The Four Truths of the Noble Ones
Dernière mise à jour : 26 août 2021
Note: The following is a translated (and slightly edited) transcription of a talk offered on May 5, 2021, in the context of a series of weekly meetings on the foundations of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and practice. The meetings usually start with a brief session of calm abiding meditation (shamatha), and often end with a thematic contemplation (such as on the “four thoughts that turn the mind towards the Dharma” or the “four immeasurables”). For an introduction to meditation practice, you could refer to Dza Kilung Rinpoche’s The Relaxed Mind or Matthieu Ricard’s The Art of Meditation.
Welcome. I am glad you are here.
Today, we will take a look at the Four Noble Truths. They articulate the first teaching of the Buddha, and lay the foundations of Buddhist philosophy and practice. It is thus fundamental, were we to understand Dharma. These four truths are amazingly vast and profound; so today, we are not attempting to understand all their nuances and implications, but simply to get some kind of framework.
The four truths can be a tricky matter—the first truth, in particular, is not easy to hear and contemplate. We are in denial; it tickles us; in any case, we rarely remain completely indifferent. But remember: the Buddha is never cruel. That is, he encourages us to open up, and shows us how to awaken by cultivating wisdom and compassion. In fact, the Buddha and the masters that followed him regularly evoked notions such as “fundamental goodness” and “Buddha Nature.” They taught that all beings, without exception, have this nature. This includes insects. All living beings, from the moment that they have a consciousness and are thus able to experience happiness and suffering—or some kind of ease and pain—have this Buddha Nature. This means that within themselves lies the possibility to wake up, to pull themselves out of what is traditionally referred to as samsaric existence. All beings can uproot delusion. It is a possibility.
Of course, this is hardly a prospect for animals, as they cannot understand any teachings we would transmit to them. Nonetheless, what we have here is optimistic: it is a view according to which we are all equal in our potential to reach enlightenment. Absolutely everyone. So, whenever we feel we are not up to the task—in our day-to-day life, or when we start to study teachings that seem complicated—, it is healthy to come back to this idea and pick ourselves up. We can do this.
In any case, after his awakening, the Buddha saw some of his former comrades, five friends with whom he had practiced in the past, and he taught them his first teaching, typically called “the Four Noble Truths.” As the translator and teacher Philippe Cornu remarks, a more fitting translation would possibly be “the four truths of the noble ones.” It is not so much that the truths by themselves are noble—take the truth of suffering, for example—, but rather that these truths, when understood and put into practice, lead to a state of nobility, which is that of spiritual awakening.
The Truth of Suffering
The first truth is that of suffering. It is the diagnosis of our dis-ease. A troubling observation, certainly. But we have to admit that there is a lot of pain in our life; that if, for the time being, we enjoy pleasant circumstances, there is no guarantee whatsoever that they will last; and that there is a tremendous lot of suffering around us.
The Buddha, contrary to what we sometimes think, did not say, “all is suffering”; it seems he did not exactly use these words. However, he explained that any unenlightened existence, any existence that still has egocentric reflexes and delusions about the workings of the world and the nature of the mind, is inevitably fraught with sorrow and bound to be unsatisfying.
The first truth encourages us to kindly, patiently and openly contemplate the suffering in our life. Sometimes, we think we are the only ones who have problems… This is clearly not the case!
This fundamental dis-ease manifests in myriad ways. According to a classic enumeration:
Birth is suffering. (It provides a basis for other types of suffering, and it is painful both for the baby and for the mother.)
Aging is suffering. (Think of the decline of our faculties, for example; of seeing our friends age and die; of forgetting things; of the body changing; of the realization that we have less and less time left.)
Sickness is suffering.
Death is suffering.
Meeting with what one dislikes is suffering. (Don’t you agree that this happens often, to varying degrees?)
Parting from what one loves is suffering. (This is the counterpart of the previous point, so to speak.)
Not getting what one wants is suffering.
Finally, there is a more technical term that we don’t have the time to explain in depth today, but which is still worth mentioning: it is the suffering that comes from the turbulence of the aggregates, or the difficulties inherent to our current understanding of the aggregates. “Aggregates” is a term that encompasses all our psycho-physical components—the building blocks of our experiences. At this moment, our idea of who we are is very fixed, but our person is made up of compounds that interact, and there is inevitably some kind of friction, or some manifestations that feel unpleasant, and our reaction to this situation creates more confusion in us.
Here, I should point out that it is perfectly normal to struggle a bit with the terminology, at least at first. Whatever sounds fuzzy or mysterious, you can let it percolate on the back burner, and it will start to make sense over the weeks and months. Just be curious and open.
In any case, another way to look at the first truth, is to contemplate three types of suffering.
The first type can be translated as “suffering of suffering.” The term is somewhat surprising, but it encompasses tangible, blatant sufferings. This includes those related to aging, sickness, death, birth, and meeting things we fear or dislike. These sufferings also tend to pile up.
The second of these three big categories of suffering is the “suffering of change”: it includes, for example, parting from what we like. It is linked to the fact that everything is transitory. You’ll often hear the word “impermanence”: things don’t last. Some things resemble each other; there are related or similar phenomena; some things seem to last; but the truth is, they are constantly changing, which we can find out if we carefully look at any object around us. This table, on the atomic level, implies a lot of movement; it is also subjected to an extremely subtle form of decomposition… So, generally speaking, phenomena that surround us change, and so do we. And when these phenomena change, we suffer—or at least, we suffer because of our lack of flexibility and wisdom. We have a short memory: that phenomena are impermanent seems to be the most obvious fact in the world, and yet we are always a little surprised when we notice a scratch on our car, when we lose our job, when we learn that we are sick, when one of our friends dies, when the political orientation of a country changes after an election… We are all a little shocked, whereas these changes are perfectly normal. This does not mean that it is always positive or desirable—here we are simply stating that change is in the very nature of compounded phenomena.
The third type of suffering could be called “suffering-in-the-making” and connotes a form of existential suffering. It is the unsatisfactory nature of an existence that depends on all sorts of conditions that are themselves changing. It is the feeling of imperfection or incompleteness that we sometimes feel within ourselves. It is also the feeling of frustration that arises from most of our ordinary activities: we are constantly like a little hamster in its wheel, looking for solutions to our problems, with the feeling that it never quite works, or that there is always a piece of the puzzle missing… If it’s happened to you, you’re not a freak; there’s nothing unusual about it. But we feel like we’re different, some sort of alien, and we cling to the hope that we’ll eventually find the answer. We could say that this inherent dissatisfaction is a form of existential suffering.
On the path of meditation, we eventually discover great freedom, great joy; but initially, when we look within, we realize that our mind is constantly struggling, grasping at this and that; it suffers from a kind of malaise and wants to reify or crystallize its world; it craves for reference points… There is a lot of agitation within us, and one could say that this subtle restlessness, which often goes under the radar, is somehow related to this third type of suffering.
Contemplating these types of suffering show us that even when things seem to go our way, the most likely scenario is that it is impermanent and illusory. As we will see, this doesn’t mean that we are forbidden to experience joy, or that we cannot appreciate life. But the way to truly enjoy a meaningful life might be very different from our usual tactics. Alternating between hope and fear, between elation and depression, really does not provide any true respite; and the answer does not lie in indifference or apathy either.
In any case, to remind us of the traps of samsara, the contemporary master Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche frequently uses the classic image of a bee caught in a glass jar: sometimes the bee is at the bottom of the jar, sometimes it flies to the top—but it is still trapped in the jar.
The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
Okay. If there were only the first truth, studying the Dharma wouldn’t be very heartening, would it? But let’s persevere. The second truth explains the origin of suffering. There’s already some sense of progress in our understanding.
The causes of suffering have been defined by the Buddha, but it is not only his vision; you will make your own investigations over the months and years and come to see for yourself the accuracy and universality of his teachings. At first, it is not always easy to understand the implications of these truths; this is why it is important to see how they relate to our own experience.
In any case, a word that often comes up in traditional texts that speak of the origin of suffering is the word “thirst,” or “craving.” There are different kinds of cravings: craving for sensory pleasures, craving for existence or even non-existence… But I would like to clarify at the outset some of the misconceptions that often surface when one starts to learn about Buddhism.
First: we sometimes hear that Buddhism is about eradicating all kinds of desires; some think that this is what Buddhism is all about. But this may lack nuances. A telling example: there are wishes, or aspirations in Buddhism, and we could consider them a sort of desire—not of the purely egocentric kind, but still. The wish to become enlightened for the benefit of all beings, or the wish to bring all to awakening, is a vow that bodhisattvas take: we could argue that this aspiration is a kind of “desire,” and yet, it is very noble; it is beautiful and positive, and it certainly brings us closer to Buddhahood. So the idea is not to oversimplify and say that Buddhism is only about the eradication of all desires, and leave it at that. Or at least we should explain that our usual understanding of desire is inevitably self-referential, which really is the problem. One couldn’t help but wonder, what would “desire” be like if it was devoid of any ego or self-cherishing? Interesting, isn’t it?
A corollary misunderstanding has to do with pleasure. You are allowed to experience pleasure. You can eat, you can take care of your body—no problem there. The teaching does not say that one should mortify oneself or renounce all forms of well-being; in fact, it is a path that contains much joy. But there is an important nuance: the idea is not to become dehydrated; it is to stop drinking salt water, thinking that it would bring lasting satisfaction.
So when we speak of “thirst” in the context of the origin of suffering, we are speaking of a craving that sprouts from a kind of fundamental ignorance. Not “fundamental” in the sense of “inherent”: this ignorance can indeed be dispelled. This is the very principle of awakening: if this confusion were an integral, intrinsic part of our nature, we would be doomed, there would be no way to awaken. Still, this ignorance is always present in the unenlightened existence.
We assume that we have a permanent, unitary, autonomous, independent self, like a small, well-defined box; this imaginary ego would not be made of parts that constantly move, but would constitute a whole, a perfectly stable entity. Obviously, this is an illusion. Even daily experience consistently contradicts it: we know very well that we are not some kind of indissoluble boulder, we know that we learn things in the course of a life, and that we change constantly. Sometimes we’re grumpy in the morning and in a good mood at night; sometimes it’s the other way around. A few seconds of reflection suffice to recognize that our being is not an immutable block. But we still keep this subtle delusion, and it’s deeply ingrained. And we have the same kind of confusion with regard to external phenomena. That is to say, we crystallize them very quickly, we catalog things by putting them immediately into neat boxes, and it seems to us that phenomena are independent, self-sufficient, as if there were no interaction whatsoever. When we see a person committing a reprehensible act, it is as if this person were autonomous—entirely self-sufficient—, whereas in truth, the situation came about through the dynamic gathering of many causes and conditions, and there is a whole story behind it; but we do not necessarily want to see it, or we easily forget it. Of course, that is not to say that people are never responsible for their actions.
I am simplifying; but interestingly, that is what we do: in our confusion, we tend to overlook things. In any case, if this talk seems a bit intricate, take heart: the Buddhist teaching is not only philosophical. On the contrary, it is above all practical.
Still, I’d like to mention another nuance, regarding the so-called “self.” If I say, “Annie, Pascale,” you’ll turn your head and answer, “yes?” We can, of course, have some sense of identity. Nobody is asking you to become psychotic, with no bearings and no sense of personality whatsoever. The idea is to clear up a confusion that doesn’t have to be. For instance, let’s look at what happens when we fixate on the notion of a solidified, unitary, independent ego. As soon as we come into contact with any phenomenon, there are three possible scenarios. Either the thing seems pleasant; it seems to work well with, or reinforce, our idea of our self: that’s attachment, attraction. Either the thing displeases us, or seems to threaten us: that’s rejection, aversion, aggression, anger and all their variants. Or perhaps there’s some sort of indifference, not some kind of impartial fairness, but rather, a lifelessness—a form of apathy, or sometimes, downright stupidity.
These three basic reactions—attachment, aversion and ignorance—motivate our actions, our daily choices, the words we use, and the ways we behave. And all that further binds us to what is referred to as samsara.
So, to sum up, over the months, as you further study these topics, all the while being patient and loving towards yourself, you will see that the origin of suffering is essentially two things: emotions—particularly the strong and counterproductive ones—that are based on ignorance and are due to a lack of wisdom and clarity, and the actions that follow.
The more we do that, the more we congeal the world, the more claustrophobia sets in, and the more we react inadequately to the phenomena that surround us. The snag is that we are then constantly thrown into new situations which are also imbued with suffering. Let’s say I get into a fight with my neighbor. It did not actually happen, it’s just an example! The guy next door does something that I find rather displeasing, and I let him know without mincing my words: suddenly, by reacting with anger, I create another experience. I have thrust myself into a new situation—metaphorically speaking, it’s a “rebirth” into a situation that is filled with the energy of anger and that is likely to foster further dissatisfaction. And it can go on and on. This is a trivial example, but we do this all the time, at all scales.
We also live under the dictatorship of novelty. If you ever found yourself scrolling down on Facebook for a while before realizing, “huh, I’ve been doing that for 10 minutes without seeing anything truly nourishing, and yet I keep doing it,” you understand the principle. To be clear, the problem is not with the objects per se, but, again, with our self-referential desires, and our compulsion. Recently, I’ve also heard Kilung Rinpoche give a good analogy. The context was different—he was talking about meditation and our relationship to thoughts and distractions—, but I think that the analogy also applies to our life in general. There’s a monkey in a fruit tree; the monkey climbs up and sees a beautiful, ripe fruit. He picks it up, starts to smell it, licks the outer skin a little bit, and he’s all excited… when suddenly, he catches a glimpse of another fruit on another branch, and he thinks, “now that one really looks delicious!” He drops the first fruit and goes for the other one; and he does this again and again, without ever enjoying the juice of the fruit and the good vitamins it contains. We are constantly doing this.
So. All this suffering… What can we do about it?
The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
The first truth was that of the suffering, omnipresent in our lives, and which manifests in myriad ways, including denial. The second truth exposes the origin of suffering, which we briefly talked about. Now, the third truth is that of the cessation of suffering. The Buddhist path is based on this possibility. Let’s not imagine that we are only brooding, contemplating everything that’s wrong in our lives and leaving it at that! If we did, we would wonder why the Dalai Lama smiles all the time and why all these masters seem so free and at ease… There would be a missing link somewhere.
To simplify, we could say that the third truth is the understanding that cessation of suffering is indeed possible. Basically, it evokes a principle of causality: when you remove the cause, the effect no longer occurs. So by remedying ignorance—the basic confusion—and conflicting emotions that fuel inadequate actions and reactions, you can remedy everything else, all this suffering. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche often uses an eloquent expression, deep mental fog—a lack of clarity that we’re not even aware of, but that always remains in the background and of which painful emotions are, so to speak, by-products. We can clear this fog and all the suffering associated with it.
The Truth of the Path That Leads to Cessation
How do we do that? A rather important question, isn’t it? Well, the answer is the fourth truth, that of the path that leads to cessation.
In short, this refers to the teachings of the Buddha, and more importantly, to putting them onto practice. But it also refers to some precise elements, otherwise we would just wander about, grabbing a little bit of spirituality here and there, creating a patchwork and keeping our fingers crossed, hoping for the best… Sure enough, the Buddha taught countless methods: we all have different histories, personalities, energies, neuroses, capacities and aspirations, and it would be absurd to pretend that there was only one strict way to journey towards awakening. In fact, Dharma is extraordinarily vast and supple. Still, there are some overlaps, some fundamental elements that help us ascertain that we are indeed heading in the right direction, such as the “four seals of Dharma,” which we will talk about on another occasion. In the context of the four truths of the noble ones, one of these fundamental teachings is that of the eightfold path, or the eight branches of the path. So much so that a wheel with eight spokes is probably the most common symbol that represents the teachings of the Buddha.
Why is it important to study these teachings? Why not just watch our breath, for example? Of course, observing the breath is excellent to calm the mind; but that’s not enough. If you have no confusion whatsoever and live in unimpeded clarity, without ever reacting negatively to the world, and without neither succumbing to indifference—which, in my opinion, is a form of suffering—, then perhaps you don’t need this path. But if you want to go further than just slowing down hectic thoughts, you have to tread the path.
This eightfold path is encouraging in that it shows that practice does not only happen on the cushion. There’s more than the formal sessions, “I sit and meditate with my back straight…” That’s an essential element, but spirituality also extends beyond the meditation room.
There are different ways to classify these eights aspects. I will not comment them one by one, but will nonetheless list them, for the sake of tradition. They are:
correct intention (or thought)
correct action (or conduct)
Please note that these eight terms do not constitute an ossified dogma. Personally, I like one of the words we often use to translate “correct” into French: justesse. The idea of something being juste implies that it is appropriate to circumstances—your own psychological circumstances, for example. There is a way to be creative in our practice—and “creative” here connotes openness, authenticity, suppleness and loving-kindness; it is not about blindly following our funny little ways or getting lost in our own fabrications. My point is simply that we don’t have to be stiff and serious all the time.
To go deeper into this, I strongly encourage French-speaking friends to watch Philippe Cornu’s excellent talk on this topic. But to sum up, the eight branches of the path can be structured in three categories. In Sanskrit, these are shila, samadhi and prajna: discipline or ethical conduct, meditation, and wisdom.
Here again, ethical conduct is not a collection of absolutes. It consists of recommendations. The Buddha and the masters that followed him have contemplated things at length and came to the conclusion that some actions are more likely to contribute to our happiness and to that of other beings. For example, if your heart if filled with hatred and you punch someone in the face, it is more likely to create pain than happiness—we can all agree on that. But the teaching on ethical conduct is much richer; it has a lot of healthy nuances, especially when we come to understand that our goal is not just to find temporary happiness. Also, we realize that ethical conduct influences our meditation. To use the same example, if I angrily argue with my neighbor and then amplify the situation by mentally rehashing it, when I sit to meditate later that day, I’ll find that I am quite agitated; and if I can’t calm my mind, the wisdom aspect is not going to manifest itself. Clarity and discernment can hardly emerge when there’s no tranquility.
So we can see that all these elements—shila, samadhi, prajna—work in synergy. We don’t stick to a code of ethics for the sake of a code of ethics; that wouldn’t make much sense from a Buddhist point of view. The idea is not to conform to the arbitrary opinions of an external authority, but to take circumstances into account and adopt a behavior that tends to reduce suffering and really contribute to our happiness and awakening and especially to the happiness and awakening of others.
That was a lot of information; it won’t always be like that, and over the months, we’ll pay more attention to practice per se. But the idea here is that there comes a point in our life when we realize that our relationship with the world is inadequate. Something’s off; even though there are little pleasures here and there, some relative satisfactions, we can see that we are fundamentally out of step with ourselves and our surroundings. Or perhaps we’d like to develop the skillful capacity to truly help ourselves and especially others—we witness a tremendous lot of suffering in the world, be it environmental, social, political, sanitary; we want to do our part, but we lack clarity as to what we could do, and it causes us distress. When we recognize this, we look for a path—a reliable one. And beyond all the terms that we have used today, we could say that the path shown by the Buddha combines two aspects: loving-kindness and wisdom. They must go together, as in the traditional image of a bird. With just one wing, a bird can’t go far. A lot of people here are caring, loving people. However, even if we have some tenderness, we also need to go beyond our usual, limited concept of love, and we need to combine this love with true wisdom, true discernment, true clarity. We can all achieve that.