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The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

The third noble truth is the cessation of suffering. Although the Buddha taught that suffering pervades our entire experience of samsara, he also taught that this suffering is temporary and that we can go beyond it. When we have discovered the origin of suffering and have relinquished its causes, then our samsaric ego-clinging and disturbing emotions cease. “Cessation” in this context refers to the state of nirvana, in which all delusion and mental afflictions have been overcome and the mind is unconditionally liberated. It also refers to the state of meditative absorption accomplished by the arhats, those beings who attained the highest level of realization in the Hinayana path.

The Truth of the Path

The fourth noble truth is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. When Buddha demonstrated the cause and effect relationships that pertain to the four noble truths, he showed us that neither our suffering nor our liberation is a random occurrence. There is a cause for our suffering and, equally, a cause for the end of that suffering—for liberation. Therefore, we can direct the course of our actions toward the result we wish to obtain. When we enter the path that leads directly to the cessation of suffering, we are following the methods for realizing inner peace and wisdom recommended by Buddha.
The path that Buddha presented in this context is known as the noble eightfold path. In general, the eightfold path consists of perfecting our training in the three areas of discipline, meditation, and wisdom (in Sanskrit shila, samadhi, and prajna). Specifically, the eight branches of this path are the trainings in right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Altogether, the path provides us with many methods for working with and overcoming our ego-clinging and disturbing emotions. This is called the path of individual salvation and it is the path of the arhats.

Renunciation and Egolessness

When we are following this path, it is important to develop a genuine sense of renunciation, of wanting to free ourselves from samsaric existence altogether. True renunciation is the result of understanding the truth of suffering and recognizing its pervasiveness—that wherever you are born, whatever your circumstances are, samsara is basically an experience of suffering. In the sutras, samsara is described as a “nest of poisonous snakes” and “a valley of lava.” Shantideva calls it “a party given by an executioner.”
Of course, it is not an actual physical location that we are trying to escape but a mental state—the convoluted and tortuous quality that is inherent in our individual experience of samsara. It is the wish to be free of such suffering that is the basis of earnestly seeking liberation.
While there are many practices that will lead one gradually to liberation, the Buddha said that the principal cause for achieving liberation is the realization of egolessness. That is what frees us from suffering. Therefore, without realizing egolessness, there is no way one can achieve any degree of real freedom.
In the first turning of the wheel of dharma, the Buddha began to teach the view of emptiness. When he taught the four noble truths, he said, “Suffering is impermanent, impermanence is emptiness, and emptiness is selflessness.” This can also be stated as, “Impermanence is suffering, suffering is emptiness, and emptiness is selflessness.” In this way, Buddha taught emptiness in a way that was very accessible. While it is generally difficult to experience emptiness directly, right away, it is not so difficult to recognize our own suffering, which is a very vivid experience. Once we have seen the truth of suffering, then it is also not so difficult to see its momentary, impermanent nature. This leads to a deeper understanding of the impermanent nature of all phenomena, which is the basis for realizing emptiness.
The way in which the Buddha taught emptiness in the first turning accords with the gradual, or indirect, way of understanding the ultimate nature of reality. Buddha simply taught that “the self,” or entity identified as “I,” is impermanent in nature and does not exist inherently; it is empty of any true, solid existence. Therefore, in his first teachings on emptiness, Buddha taught the nonexistence of a personal self or individual ego on the ultimate level.

Second Turning: Selflessness

When the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma for the second time, on Vulture Peak Mountain, he taught the Perfection of Wisdom sutras to an assembly of bodhisattvas. This is the turning known as the “vehicle of non-characteristics.”
At this time Buddha presented the complete teachings on emptiness: not only is the individual self empty of inherent existence, but all phenomena are empty as well. This means that the totality of our experience—both subjective and objective—is empty of true existence. All living experiences—from our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions to the appearances of external forms and events—have no solid basis in ultimate reality. Relatively speaking, things do appear and function; however, there is no self-nature anywhere to be found on the level of ultimate reality. When we fully transcend ego-clinging, when we realize the state of egolessness or selflessness, then we completely cut the root of samsara and of suffering.
The emptiness teachings of the second turning are known as “the great mother prajnaparamita” because the perfection of wisdom, or transcendental knowledge, to which they refer is nothing less than the complete realization of emptiness. This view of emptiness is taught very clearly in prajnaparamita sutras such as the Heart Sutra, which says: Form is emptiness; emptiness is also form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.
It is just this realization that is the source of all realizations, of liberation or enlightenment. Therefore, the essence of prajnaparamita is known as the mother of the four noble beings: the Shravakayana arhats, Pratyekabuddhayana arhats, the bodhisattvas on the bhumis (levels, or stages of the bodhisattva path), and the buddhas. From the perspective of some Mahayana schools, the second turning of the wheel of dharma is seen as the most ultimate, or definitive, teaching of the Buddha.
In addition to the teachings on emptiness, Buddha also presented teachings on bodhicitta, which literally means “enlightened attitude” or “awakened heart.” It is the heartfelt wish that all sentient beings—not just oneself—may be established in the state of enlightenment, and it is the commitment to help lead them to that state. Developing bodhicitta is viewed as the key to entering the Mahayana path, which is characterized by the greater vision of liberating all beings and transforming this samsaric existence into an enlightened world.
However, in order to possess such a pure motivation and such vast compassion and love for others, we must have some understanding or realization of selflessness. If we have compassion or love with an egocentric view, then that compassion and love will not be genuine. When the experience of selflessness is combined with compassion and love, it becomes the perfect Mahayana expression of bodhicitta, which is not just emptiness, but compassion and selflessness unified into one experience.

Third Turning: Buddhanature

In the discourses of the third turning, taught to a retinue of bodhisattvas, the Buddha went further into his teachings on the ultimate nature of mind. At this time, he taught that the true nature of mind is not merely emptiness, a state of nonexistence. Rather, our fundamental nature of mind is a luminous expanse of awareness that is beyond all conceptual fabrication and completely free from the movement of thoughts. It is the union of emptiness and clarity, of space and radiant awareness that is endowed with supreme and immeasurable qualities. From this basic nature of emptiness everything is expressed; from this everything arises and manifests.
With these teachings on the absolute nature of mind, Buddha introduced the notion of tathagatagarbha, or the buddhanature theory. This declares that the fundamental nature of mind is utterly pure and primordially in the state of buddhahood. It is the absolute buddha. It has never changed from beginningless time. Its essence is wisdom and compassion that is inconceivably profound and vast. The term tathagata is an epithet for the Buddha and refers to one who has “gone beyond” the ordinary world to the state of perfect enlightenment. Garbha is sometimes translated as “womb” or “seed.” Thus, tathagatagarbha points to the enlightened potential that is inherent within all sentient beings, whether they exist as humans, animals, gods, or even demons.
However, this potential is covered over by certain temporary obscurations, in the same way that the sun may be temporarily concealed by clouds. Therefore we do not apprehend it directly. Instead, we see only what is perceptible by means of our dualistic consciousness: a stream of sense perceptions, mental constructs, thoughts, and emotions that arise and dissolve ceaselessly. It is these appearances of relative phenomena that obscure the direct recognition of the open, brilliant, and dynamic reality of genuine mind. Nevertheless, our buddhanature itself has never been diminished by the presence of such adventitious phenomena, just as the sun itself is never diminished by the presence of clouds.

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