Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Four Noble Truths I

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (pp.159-166)

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (pp. 287-323) 

“Again, monks, in regard to dhammas he abides contemplating dhammas in terms of the four noble truths. And how does he in regard to dhammas abide contemplating dhammas in terms of the four noble truths? “Here he knows as it really is, ‘this is dukkha’; he knows as it really is, ‘this is the arising of dukkha’; he knows as it really is, ‘this is the cessation of dukkha’; he knows as it really is, ‘this is the way leading to the cessation of dukkha.’

The Four Noble Truths

In what is considered his first teaching, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, the Buddha addressed five monks saying:

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:[1] Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful. 

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming. 

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving. 

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

The “Noble” in the Four Noble Truths has several translations.   Buswell notes that noble does not refer to the truths but to those who understand them.  “They are four facts known to be true by those “noble ones” with insight into the nature of reality, but not known by ordinary beings.”  Buswell  Jr., Robert E.; Donald S., Jr. Lopez. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

In the Satipatthana Sutta, given by the Buddha later in his teachings includes the Four Noble Truths as something that we should know “as it really is.”  In order to explore more deeply the Four Noble Truths, we draw on some of the Buddha’s other teachings.

The Buddha as physician

The Buddha said in the Snake teaching:  “What I teach now as before, O monks, is suffering and the cessation of suffering.”  MN 22 Translated from the Pali by Nyanaponika Thera.  In this way, he was like a physician dealing with the disease of suffering and how to heal it.  A physician recognizes the existence of symptoms (e.g. cough and fever), diagnoses the cause (e.g. pneumonia), knows the cure (e.g. antibiotics), and prescribes the treatment (antibiotics).  Similarly, the Four Noble Truths is arranged four parts:  (1) the Buddha’s description of suffering, (2) its cause, (3) its potential for cure, and (4) the prescription for cure. 

In this talk, we will explore the first truth:

The First Noble Truth:  Dukkha (Suffering)

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress:[1] Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

The original Pali word is dukkha and is often translated as stress or suffering.  However, this can be misleading.  In current times, suffering is defined as the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.  Dukkha is broader than that as it encompasses all conditioned phenomena including pleasant experiences.  “We might begin to get a better sense of its meaning by remembering its etymological derivation. The word is made up of the prefix du and the root kha. Du means “bad” or “difficult.” Kha means “empty….In more general philosophical terms, “empty” means devoid of permanence and devoid of a self that can control or command phenomena. Here we begin to get a sense of other, more inclusive meanings of the term dukkha. Words like unsatisfying, unreliable, uneaseful, and stressful all convey universal aspects of our experience….Now we can integrate the understanding that, indeed, all conditioned phenomena are dukkha— that is, unsatisfactory, incapable of giving lasting satisfaction, and at the same time, even in the midst of experience, able to bring the suffering of our minds to an end.”  Goldstein, Joseph. Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

“Life is a never-ending dance between moments of feeling good and moments of feeling bad.”  (DWL p. 28) All conditions including suffering and worldly happiness are impermanent, unsatisfactory and of selfless nature.  Regarding selfless nature, the Buddha said “There is suffering” not “I suffer”.

There are several kinds of dukkha:

The dukkha of painful experiences – This includes pain caused by war, violence, natural disasters, political and social oppression, and injustice.  There is the physical pain in the body from childbirth, sickness, aging, and injury.  And lastly there is the conditioned suffering in the mind with emotions of fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, anxiety, grief, envy, frustration, and loneliness, to name a few.

The dukkha of pleasant experiences – A pleasant experience occurs when our feeling (of the five aggregates) is pleasant, not unpleasant or neutral.  However, when our conditioning comes into play, we have reactions such as comparing (“this experience is not as good as the last time”), being jealous (“so and so is having a better experience than me”), or being sad (“this is great but it this sunset is going to be gone soon”).  These reactions turn the experience into one of dukkha.

The dukkha of the changing nature of all things – The mind wants certainty and permanence.  It expects pleasant experiences to last and unpleasant experiences to cease immediately.  This sets up a conflict as we know from the three characteristics that all phenomena are impermanent.  All is changing, that what happens to us also happens to others. When we forget this, we are deluded and dukkha arises.

The dukkha of conditioned experience – As noted with pleasant experiences above, all experiences are conditioned through the filters of three of the five aggregates (feeling, perception, and mental formations) which adds expectations to what we really are sensing.  Bhante G. calls this unrealistic perception.  When life doesn’t turn out the way we want it to based on these expectations, dukkha arises.

The dukkha of no control – It can be very frustrating to think that you are in control and life doesn’t turn out how you want.
We don’t realize that we are never in control.  There is a saying:  “Act like you are in control knowing that you are not.”  This means that in the conditioned world we use the terms “I” or “me” but we do not get attached to thinking that the “I” or “me” is real.  How can what is not real be in control?

“…Truth of Dukkha is realized when you are able to distinguish between carrying the weight of your life with all its loss and pain, and collapsing underneath these difficulties.  You nobly accept your suffering and acknowledge that your life is being characterized by it, despite your preference for it to be otherwise.” Moffitt, Dancing with Life. p. 37)

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.
  • As you go through life, look to see that dukkha exists everywhere. Can you find one example of an experience that is not dukkha?

Meditation

  • Meditate using the mindfulness of the breath technique and focus your insight meditation on states of mind.

Next: Mindfulness of Dhammas: The Four Noble Truths II
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