5. The Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path


A Dharma Teaching by His Holiness Rimay Gyalten Sogdzin Rinpoche


Section 5


The Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path

Introductory Teaching by H.H.Rimay Gyalten Sogdzin Rinpoche


After Buddha Sakyamuni attained full Enlightenment, his first teaching was on these Four Noble Truths. He gave this teaching to his first five monk-disciples at the Deer Park, now known as Saranath, near Varanasi in India. Buddha explained to them the Four Noble Truths of: 1) Suffering; 2) the Cause of Suffering; 3) the Cessation of Suffering; and 4) the Path to the Cessation of Suffering.

As you see, the Four Noble Truths are the very foundation of the Buddhist teachings. In fact, if you don't understand the Four Noble Truths, and if you have no experience of this teaching, it is difficult to practice Buddha-Dharma.

Before I continue, I want to be clear about something. I believe that all of the major religions of this world have the potential to serve humanity, and to develop good hearts and compassionate people. As you know, everyone has different karma; and therefore, we may think that our religion or tradition is the best. Of course I can say that Tibetan Buddhism is the best for me, nevertheless, I know that due to karma, it might not be the Path for everyone in this world or in this lifetime. I respect that and I respect all who follow a spiritual path for their own personal growth.

OK, now I want to talk a little bit about the way we live. According to Buddha's teachings, all living beings are trapped in an endless cycle of existence known as Samsara. The term Samsara is the cycles of unenlightened existence in which one is being endlessly propelled by negative emotions and karma from one state of rebirth to another. We have been wandering since beginningless time in the samsaric worlds of sentient beings, where every being without exception, has had relations of affection, bad feelings and indifference with every other beings. Everyone has been everyone else's father and mother. There is not a single form of life that we have not taken throughout beginningless Samsara until now.

You see, the root of samsara is our ignorance or our lack of knowledge. If we don't know that we have a problem, then we don't know how to change it or get rid of it. We all know very well that all we want is to be happy and not to have any suffering. However, it is our actions of trying to attain happiness that ultimately lead us into more suffering. No matter what we do, we cannot achieve lasting happiness and joyfulness through our family, our friends, or from our material possessions.

So, how do we achieve this limitless happiness and joyfulness? In the Uttaratantra, written by Maitreya, it is explained in this way: "As it is necessary to diagnose the sickness and to abandon its causes, in order to attain the happiness of good health, we need to apply the medicine for it; Thus, the suffering and its cause as well as its cessation and the path of cessation should be recognized, abandoned, attained and applied."

Before I continue, I need to explain that Samsara has been identified as having Six Realms of beings. You may have heard of them before, they are divided into Upper and Lower Realms. The lower realms are: hell, which has multiple realms within it; hungry ghosts; and animals. The upper realms are: humans; gods and demi-gods or jealous gods.

Now I will talk about the First Noble Truth. Buddha told us that the First Noble Truth is the Truth of Suffering. Human suffer from the three fundamental types of suffering: the suffering upon suffering; suffering of change; and suffering of conditioning.

When we talk about suffering of suffering, we all know this suffering includes birth, ageing, or old age, sickness and death. Other human sufferings are the dread of meeting hated enemies or the fear of losing loved ones; and the suffering of not getting what we want or encountering what we do not want.

The suffering of change refers to experiences we have, that give us pleasure and happiness, but are impermanent and ultimately lead to more suffering. No matter what we do, as long as we are unenlightened, we will never have the lasting peace, happiness and joy that we always wish for.

The suffering of conditioning refers to the fact that, due to our unenlightened state of ignorance, we constantly experience painful or difficult situations in this life, and we also continue to create negative karma which will result in causes and conditions for suffering in the future and in future lives.

Now most of us may think that we are happy most of the time, however, we must realize that this happiness is only temporary. Nagarjuna once said, "After happiness, comes suffering; and after suffering, arises happiness. For beings’ happiness and suffering revolve like a wheel."  What a simple and profound way to explain Samsara.

The Second Noble Truth is the Cause of Suffering. Basically, the Cause of Suffering is karma. Karma is any action that one may do, say or think that gives rise to a result which has to be experienced either later in one's life or in a future life. In fact, Rebirth is a result of one's actions, and the conditions into which one is born are directly depend upon the actions one has done in previous lives, and especially the motives and attitudes that were involved with those actions. Now here we can explain that our actions are a direct result of our negative emotions such as hatred, attachment or desire, pride, jealousy and especially ignorance, which is the root of all other negative emotions. This ignorance is not only a lack of knowledge about the causes of suffering; it is that we don't realize we are causing ourselves to remain in this constant state of suffering.

So how do we free ourselves from suffering?  That brings us to the Third Noble Truth - the Cessation of Suffering. It is the total abandonment, renunciation, and purification of attachment. It is the complete freedom, from cessation, pacification and termination of desire. When we stop acting through our ignorance, we break the cycle of Samsara. When we turn our mind toward learning about the Dharma, or the spoken words of Buddha, we are shown a way out of suffering, a way to be free from this cycle of suffering.

How do we become free from this suffering?  In the Fourth Noble Truth, Buddha tells us the Path to the Cessation of Suffering.  Ultimately, 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.

Yes, Buddha taught 84,000 ways to achieve enlightenment. Each of these ways is based upon the Noble Eightfold Path. In the Mahayana tradition, we first develop the aspiration of Bodhicitta. By thinking of the sufferings of all beings, we made the resolution to become enlightened for their sake so we can benefit them. Merely wishing to benefit beings is insufficient. We need to practice and have devotion to the Buddhas.

There are four points to generating Bodhicitta. First and most important, we should not discriminate between enemy and friend. Our enemies in a past life might now be our friends. Friends can become enemies even in this life. Or even in a single day. By thinking in this way, we develop equanimity. We need to cultivate this even to the extent that if someone is harming our family, we have equanimity towards that someone. By becoming experienced in this practice, we can extend equanimity to all beings.

As you know, all sentient beings wish for happiness but they do not know the cause of happiness. They seek happiness, but their actions lead to more suffering. Wishing that other beings have happiness and also its cause, is called compassion. It is like a mother's feelings towards her children. Compassion should be extended to all sentient beings. It should be boundless. Wishing in this way is known as loving kindness.

One should meditate like this, but not just for one person, is for all sentient beings. When see someone suffering, one should try to think about how it would feel if this happened to me. From this we generate the desire that all beings be happy. A loving mind is one of the roots of enlightenment. One should think that if other beings are happy, my happiness is also increased. That is how we should think when reciting "may all beings have happiness".

Bodhichitta consists of both Absolute level and Relative level. Relative Bodhicitta is also divided in two aspects, Aspiration and Action. Aspiration is just the wish to benefit others, and the Action is carrying the wish out by cultivating the Six Perfections. We generate love, compassion, joy and equanimity toward all beings, by realizing that at one time they were our mothers and fathers. Furthermore, we take on the responsibility of serving all beings without any discrimination, selfish attachment or expectation of rewards, which means we truly want to help them, no matter what the result is and no matter how difficult it will be.

The First Perfection is giving, the Perfection of Generosity. If we have regrets after giving, we should make ourselves give more than we originally planned to. One should cultivate generosity to the extent that one is willing to give away one's body. We wander in Samsara because of our attachment. Generosity trains us to give away what we are attached to. Once we have accomplished this, we will truly have an open heart, open mind, and open hand, and therefore be willing to help all those who are in need. 

The second perfection is morality. If someone gets hurt, one has a wish that we need to practice morality and turn things around to avoid it. If we can recognize our negative thoughts and deeds, one forms the wish to replace them with positive ones. We need to pray for the person we wished would get hurt, that they will not get hurt instead of getting hurt, and then our negative thoughts will stop. 


The Third Perfection is Patience. If someone wishes to harm us, we should think this is a result of karma from our past life and not to get angry. Patience is the antidote for our anger. Our first thought may be something negative, but we should recognize our anger and control it. As you know, one moment of anger can causes us to lose eons of merit and good deeds; however, the greatest merit is patience. In fact, patience is more powerful than prostrations or any type of offering as a way to accumulate merit.

The Fourth Perfection is Perseverance or Diligence. Perseverance means not to be lazy. Instead, we should be happy with practice. Our effort should not be just for a single day, it should be continuous – from minute to minute, day to day, year to year and lifetime to lifetime.

The Fifth Perfection is Concentration. It means to make the mind focus and not let it go here and there. Focusing on compassion and loving kindness are forms of concentration. We need to control the mind.

The Sixth Perfection is the Perfection of Wisdom. Knowing that happiness comes from the accumulation of positive merit, and suffering comes from losing our merit; is called wisdom. The three kinds of wisdom are attained by hearing, contemplating, and meditating on the teachings.

Of course this takes some time and a lot of diligent practice. Some people have discussed with me, and feel that no matter how hard they try; sometimes they feel that they are not accomplishing much. My advice to them and to all of you here today is to be patient, and always try your best in whatever you try to do. Eventually you will accomplish your wishes and goals. As I have said before, the way you practice is not so important, what important is that you practice with all your heart. Anyway, we are just like children learning how to walk and must take one step at a time. Of course we will have difficult times and obstacles will appear - that is how we test our patience and know if we are doing well in our practice. Before we can help anyone else, we must first be able to help ourselves. The only way we can help ourselves is to try our best and accept what comes our way. You see, when we are free from expecting about how things should be, how this person should treat me because of my position, or some special quality we think we might have, only then can we be free from Samsara.

So I will finish with a challenge for each of you here today. Maybe we don’t want to hear the word challenge, and I think that in the West we don’t like to hear the word "homework" either!  Nevertheless, if you have found this teaching of today, to be of any interest to you or to be helpful in any way, I challenge you to continue working hard at becoming the perfect person that you can be. Of course we are all doing very well, but as we learned today - the fourth perfection is perseverance or diligence! So please continue to do well and practice as much as you can.

So that is my talk today, I hope you have enjoyed it. I hope it wasn't too long nor too short but just right!  Thank you for coming and I wish you a safe and happy evening!