The heart of early Buddhism
In this week's article, we'll look at the second half of the Buddha's first discourse, the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta (the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of Dhamma).
In the first part of the discourse, the Buddha introduced a 'middle way' between sensual indulgence and self-mortification, and then went on to elaborate this middle way in terms of the Eightfold Path. What comes next is equally important in the early Buddhist system - the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha.
The First Noble Truth is the truth of dukkha. Dukkha is a difficult word to translate - its meaning is broader than any one English term. Most commonly you'll see 'suffering', 'stress' or 'unsatisfactoriness', but none of these work in every situation. Literally, it means something like 'bad space', and was apparently used to refer to the mud and gunk that would get into the space between the axle and the wheel on a cart, resulting in a bumpy ride. In the Buddhist context, there's also a connotation of having a 'bumpy ride' through life. All sorts of things happen that we don't like, from the smallest (a stubbed toe, a misplaced set of keys causing us to be five minutes late for work) to the most severe (death, war, plague, famine). To the extent that we resist and resent those difficulties, we experience an unpleasant psychological condition - this is (one meaning of) dukkha. And here we can perhaps begin to see how meditation can help - by literally 'changing our mind', by cultivating the Right View of the Eightfold Path, we can learn to struggle less against what life throws at us, and thus experience less dukkha. In the long run - with full awakening - dukkha is said to be totally eliminated.
One key point to bring out here is that this First Noble Truth is not saying (as is sometimes believed) that 'all life is suffering'. That can be a real stumbling block for some people, because many of us can think of all sorts of wonderful things in our lives that don't feel anything like 'suffering' - friendship, love, art, beauty, the list goes on. Fortunately, this idea is a misunderstanding of that last line - that the 'five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha'. I've written previously about the five aggregates and won't repeat that hear, but in brief, it's a system of dividing up all of our subjective experience into five categories. But here the Buddha isn't saying that 'the five aggregates are dukkha' (i.e. 'all life is suffering') - he's saying that 'the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha'. In other words, to the extent that we insist on things going our way, or try to hold a view of reality which is out of line with what's actually going on (Right View again), we will experience dukkha - and that can apply to any aspect of our life if we're not careful.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the arising of dukkha: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
The Second Noble Truth moves from the recognition of the fact of dukkha to an understanding of its causality. Why does dukkha arise? Because we want things to be a certain way - we want to have nice things (craving for sensual pleasures), we want to be seen in a certain way (craving for 'becoming'), or we want to get rid of something about ourselves that we don't like (craving for non-becoming). These desires tend to be repetitive in nature, causing us to go around in circles in our lives - this kind of 'Groundhog Day' situation is one way to understand 'renewed existence' in this context.
As we explore the roots of our dukkha more and more deeply, we come to understand the mechanisms that underlie all three of these forms of craving. In the end, we must question who we really are at the deepest level, and come to see what's really going on. As a starting point, however, it's very instructive to look at our cravings even on the surface level. What are we looking for? What are we trying to get? Do we feel a sense of insufficiency or inadequacy? Why?
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it.
But wait, there's good news, in the form of the Third Noble Truth. Because it turns out that it is possible to find relief from dukkha, no matter how pervasive it may seem. This is, fundamentally, the basic promise of Buddhism - that, by following a path of practice, we can find our way out of dukkha.
But what path?
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
The Fourth Noble Truth brings us back to where we started - back to the Eightfold Path. By cultivating this path as a way of life, the Buddha says, we can find our way out of dukkha.
Unpacking the Four Noble Truths into Four Noble Tasks
Often, discussions of the Four Noble Truths end here, which can give the impression that these four statements are truths to be taken on faith, memorised and repeated like a catechism. Actually, though, taking things on faith is not really a big part of the early Buddhist path. Rather, the Buddha would invite people to 'come and see for yourself'. And so the discourse goes on to outline how to work with these four 'truths' - presenting them now as four tasks to be undertaken by one wishing to become free from dukkha.
Here's the First Noble Task:
“‘This is dukkha’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, there arose in me vision, knowledge, wisdom, true knowledge, and light.
“‘Dukkha is to be fully understood’: thus, bhikkhus, in regard to things unheard before, [...]
“‘Dukkha has been fully understood’: [...]
Here the Buddha presents a kind of survey of our experience. We are invited to examine our lives and see if we do, indeed, experience dukkha in the way suggested by the First Noble Truth. But more than just looking once or twice and then saying 'Yep, looks that way' and moving on, we're asked to go further - to fully understand dukkha. Rather than being satisfied with a superficial understanding of our discontent, we should instead study it carefully and closely, tracing it all the way back to its roots, coming to see at the very deepest level what our dukkha actually is.
Closely related to this is the Second Noble Task:
“‘This is the arising of dukkha’: [...]
“‘The arising of dukkha is to be abandoned’: [...]
“‘The arising of dukkha has been abandoned’: [...]
Now that we have a deep understanding of our dukkha, we can turn our attention to its arising. We must learn the triggers for our dukkha, and develop skilful ways to avoid setting them off. We soon learn that we can't control our external environment - it's impossible to arrange our lives in such a way that nothing bad ever happens. But what we can do is go inside and work with our own minds. And by doing that, we can find ways to reduce our dukkha.
This tends to be a slow process. Maybe we begin to cultivate mindfulness of negative emotional states, so that we can lift ourselves out of them rather than continuing to be overwhelmed. At first, we only realise what's going on when the negative state has been going on for some time, but with practice it gets quicker and quicker. I still remember very clearly the day that I first saw a train of angry thoughts about a former boss just about to start, and made the decision not to jump on that train of thought. In that moment I became free from the toxic anger that had been making me miserable for months. That was a powerful moment!
In case this is all starting to sound a bit grim and unpleasant, constantly wading through the dark recesses of our minds examining our negative states, take a look at the Third Noble Task:
“‘This is the cessation of dukkha’: [...]
“‘The cessation of dukkha is to be realized’: [...]
“‘The cessation of dukkha has been realized’: [...]
Just as important as seeing the arising of dukkha is seeing its cessation - and feeling the relief that comes with it. That moment of letting go of anger was so powerful not just because the anger was gone, but because of the intense relief that came with the realisation that I wouldn't be angry that morning. It's extremely instructive to pay close attention to what happens when we let go of dukkha. As we let go of a negative emotional state, we very often enter a positive one - perhaps a feeling of peace, contentment, compassion, or even joy.
Our minds learn based on experience. If we do something and realise that we get a positive result from doing it, we tend to be more motivated to do it again. (This applies both on the conscious level and, more powerfully, on the unconscious level. Take a look at Jud Brewer's work on reward-based learning for more details on this!)
So the payoff for our hard work exploring our dukkha and the triggers for it is the experience of the cessation of dukkha - a cooling of the passions, a deep and profound peace and joy.
But, of course, it isn't enough to see this once. We must practise diligently to make this a greater and greater part of our experience - and it helps if we can align our whole lives behind this intention, rather than treating it as just something to be done for twenty minutes a day. And so we come to the Fourth Noble Task:
“‘This is the way leading to the cessation of dukkha’: [...]
“‘The way leading to the cessation of dukkha is to be developed’: [...]
“‘The way leading to the cessation of dukkha has been developed’: [...]
And this is, of course, the cultivation of the Eightfold Path.
Waking up is equated with completing the Four Noble Tasks
The Buddha then emphasises that it isn't enough just to 'know' the Four Noble Truths - one has to complete the three 'phases' of each task, for a total of twelve 'aspects'. Once we've done that, we can truly say that we're fully awakened.
“So long, bhikkhus, as my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are in their three phases and twelve aspects was not thoroughly purified in this way, I did not claim to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, Mara, and Brahma, in this generation with its ascetics and brahmins, its devas and humans.
“But when my knowledge and vision of these Four Noble Truths as they really are in their three phases and twelve aspects was thoroughly purified in this way, then I claimed to have awakened to the unsurpassed perfect enlightenment in this world with its devas, [...].
The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘Unshakable is the liberation of my mind. This is my last birth. Now there is no more renewed existence.’”
Unshakable liberation - sounds pretty good, eh?
The end of the First Discourse
So this is the Buddha's first teaching. But did it have any impact on his audience? According to the discourse itself (which is, of course, not necessarily an impartial source!), it did:
This is what the Blessed One said. Elated, the bhikkhus of the group of five delighted in the Blessed One’s statement. And while this discourse was being spoken, there arose in the Venerable Kondañña the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma: “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.”
Then the Blessed One uttered this inspired utterance: “Koṇḍañña has indeed understood! Koṇḍañña has indeed understood!” In this way the Venerable Koṇḍañña acquired the name “Añña Koṇḍañña—Koṇḍañña Who Has Understood.”
My teacher Leigh Brasington likes to point out that we have a lot to thank Koṇḍañña for. Imagine if the Buddha had delivered this teaching to his five closest friends from his ascetic days - sincere practitioners who he knew should be receptive to what he had to share if he had any ability to share it at all - and all five had sat there blankly and said 'Yeah, so what?' According to another discourse, the Buddha had already had a moment of indecision about whether there was even any point in trying to teach his understanding to others, but finally he decided to give it a go. Luckily for us, two and a half thousand years later, at least one of his friends was sharp enough to get it right off the bat.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!