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Four Noble Truths

Transcribed from a talk by Gil Fronsdal on 1/10/05

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I would like to talk today about the Four Noble Truths. At the beginning of each year I like to take that as the topic to begin the year with, and also right now in the Parami practice group, we are doing the Perfection of Wisdom, and one of the primary expressions of wisdom in Buddhism is an understanding or an application of the Four Noble Truths. It is said that the Four Noble Truths contain all of Buddhism within it, and that if something is not in some way related to the Four Noble Truths, then it is not Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are the core essence of Buddhism, not the lowest common denominator, but the highest common denominator.

There are a lot of interesting things about the Four Noble Truths as the core formulation of the Buddha’s teaching. One is that the Buddha did not present it as something to be believed, but rather as something to be acted on. There are certain kinds of practices or, as they are sometimes called, duties, in relationship to each of these Four Noble Truths. They are not to be taken as beliefs, but they are supposed to be taken as plans for action, as ways of applying ourselves in our spiritual life.

A lot of people associate meditation with becoming calm, with stress reduction, and with attaining a certain level of joy and well-being in one’s life. The joy of meditation is to be able to release a lot of the stress, a lot of the anxiety, a lot of the tension in the mind, the heart, and the body, and to discover a capacity for the heart, the mind, and the body to be quite soft, relaxed, pliable, and at peace. But the function of meditation in Buddhism is not simply to become calm or peaceful in some kind of conventional way. Rather, it is to use the level of calm, or peace, or well-being that come from meditation, as a springboard for developing greater insight or greater understanding of our life. The calm of meditation is a vehicle for greater insight. The analogy could be something like the following. Someone who is hungry goes through the trouble of making a loaf of bread. They make a beautiful loaf of bread, and they put it out on the table, and put butter or almond butter around it, but then they just sit there and look at it. And they come by every few days and admire their handiwork. They say, “That’s great,” and over the days it just gets harder and harder. It’s well preserved, but the person gets hungrier and hungrier. The bread was made in order to be used, to be eaten. In the same way, developing a strong sense of calm or concentration in meditation is not an end in itself, but it is a tool that can be used. One of the primary ways that it is used, once you establish yourself well in meditation, is to apply what is called the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths can be understood by a school child. The basic idea is very simple, but the full application of it is considered to be quite hard. Only someone who is fully awakened can completely understand the full import of the Four Noble Truths. In the classic instructions for meditation the Buddha gave, called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, he lays out a whole series of practices that can be understood as building on themselves. And he culminates with understanding and applying the Four Noble Truths to our experience. It is easy to explain but difficult to apply or understand its full ramifications in our lives. And one of the great joys for me in my practice at times is this continuing unfolding and discovery of the Four Noble Truths and how they apply to my life and to different areas of my life.

The Four Noble Truths can be stated very simply. The conventional way of stating them is: There is a truth, a truth of the existence of suffering, and that it is hard to deny, if you look around, that you will find suffering. The second is the truth of the arising of suffering, or what it is that causes the arising of suffering, the cause of the suffering, which is usually defined with an interesting technical word, called thirst. The third noble truth is the truth of the cessation of the suffering, the truth that dukkha can come to an end. The fourth Noble Truth is the recognition that it is not easy to end suffering, but there is a path, a practice, that can be done to fulfill the possibility of bringing dukkha, suffering, to an end.

This is the first teaching Buddha was supposed to have given after his enlightenment. The sermon that he gave when he gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths is called The Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma. The Dharma is sometimes likened to a wheel. This is a very interesting symbolism, and it has a number of different symbolic meanings. One of them is that a ruler, an emperor, a great monarch in ancient India was called a “wheel turner.” Sometimes in English, the word is expanded and the ruler is called “a wheel-turning monarch.” The mythology is that the symbol of imperial power is a wheel, which comes from the idea of a war chariot. A war chariot in ancient India was mostly just wheels; there were the wheels and the place where you stand with your sword and bow. Now there was a time in India when there were no wheels. Apparently wheels and chariots were introduced by invaders coming in from the steppes of Russia. These invaders were called the Aryans, and they invaded India four or five thousand years ago—I am not sure how many years ago—but it was many thousands of years ago. One of the reasons they were so successful in conquering India was that they had chariots. So the chariot was probably a very frightening thing, a symbol of power. The chariot wheel consequently became a symbol of a monarch’s power and authority. The myth is that the Buddha had two clear options when he was born. It is said in the prophecy and mythology of Buddhism that either he was going to become a wheel-turning monarch, or he was going to become a renunciant, a spiritual seeker who renounced the world as a monk. His father tried to prevent him from becoming a spiritual seeker because he wanted his son to go into the family business. But the Buddha did not go into the family business, and he did not become an emperor or monarch, but rather became a renunciant. Rather than turning the wheel of political power, he turned the wheel of spiritual power, a spiritual wheel. Rather than conquering India, he conquered himself, and he conquered the truth of ultimate truth and liberation as he understood it. Thus the Dharma is symbolized by a wheel or by a flag that has a wheel in the middle of it. The Indian flag also has a wheel in the middle of it.

This prelude to my talk on the Four Noble Truths shows that we are talking about something very powerful, something that can, in a sense, conquer that which needs to be conquered. The Buddha often spoke in very powerful terms about the possibility of practice, the way a person might engage in practice in a very diligent way—it was kind of like a warrior’s spirit. It was not just about stress reduction; rather, it was about something much nobler. That’s why they are called the Four Noble Truths, and some people call them the Four Ennobling Truths. Engaging this truth is what ennobles a human being.

A structural background for the Four Noble Truths that might be interesting to understand is that, from the point of view of the Buddha, all conditioned things arise and pass away. They are impermanent. All of our mental formations and all of our mental activity arise and pass away. At some point, it has arisen, and sooner or later, it will pass away. That’s the nature of mental activity. Some mental activity continues through time, and it seems like it is permanent, but in some ways it has either gotten frozen or locked in there, or, we are continually refueling it or feeding it over and over again. So it stays in place. But, in and of itself, when it is not locked or is not being refueled, all mental activities have the nature of sooner or later passing away. Things arise because of causes, and when the causes disappear, those things go away. The rain arises, it happens, because the clouds come in, and when the clouds go away, the rain stops. Very simple. Mental activity, our psychological activity, has the same nature. Certain causes and conditions come into place and certain activities arise. When the causes go away, mental activities, mental formations, cease. This very simple structure is inherent in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The mental activity of dukkha, suffering, arises because of causes. And when those causes go away, then what has arisen will also go away, the suffering will go away. Because Buddha understood that correlation, he realized and became quite convinced that this thing he called dukkha could be eliminated if you somehow eliminated the cause. If you have a pebble in your shoe and it is irritating your foot, if you get rid of that pebble, then you stop the irritation of your foot and it gets better. If you can somehow get rid of the pebbles in the heart, or, as Buddha said, pluck out the arrows that are irritating the heart, which are the cause for the suffering, then the suffering would go away.

This was a very radical teaching because it is so thoroughgoing. That is partly why it is so challenging for many of us, because it is the idea of perfection that it is possible to eradicate completely from the heart and mind all the arrows, all the pebbles, all the irritants, all the causes, that give rise to what the Buddha called dukkha.

Not everyone is convinced about this. Even a lot of Buddhist teachers are not convinced that this is the case, that you can do this work that thoroughly. Some people think that is not even very interesting to believe in that because I’ll never get that far—I can go a little bit with it and use it, but I’m not going to go all the way. They think, “That’s not something in store for me, but I’ll just take it as far as I go.” But Buddha was pointing to the possibility that you can go all the way. You can really do all this work and somehow purify the heart and mind from these irritants so that dukkha does not arise.

Dukkha is a Pali word, an Indian word, which is usually translated as “suffering” in English. But suffering is a very strong meaning, and it is not really adequate for translating dukkha. Dukkha means any movement of the mind, any mental activity, which is short of our being fully happy, short of being able to attain the fullest capacity of happiness that a human being can attain. Even things that are kind of happy are characterized as being dukkha. Sometimes people like to translate suffering as “unsatisfactory,” and some things that are really great in and of themselves are unsatisfactory in relationship to what is fully possible. Sometimes minor irritants are also called dukkha. Suffering is a big deal, but even if you feel a little uncomfortable, that is dukkha. The definition of dukkha given in the first sermon of the Buddha is: birth is suffering, sickness is suffering, old age is suffering, death is suffering, being together with what is unpleasant is dukkha, being away from what is pleasing is suffering; that is, being with what you don’t like is suffering, and not being with what you like is suffering, and not getting what you want is suffering, and all the ways by which we identify or get attached to our psychophysical beings as being ourselves, is also a source of suffering. That is the classic definition. It is rather thoroughgoing.

Some people complain that, by in talking about suffering and putting that as the first noble truth, Buddhism is kind of a pessimistic religion, a party pooper religion. But the purpose of focusing on suffering is to understand it so that we can be free from the causes of suffering, so that we can be really happy in a thoroughgoing way. You have to understand the illness in order to understand what the cure is going to be. Also, understanding suffering is an act of compassion. I think it is helpful to evoke a sense of compassion as we begin exploring the Four Noble Truths, as this is a good background or foundation for studying them. Remember what I said earlier, that meditation is a springboard for applying the Four Noble Truths. So you get yourself into meditation practice, you get yourself into a calm, stable, and even happy place in meditation, and from the perspective of that happiness and calm, that is the ideal time to begin looking at suffering. That is really a party pooper, right? You are in a good place, finally. But it isn’t to make things worse, but actually so that you can go further in this endeavor; you take the meditation further and go deeper into your capacity for freedom and happiness.

The first duty, the first activity in relationship to the Four Noble Truths, is the instruction to understand suffering, to study it, to get to know it really well. The second is to abandon the causes of suffering, which is the word tanha, in English, “thirst.” I like it because I don’t think of it as a technical term, so it’s meant to evoke a wide variety; it’s kind of a vague word, an umbrella term, for a wide variety of human mental formations, mental activities, that are of the nature of thirsting, or grasping, or being driven, or being compulsive. People talk about thirsting for power or thirsting for money. There is a grasping or clinging or attachment inherent in that kind of activity. So the cause of suffering is the thirsting of the mind, the driven nature or compulsivity of the mind. The second instruction is therefore to begin to abandon or let go of that compulsivity. And it’s very humbling to practice mindfulness, to pay attention to what goes on in the mind. It’s humbling because we realize how difficult it is at times to let go of the driven nature of the mind. If you meditate a lot, like if you go on retreats, you see this in the nature of your thinking mind. There seems to be an addiction to thinking that human beings have. It seems innocent enough if you are walking around in ordinary life oftentimes, but if you really pay attention to your mind moment by moment, you realize the degree to which you are not really free because your thoughts are pulling you around, dragging you around this way and that way, while you are trying to direct the mind to be present, and your mind has other ideas. Your mind has a mind of its own. There is a tremendous compulsivity to our thinking mind. And that compulsivity has a quality of dukkha, of dissatisfaction, of being uncomfortable, of being unpleasant, of being somehow undesirable.

That is just our thinking. There are other things that can be strong, like desires, or wishes, or fears, or resistances we have. So part of the issue of looking at suffering is that we can begin discerning the causes of it, and in seeing the causes, we begin to relax. We can relax deeper and deeper and let go more thoroughly. When we do it thoroughly, we realize the end of suffering. To some suffering, there is a kind of one-to-one correlation. If I am attached to one simple thing, it is a simple attachment, and you can let go of that attachment. Some suffering is much more deeply rooted, and more difficult to let go of and release. The image that is given in Buddhism is that of a root. The idea of a root to me is like a plant that has many branches coming off the main part, and if you pluck off one part, like one leaf or one branch, the plant will keep growing. You need to somehow reach down into the ground and pull up the root in order to stop the plant from growing. Certain forms of clinging or thirsting are like roots—they are the roots of a lot of other things. If I desire a Ferrari, and if that is what I really thirst for—a nice bright red convertible Ferrari, and it is really important and I really want that, I can see that as suffering. I just let go of that–I see it as silly and just let go of it. The next day, what I really want is a Porsche, and I see this as suffering and I let go of it. Then I want a BMW or Maserati. Then I say, “It was easy to let go of those different cars on different days, but why do I keep desiring these cars?” If I look more carefully, now I notice that I want these cars because then I will be the hottest meditation teacher in California. It will increase my status in the Buddhist world, all my friends will envy me, and it will make my ego feel really good. I can then go around faster and tell people to let go of their ego. The desire for the car is not the root—that’s the branch. As soon as I let go of the branch, the root is there to sprout. The root here is some kind of clinging to self, self-attachment. One of the functions of meditation is to get calm enough and concentrated enough so that we don’t just see the branches, but we start seeing the root of what it is all about, of what this clinging is all about.

There are a lot of wonderful lists about different kinds of roots. One list is sometimes helpful to apply. You might apply this to your life for about a week or so and think about this list of the four kinds of clinging, and see if you ever succumb to them. The first one is the clinging to sensual pleasure. There is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure, but the clinging to it is a source of suffering. Do you see that correlation? If you have desire for sensual pleasure, is it innocent and pain free, or does that desire for sensual pleasure cause you suffering? Or maybe you crave the avoidance of discomfort. The craving for food, the craving for sex, for security, for companionship, the craving for many things often has a root in the very simple thing of wanting to be comfortable, and this is sensual pleasure. Some people are really driven, and they orient most of their life in trying to figure out how to get sensual pleasure or to avoid discomfort. It is very, very motivating for human beings, the attachment to sensual pleasure.

The second is the clinging to our opinions. Opinion sounds kind of philosophical, so maybe here in California it would be better to say “clinging to our story.” We have all our stories and all kinds of stories, interpretations, assigning a meaning to things. We certainly have opinions and views that we carry with us, and we cling to our stories and views. There are stories about who I am, stories about what happened to me, what is going to happen to me, what needs to happen to me, who other people are, what they are like—all of these are stories, opinions, and views. And people cling to them quite tenaciously. Part of this investigation is to begin looking at how views and opinions are present in our lives and how our relationship to them adds to our suffering. A lot of wisdom in the Buddhist tradition comes from looking at our stories, our interpretations, our assigning a meaning to things, and realizing how they are constructed, how they are arbitrary, and how they’re not needed. Probably, ninety per cent of the times they’re not needed.

The third clinging is one which some of you will love, because you are ready to give it up, especially after you hear this talk. This is the clinging to religious practices, spiritual practices, and to virtue. Isn’t that strange that Buddha would say that? I love it. It’s kind of like a safeguard. People who get involved in spiritual traditions find it really common to get attached. They get attached to their ego about being a spiritual person, like, “I’m the most spiritual person on my block.” And if I have a Ferrari, I can show that to people and they can really notice me—the Ferrari halo effect. People get attached to spiritual traditions and spiritual practices because it gives a sense of security, and they think they know what’s true and what’s not. People are often driven to religion because it gives them a sense of certainty; they know what is true and what is really going on. They have an attachment there in the story religion gives them. So there is a safeguard built into Buddhism that even Buddhist practice is something that you have to be careful about so that you don’t get attached to it. Buddha is not saying not to do spiritual practice, but he is saying to be very careful that you don’t get attached to it, because that attachment creates suffering. The very thing that is supposed to free you from suffering is causing you suffering. Isn’t that sad? You should never come to Buddhism and suffer because of your contact with Buddhism. Many of you do, I know. People start practicing and meditate and get concentrated and bear down. Then your results are not what you expected, and then you feel disappointed and sad and upset and angry with yourself. There are many way by which people get attached to a spiritual practice, and they suffer because of it.

The other half of that is attachment to virtue. Virtue, ethical purity, is very important in Buddhism. But the attachment to it, the clinging to it, is a form of suffering. It is certainly suffering for you, but for your neighbors even more. There is a lot of pain around the world when people impose their attachment to virtue onto people around them and onto their neighbors and onto their society.

The fourth clinging is the clinging to self—clinging to self-identity, self-representation, self-image—the whole constellation we build up around this idea of self. There can be a tremendous amount of attachment to that. You are not expected or told not to have a self or not to be a self, or to be a nobody. Remember, Buddha was a warrior, and Buddhism associates him with a symbol of power, the wheel. So he was not a self-effacing, quiet man, sitting in a room, quietly spiritual. He talked about having a lion’s roar. He proclaimed his liberation and had a very powerful confidence in himself. So the teaching of not-self in Buddhism is not a self-effacing teaching. But the clinging to self, the attachment to self, is one of the roots of suffering. In order to be free of suffering you have to somehow abandon that root.

Part of the meaning of “root” is that it is latent. It is not always there, but there in the background ready to operate. I let go of the Ferrari one day, and I’m happy for the rest of the day. But there in the background, latent, is this idea of my self-attachment and my association of cars to my well-being. So that pops up the next day and the next day and the next day. The idea is latent, and that’s why it’s not easy to see. That’s why it is important to practice something like meditation that gets the mind calm and concentrated, so that you can really see deeply and well. It is like having a telescope or a microscope that allows you to see things that you normally cannot see. The telescope or the microscope has to be on a stable surface. The telescope has to be on a tripod. But if it is agitated or on a moving object, like trying to use a microscope or telescope on a motor boat, you can’t really see very well. You need to have something that is really still. When the mind is agitated, you can’t see very well. Part of the function of meditation is to get the mind still enough so you can see clearly, in exactly the same way that you can see clearly when you have a telescope on a tripod.

Abandoning clinging, letting go of clinging, thirsting, grasping, attachment, leads to the third Noble Truth, which is simply stated as the cessation of suffering, the ending of suffering. This is considered the highest ideal in Buddhism, but as stated in that way, it does not seem as much. But the corollary of that is a level of peace, of well-being, of happiness, that is greater than anything a human being can experience. It also opens up the doors for compassion in a way that nothing else can open—a realistic, healthy compassion that does not drown us. Without the clinging in the background, when we experience suffering in the world in others, it will not squash us or distress us or create anguish. Rather it will stimulate the healthy forms of compassion for us to respond to that suffering in the world. Some of the most beautiful qualities of the human heart have a chance to reveal themselves or show themselves to be there when clinging is no longer present. That is why some Buddhists, but not all, make a metaphysical claim that all of us have something in our heart that they call Buddha nature, which is some tremendous beauty or purity or essence or luminosity, that is there, always there, but it is clouded over, covered over, by the clinging and attachment we often live with. If we clean away the attachments, then this luminous core of who we are will show itself. Not all Buddhists are happy with that kind of metaphysical idea because it is metaphysical and Buddhists don’t like metaphysics very much. That is according to me, Gil—that’s my metaphysical view.

It is not considered easy to let go of clinging. It is easy to say but not easy to do. So Buddha then offered a path of practice, the Eightfold Path, which made it possible to get down to the roots and do this work really deeply. I understand it as a developmental model in which you slowly develop yourself to create the right conditions in your heart, in your mind, around you, in your body, so that you can become still enough or concentrated enough and have insights enough to be able to see down to these roots and do this work of letting go. You must also have the strength of character that, when you begin to let go, you can handle that. When there is not a strong sense of character or inner qualities or inner strength, it is actually very disorienting and very frightening to let go of the things we are attached to. The things we are attached to give us a sense of meaning, give us a sense of who we are and how to orient ourselves to the world around us. Our attachments are there for good reasons. To let go of them without having the inner stability or strength to hold us up without them can be very difficult for many people. Part of the idea of a developmental model in practice is to create the inner strength so that when we let go and let go and let go, we come to a place where we can realistically stay, rather than go there temporarily and then ricochet back.

The path of practice is the Eightfold Path. It begins with wisdom, with appreciating the value of understanding our life through the framework of the Four Noble Truths. This is a useful way of looking at our life. It is a framework, not a belief system. If you want to get rid of suffering, then it’s useful to understand the suffering itself, the cause of the suffering, and the possibility of ending the suffering. If you are interested in ending the suffering, in being liberated from the suffering, then you don’t want to go and look in the wrong direction. The Buddha said that there are a lot of wrong directions which don’t help with the liberation from suffering. To make it really simple, he said that the wisdom factor that you bring into your practice is to understand your experience from the point of view of the Four Noble Truths. If you don’t like doing that, because it seems depressing to look at suffering, put it off, wait, don’t do it right away. Do the other parts of Buddhism. Practice Loving Kindness, or practice concentration, get some stability, some calm, or some joy in your practice. Resolve some issues in your life that get in the way of developing that calm and concentration. Once you are calm and concentrated and have some measure of well-being in your meditation, then bring in the Four Noble Truths. Oddly enough, the highest or deepest places you can go in meditation, or, in other words, some of the furthest reaches that you can go to in meditation, the greatest levels of joy or peace in the conditioned world, where there is a tremendous sense of peace, well-being, and equanimity, that’s where applying the Four Noble Truths is the most useful, because they are what is going to push a person over into what is called the Unconditioned. That part of the psyche or mind, that dimension of the mind, the part that is not about the constructive activities of the mind, and has nothing to do with the conditioned activities of the mind, that part of the psych is what Buddhism calls the Unconditioned, the awakened mind, the awakened dimension.

So the Four Noble Truths is the wisdom part of this path. To support that or to be able to realize that, the Buddha said that it is really important to look at your behavior. Before you start meditating, look at your behavior. Are there ways that you can improve your behavior so that your behavior supports your ability to look deeply? If you go around killing other people, stealing from other people, lying to other people, harming other people with your sexuality, or spending a good part of your time drunk, your mind will be so agitated, that you won’t be able to meditate. You have to stop doing those things. The more you clean up your behavior, the more you create the conditions in the psyche by which it becomes easy for the psyche to be at peace with itself and not agitated. Then it can start doing the deeper work that happens through meditation, through developing the mind.

In terms of behavior, the Buddha said it is very helpful to look at your speech. Pay attention to your speech and be mindful of your speech. Try to clean up your speech, so your speech is not harmful or counterproductive to the process of clarifying the heart, of purifying the heart, of doing this deep work. The Buddha said it is important to look at how you behave in terms of precepts, killing, stealing, lying, and the rest. He also said it is important to look at your livelihood. Most people spend a good part of the day earning a livelihood. A good percentage of your week and year is involved in your livelihood. It has a big influence on our hearts and our psyche. Is our livelihood in harmony with the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering, of attaining this level of liberation, of moving towards this unconditioned place of awakening? Some professions and some livelihoods are counterproductive and go against the grain of following the path of liberation. Livelihoods that have to do with killing, like being a butcher, are counterproductive. Livelihoods that have to do with buying and selling human beings are counterproductive. Livelihoods that have to do with trading or being a merchant of weapons are counterproductive. Dealing in poisons is counterproductive. This is a pretty strong thing to say, and I know some people have to negotiate this issue. I may work for some of these electronic companies. There was a man who sat with us for a number of years who worked as a machinist at a local machine shop. He got a phone call from the air force of a foreign country, and they wanted a certain part made for their aircraft. He went to his boss and said, “I’m a Buddhist. I can’t make this part for this military aircraft.” His boss said, “You can go back and tell that government official whatever you want.” So he went back and said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t do that here.” He felt that it went against the grain of his spiritual life to make pieces for weaponry. We need to look at livelihood and see if it is in harmony with the direction we want to go in our spiritual life.

Once a person has their behavior taken care of or looked at and has taken care of it, then the Buddha talked about the last of the Eightfold Path, which has to do with inner development. First you start with outer activity, with how you behave, and once you begin working on that, then we can talk about inner development. We can talk about mindfulness and concentration, working on the mind. The mind is malleable, changeable, and plastic—it can be changed. The mind is not a fixed thing, not solid. It is rather like software, not hardware. The brain is like hardware, but the mind is like software. Some of you are software engineers and can easily manipulate things and change things around. The mind is like that software and is quite elastic and plastic and malleable—it can be changed and developed. That’s the good news that Buddhism teaches. Then we can start taking responsibility for our own mind, by practicing. We move the mind to a greater and greater possibility of awakening and freedom. It is a process that traditionally evolves in steps. I like to think of it as taking a lot of small steps. Occasionally people will take a huge step, which is very nice. But mostly, realistically, we take small steps to understanding. Where is my suffering right now, and how am I contributing to that? What is my role in the suffering I am feeling right now? Rather than blaming the situation, even if the situation is responsible, don’t’ pay much attention to that. Turn around and see how you are contributing to that suffering. That is what the heart of Buddhist spirituality is about: taking responsibility for how we contribute. And do it in small steps. Next time you are attached to a Ferrari, you may find it easy to let go of. Do not underestimate the value of letting go of what is easy. It builds the muscle, builds the insight that allows you eventually to take the big steps, to letting go of some of the big things, of some of the deeper roots that we have.

The last thing I want to say about the Four Noble Truths is that the classic formulation of it has no pronouns. In the wording of it, it does not say “you,” or “I,” or “we.” Those are just left out. It says, “There is suffering. There is a cause of suffering. There is a possibility of ending suffering, and there is a path to the end of suffering.” I myself am very fond of the fact that there are no pronouns, because what it points to is that Buddhist practice is sensitive to our own suffering and to the suffering of others. We can only take responsibility for our own contribution to suffering, but we can be compassionate to the suffering around us. It is equally important to have the compassionate concern going in both directions. We can have the compassionate concern for ourselves and our own suffering, and we treat ourselves with compassion, with care, when we see our own suffering. By looking at suffering in ourselves and trying to resolve it, it is a compassionate act towards ourselves. And being sensitive and open to seeing the suffering in the world around us is a compassionate act that extends out away from us to the world around us. Not having pronouns in the Four Noble Truths is talking about the flow of compassion in both directions equally. That for me is a really central part of what is possible to a mature spiritual life, which is to have our compassion flow in all directions fully. The Four Noble Truths is one of the ways of manifesting, expressing, and applying our compassion.

So that should give you enough to work with for the year. Thank you for listening.