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Posts tagged ‘the four noble truths’

The path leading to the end of suffering, the fourth Noble Truth

This week we come to the fourth noble truth: that there is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

The first Noble Truth states that there is suffering. The second, that suffering is caused by grasping: grasping the desire for sensual experiences and at the objects of the senses, grasping at becoming and taking birth as a certain personality and grasping at the desire to cease.

Having diagnosed the illness, the Buddha goes on to give the cure, the way of practice that leads to freedom.

The Buddha summarised this most succinctly by saying: cease to do that which harms, learn to do that which nourishes, and purify your heart and mind.

This is outlined in more detail in the eight fold path:

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As you can see the path is divided in to three sections. Buddhist love lists and subdivisions of lists!

The path is not linear, it is often depicted as a wheel and as such it is all arising at the same moment. But it can be broken down into the separate parts, just as a wheel has spokes. Without one of the spokes the wheel looses its strength. In the same way all parts of the eightfold path interact and work together.

1. Looking at it as a list the first section relates to Wisdom.

Right view is the intuitive and felt understanding that actions have consequences. This understanding motivates one in one’s practice. Ajahn Sumedho describes this as knowing something to be true in your gut as opposed to an intellectual knowledge. It is the intuition that there is suffering and that there is an end to suffering which leads one to begin the spiritual journey and in its maturity it is the direct knowing of the end of suffering through letting go of all clinging. It’s the feeling that brings us to meditation, knowing that there is something out of balance in our lives and sensing that another approach may give a way of rebalancing ourselves. It’s also the insights and deeper understanding we gain as we meditate and see how holding onto thoughts and feelings or rejecting what we do not want gives rise to suffering, whereas learning to let go and embrace things as they are in the moment starts to open up a space of greater contentment and ease.

Right Intention, or right aspiration arises out of right view. It’s the wholesome desire to aspire to freedom from suffering for ourself and others out of a sense that this is the freedom we are all naturally born to but have forgotten. It’s the intention to follow the path out of compassion for ourselves and others rather than out of any desire for selfish gain.

2. The second section relates to ethical conduct. Living ethically is said to be the support for meditation, which is the third section.

Right Speech is that which avoids lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter and encourages telling the truth, harmonious speech that brings people together, kindly speech and conversations with purpose. Sounds quite demanding especially on a Friday night out! What we can notice in our speech is how often there is a sense of using our conversation to hold on to a sense of bing right, of wanting to gain power over another or gain advantage for ourself through being economical with the truth! Right speech encourages us to consider what effect our words will have. They are like a flock of birds, once set free it is hard to net them. How often have we said something in a moment or anger or hurt only to regret the impact it has? Reflecting on what we say and how it impacts on others, taking a breath before saying that cutting remark, feeling the wish to hurt another and then letting it go and feeling compassion for the other person can transform an argument into a place of healing. When we let go of being right we may open to new possibilities for being happy.

Right action brings attention to how we use our bodies through abstaining from taking life, from stealing, and sexual misconduct. The first two seem fine – don’t kill or steal. But is the third another religious assault on sex, making it liked or wrong? By sexual misconduct is meant any action that harms another or is done against their will – rape, incest, abuse – but because it includes actions done against the will of another it can include a normally consenting partner if they are then forced to do something when not willing. It means respecting and being sensitive to anyone with whom we are having sex.

This part of the path encourages respecting life – as all beings wish to live and not to have it taken from them, to respect the property of others and note our greed to acquire, and if possible shift it to sympathetic joy (being pleased for the good fortune of others and their enjoyment of the things they have rather than envy and covetousness). This can lead to greater peace of mind and heart. The Buddha never said sex was wrong or a sin. He had courtesans as disciples and treated them no differently to the kings who visited him. Monks and nuns were obliged to be celibate. But lay followers were encouraged to use their sexual energies wisely, to note the way sexual desire opens the door to a sense of lack, craving, longing and to see how one can find fulfilment through consenting and caring sexual relationships with another or others.

Right Livelihood refers to earning a living though honest and ethical business dealings which do not involve cheating, lying or stealing. The following were specifically prohibited:
Business in weapons: trading in all kinds of weapons and instruments for killing.
Business in human beings: slave trading, prostitution, or the buying and selling of children or adults.
Business in meat: “meat” refers to the bodies of beings after they are killed. This includes breeding animals for slaughter.
Business in intoxicants: manufacturing or selling intoxicating drinks or addictive drugs.
Business in poison: producing or trading in any kind of poison or a toxic product designed to kill.

3. The third section, Meditation or concentration is said to be supported by living an ethical life as it is harder to meditate with a bad conscience! This raises an interesting question for modern mindfulness teaching which focuses on teaching meditation but without addressing the ethical behaviour of those learning it. But I’ll leave that as an open question! Meditation in turn provides the support for wisdom to arise. Hence the end of the list brings us back to the beginning – and in this sense it is not a list but a circle. And even as a circle each aspect of the path interrelates and supports the other so there is no one point or simple progression from one aspect to the next – each is mutually supportive of the other and to be applied as needed and appropriate in one’s life.

Right Effort is the diligent exertion to maintain skilful states which lead to peace of mind and heart that are already arisen and to avoid acting on unskilful motivations that may lead to unethical behaviour or actions that do not lead to peace.

Right mindfulness, the cultivation of attentiveness and alertness, which according to the Buddha involves bringing awareness to the body and physical sensations; feelings; thoughts; and all mental processes.

Right concentration which is the state of focused meditation on a single object. Right mindfulness in this sense is seen as more of a moment by moment awareness that may occur at any time whether meditating or not. Right concentration is the experience of bring attention to a focus on one object, such as the breath.

The Third Noble Truth: suffering has an end

This week we come to the third noble truth: That there is an end to suffering.

The first Noble Truth states that there is suffering. The second, that suffering is caused by grasping: grasping the desire for sensual experiences and at the objects of the senses, grasping at becoming and taking birth as a certain personality and grasping at the desire to cease.

In our meditation we can see how the mind reaches out to things, enjoyable experience from the past in the form of memories, or anticipation of future pleasure through fantasies, as a way of looking for happiness. And yet these things are all impermanent – for whatever has a beginning must also have an end. By looking for ultimate happiness in that which is by nature impermanent we will always come to a state of pain as we loose that which we desire. The path of reflection and meditation is said to open us to an experience that simply is, a state that is not born from our effort or given from an external source. As such this state is said to be timeless and thus can never be destroyed. This means it is always there and we have always know it – it’s just that we have forgotten. As many teachers from different traditions point out, it’s not that we have to become awake or enlightened, but wake up to knowing that that is who we already are! The more we open to this the more we have a refuge that can give true happiness. We can then embrace life as it is – be with the fleeting joys and pleasures of life but not look to them as our ultimate source of well being. We may also simplify our lives and look less to external things as we feel happy in ourselves.

In meditation as we reflect on our life the tendency to cling to becoming is seen in our desire to become a peaceful, happy, powerful or compassionate person – or whatever it might be we wish for as an identity. And yet all of these identities are born and thus will end and offer no permanent state of security. As we reflect on our experience we may also see the desire for cessation – to stop being in pain, the desire to end our struggle, wanting to silence the mind and stop. This may manifest through drink, drugs, sex which is unaware and unfeeling, zoning out watching the television or at its most extreme actual suicide or following a spiritual teaching that promises annihilation of the self.


The Third Noble Truth: there is an end to suffering

The third Noble truth states that suffering ceases when we let go of clinging to this process of becoming and rest at peace with things as they are. The Buddha once said that if one were truly mindful for seven days then one would be Enlightened by the end of that period. What then is mindfulness and how do we let go?

Mindfulness is not an activity. It’s not analysing and finding the answer. The Buddhist term from which mindfulness is derived is sati. Wikipedia tells me that “the word sati derives from a root meaning ‘to remember,’ but as a mental factor it signifies presence of mind, attentiveness to the present, rather than the faculty of memory regarding the past. It has the characteristic of not wobbling, i.e. not floating away from the object of concentration. It’s function is absence of confusion or non-forgetfulness.” Hence, mindfulness is remembering to be present in the moment, to wake up.

To paraphrase Jon Kabat Zinn mindfulness is a state of awareness that arises when one pays attention right now, in the present moment, without judgement. All you need to do is pay attention! No need to analyse, think or look for an answer. And when you notice that you’re falling into the autopilot of looking for an answer and wanting to let go – then be aware of that – how it feels in your body and what you are thinking. Start naming it the ‘I want to let go drama’ and then let it be. Simply say in your head “Hello ‘I want to let go drama’ – there you are again!” You see, there’s nothing to do when practicing mindfulness – but our doing mind can’t accept that and wants to take control by over-thinking – “am I being mindful now?”, “have I let go?”,”what will it feel like to let go?”,”why won’t I let go?”, and so we get to the autopilot mode of thinking – “what’s wrong with me?”, “This isn’t working”, “I’ve failed”, “I need something else”. Then we go around and around trying one therapy, then another, reading one book, then another – believe me – I’ve done it – all the time avoiding stopping and Being.

Mindfulness is Awareness. Awareness is presence. Presence is a gentle knowing of the present moment without judgment or fear. Being in the present moment is stopping and noticing. Noticing is waking up. Waking up is natural and spontaneous not an act of the intellect.

The mindful approach to life encourages you to explore being with your experience rather than trying to fix it. The desire to fix it is coming from the doing mode, and is adding another thought to the busy mind: “I have to fix myself”. The invitation of mindfulness training is to welcome and accept yourself as you are right now.

If I’m feeling anxious, then I’m feeling anxious. That does not mean I am an anxious person, only that right now there is a feeling of anxiety. It will pass. Allowing, accepting, being compassionate towards myself, all creates the conditions to help it pass by counteracting the tendency to fight what is there, to resist it, to grasp at wanting to become calm by rejecting the feeling of not being calm. The paradox of mindfulness is that it invites one simply to sit in the eye of the storm, and to see that the storm can cease by being allowed to be as it is. As my teacher Ajahn Sumedho would always say, “that which is Aware, is not the thing of which it is Aware”. Hence, being aware of anxiety puts one in touch with a gentle knowing that can witness the anxiety without being the anxiety.


But how do I let Go?

And so we come back to the question: “How do I let go?” Ajahn Sumedho would always say to me “just let go” and I would think “fine, but how?????” What I am learning is that I hold on because I want to hold on – there is a feeling of excitement, energy, vitality in the holding on, even if it is to something causing distress. There is a subtle fear that if I let go of my anxiety (or whatever it may be for you) I’ll be nothing and it’s preferable to stay with the familiar. What I also see is that letting go happens in a moment and on letting go there is stillness and bliss – a state that is deeper and way more nourishing than the state of holding on to whatever it is I’m choosing to grasp hold of.

But this still leaves the question how to let go? I know having Ajahn Sumedho say “just let go” only left me feeling that I was failing. I’m starting to see letting go as embracing. Embracing how I feel right now rather than wishing it were different. Embracing my fear. Embracing my anxiety. Embracing being skinny and not liking it. Embracing my loneliness. Because all I can be with is how I am right now. But how I am right now is not who I am. By embracing how I feel right now I create an opening for another state of awareness to arise.

Embracing is different to analysing and absorbing into the state. I’m not thinking – “I feel anxious…..I always feel anxious……what’s wrong with me for always feeling anxious….all of these courses and books aren’t working……I’ve failed…….there’s no end to this, I wish it would all end…….” Embracing simply means holding myself in my pain and confusion as I would hold a child who has fallen and grazed its knee. See how spontaneous your response would be to such a child. And yet we can be so harsh and demanding to ourselves, as if we were saying to the child “stop whining, get up, what’s wrong with you, and you were so stupid to fall over anyway, I’m embarrassed you’re making such a fuss, just pull yourself together….”

Thus, when a mental/emotional state of pain arises, notice the urge to push it away, notice the rejection of how you are feeling, and cultivate a gentle willingness to be with your experience – not to find an answer or stop it – but simply to notice how it feels in your body, what the emotions are and what you are thinking. And think to yourself: “It’s OK, whatever it is I’m feeling it’s OK”. Take a breath. Feel your body in contact with the chair if you’re sitting and notice the contact with the floor. Pay attention to the sensations in the soles of your feet, your heels and toes. Relax your jaw. Keep breathing and embracing yourself as you are in that moment. Remember – it’s ok to be a mess in progress! You don’t have to be perfect.

The Second Noble Truth: The Cause of Suffering

This week we come to the Second Noble Truth – the cause of suffering,

The Buddha left his life as a Prince to live as a seeker after truth after seeing that all those whom he loved, and he himself, would one day sicken, grow old and die. It was out of compassion for those he loved and hoping to find what he described as “the path to the deathless” that he left home. His wife had only recently given birth to his son, a future King if the Prince stayed and obeyed his father’s wishes to take on the kingdom after his death. But the Prince who was to become the Buddha saw that he could find a greater inheritance for his son, one that would not disappear in the sands of time but that was eternal, due to existing outside of time.

In the time of the Buddha there was already the notion of reincarnation. Death was not seen as the end, but just part of a never ending cycle of birth and death and rebirth. This was part of the suffering the Prince saw and that he wished to wake up from – the tendency to grasp at existence and the idea of I, me and mine that leads to ongoing rebirth into a state of suffering.

We may not believe in life after life now. But we see that we go through a number of incarnations in this life. We wake each day to inherit the consequences of our decisions from the previous day and as we age we become aware of inheriting the consequences of experiences and actions from the past that impact on us now even though the original self that experienced them is no longer here. Even moment by moment we see that we are coming into existence as our moods shift and change – you’re feeling happy at a party then someone spills their red wine on your new shirt and you feel upset and angry, in a moment one experience of selfhood has died to be replaced by another.

Hence, although we may not seek to end the rounds of rebirth from one life to another – we can identify with the Prince who was to become the Buddha and his wish to be free from constantly being held hostage by the past and our identification with what is arising in the present moment as being ‘me’ and instead be free in the moment through experiencing it with an open and non judgemental awareness of it as it is, rather than adding anything to it or wishing it were different which leads to suffering.

Why is there suffering? This is the central question so many of us ask and so many religions seek to answer.

What the Buddha saw and taught was that suffering is caused by three types of grasping:

1. Grasping at sensual desire (which leads to rebirth – the ongoing process of being someone wanting something)

2. Grasping at the desire to become (identity, being someone doing something)

3. Grasping at the desire not to be (rejecting identity, wanting to annihilate oneself)

In contrast letting go of desire and being at peace with things as they are leads to freedom.


How can this teaching be relevant to us and the question of how to be happy?

The Buddha does not say we are wrong to have sensual desire. We are in a body and as such we will experience pleasure. The suffering comes when we look to this sensual pleasure as being the source of ultimate happiness. If I look to sex, drink, drugs, food etc as being all there is to provide happiness then there may arise the feeling that I need more and more to touch the levels of pleasure they once opened me to. This way so easily leads to addiction. To searching for yet more intense ways to experience these pleasures until the pleasure no longer sets one free but has become a prison.

One’s life is consumed by the question “how can I get more?” More money, more sex, more exquisite music – whatever our sensual desire might be. And so we reach the point of eating that final wafer thin mint at the end of a gigantic meal of epicurean dimensions – and burst!

I’m sure we have all seen that following sensual desire as an end in itself has not led to happiness but to a deeper sense of lack and loss, of feeling that the hole we wish to fill is deeper and darker the more we run to the mirage of sensual desire.

This can open us up to a wish to change. But at this point the other two types of desire can hijack our real wish to be free.

We may pursue the desire to become: to become evangelical about what we see as our way of being saved – AA, religion, yoga, being a monk, being celibate etc. We seek to become the ideal student, to follow the teachings in a way that we become the best in our recovery group or a pure follower of the Buddha’s teaching. I did this by seeking to abandon sexual desire and embrace a life of celibacy aged 22. But in all of this there is still attachment – attachment to the idea of being pure, of being someone struggling to be better. There is still a strong sense of I, me and mine.

This struggle may then lead to the third type of desire: the desire for cessation, to no longer exist. We may come to a point where we see that our desires do not lead to happiness, that trying to be pure or become free does not work and so we just want to annihilate ourselves. This might be through suicide. It might be through following a spiritual teaching with the wish that we could disappear into the void and our suffering ceases. Still in trying to destroy ourself we are acting out of the idea of I, me and mine.

When I came across Buddhism I wanted to meditate to the point that I ceased to be, hoping that if ‘I’ disappeared then the suffering it experienced would cease. On one retreat I sought to challenge sensual desire by reducing my eating to a minimum. The result was that I went down to about 7 stone. (44KG). I then had even more suffering as I spent a year recovering my health! It was only after recovering and regaining some weight that I saw I had been lost in the desire to push away, to cease to be, in my attempts to challenge the desire to hold and posses, that this did not lead to freedom any more than grasping at the idea of becoming the ideal student and follower of the Buddha’s teaching.

Rather than this extreme of pushing away or grasping the Buddha taught the middle way. This middle way is the path leading to the end of suffering and is a gentle encouragement to be fully present to one’s experience, to enjoy what is there in the present moment and open to a sense of gratitude for what is in one’s life. With this attitude a meal or a caress from a lover can feel full and perfect rather than leave one wishing for more or better. Being mindful – fully alive to the present moment – can make that moment full and perfect as it is. This shall be the theme for the following two emails which will cover the final two Noble Truths:

The third Noble truth – suffering has an end

The fourth Noble Truth – there is a path leading to the end of suffering.

How to be happy: the four noble truths

This week we come to the question of happiness! The Buddha’s teachings assert that happiness is our true nature, that when all of the struggle, fear and worry are seen through there is simply luminous, clear consciousness – unborn, uncreated, outside of time and full of bliss, compassion and wisdom. For those of us not yet dwelling in that state we have what the Buddha described as the Four Noble truths – both a description of our dilemma, of the unenlightened state, and a guide to freedom from that state of struggle.

This week I’ll give an overview of the Four Noble truths and the reflections after the tea break will use these as a focus over the next four weeks.

The Four Noble Truths are:
1. There is suffering
2. Suffering has a cause
3. Suffering can be brought to an end
4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering.

Buddhism is often described as pessimistic. But essentially it is optimistic, even idealistic, as it believes that everyone has this capacity to awaken and be free from suffering. This capacity for freedom is innate in all of life and is not only for Buddhists! The Buddha offered a path that he considered most conducive to realising this freedom, but he encouraged his followers to be open to any other teachings that one experienced as leading to freedom and if they worked to use them.

Likewise he said to question everything he said, and not to take it on faith. Rather than saying “this is true because the Buddha said so”, he encouraged his followers to learn from their own experience so that they could say this is true because I have found it to be so. Buddhists are human so unfortunately Buddhism is not without its dogmas, as humans seem to like to belong to a group they can identify with, thereby excluding others as wrong and seeking security by following ‘the one true way’. But there’s the encouragement in the Buddha’s teaching to question this tendency and to be open to other faiths and teachings, seeing from one’s own experience if they lead to freedom or prolong suffering through keeping one rooted in greed, hatred and confused thinking.

1. There is suffering

This four fold examination of the human condition is based on the medical tradition at the time the Buddha:
1. there is a certain sickness;
2. that sickness has a cause;
3. that sickness has an end;
4. there is a course of treatment that can lead to the end of this sickness.

Thus, although the list starts with suffering, which gives Buddhism the reputation of seeing life as a place of unremitting pain, within this context we see that it does this with the intention of the essentially hopeful message: that for whatever ails you there is a cure. Having been cured you are returned to good health and it is this state of natural good health that Buddhism sees as our true nature; not the state of sickness that is an aberration from our natural good health.

Anyone hearing this teaching at the time of the Buddha would have recognised its cultural reference and seen the teaching as a reference to a doctor instructing his patient. Just as the patient then has to follow the course of treatment prescribed by the doctor and no amount of the doctor’s desire for the patient to recover will make them well if they do not follow the course of treatment, likewise the Buddha was not a magical saviour who could do the work for you, but a man who shared his experience of what had worked of him. It was then up to each individual practitioner to follow the prescribed remedy until returned to good health.

As we look at our lives we see that it is inevitable that we experience suffering: our bodies become ill and there is physical pain; the things we own and love can be lost or broken; relationships come to an end, and even those we love at some point will die and we experience the suffering of loss. The way humans can treat each other, with hatred, greed and lack of empathy likewise leads to pain, emotional wounding and suffering. Then there is the existential level of suffering. The still small voice in our heart that tells us that however good life is there’s something we are not seeing, a bigger truth that on seeing will make sense of life in a way our pursuit of success and gain can never satisfy. This is simply how it is. But this is not all there is.

If the Buddha only identified the malady but gave no cure then it would be a depressing teaching! Instead this is an acknowledgement and a reminder to notice and accept that we suffer. When we don’t accept this we can so easily try to run away from our own suffering through whatever we use to mask the pain: drugs, sex (or both together!), excessive work, or even an obsessive regime at the gym! We can feel that we are failures. That everyone else is sorted and happy but we alone have screwed up and are defective for not being totally fulfilled. Then we try to fill the emptiness, numb the pain, though activities which take us further into suffering.

Instead the first nobel truth is a gentle and compassionate acknowledgement that what we all share as living beings is the feeling of struggle, of loss, of fear, of sorrow on losing that which gives us security. The Buddha taught that everything that has a beginning has an end. As such there is nothing in this world we can look to that will not end, and if we base our happiness on these things it means we are always insecure as in our heart we know that everything is transient, impermanent, shifting – it’s like trying to build a house on shifting sand, the cracks will always be appearing: we then either spend our whole time trying to repair the cracks or simply realise that we need to leave the house. The rest of the noble truths outline how we see through the illusion that the dilapidated house is who we are and instead leave it to live the rich free life that exists beyond its confines.

The first step to happiness then, according to this teaching, is to accept the potential for life to bring us experiences that will give rise to unhappiness and to see it as simply part of how things are, rather than a perceived reflection on our failings or inadequacies. It is not that if we were more successful at living our life we would then never suffer or experience sorrow. Rather we accept that the nature of life is such that at times suffering will be inevitable. The Buddha described suffering as being like sitting in a cart with an ill fitting wheel. No matter how comfortable you try to make yourself in the cart it will give regular jolts as it goes on its journey.

To see a two minute animation of Stephen Fry outlining the Four Noble Truths as part of the BBC’s history of ideas series click here

Finally, so that we don’t end on only talking about suffering, the attached article explores how we can find more happiness in our lives through taking actions that encourage the body to produce its own feel good hormones.


How to be happy

How to be happy 1

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