004 The fourth episode --- The content of the Four Noble Truths

In the previous unit, we introduced the relation between the three realms and the six paths of rebirth as well as the fruit of liberation. In this unit, we will introduce the main Dharma-door of the ?rāvaka (sound-hear) bodhi, the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are the noble truth of suffering, the noble truth of origin of suffering, the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, and the noble truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. The meaning of “Nobel Truth” is the reality in the dharma realm. That is, its content corresponds to the reality of the dharma realm. No matter where you are, in eastern world or in western world, this can be applied to the place where you are located. This is also true when applied to the worlds in ten directions. Therefore, it is called “reality.” Why is it called “Nobel Truth”? It is because practicing and learning the Four Noble Truths enable sentient beings to transform from ordinary people into saints and sages. Therefore, by learning and practicing the Four Nobel Truth, one can go beyond ordinary people and become saints and sages in the Path to Liberation.

Now let’s see the content of the Four Noble Truths. The first Nobel Truth is “the noble truth of suffering.” We sentient beings have been suffering a lot during our transmigration in the cycle of births-and-deaths in the three realms and the six paths. Speaking of sufferings, we need to observe them from the gross ones (easily perceived ones) to the subtle ones (hardly perceived ones) – from the three sufferings, then the five sufferings, to the eight sufferings . The three sufferings are misery caused by (physical and mental) suffering, suffering of decay, and suffering of impermanence (suffering inherent in conditionality). The five sufferings are sufferings of being a deva, a human, an animal, a hungry ghost, and falling down to the hell. In addition, there are five sufferings called the sufferings of birth-aging-illness-and-death, the suffering of separation from what we love, the suffering of meeting those we hate, and the suffering of not getting what we want, and the suffering from the flourishing of the five aggregates (suffering of the activity of the five aggregates). If we take apart the first suffering, we get the four respective sufferings, namely the suffering of birth, the suffering of aging, the suffering of illness, and the suffering of death. When we put these four sufferings together with the other four sufferings, we get the eight sufferings. That is, we talk about sufferings from the gross ones such as the three sufferings to the subtle ones such as the eight sufferings. We will detail the content of the sufferings gradually and subtly and finally explain the condition of the three realms with the first Nobel Truth.

What is the “misery caused by (physical and mental) suffering”? It certainly means suffering. If we ask everyone about the phenomenon of suffering, such as being sick, they will agree that being sick is definitely a suffering. No one will deny it and say that being sick is a happiness. If someone gets sick, and fails to find a good doctor to treat him or the latest medical technology cannot cure his sickness, he will suffer a lot both physically and mentally. Therefore, when being struck in such a struggle – the struggle between the wish to get fully recovered and the wish to end his life immediately (He can neither live nor die), he definitely feels extremely painful.

What is the “suffering of decay”? It means that the state of happiness will become the state of suffering eventually. For example, ice cream is marvelously great in summer because the weather in summer is hot. While enjoying ice cream, we feel cool and consider it to be the delicious food which can relieve summer heat. When eating the first one, we feel very happy. However, when eating the second one, we do not feel as happy as we did when eating the first one. After eating the third, fourth or fifth one, our satisfaction will decrease because we may feel cold. At this moment, if we continue eating one more or two more, we may feel pain.

The so-called “suffering of decay” refers to the fact that the state keeps changing. Moreover, the level of happiness is decreasing and even ends up with suffering. We have “suffering of decay” in the human world, and so do celestial beings in the deva world. Although celestial beings entertain each other by having a banquet, the banquet itself is doomed to an end no matter how wonderful it is. Why is the banquet over? It is because of “suffering of decay”. That is, the celestial beings are fed up with each other after having got along and been well acquainted with each other for a long time. Therefore, they put an end to the banquet and find other celestial beings in order to have fun together. This is also called “suffering of decay.”

The other suffering is called “suffering of impermanence (suffering inherent in conditionality).” The previously mentioned two sufferings, “misery caused by (physical and mental) suffering” and “suffering of decay” actually cover the essence of “suffering of impermanence.” Due to the fact that the state of misery caused by (physical and mental) suffering is too strong, it is difficult for us to perceive the suffering of impermanence that coexists. This is also true of “suffering of decay.”

What is “suffering of impermanence (suffering inherent in conditionality)”? Imagine someone is practicing Samadhi. His deep state of meditation is accompanied by the relaxing and blissful bodily feelings. Immersed in the relaxing and blissful state, he can perceive that this state persists without changing. The state he dwells in is so wonderful that he does not sense any pain, so this state is without “misery caused by (physical and mental) suffering” and “suffering of decay.” However, in fact “suffering of impermanence” exists in this state. Because the changing is too subtle, we can hardly perceive it. For example, no matter how wonderful this meditative state is, one needs to leave the state sooner or later, because he still needs to take a rest or go to bed. Why does he need to take a rest? This is because “suffering of impermanence” exists in the relaxing and blissful bodily state. It means that even in meditation, the conscious mind, the sixth vijnana is still in the cyclic condition of arising, dwelling, changing and ceasing. Due to the changing of the conscious mind, one will become fatigued so that he needs to take a rest or to go to bed after leaving the meditative state.

Now we know that there are three main sufferings in the dharma-realm, namely misery caused by (physical and mental) suffering, suffering of decay and suffering of impermanence. Then, if we further observe the five sufferings, we will find that the five sufferings also exist in the six paths. We just exemplified “suffering of decay” in the deva world. Celestial beings also suffer death in a long run, so they have suffering of death. These sufferings exist in the deva world, not to mention other paths.

Now let’s move on to the five sufferings and eight sufferings. There is one commonly seen suffering called “the suffering of separation from what we love.” Generally speaking, separation from what we love means we will depart from our beloved ones, such as friends, relatives or families one day, which in turn gives rise to suffering. This is the gross suffering. In sound-hearer bodhi, what we call “the separation from what we love” means we have attachment to our five aggregates (skandhas), but we fail to conserve the attachment due to the fact that one day we will lose them; therefore, we have suffering. What do we have greed and desire for? We have greed and desire for our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. We love our five sense roots; however, they will say goodbye to us one day.

Take our eyes for example. Although we all love and protect our eyes because they are the windows for us to see the world, as we age, our eyesight will become worse. Some people have myopia during adolescence period, and have hyperopia when they get old. One day, their eyesight will worsen. Once we have bad eyesight, the eyes with good vision have said goodbye to us.

Therefore, when speaking of eight sufferings, besides the gross ones, we need to observe the subtle ones. We also need to observe those which are related to our body and mind.

The venerable Aniruddha, one of Buddha Sakyamuni’s ten great disciples, was scolded by Buddha because he hurt his eyes due to relentless hard work day and night. After his eyes were hurt, he had to say goodbye to his eyes. This is also called suffering.

We can observe that the three sufferings, the five sufferings, and the eight sufferings exist in the three realms and the six paths. Encountering adversity like having an unhealthy body is also an example of meeting those who we hate.

After such observation, we can jump to the conclusion that in the three realms and the six paths exist the three sufferings, the five sufferings, and the eight sufferings. Therefore, we can conclude that everything is suffering. As a result, the sound-hearers need to observe that pleasure exists nowhere in the three realms and that suffering exists everywhere.

After observing the first Nobel Truth, we continue to ask where these sufferings come from? What is the origin of these sufferings? What caused these sufferings? This is exactly what the content of the noble truth of the origin of suffering is talking about. Why does accumulation (origination of suffering) exist? In fact, the existence of accumulation is related to Tathagatagarbha. Because the sentient beings love the five sense-roots, Tathagatagarbha helps us to create them. The sound-hearers basically understand this principle. They would listen to what Buddha had preached, so they would observe and wonder why we have the five aggregates (skandhas). Why do we have form-skandha, sensation-skandha, perception-skandha, formation-skandha, and vijnana-skandha? Because we sentient beings crave for the five aggregates (skandhas).

We sentient beings crave for form-skandha, hoping to get a strong and powerful body in next life. The celestial beings are greedy for form-skandha, because with a celestial physical body, a celestial being will be able to fly. Likewise, the human beings want to obtain a physical body in next life, because with a physical body, we will be able to jump and run. Because of such desire, Tathagatagarbha will accordingly help us to create form-skandha, creating a human physical body in the human world and a celestial body in the deva world.

We all also crave for “sensation-skandha.” Everyone knows that being out of temper is distasteful, but why will we keep doing so? That is because we crave for the sensation of being angry. We crave for the unhappy feeling, too. This is called “sensation-skandha.” Knowing that being angry is distasteful and harmful to our body, we should stop being angry upon perceiving that we are about to lose temper. However, more often than not we fail to control our temper; instead, we continue being angry once provoked. This is because we crave for the state of being unhappy and the sensation of being angry. Therefore, sensation-skandha includes unpleasant feelings, pleasant feelings, and neither unpleasant nor pleasant feelings. We all crave for these feelings.

We all crave for “perception-skandha.”We are longing for eating meals, sleeping, exercising, resting, learning, going to a parade and so on. These desires are perception-skandha we crave for. Because of these perception-skandha or wishes, Tathagatagarbha will help us create the five aggregates (skandhas), producing perception-skandha so that we continue to transmigrate in the six paths.

What is formation-skandha? It refers to our behavior traveling from one place to another, or our behavior from doing one task to another. (This aggregate is the mechanism of change; this aggregate never stops (except in remainderless nirvana). This is what sound-hearers should be mindful of and they should try to eliminate all the formation-skandha, namely, their physical, verbal and mental acts. Not only do they have to eliminate all the “formation” in the human world, sound-hearers should eliminate all the “formation” in the three realms, even eliminating the formation of the conscious mind (the sixth vijnana), and eventually achieve extinction samadhi which is beyond four dhyanas-and-eight samadhis. The only difference between the sound-hearers who are immersed in extinction samadhi and the dead lies in the fact that the sound-hearers are still alive despite the fact that they eliminate all the physical action. In the state of extinction samadhi, the physical, verbal and mental acts are all eliminated except the root of the conscious mind (Manas).

What is “vijnana-skandha”? Vijnana-skandha is what we human beings most adhere to. Take eyesight for example. Because we crave for our eyesight, we will continue obtaining our eyes. This is also true of nose, tongue, and physical body due to the fact that they have different kinds of perception which we adhere to. This is what we call “vijnana skandha.”

Therefore, with this noble truth, one will be able to observe that the root of suffering comes from desire, so if we want to eliminate suffering, we need to eliminate the desire instead of directly eliminating suffering itself. As long as we sentient beings no longer attach to the five aggregates (skandhas), Tathagatagarbha will not help us to create the five aggregates (skandhas) after death. Because of this, the five aggregates (skandhas) will not be born in the next life when we eventually accomplish “no-birth dharma,” the state of Tathagatagarbha itself, which is also called “remainderless nirvana”

When it comes to how to eliminate “accumulation,” we will talk about the noble truth of the cessation of suffering. That is, we need to further observe the five aggregates (skandhas). While observing the appropriated five aggregates, we will find their faults. As long as the physical body or form exists, it has fault. Because of its existence, the phenomena: birth, aging, sickness and death will follow one after another. This is also true of the mental functions. As long as the mental functions: sensations, perceptions, formations and vijnanas exist, they are doomed to extinction, and then suffering will ensue.

Therefore, speaking of the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, we need to talk about the faults deriving from the five aggregates, further eliminating the desire for the five aggregates (skandhas). After the elimination of the desire, one will no longer feel any sufferings despite the existence of the five aggregates (skandhas). Thus, he is said to have liberated from the cycle path of births-and-deaths (Samsara) in three realms and six paths. But we have to keep in mind that although the sound-hearer eliminates the desire for the five aggregates (skandhas), making himself vanish after death, he doesn’t fall into nothingness. Instead, there must be Tathagatagarbha left, supporting all laws of the cause and effect; otherwise, the liberation will become the nihilistic emptiness. Take the sound-hearer for example. As long as he transmigrates between the human world and the heavens seven times after realizing the first-fruit liberation, he will obtain liberation. However, this liberation will be achieved only under a prerequisite, the existence of Tathagatagarbha.

Apart from the noble truth of the cessation of suffering, we need to further study the noble truth of the path to the cessation of suffering. (the ways concerning how to eliminate origin of suffering). Why should we further talk about the ways?

Because sound-hearers ,who have gradually realized first-fruition liberation, second-fruition liberation, third-fruition liberation, and fourth-fruition liberation, still fail to achieve dual-liberations and become arhats with three insights and six supernatural powers. They need to advance their practice and learning based on the Noble Eightfold Path, namely, the correct view, correct thinking, correct speech, correct conduct, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness and correct concentration. That is, despite the fact that sound-hearers have realized the liberation above first-fruition liberation, they still need to live in the mundane world in accordance with the Noble Eightfold Path, advancing on their Dharma cultivation and saving sentient beings unconditionally.

The first one in the Noble Eightfold Path is the correct view, meaning that one needs to keep observing all various sufferings, and all kinds of accumulations; in order to radically eliminate these accumulations, one needs to live in the mundane world, where one eliminates the adherence to all kinds of suffering by saving sentient beings unconditionally. After eliminating all adherence to all kinds of suffering, one can completely achieve all the sound-hearer liberations.

In terms of the ways concerning how to cease suffering, one needs to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, leading a middle way life, in which one leads a life neither happily nor unhappily. One will not generate attachment to happiness in the pursuit of happiness. While facing suffering, one will not stay away from it. Therefore, a sound-hearer will not feel vexed. Why? That is because he will observe: even if I have causes and conditions impeding my achievement in cultivation, these causes and conditions are not firm and are doomed to perish at last due to the synergy of causes and conditions. Therefore, he will not feel vexed or attached, eventually achieving the liberation from the cycle of births-and-deaths.

In this chapter, we have introduced the content of the Four Noble Truths: Sufferings, Accumulation, Cessation, and Path, based on the causes and conditions, which are backed up by Tathagatagarbha, with the support of Tathagatagarbha, sound-hearers will be able to achieve liberation in the following lives. Next time, we will introduce the Three Dharma-Seals.

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