A Buddhist Creed Part 2: Confidence in the Teachings II
Last time, we talked about the teaching of Cause and Effect as being perhaps one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. Now, we progress onto two sets of teachings that are perhaps equally as profound as the teaching on Cause and Effect, except that, these teachings begin to show us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is what appears to be an unending cycle of suffering across countless lives, or, if you don’t believe in reincarnation (which is ok), in this lifetime.
So, again, we remember the root text that we are studying:
In his Abhidharmakosha, Vasubandhu says:
“Faith is full confidence in cause and effect (Karma), the Four Noble Truths, and the Three Jewels;”
The focus in this particular post is on the Four Noble Truths. In the next post, we will talk about the Three Jewels in the context of Refuge.
The Four Noble Truths
When the Buddha first arose from his enlightenment, the legend goes that he did not want to share his very profound experience for fear that others would not be able to understand or make sense of them and for fear of causing confusion among others. So he did not teach in the beginning, but, the legend goes that the gods Brahma and Indra came and begged Buddha to teach so that other sentient beings (including themselves) might be released from the cycle of suffering. So, the Buddha began to teach, and his first formal discourse called the Dharmachakra Pravartana Sutra (the Sutra of the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma) encapsulated the teachings, that we today call The Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are, in order:
1. Dukha – The Truth of Suffering
2. Dukha Samudaya – The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
3. Dukha Nirodha – The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
4. Marga – The Truth of the Path (alternatively: The Truth of the Eightfold Path)
Suffering sounds like a bleak term, and in fact it is. The Sanskrit term dukha doesn’t necessarily say what we think it does. In the Western mindset, we view suffering as a very horrible experience, maybe including hunger, thirst, severe pain, something like that. But the way “suffering” is used in the context of the Four Noble Truths is much more subtle. Chögyam Trungpa referred to it as a kind of general sense of anxiety about our being, a sense of dissatisfaction that is ever present. Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is bitter, and that we have some malaise in our body or mind. The reality is, we do suffer, every one of us. And I would posit, that at least in the beginning of the path, our suffering is constant.
The truth of suffering pushes us to acknowledge that this is a habitual pattern. We struggle, and struggle to get something because of want, and we get it, and it seems like we’re back to square one. Again, this isn’t something to take at face value, just because it’s in a Sutra. Think about it for a moment.
Once we understand that our anxiety is not part of ourselves, we naturally want to know where it comes from. The origin of suffering is a complex topic, but basically it boils down to our own Karma and our habitual patterns. In the teachings on Karma, we learned that there are some things, some conditions that we inherit that create the things we experience, and it is the reaction to these experiences that creates our suffering. But we can go even deeper than that in understanding this noble truth. In the profound teachings of the Buddhadharma, all of the poisons, all of the proverbial shit we go through can be traced down to one mistake: the belief in the existence of a solid, permanent, fundamental self.
Our belief in this solid, permanent self creates a need to defend its territory which gives rise to profound, complex processes of mind. Some of these teachings are encapsulated in the teachings on the Five Skandhas (which the reader is free to investigate on his/her own). The long and short of it is that we have a defense mechanism that is trained to recognize and deal with any threat to our belief in a solid permanent self. An important reminder here, Buddhists don’t believe that you and I don’t exist. We do exist, but in a different way than we may think. I’ll leave it at that for the moment, because the teachings on Emptiness merit a much fuller explanation, which is outside the scope of what I’m doing here.
Suffice it to say, that investigating, and probing our habitual patterns, we discover that there is a source to our suffering and that it’s not outside of us. We discover that we are the source of our own suffering. Though, again, not in a self-demeaning kind of way. We merely discover that suffering is an appearance of mind, a reaction, not so much the situation itself.
The Third Noble Truth is that of the Cessation of Suffering. The main contention here is that the end of suffering is an achievable result that we can achieve on our own without reliance on salvation by or through others. There is a method to cease suffering. It is a marvelous affirmation of the ability of people to “work out their own salvation”. This Noble Truth is perhaps what establishes Buddhism’s strong humanistic core. This truth points us to the realization that when we work to end the origin of suffering, there will be a result, that is the very cessation of the suffering that pushes us again and again into that cycle of suffering.
The Truth of the Path, the Fourth (but not the least of) the Four Noble Truths is a complement to the third in that it delineates the very way to achieve the cessation mentioned in the third noble truth. Marga is viewed in the Theravadin school of Buddhism and in some Mahayana schools as the Eightfold Path , specifically:
- Right View
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
In the Mahayana, these are often condensed into the Three Higher Trainings: Shila, Samadhi and Prajna – training in Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom. Buddhism is not necessarily a religion of rules or dogma, it is instead a philosophy of the path: the path to enlightenment. The teaching on the Path serve to teach us how exactly to establish the right conditions for enlightenment. It teaches us how to order our lives for the practice of the Buddhadharma. Right ethics (shila) establishes the conditions for a quiet mind. If we act ethically and in the interest of others, we will not have so much to worry about. Right wisdom (prajna) establishes the conditions also for a fruitful practice. Wisdom gives us the ability to understand, process, and maybe even give a little bit of language to the experience and help us to avoid pitfalls and traps in our practice.
So then, the Noble Truth of the Path really tells us how to end the very suffering that we learned, in the previous three Noble Truths, exist, has an origin within ourselves, and can be transcended fully.