That both I and you have had to travel and trudge through this long round is owing to our not discovering, not penetrating four truths. What four?
They are: The Noble Truth of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering.
[Digha Nikaya, Sutta 16]
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, has been the main reference that I have used for my practice over the years. It is the teaching we used in our monastery in Thailand. The Theravada school of Buddhism regards this sutta as the quintessence of the teaching of the Buddha. This one sutta contains all that is necessary for understanding Dhamma and for enlightenment.
Though the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is considered to be the first sermon the Buddha gave after his enlightenment, I sometimes like to think that he gave his first sermon when he met an ascetic on the way to Varanasi. After his enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, the Buddha thought: “This is such a subtle teaching. I cannot possibly convey in words what I have discovered so I will not teach. I will just sit under the Bodhi tree for the rest of my life.”
For me this is a very tempting idea, just to go off and live alone and not have to deal with the problems of society. However, while the Buddha was thinking this way, Brahma Sahampati, the creator deity in Hinduism, came to the Buddha and convinced him that he should go and teach. Brahma Sahampati persuaded the Buddha that there were beings who would understand, beings who had only a little dust in their eyes. So the Buddha’s teaching was aimed toward those with only a little dust in their eyes – I’m sure he did not think it would become a mass, popular movement.
After Brahma Sahampati’s visit, the Buddha was on his way from Bodh Gaya to Varanasi when he met an ascetic who was impressed by his radiant appearance. The ascetic said, “What is it that you have discovered?” and the Buddha responded: “I am the perfectly enlightened one, the Arahant, the Buddha.”
I like to consider this his first sermon. It was a failure because the man listening thought the Buddha had been practising too hard and was overestimating himself. If somebody said those words to us, I’m sure we would react similarly. What would you do if I said, “I am the perfectly enlightened one”?
Actually, the Buddha’s statement was a very accurate, precise teaching. It is the perfect teaching, but people cannot understand it. They tend to misunderstand and to think it comes from an ego because people are always interpreting everything from their egos. “I am the perfectly enlightened one” may sound like an egotistical statement, but isn’t it really purely transcendent? That statement: “I am the Buddha, the perfectly enlightened one” is interesting to contemplate because it connects the use of “I am” with superlative attainments or realisations. In any case, the result of the Buddha’s first teaching was that the listener could not understand it and walked away.
Later, the Buddha met his five former companions in the Deer Park in Varanasi. All five were very sincerely dedicated to strict asceticism. They had been disillusioned with the Buddha earlier because they thought he had become insincere in his practice. This was because the Buddha, before he was enlightened, had begun to realise that strict asceticism was in no way conducive towards an enlightened state so he was no longer practising in that way. These five friends thought he was taking it easy: maybe they saw him eating milk rice, which would perhaps be comparable to eating ice cream these days. If you are an ascetic and you see a monk eating ice cream, you might lose your faith in him because you think that monks should be eating nettle soup. If you really loved asceticism and you saw me eating a dish of ice cream, you would have no faith in Ajahn Sumedho anymore. That is the way the human mind works; we tend to admire impressive feats of self-torture and denial. When they lost faith in him, these five friends or disciples left the Buddha – which gave him the chance to sit under the Bodhi tree and be enlightened.
Then, when they met the Buddha again in the Deer Park in Varanasi, the five thought at first, ‘We know what he’s like. Let’s just not bother about him.’ But as he came near, they all felt that there was something special about him. They stood up to make a place for him to sit down and he delivered his sermon on the Four Noble Truths.
This time, instead of saying ‘I am the enlightened one’, he said: ‘There is suffering. There is the origin of suffering. There is the cessation of suffering. There is the path out of suffering.’ Presented in this way, his teaching requires no acceptance or denial. If he had said ‘I am the all-enlightened one’, we would be forced to either agree or disagree – or just be bewildered. We wouldn’t quite know how to look at that statement. However, by saying: ‘There is suffering, there is a cause, there is an end to suffering, and there is a way out of suffering’, he offered something for reflection: ‘What do you mean by this? What do you mean by suffering, its origin, cessation and the path?’
So we start contemplating it, thinking about it. With the statement: ‘I am the all-enlightened one’, we might just argue about it. ‘Is he really enlightened?’….’I don’t think so.’ We would just argue; we are not ready for a teaching that is so direct. Obviously, the Buddha’s first sermon was to somebody who still had a lot of dust in his eyes and it failed. So on the second occasion, he gave the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.
Now the Four Noble Truths are: there is suffering; there is a cause or origin of suffering; there is a end of suffering; and there is path out of suffering which is the Eightfold Path. Each of these Truths has three aspects so all together there are twelve insights. In the Theravada school, an arahant, a perfected one, is one who has seen clearly the Four Noble Truths with their three aspects and twelve insights. ‘Arahant’ means a human being who understands the truth; it is applied mainly to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.
For the First Noble Truth, ‘There is suffering’ is the first insight. What is that insight? We don’t need to make it into anything grand; it is just the recognition: ‘There is suffering’. That is a basic insight. The ignorant person says, ‘I’m suffering. I don’t want to suffer. I meditate and I go on retreats to get out of suffering, but I’m still suffering and I don’t want to suffer…. How can I get out of suffering? What can I do to get rid of it?’ But that is not the First Noble Truth; it is not: ‘I am suffering and I want to end it.’ The insight is, ‘There is suffering’.
Now you are looking at the pain or the anguish you feel – not from the perspective of ‘It’s mine’ but as a reflection:
‘There is this suffering, this dukkha’. It is coming from the reflective position of ‘Buddha seeing the Dhamma.’ The insight is simply the acknowledgment that there is this suffering without making it personal. That acknowledgment is an important insight; just looking at mental anguish or physical pain and seeing it as dukkha rather than as personal misery – just seeing it as dukkha and not reacting to it in a habitual way.
The second insight of the First Noble Truth is:
‘Suffering should be understood.’ The second insight or aspect of each of the Noble Truths has the word ‘should’ in it: ‘It should be understood.’ The second insight then, is that dukkha is something to understand. One should understand dukkha, not just try to get rid of it.
We can look at the word ‘understanding’ as ‘standing under’. It is a common enough word but, in Pali, ‘understanding’ means to really accept the suffering, stand under or embrace it rather than just react to it. With any form of suffering – physical or mental – we usually just react, but with understanding we can really look at suffering; really accept it, really hold it and embrace it. So that is the second aspect, ‘We should understand suffering’.
The third aspect of the First Noble Truth is: ‘Suffering has been understood.’ When you have actually practised with suffering – looking at it, accepting it, knowing it and letting it be the way it is – then there is the third aspect, ‘Suffering has been understood’, or ‘Dukkha has been understood.’ So these are the three aspects of the First Noble Truth: ‘There is dukkha’; ‘It is to be understood’; and, ‘It has been understood.’
This is the pattern for the three aspects of each Noble Truth. There is the statement, then the prescription and then the result of having practised. One can also see it in terms of the Pali words pariyatti, patipatti and pativedha. Pariyatti is the theory or the statement, ‘There is suffering.’ Patipatti is the practice – actually practising with it; and pativedha is the result of the practice. This is what we call a reflective pattern; you are actually developing your mind in a very reflective way. A Buddha mind is a reflective mind that knows things as they are.
We use these Four Noble Truths for our development. We apply them to ordinary things in our lives, to ordinary attachments and obsessions of the mind. With these truths, we can investigate our attachments in order to have the insights. Through the Third Noble Truth, we can realise cessation, the end of suffering, and practise the Eightfold Path until there is understanding. When the Eightfold Path has been fully developed, one is an arahant, one has made it. Even though this sounds complicated – four truths, three aspects, twelve insights – it is quite simple. It is a tool for us to use to help us understand suffering and non-suffering.
Within the Buddhist world, there are not many Buddhists who use the Four Noble Truths anymore, even in Thailand. People say, ‘Oh yes, the Four Noble Truths – beginner’s stuff.’ Then they might use all kinds of vipassana techniques and become really obsessed with the sixteen stages before they get to the Noble Truths. I find it quite boggling that in the Buddhist world the really profound teaching has been dismissed as primitive Buddhism: ‘That’s for the little kids, the beginners. The advanced course is….’ They go into complicated theories and ideas – forgetting the most profound teaching.
The Four Noble Truths are a lifetime’s reflection. It is not just a matter of realising the Four Noble Truths, the three aspects, and twelve stages and becoming an arahant on one retreat – and then going onto something advanced. The Four Noble Truths are not easy like that. They require an ongoing attitude of vigilance and they provide the context for a lifetime of examination