The Four Noble Truths, along with the Eightfold Path and the Middle Way, are contained in the Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment. Called “Turning the Wheel of the Dharma”, this talk at Deer Park to his five former ascetic companions formed the basis of his teaching for the next forty-five years, so it is rather important. Nevertheless there are aspects of this most basic of the teachings which have long caused me difficulty and I want to begin to explore these here.
The Four Noble Truths are commonly summarised: first, life is suffering (dukkha); second, there is a cause of suffering which is craving; third, there is an end to suffering – ceasing to crave – and lastly, the way to end suffering is the Eightfold Path 1.
Dukkha, the first Noble Truth, is most often translated as ‘suffering’ and within the Zen tradition teachers tend to emphasise the psychological aspects – frustration, dissatisfaction, or being stuck. Keizan Sensei for example points out the link between two of the three marks of existence impermanence and dukkha: ‘As a result of its impermanence, we experience life as suffering’ 2. Our suffering arises as a result of our attachments and our inability to accept life as it is rather than how we want it to be. In Ken Jones’ phrase, our ‘unwinnable lawsuit against reality’ is our outrage at the difficulties life presents us. Our clinging to some idea of an alternative is how the Second Noble Truth describes the cause of suffering.
But there are different ways to understand dukkha. According to Peter Harvey, the Pali canon, the original source text of the Buddha’s teaching, describes dukkha as including the inescapable biological facts of life – birth, old age, sickness and death – as well as pain, sorrow, grief and despair, not getting what we want, getting what we don’t want, and all forms of grasping 3. In other words, dukkha is physical and psychological.
In the story of the Buddha we are told that it was exposure to the harsh realities of old age, sickness and death which led to the Buddha’s personal crisis, his leaving the comforts of the palace and his search for meaning. If we include these physical realities in the definition of dukkha how can craving or attachment be a sufficient description of its cause? The biological facts happen regardless of our feelings and this is why some authors translate dukkha as affliction or adversity.
David Brazier uses this psychological and physical definition of dukkha to offer a reason why this is a noble truth 4. Birth and death, health and disease, youth and old age – each pair represents the two inseparable faces of the same coin; there can be no denial, avoidance, or choosing. Dukkha cannot be overcome and does not end with enlightenment, it can only be met head on and this is what makes our efforts to live life in the midst of adversity noble and worthy of respect. It is denial which is ignoble. Dukkha is the fuel that energises spiritual life, just as a pearl needs grit to form in the oyster, or as Keizan has titled one of his recent art works, ‘Pure water, no fish’. There is another common Buddhist image that makes the same point, that of the beautiful lotus flower growing out of the stinking mud of the swamp.
Brazier then offers a different interpretation of Samudaya, the Second Noble Truth, and this is that feelings are the result of and a response to dukkha, not its cause. Such feelings are normal and inevitable, they are part of being human – with the loss of a loved one, for example, grief naturally arises and this cannot be avoided. If the aim of Buddhist practice is to end dukkha by ceasing craving or avoiding attachment, what does this say about relationships or love? Are these to be avoided? Surely not – what an arid life that would be.
The Third Noble Truth is Nirodha which means containment or to confine; that is, controlling the fire of our feelings, and avoiding particularly greed, hate and delusion, the three poisons that lie behind so much human suffering. Nirodha is about being aware of our drives and conditioning and especially of how our hidden drives and motives may create cravings for something. Having become aware, we can then let go of the objects of our thirst. It is described as the ‘utter cessation of craving’ and it is closely tied up with the idea of Nirvana, which means the quenching of a fire. According to the Pali canon ‘when craving ends, dukkha ceases’, to which my response is ‘Really?’
To me the whole idea of an assertion of a ‘Truth’ in itself causes difficulty; it creates in my mind a debate about whether I believe these ‘truths’ or not. Stephen Batchelor has an interesting secular approach to the Four Noble Truths which I find helpful. Rather than ‘dogmas’ to be believed he sees them as tasks to be completed and he reframes them as four activities: Understand the reality of suffering, Let Go of attachment and craving, Realise that our challenge is to enter into a relationship with our craving, and Develop a skilful approach in daily life 5 . The usefulness of this idea of tasks becomes clearer when we consider the Fourth Noble Truth.
The Fourth Noble Truth is Marga, the Middle Way of the Eightfold Path, a way that avoids self indulgence and self denial, both of which the Buddha found from his experience don’t work. The Eightfold Path comprises: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. ‘Right’ here means not the opposite of wrong in some judgemental sense but appropriate or ‘in accord with reality’. The first two aspects concern our wisdom or insight, the next three aspects concern our daily behaviour and how we interact with others, and the final three concern aspects of our personal practice. Again, these are not beliefs or commandments but tasks, acts of turning towards the world to serve others.
According to Pema Chodron, the Middle Way is not easy, it is not merely some bland average that simply splits the difference between extremes. Instead, she describes it as an open place with no reference point, no certainty. It requires bravery to refuse to grasp after permanence, and to be without a reference point is the ultimate loneliness. ’It is also called enlightenment’ says Chodron 6. .
Dogen makes the same point in the Shobogenzo. Dogen uses the phrase ‘birth and death’ to mean dukkha and he says:
“Those who want to be free from birth and death should understand the meaning of these words. If you search for a buddha outside birth and death, it will be … like trying to see the Big Dipper (north star) while you are facing south; you will cause yourself to remain all the more in birth and death and lose the way of emancipation. Just understand that birth and death is itself nirvana…. This birth and death is the life of the buddha.” 7
The Buddha said in his first talk that, rather than being a sublime reward after death, nirvana is immediately available to all who penetrate the Four Noble Truths and practice these. Nirvana does not arise from trying to extinguish the fire of our feelings but from channelling the fire. A spiritual life is a spirited life, one that is lively, active and creative in the midst of impermanence and adversity.
1 ‘Way of Zen’ Tenshin Fletcher & David Scott, Vega 2001
2 ‘Elements of Zen’ David Scott & Tony Doubleday, Element 1992
3 ‘An Introduction to Buddhism’ Peter Harvey, Cambridge UP 1990
4 ‘The Feeling Buddha’ David Brazier, Robinson 1997
5 ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ Stephen Batchelor, Spiegel 2011
6 ‘Six Kinds of Loneliness’ Pema Chodron, Lion’s Roar Nov 2017
7 ‘Shoji’ Shobogenzo, Dogen