The Issue at Hand

The Issue at Hand

Chapter 1: The Four Noble Truths

Just this is the path.
For purifying one’s vision, there is no other.
Follow it
And you will bewilder Mara.
Follow it
And you will put an end to suffering.- Dhammapada 274-275

On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Kosambi in a grove of trees. Then the Blessed One took up a few leaves in his hand and addressed the bhikkhus thus: “What do you think, bhikkhus, which is more numerous: these few leaves that I have taken up in my hand or those in this grove of trees?”

“Venerable sir, the leaves that the Blessed One has taken up in his hand are few, but those in the grove of trees are numerous.”

“So too, bhikkhus, the things I have directly known but have not taught you are more numerous, while the things I have taught you are few. And why, bhikkhus have I not taught those many things? Because they are unbeneficial, irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life… and do not lead to peace……

Samyutta Nikaya V437-438


As this sutta shows us, the Buddha taught only a very small portion of what he knew. Elsewhere, the Buddha said, “I teach one thing and one thing only, suffering and the end of suffering.” This is one of the simplest definitions of Buddhist practice and speaks to our capacity to move from suffering to freedom from suffering. From this place, we can meet the world in a compassionate and receptive way.

Our tradition is very simple. Some people might feel it is poverty stricken because it just has a handful of leaves. It doesn’t have all the leaves on all the trees in the grove. Some people may be dazzled trying to focus on the immensity of all the leaves. In the Theravada tradition the focus is on understanding suffering and how to become free of it, how to become happy. What we need to know to become free is actually very little.

In his first sermon, “Turning the Wheel of the Dharma,” the Buddha taught about suffering and the end of suffering in the form of the Four Noble Truths. After more than 2500 years they have come to us as the core teachings of Buddhism. Almost all Buddhist traditions consider the Four Noble Truths to be very central teachings. Intellectually, they are easy to understand, but it is said that a deep understanding of the full impact of these Four Truths is possible only for someone whose liberation is fully mature.

When he formulated the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha borrowed a medical model. At the time of the Buddha, doctors would recognize the problem, define its cause, formulate the prognosis for a cure, and then prescribe a course of action. The Buddha adopted this formulation when he stated the Four Noble Truths:

  1. Suffering occurs.
  2. The cause of suffering is craving.
  3. The possibility for ending suffering exists.
  4. The cessation of suffering can be attained through the Noble Eightfold Path.

I think it is significant that he chose to follow a medical model, because it avoids metaphysics. The religions of the world tend to be imbued with metaphysical or cosmological beliefs that followers are required to accept before the rest of the system can make sense. But the Buddha felt that metaphysical speculation was not beneficial in understanding liberation, the freedom from suffering. He avoided dogma. He offered practices and insights that we can verify for ourselves, rather than a doctrine to believe in. Indeed, part of the brilliance of the Four Noble Truths is that they offer a guide to the spiritual life without the need to adhere to any metaphysical beliefs.

The Truth of Suffering

The First Noble Truth simply says that suffering occurs. It does not say, “Life is suffering.” That suffering occurs perhaps does not seem a particularly profound statement. Suffering comes with being human. Pain is a part of the human condition. We stub our toe, and it hurts. Our back goes out. Even the Buddha was subject to physical suffering; at times he declined to give a Dharma talk because of pain in his back. Emotional pain is inevitable if we are open to the world. When other people suffer around us, and we are open to it, we ourselves sometimes feel discomfort through our powers of empathy. Part of being human is to relate to and feel what is going on around us. However, pain is not the kind of suffering that the Buddha was trying to help us become free of.

In the context of the Four Noble Truths, we can distinguish between inevitable suffering and optional suffering. Optional suffering is created when we react to our experience-for example, through anger at the inevitable suffering of pain, or by clinging to joy. When we suffer from physical pain or illness, we can become self-judgmental: “What did I do wrong to have this thing happen to me?” We attack ourselves, or we blame others. Or we become angry, sad, or depressed about the suffering in the world. Optional suffering is added when we react with aversion or clinging, justification or condemnation. These reactions add complications and suffering to our lives. It is possible to experience the inevitable pain of life in a straightforward, uncomplicated way. If pain is inevitable, life is a lot easier if we don’t resist it.

So, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths does not promise relief from the inevitable suffering that arises out of being human. The suffering addressed by the Four Noble Truths is the suffering or stress that arises from the way we choose to relate to our experience. When we cling, it is painful. When we try to hold our experience at a distance, to push it away, that too is painful. We cling to or push away from our experience in an infinite variety of ways.

The way to practice with the Four Noble Truths is to become very interested in our suffering. Ancient texts say that no one comes to the Buddhist path except through suffering. From a Buddhist perspective, the recognition of suffering is sacred; it is worthy of respect. We need to study our suffering, to get to know it well in the same way that we hope our doctors take our illnesses seriously. If suffering is powerful in our lives, we have a strong motivation to study it.

But not all suffering is monumental. What we can learn from more subtle suffering helps us to understand the deeper suffering of our lives. So it is also important to study minor suffering in our lives: our frustration with a traffic jam, or irritation toward co-workers.

We can study our suffering by attending to where and how we cling. The Buddha enumerated four kinds of clinging to help us understand our suffering and what we suffer about. The one Westerners might consider easiest to let go of is grasping to spiritual practices and ethics. We may grasp our practice because we cling to the hope of freedom from suffering. We may grasp the rules of spiritual practice, thinking that all that is required of us is simply to follow the rules. Or we might use our practice to create a spiritual identity. We may grasp our practice to run away from life, or we may grasp precepts and ethics for security. Sometimes, we feel like the Buddhist path is so wonderful that we become attached to getting others to practice also. Clinging to spiritual practice causes suffering for ourselves and discomfort for others.

The second type of clinging is grasping to views. This includes all opinions, stories or judgments that we hold on to. These can have a powerful grip on us and on our perception of the world around us. Believing in views and basing our actions on them is something that few of us question. Many of our emotions arise out of views; even our sense of self can be constructed from them.

A classic example that illustrates how views create emotions is how you might react if someone misses an appointment with you. You had a date, you are waiting on a street corner in the cold, and the person doesn’t show up. This is all that is actually happening.

To those facts, we often add a story: the person doesn’t respect me. With that evaluation, anger arises. The anger doesn’t arise because we are standing on a street corner and someone hasn’t shown up. The anger arises because we are fixated on the story, which may or may not be true. The person could have had an accident and be in the emergency room. We need to know what our interpretations or suppositions are and then hold them lightly, prepared for the possibility that they might not be true. Or if they prove true, we then need to know how to act wisely without clinging even to the truth.

The third form of clinging is grasping to a sense of self. We construct an identity and hold on to it. The construction of an identity or self-definition is actually the construction of a view. It is the “story of me,” and we attach to it rather than just letting things be as they are. Maintaining and defending a self-image can be a lot of work. It can fuel a lot of self-conscious pre-occupation with how we speak, dress, and behave. We evaluate everything according to how it relates to ourselves, causing ourselves endless suffering.

The fourth type of clinging is grasping to sensual pleasure, which includes aversion to discomfort. In the Buddhists texts, this is the first in the list of things that we cling to; I put it last because it sometimes puts people off. Sensual pleasure itself is not the problem; our lives will bring us many sensual pleasures. The problem is that we cling to them. William Blake expresses this beautifully:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy.
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.

Attachment to sense pleasures is so pervasive in us that many of us feel something is wrong when things are unpleasant. But unpleasant sensations are just unpleasant sensations until we add a story to them. Confusing pleasure with happiness is a powerful fuel for the attachment to pleasure. An important part of Buddhist spiritual practice is discovering a happiness not connected to objects of desire and pleasure. With this discovery, the seductive enchantment of sensual pleasure begins to lessen.

The Truth of the Cause of Suffering

The word dukkha, which we translate as suffering, is closely connected to the word sukha, which means happiness. They both have the same root: -kha, which means, etymologically, the hub of a wheel. Du- means “bad”, while su- means “good”. So etymologically, dukkha means “a wheel out of kilter”, or “a wheel off center.”

The Second Noble Truth states that what brings us off center, what causes our suffering, is craving. In Pali, the word is tanha, which literally means thirst. It is sometimes translated as desire but this tends to suggest that all desires are a problem. What causes suffering is desire (or aversion) that is driven, compulsive. Craving means both being driven toward experiences and objects, as well as feeling compelled to push them away. Whether craving is subtle or gross, if we aren’t mindful, we won’t be aware of how it contributes to our suffering.

Part of the reason that Buddhism puts a tremendous focus on the present moment is that suffering only occurs in the present moment. In addition, the craving, the cause of that suffering, occurs only in the present moment. Even when the conditions for suffering occurred in the past, the thought or memory of those conditions is occurring in the present. We emphasize the present moment in our practice as an attempt to understand clearly how craving functions in the present moment. In the present moment we can find both the cause and the relief from our suffering.

So, quite simply, the present moment is the place where we will understand the Four Noble Truths. As we practice, first we try to stabilize ourselves in the present moment. We settle into our body, listen to sounds, or feel the sensations of breathing. Once we are in the present moment, we can begin exploring our experience: what we are driven toward, what we push away, how we create our suffering.

The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

The Third Noble Truth expresses the possibility of liberation, of the cessation of suffering. When we see our suffering and understand clearly how it arises out of craving, we know that freedom from suffering is possible when craving is released.

The word nibbana or nirvana refers to freedom from suffering. While the Theravada tradition sometimes describes nibbana as a great happiness or peace, more often it has been defined as resulting from the complete absence of clinging or craving. One reason for this negative definition is that nibbana is so radically different from what can be described through language that it is best not to try. Another reason is so that the goal of Buddhist practice is not obscured with metaphysical speculations about the nature of the goal.

Still another reason for the negative definition of nibbana is to avoid confusing it with any particular states of being. We easily become attached to states such as calm, peace, joy, clarity, or radiant light-states that sometime arise during meditation practice, but which are not its goal. We may believe that we need to attain them if we are to realize the Third Noble Truth. But if we remember non-clinging is the means to release then we will be less inclined to cling to any state. Don’t cling to your happiness. Don’t cling to your sadness. Don’t cling to any attainment.

The Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering

Letting go of all of our clinging is not easy. Developing the understanding, compassion, and mindfulness to see well enough to let go of our suffering is quite difficult. The Fourth Noble Truth is pragmatic; it describes, in eight steps, the path that leads to freedom from suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path gives us the steps that help us to create the conditions that make spiritual maturity possible. They are:

  1. Right Understanding (Right View)
  2. Right Intention (Right Thought)
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

Sometimes this list is taught sequentially. A practitioner develops them in order, first clarifying his or her understanding and intention in order to stay off roads tangential to the simple path of the Four Noble Truths. Then setting in order his or her behavior in the world so that it can support the inner development of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. In the sequential approach, a practitioner does not complete each step before moving on to the next. Rather, the practice follows a spiral path in which one continually returns to the beginning, each time with greater depth.

Sometimes the list is not taught as a path to be developed sequentially. Rather the eight steps are presented as eight aspects of the path, which are developed together. They are mutually supportive, each nourishing the others. The list is comprehensive; it shows us how we can bring the full range of our lives onto the path of practice. We can see this when these eight are categorized with the divisions of body, speech and mind. Right Action and Livelihood pertain to our bodily activities, Right Speech to our verbal ones, and the remainder to the domain of the mind and heart.

Sometimes the Eightfold Path is divided into the three categories of ethics, inner practices, and insight (sila, samadhi, and pañña). In this case, Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, as aspects of ethics, are taught as the beginning of the path. Following the development of ethics, the inner practices of effort, mindfulness and concentration lead to the development of insight or wisdom.

The Eightfold path offers a rich world of practice. Studying and becoming familiar with all eight is well worth the time and effort. Of the Eight, the Vipassana tradition puts particular emphasis on mindfulness. In part, this is because when the mindfulness practice is thorough, the other aspects of the Eightfold Path follow in its wake.

Mindfulness is also the key element for the transformation of liberation. Mindfulness practice is the vehicle for realizing the Four Noble Truths. In mindfulness practice, we learn how to pay attention in the present moment so that when suffering arises we’re able to notice it. We can take an interest in it instead of running away from it. We can learn how to be comfortable with suffering, so that we don’t act inappropriately because of our discomfort. Then we can begin understanding its roots, and let go of the clinging.

All of the Buddha’s teachings are an elaboration of the Four Noble Truths. By understanding this handful of leaves a spiritual life can be straightforward and practical. We can all experience the great joy and peace that comes from the freedom from clinging.