The Four Noble Truths—the Path Out of Samsara

AUTHOR: Khenpo Tsultrim Lodrö
HITS( 14192)

What is the difference between the Four Noble Truths and the Two Truths (relative and absolute truth)? The Two Truths delineate the doctrinal view on phenomena whereas the Four Noble Truths, though also contain some elements of that view, focus mainly on the practicable ways to attain liberation. Therefore, both are very important Buddhist doctrines that can lend certain help to one’s practice if understood well. Of course, one may choose to learn only the theories necessary for undertaking specific practice rather than the more extensive knowledge of various Buddhist doctrines such as the Two Truths or the Four Noble Truths. But chances are one may be prone to mistakes more easily this way except for those with the sharpest faculties.

 For example, if one has only limited knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, e.g., the rarity and preciousness of human birth or the suffering nature of samsara, doubts about the viability of gaining liberation through Dharma practice, the methods to be used for attaining enlightenment, or the soundness of the practice being undertaken, to name a few, may arise during the course of one’s practice. Lacking the wisdom gained from an orderly training in the Dharma and from contemplation, one is incapable of solving these issues alone and thereby easily confused, which ultimately may turn into a kind of hindrance to one’s practice. Whereas gaining the requisite wisdom can be both helpful and encouraging. As practitioners of the Dharma, we should at the least have an adequate understanding of the key doctrines. Such knowledge is more than just needed for a true practitioner; it is indispensable.

I. Overview

The practice of the Four Noble Truths begins with the cultivation of renunciation and bodhicitta. Renunciation enables us to transcend samsara while bodhicitta inspires us to remain in samsara without being bound by it. Are they contradictory to each other? No, they’re not. If renunciation is not generated, samsara cannot be transcended. We will then end up in the same position as all other beings in the six realms, having no ability to save anyone. In order to transcend samsara, one must resolutely cut off all attachment to it. But that does not mean one should abandon all those remained in samsara afterwards. To abandon them means one’s goal is only to seek enlightenment for oneself and upon reaching that goal, one ignores their need for liberation. Sravakas and pratyekabuddhas, abiding in the meditation of cessation,1 have transcended samsara and at the same time abandoned those left in samsara. Alas, owing to their limited power of samadhi, they neither have the ability nor the aspiration to lead other sentient beings to liberation.

  But Mahayana Buddhism calls for transcendence, not desertion, of samsara. The bodhisattvas practice emptiness, not-self, or great compassion not to escape from the suffering of samsara but to benefit sentient beings more thoroughly and effectively, and to serve the needs of others more generously. Ordinary people, unable to break loose from samsara, have no choice but to remain trapped in the cycle of rebirth. Whereas the bodhisattvas, no longer being bound by samsara, choose to remain because sentient beings only exist in samsara, not in nirvana. In order to deliver sentient beings from all suffering, the bodhisattvas must work from within, not out of, samsara. The key to understand this dichotomy lies in distinguishing between the relative truth and the absolute truth.

 The Four Noble Truths explain the nature, the origin, the cessation and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Why are there not three or five truths? It is because all that is known or existent can be assigned to either samsara or nirvana; there is no other kind of existence in between. Samsara has its cause and effect; so does nirvana. Two sets of cause and effect make the Four Noble Truths. To explain nirvana and samsara by way of cause and effect is essentially what the Four Noble Truths are all about.

Why we ordinary beings keep drifting in samsara is century-old question to which only the Buddha can fully answer. Others, even being adept in all the disciplines of the world, will still draw a blank when confronted with this question. The Buddha, with transcendent wisdom, gave the answer in a nutshell: It is not by accident or God’s will that one is born a human or an animal. There is always a cause. Such cause is the origin of suffering, and suffering itself is the effect of samsara.

What does the word “truth” represent, as in the Four Noble Truths? It means reality. Does it mean that samsara is a reality? No, it doesn’t. Here, “truth” represents the condition as perceived by the sages. The difference between what ordinary people perceive and that of the sages is as wide apart as earth and heaven. Ordinary people obscured by ignorance see only the illusions of reality while the sages perceive the true reality. Therefore, the word “truth” is never meant to define the view of ordinary people.

So then how many realities are there? There are four: That which causes samsara is the origin of suffering; the effect of samsara is suffering. That which causes nirvana is the path leading to the cessation of suffering; the cessation of suffering is the effect of nirvana. Cessation of suffering means eradication of all karmic hindrances and afflictions, and detachment from the defiled phenomena of samsara through the path of Dharma practice.

An analogy used by Maitreya Bodhisattva in the Uttaratantra Shastra aptly defines the Four Noble Truths. When treating any illness, doctors need to take four steps: 1) to ascertain the nature of the illness; 2) to eliminate the cause of the illness, since it would be ineffective to treat only the symptoms; 3) to prescribe remedies; 4) to heal. All doctors must go through this four-step process to treat an illness. Not knowing the cause of the illness, the doctor cannot prescribe a cure. Even knowing the cause of the illness but having no suitable medicine or the requisite pharmacological knowledge, or worse, giving the wrong prescription, the doctor will still be rendered ineffective. Nevertheless, everything that is concerned with treating a patient starts with identifying the cause of the illness. The Four Noble Truths also correspond to the four steps of treating an illness. The nature of suffering is what to be ascertained, the origin of suffering to be eliminated; the path leading to the cessation of suffering is what to be practiced (prescription), the cessation of suffering to be attained (cure).

At the same time, we should also find out what samsara means, what the cycle of birth, aging, sickness, death and, in fact, the world as a whole signify. But all these questions can simply be summed up in the first Noble Truth—the nature of suffering. Once understanding the nature of suffering, we will have a better grasp on how to deal with the cycle of birth, aging, sickness and death, of which the root cause is the origin of suffering. How then can this cause be uprooted? As physical illness needs the right medication to be cured, cyclic existence can only be stopped with practice of the Dharma. To counteract defilements and attachment, one must exert a sharply opposing force in order to be effective. The process of exerting this counteracting force is the path leading to the cessation of suffering. In other words, the purpose of undertaking Dharma practice is to cease the endless cycle of rebirth and death, not unlike what the right medicine is to a patient.

Theravada practitioners aim to free only themselves from samsara, while the bodhisattvas aspire to do that for themselves and all other sentient beings. Frankly, to single-handedly lead all sentient beings to liberation is an extremely difficult task, one that not even the Buddha could have accomplished in a single lifetime. But the infinite power and aspiration of the Buddha have continued to benefit all those who are receptive to his teachings until this day. Even so, he cannot deliver all sentient beings. What matters is not that everyone can be saved but that we all strive toward that worthy end. It was for this purpose that the Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths.

II. Comprehensive discussion

The importance of the four characteristics of suffering

Regarding the Noble Truth of Suffering, either the exoteric and esoteric Buddhism or Mahayana and Theravada, all have their own views. Here we will only discuss the viewpoints commonly held by both Mahayana and Theravada of the exoteric school.

 There are four characteristics to each of the Four Noble Truths. The word “characteristic” in Sanskrit is a technical terminology used in the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra. What is the relationship between the Four Noble Truths and their characteristics? An analogy can be drawn with the face. If the Four Noble Truths were the face, the facial features would be their characteristics. The Abhidharma-kosha-shastra states that the four characteristics of the Noble Truth of Suffering are: impermanence, suffering, not-self (anatta) and emptiness. Generally speaking, suffering refers to all the negative and impure phenomena of samsara. If examined closely, they can be categorized into the so-called four characteristics. Although these characteristics are not acknowledged in the context of Vajrayana’s uncommon view, they are recognized by both Mahayana and Theravada of the exoteric school.

 As mentioned before, no sentient being is in samsara voluntarily other than certain bodhisattvas. Although some people, after being hypnotized, claim that they purposely took rebirth in samsara, it may just be a lie or their imagination. The fact is that none of us is here by choice. Why do we keep coming back to samsara? It is due to all the defilements caused by karmic power. Like growing crops, seeds do not plan what kind of fruit to yield, or any at all. Given the right temperature and humidity, fruit will grow naturally. Similarly, when people are in the bardo state, they just aimlessly drift around, not knowing specifically what to do. Most of them end up taking rebirth, as the cause for rebirth has long been committed. And with all the necessary conditions fall into place, they have no choice but to be reborn again. If one could choose, why would anyone choose to be reborn as an ox or a horse or to live in misery?

The reason why we should understand the nature of suffering is not curiosity but to resolve the continuous cycle of rebirth and death. Just like a doctor who, in order to treat an illness, needs to examine and diagnose its cause first, we need to know what the nature of suffering is in order to end suffering. And the first step is to identify the cause of our cyclic existence in samsara.

Regarding the cause of being in samsara, there have been various assumptions ranging from being purely accidental to everything being masterminded by God. But all of them are refutable because one-sided opinions do not make good enough evidence. Only the ones that have been recognized as sensible and logical by those of great and varied learning can be considered valid proof. So far, the conjectures made by either the atheists or the fatalists have failed to convince the majority precisely because they lack such recognition.

The root cause of our cyclic existence in samsara is clinging to an inherently existing self wherefrom greed, hatred and delusion arise. Such clinging makes one concern just for one’s own benefit and work only for the well-being of oneself. Without it, selfish thoughts will not arise, neither will the ensuing deeds.

Certain religions like to stress the mysterious power of ghosts and spirits. Although Buddhism does not deny their existence, it believes the biggest demon in the world is the deeply embedded tendency to cling to the self. Outer demons can only affect our daily life in small ways, such as causing illnesses or obstacles. They cannot bind us in samsara, not even if the ghosts of the entire universe combine their forces. Only clinging to the self has such power. Yet, we have never realized that this fellow, Self, who abides in our mind at all times and whom we are very fond of, is really a demon. If we are tired of taking the same route back to samsara again, we must first eliminate this demon. Only then can we be completely free of its interference.

How do we go about destroying the root cause of samsara now that we have identified it? Will burning incense, doing prostrations and reciting mantras work? They may, to some extent, if performed with genuine renunciation and bodhicitta. Renunciation can help us deal with the more obvious defilements while the subtle ones can be subdued by relative bodhicitta. However, the subtlest self-grasping can only be eradicated by the practice of not-self and emptiness, hence their inclusion in the four characteristics. As for impermanence and suffering, why are they part of the four characteristics? They are appointed so as to help us form an aversion to samsara and thereby stop all worldly pursuits.

Basically, impermanence and suffering enable us to generate renunciation of the desire for worldly existence, while absence of an inherently existing self and emptiness lead us to affirm the view of anatta or “not-self.” These four characteristics reveal the true face of samsara. Only by knowing what samsara really is can we engender the necessary will, courage and ability to transcend it.

Before receiving the Buddha’s teachings, we did not understand samsara correctly, and we coveted and greedily pursued wealth and fame without any regard for the consequences. If one were to show no interest in such pursuits, one would most likely be considered abnormal. As a result, most people just follow others blindly and become slaves to money and fame. But the teachings of the Buddha destroy many of our deep-seated ideas about the world and life, and give us a brand new perspective which is above and beyond that of the uninitiated. No doubt others will try to refute the new standpoints, but they will not succeed as no other theories or philosophy can better the teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha once said, “I do not argue with worldly people, but they argue with me.” It means that the Buddha understands where people’s desire and attachment come from. But when people hear the Buddha speak of impermanence, emptiness and not-self, they refuse to accept and constantly raise objections. Actually, it is no surprise that people object since the Buddha’s viewpoints are something they have never heard of or thought about before and are entirely contrary to their usual way of thinking. So object they must. Still, truth is truth. Worldly people can object all they want at first, but eventually they will have to accept it. By worldly people, I do not mean the atheists or the materialists, but people like us who either have not yet learned Buddhadharma or attained realization of emptiness. It is in fact our very own established ideas that are opposing the new perspective.

Thus, what needs to be overthrown is our steadfast clinging to the belief of distinct, self-existing phenomena, not the standpoints of the atheists or some other philosophies. Once that clinging is gone, nothing that others preach can impair our true view anymore. For no matter how eloquent they are, they cannot affect someone who has realized emptiness. The means by which one can thoroughly destroy clinging to the idea of self-existing phenomena is to generate renunciation, arouse bodhicitta and cultivate the critical view of emptiness.

Why is realization of emptiness so powerful? It is because the cause of our endless rebirth in samsara is not something external but our own views and attachment, a kind of thought actually. And thoughts can be overthrown, but not all of them. Those that are formed on a solid base with logical reasoning are very difficult to be overthrown.

Is clinging to the idea of a real self well grounded and sensible? Not so. Ever since birth, we have always had this notion of a self. Now take a look and see if this self truly exists. And how does it exist? If we examine closely, we will discover that it does not exist. But why do we have this compelling sense of a real self? The truth is that it is all just an illusion. Like when running a high fever, one may see hallucinations as real or have strange thoughts popped up in mind. This is because the causes for seeing hallucinations or having twisted thoughts are already formed such that whatever one sees or thinks is nothing but the illusions created by these causes. Similarly, one may also see non-existing objects after taking some herbal medicine. It is not that these objects really exist somewhere in the world, but that the cause for forming such illusion already exists within oneself.

To practice after understanding the reality of existence, one will be able to see clearly that the self does not exist. The process from the beginning of practice to realization of not-self is the Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering. However, at the outset of the path, the power of practice is not immediately apparent. Often enough, during meditation, one may experience deeply the non-existence of self. But in post-meditation period, one is still keenly aware of the need for food and clothing, for making a living, and the anger when being provoked. In the chapter Wisdom of The Way of the Bodhisattva, it explains that this situation is not because realization of emptiness is ineffective, but that one’s own realization is still relatively weak and unstable. That is why we must maintain regular practice and keep enhancing its overall effectiveness. Once our practice has gathered enough momentum, the situation will change for the better. This is very important to note.

The reason for pointing out only four characteristics

The Noble Truth of Suffering encompasses all sentient and non-sentient phenomena in samsara. There must be innumerable characteristics related to this world of myriad phenomena. Why then did the Buddha only point out four? It is because all the other characteristics are not so relevant to our practice. The Buddha gave an analogy of this in a sutra. A man was wounded by a poisonous arrow. If he did not receive treatment immediately, he would die. If, at this time, people around him just wondered where the arrow came from, what material it was made of and who made it, instead of pulling the arrow out, could he still be saved in time? No way. At that moment, the first thing to do should be to pull the arrow out to save this life, not to find out how and from where the arrow came.

The thrust of the story is that the few minutes it takes from being wounded to death are comparable to the few decades of our lives. What should we count as the most important in this rather short period? Is it to study the trajectories of the planets or the physics of the space? Many people have spent their whole life doing these researches and died before reaching any definitive conclusions. To the deceased, whether there is life or water on other planets is no longer relevant. Therefore, our time should be spent on something most important in life, i.e., to free ourselves from the repeated cycles of birth, aging, sickness and death. To use our relatively short lifetime on any other analysis is really not worthwhile. If there were a bystander in the afore-mentioned story, that person would consider it absurd that instead of saving the wounded, the crowd was busy studying the arrow. It would be equally unwise to expend energy on something transitory and insignificant rather than on spiritual practice.

The phenomena of both the micro-universe and the outer space are part of all the characteristics of the Noble Truth of Suffering. So are chemistry, physics and philosophy. However, they have very little to do with liberation from samsara. Hence it is only reasonable to prioritize our focus in life, as some are more important than others. Most of the things that laypeople have to do to survive do not address freedom from samsara.

Only four among all are concerned with liberation. The rest we can put aside. Once enlightenment is attained, all the questions, no matter how complex they are, will be easily understood without having to conduct any research and experiment. Even if a research is called for, it should take place after we have resolved the questions of cyclic existence. So, at the moment, just focus on the four characteristics.

Frankly, all the disciplines in the world are only concerned with our living, not how to resolve the fundamental question of existence. Once our lives are in danger, no amount of studies can help. Just look at people’s attitude and their behavior during the time of SARS. What more needs to be said? This is why the Buddha only pointed out the four characteristics.

Next we will elaborate on the characteristics of each of the Four Noble Truths.

The Noble Truth of Suffering

This encompasses the non-sentient world of land, rivers, mountains and so forth, as well as the sentient world of all living beings in the six realms. In other words, all sentient beings and what their six consciousnesses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind) come in contact with are all included in the domain of the Noble Truth of Suffering. Because we are in constant contact with both the sentient and the non-sentient world, suffering manifests around us all the time. We ourselves are also part of it. Even so, people have hardly known correctly the nature of suffering, which in turn leads to much distress. It is therefore so important to understand it well.

Why do the four characteristics—impermanence, suffering, not- self and emptiness—have profound impact on liberation from samsara? Because all negative karma such as killing, stealing and sexual misconduct that one commits out of greed, hatred and delusion result from not having the right understanding of these four characteristics.

The opposing view of impermanence is the view of the eternalists, which holds that all phenomena abide forever. The eternalist view is an inborn belief of ours. People tend to regard all appearances as permanent and thus develop either a sense of desire for or dislike of them. However, if one has acquired certain understanding of impermanence, one is unlikely to bear a grudge against others for long because enemies do not stay enemies forever. From a subtler perspective, enemies, like all phenomena, also intrinsically cease and arise every instant. If one were to look for some truly existing enemies, one would not find any in the end. The same goes with desire. People commonly believe that wealth and fame are something dependable and therefore pursue them with all their might. Would they still have been so enthusiastic about their pursuits had they known the impermanent and unreliable nature of all things in the material world?

There is a classic story on impermanence in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. A practitioner did a retreat in a cave for nine years. At the entrance of the cave, there were some nettles. His robes always got caught by the prickly plants every time he left the cave. As it was kind of a bother, he thought about cutting the nettles. Then the thought of possibly not being able to return to the cave again crossed his mind, he decided to do something more meaningful with his time instead. When going into the cave, his robes got caught as well. The thought of removing the nettles arose again. But considering the possibility that this might be his last time leaving the cave, he decided against it and saved the time for training the mind. He continued like this for nine years until he attained accomplishment in his practice while the nettles remained standing at the entrance. It was his firm conviction that all phenomena are impermanent that made him treasure every moment of his life by not spending it on something meaningless but practicing the Dharma. His accomplishment came as the result of realizing impermanence, not emptiness, of all phenomena.

If we understand deeply the impermanence of all worldly matters, we will not want to direct all of our energy toward the pursuit of material comforts. But the reality is that other than the bodhisattvas and those true practitioners, most people today are just blindly seeking the fulfillment of material wealth on which they believe they can depend. Then from this mistaken perspective comes sets of other problems. Thus, we need first to destroy our own eternalist view through contemplating impermanence. Once we have gained a profound awareness of the impermanent nature of everything in this world, we will no longer be the same any more.

Why is suffering the second characteristic? People in general think that there are also many elements of happiness in life and do not sense that samsara only has miseries. The reason why we so actively and enthusiastically engage ourselves in the pursuit of wealth and fame of this world is because we believe there is happiness to be had in these worldly achievements. This view comes from our belief that life in the god and human realm is basically a happy one. The Buddha requested that we regard all phenomena in samsara as suffering, which not only is a request from the Buddha but also a fact. Conversely, if the Buddha did not tell the truth, we would not need to comply either, whether or not the Buddha had requested. Although in real life we can see and experience suffering around us at any given time, we tend to easily forget what we have witnessed. As a result, the miseries we so witnessed cannot help us discern the true nature of samsara. This is why the Buddha taught us to regard samsara as nothing but suffering.

Some people may disagree and ask, “How can samsara be full of suffering when we have actually experienced happiness in this world?” But this feeling of happiness is really the result of us being obscured by some superficial and transitory appearances. Once we realize the truth behind the so-called happiness, we may begin to feel quite anxious about the precarious condition to which this life has been taking us so far.

The Buddha succinctly pointed out that there are three types of suffering. The first is suffering upon suffering, the truly painful. It is the kind of pain that everyone recognizes; it is easily noticeable, not subtle at all. This type of suffering primarily exists in the hell, hungry ghost and animal realm.

The second type is suffering arising from change. This type of suffering is not obvious at the outset, but may turn into something rather painful later on. For instance, if we see a stranger die of a car accident on the street, we probably will not feel too distraught with grief. However, if the deceased should turn out to be our parent or a loved one, our grief would be very strong and immediate because of the emotional attachment we have to the person. Frankly, we would not have suffered had suffering not been a latent part of family relationship already. Besides, worldly happiness can also turn into a source of suffering. For example, the happy gathering of friends and relatives gives one pleasure, but the eventual parting makes one sad. If there had been no feeling of happiness at the gathering, there would not have been any sadness at the time of parting. Thus, happiness is in direct proportion to suffering here. Suffering arising from change may appear to be happiness on the surface, but can in fact turn into suffering at any moment. That is to say, without earlier happiness, no suffering will ensue either, just like we never feel happy or sad about meeting and leaving the strangers at the malls or other public places. Since we did not experience happiness in the first place, no suffering will ensue afterwards. Suffering arising from change is so named because the ensuing suffering concealed within prior happiness will eventually reveal itself when conditions change. Suffering of this kind usually happens to the human and celestial beings of the desire realm.

The third is suffering of all conditioned phenomena. Because it is very subtle, our sense faculties do not react visibly to its appearance and disappearance. Yet it acts like a locomotive to the suffering that will ensue. In other words, it is capable of engendering other suffering since it itself is impure and defiled in nature. This kind of suffering exists primarily in the form and formless realm.

These are what the Buddha gave as a comprehensive definition of suffering. If in samsara there were only one type of suffering, e.g., suffering upon suffering, it would be reasonable to think that celestial and human beings, and even animals, can also feel certain happiness in this world. Unfortunately, this is not the case. No matter how colorful and fascinating the world appears to be, in the end all phenomena are inseparable from suffering. As the Buddha saw the whole picture, not just a part, of samsara, he came to the final conclusion after having observed the gross and subtle aspects of suffering that samsara is all suffering.

Man’s suffering is minuscule compared with that of the animals, not to mention that of the hell beings or the hungry ghosts. Yet given a choice, how many of us would want to repeat this life again? Not too many! Most people feel that this life is too hard, too tiring and has too much pressure. There may not be too much suffering upon suffering in the human world, but it does not mean that there is no suffering in our life. Human suffering often comes from a sense of aimlessness and fear. For example, the ultimate goal of many successful businessmen is really no more than having a comfortable life. But with success comes unparalleled pressure. Failing to cope with the pressure, some even take their own lives.

Those who have not learned or practiced Buddhist teachings may not care too much about it in their youth. But as they grow older, the feeling of emptiness increases with time as well because mentally they do not seem to be able to take refuge in anything. They spend their youth and energy to accumulate wealth in order to live comfortably in old age. But when old age does come, along with sickness and death, their wealth cannot help at all. Some may place their hope in other people. But we must accept the fact that the caring of friends and relatives or the filial piety of children who either offer to keep one company or send kind regards via letters or phone calls cannot dispel one’s deepest fear. In the end, we all must face death alone. One can imagine how terrifying and remorseful it can be at that moment. Most people choose to either forget or ignore this inevitable ending and turn instead to indulge freely in worldly pleasures. But we can never leave behind the thought of imminent ending for long, as it poses a constant threat and is such a weighty reality for us to grapple with.

Young people are not above this either. They may look like they can afford to play and have fun all the time. But once they begin to contemplate the purpose of this life and the question of the beginning and the ending of life, they cannot help but realize that the two ends of this life are really a blur. What their minds and eyes can grasp are only the present, fleeting moments. Most of them, unable to face this frightening conclusion directly, just cast these issues aside and ignore them.

Material comforts are like anesthetics that can only numb the senses temporarily while the reality of birth, old age, sickness and death never goes away. If we avoid facing these issues now, whether we get another chance to do anything about it in the future would be anybody’s guess. This is by no means an exaggerated threat, but an inevitable outcome.

The discussion presented so far mainly demonstrates the effect on people caused by suffering arising from change.

There are also those who either due to their cultural background or poor financial condition, are not in the position to concern themselves with these issues just yet. But if one does have the means and the will, it is never too early to begin tackling these questions to make oneself aware of the true reality. On the other hand, if one refuses to change course and still indulges in pleasure seeking, one will in many respects match the description given by the past practitioners that such people are really no different from animals. Animals only care about having fun and enough to eat. Other values are not their concerns. We may think of them as being pitiable, what with all the limitations of their lives, while they themselves do not. Those who only focus on seeking pleasures in life are really not much better than animals, and in this sense the description from the past is a fitting one.

The eight kinds of suffering set forth in The Words of My Perfect Teacher have all been part of our personal experiences. You may refer to the book for details. Some people assign a relatively low priority to the questions of life and death whereas fulfilling the basic needs of life is of the utmost importance. And they believe it is rightfully so. This just indicates a lack of in-depth understanding of suffering and impermanence. Why does the present matter but not the future? Can we really ignore the question about future life? Why don’t we need to resolve what will face us in the next life and the one after that? Is it justified to only care about the present? Some may argue that there is no next life based on some scientific reasoning. But I think this question is a philosophical one rather than scientific. No science can prove the nonexistence of past and future life. Some so-called proofs are just the premature judgment of a small group of people which in no way can refute the existence of past and future life. This is a very real question that we should not make any excuse to evade. But more importantly, we need to contemplate the true nature of samsara on a much deeper level. To take life and death only at face value is what keeps us in samsara from beginningless time until now. The fact is that we have been fooled all along and need to wake up to this fact as quickly as we can.

The next two characteristics are emptiness and not-self. Emptiness means neither the mind nor the body is controlled by “I.” Not-self means neither the body nor the mind is “I.” Regardless of the conceptual difference between the two, both characteristics point to the absence of an inherently existing self.

Why is it important to ponder the non-existence of self? It is because it holds the key to ultimate freedom. Through cultivating renunciation and bodhicitta, we are able to greatly reduce greed, hatred and other afflictive thoughts. But lacking the perspective on emptiness, self- grasping, the root of all defilements, cannot be resolutely eradicated. Self-grasping is like a steel wire that links our mind and body together and confines us to this body life after life without freedom. In order to sustain the body and cater to its every need, mind following the commands of the body becomes its slave. As long as the wire stays, we remain bound. It is thus necessary to sever it. Once we are free from the fetters, mind can fly freely, like a kite without tethers, in the Dharma sky. Self-grasping can no longer exert any influence.

The only way to sever this wire is to realize emptiness. On attaining this realization, one ceases to differentiate between self and others. As a result, selfishness, unwholesome behavior such as stealing and killing for personal gains, hatred towards enemy and greed towards objects of desire will cease as well. From the perspective of Theravada, once these defilements are purified, one is deemed to have found the way out of samsara and attained liberation for oneself, which is the ultimate goal of Theravada practitioners. It means no more suffering and rebirth. Whereas in the minds of the bodhisattvas, purification of defilement is only the start toward their goal of being better equipped to benefit others. As realization of emptiness has destroyed selfishness, they can, from that point on, dedicate themselves entirely and unconditionally to benefit others. Therefore, one should endeavor to realize emptiness for one’s own sake and others’ as well. If not, the root of all delusions will still remain even though the more obvious defilements are reduced by other practices.

The doctrines and practices of Buddhism are logical and realistic, not at all mysterious. When understood, it is unlikely that anyone will disagree. Buddhism has pointed out a safe passage out of samsara for us, whether we choose to leave is another matter. If we choose not to go this way, we will just keep wandering away from the path to liberation. And whether or not liberation from samsara can be attained really all comes down to one’s actual practice.

In terms of actual practices, emptiness and not-self are the two practices for the third and the fourth characteristic of the Noble Truth of Suffering. As for the second characteristic of suffering, you can refer to the common preliminary teaching on ‘the woes of samsara’ in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. To practice impermanence, I find that, at the moment at least, the factors contributing to the eternalist views are not those subtle ones but rather the more obvious ones. So the practice to counter this kind of view is the teaching on ‘the impermanence of life’ as specified in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Once we have completed these practices satisfactorily, firm renunciation will arise which is certain to help with our quest for liberation.

Actually, it is a big mistake not knowing the importance for all sentient beings of learning and practicing the Dharma. Sentient beings all possess Buddha nature. Through the incessant effort of all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, surely everyone will eventually come to realize this. Just the process may take longer to come to fruition. Until then, we should also strive to gain that realization on our own.

As laypersons, you all have varied duties and at times tedious things to deal with everyday. But there are twenty four hours in a day. To spend one hour each morning and evening to contemplate the questions about samsara and leave the remaining twenty two hours for other activities should be a feasible arrangement, I would think. Even more importantly, besides having the right view, practitioners need to be able to practice. Already one needs extremely good fortune to hear the Dharma and develop faith in the Buddha, particularly so in this modern age. But absent the actual practice, no amount of Buddhist knowledge can help solve any problem of life. And even if it does help finally, it will be after a long, long time. Therefore, either for others’ or our own sake, we should start our practice sooner rather than some time later.

Although it is understandable for laypersons to acquire a skill or two in order to make a living, it has nothing to do with liberation and is not the purpose of life, only something we do temporarily. Nonetheless, it does not mean that we ought to drop everything we do once we start Buddhist practice. If that were the case, Buddhism would not stay viable for long either. In Buddhist tradition, there have always been two distinct groups of lay and monastic practitioners. The monastics dedicate themselves solely to Buddhist practice whereas lay practitioners practice the Dharma while leading a secular life. Yet lay practitioners are not supposed to concern themselves fully with worldly matters, like those who do not practice at all. Appropriately measured participation in the mundane activities is already quite sufficient.

 Other than the four characteristics, scientific discussions, philosophical viewpoints, traditions, cultures, etc. are also considered the characteristics of the Noble Truth of Suffering. In fact, these characteristics number in the tens of thousands. Since we cannot study them all in our limited lifetime, only these four are chosen to help us realize the true nature of cyclic existence.

The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering

There are two origins. One is defilement like greed, hatred, delusion, arrogance and the like. The other is karma caused by the defilements, which includes both positive and negative karma. Why are they deemed the origin of suffering? It is because they are what keeps us in samsara. In other words, everything we experience in samsara originates from karma and defilements.

We must understand that the six realms of samsara are not invented or arranged by the Creator or any personified god. Nor are they some chance happenings, devoid of causes and conditions. They are in fact the manifestations of cause and effect. And the most important cause among all is clinging to the self. What does it mean by clinging to the self? For instance, when we have a headache, we say, “I have a headache.” A notion of the self is in that statement. Or, if a car suddenly drives by us when we are riding a bicycle, it would give us a start. Here, a sense of the self is also present in our minds. All that causes this sense of the self to arise is a kind of blind attachment. Attachment may be blind or senseless, but it has completely taken control over every one of us, including those we greatly admire.

The effect of clinging to the self is to put one’s own interest above others’. Although sometimes one may appear to be altruistic, in reality self-interest still comes first. Clinging to the self engenders greed, hatred, delusion and other defilements. Greed impels us to steal; hatred drives us to kill. The resulting karma becomes a cause which produces an effect. All the phenomena in the world including those invisible to us in the micro-universe follow the law of causality. Thus killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and other unwholesome deeds will definitely bear the corresponding karmic fruits which manifest as the myriad suffering of samsara. The cause that results in suffering is the origin of suffering. At present, our most important task is to uproot the causes of suffering. And the way to achieve this goal is to practice the Dharma, to cultivate the right view and to gain realization of emptiness.

The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering

The cause of entering nirvana or that of liberation is the path leading to the cessation of suffering. It also has four characteristics listed in the Abhidharma-kosha-shastra, but we will not discuss them in details here. The gist of the path is contained in The Three Principal Aspects of the Path written by Je Tsongkhapa, which encompasses all the key issues of exoteric and esoteric Buddhism.

The first aspect is renunciation, which essentially means not to make the pursuit of material accomplishments the purpose of life. Having generated renunciation, one should no longer act like those who exchange their whole precious life for ephemeral pleasures, but set to obtain liberation as the grand purpose of life. One can even imitate the bodhisattvas to arouse bodhicitta and live for the deliverance of all sentient beings to liberation. If one determines to focus life on obtaining one’s own freedom from cyclic existence instead of pursuing material pleasures, one can be deemed having generated renunciation.

The second is bodhicitta, which is the aspiration to live for the attainment of liberation for all sentient beings. This is different from the good Samaritans reported in the newspapers or on television. The true bodhisattvas have only one goal in life, and that is to use their lifetime to benefit others.

The third aspect is realization of emptiness.

In a nutshell, the path leading to the cessation of suffering can be subsumed under these three aspects. Over the years, I have kept insisting on the necessity of generating renunciation and bodhicitta before taking up any other practice. It is not because there are no better practices, but rather it would be useless to practice them without having the requisite faculties. Taking the path leading to the cessation of suffering can eliminate all the defilements which are the origins of the suffering of samsara. Just as physical pain disappears once the illness has been cured, suffering ceases after all the defilements have been eradicated.

Conventional wisdom holds that to see is to believe. So for us, what we can see with our own eyes is most convincing. For example, it would be quite difficult to visualize a transparent stone wall because the eyes do not see such a wall. However, when practice has reached a certain stage, practitioners will be much less influenced by the external factors. At that point, one has gained the ability to change or control outer phenomena at will, thereby weakening or eliminating the external influence altogether. But presently such ability is still beyond our reach. Although some may question its plausibility, descriptions of such ability are abundantly available in various texts and have been broadly analyzed in some of the more contemporary treatises. In addition, personal actualization by many accomplished practitioners has provided even stronger proof. It is just that our own practice is not up to that high standard yet. To get to that level of attainment, the foundational practices are absolutely indispensable. And the first step is to generate renunciation.

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

The cessation of suffering means having eliminated all the defilements. It is like the reemergence of blue sky after the clouds have been blown away by the wind. Similarly, when negative karma and defilements have been purified and uprooted by renunciation, bodhicitta and realization of emptiness, Buddha nature (Tathagatagarbha) will naturally arise. This is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, the ultimate effect of practicing the Dharma. Then, does it mean that actualization of Tathagatagarbha is the sole purpose for us to practice the Dharma? Of course not. The ultimate goal of Mahayana practice is to attain enlightenment in order to benefit sentient beings more effectively and completely.

Of the four noble truths, we discussed the nature of suffering more extensively than the other three. As for the specifics of the actual practice, please refer to The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Dharma practice is indeed very important, but don’t place too much attention on its seemingly mysterious side. Rather, we should just faithfully follow the words of the Buddha and steadily move along. This is the only sure way that will take us to the ultimate goal. So do keep up with your practice.

 1 The attainment of cessation is the highest possible meditational state in Theravada Buddhism.