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"Four Noble Truths"

Jeffrey Woodgate

The first noble truth - understand that there is suffering

The essence of the Buddha's teaching or dharma is conceptually straight forward. The dharma is an instruction manual designed to help us find a path out of suffering. This is an aim it shares with western psychotherapy.

The dharma begins with a recognition that suffering exists. The first noble truth is that living means experiencing dukkha - a Sanskrit word encompassing the concepts of suffering, discontent, dissatisfaction, discomfort, restlessness, unfulfilled desire and fear. (McClain & Adamson, 2001: 19).

However, it is not good enough to merely acknowledge the existence of this suffering on some conceptual or intellectual level, for the dharma always requires an active human response. Each noble truth "requires being acted upon in its own particular way" (Batchelor, 1997: 4). The first noble truth also advises us to understand this dukkha, suffering or anguish.

Now, usually we seek only to avoid or remove such suffering - not to understand it. In this sense a large component of all such suffering remains unconscious or outside of our awareness. We are restless or unhappy. We know that we feel this way but seldom ask ourselves just why this specific feeling or emotion has come upon us? We do not seek to own these feelings. Rather, they seize us from 'without', outside our conscious awareness, and carry us along with them.

Buddhists say that letting go of suffering requires us to firstly admit dukkha into consciousness (Sumedho). This seems not so far from Freud's stated therapeutic aim 'where id is, there shall ego be'. What is different is the concept of consciousness, or rather of the core of conscious awareness westerners call ego.

While western psychology generally assumes that each person has an individual ego or personal core that needs to be strengthened in order to overcome adversity, Buddhist thought takes a different view. From its perspective, this view that we each have a somewhat unchanging personal core is a tendency to be avoided. In between the extremes of being and nonbeing - of seeing ourselves as either somebody or, alternatively, as no body - lies the Buddha's middle way (Epstein, 2001: 10-11).

It seems to me that the dukkha the Buddha seeks to overcome is predicated by our human tendency to view ourselves as separate or unique individuals with, most importantly, an unchanging core of identity that is 'me'. This unchanging core notion is highly susceptible to self-centred thinking and feeling, to turning everything 'personal'. So, all matters of dukkha (lose, pain, boredom, and so on) are highly susceptible to being taken personally, as it were.

To quote from Sumedho, "The insight [of the first noble truth] is simply the acknowledgement that there is this suffering without making it personal. That acknowledgement is an important insight; just looking at mental anguish or physical pain and seeing it as dukkha rather than as personal misery - just seeing it as dukkha and not reacting to it in a personal way. what we are looking at is not that suffering which comes from out there, but what we create in our own minds around it. it is no longer blaming the suffering that we are experiencing on others."

This is a useful insight for western healers also to start from.

The second noble truth - letting go of the origins of anguish

The Buddha's first insight or Noble Truth is that anguish or suffering exists and is to be understood or admitted into consciousness rather than being avoided or removed.

Following on, his second insight is that the origins of anguish lie in desire or craving - more particularly, in our human tendency to evade "the unadorned immediacy of life" via excursions "into tawdry and tiresome elaborations of past and future." (Batchelor 1997: 25)

We are dissatisfied with how things are. We want things we don't have or wish things were different - we desire sensual pleasures (food, sex, beautiful possessions) or desire to be different (wealthy, famous, successful) or to be rid of something unpleasant (suffering, fear, anxiety).

The Buddha counsels us to achieve real happiness by letting go of these self-centred cravings and living in the immediacy of the present moment. The letting go of a craving, however, does not mean rejecting it "but allowing it to be itself: a contingent state of mind that once arisen will pass away. As with understanding anguish, the challenge in letting go of craving is to act before habitual reactions incapacitate us." (Batchelor 1997:9)

This distinction is important. The cause of suffering is not desire itself but the grasping of our desires. "Grasping means being deluded by [suffering], thinking it's really 'me' and 'mine'. Desire is not what we are but it is the way we tend to react out of ignorance when we have not understood these Four Noble Truths in their three aspects." (Sumedho 2005)

It's as if we arrive into this world with a clean slate or Buddha nature, but in a state of original ignorance. This original state of 'purity' or 'emptiness' is not able to be realised by the unconscious child and so we develop over time by filling up our emptiness with cravings for things. Eventually, we accumulate so much psychological 'stuff' or cravings that we forget entirely that we began in a pure void.

What motivates us to grasp at desires and strive so hard to fill up our emptiness? How should we approach emptiness?

Epstein (1998) draws a distinction between Western and Buddhist approaches to emptiness. He notes that "Like their patients, psychotherapists were intimidated by emptiness Western psychotherapists are trained to understand a report of emptiness as indicative of a deficiency in someone's emotional upbringing, a defect in character, a defense against overwhelming feelings of aggression, or as a stand-in for feelings of inadequacy. Psychotherapy was holding out for a cure The problem with the Western experience of emptiness was that it was mixed with so much fear. We must learn how to be with our feelings of emptiness without rushing to change them." (pp 14-15, 26)

Goleman (1991) draws the same distinction when comparing Tibetan Buddhism and western psychotherapy. "But the telling difference is in the methods, the means to mental health that exist in each system. By and large, psychotherapy focuses on the content of consciousness. It does not attempt the more radical transformation posited in the Tibetan Buddhist approach, which focuses on the process of consciousness." (p 100)

There would seem to be fruitful scope for psychoanalysts to focus more on the processes - not just the content - of consciousness, and explore the impact of fear in particular.

The third noble truth - realising the end of suffering

The Buddha's third Noble Truth counsels us to realise the cessation of suffering. We can eliminate dukkha (suffering/discontent) by eliminating our craving for and clinging to the "ten thousand things" we forever desire.

The Buddha tells us that all things exist in a constant process of change. Material forms, relationships and situations, subjective thoughts and emotions continually arise and cease. (As I understand quantum physics, at the subatomic level particles of matter itself come into being and then just as mysteriously cease to be.) Life is a change process. The way to lasting happiness and peace is to "go with the flow" it seems. Naturally, this is easier said than done.

Our attachments have different qualities and strengths. Some cravings pass relatively quickly but at other times we can cling to something so tenaciously that we can't even contemplate losing it or failing to achieve it. What drives us to cling to desires so desperately sometimes? Is it the ego personality that clings so hard, or are these cravings unconscious?

Clearly, sometimes people seem all too conscious of what they want and we see them pursue their cravings quite ruthlessly. The ego wants what the ego wants. Cravings seem to spring fully-blown from our ego consciousness. I see a new car and I want one. I see a beautiful person and I want them. This wanting can cause immense personal suffering, or it can be avoided entirely if we consciously choose to cease our desperate wanting.

But is it just as straightforward as this? Desires themselves are not problems. Indeed, they seem to be natural components of our human existence. It is only our attachment to them that causes suffering for all objects of desire are temporal and just as they come into being so they will eventually cease to be. So why is it so hard sometimes to relinquish our attachment to various fleeting objects of desire and just let things be?

While our ego concept persists in its illusion that we are a permanently unchanging 'me' or 'I' at core, it has a great stake in accumulating to itself more and more 'possessions' or 'ego enhancements', more socially desirable attributes, to help it get what it wants in life, for we operate consciously as if we will continue to walk this Earth forever, and forever is a long, long time. (This is the great appeal for many of a law degree, membership in a fitness club and a rising real estate market.)

Our ego consciousness operates within its illusion of permanency. If we are permanent, then all other things just possibly might likewise endure indefinitely, and so it makes sense to want them for our own purposes. Otherwise, to admit our impermanence is to open to a changing world, where others are not here primarily to serve our own ends. This can be frightening.

I recall Jung saying it is rational to be neurotic since life is so unpredictable. From this view, it makes perfect sense to remain attached to our various neuroses in order to avoid having to deal with life as it really is. Neurosis, craving, clinging - all are self-centred activities. Centring on our selves is a key strategy for avoidance of our fear of ceasing to be.

If we can bear the really hard work of admitting our craving for permanence and its accompanying fear fully into our consciousness, we can then bear to allow things to cease to be, and "When you have let something go and allowed it to cease, then what is left is peace" (Sumedho). Our challenge is to lighten up and be en-lightened, so to speak.

The fourth noble truth - the eight fold path

The Buddha's fourth Noble Truth - the eight fold path - is his instruction manual to end the suffering arising out of our attachment to fleeting desires.

The eight fold path to liberation from suffering emphasises training in three essential Buddhist values - wisdom, ethics and meditative awareness.

Wisdom training (right view, right intentions) is designed to let us see things as they are. This is important "because your worldview determines the direction your life will take". (Lama Surya Das, 1997: 96)

Ethics training (right speech, right action, right livelihood) "shows us how - through mindful attention and nonattachment - to make our daily lives sacred by practising ethical restraint, morality, and sincere virtue in all that we do. It is not enough to think wisely; we must also speak, act, work, and love wisely." (pp 167-168)

Meditation training (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) focuses upon "the intentional cultivation of mindful awareness and pure attention - an alert, wakeful presence of mind." (p260)

We come into being and, for the most part, live, think and act as if we are immortal. Our ego consciousness views itself as a permanent, fixed identity. We don't naturally want to admit into our consciousness that we will die one day. Death is the greatest threat to our ego and so we develop many strategies centring upon ourselves in order to avoiding our fear of eventually ceasing to be. Such strategies will, Buddhism teaches, be bound to fail.

Sometimes when desires arise, our ego consciousness - the illusory unchanging 'I' or 'me' - grasps and clings to them tenaciously, fearfully. We incline to taking the easy way out by developing neurotic attachments to certain patterns of thought and behaviour that allow us to avoid dealing with the biggest issues - death ultimately, but often also how best we might live our lives in every moment.

The eight fold path can help us overcome our neurotic attachments. A focus upon our real place in the world is very confronting. We are not the centre of the universe and all things do not exist to serve our needs.

Wisdom training can help us to see this and help us centre ourselves naturally and realistically in this experience called life, rather than proceeding though a world of illusion with a skewed centre revolving around our ego's wants.

Training in meditative awareness complements wisdom and ethics training by shoring up our energy for whatever trials and tasks we face.

When we have a realistic worldview, it follows naturally that other people will be viewed and treated differently, more respectfully. When the ego is dethroned somewhat, the connections between us and them are more obvious. Ethical training is relevant to developing and maintaining relationships with others.

The neurotic suffering self, whether aware of its attachments or unconscious of them, is overly focussed upon its false centre. When it's not relating with others, who does our constantly chattering mind dialogue with? It's as if our consciousness was the big screen on the wall in the NASA control room, projecting various thoughts so all parts of our mind/brain (personal unconscious, complexes, left brain, right brain, lizard brain etc) can more easily relate to the other parts. So whatever path our awareness is actually focussed upon is very important.

References

Batchelor, Stephen, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, Riverhead Books, New York, 1997.

Epstein, Mark, Going on being: Buddhism and the way of change: a positive psychology for the West, Broadway Books, New York, 2001.

Epstein, Mark, Going to pieces without falling apart: a Buddhist perspective on wholeness, Broadway Books, New York, 1998.

Goleman, Daniel, "Tibetan and Western Models of Mental Health" in Goleman, Daniel & Robert A F Thurman, editors, MindScience: An East-West Dialogue, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1991, pages 89-102.

McClain, Gary R and Eve Adamson, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Zen Living, Alpha Books, Indianapolis USA, 2001.

Sumedho, Ajahn, The Four Noble Truths, Amaravarti, Hemel Hempstead, England (http://www.buddhanet.net/4noble.htm). Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha within: eight steps to enlightenment: Tibetan wisdom for the Western world, Broadway Books, New York, 1997.

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