taught to be the truth and believe in it, but instead to hold it up to their own experience and if, through doing so, they see that his teaching no longer
applies, discard it. This doesn‘t mean simply rejecting a teaching because one
doesn‘t like it, but instead looking deeply into matters for oneself and seeing
what is there. This deep looking also applies to what we discover with our own
eyes, to beliefs and opinions that are established and upheld through individual
experience, an encouragement to not hold onto them but instead to keep looking
into what is. I find this activity of being in touch with what is to be at the
core of Zen, and it’s a reason I don’t consider Zen to be Buddhism or myself to
be a Buddhist. Of course, Zen developed within the Buddhist tradition so the
relationship and connection is certainly evident, but the practice is not so
much about adhering to the Buddha’s teachings but more so about experiencing
awakening directly and being Buddha, being awake, having the experience for
oneself that the Buddha and countless others a have had for themselves.
A couple of years ago I was invited to teach some of the basic historical
aspects of Buddhism to people who had been engaged in Zen practice already. As I presented some traditional teachings and concepts and we explored them together, people (myself included) began to question these words and ideas because they didn’t always speak to our personal experience. A tension could be felt as people noticed varying degrees of disconnect between the two, questioning their own practice as well, likely wondering which was right and which was wrong. Rather than dismiss the traditional teachings outright or negating their personal experiences, I encouraged participants to allow the two to speak to one another and see what might develop through the course of such a conversation. This is how ancient traditions remain alive and relevant. As a result of this mutual exploration I began looking more deeply into one of the cornerstones of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, and in the process a different way of expressing them came to light, to be a companion to the traditional formulation as well as other versions that have come about over the centuries, endeavoring to expand upon and clarify the territory the original presents.
Before I share some of the things I looked into and what came about in the
end, here is one version of the traditional formulation:
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life is suffering.
2. The cause of suffering is desire or craving.
3. The ending of desire or craving results in the cessation of suffering.
4. The cessation of suffering can be achieved through following the Eightfold Path.
Overall I find this presentation to be rather brief and simple, just touching
the surface of something that is quite complex and intricate. Key words that had
multiple meanings and nuances in the Pali language from which they come have
been reduced to one word, and if a person does not look further into them it can
be very misleading. There also seems to be a neatly-wrapped-up-in-a-bow recipe presented here that belies the labyrinthine quality of a real life practice,
with its cycles of frustrations, doubts, dark passages and dead ends. Fortunately, we are not meant to take them as a complete summation of the way things are and stop there, but rather as a starting point for our own explorations. The Four Noble truths were presented during the Buddha’s first sermon following his enlightenment, known as the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel. I find that phrase to be quite apt in describing the spirit of his teaching and how to relate to it, in that he was setting a wheel in motion and encouraging us to keep it moving. By its nature a wheel moves beyond the place where it began, so it seems only right that we do our part in continuing its rolling along, endlessly, by keeping alive the conversation between what we inherit from our ancestors and what we encounter through our own experience, meeting and engaging both with curiosity.
I found my curiosity drawn to the title, noticing how in the past I sort of brushed by it, but as I really looked at the words this time they snagged on me a little. Per the title, not only are these truths, which are often taken to be something solid and fixed, they are noble, which elevates them somewhat and makes them special, perhaps even something to be revered. This seems to contradict what the Buddha said about being willing to discard what he taught if one’s experience indicates things are otherwise. However, what was translated into “noble” could also be translated as “ennobling,” which changes the energy, evoking a sense of active exchange. And to accompany that energy I find myself preferring “insight” over “truth,“ insight being both what one discovers and the act of discovering it, through looking into what is, again and again. As I see it, if we establish something as a truth we are less likely to keep looking into it, especially if it is considered to be an absolute, eternal truth. In conversations I’ve had with people about this matter of truth, I’ve noticed a tendency to try to discern and hold onto what might be absolute truth while holding provisional truths more lightly or even dismissing them, as though they are obstacles to being connected with that absolute truth. However, if something is an absolute truth there is no reason to hold onto it - every time you look it will be there. And yes, provisional truths will come and go, some in small bursts and others for long arcs of time, but that doesn‘t mean they have no value or importance. Looking freshly over and over helps us notice this, enabling us to stay in touch with what is real and alive as well as to realize when we’re holding onto something past its time. At any given moment the truth of what is is a mixture and a weaving of these two (and more), so rather than trying to sort out which is which and preferring one over the other we have the opportunity to connect with and rest in reality, ourselves being part of the weaving and the woven. “Ennobling Insight” speaks to making that connection and fostering such a relationship. It is a dynamic activity of continually looking into and being graced by truth and reality as it is, here and
Another aspect of this teaching that many people have been curious about is the word suffering, which can be and often is off-putting because of its usual ssociation with pain and misery, especially when we encounter “life is suffering” as a primary teaching. This is one of those instances of narrowing down a word’s meaning and intent through the process of translation and as a result diminishing what is trying to be conveyed. The original Pali word is dukkha, which does not translate directly into English. In fact, in looking up dukkha I found more than 30 English words and expressions to describe it. Yet in translation scholars came to and widely perpetuated the term suffering, leading to misunderstanding and confusion about what is actually being presented.
The suffering being spoken of here is not referring to the pain we naturally
experience through struggles and sorrows that are part of an ordinary life. And
to say that’s all life is would be to negate the joys, triumphs and periods of
general contentment that we also experience. What this is pointing to is the suffering that we ourselves create during these experiences. During times of
pain, suffering is the layer that is added through questioning why something is happening and coming up with reasons why things shouldn’t be so, resisting
what is happening, thinking back to better times before or looking ahead to what
will be when it’s all over. In good times, suffering is that feeling of not quite being fulfilled, despite what we thought our life would be like once we reached a certain point or achievement, or that little voice that lets us know whatever is happening is not going to last, which can take away from our experience of joy because there is a part of us trying to protect and hold onto it. While we can identify with the experience of suffering in these moments, that one word does not convey the subtlety and variety of meanings and feelings associated with dukkha. In addition to suffering, some other words that could be used are stressful, troubled, anxiety, sorrow, dissatisfaction, unease. Bringing these in expands the territory some, as well as gives us more opportunities to recognize and relate to this feeling in our own lives.
The last point I’ll cover before leaving you with my formulation is regarding the Eightfold Path. You’ll notice I don’t use the term at all. That’s because it wasn’t my way to deliberately take up and embody the specific aspects of right or beneficial living as detailed in the path’s description. Instead I noticed the path naturally arising of its own accord through the turning and transformation of the heart-mind that takes place by engaging in the practice of meditation, inquiry and contemplation. By simply following my practice I was able to become intimately aware of the actions and habitual patterns that cause pain and create suffering, and as a result it was easier to put them down, let them drop away. From here, a way of living with greater ease and increased altruism was revealed and continues to unfold and develop. This is not to say that the Eightfold Path isn’t useful and helpful, and certainly what it offers as a gateway to practice as well as a source of ongoing support remains relevant, but it doesn’t have to be a central element in one’s practice. For instance, old Shakyamuni himself wasn’t following the Eightfold Path when he had his awakening. There was no such thing at the time. He presented it at the start of his teaching as an offering to help others
experience awakening and freedom, and he said it was the essence of everything he taught during his lifetime. The accompanying encouragement to let the teachings go was perhaps a means of keeping us connected to what is fluid and alive, free to discover something new as well as see what countless others have seen, to avoid stagnation and allow the Dharma Wheel to keep rolling freely along.
It is in that spirit that I offer the below, sharing my particular experience, still curious about where things will go from here:
The Four Ennobling Insights
1. There is an underlying, subtle quality of unsatisfactoriness that comes
with having a life.
2.This unsatisfactoriness is created by wanting things to be other than
they are, and by trying to make something lasting and permanent of a world
that is transient and ever-changing.
3. A way to address this unsatisfactoriness is to meet things directly, as
they are, as we are, beyond the veils of story and expectation; not grasping,
not rejecting; not simply accepting, not ignoring.
4. Meeting and relating to the world in this way allows us to be intimately
connected to life, experiencing its effortless unfolding, naturally supporting
and nourishing it while being supported and nourished by it, in times of
darkness and difficulty, in times of brightness and ease.
(This post also appears at www.contemplativejournal.com)