i. The Four Noble Truths
§ 188. Once the Blessed One was staying at Kosambī in the siṁsapā forest. Then, picking up a few siṁsapā leaves with his hand, he asked the monks, ‘What do you think, monks? Which are more numerous, the few siṁsapā leaves in my hand or those overhead in the siṁsapā forest?’
‘The leaves in the hand of the Blessed One are few in number, lord. Those overhead in the siṁsapā forest are more numerous.’
‘In the same way, monks, those things that I have known with direct knowledge but have not taught are more numerous (than what I have taught). And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.
‘And what have I taught? “This is stress.... This is the origination of stress.... This is the cessation of stress.... This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.” This is what I have taught. And why have I taught these things? Because they are connected with the goal, relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. This is why I have taught them.
‘Therefore your duty is the contemplation, “This is stress...This is the origination of stress...This is the cessation of stress...This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.”’
§ 189. ‘Stress should be known. The cause by which stress comes into play should be known. The diversity in stress should be known. The result of stress should be known. The cessation of stress should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of stress should be known.’ Thus it was said. And in reference to what was it said?
Birth is stress, aging is stress, death is stress; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stress; association with the unbeloved is stress; separation from the loved is stress; not getting what is wanted is stress. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stress.
And what is the cause by which stress comes into play? Craving is the cause by which stress comes into play.
And what is the diversity in stress? There is major stress & minor, slowly fading & quickly fading. This is called the diversity in stress.
And what is the result of stress? There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast, & becomes bewildered. Or one overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, comes to search outside, ‘Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?’ I tell you, monks, that stress results either in bewilderment or in search.
And what is the cessation of stress? From the cessation of craving is the cessation of stress; and just this noble eightfold path is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
Now when a disciple of the noble ones discerns stress in this way, the cause by which stress comes into play in this way, the diversity of stress in this way, the result of stress in this way, the cessation of stress in this way, & the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress in this way, then he discerns this penetrative holy life as the cessation of stress.
‘Stress should be known. The cause by which stress comes into play...The diversity in stress...The result of stress...The cessation of stress...The path of practice for the cessation of stress should be known.’ Thus it was said, and in reference to this was it said.
§ 190. These four things are real, not unreal, not other than what they seem. Which four?
‘This is stress,’ is real, not unreal, not other than what it seems. ‘This is the origination of stress.... This is the cessation of stress.... This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,’ is real, not unreal, not other than what it seems.
These are the four things that are real, not unreal, not other than what they seem.
Therefore your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is stress.... This is the origination of stress.... This is the cessation of stress.... This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’
§ 191. Suppose that a man were to cut down all the grass, sticks, branches, & leaves in India and to gather them into a heap. Having gathered them into a heap, he would make stakes from them, and having made stakes he would impale all the large animals in the sea on large stakes, all the medium-sized animals in the sea on medium-sized stakes, & all the minute animals in the sea on minute stakes. Before he had come to the end of all the sizable animals in the sea, he would have used up all the grass, sticks, branches, & leaves here in India. It would not be feasible for him to impale on stakes the even-more-numerous minute animals in the sea. Why is that? Because of the minuteness of their bodies. So great is the plane of deprivation (apāya, the lower realms of being).
Freed from this great plane of deprivation is the individual who is consummate in view, who discerns, as it has come to be, that ‘This is stress.... This is the origination of stress.... This is the cessation of stress.... This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.’
§ 192. ‘Monks, there is a between-the-worlds space of impenetrable darkness, and in the murk of that darkness not even the sun & moon, so mighty, so powerful, can spread their light.’
When this was said, a certain monk addressed the Blessed One: ‘What a great darkness, lord! What a very great darkness! Is there another darkness greater & more fearsome than that?’
‘Yes, there is....’
‘Any contemplatives or brahmans who do not discern, as it has come to be, that “This is stress.... This is the origination of stress.... This is the cessation of stress.... This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,” cherish the fabrications leading to birth, cherish the fabrications leading to aging... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. Cherishing the fabrications leading to birth... aging... death...sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair, they fashion fabrications leading to birth... aging... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair, and so they fall into the darkness of birth... aging... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair. They are not released from birth... aging... death... sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. They are not released, I tell you, from stress.
‘However, those contemplatives or brahmans who discern, as it has come to be, that “This is stress.... This is the origination of stress.... This is the cessation of stress.... This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,” do not cherish the fabrications leading to birth... aging... death. They do not cherish the fabrications leading to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. They do not fashion fabrications leading to birth... aging... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair, and so do not fall into the darkness of birth... aging... death... sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair. They are released from birth... aging... death... sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. They are released, I tell you, from stress.
‘Therefore your duty is the contemplation, “This is stress.... This is the origination of stress.... This is the cessation of stress.... This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.”’
§ 193. Suppose that someone would say to a man who would live to be 100: ‘Look here, fellow. They will stab you at dawn with 100 spears, at noon with 100 spears, & again at evening with 100 spears. You, thus stabbed day after day with 300 spears, will live to be 100, and at the end of 100 years you will realize the four noble truths that you have never realized before.’
A person desired his own true benefit would do well to take up the offer. Why is that? From an inconceivable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident for the (pain of) blows from spears, swords, & axes. Even if this (offer) were to occur, I tell you that the realization of the four noble truths would not be accompanied by pain & distress. Instead, I tell you, the realization of the four noble truths would be accompanied by pleasure & happiness.
§ 194. Ven. Gavampati: Face to face with the Blessed One did I hear this, face to face did I learn it: whoever sees stress also sees the origination of stress, the cessation of stress, & the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.
Whoever sees the origination of stress also sees stress, the cessation of stress, & the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.
Whoever sees the cessation of stress also sees stress, the origination of stress, & the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.
Whoever sees the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress also sees stress, the origination of stress, & the cessation of stress.
§ 195. Awakening. Vision arose, clear knowing arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before: ‘This is the noble truth of stress.... This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended.... This noble truth of stress has been comprehended.... This is the noble truth of the origination of stress.... This noble truth of the origination of stress is to be abandoned.... This noble truth of the origination of stress has been abandoned.... This is the noble truth of the cessation of stress.... This noble truth of the cessation of stress is to be realized.... This noble truth of the cessation of stress has been realized.... This is the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress.... This noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress is to be developed.... This noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress has been developed.’
And, monks, as long as this knowledge & vision of mine—with its three rounds & twelve permutations concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be—was not pure, I did not claim to have directly awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening.... But as soon as this knowledge & vision of mine—with its three rounds & twelve permutations concerning these four noble truths as they have come to be—was truly pure, only then did I claim to have directly awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening.... The knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’
In §139, the Buddha refers to himself as a doctor, treating the spiritual illnesses of his students. This metaphor is useful to keep in mind as we discuss the basic categories of right view: the four noble truths. Many people have charged Buddhism with being pessimistic because the four truths start out with stress and suffering, but this charge misses the fact that the first truth is part of a strategy of diagnosis and therapy focusing on the basic problem in life so as to offer a solution to it. This is the sense in which the Buddha was like a doctor, focusing on the disease he wanted to cure. The total cure he promised as a result of his course of therapy shows that, in actuality, he was much less pessimistic than the vast majority of world, for whom wisdom means accepting the bad things in life with the good, assuming that there is no chance in this life for unalloyed happiness. The Buddha was an extremely demanding person, unwilling to bend to this supposed wisdom or to rest with anything less than absolute happiness. We are fortunate that he was so demanding and succeeded in his aim, for otherwise we would have to undertake the uncertain task of trying to discover the way to that happiness ourselves.
Although the four noble truths constitute the most basic categories of the Buddha’s teaching, he did not discuss them unless he felt that his listeners were ready for them. To understand and accept them requires a basic shift in the framework of one’s awareness, and only a mind that has been thoroughly prepared is in a position to make such a shift. Often the Buddha would prepare his listeners with what he called a gradual discourse: discussing step by step the joy of generosity; the joy of living a virtuous life; the long-term sensory rewards of generosity and virtue in heaven; the drawbacks and impermanence of sensory pleasures and conditioned phenomena in general; and finally the rewards of renunciation. Then, if he sensed that his listeners were ready to look favorably on renunciation as a means to true happiness, he would discuss the four truths, beginning with suffering and stress. In this, he followed the sequence of his own Awakening: beginning with insight into the punishments of bad kamma, the rewards of good kamma, and the limitations of all kamma, and then proceeding to insight into the origination of stress and its cessation through the cessation of kamma [§9].
Once the problem of stress and suffering is solved, he said, there are no more problems. This is why he limited his teaching to this issue, even though his own Awakening encompassed much more [§188]. The vicious cycle that operates between suffering and ignorance—with ignorance underlying the craving that causes suffering, and suffering causing the bewilderment that leads people to act in ignorant and unskillful ways [§189]—can be broken only when one focuses on understanding suffering and stress and the causal network that surrounds them. Most people are so bewildered by the complexities of suffering and stress that they do not even know what the true problem is. Thus they may deny that they are suffering, or may imagine that something stressful can actually be a solution to their problems. The genius of the Buddha is that he recognized the most elegant and comprehensive way to deal with every variety of dissatisfaction in life. When suffering and stress are seen with clear knowledge, they no longer can cause bewilderment, and the cycle that underlies all the problems of experience can be disbanded for good.
As §195 states, this clear knowledge is based on knowledge of the four noble truths. These truths are best understood not as the content of a belief, but as categories for viewing and classifying the processes of immediate experience. In §51, the Buddha refers to them as categories of “appropriate attention,” a skillful alternative to the common way that people categorize their experience in terms of two dichotomies: being/non-being, and self/other. For several reasons, these common dichotomies are actually problem-causing, rather than problem-solving. The being/non-being dichotomy, for instance, comes down to the question of whether or not there exist actual “things” behind the changing phenomena of experience. This type of questioning deals, by definition, with possibilities that cannot be directly experienced. If the things in question could be experienced, then they wouldn’t be lying behind experience. Thus the being/non-being dichotomy pulls one’s attention into the land of conjecture—”a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views” [MN 72]—and away from the area of direct awareness where the real problem and its solution lie [§186].
As for the self/other dichotomy, there is the initial difficulty of determining what the self is. Any true self would have to lie totally under one’s own control, and yet nothing that one might try to identify as one’s self actually meets this criterion. Although the sense of self may seem intuitive enough, when carefully examined it shows itself to be based on confused perceptions and ideas. If one’s basic categories for understanding experience are a cause for confusion in this way, they can lead only to confused, unskillful action, and thus to more suffering and stress. For example, when people view the source of their problems as poor relationships between themselves and others, or inadequate integration of the self, they are trying to analyze their problems in terms of categories that are ultimately uncertain. Thus there is a built-in uncertainty in the efforts they make to solve their problems in terms of those categories.
A second problem, no matter how one might define a self, is the question of how to prove whether or not it actually exists. This question entangles the mind in the unresolvable problems of the being/non-being dichotomy mentioned above: because the problem is phrased in terms that cannot be directly experienced, it forces the solution into a realm that cannot be experienced, either. This fact probably explains the Buddha’s statement in §230 to the effect that if one even asks the question of whether there is someone standing outside the processes of dependent co-arising to whom those processes pertain, it is impossible to lead the life that will bring about an end to suffering. Regardless of whether one would answer the question with a yes or a no, the terms of the question focus on an area outside of direct experience and thus away from the true problem—the direct experience of suffering—and actually make it worse. If one assumes the existence of a self, one must take on the implicit imperative to maximize the self’s well-being through recourse to the “other.” This recourse may involve either exploiting the “other” or swallowing the “other” into the self by equating one’s self with the cosmos as a whole. Either approach involves clinging and craving, which lead to further suffering and stress. On the other hand, if one denies any kind of self, saying that the cosmos is totally “other,” then one is assuming that there is nothing with any long-term existence whose happiness deserves anything more than quick, short-term attempts at finding pleasure. The imperative in this case would be to pursue immediate pleasure with as little effort as possible, thus aborting any sustained effort to bring about an end to suffering.
These problems explain why the Buddha regarded questions of existence and non-existence, self and no-self, as unskillful, inappropriate ways of attending to experience.
Stress and its cessation, on the other hand, are categories that avoid these problems. To begin with, they are immediately present and apparent. Even babies recognize stress and pain, well before they have any concept of “self” or “being.” If one pays close attention to one’s actual experience, there is no question about whether or not stress and its cessation are present. Finally, because these categories don’t require fashioning notions of “self” or “other”—or “no-self” or “no-other”—on top of one’s immediate awareness [§228-230], they allow one to reach the mode of “entry into emptiness” on the verge of non-fashioning, in which, as we mentioned in III/H, the mind simply notes, “There is this....” Thus they are ideal categories for analyzing experience in a way that (1) reduces the confusion that causes people to act in unskillful ways and (2) brings the mind to a point where it can disengage and transcend all suffering and stress by ending the mental fabrication that provides input into the causal web.
As for the imperatives implicit in the four categories of the noble truths, they are very different from the imperatives implicit in the notion that there is a self or that there isn’t. Stress, the first category, should be comprehended. In practice, this means admitting its presence, recognizing it as a problem, and then observing it with patient mindfulness to understand its true nature. One comes to realize that the problem is not with the stress and discomfort of external conditions, but with the stress and discomfort in the mind. One also sees how stress is part of a causal process, and that it is always accompanied by craving, its point of origination.
The second category—craving, the origination of stress—should be abandoned. Here we must note that the word “craving” covers not all desire, but only the desire leading to further becoming. The desire to escape from that becoming, as we have noted [II/D], is part of the path. Without such a desire, no one would have the motivation to follow the path or reach Unbinding. When Unbinding is reached, though, even this desire is abandoned, just as a desire to walk to a park is abandoned on arriving there [§67].
The third category, the cessation of stress, should be realized. The definition of this truth as the abandoning of craving means that it denotes the successful performance of the duty appropriate to the second noble truth. This introduces a double tier into the practice, in that one must not only abandon craving but also realize what is happening and what is uncovered in the process of that abandoning. This, in turn, accounts for two of the major themes covered so far in this book: the switch from “object” (craving) to “approach” (abandoning) as the focal point in one’s meditation as one moves from the first to the second stage in frames-of-reference meditation [II/B]; and the need for sensitivity to one’s present input into the causal network in order to nurture the mind’s skillful mastery of this/that conditionality [I/A]. The feedback loop created by this combination of abandoning and knowing is what eventually short-circuits the process of this/that conditionality, cutting dependent co-arising at the links of craving and ignorance, and leading on to the state of non-fashioning that forms the threshold to the Deathless.
The fourth category, the way to the cessation of stress, is defined as the noble eightfold path, which we have already discussed in detail [II/H]. This truth must be developed, which involves two processes: nurturing the conditions for clear knowing; and abstaining from acts of body, speech, and mind that involve craving and would obstruct knowledge. These two processes correspond to the two layers we have just noted in the duties associated with the cessation of stress: realizing and abandoning. This correspondence shows the intimate relation between the third and fourth noble truths, and explains the Buddha’s insistence that the noble eightfold path is the only way to the goal.
Taken together, the four categories of the noble truths, along with their imperatives, follow a basic problem-solving approach: one solves the problem of stress by following a path of practice that directly attacks the cause of the problem. The noble eightfold path develops the qualities of mind needed to see that all the possible objects of craving—the five aggregates—are stressful, inconstant, and not-self. As a result, one grows dispassionate toward them. With nothing left to focus on, craving disbands. When one experiences the “remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving” [§210], the problem is solved.
Although the texts list four separate duties appropriate to each of the truths, in actual practice these duties are four aspects of a single process. When stress is comprehended, the second noble truth—craving—has no object to latch onto and so can be abandoned. The full realization of what is happening in the process of that abandoning constitutes the realization of the third noble truth, the cessation of stress. Both the abandoning and the realization are accomplished by developing the path, which destroys any trace of ignorance concerning the four noble truths at the same time that it abandons craving. This is how the practice cuts the chain of dependent co-arising simultaneously at its two most crucial factors [§210-211], thus unraveling the causal chain and opening the way for an experience of the Unfabricated.
Passage §195 lists three steps in this process, which take the form of three levels of knowledge concerning each of the four truths: recognizing the truth for what it is, recognizing the duty appropriate to the truth, and realizing that the duty has been completed. These levels of knowledge correspond to the three stages in right view that we mentioned in the preceding section. The first level corresponds to the stage of seeing events in and of themselves for what they actually are. The relationship between the second level of knowledge—realizing the duty appropriate to the truth—and the second stage of right view—viewing things as part of a causal chain—is somewhat less obvious, but more revealing once it is understood. The word “duty” makes the point that, in order to understand the process of origination and passing away, one must become involved in the process in an active way. This understanding does not come from a passive state of simply watching things arise and disappear. Instead, one must participate in the process, becoming sensitive to pre-existing causal conditions and the impact of one’s present activity on those conditions, if one wants truly to understand them. The only way to know a causal relationship is to tamper with it and see what happens as a result. The more precise and skillful one’s tampering, and the more properly attuned one’s powers of observation, the more precise the knowledge that can be gained.
This active participation corresponds to the second stage of frames of reference meditation [II/B] and the process of gaining mastery in the practice of concentration [III/E]. Ultimately, it comes down to the issues of acquiring skillfulness and understanding the connection between skillfulness and this/that conditionality. The meditator can gain escape from the confines of the causal process, not by simply watching it, but by developing the sensitivity to causal factors that comes from learning how to explore and manipulate them with skill.
The third level of knowledge—that the duty appropriate to the truth has been completed—corresponds to the mode of “entry into emptiness” on the verge of non-fashioning, when one realizes that nothing more needs to be contributed to the present moment. In fact, nothing more can be contributed to the present moment. As noted in the preceding section, this is the point where right view transcends itself. In terms of the four noble truths, this is where simple distinctions among the four truths begin to break down. As a modern teacher has put it, the meditator sees that all four truths are ultimately identical. After having used jhana and discernment, which form the heart of the path, to gain understanding of pain and to abandon clinging and craving, one comes to see that even jhana and discernment are composed of the same aggregates as stress and pain [§173], and that one’s attitude toward them involves subtle levels of clinging and craving as well.
Thus the path is simply a refined version of the first three noble truths, in which one has taken suffering, craving, and ignorance, and turned them into tools for pleasure, detachment, and insight. Without these tools, one could not have begun the process of release. Were it not for one’s attachment to jhana and discernment, one could not have liberated oneself from the more obvious levels of stress; one could not have developed the sensitivity enabling one to appreciate the value of cessation and release when they finally come. Now, however, that these tools have performed their functions, they become the last remaining obstacle to full release. The approach to the problem of stress has now become, in and of itself, the only problem left. As the four truths become one in this way, their respective duties reach the point where any further activity would mean that they would cancel one another out. This is where the mind attains the state of non-fashioning, as there is nothing more it can do or know in terms of any of these duties. This lack of input into the present moment forms a breach in this/that conditionality, opening the way beyond the four truths and on to the Unfabricated.
This coalescing of the truths coincides with a movement noted earlier [II/H], in which jhana and discernment become one and the same thing. This union of jhana and discernment solves the riddle of how one can come to know the end of the intention that keeps the round of rebirth in motion. As the path nears its end, the intentional activity underlying jhana becomes the sole remaining element of intention in the mind; while the activity of discernment, as appropriate attention aimed at understanding jhana, becomes the sole function of knowledge. As they reach culmination and coalesce, the attention focused on the intention and the intention behind the act of attention short-circuit one another. All that can follow on this point is the state of non-fashioning, in which all present input into the cycle of rebirth ends, and all experience of the cycle falls away. As we explained in the Introduction, the experience of this falling away at Awakening confirms not only the Buddha’s teachings on the present function of kammic input in this/that conditionality, but also on the functioning of kamma in the round of rebirth in the larger dimensions of time.
The wheel, the traditional symbol of the Dhamma, expresses these points in a visual form. The Buddha states [§195] that when he gained full knowledge of all four truths on all three levels—recognizing the truth, recognizing the duty appropriate to it, and realizing that he had fully completed that duty—he knew that he had attained full Awakening. He elaborates on his assertion by setting out a table of two sets of variables—the four noble truths and the three levels of knowledge appropriate to each—listing all twelve permutations of the two sets. This sort of table, in Indian legal and philosophical traditions, is called a wheel. This is why the discourse in which he makes this statement is called “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion,” and why the wheel used as a symbol of the Dhamma has twelve spokes, uniting at the hub, symbolizing the twelve permutations that merge into a singularity—knowledge and vision of things as they have come to be—at the still point of non-fashioning in the midst of the cycle of kamma.