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6: The Four Noble Truths
Zonnewende, Dwingeloo, Holland (26th July 1996)
Today I will try to explore what the Buddha called the Four Noble Truths as they relate to our own experience. The Four Noble Truths are: the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, freedom, and the way to attain freedom. Sometimes I like to use this medical model: sickness, the cause of sickness, health, and the cure. We can try to see whether these truths make any sense in our own lives, our own experience, without accepting it on authority. One of the beautiful aspects of the Dhamma is that there is no place for such authority.
It is interesting that suffering is called a noble truth, because initially suffering doesn't seem to be very noble. But unless we know that we are sick we do not feel the need to find the medicine. In that sense the First Noble Truth is a very important discovery, a very important realisation. A situation where you are sick and you don't know you are sick is a very dangerous situation to be in.
Before Prince Siddhartha became a Buddha one of the things that he encountered was the fact of death, old age and disease. When he encountered them there was a need for him to find a way out of them. Death and impermanence are very important in our lives, although sometimes we are not very happy to look at them because change or impermanence can be a source of frustration. We may be very attentive in one meditation session and perhaps we give ourselves a plus for it; but in the next session we are not attentive, we are not present, and we give ourselves a big minus. This kind of suffering can come from such comparing.
But if everything was permanent, how could a flower grow? How could the sun rise? How could I speak? How could I be silent? Changes which do not create suffering for us are no problem. But changes like death, like sickness, like old age, like the break-up of a relationship cause us suffering. Yet all these things can be seen equally as change. For example, when you have a relationship and suddenly the other person leaves you, or does something that disappoints you, you forget about the fact of change, and you want that person to live up to the fixed image you have of her or him.
Getting something that you don't want certainly can create suffering. But it is interesting to find out that even when we get something we want that can also give rise to suffering. Initially there may be satisfaction, but afterwards the feeling of satisfaction lessens and you start looking for something new, another toy, something different which can give you back that initial feeling of satisfaction.
For me coming from Sri Lanka it is interesting to see that in that country there is lot of suffering because of poverty. But in some Western countries there is a lot of affluence and that also can cause a great deal of suffering; it can create the illness I call affluenza. Isn't that an interesting thing about the human condition?
So the First Noble Truth is fascinating, and you can apply it both to different situations in your own life and to situations world-wide.
The Second Noble Truth is a little more complicated, or a little more subtle. There we are told that the problems, the conflicts and the suffering come into existence due to our expectations, in wanting things to be our own way, in our being demanding. Sometimes I think that this truth is more important than the first one. If you can see in your own experience how you create your own problems, how you are destructive in your own very creative way, you might come to realise that you have to take responsibility for your suffering.
It is not a very easy thing for us to realise this and to take complete responsibility for what is happening to us. Human beings are usually very good at holding other people responsible. You might blame the other who provoked you for your anger. You might lay the cause of your sadness on the one who let you down. It is our habit not to look at ourselves, but to look at other people. Unfortunately there are many people in this world who continue to blame others, who hold others responsible for their suffering and therefore don't see the need for a spiritual life and don't see the need to take responsibility.
When we realise that we are creating our own sickness, we realise that only we can discover the medicine to free ourselves from the sickness. These are the Third and the Fourth Noble Truths: the truth of freedom, of being cured, and the truth of the way to attain freedom, the course of medicine.
In a way spiritual practice is about discovering the medicine and being clear about the medicine. The Buddha himself realised that taking to the spiritual path is not an easy thing to do. He said that the spiritual path is going against the stream, it is going against the dominant culture and cultural values. What we usually see and hear around us in the media or in casual conversation is often not conducive for the cure. So you should be very happy, you should give yourself a big plus, if you are making a commitment to the spiritual life.
But even discovering the medicine can create some problems. One problem is that we might get interested not so much in taking the medicine, but just in reading about it. In Sri Lanka I have some friends who are outstanding Buddhist scholars, they can speak about the prescriptions brilliantly, but if you ask them: "Have you taken the medicine?" they would have to say: "No, I have only read the prescription." There are some others who without taking the medicine themselves give the medicine to others. When they give the medicine they get affection, they get plusses, they get fame, pictures, publicity. They enjoy giving others the medicine and might confuse it with taking the medicine themselves.
Another trap can be that you use the medicine for some time and you don't see results, so you think that the sickness is still there. This can sometimes be related to the type of person you are. If you are a self-destructive person who is always giving a lot of minuses to yourself, you can think that even if the medicine is working it is not good enough. Maybe you think that something more should happen, something different should happen. Then it is possible that you keep on changing medicines, without giving one medicine a fair chance.
I visited a New Age centre once and I was amazed at the number of different courses that were available there. In the West there is now a supermarket of medicines, and this makes it difficult to choose. It can make it confusing because all the medicines offered have their advantages and their disadvantages. This raises the question, how to find out whether the medicine is working? Sometimes in meditation you can have very unpleasant experiences: the medicine does not always provide relief, it is not always pleasant, some injections can be very painful. In meditation and generally in spiritual life what you discover about yourself can be very painful, it can be very unpleasant. So you have to have a lot of courage, you have to have a lot of commitment, you have to have a lot of dedication in spite of all this to continue to take the medicine. In that sense we should be happy, we should be grateful that we have made a commitment to take the medicine, and that we make an effort to continue taking it.
On the positive side you can try to find taking the medicine itself interesting. This is a very positive approach, because usually we are very goal-oriented, and we do certain things only to achieve our ends, and we consider the end itself as the only thing that is interesting. It is like someone climbing a mountain who wants only to reach the top: if you are preoccupied with reaching the top you miss the fun in the process of climbing. But climbing itself can be such an adventure, such a challenge. In the same way, just taking the medicine itself is something you can enjoy. This is something that I think is very important.
We should learn to take the medicine in a different way, in a very light-hearted way, without being too much preoccupied with what is going to happen when we are completely cured. Learning to play with the medicine, but at the same time having a seriousness about this play. With this playfulness, with this complete openness to whatever is arising, we might be able to see the painful experiences as challenges, as opportunities, as learning experiences.
For me it is a joy to see people take the medicine and that there is a healing process that is taking place. Then I see their faces changing like flowers that are blooming. When the medicine is working you will experience more joy and lightness. And you can develop a real confidence in the medicine. When you discover that the tools are really working you become completely self-confident, you become completely self-reliant. Then you become really grateful to the one who discovered the medicine. That gratitude comes right from your heart, because you know by experience that the medicine is wonderful and that it is working.
The beauty of a spiritual community is that we are sharing the spiritual path together, we are exploring and taking the medicine together. This can help us in our own practice, but this kind of sharing should not be done in a very authoritarian way, as if you know everything. One can do it in a very humble way, saying: "This is what I'm doing, this is what seems to be helping me, please try it out". Anyway this is what I am trying to do.