by Carol Russell
A Dharma Talk given February 23, 2021
We are embarking on an exploration of the core of the Buddha’s teachings, the four noble truths. Our sangha’s founding leader, Carol Cook, had a tradition of beginning each year with an immersion into this subject, because it is utterly central and foundational to our practice. Carol has inspired us to take it up.
Our plan is to take the four truths, one noble truth at a time, and for four weeks each of us will offer an exploration of the truth of the month. This should be especially interesting because of the fact that there are endless ways of examining such a profound teaching: historic, contemporary, esoteric, practical, psychological, experiential, scholarly, and on and on. We are hoping for some interesting conversations amongst all of us in these explorations. Whether it is the first time you are studying these truths or you are circling back for the hundredth time, we know there is always more to understand. We hope you will take the Buddha’s profound teachings into your daily life and share your fresh discoveries and insights when we meet on Tuesday nights.
Simply put, the four noble truths are:
There is suffering.
There is a cause of suffering.
There is an end of suffering.
The remedy is the eight-fold path.
Did you ever wonder why these are called the ‘noble’ truths? Some say it is because these are the truths which cause nobleness. Of course, we are dealing with translations from the Pali language and a great deal of time passing, and the fact that the teachings were oral for some time, but I recently found this explanation: that it may be more accurate to say, the nobles’ truths, or the truths possessed by the noble ones. The dictionary definition of noble is: Having or showing qualities of high moral character, such as courage, generosity, and integrity. So, we are establishing a connection between acknowledging, understanding and freeing ourselves from suffering and these natural and noble qualities of courage, generosity, and integrity.
The First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering. In Pali, the word is dukkha. The truth of dukkha. Sometimes dukkha is translated as ‘dissatisfaction.’ I like that word because it includes more than the overt times of suffering in life, it includes that background feeling that we all have at times that things aren’t reliably satisfying. No matter how great a life you have, this human life is bound to include stress. It may be those underlying existential questions like, what are we doing here? What is it all about? Dukkha is not personal, and it’s ubiquitous in the world of form and incarnation. Everyone has the experience of dissatisfaction.
The beauty of this first truth is that right off the bat, the Buddha is inviting us to turn toward and become intimate with the dissatisfaction in our own life. For most of us, this is not as easy as it seems. We want to point to the problem outside of ourselves. Our minds think, ‘I am uncomfortable because…’ and we find something in our circumstances that we can point to that, if changed, would bring us some relief from our suffering. ‘If only this one thing were different, then I would be happy.’
The truth is the core of our experience is change. Change never ends. Life is flowing on, no moment the same as the one before. The next moment, something new. Banté Gunaratana says, ‘There is not a thing wrong with this. It is the nature of the universe. But human culture has taught us some odd responses to this endless flowing.’
We categorize our experiences into good, bad and indifferent. The good experiences we want to hang on to, to lock in place. When that doesn’t work, we try to repeat that good experience. The parts of life we label bad, we push away, avoid and run from. Then there are the indifferent or neutral experiences. We are bored, uninterested, and go looking for something more exciting. As Gunarantana writes in the book Mindfulness in Plain English, ‘The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, and endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience. Then we wonder why life tastes so flat. In the final analysis this system does not work.’
Ajahn Sumedho writes, "Notice how irritating it is just to be able to see, hear, taste, smell and touch. There's always something that isn't quite right. It's too cold or too hot, we have a headache or backache, unwanted noises, odours and things like this impinge or come in contact with this form, and then we experience its beauty, its ugliness, pleasure and pain. But even pleasure is irritating when you think about it. We like pleasure, but just having a lot of pleasure is also very exhausting and irritating. This is not a criticism; it's just noticing that, 'having a human body is like this,' 'breathing is like this,' 'consciousness is like this.'"
I think it was Ayya Khema who described how good a cold shower feels on a hot day in the tropics, for about ten minutes, but if it went on for three hours, it wouldn’t be pleasant anymore. Or a good meal. It is pleasant for thirty minutes, but if we had to eat for two hours it would become painful.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t make changes in our life. It’s not that we become passive, bearing life and its discontents. Pain often has a message for us. Maybe we do need to get the stone out of our shoe or change jobs or attend a protest march to work to improve the circumstances of our life and the world around us.
Here’s how Thanissara says it: ‘Of course, external factors contribute to our happiness or suffering, we don’t need to dismiss the factors that shape our lives – but in vipassana we’re not trying to figure out where the dukkha came from. Instead, we work with pain and suffering as we experience it, without blaming others, repressing it, or projecting it inward onto our self. Meeting dukkha in this direct way doesn’t preclude challenging or changing our individual or collective circumstance, but it does empower us to stop unnecessary suffering right at the place where we experience it, which is the mind.’
Often, it’s only after we have tried in innumerable ways to arrange our life just so, obtaining objects, persons, accolades, and lining up one pleasant experience after another and finding that it doesn’t fulfill us, that we become curious about the fact that nothing seems to be ultimately or reliably satisfying. Happiness is slippery. Perhaps this is what brought each of us to look inward, to turn toward mindfulness and meditation practices.
This IS the essence of mindfulness: this opening to our raw experience, right here and now.
Pema Chödrön: "Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide."
There is nowhere to hide. Here is a practice you can try this week, a simple observation in the moment. When you sense something is uncomfortable or stressful, in the body, the thoughts, or feelings, simply say, ‘This is suffering.’ Or, as we said in the meditation, ‘Suffering is like this.’ A simple noting without any analysis. There is a detaching that occurs, a little bit of distance between awareness and the experience, a disidentification from the belief that this is ‘I.’ An impartiality arises that allows you to bear witness to what is happening.
Just this morning in the Daily Dharma, Wendy Egyoku Nakao Roshi wrote about the practice of bearing witness:
‘Buddhist meditation trains you to bear witness by strengthening your awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they arise and pass. As your awareness strengthens, you begin to experience spaciousness and stability and see that you have a choice in your response to what is arising. Over time, you learn to bear witness to all the elements that are arising with a curious and compassionate attitude. This does not mean repressing the strong emotions that arise or stopping the escape into story drama, but rather being aware of what you are choosing to feed.’
It is a normal human desire to want to figure out the source of the suffering and solve the problem. And the Buddha does take us deeply into the cause and remedy of suffering, the path outa here, which are to be found in the second, third, and fourth Noble Truths. But let us not move too quickly. Let us linger on the truth of inevitable pain in life. There is much to be understood. It is, remember, noble to awaken to the experience of dissatisfaction.
The Buddha said, ‘There is one thing, O monks, the not seeing of which keeps you bound. What is that one thing? The truth of suffering.’
Thanissara again: ‘Actually, dukkha is natural and not suffering. It becomes suffering when the mind identifies with phenomena and grasps. The meaning of dukkha that coveys this process is derived from the breakdown of the word into du, which means ‘apart from’ and kha – or akash – which means ‘space.’ This gives the sense of being apart from the spacious, the perfect, and the complete. In this way dukkha conveys the deepest anguish and dilemma of the self, which is its state of separation from the whole.’
We may not have had the deep profound awakening that erases the dream of separateness, but I imagine each of us has pierced that illusion enough to know that the nature of our experience is not limited to this endlessly unsatisfying treadmill that life appears to be on the surface; there is a whole depth of connectivity and openness and belonging that is available to us, and ‘that what we essentially are’ as Rupert Spira says, ‘does not share the limits or the destiny of the body or mind.’
Dukkha is natural. It is the mind that creates the suffering by identifying with what is going on and trying to hang on to it. It’s that old expression, ‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.’ This is where we can be curious. How am I resisting what is happening? How am I adding to the discomfort and disappointment of the moment by resisting it? We bear witness to our experience.
Suffering rouses our compassion. As we awaken to our own dissatisfaction, we come to understand its nature and we see it all around us. This is why we wish other to be free of suffering, to be happy and well. We wish it for ourselves. We wish it for all beings. Life is not a zero-sum game, with winners and losers. We wish for happiness for all. Suffering awakens us to the boundless heart.
In Roshi Joan Halifax’s book, Standing at the Edge, she describes how ‘compassion is the most powerful means for keeping our feet firmly planted on the earth and our hearts wide open.’ She tells this story…She has just fallen and broken her thigh and hip. The paramedics arrived to transport her to the hospital. She describes in excruciating detail her pain at being loaded onto the gurney and down the stairs. In the ambulance, this is what happens…
[Carol read from Roshi Joan's book on page 219. Read the passage with the link below, beginning with, “The older medic leaned close to me, and I sensed that something was weighing him down.”]
Ajahn Sumedho: "With mindfulness we are willing to bear with the whole of life, with the excitement and the boredom, the hope and the despair, the pleasure and the pain, the fascination and the weariness, the beginning and the ending, the birth and the death. We are willing to accept the whole of it in the mind, rather than absorb into just the pleasant and suppress the unpleasant. The process of insight is the going to dukkha, looking at dukkha, admitting dukkha, recognizing dukkha in all its forms. Then you are no longer just reaching in the habitual way of indulgence or suppression, and because of that you can bear with suffering more, you can be patient with it."
Suffering brings us to life. Life is what it is, ever-changing, filled with beginnings and endings, pleasant, unpleasant, and blah experiences. It’s already here, let’s open to it. Let’s engender the qualities of the noble ones: courage, generosity, and integrity. We are slowly, step by step, building the capacity, the stability and the confidence to welcome this life, just as it is.
Having loved enough and lost enough, I am no longer searching, just opening, no longer trying to make sense of pain, but being a soft and sturdy home in which real things can land. These are the irritations that rub to a pearl. - Mark Nepo
Through the goodness of our time together, may awakening spontaneously arise in our being. May all obscurations and distortions fall away. May all beings be liberated from suffering. May all beings awaken.
...to this resource for our community. Much gratitude goes out to our entire Sangha – and the numberless causes and conditions – for making this website possible, and for the joy I have experienced in creating it.
Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission