The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are the bedrock of Buddhism, what everything else builds upon and refers back to. They are simple yet profound.
In the Nibbedhika Sutta it’s laid out, ‘Stress should be known. The cause by which stress comes into play should be known. The diversity in stress should be known. The result of stress should be known. The cessation of stress should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of stress should be known.’ Or, as James Baldwin says, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
I think this is interesting, and challenging, as it’s not my natural inclination, necessarily, to move toward stress, my instinct is simply to end it. One piece of knowledge that I have gained from yoga, however, is that our issues live in our tissues, so even if I just put an end to a specific stress or stressor in my life, the imprint of that dukkha lives on in my heart and body. So then what the Buddha prescribes is a holistic program to free ourselves from dukkha-over and over again. This work doesn’t end, as a yoga student reminded me this week: it’s not about getting enlightened once and for all, it’s about coming back to the moment again and again.
The First Truth:
Life is suffering. Life is stressful. There is a general quality of unsatisfactoriness to life. This is the human condition-everyone experiences pain. Dukkha can contain anything as minor and individual as a papercut to something as significant and impactful as the death of Trayvon Martin.
When I first studied Buddhism in high school and learned that the first tenet was that life was suffering, I thought that for sure, the Buddha was wrong. Sorry dude, but life is joyful, and beautiful, and exciting. Little did I know, that is exactly what the Buddha was talking about–I was getting attached to the beautiful, exciting mountains that I grew up in, the comfort of the small mountain town that I lived in, and refusing to see the dreadful, the sad, the confusing aspects of life. This is the Second Noble Truth.
The Second Truth:
There are specific causes to this suffering: all experiences, thoughts, emotions are positive, negative, or neutral. This is interesting to watch-label things as such incessantly! And not only that, but then we want more of the positive, want it to last forever, and are horribly disappointed when it shifts, dissipates. We avoid, deny, resist, repress that which we label as negative. When I was writing this talk last night, I would flip back and forth to facebook, to my email, to my dharma talk. Ugh I had to write a talk-that felt like a paper! It had a deadline! Pressure! I didn’t like it, so I watched this habitual pattern of my attention avoiding this discomfort. And then that which we designate as neutral, we are indifferent to, apathetic towards, a teenager-like ‘who cares’ reaction.
These are the ‘three poisons’, this ‘added layer’ as Sharon Salzburg says, to the pain that we experience-we add aversion, attachment, and indifference. This is the Second Noble Truth-these reactions are the causes of our suffering. “Pain is unavoidable,” Salzburg says, “but suffering can be avoided.” Hmm.
The Third Noble Truth:
The cessation of suffering is a possibility. It doesn’t have to be like this! It is possible to disengage from reactivity, by “ceasing to identify with what we are not: a pattern that interprets experience as separate and other and then operates to control or justify its own imagined existence” as Ken McLeod writes in Wake Up to Your Life. So, our experiences, sensations, thoughts, emotions-those are aspects of the human condition, but it’s not US. I am not this pain in my knee. I am not this heartbreak. I am not this plan for next month. I think this is a great relief-it makes all of these momentary, passing experiences, just momentary, passing experiences-they don’t define me, and they are things that everyone goes through.
In talking to a teacher about my work in the field of yoga specifically as a trans teacher, and the barriers that I face, she reflected back to me the shame and aversion that she heard me speaking to. She said, I don’t know the ins and outs of your particular story, but I do know shame. I know it for myself and I work with others in theirs. My teacher’s recognition and universalizing of this lifted a huge burden off of my shoulders-my shame and frustration wasn’t my fault, and it is not uniquely mine. I can cease to identify with it.
The Fourth Noble Truth:
There is a specific route out of suffering, the Eight-Fold Path of Right View, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Attention, and Right Cognition. These are both preventative medicine, a tea to drink every day, and also a prescription for when things aren’t going well. For me, at the root of all of these practices is attention and presence, which we cultivate through our seated meditation practice, building wisdom as we work. These practices are guides not only for each of us as individuals, but for communities, for families, for organizations, as we are all interconnected. Healthy individuals make healthy families, make healthy communities, makes a healthy world, as my friend Lisa Garrett reminds me.
The Eight Fold path is also a relief to me-the Buddha has already done the work to figure out a route out of suffering. Thanks, pal. He invites us to try it on, to not just take it for granted, but to see if it’s true, if it works.
Also, it’s important to note, as Ken McLeod says, right does not mean right as opposed to wrong, and it’s not evaluated by some authority looking down on us. “An action is right when the action comes from attention and presence rather than from reaction.” Or, drawing from the yoga tradition, an action is right when it generates prana, vital life force, rather than detracts from it.
A story from the yoga tradition that I think applies quite well to the Four Noble Truths is a story of a yogini who is studying yoga in a cave. She sits there day after day, meditating. One day, some of her demons come to visit her. We all have these demons, be they patterns or triggers generated by trauma from the past, kinds of people that we react to, emotions that we disdain and resist, etc. So she’s sitting there, and her demons come up and try to spook her, try to distract her. And so the yogini attentively rises, and leaves the cave to gather some wood. She returns with the wood, and again sits to meditate.
The demons became a bit frustrated, as they were unsuccessful in their spookery, and so they get bigger and louder. The yogini rises and makes a fire, and then again sits down to meditate. The demons then become furious, and whip out everything they have to scare, intimidate, anger the yogini. The woman again, eventually rises, and goes again to the forest, this time with a tea kettle, to fetch water. She returns to the cave and sets the kettle on the fire to heat. So now the demons are just flabbergasted, ‘what the heck!’ and then stop their show and go up to her and ask her, ‘what are you doing?!’
The yogini opens her eyes, greets the demons, and says, ‘you have been here before, you’ll be here again, so for now, let’s have tea’.
I love this story, because it demonstrates an ease that we can have with dukkha, and that we can be with it, work with it, and that thereby doing that, in the process, create liberation-not as an end result, but in the process of encountering dukkha. Her demons exist and she wasn’t ignoring them or resisting them. There are reasons that they exist. There can be an end to them. And so the yogini works with right attention, right view, right speech, right action.
And so I offer to you, this practice, of sitting with your demons, with dukkha. It can be helpful to draw them with crayons or markers in working with them. Make them colorful, and tap into how scary they feel. Drawing them is a part of ‘knowing the stress’. And then, sitting with the image on your altar, or in front of your cushion, with this question to contemplate: What does this demon represent and what does it need from me?
Enjoy your tea time.
Thank you. Namaste.