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How To Understand The Four Noble Truths

Updated on April 11, 2013
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The Four Noble Truths

Is it possible the secret mysteries of immortality and spiritual enlightenment are revealed through the teachings of the five religions? Is immortality of the spirit-mind-body simply the discovery of the Path that leads back to the World of Absolute Truth?

The sages tell us enlightenment is realized when we are no longer enslaved by passions, desires, and delusions and are able to dwell in the ‘Essence of Mind’. The ‘Essence of Mind’ according to Hui Neng, manifests in spontaneous, creative and intuitive existence.

The Five Sages taught through doctrines of universal love, peace, and harmony how to find the subtle Path to Paradise. A limited, intellectual understanding of the Essence of Mind can be achieved by an in-depth study of the teachings of the Bible, the Koran, the Tao Teh Ching, the Kontzeist Analects, and the Buddha Sutras. However, realization of the Essence of Mind is beyond the capacity of the intellectual mind.

It is the position of the sages and of the followers of religion, that if we study the doctrine of the sages and then apply the teachings using intuitive insight, we can obtain the universal knowledge of enlightened teachers and restore our pure absolute nature.

Followers of religions often interpret the religious texts in their own way. Nevertheless, if we focus on what is believed to be the common source and open our minds to the higher realms of universal consciousness, we find the methods of self-cultivation are essentially the same.

Self-cultivation includes the perfection of virtue and perfected virtue is one of the common principles of most, if not all religions. Buddha gave us the lessons of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ and the ‘Eight Fold Path’, which can be used as an excellent summary compilation of the various methods for the perfection of virtue.

The Four Noble Truths:

The First Truth: Life is suffering:

For most people, who are predominantly immersed in the material world of duality, pleasure or happiness, has its opposite. As often is the case, when pleasure or joy ends, we tend to desire to continue the pleasure or to regain it. For some, even during the experience of pleasure, the fear of losing it causes pain, and when the pleasure is gone, the longing for it causes further attachment and suffering.

In comparison with the ecstasy of Samadhi1 and Nirvanic joy, all Samsaric2 pleasures are various forms of suffering; from the viewpoint of enlightened beings, all samsara is a raging fire, including whatever pleasure exists therein.

The Second Truth: Defilements are the cause of suffering:

When desire manifests as an overtly imbalanced need or passion to have and to possess, it can lead to an insatiable quest. This leads to continual suffering. Hatred, animosity, anger, jealousy, etc., are destructive expressions that defile our pure nature and alienate others creating disharmony and pain.

Ignorance is the inability to differentiate between the myriad manifestations of dualism. For example;

Pure and impure, good and evil, permanent and impermanent, etc. If we cannot distinguish the truth from the false, we lose our way along the subtle Path and will encounter many obstacles to increased awareness.

The Third Truth: Enlightened Ones testify to a state of existence called Nirvana:

Nirvana cannot be described by words or human conceptions since it exists beyond the phenomenal world. Enlightened beings are able to testify to the existence of Nirvana because they have attained entry there.

The Fourth Truth: There is a correct path that leads to the cessation of suffering:

The correct path is to receive the Heart to Heart, Mind -to-Mind Transmission of Light and to cultivate inner virtue. Discipline, or keeping the precepts, is the avoidance of thoughts and actions that hinder one’s spiritual progress.

Through meditation (dhyana)3, desires can be controlled. The ordinary state of mind is transformed into a lucid, reflective, pure awareness. By the practice of meditation, physical, mental and spiritual joy is produced. One’s intelligence, insight, compassion, and spiritual awakening are enhanced and elevated in all aspects.”

“Through intuitive wisdom, all precepts and dhyanas are the foundation for the nondiscursive penetrating wisdom to observe the truth of no-self (anatman). In Mahayana, the penetrating intuitive wisdom is applied not only to no-self, but also to the Buddha-nature within and the totality of the dharmadhatu without. Thus, by eliminating innate, inborn ignorance, one reaches enlightenment.” from A Treasuryof Mahayana Sutras, translated by C. Chang.

Buddha insists the Four Noble Truths can free us from the enslavement of suffering. They are spoken of in the Nirvana Sutra: “In the past, all of you and I did not understand the Four Noble Truths, therefore we wandered. If we understand the truth, we will transcend the never-ending cycle.”

The Four Noble Truths as taught by Sakyamuni Buddha:

The Truth of Suffering:

The first truth tells us suffering is the effect of delusion, and the only relief is the realization of the ultimate truth. Suffering may be characterized as follows:

Inner Sorrow:

The sorrow of body: Diseases.The sorrow of mind: Distress, irritation, annoyance, anger, and hatred.

External Sorrow:

Calamities: Flood, fire, plague, earthquake and famine. Wounds: Man, animals and weapons.

The Three Sorrows:

The sorrow of body and mind: Cold, hot, hunger, no freedom, diseases, anger, and annoyance.

The sorrow of decay: Our physical body ages.

The sorrow of vicissitude and wandering: This means the alteration or variation of all phenomenon, rich to poor, noble to mean, healthy to unhealthy. The spirit wanders in the never-ending cycle of life and death.

The Four Sorrows:

Birth, old age, illness and death.


The Eight Sorrows (or Eight Sufferings):

Birth: Hungry, thirsty, hot and cold. A baby’s first action upon entering the physical world is to cry.

Old age: Hard to see, hear, move, and work.

Illness: One is a victim of illness —it is outside of one’s control.

Death: No one is undying, nor any flower unfading. The four elements of the body (earth, water, air, fire) decompose.

Separation from beloved ones or things: Loss of fame, wealth, fortune, love, and/or companionship. Yearning for something or somebody, but failing to attain it. (or him/her) .Being in the company of enemies or those whom we hate.

There are five aggregates of suffering: The reasons why adults tend to worry, whereas infants do not:

Matters: Form and phenomena

Reception: We receive sensations through the six organsand the mind.

Perception: We begin to think.

Volitional Activities: Bodily Action, verbal Action, andmental action.

Consciousness: Is the input of all information,including good and evil deeds stored in our consciousness. This record of our deeds is carried with us from one existence to another. It is called the ‘Ideation Store’.

The Truth of Cause:

In the second truth Buddha teaches how to avoid sowing the seeds of suffering. To understand the cause of suffering, we must investigate its root, so we may eliminate suffering. The causes of suffering are the ‘Three Poisons’ or the ‘Three Blindness’.

Greed: The more one craves, the more evil seeds oneis likely to produce to attain one’s desires.

Hatred: Hatred blinds the mind to truth.

Ignorance: A person who cannot distinguish good fromevil, and is without wisdom to understand the truth, will accumulate many evil deeds.

The Three Poisons are the base elements in the creation of the delusions of thought and view. The cause of all suffering is rooted in desires. If we can extinguish desire, suffering will have no foothold.

The Truth of Extinction:

The third truth introduces us to the state of absolute quietude, which we can all experience, where all suffering is extinguished. Only cutting the cord of life and death attains this. Upon death, our spirit will reside in the World of Truth.

The Seal of Three Laws:

All things are Impermanent: All phenomena of theworld are unreal and fleeting.

Nothing Has an Ego: Our body, personality, and mindare not separate from everything else. The true self is the spiritual body (the absolute nature); the false-self is thephysical body and the temporal mind.

Nirvana is Quiescence: One enjoys eternal life byreturning to one’s original absolute nature and by sublimating oneself beyond the realms of life and death.

The Truth of Extinction does not mean life has no meaning or all is void; rather, it demonstrates reality is beyond form and phenomena.4

The Truth of Path:

The Fourth Noble Truths explains the Eight Holy Paths we must follow to sever ourselves from sensual bondage. They are methods to practice with mind, body, and action. Practicing the Eight-Fold Path is the Bodhisattva way5, the correct way, wherein all suffering will be extinguished.

The Eightfold Noble Path:

Right View:

Right view is the complete understanding of reality based upon the perfection of intuitive wisdom, which can distinguish the real from the false and comprehend the principle of all existence. Intuitive wisdom is the innate knowledge, beyond mere intellectual learning. It is the understanding of the Four Noble Truths and having a penetrative insight into reality (emptiness). It is the wisdom of the Essence of Mind. Through intuitive wisdom we can abandon the delusions of the egoistic, prejudice, wrong and evil views and free ourselves from the delusion of discrimination.

Right Thought:

We can abide in right thought by avoiding the three evils of the mind (greed, hatred, and ignorance). The mind can be liberated from greed by giving; we can cure the disease of hatred by loving and we can overcome ignorance by cultivating wisdom. Right thought is having only thoughts that are unselfish, loving, and nonviolent.

Right Speech:

Right Speech is abstention from lying, slander, harsh or abusive language, and idle chatter. We can practice right speech by avoiding harsh speech, gossip, slander and lies.

Right Action:

Right Action is conducting oneself in a moral, peaceful, and honorable way, as well as keeping the basic precepts. The precepts are the prohibitions of killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and intoxication.

Right Livelihood:

Right livelihood is the correct method of gaining life’s necessities. Living honorably by a profession, which is in no way harmful to other beings. Avoiding such livelihoods as trading in weapons, intoxicants, or poisons, butchery or prostitution.

Right Effort:

Never to do evil and always to do good. To engage constantly in right conduct without being idle or deviating from the right way. By exertion of our minds and body we may save sentient beings from suffering. There are ‘Four Right Efforts’ for the salvation of sentient beings: Ending existing evil. Preventing new evil. Causing new virtue. Increasing existing virtue.

Right Mindfulness:

To abide in right mindfulness, one must have a continuous right mind toward oneself and others. There are ‘Four Right Mindfulness:’ Mindfulness of the body as impure. Mindfulness of feeling as suffering. Mindfulness of the mind as impermanent. Mindfulness of Dharma as dependent, without self-entity or ego.

Right Meditation:

Right meditation is the striving to constantly follow the true law and to be fixed and settled in it—to believe always in the truth and not to be agitated by change of circumstances. Here, the term ‘meditation’ means a mind without barriers, without obstacles. The absence of biased thoughts towards all situations and incidents is called ‘sitting’. The real meaning of ‘sitting in meditation’ actually has little to do with sitting down or non-activity, as will be explained in Chapter Five.

There are four stages of meditation that correspond with the Dhyana Heavens. ‘Dhyana’ means to be detached from all external forms. The first stage is one in which one experiences joy and pleasure due to the relinquishment of desire and unwholesome thoughts. The second stage is one in which one feels joy and pleasure due to concentration (one- pointedness of mind), with all thoughts overcome. The third stage is one in which one dwells in the subtle realms due to the relinquishment of joy. The fourth stage is one in which one experiences equanimity and pure awareness, and all feelings of joy and bliss are absent. Equanimity is the complete absence of confusion within.

These eight methods are sometimes classified in three groups: ethical conduct (right speech, action, and livelihood); mental discipline (right effort, mindfulness and concentration); and wisdom (right view and thought).

The ‘Eightfold Noble Path’ is really one path with one ultimate destination; enlightenment. The subtle path of truth does not lie in extremes; rather, it is always in the middle, the great path of moderation.

The opposing paths from the Eightfold Noble Path are: Wrong views and thoughts, false and idle talk, heterodox conduct, livelihood or occupation, false zeal. Wrong mindfulness. Heterodox meditation.

It is obvious to serious students of other religions that the principles contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path is also contained within most other religions.

Samadhi: a Sanskrit word meaning the imperturbability of mind. This is the Buddha mind, wherein all the benefits of nirvana are enjoyed.

2 Samsara: a Sanskrit word meaning th real o birt and death. This is equivalent to the Triple World.

3 For further explanation of correct meditation, see Chapter Five.

4 For further explanation, see “On The Void and Idealessness ,page 144-147

5 Bodhisattva: A Sanskrit word meaning a sentient being seeking enlightenment in order to enlighten others; one who is devoid of egotism and devoted to helping all sentient beings.

To View My Previous Article: Desire and Suffering

To View My Next Article: The Fruits and Flowers of Cultivation


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