The Buddha and His Teachings

by

 Venerable Narada Mahathera

Book Publication No: 102S


 CHAPTER 17

THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS

 "Light arose in me in things not heard before."
-- DHAMMACAKKA SUTTA

Truth (Sacca) is that which is. Its Samskrit equivalent is Satya which means an incontrovertible fact.

According to Buddhism there are four such Truths [1] pertaining to this so-called being.

In the Rohitassa Sutta the Buddha states:

"In this very one-fathom long body along with its perceptions and thoughts, do I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world. [2]"

In this particular context the term "world" (loka) implies suffering.

This interesting passage refers to the four Noble Truths which the Buddha Himself discovered by His own intuitive knowledge. Whether the Buddhas arise or not these Truths exist, and it is a Buddha that reveals them to the deluded world. They do not and cannot change with time because they are eternal Truths. The Buddha was not indebted to anyone for His realization of them. He Himself said: "They were unheard before. [3]"

These Truths are in Pāli termed ariyasaccāni. They are so called because they were discovered by the Greatest Ariya, the Buddha, who was far removed from passion.

The first Truth deals with dukkha, which for need of a better English equivalent, is rendered by suffering or sorrow. As a feeling dukkha means that which is difficult to be endured (du -- difficult, kha -- to endure). As an abstract truth dukkha is used in the sense of "contemptible" (du) and "emptiness" (kha). The world rests on suffering hence it is contemptible. The world is devoid of any reality -- hence it is empty or void. Dukkha, therefore, means contemptible void.

Average men are only surface-seers. An Ariya sees things as they truly are. To an Ariya all life is suffering and he finds no real happiness in this world which deceives mankind with illusory pleasures. Material happiness is merely the gratification of some desire. "No sooner is the desired thing gained than it begins to be scorned." Insatiate are all desires.

All are subject to birth (jāti), and consequently to decay (jarā), disease (vyādhi), and finally to death (marana). No one is exempt from these four inevitable causes of suffering.

Impeded wish is also suffering. We do not wish to be associated with things or persons we detest, nor do we wish to be separated from things or persons we love. Our cherished desires are not, however, always gratified. What we least expect or what we least desire is often thrust on us. At times such unexpected unpleasant circumstances become so intolerable and painful that weak ignorant folk are compelled to commit suicide as if such an act would solve the problem.

Real happiness is found within, and is not to be defined in terms of wealth, power, honours or conquests. If such worldly possessions are forcibly or unjustly obtained, or are misdirected, or even viewed with attachment, they will be a source of pain and sorrow for the possessors.

Ordinarily the enjoyment of sensual pleasures is the highest and only happiness to an average person. There is no doubt a momentary happiness in the anticipation, gratification, and recollection of such fleeting material pleasures, but they are illusory and temporary. According to the Buddha non-attachment (virāgatā) or the transcending of material pleasures is a greater bliss.

In brief, this composite body itself is a cause of suffering.

This First Truth of suffering which depends on this so-called being and various aspects of life, is to be carefully analysed and examined. This examination leads to a proper understanding of oneself as one really is.

The cause of this suffering is craving or attachment (tanhā) which is the Second Noble Truth.

The Dhammapada states:

"From craving springs grief, from craving springs fear, For him who is wholly free from craving, there is no grief, much less fear." (V. 216)

This craving is a powerful mental force latent in all, and is the chief cause of most of the ills of life. It is this craving, gross or subtle, that leads to repeated births in Samsāra and makes one cling to all forms of life.

The grossest forms of craving are attenuated on attaining Sakadāgāmi, the second stage of Sainthood, and are eradicated on attaining Anāgāmi, the third stage of Sainthood. The subtle forms of craving are eradicated on attaining Arahantship.

Both suffering and craving can only be eradicated by following the Middle Way, enunciated by the Buddha Himself, and attaining the supreme Bliss of Nibbāna.

The Third Noble Truth is the complete cessation of suffering which is Nibbāna, the ultimate Goal of Buddhists. It is achieved by the total eradication of all forms of craving.

This Nibbāna is to be comprehended by the mental eye by renouncing all internal attachment to the external world. [4]

This Truth has to be realized by developing the Noble Eightfold Path which is the Fourth Noble Truth. This unique path is the only straight route that leads to Nibbāna. It avoids the extreme of self-mortification that weakens one's intellect and the extreme of self-indulgence that retards one's moral progress.

It consists of the following eight factors.:

1) Right Understanding (Sammā Ditthi),
2) Right Thoughts (Sammā Samkappa),
3) Right Speech (Sammā Vācā),
4) Right Action (Sammā Kammanta),
5) Right Livelihood (Sammā Ājīva),
6) Right Effort (Sammā Vāyāma),
7) Right Mindfulness (Sammā Sati), and
8) Right Concentration (Sammā Samādhi),

1. Right Understanding is explained as the knowledge of the four Noble Truths. In other words, it is the understanding of oneself as one really is, because, as the Rohitassa Sutta states, these truths are concerned with the "one-fathom long body of man."

The key-note of Buddhism is this right understanding.

2. Clear vision or right understanding leads to clear thinking. The second factor of the noble Eightfold Path is, therefore, Sammā Samkappa. The English renderings -- "Right Resolutions", "Right Aspirations" -- do not convey the actual meaning of the Pāli term. Right Ideas or Right Mindfulness comes closer to the meaning. "Right Thoughts" may be suggested as the nearest English equivalent.

By Samkappa is meant the "Vitakka" mental state, which, for want of a better rendering, may be called "initial application." This important mental state eliminates wrong ideas or notions and helps the other moral adjuncts to be diverted to Nibbāna.

It is one's thoughts that either defile or purify a person. One's thoughts mould one's nature and controls one's destiny. Evil thoughts tend to debase one just as good thoughts tend to elevate one. Sometimes a single thought can either destroy or save a world.

Sammā Samkappa serves the double purpose of eliminating evil thoughts and developing pure thoughts.

Right Thoughts, in this particular connection, are threefold. They consist of:

i. Nekkhamma -- Renunciation of worldly pleasures or selflessness which is opposed to attachment, selfishness, and self-possessiveness.

ii. Avyāpāda -- Loving-kindness, goodwill, or benevo-lence, which is opposed to hatred, ill-will, or aversion, and

iii. Avihimsā -- Harmlessness or compassion, which is opposed to cruelty and callousness.

These evil and good forces are latent in all. As long as we are worldlings these evil forces rise to the surface at unexpected moments in disconcerting strength. When once they are totally eradicated on attaining Arahantship, one's stream of consciousness gets perfectly purified.

Attachment and hatred, coupled with ignorance, are the chief causes of all evil prevalent in this deluded world. "The enemy of the whole world is lust, through which all evils come to living beings. This lust when obstructed by some cause is transformed into wrath."

One is either attached to desirable external objects or is repulsed with aversion in the case of undesirable objects. Through attachment one clings to material pleasures and tries to gratify one's desire by some means or other. Through aversion one recoils from undesirable objects and even goes to the extent of destroying them as their very presence is a source of irritation. With the giving up of egoism by one's own intuitive insight, both attachment and hatred automatically disappear.

The Dhammapada states:

"There is no fire like lust, no grip like hate,
There is no net like delusion, no river like craving." (v.
251)

i. As one ascends the spiritual ladder one renounces by degrees both gross and subtle attachment to material pleasures like grown-up children giving up their petty toys. Being children, they cannot be expected to possess an adult's understanding, and they cannot be convinced of the worthlessness of their temporary pleasures. With maturity they begin to understand things as they truly are and they voluntarily give up their toys. As the spiritual pilgrim proceeds on the upward path by his constant meditation and reflection, he perceives the futility of pursuing base material pleasures and the resultant happiness in forsaking them. He cultivates non-attachment to the fullest degree. "Happy is non-attachment in this world, so is the transcending of all sensual pleasures," is one of the early utterances of the Buddha.

ii. The other most rebellious passion is anger, aversion, illwill, or hatred, all of which are implied by the Pāli term vyāpāda. It consumes the person in whom it springs and consumes others as well. The Pāli term avyāpāda, literally, non-enmity, corresponds to that most beautiful virtue Mettā (Samskrit Maitri) which means loving-kindness or goodwill towards all without any distinction. He whose mind is full of loving-kindness can harbour no hatred towards any. Like a mother who makes no difference between herself and her only child and protects it even at the risk of her own life, even so does the spiritual pilgrim who follows this middle path radiate his thoughts of loving-kindness identifying himself with all. Buddhist Mettā embraces all living beings, animals not excluded.

iii. Avihimsā or Karunā -- Harmlessness or compassion is the third and the last member of samkappa.

Karunā is that sweet virtue which makes the tender hearts of the noble quiver at the sufferings of others. Like Buddhist Mettā, Buddhist Karunā too is limitless. It is not restricted only to co-religionists or co-nationals or to human beings alone. Limited compassion is not true karunā.

A compassionate one is as soft as a flower. He cannot bear the sufferings of others. He might at times even go to the extent of sacrificing his own life to alleviate the sufferings of others. In every Jātaka story it is evident that the Bodhisatta endeavoured his best to help the distressed and the forlorn and to promote their happiness in every possible way.

Karunā has the characteristics of a loving mother whose thoughts, words, and deeds always tend to relieve the distress of her sick child. It has the property of not being able to tolerate the sufferings of others. Its manifestation is perfect non-violence and harmlessness -- that is, a compassionate person appears to be absolutely non-violent and harmless. The sight of the helpless states of the distressed is the proximate cause for the practice of Karunā. The consummation of karunā is the eradication of all forms of cruelty. The direct enemy of karunā is cruelty and the indirect enemy is homely grief.

Buddhist mettā appeals to both the rich and the poor, for Buddhism teaches its followers to elevate the lowly, help the poor, the needy, and the forlorn, tend the sick, comfort the bereaved, pity the wicked, and enlighten the ignorant.

Compassion forms a fundamental principle of both Buddhist laymen and Bhikkhus.

Speaking of Buddhist harmlessness, Aldous Huxley writes:

"Indian pacifism finds its complete expression in the teaching of the Buddha. Buddhism teaches ahimsā or harmlessness towards all beings. It forbids even laymen to have anything to do with the manufacture and sale of arms, with the making of poison and intoxicants, with soldiering or the slaughtering of animals."

The Buddha advises His disciples thus:

"Wherefore, O Bhikkhus, however men may speak concerning you, whether in season or out of season, whether appropriately or inappropriately, whether courteously or rudely, whether wisely or foolishly, whether kindly or maliciously, thus, O Bhikkhus, must you train yourselves -- Unsullied shall our minds remain, neither shall evil words escape our lips. Kind and compassionate ever shall we abide with hearts harbouring no ill-will. And we shall enfold those very persons with streams of loving thoughts unfailing, and forth from them proceeding we shall radiate the whole wide world with constant thoughts of loving-kindness, ample, expanding, measureless, free from enmity, free from ill-will. Thus must you train yourselves."

He whose mind is free from selfish desires, hatred and cruelty, and is saturated with the spirit of selflessness, loving-kindness and harmlessness, lives in perfect peace. He is indeed a blessing to himself and others.

3. Right Thoughts lead to Right Speech, the third factor. It deals with refraining from falsehood, slandering, harsh words, and frivolous talk.

He who tries to eradicate selfish desires cannot indulge in uttering falsehood or in slandering for any selfish end or purpose. He is truthful and trustworthy and ever seeks the good and beautiful in others instead of deceiving, defaming, denouncing or disuniting his own fellow beings. A harmless mind that generates loving-kindness cannot give vent to harsh speech which first debases the speaker and then hurts another. What he utters is not only true, sweet and pleasant but also useful, fruitful and beneficial.

4. Right Speech follows Right Action which deals with abstinence from killing, stealing and sexual misconduct.

These three evil deeds are caused by craving and anger, coupled with ignorance. With the gradual elimination of these causes from the mind of the spiritual pilgrim, blameworthy tendencies arising therefrom will find no expression. Under no pretence would he kill or steal. Being pure in mind, he would lead a pure life.

5. Purifying thoughts, words and deeds at the outset, the spiritual pilgrim tries to purify his livelihood (Right Livelihood) by refraining from the five kinds of trade which are forbidden to a lay-disciple. They are trading in arms (satthavanijjā), human beings (sattavanijjā), flesh (mamsavanijjā), i.e. breeding animals for slaughter, intoxicating drinks (majjavanijjā), and poison (visavanijjā)

Hypocritical conduct is cited as wrong livelihood for monks.

Strictly speaking, from an Abhidhamma standpoint, by right speech, right action and right livelihood are meant three abstinences (virati) but not the three opposite virtues.

6. Right Effort is fourfold-namely:

i. The endeavour to discard evil that has already arisen,
ii. The endeavour to prevent the arising of unarisen  evil,
iii. The endeavour to develop unarisen good, and
iv. The endeavour to promote the good which has already arisen.

Right Effort plays a very important part in the Noble Eightfold Path. It is by one's own effort that one's deliverance is obtained and not by merely seeking refuge in others or by offering prayers.

In man are found a rubbish-heap of evil and a store-house of virtue. By effort one removes this rubbish-heap and cultivates these latent virtues.

7. Right Effort is closely associated with Right Mindfulness. It is the constant mindfulness with regard to body (kāyānupassanā), feelings (vedanānupassanā), thoughts (cittānupassanā), and mind objects (dhammānupassanā).

Mindfulness on these four objects tend to eradicate the misconceptions with regard to desirability (subha), so-called happiness (sukha), permanence (nicca), and an immortal soul (attā) respectively.

8. Right Effort and Right Mindfulness lead to Right Concentration. It is the one-pointedness of the mind.

A concentrated mind acts as a powerful aid to see things as they truly are by means of penetrative insight.

Of these eight factors of the Noble Eightfold Path the first two are grouped in wisdom (pa?ā), the second three in morality (sīla) and the last three in concentration (samādhi).

Sīla Right Speech
Right Action
Right Livelihood
Samādhi Right Effort
Right Mindfulness
Right Concentration
Pa?ā Right Understanding
Right Thoughts

According to the order of development sīla, samādhi, and pa?ā are the three stages of the Path.

Strictly speaking, from an ultimate standpoint, these factors that comprise the Noble Eightfold Path signify eight mental properties (cetasika) collectively found in the four classes of supramundane consciousness (lokutttara citta) whose object is Nibbāna.

They are: -- pa?indriya (faculty of wisdom), vitakka (initial application), virati (three abstinences,) viriya (energy), sati (mindfulness) and ekaggata (one-pointedness) respectively.

All these factors denote the mental attitude of the aspirant who is striving to gain his Deliverance.


[1]  See Chapter 6

[2] Samyutta Nikāya, i. p. 62.  See Kindred Sayings, part I.p. 86.

[3] Hence there is no justification for the statement that Buddhism is a natural outgrowth of Hinduism, although it has to be admitted that there exist some fundmental doctrines common to both and that is because those doctrines are in accordance with eternal truth or Dhamma.

[4] See chapters 33, 34

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