Saturday, February 11, 2017
On the Four Noble Truths
Book Review: On the Four Noble Truths – by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso (KTD Publications, 2013)
Here is Lama Yeshe’s teachings on: the four noble truths and the related four seals of the view, the four mindfulnesses, the four views (or four schools of Buddhist philosophy), and the four reliances. In the intro he notes that these teachings serve to introduce students to the Buddhist outlook.
He states that his exposition of the four noble truths is based on Khenpo Ugyen Tendzin’s excellent presentation on the same subject. The four noble truths is considered the Buddha’s first teaching, taught to the five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced. This teaching is also called the first turning of the dharma wheel (dharmachakra). These are the four noble truths realized by the noble ones, or aryas. The four noble truths are said to be the realization of those who attain the ‘path of seeing,’ the third stage along the five stages of the path to becoming enlightened, to becoming Buddha.
Lama Yeshe notes that “the four noble truths give you the best single outline that covers all Buddhist teachings.” The Buddha repeated the four noble truths three times. The first time he said the first noble truth is the truth of suffering, the second the cause of suffering, the third the cessation of suffering, and the fourth the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. That was the first repetition. In the second repetition he said that “suffering is to be known; its cause abandoned; cessation is to be attained or achieved; the path is to be relied upon.” The third repetition is less well known: “Other than suffering, there is nothing to be known. Other than its cause, there is nothing to be abandoned. Other than cessation, there is nothing to be achieved. Other than the path there is nothing to be relied upon.”
The first truth is that of suffering and suffering is to be known. Normally we want to ignore or be rid of suffering rather than ‘know’ it. Thus it seems as if the Buddha was saying that we should examine suffering and pay attention to it. In saying that ‘other than suffering there is nothing to be known’ he seems to double down on the importance of knowing suffering. Knowledge of suffering seems to be a prerequisite to discovering its cause and ending the suffering. He mentions that Buddhism is extremely thorough in categorizing suffering: the four major and eight secondary types of human suffering, the suffering of the six realms, and the three types of generic suffering, to name a few.
Knowing suffering leads to discovering its cause. A common characteristic of all suffering is attachment. All Buddhist teachings are different encouragements and means to let go of attachment. He notes at one point that attachment is the desire not to suffer – so one might say that in order to get rid of attachment we have to get rid of the desire not to suffer. In order to get rid of the desire not to suffer we need to know and understand suffering. Thus, the Buddha taught the truth of suffering before the truth of its cause – when normally one proceeds from cause to effect.
Attachment is the cause of suffering. While some ignorance is the cause of suffering, here Lama Yeshe notes that at the fundamental level attachment and ignorance are the same. He explains this from teachings by Thrangu Rinpoche that say that the confusion of ignorance is accompanied by being stunned and panicked, of being overwhelmed by the direct unlimited lucidity of cognition. Karma and kleshas are causes of suffering too, but they arise from attachment. He asks the question, “What are we attached to?” He answers:
“We are attached to the imputed self of persons and the imputed self of phenomena. We are attached to perceived characteristics.”
He elaborates that we are attached to ‘things as they were, or we think they were’ and this is problematic because things are always changing and do not stay as they were. We are living in the past and attached to an existing static sense of self that is not real in that sense. He also notes that abandoning attachment is the fundamental theme of all the vehicles of Buddhadharma, even though attitudes toward attachment are different in some vehicles. Also important are transcending anger, pride, and jealousy, all symptoms of attachment. Dharma is simply the process of gaining freedom from attachment.
He notes that in one litany of confession there is the odd confession that we have not realized our mind to be Buddha – we confess something we seem to have no control over, which makes it odd. However, our failure to realize our true awakened nature is in itself a form of attachment.
The first two noble truths are the result and cause of samsara and the last two are the result and cause of nirvana. The third noble truth, cessation of suffering, is the only thing to be achieved. It is the sole goal. Cessation of suffering depends on cessation of its cause, attachment.
The fourth noble truth. The truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering answers the question: How? The path is the techniques, which vary according to the different vehicles.
It is said that each vehicle is valid, is a valid way of attaining cessation of suffering. The common vehicle, or Hinayana, is always valid, even in the contexts of the Mahayana and Vajrayana. The view of the Hinayana, he says, is ‘letting go because you have no choice.’ The Mahayana is concerned with becoming enlightened in order to bring others to that state. It requires a compassionate motivation and realization of emptiness.
“Through recognizing your own suffering you start to empathize with the suffering of others. Motivated by the desire to free others from suffering, you seek the realization of emptiness.”
He quotes Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche to delineate the difference between Mahayana and Vajrayana:
“the mahayana of the sutras takes inferential reasoning as the path, and the vajrayana takes direct experience as the path.”
Lama Yeshe explains the Vajrayana as using indirect methods like veneration of deities in deity yoga to attain direct cognition of the nature of mind. Veneration and worship of the guru and of deities is used to come to the experience of “purity” which is required for that direct cognition. Imagination alone won’t lead to the experience of purity but along with devotion it can. The guru is the example, the embodiment of Buddha Nature. He suggests for new practitioners to Vajrayana an initial period of healthy skepticism followed by development of strong devotion.
The main goal of the common vehicle, the Hinayana, is escape from samsara. Attachment to our misconception of self is what keeps us in samsara. However, says the Mahayana, that is not all. Attachment to the ‘self-existence’ of phenomena keeps us from omniscient awakening even if we escape from samsara. The Hinayana view of cessation is that it is the end of experience (as we know it). Thus the experience of cessation of experience by arhats is said to be incomplete. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana shared view there is no end of experience. Hinayana is mainly concerned with the Three Trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom. Morality subdues karma and aids compassion. Concentration leads to the knowledge of selflessness in Hinayana, and of emptiness in Mahayana. Mahayana sees ignorance as the cause of suffering and cessation as the cessation of ignorance rather than the cessation of cognitive experience. However, if such cessation of ignorance is not complete, not omniscient awakening, it is only temporary. In Mahayana the three trainings are taken up with the motivation of bodhicitta, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. There are two aspects of such a motivation: the wish to become enlightened and the wish to benefit beings. Concentration, or Samadhi, in the Mahayana differs from the common vehicle in that it is the integration of compassion and the realization of emptiness. Wisdom in Mahayana is the realization of emptiness. So the two trainings of concentration and wisdom are integrated. The Vajrayana view is similar to the Mahayana view. As a path of direct experience it is dependent on the guru. He quotes a saying:
“In the beginning you imagine your guru to be a buddha. In the middle you understand that your guru is a buddha. In the end you realize that your mind is buddha.”
In a section with questions he notes that forgetting or losing touch with one’s own experience of suffering can impede our ability to be empathetic to the suffering of others. Suffering bothers us, he says, because of our attachment. Letting go of it is the method. Dharma is the tools to let go.
The Four Seals of the View is the next subject. The four seals are now considered beliefs that define one as a Buddhist, although for Buddha they derive from what he called the three marks of existence and describe the actual situation of things. Although the four seals correspond to the four noble truths, they most closely respond to the truth of suffering, the author notes. Anyone who accepts the four seals is by definition a follower of Buddha’s teachings, it is said. The four seals are impermanence, suffering, selflessness, and nirvana.
“All composites are impermanent” describes the first seal. Composites are anything made of more than one thing, or anything that is produced by causes and conditions. He describes coarse and subtle impermanence. Coarse impermanence is destruction and subtle impermanence is change. It is change that eventually leads to destruction. An example is that we begin to die when we are born, changes begin that eventually lead to death. According to Buddha’s teaching there is no stasis, all is changing. When we impute qualities and characteristics to things it is not entirely accurate as they are changing and subject to further change. Clinging to the illusion of permanence is the basis for habits, or rather the “immediate condition for the maintenance of habits.” Habits are considered unnatural because they involve clinging to illusion rather than acceptance of our true nature, also called Buddha Nature. Thus, it is said that habits like anger and addiction are unnatural. Habits are a persistent illusion. Understanding impermanence is the key to understanding suffering.
“All that is defiled brings suffering” describes the second seal. The defilements are the kleshas. The four sufferings of sentient beings are birth, old age, sickness, and death. We cannot avoid them in our journey through life. Aging also brings the thought of impending death. Death is both inevitable and its details are unknown. We know we are going to die but we don’t know when or how. Another way of categorizing suffering is ‘the three sufferings.’ First is the ‘suffering of suffering’ which refers to the experiencing of any kind of physical or mental pain. Second is the ‘suffering of change’ which refers to the changing of pleasant circumstances into unpleasant ones. Pleasure does not last so it is said there is suffering embedded within it. The pleasure is not the sole cause of the suffering but our feeling of contrast adds to it. Third is the ‘pervasive suffering’ that is embedded in our realm as beings on earth. While it is most often unnoticed it is always happening due to composite things unravelling.
“All dharmas are selfless and empty” describes the third seal, selflessness. Selfless means unselfish, he notes. Selfless also means ‘without true existence.’ He notes that the aim of Buddhist practice is not to get rid of the self as there is no self to get rid of. The aim is rather to get rid of, or more precisely, to let go of our habit/belief in a ‘permanent, unitary, and independent’ self. Independent means unchanging. We cannot be separated from our experience. We are not independent from it. Sometimes we think we are our bodies, sometimes we think we are our minds, and sometimes we think we are both. Even our sense of continuity of our experience does not have the characteristics we impute to it. The instinct of self-preservation proves that we impute such characteristics to it, at least on that instinctual level.
The second aspect of selflessness is the selflessness of things in general. “Things” here includes appearances, or what we experience through our senses, and thoughts, or what we experience with our minds. Do things exist independently of an observer, a subject? Dharma says they do not, that subject-object duality is an illusion.
“Only nirvana is peace” describes the fourth seal. Nirvana means “transcendence of misery.” Two types of nirvana are the nirvana of an arhat and the non-dwelling nirvana of a Buddha. Arhats have incomplete realization and are said to dwell for long periods of time in states of basically void of experience. Having eradicated the kleshas, arhats do not take rebirth. It is said that eventually they are aroused from their state by a Buddha. Non-dwelling nirvana is the state of Buddhahood. It is an inconceivable state so it is hard to say whether there is experience or not. It is outside the realm of what we know, outside the realm of ordinary experience. In summary he notes that:
“Impermanence is a condition for suffering; defilement is the cause of suffering; neither the person who suffers nor the suffering they undergo possess a self; and, until you achieve nirvana, there will always be suffering.”
A question is asked about what it is that continues after death and into rebirth, if not a self. He answers that that is tricky to answer but that “the appearance of a self is causality mistaken to be identity.” What we are may not have a true identity but we have a causal history that gives a sense of continuity.
Next topic is the Four Mindfulnesses. The practice of the four mindfulnesses is a practice of the lesser or early path of accumulation. It is a practice for we beginners. The practice of the four mindfulnesses is the first of the thirty-seven factors of awakening. Mindfulness involves recollection and is the intentional use of recollection.
Mindfulness of the body is the first recollection. The practice is simply to observe your body with awareness. One can do this by observing parts in succession or the whole body. One purpose, he notes, is to recall the ‘impurity’ of the body, the fact that it is full of flesh, blood, and pungent fluids. We see that the sugar and spice we project, display, and think about our body is kind of an illusion. The common idea is to let go of attachment to the body by being in the body, confronting it, and experiencing it. In the Mahayana context the body is examined and broken down so that one can see its emptiness and that our previous conception was mere labeling. In the Vajrayana context one visualizes one’s body as the deity as part of generation stage deity yoga. In all three contexts the goal is the same: to realize the true nature of the body.
Mindfulness of sensations is simply awareness of physical sensations as they arise. Focusing on the breath as a meditation support, as many of us were taught, is mindfulness of sensations and indeed encompasses all four mindfulnesses. The purpose of mindfulness of sensations in the common vehicle is the knowledge of suffering.
“If practiced persistently, it is said to lead to the discovery that many of your sensations are unpleasant; that the pleasant ones constitute the suffering of change; and that the neutral ones are an aspect of pervasive suffering”
The goal is to dispel the illusion that sensations are inherently pleasant. In the Mahayana the goal is to recognize the emptiness of sensations. The practice is to look directly at sensations and examine their nature. The Vajrayana version involves cultivating “great bliss” (mahasukha) through the completion stage with attributes (of deity yoga).
Observing what arises in the mind is a technique of mindfulness of the mind. Through this we discover the impermanence and the selflessness of what arises in the mind. We identify strongly with our minds, he says. The purpose of the technique is to look at the mind with the mind. It is impossible in one sense (as the Zen tradition often has it) but through a feat of self-awareness our mind can experience itself, he says. Just by observing and knowing our thoughts we do it. The goal is to direct the mind’s lucidity toward itself rather than away from itself as we normally do. If we allow our mind to look at itself we discover selflessness, emptiness – but this emptiness is both cognitive and lucid.
Mindfulness of dharmas means mindfulness of the objects of mental consciousness, which are both appearances and thoughts. Looking at appearances involves experiencing sense perceptions. One technique of doing this is to use visual appearance by looking at something until the distinction between subject and object disappears. This takes time and commitment, he notes. Normally, we maintain the separateness of objective and subjective realities. Looking directly at thoughts as they arise, abide, and disappear is another technique.
In the Hinayana the four mindfulnesses serve to reveal impurity, suffering, selflessness, and impermanance. In sutra Mahayana the goal is to reveal emptiness. In Vajrayana they are the generation and completion stages and the practice of mahamudra.
Next subject is the Four Views. They refer to four philosophical systems of Buddhism: the vaibhashika, the sautantrika, the chittamatra or mind-only, and the madhyamaka or middle way. They view relative and absolute truth differently. Relative truth is that truth held by those of us who are cognitively deluded, those of us who are not on the path, on the path of accumulation or the path of juncture, or those without realization of the path of seeing.
The Vaibhashika system is associated with the common vehicle. The criterion is that anything that can be broken down physically or analytically is a relative truth. Anything that cannot is an absolute truth. Physically, an absolute truth would be a part-less particle. Mentally, an absolute truth would be an indivisible moment of cognition. Such an indivisible cognitive instant, in this system, lasts for about one sixtieth of a finger snap.
The Sautantrika system is also associated with the Hinayana. The word means “sutra followers.” While the Vaibhashikas favor explanations from the Abhidharma of the common vehicle the Sautantrikas favor explanations from the sutras of the common vehicle. The difference is that while sautantrikas see the part-less particles as real they see thoughts as not real. Both systems are concerned with breaking down reality in order to reveal the selflessness of persons. Their goal is limited to attaining liberation from samsara and the state of an arhat, so according to the Mahayana they are incomplete.
The final two of the four views are associated with the Mahayana.
“The mind-only school asserts that a cognition that is empty of the duality of subject and object is absolute truth and that all other phenomena are relative truths. The appearance of subject and object is dependent on karmic imprints and obscurations; the supposed existence of subject and object entirely imaginary.”
Thus, indivisible particles and moments of cognition in the mind-only school are seen as dependent appearances of an imaginary reality.
According to one of the several branches of the middle-way system “only the nature of relative truth is absolute truth.” The nature of relative truth is also called ‘nature beyond embellishment’ which also means that it cannot be grasped conceptually. Some middle-way branches say that everything other than Buddha Nature, the dharmadhatu, is empty of itself, while the Buddha Nature is empty of everything other than itself, but retains its own attributes.
In answering a question he notes that the mahamudra system of the Karma Kagyu emphasizes ‘direct valid cognition’ over the sutra method of analyzing external objects to arrive at ‘inferential valid cognition’ which may require tremendous accumulation of merit and vast amounts of time. Thus the direct experience of mahamudra is a shorter path to realization. However, before arriving at the path of seeing we can only utilize inferential valid cognition, except in one circumstance – the observation of the mind with the mind, which can lead to direct experience.
The final subject is the Four Reliances. In the truth of the path it was noted that it is the path, the methods, that should be relied upon. The four reliances, he says, can be viewed as choices we encounter when relying on the path. The reliances are statements.
The first is: “Rely on Dharma, not on Persons.” This means evaluate the teacher based on his or her ability to transmit the teachings and to positively affect you the student by weakening your kleshas.
The second is: “Rely on the Meaning, not on the Words.” The words are simply a way to convey the meaning. Thus memorization of the words, while helpful, is not the goal, but understanding their meaning is the goal.
The third is: “Rely on the Definitive Meaning, not the Indicative Meaning.” Indicative meanings are not to be taken literally while definitive meanings are to be taken literally. Indicative meanings often have the pattern that one simple act will easily cure something or lead to instant realization. Indicative meanings require interpretation and further elaboration to explain.
The fourth reliance is: “Rely on Wisdom, not on Consciousness.” Thus we need to go beyond intellect and concepts to understand directly, since wisdom is non-conceptual. This is why, he says, that compassion and devotion are so important:
“Compassion is the most effective way to cut through the obsessive selfishness that keeps us so miserable. Devotion is the most effective way to become familiar with buddha nature, our true nature.
This small book is very useful. Lama Yeshe Gyamtso is very good at explaining the dharma. His mind is sharp and his knowledge is extensive. He has studied and taught much and translated extensively for several great Karma Kagyu teachers including the Karmapa. He has done many years of isolated retreat. I have had the opportunity to hear him teach, translate, and chat with him many times over the years. This book is very concise yet very potent.