Living Meditation, Living Insight by Dr Thynn Thynn
Four Noble Truths in Daily Life
Thynn: The Four Noble Truths are the cornerstone of Buddhism. Understanding them helps us in daily life. The First Noble Truth is dukkha, or suffering.
The Second Noble Truth is samudaya, or craving. The Third Noble Truth is nirodha, or cessation of suffering. The Fourth Noble Truth is magga, the Eightfold Noble Path, leading to cessation of suffering.
M: When I hear the First Noble Truth, that life is suffering, I think Buddhism is a pessimistic, negative philosophy.
Yes, some people misunderstand it that way. But this is because the teaching has not been fully understood. When dukkha is translated as suffering, it is understood as gross physical suffering. But in truth, dukkha can be experienced on many levels; the actual meaning of dukkha encompasses the whole range of human experience from very subtle dissatisfaction to gross misery. Dukkha is the inescapable fact of old age, illness and death. It is being
separated from what one likes, enduring what one dislikes.
At the most profound level dukkha is the failure to understand the insubstantiality of all things. Everything is insubstantial; nothing is concrete, nothing is tangible. To be ignorant of or go against the natural state of impermanence is itself suffering.
Buddhism seems negative only if one looks at the First Noble Truth in isolation. But if you look at the Four Noble Truths collectively, you will find that they are positive, because the three other noble truths show the way out of suffering.
M: But how do we incorporate the Four Noble Truths into daily life?
Thynn: That is not difficult. To begin with, you have to see dukkha in its entirety before you can see your way out of it. You don’t have to be in physical or mental agony to understand dukkha. It is everywhere around you. Right now, how do you feel about the pounding noise next door?
[Noisy construction work was going on at a neighbour’s house.]
M: I feel irritated because I want to have a peaceful experience and listen to you and learn what you are talking about. In fact, I’m trying to eliminate the noise from my consciousness, but I can’t.
Because that is not the way to solve the problem.
M: The noise annoys me and I want to stop it. I have a craving for the workers to stop.
Well then, you have already set up a desire that the noise should stop. How did the desire arise? It arose from your dissatisfaction with the current situation. In other words, you desire a peaceful circumstance right now. Since you can’t have it, you are annoyed. There is already aversion in your mind.
Suppose you were in the midst of doing something that was very important to you. Then this aversion might flare up into overt anger, hatred or even violence. Aversion is already a stressful state. Anger, hatred and violence bring on even greater stress and suffering, both to oneself and to others. These are the truths that we have to face in every moment of our daily lives. But we are not aware of this aversion and suffering. We blame our dukkha on someone or something else.
This lack of awareness is called avijja, or ignorance – that is, ignorance about the Four Noble Truths. This ignorance is described as an unawakened state. If you wake up to your own state of mind, right now, you will see what is happening there.
Can you look into your own mind this very moment and see what is happening there?
M: See what?
What happens to the annoyance.
M: When I become aware of the annoyance, it sort of lessens.
As soon as you become aware of the annoyance, the aversion fades away. I resolves in the mind.
M: Yeah, a little bit.
Is it still there?
M: You mean the annoyance? It’s much less. It is still there but it is much less now. [laughter] I see. So it’s not a question of putting the irritation out of your mind. It is a question of accepting the fact that your mind is irritated and annoyed.
You are right. The issue is not the noise. It is your reaction to the noise. You have to deal with yourself first before you deal with the noise. Now, what are you going to do about it?
M: That’s my next question.
We have a number of choices. We can move away from the noise. We can ask the workers to stop hammering. We can continue to sit here and try to maintain our awareness of the noise in order to minimise the irritation.
You have to be clear. Is it the awareness of the noise or the awareness of
your own state of mind?
M: Awareness of my own state of mind regarding it.
Right. There are many situations in life when you will not be able to eliminate external factors. We cannot eliminate or control most of the external factors in our lives, but we can do something about ourselves. You begin with yourself. Since you are born with a free will, it is absolutely up to you what you want to do with yourself.
M: Are you saying that since I cannot make the noise go away, I can just choose to accept it?
You must understand the difference between accepting things blindly and accepting them intelligently. Acceptance can be complete only when you harbour no judgments.
Now let’s go back to the Four Noble Truths. Your dissatisfaction with the noisy circumstances is the First Noble Truth of Suffering – dukkha. Your desire or craving for peace is the Second Noble Truth – samudaya – which is the cause of dukkha. Now as soon as you look within yourself and resolve the annoyance, you are free from the cycle of desire-aversion-desire. Aren’t you ? Now look into yourself again.
M: The annoyance is already gone! It is amazing that you had to bring the noise back again into my awareness.
Let’s look at what we’ve been going through. You have seen that it is possible to break the cycle of suffering by merely looking into your own state of mind. This in actual fact is mindfulness of the mind, which is the basis of satipatthana meditation in Buddhism.
Do you see now how practicing mindfulness can lead to the end of suffering?
M: No, not yet. How does mindfulness relate to the acceptance of the noise?
The acceptance is the result of mindfulness. The act of mindfulness is a transcending act. It transcends likes and dislikes, and purifies our vision. We see things as they are. When we see or hear things as they really are, acceptance comes naturally.
M: You are aware of the noise. You get rid of the clinging to silence and you accept the noise. You accept that the noise will be part of the experience.
There is not even “you” there. There is just acceptance.
The acceptance comes from the freedom of the mind in the moment. As soon as the cycle is broken, you no longer feel annoyed. When your mind frees itself emotionally from the noise, it assumes a state of equanimity and acceptance.
M: You’re not expecting it to stop and you’re not expecting it to get louder.
That’s right. You are free of any conceptualising regarding the noise. You arrive at a point where you can just hear it as it is. With that hearing of the noise as it is, acceptance is already part of the situation. You can’t force yourself to accept it. That’s why I am very careful using these words. When you say, “I accept,” that usually means…
M: I am in control.
Yes, that’s right and that doesn’t really solve the problem. The kind of acceptance we are talking about is a natural spontaneous absorbing of the environment, being one with it.
M: Oh, I see. There ceases to be a division between the noise and my experience of the noise. So there is nothing to accept or be annoyed about.
Right. Now let us go back to your experience right this minute. Are you still
irritated by the noise?
M: Not any more. I’m completely free of it. You mentioned mindfulness being the foundation of meditation. How does that work?
Yes. Mindfulness of one’s own mind at any moment is part of the practice of satipatthana. In this particular instance, your own mindfulness of annoyance is contemplation of the First Noble Truth – dukkha. Your mindfulness of the desire for peace and of clinging to silence, which is the cause of dukkha, is contemplation of the Second Noble Truth – samudaya. The moment that you become free of the annoyance is nirodha – the Third Noble Truth. In this case, the cessation of suffering is momentary, so it can be called tadanga nirodha.
M: And the Fourth Noble Truth?
When you practice mindfulness you are in fact practicing magga, the Noble Eightfold Path. You are making the right effort, called samma vayama, to be mindful, called samma sati, of your annoyance. As a result, your mind becomes collected, which is called samma samadhi. When you transcend your dislike of the noise and your irritation ceases, at that moment you are able to regard the sound as it is. This is called samma ditthi or right view. It is samma sankappa, right thinking, when you are not expecting it to get louder. You are able to verbalise the situation with proper insight, called samma vaca. Now do you still feel like running away from the noise?
M: Not any more. At first I did. I might have said or done something nasty if I had had the chance.
But you didn’t and that is samma kammanta, right action.
M: You mean no action in this context is right action?
Yes. So you can see how by practicing mindfulness with equanimity in daily life, one is already applying the Four Noble Truths and integrating the Noble Eightfold Path as living meditation.