After His full enlightenment, the very first discourse which Sakyamuni Buddha taught when he first turned the Wheel of Dharma in Sarnath, near Varanasi, was the Four Noble Truths. This underlies paramount importance of studying, contemplating and meditating on this very first set of teaching in order to build a strong foundation for our practice of Dharma. Without a firm grasp and thorough understanding of the Four Noble Truths, one’s progress in the practice of the Dharma will be hindered and inconsistent as one will not have developed the genuine and firm motivation to strive for liberation arising from a good understanding of the Dharma.
During His lifelong ministry, the Buddha turned the Wheel of Dharma three times. During the first Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths:
“These are true sufferings, these are true causes, these are true cessations, these are true paths.”
The Buddha then taught the Four Noble Truths in terms of requisite actions:
“Sufferings are to be known, their causes are to be abandoned, their cessations are to be attained, the paths are to be cultivated.”
The Buddha finally taught the Four Noble Truth in terms of actions and their effects:
“Sufferings are to be known, then, there will be no more suffering to be known. These causes of suffering are to be abandoned, then, there will be no more causes to be abandoned. The cessations of suffering are to be attained, then, there will be no more cessations to be attained. The paths are to be cultivated, then, there will be no more paths to be cultivated.”
First Noble Truth – The Truth of Suffering
There are three major categories of suffering :
i. The suffering of suffering: This refers to gross suffering such as pain or afflicted mental states arising from sickness and poverty.
ii. The suffering of change: This arises fromthe temporary and suffering nature of the happiness or pleasurewhich one experiences. If good food has the innate nature of pleasure, one should be able to eat continuously and experience increasing pleasure. However, this is not the case, as there will come a point when eating any more of this “good” food would cause suffering in the form of severe indigestion! Another example of the suffering of change is the constant need to find new distractions to keep ourselves “occupied” or risk feeling “empty” and “bored” with one’s life.
iii. All pervasive suffering: The true suffering which the Buddha referred to was the all-pervasive suffering which is the basis of the other two sufferings. This all-pervasive suffering is the characteristic of cyclic existence or samsara and is under the control of karma and disturbed mind. We are continuously under the influence of counterproductive and afflictive emotions such as greed, hatred, anger and jealousy. Once these afflictive emotions arise, we suffer and we cannot seem to be able to prevent these emotions from arising.
Buddhism also teaches the eight major sufferings perculiar to human beings. These are – the four major sufferings of human life: birth, ageing, sickness, and death – which are accompanied by four secondary sufferings of human life: the worry of facing harsh situations, separation from loved ones and desirable things, not achieving what one wishes, and encountering unwanted or undesirable situations. All these eight sufferings can be categorized into any of the three major categories of suffering described earlier.
Classes of Existence in Samsara:
Existence can be classified as the three realms of existence or the six states of samsara (cyclic existence). The three realms of existence are:
i. The desire realm– Beings of this realm possess the five senses and are constantly driven by the pleasures of the “five desirous attributes” of form, sound, smell, taste and tangible objects.
ii. The form realm– This realm comprises two sub-realms. In the lower sub-realm, beings are not attracted to the five desirous attributes but enjoy the pleasures of internal contemplation. In the higher sub-realm, beings abandon all types of pleasures altogether and abide in neutral feelings.
iii. The formless realm – In this realm, the five senses, together with the five desirous attributes are absent. The mind only abides in single-pointed neutral feeling.
The six forms of samsaric existence are:
i. Gods – This form includes beings of the form and formless realms and six types of gods of the desire realm. In general, gods are free from the gross sufferings and enjoy abundant happiness. However, these are temporary and will end when the gods die.
ii. Demigods – Demigods are similar to gods, except that they are course and are constantly jealous of gods
iii. Human beings
iv. Animals – Be they pets or living in the wild, or in captivity, animals suffer from feelings of fear and ignorance, and thus experience much suffering.
v. Hungry ghosts – They are unseen beings who are greatly deprived of food and drinks.
vi. Hell beings – The beings born in the hell realms undergo tremendous suffering of pain from extreme heat or cold or from being repeatedly cut and tortured from the moment they are born in these realms of extreme suffering.
The Second Noble Truth – The True Causes of Suffering
The Buddha taught the truth of suffering first so that sentient beings, who are constantly migrating between the six realms, will want to investigate the causes of suffering. The Buddha taught that there are two causes of suffering: contaminated actions and afflicted mental factors.
Actions or karma
Actions are of two types: intentional and operational. Intentional action is the mental factor that arises prior to a physical or verbal deed. Operational action is the actual physical or verbal deed that occurs when one engages in the activity. In terms of their effects, actions can be categorized into three types:
i. Meritorious actions, which lead to “happy” migrations as gods, demigods and humans;
ii. Non-meritorious actions, which lead to “unhappy” migrations as animals, hungry ghosts and hell-beings;
iii. Neutral actions, which lead to birth in the form and formless realms.
All actions can be divided into physical, verbal and mental actions. Once created, actions or karma cannot be destroyed. It will continue to multiply its potential to produce the requisite results – be they positive or negative – with the passage of time. When the karma comes into contact with the appropriate conditions, then it will ripen accordingly – bearing pleasant fruits from positive karma and unpleasant fruits from negative karma. Once the ripening process has begun, the result will have to be experienced fully.
Karma can be analogized to a seed, which holds the potential to produce a tree, its result. The seed will only germinate when it comes into contact with appropriate conditions, such as light, water, earth. Once germination has begun, a tree will begin to grow if conditions continue to be supportive. The multiplicative characteristic of karma is seen in the multitude of seeds that the tree will come to produce when it is mature.
On the other hand, when there is no karma created, no corresponding result will be produced, no matter if the conditions are present. For instance, if a person does not have the karma to develop cancer, then even if the conditions are present – such as a fat-rich diet or smoking – he won’t develop the disease. Of course, he may develop other potentially fatal diseases from these conditions that he may have the karmic propensity to develop.
It is said that there is only one thing about negative karma – that it can be purified. In the analogy of the seed, purification of negative karma is seen as burning the seed. Once a seed is burned, its potential to produce its requisite result of a tree is denied, even when it comes into contact with the right conditions.
In terms of how the effects of actions are experienced, actions can also be classified into three types: the effects of an action ‘accumulated’ in this life may be experienced in this very life, in the next life, or in any life beyond the next.
Afflictions are negative mental factors which are not the six consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. However, when an affliction arises, the main mind consciousness is swayed by this affliction into taking an action (either physical, speech or mental) that results in the accumulation of “bad” causes.
Afflictions are innumerable, but key ones are desire, hatred, pride, wrong view, jealousy etc. All afflictions arise because of a strong attachment to “self”. For instance, with strong attachment to this perceived “self”, hatred arises when something undesirable occurs; pride arises as we hold on to the “self” as being superior to others; wrong view arises when the “self” holds on to the erroneous ideas of reality, etc.
Self-attachment arises from the conditioning of the mind since beginningless time. The mind holds tightly to a perceived “I”, resulting in conception of self, hence causing self-attachment to arise. However, this conception of “I” is mistaken and is the result of our ignorance of the actual mode of the existance of things. In truth, things and phenomena are empty of inherent existence. But because our mind holds on tightly to the concept “self”, things and phenomena appear to exist inherently, from their own side and independent of other causes and conditions. In so perceiving reality in this wrong way, all other afflictions arise. Hence, the root of all afflictions or ultimate cause of suffering is the ignorance of the true nature of all phenomena, which is empty of inherent existence.
The Third Noble Truth – The Truth of Cessation
The Buddha taught about suffering only because he wanted all sentient beings to realize there is a way to end this suffering. Since all suffering arises out of contaminated actions based on afflictive emotions, when we cut of the roots of suffering, the sufferings themselves cease. When the roots of afflictions are eliminated and no new negative actions accumulated, there will be no afflictions which will cause the negative karma from the past from ripening, hence eliminating the causes of suffering. One will be free from the bondage of samara and attain nirvana.
The state of nirvana is attained when one has realized the emptiness of self and phenomena. Nevertheless, a distinction is made between two types of nirvana:
i. “nirvana with remainder” – Despite one’s realizations, so long as one still has mental and physical aggregates arising from contaminated actions or afflictions, one experiences nirvana with remainder;
ii. “nirvana without remainder” – is experienced when there is no longer any mental or physical aggregates arising from contaminated actions or afflictions remaining. Only the continuum of uncontaminated consciousness and continuum of pure mental and physical aggregates remain.
Hence through removing the contaminated causes, the contaminated aggregates cease. When both contaminated causes and aggregates cease, the suffering which is dependent on them, ceases – and we achieve liberation. There are two levels of liberation:
i. the liberation of merely extinguishing suffering and their causes. However, at this level, obscurations to omniscience or knowledge have not been eliminated;
ii. the supreme liberation of unsurpassed Buddhahood – where all afflictions that prevents liberation and obstructions to omniscience are eliminated. This is the liberation which Mahayana practitioners aspire to so as to benefit as many sentient beings as possible.
The Fourth Noble Truth – The Truth of the Paths
In order to attain liberation, one must rely on the correct and pure paths to Enlightenment. There are the paths of the ordinary beings and the paths of the Superiors. The paths of the ordinary beings are cultivated by those with the motivation of achieving liberation for oneself only, by eliminating suffering and their causes – also known as the doctrine of Hinayana. The paths of the Superiors are cultivated by those who aspire to the supreme liberation of Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. The paths of the Superiors are based on the doctrines of Mahayana.
All paths to liberation are can be categorized into Hinayana or Mahayana paths – the essential difference between the two paths is the motivation for liberation and the results as such. However, both Hinayana and Mahayana share the same practices of:
i. Taking the Three Refuges in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
ii. Training in Higher Ethics;
iii. Training in Higher Meditative Stabilization or Samadhi;
iv. Training in Higher Wisdom.
The latter three are also known as the Three Higher Trainings. By engaging in the above four practices, one will achieve liberation.
- The Buddhism of Tibet, the Dalai Lama
- Tantra in Tibet, the Dalai Lama