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The Four Noble Truths
Above is a recording of a Dhamma talk that introduces the third week’s study on The Four Noble Truths from The Truth of Happiness Dhamma Study. The second recording is a recording of our sangha Q&A and discussion on this topic is at the end of this article. The complete recordings of our December 2015 to March 2016 Truth Of Happiness Dhamma Study is here: 2015 Truth Of Happiness Dhamma Study Archive
The Following is an excerpt from The Truth Of Happiness. Information on The Truth Of Happiness book and ten-week course is here.
At the Buddha’s very first teaching when he presented The Four Noble Truths to the five wandering ascetics he had previously befriended on their search for enlightenment, he described awakening in very simple an direct terms:
“Vision arose, discernment arose, insight arose, knowledge arose within me of things never heard of before: The truth of dukkha (stress) has been comprehended; the origination of stress has been abandoned; the cessation of stress has been experienced; The Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of stress has been developed.” 
As will be stated a few times in this course, awakening is dependent on acquiring a few specific skills so that these four tasks can be accomplished. There are three skills needed that are developed in this course.
- Shamatha-Vipassana meditation is used to develop unwavering concentration known as Samadhi.
- A useful and refined quality of mindfulness is developed to allow for insight into the true nature of human existence.
- Deep and profound wisdom is developed to see clearly craving and clinging arising from an ego-personality and to maintain fee of the world’s entanglements.
Also, all eight factors of the Eightfold Path can be seen as tasks to be accomplished for the successful completion of the path and for developing a life of lasting peace and happiness. The skills of heightened concentration, refined mindfulness and wisdom are all necessary skills to develop in order to fully integrate the Eightfold Path.
Everything the Buddha taught for the final forty-five years of his life, after his awakening, was taught in the context of the Four Noble Truths.
I will again identify these tasks individually following the description of each noble truth.
This week you will develop a deeper understanding of The Four Noble Truths. This understanding is the foundation for a lifetime of developing lasting peace and happiness through a practice of heightened wisdom, heightened virtue, and heightened concentration.
Notice the word foundation. Every teaching the Buddha presented rests on the foundation of The Four Noble Truths. Once this foundation is in place the continued integration of these truths into your life will lead to profound changes in how your life is experienced.
This training is straightforward and basic and easily understood by anyone who applies the teachings and develops understanding through continued practice.
You will also begin to develop an understanding of mindfulness within the context of The Four Noble Truths.
Many people come to a meditation or mindfulness practice believing that a meditation or mindfulness technique alone will be sufficient to relieve the causes of all unhappiness and stress. It is true that any technique that brings one’s mind and body to a state of stillness and developed mindfulness will have positive physical and mental benefits.
The purpose and intent of this course is not for stress reduction, although as progress is made, stress is reduced. The purpose and intent of this course, and the teachings this course is based on, is the ending of stress and unhappiness. In order to develop the ending of stress and unhappiness, meditation and mindfulness must be developed within a broader framework than only ordinary meditation or mindfulness techniques. This framework is called “The Eightfold Path” or “The Eight-Factored Path” as there are eight factors to this training.
A reminder about terminology: The word that the Buddha used to describe unhappiness and stress is Dukkha. Dukkha also can be translated to mean unsatisfactoriness, disappointment, disillusionment, disenchantment, suffering and confusion. The belief in a permanent ego-personality, or an ego-self, is also dukkha as it is an ego-self that is prone to ongoing confusion and suffering. The Buddha used the word “Anatta” which means “not-self” to indicate that what is commonly viewed as a self is not a self worth establishing and defending. I will use the words unhappiness and stress interchangeably to signify all manifestations of Dukkha. I will use the words ego-self, ego-personality, not-self, and anatta interchangeably.
First we will look a little deeper at The Four Noble Truths from the perspective of understanding, as understanding is the foundation of this course:
The Four Noble Truths can be defined as a statement of conditions, or a statement of the truth of these conditions:
- Life is stressful and unsatisfactory
- Clinging and craving cause stress
- Cessation of stress is possible
- The Eightfold Path develops the cessation of stress
Through developing understanding using refined mindfulness and shamatha-vipassana meditation, within the framework of the Eightfold Path, knowledge of the truth of these conditions becomes apparent:
The First Noble Truth
The Truth of Stress and Unhappiness
Stress occurs impersonally to all. As a consequence of birth we are all subject to physical phenomena which no one, regardless of social position, intellect, religious or spiritual understanding, or “grace,” can avoid. We are all subject to sickness, aging and eventually death. Along the way we will all face loss, some minor, some quite devastating. According to our environment we will acquire views of how we should live our lives, who we want to associate with, what we would like to achieve, and an endless list of likes and dislikes.
All of these experiences and the resulting discriminating thoughts contribute in a cumulative manner to stress. We all know that every experience is subject to change. Impermanence and uncertainty are a part of life. Underlying this knowing is a subtle tension.
We know that certain activities may bring disappointment or sickness. We may not feel secure financially and fear of personal physical loss will be present. Whatever our position in life might be, we create attachments to our lives being a certain way. These are different for everyone but the result is the same. These attachments form a self-referential identity, or ego-personality.
This is clinging, or more specifically clinging the ego-self to objects, events, views. and ideas that serve to describe and define (and severely limit) what is commonly and wrongly viewed as a person.
Stress arises in our lives the instant we want the people and events of our lives to be different than they are. Due to the impermanence of all things, wanting the people and events of our lives to remain as they are also brings stress. This includes ourselves and our view of our selves.
Do you want more of a certain experience? Do you want less of a certain experience? Are you always looking for something new to avoid facing a general disappointment with life? Does fear of change occupy your thoughts? Does fear that change won’t occur occupy your thoughts? Is boredom, the need for constant distraction, motivating your thoughts and actions? This list is endless and all of these thoughts produce stress and distract from life as life is occurring.
Boredom is a common problem when beginning to establish a meditation practice. Boredom is the need for continual distraction and will subside as concentration increases.
Even pleasurable experiences generate stress as the positive feeling will develop craving. Craving develops from the insatiable need for sensory fulfillment of your ego-personality. Primarily, craving is due to the defining characteristic of life: impermanence. All things in life are subject to impermanence. You only need to take a dispassionate look at yourself to begin to see and understand impermanence. As soon as you are born you begin to age. Putting aside the benefits or drawbacks to aging, you age.
Simply as a consequence of living you move towards death moment by moment. Along the way it is certain that there will be physical difficulties living in and maintaining your body. There are likely to be mental and emotional difficulties as well. Becoming mindful of life’s impermanence removes the uncertainty that leads to stress. Understanding that all things are impermanent ends clinging and craving.
Lao Tzu, the Chinese sage and writer of the Tao Te Ching stated: “Once you understand the impermanence of all things, you will hold onto nothing.”
When you have an experience that brings pleasure you want to hold onto the pleasure-giving experience. Attachment (clinging) to the event conditions your mind to desire similar experiences. Impermanence intervenes, change is inevitable, stress arises.
Unpleasantness and disappointment brings the same response. An unpleasant experience arises, a change from a pleasant (or neutral) quality of mind occurs, and due to clinging to the pleasant (or neutral) quality of mind, stress arises. Change does not occur quick enough and additional stress arises. Aversion to the unpleasant event conditions your mind and stress arises. Aversion is a form of clinging through the desire that an event (or object, view, or idea) be different than what has occurred.
Position, power, wealth, intellect, ignorance, the right religion, philosophy, or spiritual discipline, none of these will insulate one from stress.
Continuously seeking what brings pleasure and attempting to avoid that which is unpleasant, is to be constantly grasping after the impermanent and transitory.
By continuously grasping after satiating the ego-personality through achievements and acquisitions, including intellectual achievements, is to be constantly grasping after the impermanent and transitory.
We have seen that inherent in life there will be difficulties, disappointments and unhappiness. All things in life change and all human beings are prone to sickness, aging and eventually death. Along the way, events will arise that will bring great pleasure and great disappointment.
It is within this impermanent environment that you live your life and stress arises. It is also within this impermanent environment that stress and unhappiness can be understood. Once understood, craving and clinging, the causes of stress, can be abandoned.
A life of freedom and true happiness is possible for anyone. All that is required to gain freedom from stress is to understand integrate four truths, beginning with the truth of stress.
Before we look at the origin of stress, let’s look at who, or what, is experiencing stress.
We have seen that the environment that stress arises in is impermanent and ever-changing. We have identified the pervasiveness of stress within that environment. What is it that is subject to stress? What is it that causes stress to arise? What is it that can bring an end to stress?
Of course the answer is you (and all human beings.) You are the cause of your stress due to clinging, craving, desire and aversion. You can also bring the end to stress in your life. Only you can. First you must understand what it is that constitutes this thing called “I,’ ”me,” or “self.”
What is commonly viewed as a self is nothing more than a personality prone to craving, clinging, and suffering. This view was acquired through experiencing the events of life from an ignorant view.
This is not to be seen as being ignorant in a general sense. The ignorance referred to here is ignorance of The Four Noble Truths.
This wrong view is further influenced by the impermanent environment of the phenomenal world and the associations developed. This personality is typically identified as the “ego.”
(Not-self or non-self is the term most often used in Buddhist terminology to signify the ego-self or ego-personality. The Buddha used the term Anatta, which means not-self or non-self, to signify the impermanence and insubstantiality of the ego-personality that is perceived as self. The common view of self is a wrong view when arising from ignorance. Not-self or non-self is not meant to imply no self or nothingness.)
Your ego-personality is as impermanent as any other aspect of the environment of which it is a part. In fact, through insight gained through shamatha-vipassana meditation, your ego-personality will be seen as a constantly changing creation of your own views.
It is helpful to begin to objectify your ego-personality. This will help diminish clinging to views of self.
Not understanding the impermanence of your ego-personality and how your ego-self creates an identity by clinging to objects, views, and ideas is ultimately the cause of all stress. Understanding this ongoing process brings the end to stress, disenchantment and unhappiness.
We have now defined three key points of this course:
- The impermanence of all things, including your view of yourself.
- The pervasiveness and unavoidable nature of stress.
- The ego-self as an impermanent personality arising from ignorance and formed by experiences, environment, and associations.
These are known as “The Three Linked Characteristics of Existence,” or “The Three Marks of Existence.” In the original Pali language they are Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta or Impermanence, Stress and Not-Self. We will look deeper at these three characteristics of existence in week seven.
For now it is enough to know that it is a lack of knowledge, or ignorance, of who you are, and an aversion to acknowledge the environment that you exist in, that continues stress and unhappiness.
Wisdom is gaining an understanding of the interaction of impermanence, stress, and the ego-personality.
Wisdom is taking a realistic look at who you are and the choices and attachments you make.
Wisdom is recognizing unskillful choices and unskillful attachments to objects, ideas, and views that have arisen from ignorance.
Wisdom is making mindful choices and conclusions based on the true nature of existence.
Wisdom is understanding developed through the Eightfold Path.
“The truth of dukkha (stress) has been comprehended.” The task associated with the First Noble Truth is to fully comprehend stress (Dukkha).
Ignorance is insisting that the personality viewed as I or me is permanent and well-established. Ignorance is continually reacting to life based on what makes this ego-personality satisfied. This is simply “feeding the ego.” Feeding what cannot be satisfied is a constant distraction and only grows your ego-self.
The problem of conditioned thinking maintaining your ego-self becomes much more complex as your ego-personality develops. The originating cause is simple:
The Second Noble Truth
The Truth of the Origination of Stress
Clinging, craving, desire and aversion originate stress. Wanting the people and events of your life to be different then they are is craving or desire. Attachment to the people and events of your life to remain as they are is clinging. Clinging arises from ignorance and defines you through continued clinging that binds you to this limiting conditioned view – who you think you are is all you think you are.
Due to the initial wrong view of yourself, you believe that your personality is all that you are. As a consequence of this wrong view of self, you have developed a constant need to defend and satiate your ego-personality.
Letting go of clinging does not mean that you won’t have physical and emotional needs met. Letting go of clinging means letting of your need to have your ego-personality’s needs met. Letting go of clinging means letting go of the mental preoccupation arising from the attachments to the people and events of your life. Letting go of clinging is also letting go of all views arising from ignorance.
Through shamatha-vipassana meditation within the framework of The Eightfold Path you will gain insight into your ego-personality and the choices and attachments you make arising from wrong view. You will begin to realize that sensory-driven impulses animate much of what you do. You will see how clinging and craving are ego-personality based.
Most importantly you will learn to see your ego-personality realistically and not spend your life driven by sensory fulfillment and the need to continually establish and defend your ego-personality.
It is through gaining a realistic view of self, a Right View, and the choices made based on Right View that you can begin to put all stress and unhappiness aside. You won’t be able to gain a realistic and clear view of self if you continue to remain distracted by your own ego-personality and its constant need for attention.
This constant attention is the distraction caused by stress. A mind that is constantly distracted by the sensual needs of an ego-personality will never be free and at peace. A mind that has gained the ability to not be distracted by its own sensory-driven needs and desires is a mind free of stress. A mind free of stress is a mind of lasting peace and happiness.
“The origination of stress has been abandoned.” The task associated with the Second Noble Truth is to abandon craving and clinging.
The Third Noble Truth
The Truth of the Cessation of Stress
As we have seen, the cause of stress is craving and clinging in all their forms arising from a misunderstanding of who you are and the nature of your environment. Experiencing the cessation of stress and unhappiness requires letting go of clinging, craving, desire and aversion. Abandoning clinging and craving becomes possible once the true nature of anatta, your ego-self, is understood. As you integrate the teachings of this course, an understanding of the futility of clinging to any object, view, or idea in the environment of impermanence is understood.
It is important to remember that it is within the environment of impermanence (anicca) that stress arises and it is also in the environment of impermanence that unhappiness and stress ends. Impermanence gives rise to clinging but impermanence also allows for the cessation of suffering. If the nature of all phenomenon were not impermanent, cessation of stress would not be possible.
We have identified the problem as stress (dukkha). We have identified the cause of the problem as craving and clinging. The path that brings the ability to recognizing and abandon craving and clinging and experience the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path is the framework for developing heightened virtue and heightened concentration leading to the development of heightened wisdom.
Developing these three qualities brings an end to craving and clinging. It is your ego-personality’s need to continually establish, satisfy and proliferate itself that leads to non-virtuous actions.
It is your ego-self, that which the Buddha teaches is anatta, not a self, that insists on establishing itself in every object, view, and idea that occurs. To a deluded (un-awakened) mind all objects, views, and ideas are self-referential.
As you begin to interrupt the thought-reaction pattern that clinging and craving cause, your mind begins to quiet. At first this is very subtle. Heightened wisdom, heightened virtue and heightened concentration increases with every non-reactive, non-craving, non-self-referential thought or action. This begins to diminish the hold of your ego-personality’s reactive mind.
Shamatha-Vipassana meditation begins to quiet your mind enough to allow for recognition of clinging, craving, desire and aversion. As meditation practice develops, concentration increases. As your mind is less distracted by your own craving thoughts, you will cease clinging onto and grasping after all that is impermanent. Eventually you will gain true wisdom and realize the impermanence of your own ego-personality. You will cease clinging to all impermanent objects, views, and ideas.
“The cessation of stress has been experienced.” The task associated with the Third Noble Truth is to experience the cessation of stress.
The Fourth Noble Truth
The Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Dukkha
We will develop deeper understanding of The Eightfold Path beginning with next week’s class. A brief introduction will suffice for now. As stated, The Eightfold Path is a framework for developing heightened wisdom, heightened virtue and heightened concentration. The first two factors of The Eightfold Path are the wisdom factors. The next three factors are virtuous factors. The final three are the concentration factors.
The wording should not be taken in a strict moral sense. Rather, the wording describes that there are definite right views and actions to take that will prove effective in achieving the end of stress. The implication is that there are also wrong views and actions, and unskillful applications of mindfulness and concentration, that if not recognized and abandoned will continue confusion, stress and unhappiness.
Referring to The Eightfold Path as a framework for Dhamma practice is a reminder to be mindful of all thoughts, words and deeds in relation to this path. The Eightfold Path is what you are to be mindful of if you are to succeed in eliminating the effects of stress on your life.
The Eightfold Path
- Right View
- Right Intention
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Meditation
“The Eightfold Path leading to the cessation of stress has been developed.” The task associated with the Fourth Noble Truth is to develop the path leading to the cessation of stress.
 Samyutta Nikaya 56.11
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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 Acharya Buddharakkhita, Nyanaponika Thera, John Ireland, Maurice Walsh, Hellmuth Hecker, and Sister Khema, 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 edits to the suttas from these sources for further clarity, to modernize language, to minimize repetition, and maintain contextual relevance to Dependent Origination and Four Noble Truths.
Becoming-Buddha.com and Dhamma articles and recordings by John Haspel are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.