Four Noble Truths
Four Noble Truths
(IPA: [θɪʔsà lé bá])
|Chinese||四聖諦(T) / 四圣谛(S)
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(Khutagt durvun unen)
(Wylie: 'phags pa'i bden pa bzhi
THL: pakpé denpa shyi)
|Vietnamese||Tứ Diệu Đế( 四妙諦)|
|Glossary of Buddhism|
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The Four Noble Truths refer to and express the basic orientation of Buddhism in a short expression:[note 1] we crave and cling to impermanent states and things, which are dukkha, "incapable of satisfying"[web 1] and painful.[web 1][web 2] This craving keeps us caught in samsara,[note 2] the endless cycle of repeated rebirth and dying again, and the dukkha that comes with it.[note 3] There is, however, a way to end this cycle,[note 4] namely by attaining nirvana, cessation of craving, whereafter rebirth and associated dukkha will no longer arise again.[note 5] This can be accomplished by following the eightfold path,[note 1] restraining oneself, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation.
In short form, the four truths are dukkha, samudaya ("arising," "coming together"), nirodha ("cessation," "confinement"), and magga, the path leading to cessation. As the "Four Noble Truths" (Sanskrit: catvāri āryasatyāni; Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni), they are "the truths of the Noble Ones," the truths or realities which are understood by the "worthy ones"[web 3] who have attained nirvana.[web 3]
In the sutras, Buddhist religious texts, the four truths have both a symbolic and a propositional function. They represent the awakening and liberation of the Buddha, but also the possibility of liberation for all sentient beings, describing how release from craving is to be reached. In the Pali canon scriptures, the four truths appear in a "network of teachings," as part of "the entire dhamma matrix," which have to be taken together. They provide a conceptual framework for introducing and explaining Buddhist thought, which has to be personally understood or "experienced". [web 2][note 6]
The function of the four truths, and their importance, developed over time, when prajna, or "liberating insight," came to be regarded as liberating in itself, instead of or in addition to the practice of dhyana, meditation. This "liberating insight" gained a prominent place in the sutras, and the four truths came to represent this liberating insight, as part of the enlightenment story of the Buddha.
The four truths became of central importance in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, which holds to the idea that insight into the four truths is liberating in itself. They are less prominent in the Mahayana tradition, which sees the higher aims of insight into sunyata, emptiness, and following the Bodhisattva path as central elements in their teachings and practice. The Mahayana tradition reinterpreted the four truths to explain how a liberated being can still be "pervasively operative in this world." Beginning with the exploration of Buddhism by western colonialists in the 19th century and the development of Buddhist modernism, they came to be often presented in the west as the central teaching of Buddhism.
- 1 The four truths
- 2 Historical development in early Buddhism
- 3 Appearance within the discourses
- 4 Emphasis within different traditions
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Sources
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
The four truths
The four truths are best known from their presentation in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta text,[note 7] which contains two sets of the four truths, while various other sets can be found in the Pali Canon, a collection of scriptures in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, "Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion,"[web 4] contains the first teachings that the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment, and liberation from rebirth. According to L. S. Cousins, many scholars are of the view that "this discourse was identified as the first sermon of the Buddha only at a later date," and according to professor of religion Carol S. Anderson[note 8] the four truths may originally not have been part of this sutta, but were later added in some versions. Within this discourse, the four noble truths are given as follows ("bhikkus" is normally translated as "Buddhist monk"):
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.[web 7]
According to this sutra, with the complete comprehension of these four truths release from samsara, the cycle of rebirth, was attained:
Knowledge & vision arose in me: 'Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.[web 4]
The comprehension of these four truths by his audience leads to the opening of the Dhamma Eye, that is, the attainment of right vision:
Whatever is subject to origination is subject to cessation.[web 4]
According to K. R. Norman, the Pali canon contains various shortened forms of the four truths, the "mnemonic set," which were "intended to remind the hearer of the full form of the NTs." The earliest form of the mnemonic set was "dukkham samudayo nirodho magga," without the reference to the Pali terms sacca or arya, which were later added to the formula. The four mnemonic terms can be translated as follows:
- Dukkha - "incapable of satisfying,"[web 1] "the unsatisfactory nature and the general insecurity of all conditioned phenomena"; "painful." Dukkha is most commonly translated as "suffering," which is an incorrect translation, since it refers to the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of temporary states and things, including pleasant but temporary experiences. As opposite to sukha, "pleasure," it is better translated as "pain."
- Samudaya - "origin", "source", "arising", "coming to existence";[web 8] "aggregate of the constituent elements or factors of any being or existence", "cluster", "coming together", "combination", "producing cause", "combination", "rising."[web 9]
- Nirodha - cessation; release; to confine; "prevention, suppression, enclosing, restraint"[web 10]
- Magga - "path."[web 11]
This full set, which is most commonly used in modern expositions,[note 7] contains grammatical errors, pointing to multiple sources for this set and translation problems within the ancient Buddhist community. Nevertheless, they were considered correct by the Pali tradition, which didn't correct them. According to K.R. Norman, the basic set is as follows:
- idam dukkham, "this is pain"
- ayam dukkha-samudayo, "this is the origin of pain"
- ayam dukkha-nirodha, "this is the cessation of pain"
- ayam dukkha-nirodha-gamini patipada, "this is the path leading to the cessation of pain." The key terms in the longer version of this expression, dukkha-nirodha-gamini Patipada, can be translated as follows:
According to L.S. Cousins, the four truths are not restricted to the well-known form where dukkha is the subject. Other forms take "the world, the arising of the world" or "the āsavas, the arising of the āsavas" as their subject. According to Cousins, "the well-known form is simply shorthand for all of the forms." "The world" refers to the saṅkhāras, that is, all compounded things,[web 15] or to the six sense spheres.
The various terms all point to the same basic idea of Buddhism, as described in five skandhas and twelve nidānas: sense-contact with objects leads to sensation, perception, Saṅkhāra ('inclinations', c.q. craving etc.), and consciousness. The Twelve Nidānas describe how this also leads to rebirth: from sensation comes craving, from craving comes karma, from karma comes rebirth. The aim of the Buddhist path is to reverse this causal chain: when there is no (response to) sensation, there is no craving, no karma, no rebirth.
Truths for the noble ones
The Pali terms ariya sacca (Sanskrit: arya satya) are commonly translated as "noble truths". This translation is a convention started by the earliest translators of Buddhist texts into English. According to K.R. Norman, this is just one of several possible translations. According to Paul Williams,
[T]here is no particular reason why the Pali expression ariyasaccani should be translated as 'noble truths'. It could equally be translated as 'the nobles' truths', or 'the truths for nobles', or 'the nobilising truths', or 'the truths of, possessed by, the noble ones' [...] In fact the Pali expression (and its Sanskrit equivalent) can mean all of these, although the Pali commentators place 'the noble truths' as the least important in their understanding.
The term "arya" was later added to the four truths. The term ariya (Sanskrit: arya) can be translated as "noble", "not ordinary", "valuable", "precious".[note 9] "pure", Paul Williams:
The Aryas are the noble ones, the saints, those who have attained 'the fruits of the path', 'that middle path the Tathagata has comprehended which promotes sight and knowledge, and which tends to peace, higher wisdom, enlightenment, and Nibbana'.
The term sacca (Sanskrit: satya) is a central term in Indian thought and religion. It is typically translated as "truth"; but it also means "that which is in accord with reality", or "reality". According to Rupert Gethin, the four truths are "four 'true things' or 'realities' whose nature, we are told, the Buddha finally understood on the night of his awakening." They function as "a convenient conceptual framework for making sense of Buddhist thought."[note 6] According to K.R. Norman, probably the best translation is "the truth[s] of the noble one (the Buddha)." It is a statement of how things are seen by a Buddha, how things really are when seen correctly. It is the truthful way of seeing,[note 10] Through not seeing things this way, and behaving accordingly, we suffer.[note 11]
Symbolic and propositional function
According to Anderson, the four truths have both a symbolic and a propositional function:
... the four noble truths are truly set apart within the body of the Buddha's teachings, not because they are by definition sacred, but because they are both a symbol and a doctrine and transformative within the sphere of right view. As one doctrine among others, the four noble truths make explicit the structure within which one should seek enlightenment; as a symbol, the four noble truths evoke the possibility of enlightenment. As both, they occupy not only a central but a singular position within the Theravada canon and tradition.
As a symbol, they refer to the possibility of awakening, as represented by the Buddha, and are of utmost importance:
[W]hen the four noble truths are regarded in the canon as the first teaching of the Buddha, they function as a view or doctrine that assumes a symbolic function. Where the four noble truths appear in the guise of a religious symbol in the Sutta-pitaka and the Vinaya-pitaka of the Pali canon, they represent the enlightenment experience of the Buddha and the possibility of enlightenment for all Buddhists within the cosmos.
As a proposition, they are part of the matrix or "network of teachings," in which they are "not particularly central," but have an equal place next to other teachings, describing how release from craving is to be reached. A long recognized feature of the Theravada canon is that it lacks an "overarching and comprehensive structure of the path to nibbana." The sutras form a network or matrix, and the four truths appear within this "network of teachings," which have to be taken together.[note 6] Within this network, "the four noble truths are one doctrine among others and are not particularly central," but are a part of "the entire dhamma matrix." The four noble truths are be set and learnt in that network, learning "how the various teachings intersect with each other," and refer to the various Buddhist techniques, which are all explicitly and implicitly part of the passages which refer to the four truths. According to Anderson,
There is no single way of understanding the teachings: one teaching may be used to explain another in one passage; the relationship may be reversed or altered in other talks.
Dukkha and its ending
As a proposition, the four truths defy an exact definition, but refer to and express the basic orientation of Buddhism: clinging and craving to temporary states and things is ultimately unsatisfactory and painful, dukkha, and leads to repeated rebirth and "redeath." [note 3] By following the Buddhist path, craving and clinging can be confined, peace of mind and real happiness [note 4] can be attained, and the resulting cycle of repeated rebirth and "redeath" will be stopped. [note 1]
The truth of dukkha, "incapable of satisfying,"[web 1] "painful,"[note 12] is the basic insight that life in this "mundane world,""[web 2] with its clinging and craving to impermanent states and things" is dukkha, unsatisfactory and painful.[web 1][web 2] We expect happiness from states and things which are impermanent, and therefore cannot attain real happiness.
The truth of samudaya, "arising," "coming together," or dukkha-samudaya, the origination or arising of dukkha, is the truth that repeated life in this world, and its associated dukkha arises, or continues,[note 13] with taṇhā, "thirst," craving for and clinging to these impermanent states and things. [note 2] This clinging and craving produces karma, which leads to renewed becoming, keeping us trapped in rebirth and renewed dissatisfaction.[web 12][note 14] Craving includes kama-tanha, craving for sense-pleasures; bhava-tanha, craving to continue the cycle of life and death, including rebirth; and vibhava-tanha, craving to not experience the world and painful feelings. While dukkha-nirodha, the term in the basic set of the four truths, is traditionally translated and explained as "the origin (or cause) of suffering," giving a causal explanation of dukkha, Brazier and Batchelor point to the wider connotations of the term samudaya, "coming into existence together": together with dukkha arises tanha, thirst. Craving does not cause dukkha, but comes into existence together with dukkha, or the five skandhas. It is this craving which is to be confined, as Kondanna understood at the end of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: "whatever arises ceases."
The truth of nirodha, cessation, or dukkha-nirodha, the cessation of dukkha, is the truth that dukkha ceases, or can be confined, when craving and clinging cease or are confined, and nirvana is attained. Nirvana refers to the moment of attainment itself, and the resulting peace of mind and happiness (khlesa-nirvana), but also to the final dissolution of the five skandhas at the time of death (skandha-nirvana or parinirvana); in the Theravada-tradition, it also refers to a transcendental reality which is "known at the moment of awakening." According to Gethin, "modern Buddhist usage tends to restrict 'nirvāṇa' to the awakening experience and reserve 'parinirvāṇa' for the death experience. When nirvana is attained, no more karma is being produced, and rebirth and dissatisfaction will no longer arise again.[note 5] Cessation is nirvana, "blowing out," and peace of mind. Joseph Goldstein explains:
Ajahn Buddhadasa, a well-known Thai master of the last century, said that when village people in India were cooking rice and waiting for it to cool, they might remark, "Wait a little for the rice to become nibbana". So here, nibbana means the cool state of mind, free from the fires of the defilements. As Ajahn Buddhadasa remarked, "The cooler the mind, the more Nibbana in that moment". We can notice for ourselves relative states of coolness in our own minds as we go through the day.
The truth of magga, refers to the path to the cessation of, or liberation from dukkha. By following the Noble Eightfold Path, to moksha, liberation, restraining oneself, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation, one starts to disengage from craving and clinging to impermanent states and things, and rebirth and dissatisfaction will be ended. The term "path" is usually taken to mean the Noble Eightfold Path, but other versions of "the path" can also be found in the Nikayas. The Theravada tradition regards insight into the four truths as liberating in itself.
The well-known eightfold path consists of the understanding that this world is floating and unsatisfying, and how craving keeps us tied to this floating world; a friendly and compassionate attitude to others; a correct way of behaving; mind-control, which means not feeding on negative thoughts, and nurturing positive thoughts; constant awareness of the feelings and responses which arise; and the practice of dhyana, meditation. The tenfold path adds the right (liberating) insight, and liberation from rebirth.[note 15]
The four truths describe dukkha and its ending as a means to reach peace of mind in this life, but also as a means to end rebirth.
According to Geoffrey Samuel, "the Four Noble Truths [...] describe the knowledge needed to set out on the path to liberation from rebirth." By understanding the four truths, one can stop this clinging and craving, attain a pacified mind, and be freed from this cycle of rebirth and redeath.[web 2][note 1] Patrick Olivelle explains that moksha is a central concept in Indian religions, and "literally means freedom from samsara."[web 20][note 16] Melvin E. Spiro further explains that "desire is the cause of suffering because desire is the cause of rebirth." When desire ceases, rebirth and its accompanying suffering ceases.[note 17] Peter Harvey explains:
Once birth has arisen, ‘ageing and death’, and various other dukkha states follow. While saying that birth is the cause of death may sound rather simplistic, in Buddhism it is a very significant statement; for there is an alternative to being born. This is to attain Nirvāna, so bringing an end to the process of rebirth and redeath. Nirvāna is not subject to time and change, and so is known as the ‘unborn’; as it is not born it cannot die, and so it is also known as the ‘deathless’. To attain this state, all phenomena subject to birth – the khandhas and nidānas – must be transcended by means of non-attachment.
The last sermon, the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (Last Days of the Buddha, Digha Nikaya 16)", states it as follows:
[...] it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you [...] But now, bhikkhus, that these have been realized and penetrated, cut off is the craving for existence, destroyed is that which leads to renewed becoming [rebirth], and there is no fresh becoming.[web 21]
Some contemporary teachers tend to explain the four truths psychologically, by taking dukkha to mean mental anguish in addition to the physical pain of life, and interpreting the four truths as a means to attain happiness in this life. In the contemporary Vipassana movement that emerged out of the Theravada Buddhism, freedom and the "pursuit of happiness" have become the main goals, not the end of rebirth, which is hardly mentioned in their teachings.[note 18]
Yet, though freedom and happiness is a part of the Buddhist teachings, these words refer to something different in traditional Asian Buddhism. According to Fronsdal, "when Asian teachers do talk about freedom, it is primarily in reference to what one is free from—that is, from greed, hate, delusion, grasping, attachment, wrong view, self, and most significantly, rebirth". Nibbana is the final freedom, and it has no purpose beyond itself. In contrast, freedom in the creative modern interpretation of Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path means living happily and wisely, "without drastic changes in lifestyle". Such freedom and happiness is not the goal of Four Noble Truths and related doctrines within traditional Buddhism, but the vipassana teachings in the West make no reference to traditional Theravada doctrines, instead they present only the pragmatic and experiential goals in the form of therapy for the audience's current lives. The creative interpretations are driven in part because the foundational premises of Buddhism do not make sense to audiences outside of Asia.[note 19][note 20] According to Spiro, "the Buddhist message is not simply a psychological message," but an eschatological message.
Historical development in early Buddhism
According to Anderson, "the four truths are recognized as perhaps the most important teaching of the Buddha." Yet, as early as 1935 Caroline Rhys Davids wrote that for a teaching so central to Theravada Buddhism, it was missing from critical passages in the Pali canon. According to Gethin, the four truths and the eightfold path are only two lists of "literally hundreds of similar lists covering the whole range of the theory and practice of ancient Buddhism." The position of the four truths within the canon raises questions, and has been investigated throughout the 19th and 20th century.
Scholarly analysis of the oldest texts
According to academic scholars, inconsistencies in the oldest texts may reveal developments in the oldest teachings.[note 21] While the Theravada-tradition holds that the Sutta Pitaka is "the definitive recension of the Buddha-word," and Theravadins argue that it is likely that the sutras date back to the Buddha himself, in an unbroken chain of oral transmission,[web 23][web 24][note 22] academic scholars have identified many of such inconsistencies, and tried to explain them. Information of the oldest teachings of Buddhism, such as on the Four Noble Truths, has been obtained by analysis of the oldest texts and these inconsitencies, and are a matter of ongoing discussion and research.[note 23]
According to Bronkhorst, the four truths may already have been formulated in earliest Buddhism, but did not have the central place they acquired in later buddhism. According to Anderson, only by the time of the commentaries, in the fifth century CE, did the four truths come to be identified in the Theravada tradition as the central teaching of the Buddha.[note 24] According to Anderson,
... the four noble truths were probably not part of the earliest strata of what came to be recognized as Buddhism, but that they emerged as a central teaching in a slightly later period that still preceded the final redactions of the various Buddhist canons.
According to Feer and Anderson, the four truths probably entered the Sutta Pitaka from the Vinaya, the rules for monastic order.[note 25] They were first added to enlightenment-stories which contain the Four Jhanas, replacing terms for "liberating insight".[note 26] From there they were added to the biographical stories of the Buddha.[note 27]
Substituting "liberating insight"
Scholars have noted inconsistencies in the presentations of the Buddha's enlightenment, and the Buddhist path to liberation, in the oldest sutras. These inconsistencies show that the Buddhist teachings evolved, either during the lifetime of the Buddha, or thereafter.[note 21] According to the Japanese scholar Ui, the four truths are not the earliest representation of the Buddha's enlightenment. Instead, they are a rather late theory on the content of the Buddha's enlightenment. According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, the earliest Buddhist path consisted of a set of practices which culminate in the practice of dhyana, leading to a calm of mind which according to Vetter is the liberation which is being sought. Later on, "liberating insight" came to be regarded as equally liberating. This "liberating insight" came to be exemplified by prajna, or the insight in the "four truths," but also by other elements of the Buddhist teachings. According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, this growing importance of "liberating insight" was a response to other religious groups in India, which held that a liberating insight was indispensable for moksha, liberation from rebirth.[note 28] This change is reflected in the canon, where, according to Bronkhorst,
...the accounts which include the Four Noble Truths had a completely different conception of the process of liberation than the one which includes the Four Dhyanas and the destruction of the intoxicants.
The ideas on what exactly constituted this "liberating insight" was not fixed but developed over time. According to Bronkhorst, in earliest Buddhism the four truths did not serve as a description of "liberating insight". Initially the term prajna served to denote this "liberating insight." Later on, prajna was replaced in the suttas by the "four truths." This happened in those texts where practicing the four jhanas preceded the attainment of "liberating insight," and where this practice of the four jhanas then culminates in "liberating insight." This "liberating insight" came to be defined as "insight into the four truths," which is presented as the "liberating insight" which constituted the awakening, or "enlightenment" of the Buddha. When he understood these truths he was "enlightened" and liberated,[note 29] as reflected in Majjhima Nikaya 26:42: "his taints are destroyed by his seeing with wisdom."
Oddly, the four truths refer here to the eightfold path as the means to gain liberation, while the attainment of insight into the four truths is portrayed as liberating in itself. According to Bronkhorst, this is an inconsistency which reveals a changes which took place over time in the composition of the sutras. An example of this substitution, and its consequences, is Majjhima Nikaya 36:42-43, which gives an account of the awakening of the Buddha.
The four truths were superseded by pratityasamutpada, and still later, in the Hinayana schools, by the doctrine of the non-existence of a substantial self or person. Schmithausen states that still other descriptions of this "liberating insight" exist in the Buddhist canon:
"that the five Skandhas are impermanent, disagreeable, and neither the Self nor belonging to oneself";[note 30] "the contemplation of the arising and disappearance (udayabbaya) of the five Skandhas";[note 31] "the realisation of the Skandhas as empty (rittaka), vain (tucchaka) and without any pith or substance (asaraka).[note 32]
Acquiring the dhamma-eye and destroying the āsavās
In their symbolic function, the sutras present the insight into the four truths as the culmination of the Buddh's path to awakening. In the Vinayapitaka and the Sutta-pitaka they have the same symbolic function, in a reenactment by his listeners of the Buddha's awakening by attaining the dhamma-eye. In contrast, here this insight serves as the starting point to path-entry for his audience. These sutras present a repeated sequence of events:
- Annupubbikathā ("graduated talk"), in which the Buddha explains the four truths; this talk frees the listener from the hindrances;
- This talk opens the dhammacakkhu ("dhamma eye"), and knowledge arises: "all that has the nature of arising has the nature of ending";[note 33]
- The request to become a member of the Buddhist order;
- A second talk by the Buddha, which destroys the āsavās, impurities;
- The statement that "there are now x arahats in the world."
Yet, in other sutras, where the four truths have a propositional function, the comprehension of the four truths destroys the corruptions. They do so in combination with the practice of the jhanas and the attainment of the divine eye, with which past lifes and the working of frebirth are being seen.
According to Anderson, following Schmithausen and Bronkhorst, these two presentations give two different models of the path to liberation, reflecting their function as a symbol and as a proposition. Most likely, the four truths were first associated with the culmination of the path in the destruction of the āsavās, where they substituted the unspecified "liberating insight"; as the canon developed, they became more logically associated with the beginning of the Buddhist path.
Popularisation in the west
According to Anderson there is a strong tendency within scholarship to present the four truths as the most essential teaching of Buddhism. According to Anderson, the four truths have been simplified and popularized in western writings, due to "the colonial project of gaining control over Buddhism." According to Crosby, the Buddhist teachings are reduced to a "simple, single rationalized account," which has parallels in the reinterpretation of the Buddha in western literature.
The presentation of the four truths as one of the most important teachings of the Buddha "has been [done] to reduce the four noble truths to a teaching that is accessible, pliable, and therefore readily appropriated by non-Buddhists." There is a great variety of teachings in the Buddhist literature, which may be bewildering for those who are unaware of this variety. The four truths are easily accessible in this regard, and are "readily [understood] by those outside the Buddhist traditions." For example Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taught, a widely used introductory text for non-Buddhists, uses the four truths as a framework to present an overview of the Buddhist teachings.
According to Harris, the British in the 19th century crafted new representations of Buddhism and the Buddha. 19th century missionaries studied Buddhism, to be more effective in their missionary efforts. The Buddha was de-mystified, and reduced from a "superhuman" to a "compassionate, heroic human," serving "western historical method and the missionary agenda of situating the Buddha firmly below the divine." The four truths were discovered by the British by reading the Buddhist texts, and were not immediately granted the central position they later received.
The writings of British missionaries show a growing emphasis on the four truths as being central to Buddhism, with somewhat different presentations of them.[note 34] This colonial project had a strong influence on some strands of Buddhism, culminating in socalled Protestant Buddhism, which incorporated several essentially Protestant attitudes regarding religion, such as the emphasis on written texts.[note 35] According to Gimello, Rahula's book is an example of this Protestant Budhism, and "was created in an accommodating response to western expectations, and in nearly diametrical opposition to Buddhism as it had actually been practised in traditional Theravada."[note 36]
Hendrick Kern proposed in 1882 that the model of the four truths may be an analogy with classical Indian medicine, in which the four truths function as a medical diagnosis, and the Buddha is presented as a physician.[note 37] Kern's analogy became rather popular,[note 38] but "there is not sufficient historical evidence to conclude that th Buddha deliberately drew upon a clearly defined medical model for his fourfold analysis of human pain."
According to Anderson, those scholars who did not place the four truths at the center of Buddhism, either "located the four truths in a fuller reading of the Theravada canon and the larger context of South Asian literature," or "located the teaching within an experience of Buddhism as practiced in a contemporary setting." According to Anderson, "these autors suggest a more complex reading of the four noble truths than those who locate the teaching as the key to or as a crucial element within the grand scheme of Buddhism."
Appearance within the discourses
The developing Buddhist tradition inserted the four truths, using various formulations, at various sutras. They are being used both as a symbol of all dhammas and the Buddha's awakening, and as a set of propositions which function within a matrix of teachings. According to Anderson, there is no single way to understand the teachings; one teaching may be used to explain another teaching, and vice versa. The teachings form a network, which should be apprehended as such to understand how the various teachings intersect with each other.
The Mahasaccaka Sutta ("The Greater Discourse to Saccaka", Majjhima Nikaya 36) gives one of several versions of the Buddha's way to liberation.[note 39] He attains the three knowledges, namely knowledge of his former lifes, knowledge of death and rebirth, and knowledge of the destruction of the taints,[note 40] the Four Noble Truths. After going through the four dhyanas, and gaining the first two knowledges, the story proceeds:
I directed my mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the intoxicants [suffering ... origin ... cessation ... path] [intoxicants (asava) ... origin ... cessation ... path] My mind was liberated [...] the knowledge arose that it was liberated.
Bronkhorst dismisses the first two knowledges as later additions, and proceeds to notice that the recognition of the intoxicants is modelled on the four truths. According to Bronkhorst, those are added the bridge the original sequence of "I directed my mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the intoxicants. My mind was liberated", which was interrupted by the addition of the four truths. Bronkhorst points out that those do not fit here, since the four truths culminate in the knowledge of the path to be followed, while the Buddha himself is already liberated at that point.
According to the Buddhist tradition, the first talk of Gautama Buddha after he attained enlightenment is recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma", Samyutta Nikaya 56.11). The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta provides details on three stages in the understanding of each truth, for a total of twelve insights. The three stages for understanding each truth are:
- sacca-ñāṇa - knowing the nature of the truth (e.g., acknowledgement, view, reflection)
- kicca-ñāṇa - knowing what needs to be done in connection with that truth (e.g., practice; motivation; directly experiencing)
- kata-ñāṇa - accomplishing what needs to be done (e.g., result, full understanding, knowing)
According to Cousins, many scholars are of the view that "this discourse was identified as the first sermon of the Buddha only at a later date." According to Stephen Batchelor, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta contains incongruities, and states that
The First Discourse cannot be treated as a verbatim transcript of what the Buddha taught in the Deer Park, but as a document that has evolved over an unspecified period of time until it reached the form in which it is found today in the canons of the different Buddhist schools.
According to Bronkhorst this "first sermon" is recorded in several sutras, with important variations. In the Vinaya texts, and in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta which was influenced by the Vinaya texts, the four truths are included, and Kondañña is enlightened when the "vision of Dhamma" arises in him: "whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation."[note 41] Yet, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta ("The Noble Search", Majjhima Nikaya 26) the four truths are not included,[note 42] and the Buddha gives the five ascetics personal instructions in turn, two or three of them, while the others go out begging for food. The versions of the "first sermon" which include the four truths, such as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, omit this instruction, showing that
...the accounts which include the Four Noble Truths had a completely different conception of the process of liberation than the one which includes the Four Dhyanas and the subsequent destruction of the intoxicants.
According to Bronkhorst, this indicates that the four truths were later added to earlier descriptions of liberation by practicing the four dhyanas, which originally was thought to be sufficient for the destruction of the arsavas. Anderson, following Norman, also thinks that the four truths originally were not part of this sutta, and were later added in some versions.[note 43]
According to Bronkhorst, the "twelve insights" are probably also a later addition, born out of unease with the substitution of the general term "prajna" for the more specific "four truths".
According to the Buddhist tradition, the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (Last Days of the Buddha, Digha Nikaya 16) was given near the end of the Buddha's life. This sutta "gives a good general idea of the Buddha's Teaching:"[web 19]
And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: "Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you. What are these four? They are the noble truth of suffering; the noble truth of the origin of suffering; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of suffering. But now, bhikkhus, that these have been realized and penetrated, cut off is the craving for existence, destroyed is that which leads to renewed becoming, and there is no fresh becoming."
Thus it was said by the Blessed One. And the Happy One, the Master, further said:
- Through not seeing the Four Noble Truths,
- Long was the weary path from birth to birth.
- When these are known, removed is rebirth's cause,
- The root of sorrow plucked; then ends rebirth.
The Maha-salayatanika Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 149:3 plus 149:9, give an alternative presentation of the four truths:
When one abides inflamed by lust, fettered, infatuated, contemplating gratification, [...] [o]ne's bodily and mental troubles increase, one's bodily and mental torments increase, one's bodily and mental fevers increase, and one experiences bodily and mental suffering.
...when one does not know and see as it actually is [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painful or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition, then one is inflamed by lust for the eye, for forms, for eye-consciousness, for eye-contact, for [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painful or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition [repeated for the nose, tongue, body, mind].
When one abides uninflamed by lust, unfettered, uninfatuated, contemplating danger [...] one's craving [...] is abandoned. One's bodily and mental troubles are abandoned, one's bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one's bodily and mental fevers are abandoned, and one experiences bodily and mental pleasure.
...when one knows and see as it actually is [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painful or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition, then one is not inflamed by lust for the eye, for forms, for eye-consciousness, for eye-contact, for [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painful or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition [repeated for the nose, tongue, body, mind].
Emphasis within different traditions
Early Indian Buddhism
The Ekavyāvahārika sect emphasized the transcendence of the Buddha, asserting that he was eternally enlightened and essentially non-physical. According to the Ekavyāvahārika, the words of the Buddha were spoken with one transcendent meaning, and the Four Noble Truths are to be understood simultaneously in one moment of insight. According to the Mahīśāsaka sect, the Four Noble Truths should be meditated upon simultaneously.
According to Carol Anderson, the four truths have "a singular position within the Theravada canon and tradition." The Theravada tradition regards insight in the four truths as liberating in itself. As Walpola Rahula states, "when the Truth is seen, all the forces which feverishly produce the continuity of samsara in illusion become calm and incapable of producing any more karma-formations [...] he is free from [...] the 'thirst' for becoming."[web 26][note 44] This liberation can be attained in one single moment, when the four truths are understood together. Within the Theravada tradition, great emphasis is placed upon reading and contemplating The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth, and other suttas, as a means to study the four noble truths and put them into practice. For example, Ajahn Sumedho states:
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha's teaching on the Four Noble Truths, has been the main reference that I have used for my practice over the years. It is the teaching we used in our monastery in Thailand. The Theravada school of Buddhism regards this sutta as the quintessence of the teachings of the Buddha. This one sutta contains all that is necessary for understanding the Dhamma and for enlightenment."
Within the Theravada-tradition, three different stances on nirvana and the question what happens with the Arhat after death can be found. Nirvana refers to the cessation of the defilements and the resulting peace of mind and happiness (khlesa-nirvana); to the final dissolution of the five skandhas at the time of death (skandha-nirvana or parinirvana); and to a transcendental reality which is "known at the moment of awakening."[note 45] According to Gethin, "modern Buddhist usage tends to restrict 'nirvāṇa' to the awakening experience and reserve 'parinirvāṇa' for the death experience. According to Geisler and Amano, in the "minimal Theravada interpretation", nirvana is a psychological state, which ends with the dissolution of the body and the total extinction of existence. According to Geisler and Amano, the "orthodox Theravada interpretation" is that nirvana is a transcendent reality with which the self unites. According to Bronkhorst, while "Buddhism preached liberation in this life, i.e. before death," there was also a tendency in Buddhism to think of liberation happening after death. According to Bronkhorst, this
...becomes visible in those canonical passages which distinguish between Nirvana - qualified in Sanskrit and pali as 'without a remainder of upadhi/upadi (anupadhisesa/anupadisesa) - and the 'highest and complete enlightenment'(anuttara samyaksambodhi/sammasambodhi). The former occurs at death, the latter in life.
According to Walpola Rahula, the cessation of dukkha is nirvana, the summum bonum of Buddhism, and is attained in this life, not when one dies.[web 26] Nirvana is "perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness,"[web 28][web 26] and "Absolute Truth," which simply is.[web 26][note 46] Jayatilleke also speaks of "the attainment of an ultimate reality." According to Bhikkhu Bodhi, the "elimination of craving culminates not only in the extinction of sorrow, anguish and distress, but in the unconditioned freedom of nibbana, which is won with the ending of reapeated rebirth."
According to Spiro, most (lay) Theravada Buddhists do not aspire for nirvana and total extinction, but for a pleasurable rebirth in heaven. According to Spiro, this presents a "serious conflict" since the Buddhist texts and teaching "describe life as suffering and hold up nirvana as the summum bonum." In response to this deviation, "monks and others emphasize that the hope for nirvana is the only legitimate action for Buddhist action." Nevertheless, according to Spiro most Burmese lay Buddhists do not aspire for the extinction of existence which is nirvana.[note 20]
According to B.R. Ambedkar, the Indian Buddhist Dalit leader, the four truths were not part of the original teachings of the Buddha, but a later aggregation, due to Hindu influences. According to Ambedkar, total cessation of suffering is an illusion; yet, the Buddhist Middle Path aims at the reduction of suffering and the maximizing of happiness, balancing both sorrow and happiness.
The four truths are less prominent in the Mahayana traditions, which emphasize insight into sunyata and the Bodhisattva-path as a central elements in their teachings. If the sutras in general are studied at all, it is through various Mahayana commentaries.
According to Makransky the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal created tensions in the explanation of the four truths. In the Mahayana view, a fully enligtened Buddha does not leave samsara, but remains in the world out of compassion with all sentient beings. The four truths, which aim at ending samsara, do not provide a doctrinal basis for this view, and had to be reinterpreted. In the old view, klesas and karma are the cause of prolonged existence. According to Makransky, "[t]o remove those causes was, at physical death, to extinquish one's conditioned existence, hence to end forever one's participation in the world (Third Truth)." According to Makransky, the question how a liberated being can stiil be "pervasively operative in this world" has been "a seminal source of ongoing doctrinal tension over Buddhahood throughout the history of the Mahayana in India and Tibet."
Atisha, in his Bodhipathapradīpa ("A Lamp for the Path to Awakening"), which forms the basis for the Lamrim tradition, discerns three levels of motivation for Buddhist practitioners. At the beginning level of motivation, one strives toward a better life in samsara. At the intermediate level, one strives to a liberation from existence in samsara and the end of all suffering. At the highest level of motivation, one strives after the liberation of all living beings. In his commentary on the text, Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche explains that the four truths are to be meditated upon as a means of practice for the intermediate level.
According to Geshe Tashi Tsering, within Tibetan Buddhism, the four noble truths are studied as part of the Bodhisattva path. They are explained in Mahayana commentaries such as the Abhisamayalamkara, a summary of and commentary on the Prajna Paramitra sutras, where they form part of the lower Hinayana teachings. The truth of the path (the fourth truth) is traditionally presented according to a progressive formula of five paths, rather than as the eightfold path presented in Theravada. According to Tsering, the study of the four truths is combined with the study of the sixteen characteristics of the four noble truths.
Nichiren Buddhism is based on the teaching of the Japanese priest and teacher Nichiren, who believed that the Lotus Sūtra contained the essence of all of Gautama Buddha's teachings.[web 30] The third chapter of the Lotus Sutra states that the Four Noble Truths was the early teaching of the Buddha, while the Dharma of the Lotus is the "most wonderful, unsurpassed great Dharma."[web 31] The teachings on the four noble truths are a provisional teaching, which Shakyamuni Buddha taught according to the people’s capacity, while the Lotus Sutra is a direct statement of Shakyamuni’s own enlightenment.[web 32]
For many western Buddhists, the rebirth doctrine in the Four Noble Truths teaching is a problematic notion.[web 33][note 47] According to Lamb, "Certain forms of modern western Buddhism [...] see it as purely mythical and thus a dispensable notion." According to Coleman, the focus of most vipassana students in the west "is mainly on meditation practice and a kind of down-to-earth psychological wisdom."[note 48] According to Damien Keown, westerners find "the ideas of karma and rebirth puzzling." According to Gowans, many Western followers and people interested in exploring Buddhism are skeptical and object to the belief in karma and rebirth foundational to the Four Noble Truths.[note 49] According to Konik,
Since the fundamental problems underlying early Indian Buddhism and contemporary western Buddhism are not the same, the validity of applying the set of solutions developed by the first to the situation of the second becomes a question of great importance. Simply putting an end to rebirth would not necessarily strike the western Buddhist as the ultimate answer, as it certainly was for early Indian Buddhists.
According to Keown, it is possible to reinterpret the Buddhist doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths, since the final goal and the answer to the problem of suffering is nirvana, and not rebirth. Some Western interpreters have proposed what is sometimes referred to as "naturalized Buddhism". It is devoid of rebirth, karma, nirvana, realms of existence, and other concepts of Buddhism, with doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths reformulated and restated in modernistic terms.[note 50][note 51] This "deflated secular Buddhism" stresses compassion, impermanence, causality, selfless persons, no Boddhisattvas, no nirvana, no rebirth, and a naturalists approach to well-being of oneself and others.
According to Melford Spiro, this approach undermines the Four Noble Truths, for it does not address the existential question for the Buddhist as to "why live? why not commit suicide, hasten the end of dukkha in current life by ending life". In traditional Buddhism, rebirth continues the dukkha and the path to cessation of dukkha isn't suicide, but the fourth reality of the Four Noble Truths. The "naturalized Buddhism", according to Gowans, is a radical revision to traditional Buddhist thought and practice, and it attacks the structure behind the hopes, needs and rationalization of the realities of human life to traditional Buddhists in East, Southeast and South Asia. According to Keown, it may not be necessary to believe in some of the core Buddhist doctrines to be a Buddhist, but the rebirth, karma, realms of existence and cyclic universe doctrines underpin the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism.
Traditional Buddhist scholars disagree with these modernist Western interpretations. Bhikkhu Bodhi, for example, states that rebirth is an integral part of the Buddhist teachings as found in the sutras, despite the problems that "modernist interpreters of Buddhism" seem to have with it.[web 33][note 52] Thanissaro Bhikkhu, as another example, rejects the "modern argument" that "one can still obtain all the results of the practice without having to accept the possibility of rebirth." He states, "rebirth has always been a central teaching in the Buddhist tradition."[web 34][note 53][note 54]
According to Owen Flanagan, the Dalai Lama states that "Buddhists believe in rebirth" and that this belief has been common among his followers. However, the Dalai Lama's belief, adds Flanagan, is more sophisticated than ordinary Buddhists, because it is not same as reincarnation, rebirth in Buddhism is envisioned as happening without an assumption of an "atman, self, soul", rather through a "consciousness conceived along the anatman lines".[note 55] The doctrine of rebirth is considered mandatory in Tibetan Buddhism, and across many Buddhist sects.
According to Christopher Gowans, for "most ordinary Buddhists, today as well as in the past, their basic moral orientation is governed by belief in karma and rebirth". Buddhist morality hinges on the hope of well being in this lifetime or in future rebirth, with nirvana (enlightenment) a project for a future lifetime. A denial of karma and rebirth undermines their history, moral orientation and religious foundations. According to Keown, most Buddhists in Asia do accept these traditional teachings, and seek better rebirth.[note 57]
- Graham Harvey: "Siddhartha Gautama found an end to rebirth in this world of suffering. His teachings, known as the dharma in Buddhism, can be summarized in the Four Noble truths." Geoffrey Samuel (2008): "The Four Noble Truths [...] describe the knowledge needed to set out on the path to liberation from rebirth." See also [web 2][web 17]
The Theravada tradition holds that insight into these four truths is liberating in itself. This is reflected in the Pali canon. According to Donald Lopez, "The Buddha stated in his first sermon that when he gained absolute and intuitive knowledge of the four truths, he achieved complete enlightenment and freedom from future rebirth."[web 2]
The Maha-parinibbana Sutta also refers to this liberation.[web 18] Carol Anderson: "The second passage where the four truths appear in the Vinaya-pitaka is also found in the Mahaparinibbana-sutta (D II 90-91). Here, the Buddha explains that it is by not understanding the four truths that rebirth continues." Mahaparinibbana-sutta:
Through not seeing the Four Noble Truths,
Long was the weary path from birth to birth.
When these are known, removed is rebirth's cause,
The root of sorrow plucked; then ends rebirth.[web 19]
* Gogerly (1861): "1. That sorrow is connected with existence in all its forms. 2. That its continuance results from a continued desire of existence."
*Perry Schmidt-Leukel: "Thirst can be temporarily quenched but never brought to final stillness. It is in this sense that thirst is the cause of suffering, duhkha. And because of this thirst, the sentient beings remain bound to samsara, the cycle of constant rebirth and redeath: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence as the Second Noble Truth."
* See also Williams & Wynne, Spiro.
- On samsara, rebirth and redeath:
* Mahasatipatthana-sutta: "And what, bhkkhus, is the noble truth that is the arising of pain? This is craving that leads to rebirth."
* accesstoisight.org: "Because of our ignorance (avijja) of these Noble Truths, because of our inexperience in framing the world in their terms, we remain bound to samsara, the wearisome cycle of birth, aging, illness, death, and rebirth."[web 16]
* Paul Williams: "All rebirth is due to karma and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karma. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara."
* Buswell and Lopez on "rebirth": "An English term that does not have an exact correlate in Buddhist languages, rendered instead by a range of technical terms, such as the Sanskrit PUNARJANMAN (lit. "birth again") and PUNABHAVAN (lit. "re-becoming"), and, less commonly, the related PUNARMRTYU (lit. "redeath")."
See also Perry Schmidt-Leukel (2006) pages 32-34, John J. Makransky (1997) p.27. for the use of the term "redeath." The term Agatigati or Agati gati (plus a few other terms) is generally translated as 'rebirth, redeath'; see any Pali-English dictionary; e.g. pages 94-95 of Rhys Davids & William Stede, where they list five Sutta examples with rebirth and re-death sense.
See also punarmrityu
- Warder refers to Majjhima Nikaya 75: "I gave up the desire for pleasure [...] I did not long for them [...] Now what was the cause? That delight, Māgandiya, which is apart from pleasures, apart, from bad principles, which even stands completely surpassing divine happiness, enjoying that delight I did not long for inferior ones, did not take pleasure in them."
- Ending rebirth:
* Graham Harvey: "The Third Noble Truth is nirvana. The Buddha tells us that an end to suffering is possible, and it is nirvana. Nirvana is a "blowing out," just as a candle flame is extinguished in the wind, from our lives in samsara. It connotes an end to rebirth"
* Spiro: "The Buddhist message then, as I have said, is not simply a psychological message, i.e. that desire is the cause of suffering because unsatisfied desire produces frustration. It does contain such a message to be sure; but more importantly it is an eschatological message. Desire is the cause of suffering because desire is the cause of rebirth; and the extinction of desire leads to deliverance from suffering because it signals release from the Wheel of Rebirth."
* John J. Makransky: "The third noble truth, cessation (nirodha) or nirvana, represented the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice in the Abhidharma traditions: the state free from the conditions that created samsara. Nirvana was the ultimate and final state attained when the supramundane yogic path had been completed. It represented salvation from samsara precisely because it was understood to comprise a state of complete freedom from the chain of samsaric causes and conditions, i.e., precisely because it was unconditioned (asamskrta)."
* Walpola Rahula: "Let us consider a few definitions and descriptions of Nirvana as found in the original Pali texts [...] 'It is the complete cessation of that very thirst (tanha), giving it up, renouncing it, emancipation from it, detachment from it.' [...] 'The abandoning and destruction of craving for these Five Aggregates of Attachment: that is the cessation of dukkha. [...] 'The Cessation of Continuity and becoming (Bhavanirodha) is Nibbana.'"
- Gethin: "The word satya (Pali sacca) can certainly mean truth, but it might equally be rendered as 'real' or 'actual thing'. That is, we are not dealing here with propositional truths with which we must either agree or disagree, but with four 'true things' or 'realities' whose nature, we are told, the Buddha finally understood on the night of his awakening. [...] This is not to say that the Buddha's discourses do not contain theoretical statements of the nature of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation, but these descriptions function not so much as dogmas of the Buddhist faith as a convenient conceptual framework for making sense of Buddhist thought."
- For example:
- Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma: The Four Noble Truths [...] are: 1. The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha); 2. The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering (samudaya); 3. The Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodha); 4. The Noble Truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (magga).
- Bhikkhu Bodhi: "The Four Noble Truths are as follows: 1. The truth of Dukkha; 2. The truth of the origin of Dukkha; 3. The truth of the cessation of Dukkha; 4. The truth of the path, the way to liberation from Dukkha".[web 12]
- Geshe Tashi Tsering: "The four noble truths are: 1. The noble truth of suffering; 2. The noble truth of the origin of suffering; 3. The noble truth of the cessation of suffering and the origin of suffering; 4. The noble truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering and the origin of suffering."
- Joseph Goldstein: "The four noble truths are the truth of suffering, its cause, its end, and the path to that end.
- Professor of religion, Kalamazoo College; Co-Editor of the Journal of Buddhist-Christian Studies.[web 5][web 6]
- Ajahn Sucitto states: "So the four truths (ariya sacca) are generally called “noble” truths, although one might also translate ariya as “precious.” "
- '"Truth", satya (Sanskrit), sacca (Pali), derived from sat, being, how it is.
- Contemporary Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche describes the four arya satya as "Four Pure Insights into the Way Things Are". Contemporary scholar Peter Harvey translates arya satya as "True Realities for the Spiritually Ennobled".
- Dukkha is most commonly translated as "suffering," which is an incorrect translation, since it refers to the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of temporary states and things, including pleasant but temporary experiences. As opposite to sukha, "pleasure," it is better translated as "pain." See also:
- Gogerly (1861): "1. That sorrow is connected with existence in all its forms. 2. That its continuance results from a continued desire of existence."
- According to Schmitthausen, as cited by James egge, the four truths do not mention karma, but solely declare craving to be the cause of misery and rebirth.
- Another variant, which may be condensed to the eightfold or tenfold path, starts with a Tathagatha entering this world. A layman hears his teachings, decides to leave the life of a householder, starts living according to the moral precepts, guards his sense-doors, practices mindfulness and the four jhanas, gains the three knowledges, understands the Four Noble Truths and destroys the taints, and perceives that he's liberated.
- Patrick Olivelle: "Moksha, also spelled mokṣa, also called mukti, in Indian philosophy and religion, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). Derived from the Sanskrit word muc ("to free"), the term moksha literally means freedom from samsara. This concept of liberation or release is shared by a wide spectrum of religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.[web 20]
- Melvin E. Spiro: "Desire is the cause of suffering because desire is the cause of rebirth; and the extinction of desire leads to deliverance from suffering because it signals release from the Wheel of Rebirth."
- The Vipassana-movement originated in colonial Burma, in response to the British colonial regime. While traditional Theravada saw little room for meditation practice, a subordinate role for lay Buddhists, and the attainment of nirvana as impossible in our times, reformists advocated the practice of meditation by lay Buddhists, as a means to preserve the pre-colonial order, which centered around Buddhism. Nirvana was suddenly deemed attainable, also for lay Buddhists. The Burmese reformists had a profound influence in the Theravada world, and also in the USA since the 1970s, shaping the popular understanding of Buddhism.[web 22]
See also David Chapman (2011), Theravada reinvents meditation.
- Stephen Batchelor states, "Such craving is at the root of greed, hatred, and bewilderment that prompt one to commit acts that cause one to be reborn after death in more or less favourable conditions in samsara. Although I have presented this formulation of the existential dilemma and its resolution in Buddhist terms, the same soteriological framework is shared by Hindus and Jains. (...) So embedded is this Indian soteriological framework in Buddhism that Buddhists might find it unintelligible that one would even consider questioning it. For to dispense with such key doctrines as rebirth, the law of kamma, and liberation from the cycle of birth and death would surely undermine the entire edifice of Buddhism itself. Yet for those who have grown up outside of Indian culture, who feel at home in a modernity informed by the natural sciences, to then be told that one cannot “really” practise the dharma unless one adheres to the tenets of ancient Indian soteriology makes little sense. The reason people can no longer accept these beliefs need not be because they reject them as false, but because such views are too much at variance with everything else they know and believe about the nature of themselves and the world. They simply do not work anymore, and the intellectual gymnastics one needs to perform to make them work seem casuistic and, for many, unpersuasive. They are metaphysical beliefs, in that (like belief in God) they can neither be convincingly demonstrated nor refuted."
- B. Alan Wallace states, "The Theravada Buddhist worldview is originally based on the Pali Buddhist canon, as interpreted by the great fifth-century commentator Buddhaghosa and later Buddhist scholars and contemplatives. For the immigrant Theravada Buddhist laity, the central feature of this worldview is the affirmation of the reality of reincarnation and karma. The possibility of achieving nirvana is primarily a concern for Buddhist monastics, while the laity are more concerned with avoiding karma that would propel them to a miserable rebirth, and with accumulating meritorious karma that will lead to a favorable rebirth and, in the long run, to ultimate liberation. (...) As a direct result of their belief in the efficacy of karma, Theravada lay Buddhists commonly make offerings of food, goods, and money to the ordained Sangha. Such meritorious conduct is thought to lead to a better rebirth either for themselves or for their deceased loved ones, depending on how the merit is dedicated by the person who performs this service."
- La Vallee Possin (1937), Musila et Narada; reprinted in Gombrich (2006), How Buddhism Began, appendix
- Erich Frauwallner (1953), Geschichte der indischen Philosophie, Band Der Buddha und der Jina (pp. 147-272)
- Andre Bareau (1963), Recherches sur la biographiedu Buddha dans les Sutrapitaka et les Vinayapitaka anciens, Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient
- Schmithausen, On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism. In: Studien zum Jainismus und Buddhismus (Gedenkschrift für Ludwig Alsdorf), hrsg. von Klaus Bruhn und Albrecht Wezler, Wiesbaden 1981, 199-250.
- Griffiths, Paul (1981), "Concentration or Insight; The Problematic of Theravada Buddhist Meditation-theory", The Journal of the American Academy of Religion
- K.R. Norman, Four Noble Truths
- Bronkhorst, Johannes (1993) , The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, chapter 8
- Tilman Vetter (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, by Tilmann Vetter
- Richard F. Gombrich (2006) . How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-19639-5., chapter four
- Anderson, Carol (1999), Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon, Routledge
- Alexander Wynne (2007), The Origin of Buddhist Meditation, Routledge
- Bhikkhu Sujato & Bhikkhu Brahmali, p.4: "Most academic scholars of Early Buddhism cautiously affirm that it is possible that the EBTS contain some authentic sayings of the Buddha. We contend that this drastically understates the evidence. A sympathetic assessment of relevant evidence shows that it is very likely that the bulk of the sayings in the EBTS that are attributed to the Buddha were actually spoken by him. It is very unlikely that most of these sayings are inauthentic.[web 24]
- According to Schmithausen, three positions held by scholars of Buddhism can be distinguished regarding the possibility to retain knowledge of the oldest Buddhism:
- Anderson: "However, the four noble truths do not always appear in stories of the Buddha's enlightenment where we might expect to find them. This feature may indicate that the four noble truths emerged into the canonical tradition at a particular point and slowly became recognized as the first teaching of the Buddha. Speculations about early and late teachings must be made relative to other passages in the Pali canon because of a lack of supporting extratextual evidence. Nonetheless, it is still possible to suggest a certain historical development of the four noble truths within the Pali canon. What we will find is a doctrine that came to be identified as the central teaching of the Buddha by the time of the commentaries in the fifth century C.E."
- Anderson refers to Léon Feer, who already in 1870 "suggested the possibility that the four noble truths emerged into Buddhist literature through vinaya collections." She also refers to Bareau, who noticed the consistency between the two versions in the Mahavagga, part of the Vinaya, and the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta of the Buddha's enlightenment: "As Bareau noted, the consistency between these two versions of the Buddha's enlightenment is an indication that the redactors of the Theravada canon probably brought the two accounts into agreement with each other at a relatively late point in the formation of the canon.
Leon Feer had already suggested in 1870 that the versions of the four noble truths found in the sutras and suttas were derived from the vinaya rescensions in the larger body of Buddhist literature; Bareau's conclusion builds on this claim."
- According to Schmithausen, in his often-cited article On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism, the mention of the four noble truths as constituting "liberating insight", which is attained after mastering the Rupa Jhanas, is a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36.
- Anderson refers to research by K.R. Norman, Bareau, Skilling, Schmithausen and Bronkhorst.
- Tillmann Vetter: "Very likely the cause was the growing influence of a non-Buddhist spiritual environment·which claimed that one can be released only by some truth or higher knowledge. In addition the alternative (and perhaps sometimes competing) method of discriminating insight (fully established after the introduction of the four noble truths) seemed to conform so well to this claim."
According to Bronkhorst, this happened under influence of the "mainstream of meditation," that is, Vedic-Brahmanical oriented groups, which believed that the cessation of action could not be liberating, since action can never be fully stopped. Their solution was to postulate a fundamental difference between the inner soul or self and the body. The inner self is unchangeable, and unaffected by actions. By insight into this difference, one was liberated. To equal this emphasis on insight, Buddhists presented insight into their most essential teaching as equally liberating. What exactly was regarded as the central insight "varied along with what was considered most central to the teaching of the Buddha."
- "Enlightenment" is a typical western term, which bears its own, specific western connotations, meanings and interpretations.
- Majjhima Nikaya 26
- Anguttara Nikaya II.45 (PTS)
- Samyutta Nikaya III.140-142 (PTS)
- In effect to the exposition of the four truths, as presented in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the "dustless, stainless Dhamma eye" arose to Kondañña, stating: "Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation."[web 4]
- Whereas Gogerly wrote in 1861 "That sorrow is connected with existence in all its forms [and] [t]hat its continuance results from a continued desire of existence," Spencer Hardy wrote in 1866 that "there is sorrow connected with every mode of existence; that the cause of sorrow is desire." Childers, drawing on Gogerly and Hardy, writes that "existence is suffering; human passion (tanhã - desire) is the cause of continued existence."
- See David Chapman, Protestant Buddhism, A new World Religion and Problems with scripture.
- Gimello (2004), as quoted in Taylor (2007).
- Kern's model:
- The truth of dukkha: identifying the illness and the nature of the illness (the diagnosis)
- The truth of origin: identifying the causes of the illness
- The truth of cessation: identifying a cure for the illness (the prognosis)
- The truth of the path: recommending a treatment for the illness that can bring about a cure (the prescription)
- Majjhima Nikaya 26, "The Noble Search," also gives an account, which is markedly different, omitting the ascetic practices and the four truths.
- Which keep one trapped in samsara.
- Translation Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000), Samyutta Nikaya, SN 56.11, p.1846. See also Anderson (2001), Pain and its Ending, p.69.
- MN 26.17 merely says "[']This will serve for the striving of a clansman intent on striving.' And I sat down there thinking: 'This will serve for striving.' According to Bhikkhu Bodhi Majjhima Nikaya 36 then continuous with the extreme ascetic practices, which are omitted in MN 26. In verse 18, the Buddha has attained Nirvana, being secured from bondage by birth, ageing, sickness and death, referring to the truths of dependent origination and "the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation."
- According to Cousins, Anderson misunderstands Norman in this respect, but does "not think that this misunderstanding of Norman's position critically affects Anderson's thesis. Even if these arguments do not prove that the four truths are definitely a later insertion in the Dhammacakkapavattana-sutta, it is certainly possible to take the position that the sutta itself is relatively late."
- Walpola Rahula:
- "When wisdom is developed and cultivated according to the Fourth Noble Truth (the next to be taken up), it sees the secret of life, the reality of things as they are. When the secret is discovered, when the Truth is seen, all the forces which feverishly produce the continuity of saṃsāra in illusion become calm and incapable of producing any more karma-formations, because there is no more illusion, no more ‘thirst’ for continuity."[web 26]
- "The remaining two factors, namely Right Thought and Right Understanding go to constitute Wisdom."[web 27]
- "Right Understanding is the understanding of things as they are, and it is the Four Noble Truths that explain things as they really are. Right Understanding therefore is ultimately reduced to the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. This understanding is the highest wisdom which sees the Ultimate Reality."[web 27]
- Gethin: "(I) it is the extinguishing of the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion; (2) it is the final condition of the Buddha and arhats after death consequent upon the extinction of the defilements; (3) it is the unconditioned realm known at the moment of awakening.
- According to Rahula, in What the Buddha Taught,
... if Nirvāṇa is to be expressed and explained in positive terms, we are likely immediately to grasp an idea associated with those terms, which may be quite the contrary. Therefore it is generally expressed in negative terms."[web 26][subnote 4]
Because Nirvana is thus expressed in negative terms, there are many who have got a wrong notion that it is negative, and expresses self-annihilation. Nirvāṇa is definitely no annihilation of self, because there is no self to annihilate. If at all, it is the annihilation of the illusion of the false idea of self.
It is incorrect to say that Nirvāṇa is negative or positive. The ideas of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ are relative, and are within the realm of duality. These terms cannot be applied to Nirvāṇa, Absolute Truth, which is beyond duality and relativity [...]
Nirvāṇa is neither cause nor effect. It is beyond cause and effect. Truth is not a result nor an effect. It is not produced like a mystic, spiritual, mental state, such as dhyāna or samādhi. TRUTH IS. NIRVĀṆA IS.[web 26]
Rahula refers to the Dhātuvibhaṅga-sutta (the Majjhima-nikāya 140) for his interpretation of "Nirvāṇa as Absolute Truth," which, according to Rahula, says:
O bhikkhu, that which is unreality (mosadhamma) is false; that which is reality (amosadhamma), Nibbāna, is Truth (Sacca). Therefore, O bhikkhu, a person so endowed is endowed with this Absolute Truth. For, the Absolute Noble Truth (paramaṃ ariyasaccaṃ) is Nibbāna, which is Reality.’[web 26]
While Jayatilleke translates amosadhamma as "ineffable," Thanissaro Bhikkhu gives a somewhat different translation:
His release, being founded on truth, does not fluctuate, for whatever is deceptive is false; Unbinding — the undeceptive — is true. Thus a monk so endowed is endowed with the highest determination for truth, for this — Unbinding, the undeceptive — is the highest noble truth.[web 29]
In response to Rahula, Richard Gombrich states that:
In proclaiming (in block capitals) that 'Truth is', Rahula has for a moment fallen into Upanisadic mode. Since truth can only be a property of propositions, which have subjects and predicates, and nirvana is not a proposition, it makes no sense in English to say that nirvana is truth. The confusion arises, perhaps, because the Sanskrit word satyam and the corresponding Pali word saccam can indeed mean either 'truth' or 'reality'. But in our language this will not work.
Richard Gombrich also states that Rahula's book would more aptly be titled What Buddhagosa Taught. According to David Kalupahana, Buddhagosa was influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, and introduced "the substantialist as well as essentialist standpoints of the Sarvastavadins and Sautrantikas."
- See also:
* James Ford, The Karma and Rebirth Debate Within Contemporary Western Buddhism: Some Links to Follow
* Manon Welles, Secular Buddhism vs. Traditional Buddhism: 6 Key Differences
* Alan Peta, Reincarnation and Buddhism: Here We Go Again
* David Chapman, The Making of Buddhist Modernism
- According to Coleman, the goal in Theravada Buddhism "is to uproot the desires and defilements in order to attain nibbana (nirvana in Sanskrit) and win liberation from the otherwise endless round of death and rebirth. But few Western Vipassana teachers pay much attention to the more metaphysical aspects of such concepts as rebirth and nibbana, and of course very few of their students are celibate monks. Their focus is mainly on meditation practice and a kind of down-to-earth psychological wisdom. "As a result," one respected Vipassana teacher writes, "many more Americans of European descent refer to themselves as Vipassana students rather than as students of Theravada Buddhism."
- Gowans groups the objections into three categories. The first objection can be called "consistency objection", which asks if "there is no self (atman, soul), then what is reborn and how does karma work?". The second objection can be called "naturalism objection", which asks "can rebirth be scientifically proven, what evidence is there that rebirth happens". The third objection can be called "morality objection", which asks "why presume that an infant born with an illness, is because of karma in previous life" as seems implied by Majjhima Nikāya section 3.204 for example. Gowans provides a summary of prevaling answers, clarifications and explanations proffered by practicing Buddhists.
- Prothereo: "In addition to a restatement of the Four Noble Truths and the Five Precepts for lay Buddhists, the fourteen propositions included: an affirmation of religious tolerance and of the evolution of the universe, a rejection of supernaturalism, heaven or hell, and superstition, and an emphasis on education and the use of reason."
- According to Owen Flanagan, the proportion of people in North America that believe in heaven is about the same as the proportion of East and Southeast Asia who believe in rebirth. But, 'rebirth' is considered superstitious by many in the West while 'heaven' is not, adds Flanagan, though a reflective naturalistic approach demands that both 'heaven' and 'rebirth' be equally questioned". According to Donald S. Lopez, Buddhist movements in the West have reconstructed a "Scientific Buddha" and a "modern Buddhism" unknown in Asia, "one that may never have existed there before the late 19th-century".
- Bhikkhu Bodhi: "Newcomers to Buddhism are usually impressed by the clarity, directness, and earthy practicality of the Dhamma as embodied in such basic teachings as the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the threefold training. These teachings, as clear as day-light, are accessible to any serious seeker looking for a way beyond suffering. When, however, these seekers encounter the doctrine of rebirth, they often balk, convinced it just doesn't make sense. At this point, they suspect that the teaching has swerved off course, tumbling from the grand highway of reason into wistfulness and speculation. Even modernist interpreters of Buddhism seem to have trouble taking the rebirth teaching seriously. Some dismiss it as just a piece of cultural baggage, "ancient Indian metaphysics," that the Buddha retained in deference to the world view of his age. Others interpret it as a metaphor for the change of mental states, with the realms of rebirth seen as symbols for psychological archetypes. A few critics even question the authenticity of the texts on rebirth, arguing that they must be interpolations.
A quick glance at the Pali suttas would show that none of these claims has much substance. The teaching of rebirth crops up almost everywhere in the Canon, and is so closely bound to a host of other doctrines that to remove it would virtually reduce the Dhamma to tatters. Moreover, when the suttas speak about rebirth into the five realms — the hells, the animal world, the spirit realm, the human world, and the heavens — they never hint that these terms are meant symbolically. To the contrary, they even say that rebirth occurs "with the breakup of the body, after death," which clearly implies they intend the idea of rebirth to be taken quite literally."[web 33]
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu: "A second modern argument against accepting the canonical accounts of what's known in awakening — and in particular, the knowledge of rebirth achieved in awakening — is that one can still obtain all the results of the practice without having to accept the possibility of rebirth. After all, all the factors leading to suffering are all immediately present to awareness, so there should be no need, when trying to abandon them, to accept any premises about where they may or may not lead in the future.
This objection, however, ignores the role of appropriate attention on the path. As we noted above, one of its roles is to examine and abandon the assumptions that underlie one's views on the metaphysics of personal identity. Unless you're willing to step back from your own views — such as those concerning what a person is, and why that makes rebirth impossible — and subject them to this sort of examination, there's something lacking in your path. You'll remain entangled in the questions of inappropriate attention, which will prevent you from actually identifying and abandoning the causes of suffering and achieving the full results of the practice.
In addition, the terms of appropriate attention — the four noble truths — are not concerned simply with events arising and passing away in the present moment. They also focus on the causal connections among those events, connections that occur both in the immediate present and over time. If you limit your focus solely to connections in the present while ignoring those over time, you can't fully comprehend the ways in which craving causes suffering: not only by latching on to the four kinds of nutriment, but also giving rise to the four kinds of nutriment as well.[web 34]
- According to Konik:
No doubt, according to the early Indian Buddhist tradition, the Buddha's great discovery, as condensed in his experience of nirvana, involved the remembrance of his many former existences, presupposing as fact the reality of a never-ending process of rebirth as a source of deep anxiety, and an acceptance of the Buddha's overcoming of that fate as ulitmate liberation.
- The Dalai Lama himself is regarded to be an incarnation of the thirteen previous Dalai Lamas, who are all manifestations of Avalokitasvara.
- Merv Foweler: "For a vast majority of Buddhists in Theravadin countries, however, the order of monks is seen by lay Buddhists as a means of gaining the most merit in the hope of accumulating good karma for a better rebirth."
- The vast majority of Buddhist lay people, states Kevin Trainor, have historically pursued Buddhist rituals and practices motivated with rebirth into Deva realm. Fowler and others concur with Trainor, stating that better rebirth, not nirvana, has been the primary focus of a vast majority of lay Buddhists. This they attempt through merit accumulation and good kamma.[note 56]
- Well-known proponents of the first position are:
* A.K. Warder. According to A.K. Warder, in his 1970 publication "Indian Buddhism", from the oldest extant texts a common kernel can be drawn out, namely the Bodhipakkhiyādhammā. According to Warder, c.q. his publisher: "This kernel of doctrine is presumably common Buddhism of the period before the great schisms of the fourth and third centuries BC. It may be substantially the Buddhism of the Buddha himself, although this cannot be proved: at any rate it is a Buddhism presupposed by the schools as existing about a hundred years after the parinirvana of the Buddha, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers."
* Richard Gombrich: "I have the greatest difficulty in accepting that the main edifice is not the work of a single genius. By "the main edifice" I mean the collections of the main body of sermons, the four Nikāyas, and of the main body of monastic rules."
- A proponent of the second position is Ronald Davidson: "While most scholars agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature (disputed)(sic) that a relatively early community (disputed)(sic) maintained and transmitted, we have little confidence that much, if any, of surviving Buddhist scripture is actually the word of the historic Buddha."
- Well-known proponent of the third position are:
* J.W. de Jong: "It would be hypocritical to assert that nothing can be said about the doctrine of earliest Buddhism [...] the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas."
* Johannes Bronkhorst: "This position is to be preferred to (ii) for purely methodological reasons: only those who seek may find, even if no success is guaranteed."
* Donald Lopez: "The original teachings of the historical Buddha are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover or reconstruct."
- According to Gombrich this distinction between apophatic and cataphatic approaches can be found in all religions.
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Historical background and development
- Vetter, Tilmann (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, BRILL
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- Bhikkhu Bodhi (2006), The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering, Pariyatti Publishing.
- Chögyam Trungpa (2009), The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, Shambhala.
- Dalai Lama (1998), The Four Noble Truths, Thorsons.
- Geshe Tashi Tsering (2005), The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume I, Wisdom, Kindle Edition
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Other scholarly explanations
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, (Chapter 3 is a commentary of about 25 pages.)
- Lopez, Donald S. (2001), The Story of Buddhism, HarperCollins. (pp. 42–54)
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