeing it. They would now be ready to accept the dye of the four noble truths.