Fundamentals of Buddhism


This is the third in the series of lectures and we are getting into the real heart of Buddhism with today’s lecture because in the next hour or so I would like to say a few words regarding the Four Noble Truths.

The Four Noble Truths are a very important aspect of the teachings of the Buddha. Their importance has been stated in no uncertain terms by the Buddha. He has said that it is because we fail to understand the Four Noble Truths that we have run on so long in this cycle of birth and death. This indicates how important the Four Noble Truths are to the understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and to the realization of the goal of His teachings. Similarly, it is no coincidence that in the Buddha’s first sermon the Dhammachakkappavattana Sutra to the five monks at the deer park near Benares, the Buddha spoke primarily about the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Path. Here we have two very significant indications of the importance of the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths in a sense are a summary of the Buddha’s teachings both from the point of view of doctrine or theory and also from the point of view of practice. So here in the Four Noble Truths which are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering, we have the foundation of the teachings of the Buddha for understanding and practice.

Before we consider the Four Noble Truths individually, I would like to say a few words about the nature of the scheme that the Four Noble Truths represent and in this context we can perhaps remember that medical science had enjoyed a certain amount of development in ancient India. One of the structures that had been developed by medical science in ancient India was the four fold structure of disease, diagnosis, cure and treatment. Now if you think carefully about these four steps in the practice of medicine, the practice of the art of healing, you will see that they correspond quite closely to the Four Noble Truths. In other words, suffering corresponds to the illness; the cause of suffering corresponds to the diagnosis, in other words identifying the cause of the illness; the end of suffering corresponds to the cure; and the path to the end of suffering corresponds to the treatment whereby one is cured of the illness.

Now having said this about the therapeutic nature of the Four Noble Truths and the stages that they represent, I would like to say something slightly more conceptual but nonetheless very important for the correct understanding of the Four Noble Truths. When Shariputra, one of the foremost disciples of the Buddha came upon Ashvajit (who was one of the first five monks to whom the Buddha delivered the first sermon) and spoke to Ashvajit about the Buddha’s teachings, Ashvajit said, "I cannot tell you in great detail as I am relatively new to the teachings, but I will tell you briefly." So Shariputra said, "Very well, tell me briefly then," and Ashvajit replied with a very brief summary of the Buddha’s teachings which is as follows — Of things that proceed from a cause, their cause the Tathagata has told, and also their cessation: Thus teaches the Great Ascetic. Shariputra was greatly impressed by this summary and he went to find his friend Maudgalyayana and the two of them soon joined the Order and became prominent disciples of the Buddha. This summary of the Buddha’s teachings tells us something about the central concept that lies behind the Four Noble Truths. It indicates the importance of the relationship between cause and effect. The idea of cause and effect is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings and is at the heart of the Four Noble Truths. Now in what sense? Specifically there is a starting point, the problem of suffering. This problem arises from causes. Finally just as there is suffering and the causes of suffering, so too there is an end of suffering and a cause for the end of suffering. In this case it is a negative process. In other words, when the causes of suffering are removed then suffering ends.

If you look at the Four Noble Truths you can see that they divide quite naturally into two groups. The first two, suffering and the cause of suffering belong to the realm of birth and death. Symbolically they can be represented as a circle, in the sense that they are circular. The causes of suffering lead to suffering, suffering produces the causes of suffering which again produce suffering. They are circular. They belong to samsara. The second two, the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering can be symbolized in terms of a spiral. Movement is no longer circular. It is now directed upwards. If we keep this structure, the idea of cause and effect at the back of our mind when we look at the Four Noble Truths, I think we can find them easier to understand. Similarly, if we remember the principle of cause and effect it will be of great value to us as we continue to study the Buddha’s teachings when we come to consider karma and rebirth or when we come to consider dependent origination. In short, throughout all the Buddha’s teachings we will see that the principle of cause and effect runs like a thread.

Let us now look at the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering (Duhkha). Many non-Buddhists and even some Buddhists have felt disturbed by the choice of suffering as the first of the Four Noble Truths and many have said that this is an indication of pessimism. I often find non-Buddhists saying to me "Why is Buddhism so pessimistic? Why does it begin with and emphasize suffering?" There are a number of answers to this question. Some of you may be familiar with the distinction between pessimism, optimism and realism. Let us put it this way. If one is suffering from a disease and one refuses to recognize the fact that one is ill this is not being optimistic, this is merely being foolish. It is analogous to the ostrich burying its head in the sand. If there is a problem the only sensible thing to do is to recognize the problem and see what can be done to eliminate it. Secondly, if the Buddha had taught only the truth of suffering and had stopped at that, then there might be some truth in the charge that the teachings of the Buddha are pessimistic. But the teachings of the Buddha do not end with the truth of suffering because the Buddha taught not only the truth of suffering but also the truth of its cause and more importantly in this context the truth of its cessation.

All of us, I am quite sure, if we are honest with ourselves, will admit that there is a fundamental problem with life. Things are not as they should be. Something somewhere is not quite right. And no matter how much we may try to run away from it, at some time or other, perhaps in the middle of the night, or perhaps in the middle of a crowd, or perhaps in the moment during one’s work, we do come face to face with ourselves, the realization that things are not all as they should be, that something is wrong somewhere. This is what in fact impels people to seek solutions. They may seek solutions in more material things or they may seek solutions in various therapies.

In Buddhism, specifically the truth of suffering can be divided into two categories, broadly speaking, physical and mental. Here the physical sufferings are the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. You can recall that last week we touched upon the Buddha’s encounter with sickness, old age and death in the form of the three sights — the sick man, old man and the corpse. Here we find a fourth suffering, the suffering of birth. Birth is suffering because of the physical pain suffered by the infant and because birth impels all the other sufferings. Birth in a sense is the gateway to the other sufferings of sickness, old age and death which follow inevitably upon birth. I think one need hardly spend much time on the suffering of sickness, old age and death. Most of us have experience of suffering from sickness and we have also observed the suffering of sickness in our friends and relatives. We have all observed the suffering of old age, the inability to work, to function and to think coherently. We have all observed the suffering of death, the pain, and the fear experienced by the dying. These sufferings are an inevitable part of life. No matter how happy and contented our lives may be, the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death are absolutely unavoidable.

In addition to these physical sufferings there are mental sufferings. There is the suffering of separation from our loved ones, separation either due to reasons of work or because those whom we love die or because those whom we love have to go away, or because we have to leave them. Then there is the suffering of contact with those whom we dislike or those who dislike us. It can take very mild forms such as a colleague at work who is antagonistic to us and we dread to go to work because we know that this person whom we dislike somehow always wants to find fault with us. It can take more radical forms such as persecution, torture and so forth. Finally there is the suffering of frustrated desire, when we cannot get what we want, when we cannot get that job, the position that we want, when we cannot win over this or that person. These physical and mental sufferings are woven into the fabric of our existence. But what about happiness? Is there no happiness or enjoyment in life? Of course there is. But the pleasure or happiness which we experience in life is impermanent. We may enjoy a happy situation, we may enjoy the company of someone we love, we may enjoy youth and health and yet all these forms of happiness are impermanent. Sooner or later we will experience suffering.

If we really want to do something about suffering, to solve the problem of suffering, we must identify its cause. If the lights go out and we want to set it right we have to identify its cause. We have to find out whether it is a short circuit or whether a fuse has blown or whether perhaps the power supply has been cut off. Similarly, when we recognize the problem of suffering we have to look for the cause. It is by understanding the cause of suffering that we can do something to solve the problem. What is the cause of suffering according to the Buddha? The Buddha has taught that craving or desire (Trishna or Raga) is a great cause of suffering — craving for pleasant experiences, craving for material things, craving for eternal life and craving for eternal death. We all enjoy good food, we all enjoy fine music, pleasant company. We enjoy all these things and we want more and more of these things. We try to prolong these pleasant experiences. We try to get more and more of these pleasures. And yet somehow we are never completely satisfied. We may find that we are fond of a particular kind of food and yet if we eat it again and again we get bored with it. We try another kind of food. We like it, enjoy it and again we get bored with it. We go on to look for something else, we get tired of our favourite piece of music. We get tired of our friends. We look for more and more. Sometimes this chase after pleasant experiences leads one to extremely negative forms of behaviour such as alcoholism and drug addiction. All of these are the cravings for satisfaction of our desires for pleasant experiences. It is said that trying to satisfy one’s desire for pleasant experiences is like drinking salt water when one is thirsty. If one drinks salt water to satisfy one’s thirst, one’s thirst, rather than being quenched, is only increased.

Not only do we crave for pleasant experiences but we also crave for material things. You can see this clearly in children. I have a five year old son. Take him into a toy shop and he will want every toy in the shop. And perhaps he will buy a toy. Almost as soon as he has bought the toy he begins to lose interest in it, and without fail, within a few days the toy will be neglected in the corner of the room and he will want another toy. While this can be seen very clearly in young children, are we any different? After we have bought that new car don’t we want another one? After we have got a new house don’t we think "Well, this house is quite nice, but it will be even nicer if I can get a better one, one with a little garden or one with four rooms, or a point block, or a condominium." And it goes on and on, whether it is a train set or a bicycle or a video recorder or a Mercedes Benz. It is said that the desire for acquiring wealth or possession is involved with three major sufferings, or problems. The first one is the problem of getting it. You have to work, and save enough to buy that car or that house. Secondly, there is the suffering of protecting it. You worry that someone might bang your car, you worry that your house may burn down or be damaged by the rain. Finally there is the suffering of losing them, because sooner or later they will fall apart.

Craving for existence or eternal life is a cause of suffering. We all crave for existence, we all crave for life. Despite all the suffering and frustration of life we all crave for life. And it is this craving which causes us to be born again and again. Then there is the desire for annihilation, the desire for non-existence, what we might call the desire for eternal death. This expresses itself in nihilism and in suicide. Craving for existence is one extreme. Craving for non-existence is another extreme.

You may ask, "Is craving alone a sufficient cause of suffering? Is craving alone enough to explain suffering? Is the answer as simple as that?" The answer is no. There is something that goes deeper than craving. There is something which in a sense is the foundation of craving. And that something is ignorance (Avidya).

Ignorance is not seeing things as they really are, or failing to understand the reality of experience or the reality of life. All those who are well educated may feel uneasy about being told that they are ignorant. I can recall what Professor Lancaster who visited Singapore a few months ago said regarding this. He said this is one of the most difficult things to explain to university students in the United States when they begin a course in Buddhist studies because they are all very happy and proud to be in the university. Here you have to tell them that they are ignorant. He says always the hands shoot up immediately, "How are we ignorant? In what sense are we ignorant?" Let me say this. Without the right conditions, without the right training and without the right instruments we are unable to see things as they really are. None of us would be aware of radio waves if it were not for the radio receiver. None of us would be aware of bacteria in a drop of water if it were not for microscopes, and none of us would be aware of molecular structure if it were not for the latest techniques of electron microscopy. All these facts about the world in which we live in are known and observed only because of special training, special conditions and special instruments. When we say that ignorance is failure to see things as they really are, what we mean is that so long as one has not developed one’s ability to concentrate one’s mind and insight so one is ignorant of the true nature of things. We are familiar with the fear that we experience when we see a shape in the darkness by the side of the road while walking home alone late at night. That shape by the side of the road may be a tree stump. Yet it is our ignorance that causes us to quicken our steps, perhaps our palms may begin to perspire, we may reach home in a panic. If there were a light there would be no fear and no suffering because there would be no ignorance. We would have seen the tree stump for what it is.

Specifically in Buddhism, we are speaking about ignorance regarding the self, taking the self as real. This is the fundamental cause of suffering. We take our body or ideas or feelings as a self, as a real independent ego just as we take the tree stump for a potential assailant. Once we have this idea of self we have an idea of something that is apart from or different from ourselves. Once we have this idea of something that is apart or different from ourselves, then it is either helpful or hostile. It is either pleasant or unpleasant to ourselves. From this notion of self we have craving and ill-will. Once we believe in the real existence of ourselves, that "we" exist in reality, independently, apart from all others, apart from all the physical objects that surround us, we crave and desire and want those things which benefit us and we are averse towards those things which do not benefit us, which damage us or which are unhelpful to us. Because of this failure to see that in this body and mind there is no independent, permanent self, desire and ill-will inevitably thrive. Out of the root and the trunk of ignorance grow the branches of craving - desire, greed, ill-will, anger, hatred, envy, jealousy, pride and the whole lot. All these branches grow out of the root and trunk of ignorance and these branches bear the fruits of suffering. So here, ignorance is the underlying cause, and craving, ill-will, greed and anger are the secondary or subsequent causes.

After having identified the causes of suffering one is in a position to put an end to suffering. Just as when one might identify the cause of that pain in one’s lower abdomen on the left side as appendicitis, one would then be in a position to remove the cause of the pain. One can put an end to suffering by eliminating the cause of suffering, by eliminating craving, ill-will and ignorance. Here we come to the Third Noble Truth, the truth of the end of suffering.

In dealing with the truth of the end of suffering, the first obstacle that we have to overcome is the doubt that exists in some minds of whether an end of suffering is really possible. Whether one can really end suffering, or whether one can really be cured. It is in this context that confidence or faith plays an important role in Buddhism. When we speak of confidence or faith we do not speak of faith in the sense of blind acceptance. We speak of faith in the sense of recognizing or admitting the possibility of achieving the goal of the end of suffering. If you do not believe that a doctor can cure you of that pain in your abdomen you will never go to a doctor, you will never take the medicine or have the operation and as a result you may die of that illness which could be cured. So confidence, belief in the possibility of being cured is an indispensable pre-requisite. Here too, as in other cases, people may say, "How can I believe in the possibility of Nirvana? How can I believe that the end of suffering is really possible when I have never experienced it?" Well, as I said a moment ago, none of us would have experienced radio waves were it not for the development of radio receivers, and none of us would have experienced microscopic life were it not for the invention of the microscope. Even now none of us here, unless there is any physicist in this room, have actually observed electrons and yet we accept them because there are those among us with the special training, and special instruments who have observed electrons. So here too as regards the possibility of the end of suffering and the possibility of attaining Nirvana, we ought not to reject the possibility of attaining Nirvana outright simply because we have not experienced it, simply because we have not seen it for ourselves. Many of you may be familiar with the old story of the turtle and the fish. One day the turtle left the pond and spent a few hours on the bank. When he returned to the water he told the fish of his experiences on the bank. The fish would not believe him. The fish would not believe that there existed a place known as dry land because it was totally unlike what the fish knew, what the fish was familiar with. The fish would not believe that there was a place where creatures walked rather than swam, where one breathed air rather than water, and so forth. There are many historical examples of this tendency to reject information that does not tally with what we already believe, or what we are already familiar with. When Marco Polo returned to Italy from his travels to the Far East, he was imprisoned because his account did not tally with what was then believed about the nature of the universe. When Copernicus advanced the theory that the sun did not circle the earth but in fact that the case was the opposite, he was disbelieved and ridiculed. We ought to be on guard against dismissing the possibility of the complete end of suffering or the possibility of attaining Nirvana simply because we have not experienced it ourselves. Once we accept that the end of suffering is possible, that we can be cured of an illness, then we can proceed with the steps that are necessary in order to achieve that cure. But unless and until we believe that that cure is possible there is no question of successfully completing the treatment. In order therefore to realize progress on the path, to realize eventually the end of suffering one has to have at least confidence in the possibility of achieving the goal, in the possibility of attaining Nirvana.

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