The Fourth Noble Truth
The fourth noble truth is the path of practice to the cessation of suffering. It’s true in the sense that it’s a genuine possibility—it can be done—and it really leads to suffering’s end. Of the four noble truths, it’s the one you deliberately make true through your actions. It’s why the teachings on kamma and freedom of choice are so essential to the Dhamma. This truth is the one that shows their power to do the greatest possible good.
In his first talk, the Buddha introduced this path of practice as the Middle Way because it avoids two extremes: (1) indulgence in the pleasures of sensuality, and (2) devotion to the pain of self-torment. Yet this does not mean that the path pursues a course of middling pleasures and pains. Instead, it fosters the pleasures of concentration, along with insight into the pain of clinging, and treats these pleasures and pains not as ends in themselves but as tools to achieve a higher end: the deathless.
The path, however, doesn’t cause the deathless. After all, if the deathless were caused by anything, it wouldn’t be unconditioned. Instead, the path leads to the deathless—in the same way that a road to the Grand Canyon doesn’t cause the Grand Canyon to be, but following the road can take you there.
The path is composed of eight factors. Because these factors work together to achieve the goal of the noble search, the path as a whole is called the noble eightfold path. The factors are all said to be “right” in that they’re effective in reaching the goal of awakening. The Buddha illustrates this point with a simile: There’s a right way and many wrong ways to try to get milk out of a cow. If you pull on the udder, that’s the right way, because it accomplishes your aim—you get the milk. If you twist the cow’s horn, that’s a wrong way, because it doesn’t get you the milk that you want, and it harasses the cow. In the same way, following the factors of the path is the right way to attain the deathless. Following their opposites would be wrong, because they wouldn’t get you there (MN 126).
Like suffering and its causes, the factors of the path are directly experienced, although you need some training in the Dhamma before you can bring them about.
The factors are these:
• Right view: knowledge with regard to the four noble truths. This means not only knowing the truths, but also knowing how to use them to classify experiences. On top of that, it also means knowing their duties and how to follow them.
• Right resolve: being resolved on abandoning thoughts of sensuality, thoughts of ill will, and thoughts of harm.
• Right speech: abstaining from telling lies (intentionally misrepresenting the truth), speaking divisively (to break up friendships between other people, or to prevent such friendships from forming), speaking harshly (with the purpose of hurting another person’s feelings), and engaging in idle chatter (speaking with no clear intention in mind).
• Right action: abstaining from killing, stealing, and engaging in illicit sex.
• Right livelihood: abstaining from any ways of making a living that are dishonest or harmful, or that aim deliberately at giving rise to passion, aversion, or delusion within oneself or others.
• Right effort: generating the desire and carrying through with the effort to prevent unskillful states from arising in the mind; to abandon any unskillful states that have already arisen; to give rise to skillful states that are not yet there in the mind; and to develop fully any skillful states that already are.
• Right mindfulness: “Mindfulness” on its own means the ability to keep something in mind. Right mindfulness, in the most general terms, means keeping in mind the need to abandon unskillful qualities and to develop skillful qualities so as to get the mind into right concentration. This entails being able to recognize skillful and unskillful qualities for what they are when they arise—recognizing is another function of mindfulness—and to keep in mind the most effective ways to complete the work of abandoning or developing, as is appropriate.
To keep these tasks in mind, mindfulness needs to be established in a frame of reference. These frames are four: the body in and of itself, feelings in and of themselves, the mind in and of itself, and mental qualities in and of themselves. The “in and of itself” here means observing these things simply as they are without reference to their meaning in the context of the outside world. To be established on any of these frames, you have to do two things: (1) stay focused on the frame, and (2) put aside any thoughts of greed or distress with reference to the world. For instance, to stay focused on the breath while dropping any thoughts about issues related to the world outside is one way of staying focused on the body in and of itself. To notice the feelings that arise from staying focused on the breath, as they happen, would be a way of staying with feelings in and of themselves, and so forth.
To stay established in these frames of reference, mindfulness needs the help of two other qualities: alertness and ardency. Alertness keeps you aware of what you’re doing in the present moment and of the results of what you’re doing. Ardency is essentially the same thing as right effort: the whole-hearted effort to stay mindful and alert, and to do what is skillful in line with the directions given by mindfulness.
When mindfulness is well established in this way, it forms the theme of the last factor of the path—
• Right concentration: stages of mental absorption, called jhāna. There are four:
The first jhāna is composed of pleasure and rapture that come from temporarily abandoning sensuality and other unskillful qualities, and directing your thoughts to a single object—such as the breath. At the same time, you evaluate how to adjust the mind and the object so that they fit snugly and smoothly together. The resulting feelings of pleasure and rapture are then allowed to spread throughout the entire body.
The second jhāna is composed of a stronger sense of pleasure and rapture that comes when you no longer need to direct your thoughts to the object or to evaluate it—in other words, you stop talking to yourself about it—and you can simply enter into a concentrated sense of oneness with the object. Again, the pleasure and rapture are allowed to permeate and to fill the entire body.
The third jhāna is composed of a sense of a more refined physical pleasure and mental equanimity that come when you no longer need to feed off the sense of rapture. This pleasure, again, is allowed to fill the entire body.
The fourth jhāna is composed of a sense of equanimity and purified mindfulness, coming from the ability to let go of pleasure and the subtle stress that even refined pleasure entails. The in-and-out breath grows still, as the body’s oxygen needs are reduced, and the body is filled with a bright, clear awareness.
In Chapter 11 we will discuss how these eight factors of the noble path work together to attack the problem of suffering at its cause: the three forms of craving. Here we will simply note that these eight factors fall under three headings. The first two factors—right view and right resolve—comprise the discernment group; the next three—right speech, right action, and right livelihood—the virtue group; and the last three—right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration—the concentration group. For this reason, the path is sometimes called the Triple Training: in heightened virtue, heightened mind (concentration), and heightened discernment.
The duty with regard to this fourth noble truth is to develop it. The Canon suggests two ways in which to do this.
• The first is to develop the factors in sequence (SN 45:1). You start with a mundane level of right view (MN 117), which affirms the principles of kamma and rebirth: Your actions—bodily, verbal, and mental—come from your intentions, they have results that correspond to the quality of the intention, and those results can take widely varying lengths of time to be felt. Some are felt immediately; others may not be felt until future lifetimes. Based on this level of right view, you follow the first of the Buddha’s two categorical teachings, i.e., the teachings that are true across the board in all situations: Unskillful actions—bodily, verbal, and mental—should be abandoned, and skillful actions should be developed in their place (AN 2:18; MN 41).
As you follow this teaching, you become sensitive to how unskillful mental actions lead to suffering, whereas skillful actions relieve suffering. You then refine this insight into the nature of action by adopting the view that mental acts of craving lead to the clinging that constitutes suffering right here and now, while acts following the eight factors of the noble path lead to the end of suffering. These four noble truths are the Buddha’s second categorical teaching, which is basically a refinement of the first (DN 9). You see further that the causes of suffering should be abandoned, and the path to the end of suffering should be developed. This view inspires you to resolve on using right view in the right way, not as a mere topic of discussion or argument, but as a guide to action. As a first step in that direction, you resolve on abandoning unskillful qualities in the mind. Then you try to carry out this resolve in all your activities as you make an effort to speak, act, and find your livelihood in ways that harm no one: not yourself, not others.
In trying to be skillful in your external actions, you also need to be skillful in how you engender the mental qualities motivating your actions. This entails right effort. At the same time, keeping in mind the need to be skillful in both external and internal actions requires that you develop the qualities of mindfulness, alertness, and ardency that will help in the practice of right mindfulness.
You come to see that the most skillful mind states—free of thoughts of sensuality, ill will, and harmfulness—are the stages of right concentration. So you work to establish mindfulness in a way that will give rise to those stages.
The close connection between right mindfulness and right concentration is shown in passages in the Canon that equate rightly established mindfulness with the first jhāna, and in other passages where mindfulness is said to be purified on reaching the fourth jhāna.
• The second way to develop the path is also sequential, but a bit more complex. As you develop each path factor, the three factors of right view, right mindfulness, and right effort circle around that factor: Of the three, right view comes first in seeing the distinction between the right and wrong versions of the factor; right mindfulness remembers to develop the right version and abandon the wrong version; right effort makes the effort to carry through with the instructions of right view and right mindfulness (MN 117).
The fact that both of these methods for developing the path start with right view can be explained by the Buddha’s insight into kamma on the night of his awakening: The skill or lack of skill in your intentional actions derives from the views that inform them. In this case, the noble eightfold path is the highest form of kamma—the kamma that leads to the end of kamma (AN 4:237)—and right view is what leads the way in performing all the duties connected with the noble truths: comprehending suffering, abandoning its origination, realizing its cessation, and developing the path.
But as we’ve also noted, once right view and the other path factors have been fully developed and done their work, they too have to be abandoned. After all, the path is fabricated—the Buddha calls it the highest fabricated phenomenon—whereas the goal is not (Iti 90). This means that the path is not present in the goal. So the path actually entails two duties: developing the factors so that they can do their work, and then abandoning them when their work is done.
As we’ll see in Chapter 11, right view is particularly well suited to provide the lead in performing this double duty. It teaches you to look at your views, less in terms of their contents, and more in terms of the kamma of clinging to them. In other words, it sensitizes you to views as actions: the motivations lying behind them, the suffering inherent in clinging to them, and the long-term consequences of holding to them and acting on them. After right view applies this analysis to other views, showing you how to abandon them, it’s in an ideal position to apply the same analysis to itself.
Here it’s important to note that even though awakened people abandon the factors of the path on gaining awakening, when they return to the realm of the six senses after awakening they still can make use of the qualities of mind developed in the course of following the path: Their virtue, concentration, and discernment are perfected. In fact, impeccable virtue in terms of the five precepts is one of the signs of a person who has achieved even just the first stage of awakening. Still, those who are fully awakened no longer have to develop the path factors for the sake of doing any further work on their own minds. This is one of the ways in which the noble eightfold path counts as the kamma that puts an end to kamma.
However, even though right view leads the way in achieving these results, it can’t do the work on its own. It needs to be trained by the act of developing the other path factors. Right concentration, for instance, is needed to give the mind a solid foundation of well-being that allows right view to be resilient in comprehending suffering. Right resolve and right effort make right view more perceptive in the strategies needed to undercut unskillful motivations in the mind.
This means that the path factors are not always developed strictly in sequence. And, in fact, the Canon lists a variety of ways in which the discernment of right view follows on the other path factors.
For example, when the Buddha sets out the Triple Training, he puts virtue first, followed by concentration, and then by discernment (AN 3:87). So even though right view may lead the way, as explained in the analysis of the path, it’s also true that the act of developing the other path factors gives important practical lessons to right view, deepening its understanding of all the noble truths and of how to perform the duties appropriate to them. We’ll explore some of these practical lessons in Chapters 10 and 11.
The fact that discernment is nurtured by the development of the other path factors is also reflected in the Buddha’s list of three types of discernment: the discernment gained through listening to the Dhamma; the discernment gained through thinking it through; and the discernment gained through actually developing the qualities that the Dhamma recommends developing.
When you’ve learned the Buddha’s step-by-step discourse and the four noble truths, you’ve gained some of the discernment that can come from listening, and you’ve taken your first foray into the second main step in awakening to the truth: Having found a truthful teacher, you’ve now heard the Dhamma that that teacher has to teach.
The next step is to gain the discernment that comes from thinking the Dhamma through.