Tag Archives: Right View

Right View: The Four Noble Truths

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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.

Breathe.

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

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Walking the Eightfold Path

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Well. Hello. It’s been a while since I posted here.

This summer I was lucky enough to attend two long teaching events, one with the Dalai Lama in Washington, D.C., and one with Thich Nhat Hanh in Vancouver, Canada. In both cases, much of the teaching centered on the Noble Eightfold Path.

These teachings inspired me to read a deeper explanation of the Path. I searched online and found  this:

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.

Wow.

Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American by birth and a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition. He has an earned doctorate in philosophy and studied Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where he was ordained as a novice in 1972. His book In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon was recommended to me by a respected Buddhism scholar.

I think I would like to write some posts about what I am learning from this wonderful, free online text. I am not sure whether I would have appreciated this text a few years ago, when I was just beginning to practice. When I was starting out, I found these lists that are so common in Buddhist teachings to be kind of intimidating. Am I supposed to learn these by heart? I wondered. They seem so redundant. Why are there so many lists? Why do they all say the same things?

This summer I felt like I had traveled in a big, long circle and come around to the start of it again, standing in the same place as before — but everything looked different now.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

Right view is the forerunner of the entire path, the guide for all the other factors. It enables us to understand our starting point, our destination, and the successive landmarks to pass as practice advances. To attempt to engage in the practice without a foundation of right view is to risk getting lost in the futility of undirected movement. Doing so might be compared to wanting to drive someplace without consulting a roadmap or listening to the suggestions of an experienced driver. One might get into the car and start to drive, but rather than approaching closer to one’s destination, one is more likely to move farther away from it. To arrive at the desired place one has to have some idea of its general direction and of the roads leading to it.

Reading that, I understood the circular interconnection of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path for the first time. Or maybe I already understood it, and as I read, I saw my understanding for the first time.

Right View — the first item on the list of eight in the Noble Eightfold Path — is the beginning and also the end. It is equivalent to the Four Noble Truths. In other words, if you have Right View, it is because you have attained the truth of each one of the Four Noble Truths. What used to bother me was that the fourth one of those is the Noble Eightfold Path. A Western mind can feel frustration right at the outset when confronting this.

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote:

In its fullest measure right view involves a correct understanding of the entire Dhamma (Dharma) or teaching of the Buddha, and thus its scope is equal to the range of the Dhamma itself. But for practical purposes two kinds of right view stand out as primary. One is mundane right view, right view which operates within the confines of the world. The other is supramundane right view, the superior right view which leads to liberation from the world. The first is concerned with the laws governing material and spiritual progress within the round of becoming, with the principles that lead to higher and lower states of existence, to mundane happiness and suffering. The second is concerned with the principles essential to liberation. It does not aim merely at spiritual progress from life to life, but at emancipation from the cycle of recurring lives and deaths.

Once I began to meditate on this difference — between the mundane or simple Right View one needs to get started on the path, and the supramundane or complex Right View, which is associated with Wisdom (that is Buddhist Wisdom, with a capital W) — I saw how the teachings about the Four Noble Truths given by great teachers such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are truly “a finger pointing at the moon” (to repeat one of those oft-repeated lessons).

When I heard a teaching about the Four Noble Truths, often I would feel a bit disappointed. I already know this, I thought. I was hoping for something different, something new.

Never fail to listen with your full attention.

Breathe.

The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.