The Four Noble Truths

Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
  The Four Noble Truths - bDen-pa-rnam-bzhi   

One needs to understand that the Buddha was not teaching as a great scholar who wanted to demonstrate a particular philosophical point of view or to teach for its own sake when he turned the Wheel of Dharma. His wish was to present the very essence of the deep and vast teachings and for that reason he offered instructions which suited the abilities of his disciples. All the teachings he gave, some long and some short, were a direct and appropriate response to the development of the disciples who came to listen to him. Of course, people have very different capacities and different levels of understanding. They also have very different wishes and desires to learn and understand the Dharma. If the Buddha had taught only the very essence of his own understanding of the vast and far-reaching insight he had won, then - apart from a small number of disciples who had great intelligence and diligence - few people would have ever understood. The Buddha taught what would enable a person to develop so he or she could progress gradually towards the very deep and vast truth of the teachings. When one analyses all the Buddha's teachings, one sees that they fall into three main approaches or vehicles.

The Buddha's teachings helped each student in a way appropriate for the level he or she was at. For this reason, one finds that on the relative level each student received some benefit from what Lord Buddha taught. On the absolute level, one finds that all of the Buddha's teachings have the same goal. When one analyses the Buddha's teachings on the relative level, one finds that there are three levels. But, when one examines them from the absolute level, one sees there is only one level, or yana, because all beings are directed towards the same goal.

Of the three yanas, the first is the Hinayana, which literally means "lesser vehicle," but this term should in no way be a reproach or be construed to in any way diminish the importance of the teachings. In fact, the teachings of the Hinayana are very important, because they suit the capacities and development of a great number of students. If it weren't for these teachings, which are particularly appropriate for those who have limited wisdom or diligence, many persons would never be able to travel the Mahayana path. Without the Hinayana teachings, there would be no way for practitioners to progress in the Dharma, because they would have never entered the path to begin with. The path is similar to a staircase: the lower step is the lower step. This doesn't mean it is not important or should be ignored, because without this lower step one can never reach the top of the stairs. One can never gain access to the upper stories of a building without that lower step. It is very necessary. It should be very clear that the term "lesser vehicleâ" is in no way a pejorative term; it just puts the path into a realistic context.

The fundamental teachings of the Hinayana are the main subject matter of the First Dharmachakra or "turning of the Wheel of Dharma.â" These teachings were given mainly in India in the town of Varanasi, which is now called Benares. The main subject matter of these teachings is the Four Noble Truths.

If the Buddha had taught his disciples principally by demonstrating his miraculous abilities and various powers, it would not have been the best way to establish them on the path of liberation. The best way to bring them to that wisdom and liberation was to point out the very truth of things, to point out the way things really are. So, out of great compassion and wisdom, this is what he did: He showed the truth through the Four Noble Truths and the Two Truths, the relative and absolute truth. By seeing the way things really are, students learn how to eliminate their mistaken apprehension and their delusions. Eliminating one's mistakes and delusions automatically destroys the causes of one's suffering and hardships. This allows one to gradually reach the state of liberation and great wisdom. That is why the Four Noble Truths and the Two Truths are the essence of the first teachings of Lord Buddha.


The First Noble Truth
The Truth of Suffering - sDug-bsngäl-gi-bden-pa

The First Noble Truth is the full understanding of suffering. Of course, in an obvious way, people are aware of suffering and know when they have unpleasant sensations such as hunger, cold, or sickness and recognize these as things that one doesn't like. But the First Noble Truth includes awareness of all the ramifications of suffering, because it encompasses the very nature and essence of suffering. This includes knowledge of the subtle and obvious aspects of suffering. The obvious aspect of suffering is immediate pain or difficulty in the moment. Subtle suffering is more difficult to recognize, because it begins with happiness. But due to its very nature this happiness must change and does not go on forever. Because it changes into suffering or loss, then subtle suffering is the imperman ence of pleasure. For example, when I went to Bhutan with His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, he was invited to the palace of the king of Bhutan. The palace was magnificent, the king's chambers were beautiful, and there were many servants who showed complete respect and obedience. But the Karmapa and I found that even though there was so much luxury, the king himself was suffering a great deal mentally and had many difficulties. The king himself said that he was quite relieved that His Holiness had come and emphasized how much the visit meant to him, because of the various difficulties with which he had been troubled. This is the subtle aspect of suffering.

One does think that a particular situation will give one the most happiness one can ever imagine, but actually within the situation there is a tremendous amount of anguish and frustration. If one thinks of those who are really fortunate - gods or human beings with a very rich and healthy life - it seems as though they have nothing but happiness. It is hard to understand that the very root, the very fibre of what is taking place is suffering, because the situation is subject to change.

What is happiness By its very nature it can only mean that there will be suffering later on. There is no worldly happiness that lasts for a very long time. Worldly happiness is always subject to change and therefore always has built-in suffering. For that reason, the First Noble Truth of the awareness of suffering refers not just to immediate suffering but also to the subtle truth of suffering. The Buddha taught the truth of suffering because everything that takes place on a worldly level entails suffering.

If one is suffering but is not aware of it, one will never give rise to the motivation to eliminate it and will necessarily continue to suffer. When one is aware of the truth of suffering, one feels inspired to overcome it. With the more subtle forms of suffering, if one is happy and becomes aware that the happiness automatically includes the seed of suffering, then one will be much less inclined to become involved and attached to such happiness. Instead, one will think, "Oh, this seems to be happiness, but it has built-in suffering." Then one will want to dissociate from it. The first truth is that one should be aware of suffering. Once one has a very clear picture of the nature of suffering, one can really begin to avoid such suffering. Of course, everyone wants to avoid and surmount suffering, but to accomplish this one needs to be absolutely clear about its nature.

When one becomes aware of the fact that the nature of day-to-day existence is suffering, one doesn't have to be miserable and think that suffering will always be present. Suffering doesn't go on forever, because the Buddha entered the world, generously gave teachings, and demonstrated clearly what suffering is. He also taught the means by which suffering can be eliminated and described the state beyond suffering, which is liberation. One doesn't have to endure suffering and can, in fact, be happy. Even though one cannot immediately emerge from suffering by practicing the Buddha's teachings, one can gradually eliminate suffering and move towards liberation. This fact in itself can make one happy, even before one has actually overcome suffering and pain completely. Applying the Buddha's teachings, one can both be happy in the relative phase of one's progress and then be happy that at the end one will gain wisdom and liberation in the ultimate sense as well.

The First Noble Truth makes it clear that there is suffering. Once one knows what sufferin g is, one recognizes that one must eliminate it. It is not a question of eliminating suffering itself but of eliminating the causes of suffering. Once one relinquishes the causes of suffering, then automatically the effect, which is suffering, is no longer experienced. This is why, in order to eliminate suffering, one acknowledges and appreciates the Second Noble Truth, the truth of universal origination.

The Second Noble Truth
The Truth of the Origin of Suffering - Kun-'byung-ba'i-bden-pa

"Truth of universal originationâ" is an English translation of the description Lord Buddha himself gave to the Second Noble Truth. It means "that which is the cause or origin of absolutely everything." The truth of universal origination indicates that the root cause of suffering is karma and the kleshas. Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "activity," and klesha in Sanskrit means "mental defilement" or "mind poison." If one does not understand the Buddha's teachings, one would most likely attribute all happiness and suffering to some external cause. One might think that happiness and suffering come from the environment, or from the gods, and that everything that happens originates in some source outside of one's control. If one believes this, then it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to eliminate suffering and its causes. On the other hand, when one realizes that the experience of suffering is a result of what one has done, i.e., a result of one's own karma, eliminating suffering becomes possible. Once one is aware of how suffering takes place, th en one can begin to remove the causes of suffering. First one must realize that one's experiences are not dependent on external forces but on what one has done previously. This is the understanding of karma. Karma produces suffering and is driven by the defilements. The term "defilement" refers mainly to one's negative motivation and negative thoughts, which give rise to negative actions.

The Third Noble Truth
The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering - 'Gog-pa'i-bden-pa

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering, through which it is explained that the causes of karma and the defilements can be removed. We have control over suffering, because karma and the defilements take place within us - we create them and therefore we experience them. For that reason we don't need to depend on anyone else to remove the causes of suffering. The truth of universal origination means that if we do unvirtuous actions, we are creating suffering. It also means that if we abandon unvirtuous actions, we remove the possibility of experiencing suffering in the future. What we experience is entirely in our hands. Therefore the Buddha said that we should give up the causes of karma and the defilements. Virtuous actions lead to the external state of happiness and unvirtuous actions bring on suffering. This idea is not particularly easy to grasp, because one cannot see the whole process taking place from beginning to end.

There are three kinds of activities: mental, verbal, and physical. These are subdivided into virtuous and un virtuous physical actions, virtuous and unvirtuous verbal actions, and virtuous and unvirtuous mental activities. If one abandons these three types of unvirtuous activities, then one's actions automatically become good.

There are three unvirtuous physical actions: harming life, sexual misconduct, and stealing. The results of these three unvirtuous actions can be observed immediately. For example, when there is a good relationship between a man and woman who care about each other, protect and have a great deal of love and affection for each other, they will be happy because they look after each other. Their wealth will usually increase, and if they have children, their love and care will bring mutual love in the family. In the ordinary sense, happiness develops out of this deep commitment and bond they have promised to keep. Whereas, when there is an absence of commitment, there is also little care or love and sexual misconduct happens. This is not the ground out of which love arises, or upon which a nice home can be built, or an environment in which children can be happy. One can readily see that due to a lack of integrity, many kinds of difficulties arise.

Immediate consequences of other unvirtuous physical actions are quite evident, too. One can see that those who steal have difficulties and suffer and that those who don't steal experience happiness and have a good state of mind. Likewise, those who kill create many problems and unhappiness for themselves and others, while those who support life are happy.

Although it is not so obvious, the same applies to one's speech. On closer examination, one can also see how happiness develops out of virtuous speech and unhappiness arises from bad speech. At first, lying may seem to be useful, because on e might think that one can deceive others through lies and gain some advantage. But Sakya Pandita said that this is not true. If one lies to one's enemies or persons one doesn't get along with very well, they are not going to take notice of what one is saying anyway - it will be quite hard to deceive them as it is. If they are one's friends, one might be able to deceive them at first by telling a lie. But after the first time, they won't trust you any more and may think that you are a hypocrite. Lying doesn't really work. Then if one looks at the opposite, a person who takes pains to speak the truth will have a reputation of being a truthful and reliable person - many good things happen when someone is trustworthy.

Once we have reflected the examples of the consequences of lying, we can think of similar consequences relating to other kinds of damaging speech: slander, rough, aggressive, and useless speech. Except for the immediate and the short-termed consequences, virtuous speech produces happiness and unvirtuous speech produces suffering.

Useless speech means talk that really makes no sense and is not just conversational. So, if one has a good mind and wants someone to relax and be happy, even though the words may not be of great meaning, then it is useful speech based on the idea of being kind. Useless speech means chatter for no reason at all. Worse than that is chatter rooted in the defilements, in which case one is saying bad things about other people because one dislikes them, is jealous, or sets people against each other. One just gossips about other people and that is really useless speech; besides being useless, it very often causes trouble, because it sets people against each other and causes pain.

The same is true for harmf ul speech. If there is really a loving and beneficial reason for scolding a child, for example, when the child is doing something dangerous or for not studying in school, then it is not harmful speech, because it is not based upon defilements but is a skilful way of helping. If there is the really genuine, beneficial attitude and love behind what one says, it is not harmful speech. But if speech were associated with the defilements, such as aggression or jealousy, then it is harmful speech and is something to give up.

We can go on to examine the various states of mind and see that a virtuous mind gives rise to happiness and unvirtuous states of mind cause unhappiness. For instance, strong aggression will cause us to lose our friends. Because of our aggressiveness, our enemies will become even worse enemies and the situation will become inflamed. If we are aggressive and hurt others and they have friends, then eventually their friends will also become our enemies. On the other hand, if we wish to benefit others, goodness will come out of it through the power of caring for loved ones and through wishing to help them develop goodness. Through this they will become close and helpful friends. Through the power of our love and care, our enemies and the people we don't get along with will improve their behaviour and maybe those enemies will eventually become our friends. If we have companions and wish to benefit them, we can end up with very good friends and experience all the benefit that brings. In this way, we can see how cause and effect operate - how a virtuous mind brings happiness and how a non-virtuous mind brings suffering and problems.

There are two main aspects of karma: one is related to experience and the other is related to conditioning. The experience of karma has already been discussed. Through unvirtuous physical actions one wil l experience problems and unhappiness. Likewise, through unvirtuous speech, such as lying, one experiences unhappiness and sorrow. Through an unvirtuous state of mind, one experiences unhappiness. This was demonstrated by the example of an aggressive attitude. All of this is related to the understanding that every unvirtuous activity produces unpleasantness or unhappiness.

The second aspect of karma relates to conditioning. By acting unvirtuously with one's body, speech, or mind, one habituates oneself to a certain kind of behaviour. Unvirtuous physical or verbal behaviour add to the habit of doing things in that manner. For example, each time one kills, one is conditioned to kill again. If one lies, that increases the habit of lying. An aggressive mind conditions one's state of mind and one becomes more aggressive. In later lives, then, that conditioning will emerge so that one will be reborn with a great tendency to kill, to lie, to engage in sexual misconduct, and so on. These are two aspects of karma. One is the direct consequence of an action and the other is the conditioning that creates a tendency to continue engaging in such behaviour. Through these two aspects, karma produces all happiness and suffering in life.

Even though one may recognize that unvirtuous karma gives rise to suffering and virtuous karma gives rise to happiness, it is hard to give up unvirtuous actions and practice virtuous actions, because the defilements exercise a powerful influence. One realizes that suffering is caused by unvirtuous karma, but one cannot give up the karma itself. One needs to give up the defilements, because they are the roots of unvirtuous actions. To give up the defilements means to give up non-virtuous actions of body (such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct), the unvirtuous actions of speech (such as lying, slander and ha rmful and useless speech), and the unvirtuous aspects of mind (such as aggressive, covetous, or an ignorant mind). Just wanting to give up the defilements does not remove them. However, the Buddha in his great kindness and wisdom has given a very skilful way to eliminate the very root of all the defilements through the examination of the belief in the existence of a self.

One cannot just understand this wrong belief in a self easily because it is very deep-rooted. First of all, one has to search for this self that one believes in and through this search one can discover that the self does not exist the way one thinks it does. Then one will be able to gradually eliminate the mistaken belief in a self. When this is done, the defilements are also eliminated, because with the elimination of the belief in a truly existing self, unvirtuous karma is also eliminated.

The erroneous belief in a truly existing self is a mistaken perception - it is an illusion. For example, if one has a flower and were to ask one hundred people about it, they would all come to the same conclusion that it is indeed a flower, so one could be pretty sure that it is. But if one asked a person, "Is this me " he or she would answer, "No, it is you." A second and third person would also respond, "It is you." One would end up with one hundred persons who say that this is "you" and only oneself would see it as "me." So statistically, one's self is on very wobbly ground.

One also tends to think of "me" as a single thing, as a solid, self-existing, unique entity. When one examines what one thinks of as oneself, one finds that it is made up of many different components: the various parts of the body, the different organs, and the different elements. There are so many parts, yet one has the feeling that "I am unique.â" When one examines any of those components and tries to find the essence of what one calls "the self,â" it cannot be found in any of these bits and pieces. By contemplating this and working through it very thoroughly, one begins to see how this "I" is really an incorrect supposition.

Once one has overcome this wrong way of thinking, the false idea of an "I" becomes easy to get rid of. So, all of the desire that is rooted in thinking, "I must be happy" can be eliminated as well as all the aversion rooted in the idea of "this difficulty must be eliminated." Through the elimination of the idea of "I," one can eliminate the defilements. Once the defilements are gone, then unvirtuous karma, which is rooted in the defilements, ends. Once the unvirtuous karma is gone, suffering will no longer be present. This is why the Buddha taught that the root of suffering needs to be abandoned.

The first two Noble Truths can be summed up in two statements: One should be aware of and know what suffering is; and one should give up the universal origination of suffering.

To summarize, once one recognizes what suffering really is, then one can begin practicing to remove its causes. One stops doing unvirtuous actions that create suffering. To stop these unvirtuous activities, one digs out their root, which are the defilements and the various unwholesome activities. To eradicate the defilements one needs to remove their source, which is the belief in a self. If one succeeds, then one will come to realize wisdom of non-self. Through understanding the absence of a self, one no longer creates the defilements and the ensuing bad a ctions and brings an end to the whole process. This is highly possible. Therefore Lord Buddha presented the Third Noble Truth of cessation.

The very essence and nature of cessation of karma is peace. Sometimes people think of Buddhahood in terms of brilliant insight or something very fantastic. In fact, the peace one obtains from the cessation of everything unwholesome is deepest happiness, bliss, and well being. Its very nature is lasting in contrast to worldly happiness, which is exciting for a while but changes very fast. In contrast, ultimate liberation and omniscience is a definitive release from the defilements, which are the cause of suffering. Their cessation is the most deeply moving peace. Within that peace, all the qualities of liberation and wisdom unfold and manifest. It is a very definitive release from both suffering and its results.

There are four main qualities that arise when cessation has been attained: 1) cessation of suffering, 2) peace, 3) deepest liberation and wisdom, and 4) very definitive release. Cessation is a product of practicing the path shown by the Most Perfect One, Lord Buddha. The actual nature of the path is the topic of the Fourth Noble Truth, which is called "the truth of the path,â" because it describes the path that leads to liberation.

The Fourth Noble Truth
The Truth of the Path Leading to this Cessation - Lam-gyi-bden-pa

The Fourth Noble Truth is called "the truth of the path" because it describes the path that leads practitioners to the ultimate goal, which is freedom from suffering and pain. A Buddhist disciple practices the path step-by-step, stage-by-stage, successively completing the journey. The main stages of Buddhism are called "the five paths" because by progressively traversing them one eventually reaches one's destination, which is cessation of suffering and woe. This path of the Buddha can be analysed through its five main stages, which are called "the five paths.â" The five paths are the stage of accumulation, the stage of junction, the stage of insight, the stage of cultivation, and the final stage of no more learning. Actually, the first four are the paths, and the fifth is the result.

The first path is called the "path of accumulation" because a practitioner accumulates a great treasure of many virtuous qualities. This is the stage in which one tries to gather all the positive factors that enable one to progress. One is diligent and strives to do as much good as possible and to attain awareness that unravels the meaning of things more deeply. One commits oneself to accumulate all the various positive aspects of practice. One gathers the positive elements into one's being while at the same time working on many different ways to remove all the unwholesome habits from one's life. One also applies different techniques to eliminate the various blockages and obstacles that are holding one back from maturing spiritually. The first stage of practice is called "the stage of accumulationâ" because one engages in manifold wholesome activities and strives to integrate them in one's life.

In ordinary life, one is stuck in worldliness. Even though one doesn't want to be, one is still living on a level of conditionality, because one still leads one's life unde r the influence of the defilements. They have a very strong grip on one's life. One needs to get rid of these defilements in order to find one's way out of samsara, which is conditioned existence that is always subject to change. Of course, one wants to find lasting happiness and peace and trusts that it is possible. But even with the strongest willpower, one cannot achieve it overnight. It is like trying to dye a large piece of cloth in that one needs to bring many different elements together to change the colour.

In order to gain good qualities, one first needs to work on creating all the different conditions that will allow those qualities to emerge. To bring forth and develop the various insights of meditation and primordial wisdom, one needs to develop great faith and confidence in the validity and usefulness of authentic wisdom. Once one is convinced of its value, one needs to change one's habits so that one is diligent to do all the things necessary to make insight and wisdom emerge. Therefore, there are many factors and conditions one must establish within one's life that will bring about true happiness.

To remove all the unwholesome factors binding one in samsara, one must uproot the erroneous belief in a self, eliminate the various defilements that obstruct betterment, and bring together the many various conditions that make transformation and purification possible. We talk about accumulation because we are assembling all the different conditions that make this transformation possible. One won't be able to progress until one has gathered positive causes and conditions in a proper and completely perfect way. For that reason, the purpose of practicing the stage of accumulation is to perfect as well as possible the necessary conditions by gathering them in one's life.

 Due to the virtuous activities of gathering favourable conditions, one will eventually reach the third stage, which is called "the path of insight." It is the stage at which the veil of delusion is lifted and insight into the way things truly are is realized. Linking the first path of accumulation and the third path of insight is the second path of junction. At this stage, realization of the way one perceives things begins to connect with realization of the true nature of phenomena. When one attains insight into the way things really are, one realizes that there is no self. Once a practitioner is free of the erroneous belief in a self, he or she no longer has any root defilements of attachment, aggression, or mental delusiveness that are based upon the idea of a truly existing self. Once there are no longer any defilements, one automatically does nothing unvirtuous and consequently experiences no more suffering.

Now, it is true that once one has won insight into the true nature of reality, all suffering is immediately removed, but in another way, it is not true. This is because the delusion of a self is a habit that has been built up for such a long time and is very, very hard to remove. For example, as long as one believes in a self and hits one's finger with a hammer, it hurts. Even if one has realized that an unchanging self is just a delusion fabricated by one's own mind, still when one's finger is hit with a hammer it hurts. One still has the feeling, "I am suffering," because there is an enduring, built-up identification of an "I" with the flesh of one's body. Removal of that long-established conditioning of a truly existing self is carried out through the practice of becoming used to the truth of non-self, and this is practiced during the fourth stage, referred to as "the cultivation of insight.â"

The fourth stage is called "the path of cultivation,â" sgom-lam in Tibetan. The word sgom is usually translated as "meditation," but it actually means "to get used to something" or "to accustom oneself." This is why it is translated here as "the path of cultivation," while other texts translate it as "the path of meditation." In any case, this stage of practice involves getting used to the insight into the nature of things that one has won on the third path of seeing. By becoming more and more familiar with the truth of the way things are and the way all things appear, one can remove the very fine traces of defilements and subconscious conditionings that one still has. By working on these very subtle habits, the goal of Buddhahood will be attained.

Through the cultivation and perfection of insight one eventually reaches the fifth path, which is called "the path of no-more-learning." Having cultivated and perfected the fourth path of meditation, one has removed the subtlest causes of suffering. Then an advanced practitioner has reached the highest stage of the path and there is nothing more for him and her to learn.

There are two Tibetan words pronounced "gom," but they are spelled differently. There is sgom, which means "meditation," and khom,  which means "to habituate." In the Buddhist view, one's ordinary vision of reality is deluded. Only with great spiritual attainment can one see through this delusion and see things as they really are.

Thank you very much.

May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.

May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).

Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception

swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.

May virtue increase!

Edited for the website of Karma Lekshey Ling Institute, situated near the Great Swayambunath Stupa in Nepal with deepest gratitude to Most Venerable Khenpo Karma Namgyal and for the website of Karma Chang Chub Choepel Ling in Heidelberg with sincere gratitude to Ani Dorothea Nett by gh in 2007, responsible for any mistakes.