Reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s wonderful text about the Noble Eightfold Path, I had to sit for a while with his discussion of the Four Noble Truths. Now, I have been able to rattle these off from memory for quite some time: (1) There is suffering; (2) There is an origin to suffering; (3) There is an end to suffering; (4) There is a path to follow to the end of suffering. That’s my own version. You’ll see that these four are represented a little differently in every text you read, but at the heart of each one is the same basic idea: exists, begins, ends, path.
As I wrote yesterday, Bhikkhu Bodhi tells us that there are two levels of understanding the Four Noble Truths. The second, more advanced level is something that need not concern us at the beginning of our practice — it will come to us with time. The first level of understanding, however, is essential for our progress on the Noble Eightfold Path. It is the foundation on which everything else depends.
The First Noble Truth
Bhikkhu Bodhi begins with the First Noble Truth by discussing the Pali word dukkha:
The Pali word is often translated as suffering, but it means something deeper than pain and misery. It refers to a basic unsatisfactoriness running through our lives, the lives of all but the enlightened. Sometimes this unsatisfactoriness erupts into the open as sorrow, grief, disappointment, or despair; but usually it hovers at the edge of our awareness as a vague unlocalized sense that things are never quite perfect, never fully adequate to our expectations of what they should be. This fact of dukkha, the Buddha says, is the only real spiritual problem.
Three great sources of suffering that are named again and again in Buddhist teachings are sickness, old age, and death, which all humans experience. There are also many other pervasive sources of this unease, this dukkha, we experience so often.
Bhikkhu Bodhi continues:
But even death, the Buddha teaches, does not bring us to the end of dukkha, for the life process does not stop with death. When life ends in one place, with one body, the “mental continuum,” the individual stream of consciousness, springs up again elsewhere with a new body as its physical support. Thus the cycle goes on over and over — birth, aging, and death — driven by the thirst for more existence. The Buddha declares that this round of rebirths — called samsara, “the wandering” — has been turning through beginningless time. It is without a first point, without temporal origin. No matter how far back in time we go we always find living beings — ourselves in previous lives — wandering from one state of existence to another.
This is a crucial element in Buddhist thought: Our suffering does not end when we die. Understanding this gives me a great incentive to practice with diligence.
The Second Noble Truth
The Second Noble Truth identifies the causes of all suffering. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
If we want to put a stop to suffering, we have to stop it where it begins, with its causes. To stop the causes requires a thorough knowledge of what they are and how they work; thus the Buddha devotes a sizeable section of his teaching to laying bare “the truth of the origin of dukkha.” The origin he locates within ourselves, in a fundamental malady that permeates our being, causing disorder in our own minds and vitiating our relationships with others and with the world.
Often this “fundamental malady” is called desire. Sometimes it is called craving. Bhikkhu Bodhi discusses the three defilements (sometimes called the three poisons): greed, aversion, and delusion. These are what cause human suffering.
Greed (lobha) is self-centered desire: the desire for pleasure and possessions, the drive for survival, the urge to bolster the sense of ego with power, status, and prestige.
From these three poisonous “roots,” many fruits grow. These poisonous fruits create suffering for us in our daily lives. (Bhikkhu Bodhi elaborates on each one under the subheading “The Causes of Suffering.”)
The Buddha teaches that there is one defilement which gives rise to all the others, one root which holds them all in place. This root is ignorance (avijja). Ignorance is not mere absence of knowledge, a lack of knowing particular pieces of information. … As the basic root of dukkha, ignorance is a fundamental darkness shrouding the mind.
Moreover, Bhikkhu Bodhi tells us in a footnote:
Ignorance is actually identical in nature with the unwholesome root “delusion” (moha). When the Buddha speaks in a psychological context about mental factors, he generally uses the word “delusion”; when he speaks about the causal basis of samsara, he uses the word “ignorance” (avijja).
When I think about a thing that makes me feel bad, I can usually trace it back to some form of desire, some wish that something was other than it is. I wish I had that. I wish I didn’t have this. I wish I were not with these people right now. I wish I were with that other person instead.
The Third Noble Truth
The Third Noble Truth is that suffering has an end. For it to come to an end, the root must be cut. One way to go about it is to cut all three roots (as discussed in the previous section). Ignorance (delusion) is the mother root, however — the one “which holds them all in place” — so the focus falls on that one.
Bhikkhu Bodhi writes:
Since ignorance is a state of not knowing things as they really are, what is needed is knowledge of things as they really are. Not merely conceptual knowledge, knowledge as idea, but perceptual knowledge, a knowing which is also a seeing. This kind of knowing is called wisdom (pañña). Wisdom helps to correct the distorting work of ignorance. It enables us to grasp things as they are in actuality, directly and immediately, free from the screen of ideas, views, and assumptions our minds ordinarily set up between themselves and the real.
Wisdom: prajna is the Sanskrit word, and pañña is the Pali word. So the Fourth Noble Truth introduces us to the idea that by gaining real wisdom, we will be able to end suffering in our own lifetime.
Another central idea in Buddhist thought is that wisdom is experiential. It cannot be gotten from reading books and listening to teachers. It must be attained through real experiences on an individual level.
The Fourth Noble Truth
How is this wisdom to be gained? What can we do to get it?
Bhikkhu Bodhi says this about the Fourth Noble Truth:
However, the Buddha says, wisdom can be cultivated. It comes into being through a set of conditions, conditions which we have the power to develop. These conditions are actually mental factors, components of consciousness, which fit together into a systematic structure that can be called a path in the word’s essential meaning: a courseway for movement leading to a goal. The goal here is the end of suffering, and the path leading to it is the Noble Eightfold Path with its eight factors: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Thus, the Noble Eightfold Path is the Fourth Noble Truth. The path is the instruction manual for how to bring an end to suffering.
The first instruction in the path is Right View, which rests on the Four Noble Truths.
The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.