The Buddha’s Noble First Teaching

Tulku Thondup on the four simple and practical statements that encompass the entire Buddhist path, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche
1 May 2002
Buddhism Lion's Roar Four Noble Truths Mahayana Shambhala Sun Theravada Tulku Thondup Rinpoche Vajrayana / Tibetan Buddhism
Photo by rainchurch

Tulku Thondup on the four simple and practical statements that encompass the entire Buddhist path, the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

After his attainment of full enlightenment, the Buddha’s first teaching was on the Four Noble Truths. In it the Buddha explains the mental and physical evolution of the mundane world and the same cycle in reverse. He gave this teaching to his first five monk-disciples at the Deer Park, now known as Saranath, near Varanasi in India. The Buddha said, “Oh Bhikshus, there are four noble truths. They are the noble truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering.”

According to Buddhism, we living beings are trapped in the cycle of existence known as samsara. In samsara, we wander aimlessly and experience unbearable suffering—day and night, year after year, life after life—because of the tight grip of our grasping at self. In order to heal this disease-like condition, first we have to find its cause, and then we apply the medicine-like path of training to restore our original good health, which is enlightenment. This healing process is described in the Buddhist formula of the Four Noble Truths. In the Uttaratantra, an important Mahayana text on buddhanature, it is said:

As it is necessary to diagnose the sickness, to abandon its causes, to attain the happiness of good health and to apply medicine for it; The suffering and its cause as well as its cessation and the path of (cessation) should be recognized, abandoned, attained, and applied.

The Character of the World: The Noble Truth of Suffering

What is the noble truth of suffering? It is the suffering of birth, the suffering of old age, the suffering of sickness, the suffering of death, the suffering of separation from loved ones, the suffering of facing unwanted phenomena, and the suffering of not getting what one is seeking. In brief, every aspect of the five aggregates is suffering. —The Buddha

For us, deep down in our mind, there is a habit that keeps us from seeing, let alone accepting, our own true character: the suffering, changing, impermanent and dying character of our life. Our culture also prevents us from seeing the true nature of the world, which is ultimate peace and enlightenment. For us, our true nature is unknown and unseen, and we are comfortable keeping it that way without exploring it. For us, suffering is negative and we try our best to avoid seeing it, even though we are constantly experiencing it.

Buddhism first asks us not only to see the momentary and suffering character of the world, but also to have tolerance in accepting suffering as natural and not negative. Only then will we be able to work toward the solution. To the extent that we recognize the character of worldly pleasures as suffering, transitory and illusory, the grip of our grasping at self will loosen and the craving and afflictions of our mind will subside spontaneously. The ability to see the sufferings of the world without being overwhelmed by them will only come through proper understanding, determination, and strength of heart.

However, Buddhism also believes that, while the true character of the samsaric world is suffering, how the suffering character of phenomena affects us depends on our way of perceiving and feeling it. For people of unvirtuous emotions and habits it causes unhappiness, while for virtuous ones it causes happiness. For the realized ones, all is one in perfection.

According to Buddhist scriptures, there are three root sufferings of living beings: ordinary suffering, suffering produced by change, and the pervasive suffering of conditioning.

The first two root sufferings are gross sufferings and are easier to understand than the pervasive suffering of conditioning, which requires a deeper appreciation of the philosophical view of Buddhism. This is a suffering that is not necessarily a feeling of unhappiness as such, but the character of being contaminated, conditioned, changing and dependent. This unhappiness arises from the fact that our world and we ourselves are the creation of ignorance and emotional afflictions rooted in grasping at the self. Just as oil will saturate a cotton cloth and water will be absorbed by a plant, this character of suffering pervades all mundane phenomena, which spring from the seed cause of grasping at the self.

When a severely ill person gets a little relief, he goes through an experience of great peace and happiness, but if we compare that with the happiness of a healthy person, it is seen as unhappiness. If a hungry person gets a good meal he feels happy, but that experience is a lesser happiness than that of a person who has the contentment of both mental and physical well being. Most of the time, when we think we are happy it is not true. We are actually suffering. It is a fact.

After happiness comes suffering. After suffering arises happiness. For beings happiness and suffering revolve like a wheel. —Nagarjuna

According to Buddhism, there are eight major sufferings particular to human beings. Having the three root sufferings as the basis, we human beings go through the cycle of our life with eight types of suffering from which no ordinary person can ever escape. They are the four major experiences of suffering of human life: the suffering in the process of taking birth, of old age, of sickness, and of dying and death.

They are accompanied by four secondary sufferings of human life: the sufferings of worry about facing harsh situations, about separation from loved ones and desirable things, about not achieving what one wishes, and about encountering unwanted situations.

Karma and Emotional Afflictions: The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering

What is the noble truth of the source of suffering? It is craving [which produces] re-existence [as a being in samsara], and which is accompanied by passionate desire, and which is total delight with [or attachment to] this and that. —The Buddha

The cause of suffering in samsara, the mundane world, is karma, which is rooted in craving and grasping at self and which flourishes through emotional afflictions with their habitual traces. Through the cycle of karma arise both the various appearances of the external world and the internal life of beings with their various experiences. Karma is the law whereby an action has the intrinsic potential to cause its own commensurate effect. The seeds of karma are held in the universal ground of the mind and are experienced when they ripen.

There are different ways of looking at the formation of karma, although the principle remains the same. Thoughts are the actions of the mind and they trigger the actions of the body and speech. These are the three “doors,” or means of action. Through them the karma of mind, body and speech are formulated. The three doors are mind (or the consciousnesses) with its mental events; the body with its physical faculties; and speech with its designations, verbal expressions and communications. Every action we perform with our mind, or with body or speech inspired by mind, formulates and produces a commensurate effect on our future.

Grasping at self is as harmful as an evil monster and we are responsible for maintaining it. How is it that we can knowingly torture ourselves? Shantideva writes:

All the violence,  fear and suffering that exists in this world comes from grasping at self. What is the use of this great monster for you? If you do not let the self go, there will be no end to suffering. Just as, if you do not release a flame from your hand, you can’t stop it burning your hand.

The cause of our being trapped in the cycle of samsara is not the phenomena and situations that appear before us. It is the way we deal with them and let them control us due to our own mental and emotional afflictions, such as grasping, discriminating and craving, which together can be termed attachment. Tilopa instructs his disciple Naropa:

Appearances [of phenomena] do not bind you [to samsara] but attachment [to them] does. So, Naropa, cut off attachment.

Buddhahood: The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

What is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering? It is the total abandonment, renunciation, purification and exhaustion of the craving [which produces] the re-existence, and which is accompanied by passionate desire, and which is total delight in this and that. It is the complete freedom from, cessation of, pacification of and termination of desire. —The Buddha

There are two major Buddhist schools: Theravada and Mahayana. According to Theravada, the orthodox Buddhist tradition, the absolute goal of Buddhist training is the attainment of nirvana, or cessation. It is the cessation of both suffering and the cause of suffering, like the flame of a lamp gone out when the oil is exhausted. Nirvana is generally described in negative terms, as uncompounded, unconditioned, absence of passion, cessation and extinction of craving for the aggregates. However, nirvana is not negative in the sense of negative and positive, since they are relative and within the realm of duality. Nirvana is beyond the realm of duality and relativity. Then why is it described in negative terms?

If nirvana is described in affirming or positive terms, since we are using conventional words connected with certain conceptual views, we will probably grasp a concept associated with them and reaffirm our usual conceptualization, and that will be wrong. If we describe nirvana in such terms as uncompounded and the cessation of passion, which are beyond the ordinary norm, there will be less danger of misleading people, and they might pause and think more. Nevertheless, the meaning of nirvana is something that can be experienced by realizing it, but which can never be described by words or judged by dualistic concepts.

According to Mahayana, the ultimate goal, the cessation of suffering, is termed buddhahood, the fully enlightened state. Buddhahood is explained as being endowed with the prosperity of three bodies (Skt.: kayas) and two wisdoms. Here the goal is described in positive terms so that people can gain an idea of what it is and be inspired by it, even though buddhahood cannot really be described in either positive or negative terms, as it is beyond the realm of conventional expression and conceptions.

Here it is important to remember that buddhahood is the nature we all possess. The Buddha bodies and wisdoms are present as the power and the virtues of all of us, if we allow our wisdom eyes to open. So we all have the potential to become a Buddha. Buddhahood is not the creation of the path of training or the effect of a cause. By waking us up, the path frees us from nightmarish, illusory mundane concepts, emotions and their results, namely suffering, and helps us to uncover what we are and what we always have with us.

According to Mahayanists, pursuing various trainings for realizing buddhahood, the true nature of our own mind, is the path. Through this path we reach the perfection of training, which is the realization of the ultimate nature and the cessation of the cycle of samsara. It is not that we are achieving something new or that we are returning to a previous state. It is awakening or realizing what actually we have always been by uncovering the layer of conceptual and emotional traces. So samsara and nirvana are the two different faces of the same mind. Venerable Walpola Rahula writes:

Nirvana is not the result of this path. We may get to the mountain along a path, but the mountain is not the result, not an effect of the path. We may see a light, but the light is not the result of your eyesight.

The true nature of the mind, which is also the true nature of the universe, is also termed the absolute truth, the buddhanature, and voidness. It is voidness, as there is nothing that can be seen, felt or described in any dualistic context. It is self-appearing clarity, since all phenomena naturally arise with total openness, great peace, infinite joy and all-knowing wisdom—the prosperity of the Buddha qualities, without limitations.

The minds of beings in their true nature are oneness and sameness in being absolutely pure, totally peaceful, universally pervading, spontaneously accomplished, and simultaneously all-knowing. This buddhanature is free from extremes of both nihilism and eternalism, as it is free from any quality that possesses the character of separate or dualistic distinctions. It transcends all the extremes of existence or non-existence, right or wrong and good or evil. It is infinitely and limitlessly rich with the spontaneously present and naturally manifesting Buddha qualities, such as the bodies, wisdoms and enlightened activities, which are free from conditions and are self-arisen self-power.

When we see and perfect the realization of our true nature, all the appearances of the world before us will become a buddhafield. Spontaneously the enlightened wisdom within us and self-appearing phenomena will become one in the great peace and joy of buddhahood. Thereafter, nothing will ever alter the perfected realization, the attainment of buddhahood.

Buddhism: The Noble Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering

What is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering? It is the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right contemplation. —The Buddha

In Buddhism there are hundreds of different paths of training to reach the fully enlightened state, buddhahood. But whatever technique of training is given in the teachings, it has to be based on the view of the “four emblems” of Buddhism. If the teaching is based on and propagates these principles, whatever techniques are presented, it is the teaching of Buddhism.

The view of the “four emblems” of Buddhism is: all compounded phenomena are impermanent; all contaminated things are miserable; all phenomena are selfless (voidness); and nirvana, the goal, is peace.

Although numerous disciplines are taught in Buddhism to suit the different natures and abilities of people, they are classified into three main “vehicles” (Skt.: yanas), or schools.

The Theravada Path

The unique characteristic of training in Theravada Buddhism is the aspiration to obtain liberation from cyclic existence. This vehicle relies on the three divisions of scripture known as “the three baskets.” These are: vinaya, the code of moral discipline for the monks, nuns and lay devotees; sutra, the discourses on various spiritual trainings; and abhidharma, the scriptures on wisdom, philosophy and psychology. Its main training is centered on the Eightfold Noble Path: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. The final goal of attainment is arhathood, which is the cessation of sorrow and its cause.

One of the main emphases of Theravadins is on physical discipline, such as living in solitude and leading a celibate life in order to avoid the circumstances that cause emotional afflictions and evil deeds to arise in one’s mind. They protect themselves from the poisonous-tree-like sources of emotional afflictions by avoiding them. They shield the candle-flame-like mind by maintaining shell-like physical disciplines.

The common disciplines of lay followers are observation of the five precepts and the ten virtuous deeds. The five precepts are: refraining from killing, stealing, adultery, telling lies and taking intoxicating substances. The ten virtuous deeds are: for the body, refraining from killing, stealing and adultery; for speech, refraining from telling lies, divisive talk, harsh words, and senseless gossip; and for the mind, refraining from covetousness, harmful intent and wrong view.

For monks and nuns there are hundreds of precepts to be maintained, but whether a layperson or a monastic, if we refrain from committing such negative deeds, our every action will become positive and meritorious. The result will be peace, joy and enlightenment for oneself and others.

Theravadins also emphasize living with the Four Principles of Asceticism: not to scold others although you have been scolded by them, not to get angry at others although others are angry with you, not to reveal others’ faults although your own faults have been revealed by others, and not to beat others although you have been beaten by them.

The Mahayana Path

The unique character of Mahayana training is its emphasis on developing great compassion—the aspiration and dedication to take responsibility for others’ happiness and to lead all beings to the attainment of buddhahood without the slightest self-interest. The scriptures followed by the trainees are the Mahayana sutras, taught by the Buddha and other Buddhist masters.

While the Mahayanists use physical discipline, their main emphasis is on the training of the mind. By training the pilot-like mind on the right path, they bring the vehicle-like speech and body onto the right path. They do not try to avoid the sources of emotional afflictions but destroy them by using antidotes such as compassion for anger, knowledge of the impermanent character of phenomena for attachment, and the wisdom of realizing the nature of phenomena as the union of voidness and interdependent arising for ignorance. They are like those who protect themselves and others from the poisonous trees by destroying them. The goal of their attainment is buddhahood for all beings with three Buddha-bodies and five Buddha wisdoms.

There are eighty major trainings that lead to buddhahood.

The most important training of this school, however, is in the two ways of developing the enlightened mind. The first is to develop the “aspiring enlightened mind.” In this training one generates love, compassion, joy and equanimity toward all beings by seeing and understanding them as one’s mother. One generates the attitude of taking responsibility for serving all beings without any discrimination, selfish intention or expectation of rewards.

The second training is to put the “enlightened mind into practice” by following the six perfections (Skt. paramitas). They are:

  • the giving of material gifts, dharma teachings and protection from fear;
  • the discipline of abstaining from committing even the smallest evil deeds, performing all kinds of dharma all the time, and serving all beings with the four means of bringing others to dharma.
  • the patience of tolerating people who harm us, the willingness to endure sacrifices for dharma practice, and the courage to maintain the profound meanings of dharma;
  • the diligence of wearing the armor of commitment to dharma, dedicating one’s life to practice and never being content with one’s exertion;
  • the contemplation at three successive levels: with attachment to experiences of bliss, clarity and voidness; without attachment to these experiences, but still viewing voidness as an antidote; and remaining in the absorption of the ultimate nature without relying on voidness as the antidote;
  • the wisdom of studying the words and meanings of dharma from a master, pondering the teachings which one has learned, meditating on the meaning of the dharma, and realizing the ultimate meaning.

The master Milarepa sings of the essential and profound meaning of the six perfections, applying them in meditation:

Apart from renunciation of grasping at self there is no separate giving. Beyond renunciation of deceiving there is no separate discipline. Apart from fearlessness in the true meaning there is no separate patience. Apart from being inseparable from the meditation there is no separate diligence. Apart from dwelling in the natural state,there is no separate contemplation. Apart from realization of the ultimate meaning, there is no separate wisdom.

In every act of spiritual training, all the six perfections can be practiced simultaneously. For example, when we are giving a gift, the aspect of giving with a generous mind is the giving. Giving the best and useful material with proper conduct is discipline. Not being irritated by being asked for more or by the hardship of providing the gift is patience. Giving consistently while ignoring difficulties and exhaustion is diligence. Concentrating on the giving without distraction is contemplation. Giving without grasping at the self of giving, giver and the objects of giving is wisdom.

The Tantric Path

The unique character of the training of tantric Buddhism is pure perception. In it one sees and actualizes all as the buddha-realms. One sees, believes and experiences that all appearances are the Buddhas and their pure land, all sounds are the pure sound or speech of the Buddhas, and all thoughts are the wisdom mind of the Buddhas.

In tantric, or Vajrayana, Buddhism the followers do not avoid or subdue emotional afflictions or negative energies and situations. Instead the emphasis is on accepting and transforming them as the fuel of the wisdom energy. These followers are like those who skillfully transform the poisonous tree into medicinal substances, which they use for good health and energy.

At the beginning of the tantric path, when the disciple is ready, the master initiates him or her into the training. At the time of initiation, the disciples experience the true nature, or at least glimpse the wisdom of their mind and the wisdom energies of their consciousnesses, mental events and physical elements.

After that the disciple goes through the training of the “two stages.” In the development stage, one sees, visualizes and actualizes the universe as the Buddhas and their pure lands. In the perfection stage, by using the powers of the channels, energies and essence of one’s vajra-body, one attains and perfects the union of great bliss and voidness. As the goal of attainment, one achieves the omnipresent buddhahood and serves all who are ready to receive the benefits.

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet, where, as a young boy, he was recognized as a reincarnated Buddhist master. In 1958, he fled the Communist Chinese invasion and settled in India, teaching university-level Tibetan and Tibetan literature.  In 1980, Tulku Thondup was invited to Harvard as a visiting scholar. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he translates and writes on Tibetan Buddhism. His most recent book is Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth