Tag Archives: suffering

Right View: The Four Noble Truths


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.


Leonard Cohen offers some insights


“You can visit that world; you can’t live there.” — Leonard Cohen, interviewed in 1997 about his time in a Zen monastery; CBC television (7 min. 6 sec. Well worth it. You’ll see.)

… in 1994, following a tour to promote his latest album The Future, he [Cohen] sought sanctuary in the Mount Baldy Zen Buddhist monastery in the rattlesnake-infested San Gabriel mountains behind Los Angeles.

Cohen had been a regular visitor at the monastery for more than a decade, sometimes spending three months at a time there. But this time it looked as though the world had lost him for good. He shaved his head, donned black robes and devoted himself to the study of Zen Buddhism.

“I wasn’t looking for a religion,” he says. “I already had a perfectly good one [his Jewish faith]. And I certainly wasn’t looking for a new series of rituals. But I had a great sense of disorder in my life, of chaos and depression, of distress. And I had no idea where this came from. The prevailing psychoanalytic explanations of the time didn’t seem to address the things I felt. Then I bumped into someone who seemed to be at ease with himself and at ease with others …”

That someone was Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the monastery’s founder.

Source: The Independent (a British newspaper), 15 June 2008


There is something you can do


There’s a documentary video about Thich Nhat Hanh, called “Peace Is Every Step.” In it, the Zen master tells a story about an American veteran of the Vietnam war (there are a lot of Vietnam veterans in this video). The former soldier suffers a lot because of terrible things he did during the war. One memory in particular is tormenting this Vietnam vet — the image of five children who died because of his actions. He cannot get the five children out of his mind, more than 20 years later.

Thich Nhat Hanh told him that many children die every day. Some die because of the lack of one single pill. Some die from hunger. You could save five children, he told the former soldier. Why suffer so much about children who have already died, when instead, you could save children who are alive today?

You cannot bring back those five children from many years ago. They are dead. That is in the past.

But you can do something today. Right now. You can make a difference in the lives of other people. And if you did, you would lessen your own suffering as well.


Desire and suffering


In Buddhism, we say: Mind makes everything. It literally means that the world as we see it is created by our minds. But where it is most easy to comprehend (at least, for students like me) is when we learn how to be aware of our assumptions about what “is” and what “should be.”

A woman I know was talking about what’s missing in her life. She’s young, but she’s longing for a certain kind of relationship and some kind of stability to go along with it. Right now she’s feeling very sorry for herself.

This is typical of the way we all suffer. She’s very sad because she wants something. Her wanting it (desiring it) is only part of what’s making her feel bad, though. She’s feeling even worse because she keeps on thinking about how she doesn’t have it. And when she sees two lovers who appear happy, she feels even worse.

She is actually doing a lot of work (in her mind) to create all this misery for herself. I have done this too! We have to unravel this bundle of me, me, me, to see clearly how we make this longing, this absence, this desire.


No me, no you


The big consequence of dualistic thinking is that it creates barriers. We manufacture barriers in our mind, and these barriers make us believe that one something is better than another. This is also called “opposites thinking” in Buddhism. So my family is more important to me than your family, and my country is better than your country.

For Buddhism, the dualism between life and death is only one instance of a more general problem, dualistic thinking. Why is dualistic thinking a problem? We differentiate between good and evil, success and failure, life and death, and so forth because we want to keep the one and reject the other. But we cannot have one without the other because they are interdependent: affirming one half also maintains the other. (From The nonduality of life and death: A Buddhist view of repression, by David Loy, 1990.)

Yesterday I saw a man lying on the street, bleeding, unconscious. There had been a terrible traffic accident. He’s in critical condition in the hospital today. I don’t know him. I wasn’t able to help him, because I have no medical training.

I heard the crash. I saw him fly off his motorbike and slide at sickening speed across the pavement.

I’ve been wondering how soldiers in a ground war can stand it. Obviously our brains can adapt, can alter reality so that we — some of us, any of us — can go out to a battle zone and see death and suffering of that magnitude every day, and yet continue, survive, and go out again tomorrow.

There is no difference between me and the man bleeding on the pavement. He is not an “other.” He is not separate from me.


Making no difference


This is a story I heard recently for the first time (paraphrased):

A man is walking on a beach. He sees another man making motions that at first are hard to figure out. Then, as the first man comes closer, he sees that there are thousands of starfish on the beach, and the second man is carefully throwing them, one by one, into the ocean. The tide is already going out. The thousands of stranded starfish will die.

The first man points this out to the second one, the thrower. He says the thrower’s efforts will not make any difference; he cannot save more than a tiny fraction of all the starfish.

The thrower, holding one starfish in his hand, says: “It makes a difference to this one.”


I have not been able to forget this story. It comes back to me often, sometimes more than once in one day. So I did some research and discovered that it’s a very abbreviated version of an essay by Loren C. Eiseley, an anthropologist and science writer, titled “The Star Thrower.” Now, apparently, the original does not include this stunning conclusion (and in fact concludes much later, after the first man goes through all kinds of personal reflection).

I think about this — making a difference to one — whenever I feel overwhelmed about poverty and all the other ills that make so many people suffer all around the world.


How you measure your life


From a blog post by Phillip Moffitt:

… our culture teaches you to constantly judge yourself based on superficial measures: How much money you make, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the level of recognition and reward you attain at school and at work, how beautiful you are. But this perspective flattens life. It denies the possibility of finding a deeper meaning to your experience. If you measure your self-worth and effectiveness according to these superficial cultural standards, then each time you suffer, you are forced to interpret suffering as humiliation.

Recently, a dharma teacher asked a roomful of Zen students why we began sitting. One man said, “Because life really sucked,” and we all laughed.

Someone else said: “That’s why I started sitting. And after I did, life got better.” We all nodded.