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The Buddha's Four Noble Truths

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The message of Buddha's Four Noble Truths is that paying attention and seeing clearly lead to behaving impeccably in every moment, out of love, and on behalf of all beings.


Accounts of the Buddha’s life, said to have been told by generations of disciples before they were written down and codified as scripture, often begin with the words, “Thus I have heard,” which carry the sense of oral tradition into the present. The teacher-to-student, elder-to-novice tone of the narratives invites us into a centuries-old community of storytellers who made the Buddha’s practice their own practice. We are in the line of people who have heard the story.

The sermon called “Setting into Motion the Wheel of Truth” is the account of the Buddha’s first formal teaching after he declared his enlightenment, his experience of deeply understanding both the cause of and the remedy for suffering. It includes, before the Buddha’s statement of the Four Noble Truths as the summary of his insight, the fact that he gave this teaching to five monks he met walking near Benares. A story told about that encounter describes how the five monks, recognizing the Buddha from afar as the person who had formerly done ascetic practice with them, said disparaging things to each other about him.

As one account has it: “They agreed among themselves, ‘Here comes the monk Gautama, who became self-indulgent, gave up the struggle and reverted to luxury,’ ” and only reluctantly agreed to listen to him. That same account describes how at the end of the Buddha’s teaching, as one after another of the monks understood the truth of what he had said, “the news traveled right up to the Brahma world. This ten-thousand-fold world-element shook and quaked and trembled while a great measureless light surpassing the splendor of the gods appeared in the world.”

The stories my friends and I tell each other about our experience of hearing the Four Noble Truths for the first time resemble, though in twenty-first-century English-language idiom, the account of what happened in Benares. My view that I was stuck forever with my worrying, fearful, often sorrowful mind-the victim of whatever events my life had in store for me-“shook and quaked” at the news that a liberated mind, a mind at ease in wisdom and filled with compassion, was a possibility. Long before I had any confidence that I would be able to see clearly, it was thrilling just to know that it was possible for human beings-like the Buddha, who was a human being-to become, through practice, free of suffering.

When I teach the Four Noble Truths, I say them this way:

I. Life is challenging. For everyone. Our physical bodies, our relationships-all of our life circumstances-are fragile and subject to change. We are always accommodating.

II. The cause of suffering is the mind’s struggle in response to challenge.

III. The end of suffering-a non-struggling, peaceful mind-is a possibility.

IV. The program for ending suffering is the Eightfold Path. It is:

1. Wise Understanding: realizing the cause of suffering;

2. Wise Intention: motivation to end suffering;

3. Wise Speech: speaking in a way that cultivates clarity;

4. Wise Action: behaving in ways that maintain clarity;

5. Wise Livelihood: supporting oneself in a wholesome way;

6. Wise Effort: cultivating skillful (peaceful) mind habits;

7. Wise Concentration: cultivating a steady, focused, ease-filled mind;

8. Wise Mindfulness: cultivating alert, balanced attention.

Each time I teach the Four Noble Truths I re-inspire myself. They make so much sense. Every step of the practice path is an ordinary, everyday activity of human beings. I say, “Look what a feedback loop this is! It’s a never-ending, self-supporting system. Any piece of it builds all the other parts. The more we understand the causes of suffering, the greater our intention; the wiser and more compassionate our behavior, the clearer our minds; the deeper our understanding of suffering, the stronger our intention; over and over and on and on.”

I especially like to teach the steps in this 1 through 8 progression, because I always want to pause and emphasize Wise Mindfulness. It reaffirms for me the goal of practice. Paying attention, seeing clearly in every moment, leads—by way of insight—to appropriate response.

I sometimes end a Four Noble Truths teaching by saying, “That was a lot of words. But truly, what the Buddha taught was simple: When we see clearly, we behave impeccably.” If I want to be sure that I’ve made the point that acting wisely and compassionately is the inevitable, passionate imperative of the heart that comes from realizing the depth of suffering in the world—that we pay attention for goodness’ sake—I say it this way: “When we see clearly, we behave impeccably, out of love, on behalf of all beings.”

Until quite recently, no one ever challenged me when I said that the Buddha said, “We ought to practice as if our hair is on fire.” I thought it was a good metaphor for the energy level needed to meet the lifelong challenge of keeping the mind clear, remembering what’s important, refining the capacity of the heart for goodness. Then a young woman came to see me during lunchtime at a daylong mindfulness workshop. She said, “That’s an awful image. It’s so frantic.” She reminded me that Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Life is so short, we should all move more slowly.”

When I taught again in the afternoon, I went back to the hair-on-fire metaphor and suggested that I thought it had to do with urgency and not alarm. I told the group how inspired I had been when one of my teachers—describing how easily we are caught up in rehearsing for the future or ruminating over the past, all the while not awake to present experience, not choosing wisely—had said, “It’s your life. Don’t miss it!” I wanted to tell a story about what being awake to present experience means, and immediately thought of a famous one from the Zen tradition.

A tiger gave chase to a monk who had been walking peacefully near a cliff, and the monk, running as fast as he could, had no choice but to leap off the edge of the cliff to avoid being eaten. He was able, as he leapt, to grab hold of a vine trailing over the cliff. He dangled in mid-air with the tiger snarling at him overhead and under him a very long fall into a rushing river full of boulders. Then he noticed a mouse gnawing at the vine. He also noticed, growing out of a cleft in a rock in front of him, a strawberry plant with one ripe berry. He ate it. He said, “This is a very good strawberry.”

The monk’s situation is a dramatic example of everyone’s situation. We are all dangling in mid-process between what already happened (which is just a memory) and what might happen (which is just an idea). Now is the only time anything happens. When we are awake in our lives, we know what’s happening. When we’re asleep, we don’t see what’s right in front of us.

A year after my husband and I were married, we moved to Kansas. To our extended families in New York and New Jersey, Kansas was impossibly far away. We developed the habit—maintained through all our moves and all these years—of including a recent photo of us in the New Year greeting that we send each year, so that our relatives would feel that we were staying in touch. As our family grew, the photo went from two people, to three people, to four, then five, then six. Then the number of people in the photo stayed the same for many years, but the children in it got bigger and everyone in it got older. By and by, as my sons and daughters chose life partners, more people joined the photo. They had children, and then even more people were in the photo. With increasing years and increasing people, the project of taking the August photo, which had begun as simply as, “Let’s step out into the backyard for a minute,” became more elaborate. It required a lot of advance planning to coordinate schedules.

The photo taking, in a recent year, happened just under the wire for sending the greeting cards on time. I brought the film to the photo shop early the next morning, went for an hour-long bike ride while the pictures were being developed, and then went back to the photo shop to choose the best of them to make duplicates for the cards.

The photos were great. Several of them had all of us smiling. I picked the one I thought was best.

“How many prints do you need?” the saleswoman asked.

It was then that I realized that I didn’t need any. Everyone we had needed to send photo greetings to—parents, aunts, uncles—had died. I felt genuinely surprised and a bit embarrassed. I had explained to her earlier that I needed the prints developed promptly so I could send my cards on time.

I thought of whom else I could send a card to. I have two cousins. Seymour has a few. My friends have varying views about the political correctness of supporting the culture’s use of religious holidays for mercantile gain, and they mostly don’t send cards. My children’s in-laws? That seemed like a good idea. They would, I thought, enjoy seeing the whole family.

Just then I realized that I was trying very hard to wring the last bit of possible pleasure out of a situation that didn’t exist anymore. The trying was tedious. I also realized that the increasing effort, each year, to get everyone together in a good mood to take a photo had become tedious.

“I don’t need duplicates after all,” I said, indicating the display of our family pictures in front of me on the counter. “So many of these are fine. I’ll have enough for everyone.”

I walked through the parking lot on my way to my car feeling dismayed about my whirlwind, enthusiastic attempt to orchestrate a project without a cause, and thinking, “How can I not have noticed before now that the list of relatives is down to nothing? All of those people didn’t die in the last year.”

An hour before, I’d been riding my bike, feeling energetic and vital, and now, quite suddenly, I felt old. I started to tell myself a sad story about how tired I was from rushing around, and then I realized, “No, I’m not. That’s not true. I’m not tired. I’m startled to find that so much of my life has happened, that all my older relatives have died, that I am—if things go as they should—next in line in this family for dying. But not yet. Now I’m alive.” I laughed as I saw that I had almost been trapped by my chagrin and dismay—they both siphon energy out of the mind—into missing my opportunity. I turned around, went back to the photo shop, and found the same saleswoman.

“I’m back,” I said. “I decided I want an eight-by-ten of the one I liked best.”

As she was writing up the order for the enlargement, she looked up at me and said, “Eight-by-ten?”

I said, “No. I changed my mind. Eleven-by-fourteen.”

She smiled. “Are you sure?”

I said, “Yes. I’m sure. This is a very good photo.”

The Buddha was an old man, past eighty years old, when he died. On the evening he died, knowing that he was dying, he preached for the last time, encouraging his monks to continue on steadfastly with their practice after he was gone. The Buddha’s words, translated into modern idiom, reassure “I was only able to point the way for you.” He also said, “Be a lamp unto yourself!” reminding them, and I think us as well, that we need to see the truth for ourselves for it to free us from confusion—and that we can!

I imagine the scene twenty-five hundred years ago with all of the monks gathered around the Buddha, anticipating with sorrow his impending death, and simultaneously being roused and inspired and encouraged. He reminds them that “everything that has a beginning ends,” which seems to me both the core of his teaching and—in that moment—a consolation.

The Buddha’s final words, often translated as “Strive on with diligence,” have an echo of exhortation about them. I find them thrilling. Those words connect me with a sense of faith and confidence in the possibility of freedom that I think the Buddha must have aroused in his followers. I imagine him saying, “Move with sureness into the future.”

For many years I taught mindfulness at Elat Chayyim, a retreat center in the Catskill Mountains of New York, every October. It’s a great pleasure for a Californian, for whom the seasons don’t change very much, to see signs of an oncoming real winter: the leaves changing color, many of the trees already bare, and birds, great flocks of them, flying south. Elat Chayyim seems to be on the flyway of geese, and they honk as they go by. I watch them. I notice who the lead goose is, the one I think is giving instructions for synchronized flying. I wonder how those instructions are transmitted, because the squadron shifts direction all at once. Sometimes when I see the flock shift suddenly east or west, sometimes even north, I think to myself, “Go south, go south!” Then I think, “They don’t need my help.”

The geese turn by themselves, all together, probably in response to an internal signal that they’re going the wrong way. They know where they’re going. They’ll get there. They’ll stay a while. Then they’ll fly north. They’re always traveling. They never finish. Neither do we.

When I began spiritual practice in the 1970’s, my friends and I believed we would become—once and for all—enlightened. I think we were inspired by the Buddha’s own enlightened vision and the words he spoke when he understood the mechanism by which the mind—in confusion—weaves individual experiences into an ongoing, seemingly unbroken narrative of a life in which one finds oneself cast as the author of the drama, the principal player, and the hero and victim of everything that happens. Realizing that the sense of owning that role is illusion—and that the role itself is burdensome, frightful to play—the Buddha was able to stop. He said, “The ridgepole is broken. House builder, you will build no more!” He knew he had destroyed, forever, the habit of rebuilding the sense of a separate self. He was free.

I have moments in which I understand that there is no one who owns the narrative of my life, no one to whom the events of my life are happening, that all of creation is a huge, interconnected, amazing production of events unfolding in concert with each other, connected to each other, dependent on each other, with no separation at all. When these moments happen, I feel happy, at ease, and grateful. I think of them as experiences of enlightenment. They are real and I trust them, but they don’t last. However clearly I see, however much I think, “Now I will never lose this perspective,” my mind makes wrong turns and I do lose it.

When I discover that I am—once again—confused, I try to remember that the habit of return is what matters. I credit myself with the insights I’ve had and assume that I can get them back. I think about the Buddha charging his monks with the responsibility to go on by themselves. I think about the geese, programmed for their journey, and I imagine that we are programmed for our journey as well. I pay attention. I make course corrections. I think about “Strive on with diligence,” or “Move with sureness into the future,” and I remember that I don’t need to move into the whole of the future. Just the next step.


Sylvia Boorstein, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, CA. This article is adapted from her book, Pay Attention for Goodness' Sake: Practicing the Perfections of the Heart, the Buddhist Practice of Kindness. © 2003 by Sylvia Boorstein. Published by the Ballantine Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths, Sylvia Boorstein, Shambhala Sun, September 2002.
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