Photo of Taitaku Phelan Sensei

The Four Noble Truths

Josho Pat Phelan

This is the beginning of the second week of our three week Practice Period. During Practice Period, we have zazen Monday to Friday at 6 a.m., and in the evening four times a week. One purpose of this activity is to support each other in daily practice, and it’s also a way to embrace practice, to wholeheartedly and unreservedly throw ourselves into the daily schedule and find where we meet our limits or edges. Without basing your participation on past experience, today, this week, find out what happens when you embrace the schedule, taking refuge in the schedule. Will you be supported? Will you get tired? How tired? Following the zendo schedule, in the midst of being tired, throughout your tiredness, is a way to get beyond expectations and fear.

The second level of priest ordination is Shuso–being head monk for a practice period. When I was Shuso at the City Center in San Francisco, we had zazen at 5 a.m. every day except Sunday for about ten weeks, with classes and a talk a couple of nights a week. At the time, my daughter was four and I was tired a lot. One morning something happened that ordinarily would make me angry. When it happened, I noticed the precursors to anger bubbling up, but then I noticed that I didn’t have the energy to get angry, the bubbles of anger didn’t have enough strength to come to fruition as full-blown anger, they just sort of petered out. I realized that it took energy–my energy–to get angry, and I didn’t want to use my energy that way. Following an intensive schedule like the one we have during practice period helps clarify what is essential, and, at that point in time, I decided that anger wasn’t essential. This sounds rather simple, but it was the first time that I had a clear feeling of anger arising and that I was able to make the decision not to get involved with it by expressing it either outwardly or inwardly by being in an angry state.

I think if you try out the Practice Period schedule, you will find these three elements of practice, which are also common to sesshin: supporting each other to practice, throwing yourself into the practice without being bound by preconceived ideas of your limits, and getting to know what is essential, what it’s like to pare down your usual activities and distractions. These are actually elements of monastic practice. Imposing a semi-monastic schedule on a householder’s life is much more challenging than leaving home and going to a monastery where everyone is living simply, following the same schedule, and where tasks like cooking meals, buying groceries and cleaning up are pooled so there’s more time available for practice. When taking on this kind of intensive practice with its limitations, something loosens in our consciousness and we get a sense of the arbitrary boundaries we create.

For Practice Period we are studying the Dhammapada which may be the most widely translated and popular Buddhist text, and it is considered one of the earliest texts in Buddhism. In this same vein of looking at the roots of Buddhist teaching, I would like to look at the Four Noble Truths which Buddha taught soon after his enlightenment. Shakyamuni Buddha taught the truth that he tasted through his own experience. Buddha’s teachings aren’t a philosophical system, but insights arising from his direct experience. He taught that we, too, should find out for ourselves if these teachings are true so we can taste the truth for ourselves. The Four Noble Truths are formulated as (1) identifying the existence of a problem which is pervasive, (2) locating the origin of the problem, (3) realizing that the originating cause can be ended, thereby ending the problem itself, and (4) describing a path of practice that leads to the cessation of the cause of the problem.

Buddha defined the problem as dukkha, which is a Sanskrit word with a wide range of meanings from restlessness, uneasiness, dissatisfaction, ill-being to the more intense forms of suffering and misery. From the perspective of Buddhism, dukkha is the spiritual dilemma of human beings, and it’s the quality of experience that results when the mind is acted upon by delusion–any kind of delusion, delusion about anything. The most basic form of delusion is the idea of separation, the idea that we exist as a separate entity.

Dukkha takes the form of such states as disappointment, frustration, agitation, anguish, dis-ease, despair and so on. Dukkha is the condition of unsatisfactoriness or imperfection present in all impermanent, conditioned things. To fully understand the meaning of dukkha, we need to realize that it is found even in the midst of happiness. Katagiri Roshi said, "The cause of suffering is that we have an object." This gets down to the root of suffering. Through delusion, we experience separation and divide the world into inside and outside, subject and object. This illusion that we are separate is the root of dukkha. The pervasiveness of dukkha is the first of the Four Noble Truths, that life is sometimes painful and filled with suffering, but even when it’s not, existence is marked or colored by dissatisfaction or unrest.

The second Noble Truth is that the origination of dukkha is clinging or craving. Buddha taught that dukkha is simply the five skandhas of form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, in which there is clinging. The five skandhas include everything we may think of as a self. When taken either individually or collectively, they are impermanent, and, therefore, ultimately unsatisfactory. Buddha taught that anything that clings, or is clung to as "I" or "mine," is dukkha. Our usual way of being is to take the skandhas to be "me" or mine: my eyes, my perceptions, my feelings, my body, my hangnail, my astigmatism, my will, my character, my anger, my sense of humor, my insight. Sometimes this teaching on dukkha is misunderstood to mean that birth, old age, sickness and death are themselves dukkha, but these are just its vehicles; and birth, old age, sickness, and death, if they are not clung to as "I" or "mine," cannot be dukkha. The body and mind are the same. Dukkha is not inherent in the body and mind. Only when there is clinging to "I" or "mine" do they become dukkha.

Buddhism teaches three kinds of craving. The first is craving for sensuous experience. This kind of craving doesn’t refer just to big desires and passions like those we see in the movies, it also includes a very fine, subtle state of restlessness or wanting. When things are going really well, when they are about as good as they get, or when they are just the way you wanted them to be, dukkha is the subtle state of wanting that lurks under the surface of things–wanting to have just a little more than we have, or wanting things to be just a little bit different from the way they are. In this way, dukkha is present in the midst of happiness. Any kind of craving or grasping, clinging or attachment, automatically colors this moment of existence with dissatisfaction.

The second kind of craving is craving to maintain a self. I think this is the most subtle and unconscious form of craving. The basis for it is the deep conditioning we have absorbed from beginningless time that we have a separate, continuous self that has some unchanging essence that is "me." We go on to develop a self image and behave in ways that live up to this self image and that prove what we believe to be our strengths and weaknesses. The third kind of craving is craving for extinction. An extreme form of this is suicide and a weaker form is the desire to escape from the wheel of birth and death.

The opposite of craving is nonclinging, i.e., when seeing a form, just see without reacting to the object of seeing as pleasant or unpleasant. When we are able to just see, just taste, just hear without judging or comparing, without the desire to keep the experience or push it away, this is nonclinging. Since everything in the universe, including our body and mind, is constantly changing, our attachment to the way we think it should be, or the way we want it to be, or to the way it used to be but no longer is, is a constant source of dissatisfaction. Resisting change or holding to our expectations and hopes, our desires and fears, keeps us from entering the present moment completely. So, resistance is another aspect of dukkha.

Another way to look at suffering is mental and physical resistance, the contraction and tightening that occur when we resist, which rather quickly develops into rigidity. In order to ignore or avoid or deny our experience, we first have to separate ourselves from the experience. In Buddhism resistence is a form of suffering, and suffering is distinguished from pain.

While we are alive, pain is inevitable but suffering is not. In Mindfulness in Plain English, the Vipassana teacher, Gunaratana, talks about the difference between pain and suffering and how to work with pain. He said, when you are meditating and you experience physical pain, take the pain as an object of meditation. First let your attention slide over onto the simple sensation. If the pain becomes demanding, don’t fight it. "Go into the pain fully. Don’t block the experience. Explore the feeling. Get beyond your avoiding reaction and go into the pure sensations that lie below that.... [There are two things present. The first is] the simple sensation–pain itself. [The] Second is your resistance to that sensation. partly mental and partly physical. The physical part consists of tensing the muscles in and around the painful area. Relax those muscles. Take them one by one and relax each one very thoroughly." He continues, "Just as you are tensing physically, you are also tensing psychologically. You are clamping down mentally on the sensation of pain, trying to screen it off and reject it from consciousness. The rejection is a wordless,..."go away" attitude. It is very subtle.... Locate it and relax that, too....Examine what you did to those tight muscles and transfer that same action over to the mental sphere; relax the mind the same way you relax the body....The resistance [to pain] was a barrier which you yourself erected. It was a gap..... a borderline between ‘me’ and ‘the pain.’ Dissolve that barrier and separation vanishes....slow down into that sea of surging sensation and merge with the pain. You become the its ebb and flow....It no longer hurts. Suffering is gone. Only the pain remains, an experience, nothing more. The ‘me’ who was being hurt has gone. The result is freedom from pain."

Sometimes the teaching of dukkha strikes people as depressing. However, from the point of view of Buddhism it is simply an accurate description of our human condition. The last two of the Noble Truths describe the way of liberation from this human condition of unease arising from clinging. The third Noble Truth is stopping, or that there is an end to dukkha. When clinging or craving stop, dissatisfaction and suffering will also stop. The way to end craving is through practicing the middle way, the path that avoids too much pleasure or self indulgence and too much pain or austerity, this way is characterized by the Eight-Fold Path.

The fourth Noble Truth is this path. The first aspect of the path is Right View or Understanding. This is defined as having a clear understanding of the Four Noble Truths. The next three are Right Intention or Thought, Right Speech, and Right Action. These three, like the precepts, address the way we practice with the activity of our body, speech, and mind. Next is Right Livelihood, which is making our living through a means that does not harm others. The sixth is Right Effort, and then Right Concentration or Meditation, and Right Mindfulness.

The Heart Sutra refers to the Four Noble Truths when it says, "no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path", thereby negating the Four Noble Truths. When the Heart Sutra says "no" in front of each of the Four Noble Truths, it means that Buddhist teaching is empty of any kind of sacredness—it has no fixed meaning and no intrinsic meaning. So, Buddhism may accurately describe human experience, or the mind, or consciousness, but it has no meaning apart from that experience. Buddhist teaching is a vehicle for realization, but we have to step outside that vehicle to be truly free. Thus, the most basic teaching of Buddhism is "don’t be attached," even to Buddhist teaching.

One purpose of the Heart Sutra is to negate the early Buddhist teachings that sometimes became a source of attachment in and of themselves. Attachment, like clinging, is the root of dissatisfaction; but, even more primary, attachment is attachment to something. For attachment to occur, there has to be an object, and Zen emphasizes that the object, meaning duality, is the source of suffering. Again, Katagiri Roshi said that "The cause of suffering is that we have an object," which brings us back to our practice. Can we practice zazen without turning our breath, our concentration, our body or mind into an object? This doesn’t mean that they aren’t real, it means we can experience them, enjoy them, as the totality of this moment without separating from them, without trying to make them more real or more lasting than the constantly changing experience of this fleeting moment. Last week, someone asked about the enjoyment of death as opposed to the suffering of death. While none of us know what dying will be like, the path to enjoying death is the path of joining it wholeheartedly.

Katagiri Roshi often used the phrase, "Settle the self on the self." When we are unreservedly engaged with our whole body and mind in zazen, moment by moment, there is nothing left over, no self left over to separate us from fundamental nature.

© Copyright Taitaku Patricia Phelan, 2001

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