Awakening To Four Noble Truths

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These are four articles and related Dhamma talks and sangha discussions from Cross River Meditation Center in Frenchtown New Jersey. The Buddha awakened to Dependent Origination which shows from ignorance of Four Noble Truths all manner of confusion, deluded thinking, and ongoing unsatisfactory experiences – suffering – arises. His very first teaching was Four Noble Truths. Everything the Buddha would teach during his forty-five-year teaching career was taught in the context of these Four Truths and Dependent Origination to end ignorance of these truths.

Related Talks

Awakening To The First Noble Truth

Awakening To The First Noble Truth is to fully comprehend the nature of Dukkha. In the Samyutta Nikaya 56.11[1], Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Truth in Motion, The Buddha describes awakening very simply and directly:

  • The noble truth of dukkha has been comprehended.
  • The noble truth of the origination of dukkha has been abandoned.
  • The noble truth of the cessation of dukkha has been experienced.
  • The noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha has been developed.

(Note: Dukkha can be translated to mean stress, discomfort, suffering, disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, confusion, delusion, and ignorance. I will refer to dukkha as stress. All quotes are from SN 56.11)

Through whole-hearted practice of integrating the Eightfold Path into one’s life, the first noble truth of stress is comprehended. The Buddha is not referring to an intellectual understanding of the concept of stress in the phenomenal world. What the Buddha is referring to is a deep and profound dispassionate awareness of the truth of stress.

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose WITHIN me with regards to things never heard or seen before: This is the noble truth of stress … This noble truth of stress is to be comprehended … This noble truth of stress is comprehended.”

Prior to the Buddha’s awakening, he was disillusioned and confused as to the meaning of life and the causes of the stress and suffering in people’s lives. What he realized as a result of his own direct inquiry through Shamatha-Vipassana meditation, with the motivating intent of understanding stress and its cause, is that as a consequence of living in the phenomenal world we are subject to certain and unavoidable truths.

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with those loathed is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful, receiving what one desires to avoid is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.”

(The five clinging-aggregates are what we create an identity from by contact with the phenomenal world through our senses. An article on the five clinging-aggregates is here: The Five Clinging Aggregates)

The Buddha would teach for 45 years. Every subsequent teaching was presented in the context of the Four Noble Truths so that individuals could develop the same understanding as the Buddha developed. It is only when the Buddha’s teachings are taken out of context in order to accommodate individual or cultural views that these teachings become difficult to understand and integrate. The Third Noble Truth provides simple and direct guidance: “Cessation of stress is possible.” The Buddha did not teach anything that did not directly lead to the cessation of stress. If a teaching cannot be seen to directly relate to the cessation of stress, it is not likely a direct teaching of the Buddha.

Understanding stress is simply adopting a realistic view of life in the phenomenal world. Stress is not imposed on us due to our character nor is stress a consequence of bad luck. Stress is not due to any particular consequence of birth.

Simply by being born into the world, stress arises. Once born, desire arises that perpetuates stress. Ultimately, it is desire for existence, for phenomenal experience, that initiates and continues stress.

We spend our entire lives attempting to avoid stress through various compulsive behaviors. We become alcoholics, workaholics, shopaholics, addicts. We compulsively exercise, use social media compulsively, engage in unskillful speech, compulsively overeat, compulsively diet, compulsively seek “answers.”

We will compulsively engage in any activity, even seemingly altruistic endeavors, as long as we do not have to face the reality of stress: The desire to avoid the unpleasant and uncomfortable, and the desire to acquire and experience that which is pleasant and provides sensual fulfillment, continues stress.

The Eightfold Path is not a way to manage stress or eliminate stress. It is a way to be un-attached to stress and ultimately to cease creating the causes of additional stress. Awakening to the truth of existence is being at peace with the events and people, including ourselves, in our lives.

Through the path of awakening, the Buddha taught that vision can arise, insight can arise, discernment can arise, knowledge can arise, illumination can arise WITHIN everyone with regards to things never heard or seen before: a deep and abiding understanding and acceptance of the noble truth of stress.

A deep and abiding understanding and acceptance of the first noble truth is Right View. Truly understanding the first noble truth leads to the end of struggle and the arising of a clear vision of life and freedom from desire.

A deep and abiding understanding and acceptance of the first noble truth is the foundation of the entirety of the teachings of the Buddha and the firm ground on which to walk the eightfold path of liberation and freedom.

Awakening To The Second Noble Truth

The Buddha describes Awakening to the Second Noble Truth as abandoning craving and clinging. In the Samyutta Nikaya 56.11, [1] Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Truth in Motion, The Buddha describes awakening very simply and directly:

  • The noble truth of dukkha has been comprehended.
  • The noble truth of the origination of dukkha has been abandoned.
  • The noble truth of the cessation of dukkha has been experienced.
  • The noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha has been developed.

(Note: Dukkha is translated to mean stress, discomfort, suffering, disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, confusion, delusion, and ignorance. I will refer to dukkha as stress. All quotes, except as noted, are the Buddha’s from SN 56.11)

The first article in this four-part series is on awakening as awakening relates to the First Noble Truth and what is meant by comprehending the noble truth of stress. It is through whole-hearted practice of integrating The Four Noble Truths into our lives on a deep experiential and mindful level that we gain Right Understanding of the noble truth of stress. Awakening to the noble truth of the origination of stress develops the mindfulness to abandon all causes of stress. In the Dammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha explains the origination of stress and abandoning the origination of stress:

“The origination of stress is craving and grasping born of desire, desire arising from ignorance, which creates more craving and grasping leading to passion for the many things of this world; in other words, craving for sensual fulfillment, craving for being (establishment of a personal self with “needs”) and craving for non-being. “

(Craving for non-being is craving for the establishment of a self that is substantial and permanent, and not subject to the laws of Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta, impermanence, stress and non-self, and Karma and Rebirth. In other words, attempting something which is deluded and impossible based on The Four Noble Truths. An explanation of Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta is here: Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta. An explanation of Karma and Rebirth is here: Karma and Rebirth.)

In describing the Truth of Stress, the truth of The First Noble Truth, the Buddha teaches:

“Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with those loathed is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful, receiving what one desires to avoid is stressful.”

We are subject to stress, to suffering in all its forms, simply as a consequence of being in this world. The experience of stress is continually reinforced by clinging, grasping and desire, wanting the people and events of our lives, including ourselves, to be different than they are.

By mindfully understanding that it is ignorance (wrong view) of the truth of stress arising from our own desire that is the cause of the stress and suffering we experience, we can then, with Right Intention and the other supporting factors of the Eightfold Path, abandon desire.

Abandoning all desire may seem extreme, but abandoning desire in all its forms is what is known as the “middle way.” Abandoning desire is a reasonable approach to life in the phenomenal world. It is realistic once it is understood that stress and suffering is brought about by our own desire. In describing the skillful quality of abandoning desire, and the “middle way,” the Buddha taught:

“These two extremes are to be abandoned: the compulsion to indulge and gain pleasure from objects of sensual desire (all things we crave that arise from contact with our senses) which is inferior, low, vulgar, ignoble, and leads to more delusion, and compulsion to indulge in self torment, which is painful, ignoble and leads to more delusion.”

In our modern world, we fail to see that extreme view and extreme behavior is constantly seeking sensual fulfillment as if a divine right or an expression of ultimate freedom. Often times we then judge ourselves harshly for “giving in to”desire and then tormenting ourselves over the choices we make. This is discursive thinking and compulsive behavior. Many constantly berate themselves with the misguided belief that a continually harsh view of oneself will somehow lead to improvement. It simply leads to more delusion and often anxiety and depression.

Certainly, in the western world, there is a belief that if we can identify all of what is “wrong” with our personalities, our “self,” that somehow this will lead to resolution, to the end of our problems. This is simply another way of attempting to establish a substantial and permanent self and this aspect of conditioned thinking can only create more stress. Abandoning desire leads to freedom from the cause of stress including the desire to identify whats wrong with us.

The reasonable, mindful and awakened behavior of abandoning desire leads directly to the cessation of suffering. The development of the qualities of mind through the moral, ethical and concentration practices of the Eightfold Path leads directly to comprehension and abandonment.

Within the framework of the Eightfold Path, the practice of Shamatha-Vipassana meditation, putting aside impermanent thoughts as thoughts arise, settling the mind by being mindful of the breath in the body, allows for the insight into our own stress-originating desires and through mindfulness of our own thoughts, we are able to abandon desire.

From the Cula-sihanada Sutta: Majjhima Nikaya 11 the Buddha teaches what is to be abandoned in order to end stress and suffering and awaken:

“When ignorance is abandoned (comprehending the truth of stress) and right understanding has arisen, one no longer clings to sensual pleasure, one no longer clings to (deluded) views, one no longer clings to rules and observances, one no longer clings to a doctrine of self. One is not agitated, one personally attains Nibbana.” (Nibbana, Sanskrit: Nirvana, literally means “to extinguish” as in extinguishing all desire.)

Awakening To The Third Noble Truth

The Buddha describes Awakening to the Third Noble Truth as experiencing the cessation of suffering (Dukkha). In the Samyutta Nikaya 56.11, [1] Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Truth in Motion, The Buddha describes awakening very simply and directly:

  • The noble truth of dukkha has been comprehended.
  • The noble truth of the origination of dukkha has been abandoned.
  • The noble truth of the cessation of dukkha has been experienced.
  • The noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha has been developed.

(Note: Dukkha is translated to mean stress, discomfort, suffering, disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, confusion, delusion, and ignorance. I will refer to dukkha as stress. All quotes, except as noted, are the Buddha’s from SN 56.11)

The Four Noble Truths are traditionally listed as:

1. Life is stressful.
2. Grasping, clinging, craving, desire all cause stress.
3. Cessation of stress is possible.
4. The Eightfold Path is the path leading to the cessation of stress.

The purpose of the Buddha’s entire teaching is to awaken to the true nature of reality. The entire Buddha’s teaching is summarized in The Four Noble Truths. (Dhamma means “Holding The Truth” or “The True Teachings of the Buddha”) The Buddha’s initial statement of truth, “Life is stressful” is often perceived that the teachings are highly pessimistic.

When the first noble truth is viewed in the context as the foundation of a set of teachings whose sole purpose is to extinguish all causes of stress, all craving arising from ignorance, the end of delusion, and awakening to the true and nature of existence, the statement “Life is stressful” is simply an accurate, unambiguous and completely realistic view of the condition caused by ignorance of The Four Noble Truths.

Stress is the condition caused by ignorance. Ignorance is a lack of clear understanding. Stress is the impermanent manifestation in the phenomenal world arising from a lack of wisdom. We become so distracted by stress and all its forms that we spend our physical and mental energy in the endless pursuit of that which seems to temporarily provide relief or avoidance from stress.

Stress is delusion. Stress is the veil obscuring reality. Our preoccupation with alleviating or avoiding stress distracts from a clear understanding of the nature of life in the phenomenal world. Continual reaction to stress perpetuates and deepens ignorance. Continual reaction to stress further conditions conditioned mind.

Integrating the Eightfold Path into ones life directs our minds from the continual pursuit of pleasure and stress relief to experiencing the reality hidden by the veil of stress.

Even the “spiritual” pursuit of the elimination of stress can itself obscure reality.

If our intention to practice is to alleviate or reduce stress, we may accomplish a measure of temporary relief from stress, but this is not the point of the Buddha’s teaching and what it means to awaken to the Third Noble Truth:

“What is the Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering? It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it. This is called the Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering.”

The Buddha described three linked characteristics of life: Anicca (Impermanence), Dukkha (Stress), and Anatta (Non-self).[A, B] It is due to a lack of understanding of impermanence that stress arises. Those things that bring pleasure, safety, and security are fleeting and attachment arises. Patterns of behavior (conditioned thinking) form based on what thoughts, words, and deeds provide relief from and avoidance of stress.

Through a lack of wisdom, we get entangled in the struggle against stress. The struggle becomes part of the stress and discursive thinking and behavior is the result.

Impermanence also allows for the cessation of stress. If it were not for impermanence, for the innate ability to profoundly and permanently change the way the phenomenal world is perceived, cessation of stress would not be possible to experience.

Stress is as impermanent as any other phenomenon and through integrating a practice whose sole purpose is to see clearly and abandon endless craving and clinging, stress can be put aside permanently.

Awakening to the Third Noble Truth is the experience of the cessation of suffering. Awakening is the lifting of the veil of stress that is obscuring the true nature of reality. Awakening is true freedom and liberation from the never-ending confusion arising from the desire that life in the phenomenal world be any different than it is.

The Four Noble Truths are the simple and straightforward framework for clearly understanding that stress, Dukkha, is what entangles us in delusion, what our part in perpetuating stress is, that through our own actions we can free ourselves from stress and that the path leading to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths are presented In a way that a doctor would explain a medical condition: (The Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician”)

  • the disease itself
  • its causes
  • relief or a cure is possible
  • the treatment

Taken in reverse of how the Four Noble Truths are traditionally presented, the Eightfold Path is the treatment for the disease of stress whose symptoms are endless distraction and confusion. By engaging in the Eightfold Path, cessation of stress is experienced. The treatment for stress, recognizing and putting aside all grasping, clinging, craving and desire, is developed by integrating the Eightfold Path. By extinguishing all craving, stress is fully comprehended.

The treatment is a noble truth: it is applicable and accessible to everyone and the treatment is 100% effective to all who take the cure.

Experiencing the cessation of stress, the cessation of dukkha is the essence of mindfulness: being fully present with all things without distracting, discriminating or discursive thoughts.

This is the awakened mind.

Awakening To The Fourth Noble Truth

The Buddha taught that Awakening to the Fourth Noble Truth means that The Noble Eightfold Path has been developed. In the Samyutta Nikaya 56.11, [1] Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Truth in Motion, The Buddha describes awakening very simply and directly:

  • The noble truth of dukkha has been comprehended.
  • The noble truth of the origination of dukkha has been abandoned.
  • The noble truth of the cessation of dukkha has been experienced.
  • The noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha has been developed.

(Note: Dukkha is translated to mean stress, discomfort, suffering, disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment, confusion, delusion, and ignorance. I will refer to dukkha as stress. All quotes, except as noted, are the Buddha’s from Samyutta Nikaya 56.11)

The Four Noble Truths are traditionally listed as:
1. Life is stressful.
2. Grasping, clinging, craving, desire all cause stress.
3. Cessation of stress is possible.
4. The Eightfold Path is the path leading to the cessation of stress.

The purpose of the Buddha’s entire teaching is to develop the Eightfold Path and abandon the origination of human suffering and confusion (Dukkha). The entire Buddha’s Dhamma is summarized in The Four Noble Truths. (Dhamma means “Holding The Truth” or “The Teachings of the Buddha”)

The Buddha taught that by abandoning clinging in all its forms, the skillful means to a cessation of stress can be developed. The eight factors of the Eightfold Path provide a practical framework of mindful living that develops the insight, knowledge, wisdom and ethical behavior necessary to methodically and purposefully recognize and put aside the distraction of stress.

As stated in the previous article on awakening to the noble truth of the cessation of stress, it is the preoccupation with stress that obscures reality. Once this is fully comprehended the mind awakens. Once the blocks to awakening have been abandoned, the mind is free.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha, precisely this Noble Eightfold Path:

1. Right View is understanding the origins of dukkha, understanding the cessation of dukkha,understanding the path leading to the cessation of dukkha. Right View is both the conceptual beginning to the path leading to the cessation of stress, and ultimately, the understanding, the vision, that encompasses the entire Buddhadhamma.

2. Right Intention is having the intention of renunciation, having the intention to remain free of ill-will, having the intention to remain harmless. Right Intention is mindfully turning away from the things leading  to stress and confusion and mindfully engaging and integrating the Eightfold Path.

3. Right Speech is abstaining from lying, abstaining from divisive speech, abstaining from hurtful speech, abstaining from idle chatter and gossip. Being mindful of Right Speech develops a deep awareness of thoughts words and deeds that would further cause stress and confusion. Right Speech is free of grasping, clinging, aversion or expressing wrong views.

4. Right Action is abstaining from taking life, abstaining from stealing, abstaining from sexual misconduct. As with Right Speech, Right Action is free of any self-centered desire and develops harmony and equanimity.

5. Right Livelihood is abstaining from a dishonest livelihood, not engaging in what can cause harm to others, avoiding the sale of intoxicants, enhancing life with right livelihood. Right Livelihood is specifically remaining harmless in the manner of earning a living and contributing to the common good.

6. Right Effort is generating effort and intention to abandon cultivation of unskillful qualities and generating effort and intention to abandon unskillful qualities already present. Right Effort is generating effort and intention to cultivate skillful qualities and generating effort and intention maintain skillful qualities.

7. Right Mindfulness is holding in mind the present moment and the qualities of awakening in relation to The Four Noble Truths. In the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha describes the foundations of mindfulness:

“…remaining focused on the breath in the body in & of itself, ardent – aware, & mindful – putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. Remaining focused on feelings in & of themselves – ardent, aware, & mindful – putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. Remaining focused on the mind in & of itself – ardent, aware, & mindful – putting away greed & distress with reference to the world. Remaining focused on mental qualities in & of themselves – ardent, aware, & mindful – putting away greed & distress with reference to the world.”

8. Right Meditation is meditation that develops two qualities: tranquility and insight. In the Vijja-bhagiya Sutta the Buddha describes the two qualities of Right Meditation:

“These two qualities have a share in clear knowing. Which two? Tranquillity (shamatha) & insight (vipassana). When tranquillity is developed, what purpose does it serve? The mind is developed. And when the mind is developed, what purpose does it serve? Passion is abandoned.

When insight is developed, what purpose does it serve? Discernment is developed. And when discernment is developed, what purpose does it serve? Ignorance is abandoned.

Defiled by passion, the mind is not released. Defiled by ignorance, discernment does not develop. Thus from the fading of passion is there awareness-release. From the fading of ignorance is there discernment-release.”

From the Samyutta Nikaya 45.8, the Buddha describes the levels of meditative absorption (Jhana) developed with Shamatha-vipassana meditation. Samadhi is typically translated to mean concentration, but it is more accurate to understand samadhi as un-distracted i.e. the first jhana is “Remaining free of distraction by sensuality and sense contact, remaining free of distraction by unskillful mental qualities…”

“Remaining free of distraction by sensuality and sense contact, remaining free of distraction by unskillful mental qualities, entering & remaining in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from Samadhi, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation (Insight). With a tranquil mind, (shamatha) entering & remaining in the second jhana: rapture & pleasure born of Samadhi, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation, resting in internal assurance. With the fading of rapture, remaining equanimous, mindful & alert, gaining pleasure with the sensation of breathing in the body. Entering & remaining in the third jhana, which is equanimous & mindful, a pleasant abiding. Abandoning pleasure & pain, due to the renunciation of pleasure and pain, entering & remaining in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain.”

This is the way of liberation and freedom. It is a moral, ethical and concentrative framework that systematically develops the qualities of awakening. Once awakened, the veil of delusion is gone and clear and un-adorned knowledge and vision is present:

“As soon as this knowledge & vision of mine was truly pure, then I did claim to have directly awakened to the right self-awakening unexcelled in the cosmos. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.”

The difficulty in developing the qualities of awakening are due entirely to the confusion and distraction of stress and the reactive and discursive nature of clinging. The intellectual knowledge of the Eightfold Path will not lead to the development of qualities leading to cessation. The experience of the cessation of stress will.

Incorporating the moral, ethical and concentration factors of the Eightfold Path develops the experience of the cessation of dukkha. As a direct result of wholehearted practice, the path leading to the cessation of stress is developed.

Developing the Eightfold Path is a matter of mindfully integrating all eight factors of the path into the moment-to-moment unfolding of life. The Eightfold path is not a linear progression of acquired skills. All eight factors of the path are qualities to be developed more or less simultaneously. Each factor supports and informs all other factors.

By developing the concentration (samadhi) factors of Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Meditation, it becomes possible to recognize and abandon the distraction of stress. By developing the moral and ethical qualities of the Eightfold Path of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood, grasping, clinging, desire and aversion subsides and distraction lessens. Through developing the qualities of virtue and concentration, wisdom arises. With deeper wisdom, Right Intention (to awaken) is strengthened, ignorant views are abandoned, and the conditions necessary for developing lasting peace and happiness occur.

The qualities of mind leading to the cessation of Dukkha have been developed. The mind has awakened. This is the teaching of the Buddha.

 

1.  Samyutta Nikaya 56.11

A.  Anicca, Dukkha, and Anatta

B.  The Five Clinging Aggregates

My Dhamma articles and talks are based on the Buddha's teachings  (suttas) as preserved in the Sutta Pitaka, the second book of the Pali Canon. I have relied primarily on Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent and insightful translation of the Pali generously made freely available at his website Dhammatalks.org, as well as the works of Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland and Maurice Walsh, among others, as preserved at Access To Insight.

Also, I have found Bhikkhu Bodhi's translations from Wisdom Publications Pali Canon Anthologies to be most informative and an excellent resource.

I have made contextual edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.

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