There is a dimension of the presentation of Buddhism which is both inspiring and fascinating, but which is often invisible even after years of study. How often have we heard specific subjects presented by our Lamas, and how often have these topics mysteriously evolved into explanations of other facets of Buddhism? The whole Buddhist path, as a macrocosm, can be expressed and understood through each microcosm of teaching within it.
To experience a teaching in this way is to suddenly become aware of the spontaneous word-ballet of what is being taught as if it were an elaborate musical composition.(1) This was a startling revelation for me when it all clicked into place, and one which I realised was essential if I was to be of any real help to others as a teacher in training. To fulfil the rôle of teacher, one must be capable of showing how every method or practice reflects the essence of entire Buddhist path. For example, when Ngak'chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen have given teachings on Dorje Tsig-dhun, the Four Naljors ngöndro of Dzogchen Sem-dé, Refuge, or the Five Elements they then often proceeded to express the quintessence of the whole path through each individual topic. Looking back, I realise that Ngak'chang Rinpoche has been teaching in this way since I first attended his teachings at the Lam Rim Centre in Raglan, Wales, almost 20 years ago. From this inspiration, and from the amazing patterns which have suddenly become visible to me, I would like to explore the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in terms of how they can be understood through other aspects of teaching.
Although the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold
Path are a fundamental Sutric teaching, they can open out in great depth and
subtlety in terms of each of the nine yanas. An example of this can be found
in the Ulukha-mukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra(2) of the Aro gTér, which presents
these teachings from the perspective of Dzogchen. Although I will not be presenting
the subject from that perspective, I will refer to it throughout this essay.
The semantic expression of the teachings in the Ulukha-mukha Sutra, however,
is fantastically subtle so I will concentrate mainly on taking the key principle
of the Heart Sutra as a way to explore these teachings. Ngak'chang Rinpoche
& Khandro Déchen have often emphasised that the essence of Buddhism
is the statement made in the Heart Sutra: 'Form is emptiness, and emptiness
is form'. Every other topic in Buddhism is an expansion of this and a method
of approaching this realisation.
On this basis, we will look at the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in terms of their essentials. Rinpoche commented: There is a tremendously powerful message within the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path which the Ulukha-mukha Sutra presents as a pointing-out instruction. Reflecting on this takes us far beyond the victimised sense of suffering and the way which passes beyond suffering. The way in which the Four Noble Truths are commonly understood tends to foster the idea that release from dukkha lies beyond the body and the physical world; but the Ulukha-mukha Sutra completely reverses this misconception, and lays open the vast possibility that is inherent in every aspect of existence.
The Eightfold Path is an expression of the Fourth Noble Truth, in its application to our lives, so let us begin by looking at the Four Noble Truths from this perspective. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths was called the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This was the first teaching Shakyamuni Buddha gave after fully realising the non-dual state. He sat for seven weeks under the bodhi tree and then walked to the deer park, where he proclaimed the Dammacakkapavattana Sutra to five sages. The Four Noble Truths are: the truth of unsatisfactoriness; the truth of the cause of unsatisfactoriness; the truth of the cessation of unsatisfactoriness; and, the truth of the path to the cessation of unsatisfactoriness.
The First Noble Truth
The truth of the experience of unsatisfactoriness
expresses the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness within dualistic experience
unsatisfactoriness of the continually cycling patterns of perception and response
in which no lasting happiness can be found. Ngak'chang Rinpoche says of the
First Noble Truth:
It is seriously pertinent not to misinterpret the First Noble Truth as a statement which denigrates the body and the world. The First Noble Truth does not state that the body or the world are in themselves unsatisfactory, but that our experience is characterised in that way. This is quite evident in the Vimalakirti Sutra in which Shakyamuni Buddha, in answer to a question about the imperfection of human life and conditions, says that he sees no such unsatisfactory life or conditions. They are illusory. The world is perfect as it is.
We are all frantically chasing our tails, trying
to be happy. We all want to be free of the experience of loss, pain, sorrow,
and fear; in order to experience only pleasure and happiness. This is universal,
but the question runs far deeper than the commonly-experienced pleasures and
pains of physical existence. To truly experience the subtle nature of unsatisfactoriness,
one needs to have achieved some success in terms of everyday life within the
conventional parameters of dualism. Understanding of unsatisfactoriness is not
the despair of a destitute failure it is the feeling of suspicion which arises
for someone who has proved themselves capable, competent and able to function
within the bounds of what is possible within samsara the social context of dualism.
The niggling feeling arises that the whole thing is vaguely hollow and that
nothing is quite what it seems. We have worked for the good things we have and
live in a reasonable degree of comfort, yet we become aware of a sensation of
unsatisfactoriness about our lives. We find that we can achieve almost whatever
we set out to achieve in terms of what the world offers; yet we come to realise
that these achievements are at best a pastime. Khandro Déchen has pointed
out that the life of Shakyamuni Buddha can be understood from different perspectives,
according the style of teaching being presented. She said: According to the
Ulukha-mukha Sutra, the emphasis is placed on Shakyamuni Buddha's discovery
of the hollowness of success. As the prince, the son of the king, he had to
be the best in every field. He had to be the greatest archer, wrestler, poet,
artist, and musician. He had to excel at everything, because to be second-best
or to fail would undermine his position as the future king. From this perspective
it was through his success that he came to view all accomplishment with suspicion.
All he had left was to find what lay both beyond and within the issue of hollowness.
His path was based on the unsatisfactoriness of success as a reference point,
rather than on the brevity of success in terms of sickness, old age and death.
It is not that sickness, old age, and death are not issues which can turn one's
attention to spiritual enquiry; it is rather that there is a more subtle level
of unsatisfactoriness which needs to be perceived. This perspective which sees
through the referentiality of success means that even if we were immortal,
the cyclic nature of serial successes would still leave us with a sense of unsatisfactoriness. According to this interpretation of the teachings, sickness, old age, and death cannot actually be described as unsatisfactory they are simply the play of the nirmanakaya.
The First Noble Truth, then, is awareness of the universality of the feeling of unsatisfactoriness, and the way in which it eventually undermines every achievement. The Sanskrit word mostly translated as 'suffering' is 'dukkha'. 'Du' means worthless, and 'kha' means hollow. So 'dukkha' actually encompasses much more than the misery of life not going well, the experience of pain and personal catastrophe. It points to the illusory nature of the dukkha itself. In some way we create the unsatisfactoriness it is not self-existent.
Shakyamuni Buddha said that where there is dualism
change is perceived as dukkha. We don't like the good things in our life to
go away, but everything changes. Always. The apparent existence of all phenomena
slips away from us, especially if we try to grasp at permanence. We have to
have had some success within the social context of dualism (samsara) to really
understand this. If our whole life has been deprivation, aggression, loneliness,
anxiety, and painful confusion, then it would be easy merely to view bad luck,
parental abuse, or societal injustice as the cause of our unhappiness. So in
order to actually perceive dukkha, we have to have some measure of success and
pleasure in our lives and yet still experience unsatisfactoriness. It is only
then that we can begin to feel the illusory or empty quality of the experience
of pleasure, as well as the tangible or form quality of the experience of pain.
Shakyamuni Buddha pointed out that each truth suggests the subsequent truth
to us if we have truly understood. So it
is valuable to reflect on the First Noble Truth as much as possible in our daily lives in order to experience the Second as a natural progression.
The Second Noble Truth
The truth of the cause of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is suggested to us through experiencing the form & emptiness of unsatisfactoriness. We realise that there is something about both the way we in which we view phenomena, and how we experience phenomena, which causes unsatisfactoriness. In the Sutric texts, the causes of the experience of unsatisfactoriness are said to be karma and klésa. Karma is described as cause & effect, which means that through distorted perception we respond inappropriately and create the cyclic patterns of our neurotic conditioning. Ngak'chang Rinpoche says of karma: It is crucial not to confound cause & effect with some kind of mechanism inherent in the fabric of reality. The root of karma is the dualistic mind. When the dualistic mind is not present, then karma is also not present. If karma is seen as independent of the individual experiencing karma, then we have a form of fatalism which has more in common with the eternalism of popular Hinduism. The Ulukha-mukha Sutra discusses karma in terms of perception & response rather than cause & effect but the essential meaning is the same. If the cause which is our perception perceives a focus of attraction, aversion, or indifference, the effect will be the response to that cause. There is no sense in which the actual circumstances of our lives are preordained according to a system of rewards & punishments for our previous actions. This is a primitive misconception, and one which would make enlightenment dependent upon karma.
Klésa are the perceptual distortions of attraction,
aversion, and indifference which maintain the cyclic patterns of our neuroses
the distorted experience of our fivefold elemental nature. We hold to the idea
that we exist as solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined beings,
and that insubstantiality, impermanence, inseparability, discontinuity and lack
of definition deny our existence. This means that whenever we perceive insubstantiality,
impermanence, inseparability, discontinuity and lack of definition we experience
dukkha. We experience dukkha because we attempt to divide form & emptiness.
we have touched the idea that we create our own unsatisfactoriness through dualistic preconception, the possibility of allowing our view to change suggests itself. We can let go of the form of unsatisfactoriness.
The Third Noble Truth
The cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is the truth that if there is a cause of dukkha, then there must be a way in which we can stop creating the cause of dukkha. We can cut the cause at the root. We actively create samsara by continually defining our existence according to form ideas of how things should be. We refuse to let the ebb & flow of our existence be what it is. But we can stop 'doing' samsara and allow a view and experience to emerge in which form & emptiness define each other. This completely alters our perception of pleasure, as Khandro Déchen points out: Within the non-dual perspective of Dzogchen, pleasure ceases to be regarded as problematic simply because of its temporary nature. Its temporary nature is simply its empty quality. We do not have to renounce appreciation of pleasure simply because it manifests as emptiness & form.
We can then discover that our ordinary lives really do afford glimpses of real happiness because empty experiences naturally occur. There are times when we are one with the moment, or times of exhaustion when we let go and give up the effort of creating samsara for a while. Understanding the possibility of this view and experience inspires confidence that there is a state which can be attained where we are able to exist without the distorted perceptions of dualism. We may be fortunate enough to meet Lamas who appear to experience their lives as satisfactory whatever occurs; and who direct us toward the fact that our own enlightenment sparkles through the fabric of our self-created conditioning.
We are all beginninglessly enlightened, and because of this our own non-dual state points to itself through the experience of dukkha. Through understanding that unsatisfactoriness s something we create, we can undermine this creation and allow the sparkling through of our enlightenment to illuminate the knowledge that there must be methods by which this opening can be continually facilitated.
The Fourth Noble Truth
The path of the cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is the Eightfold Path. It is important to notice the word used here. We are not talking about a remedy or a cure it is a path. The word 'path' suggests something which has been found or laid down by someone who has gone this way before. A path is something which has been trodden and tested. It is purposely designed to get us from where we think we are to where we actually are. It is the path of the middle way: free from referential extremes; free of the four philosophical extremes;(3) and free of addiction to self-justification or self-denial. The path is taught as eight stages, but the totality of Buddhist method can be extrapolated from this simple structure. The fruit or destination of the path is the experience of non-duality.
The Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path comprises of:
1. Right view or understanding;
2. Right intention or motivation;
3. Right speech or communication;
4. Right action or conduct;
5. Right vocation or livelihood;
6. Right effort;
7. Right attention or mindfulness;
8. Right presence or concentration.
The word 'right', in the Sutric presentation of the teachings, is often understood in the sense of the 'best' or 'most correct'.(4) But 'right' can also be translated as 'whole-hearted' or 'appropriate' it is the most wholehearted, totally committed involvement. There is nothing half-hearted or wavering about right you stand on the edge, and you jump. You are totally there.
The key to the path is the cultivation of right view. Initially this will only be the intellectual understanding that the causes of dukkha can be severed. As we travel the path, our view will become increasingly subtle and profound. We take the view that we can undermine our fixation with judging every focus of perception in terms of attraction, aversion & indifference. We have an intellectual understanding that we are not solid, permanent, separate, continuous & defined beings; and through that we try to cut these habitual patterns of response. We develop a degree of openness in our view and attitude toward others and to the particulars of our environment. We become less fixed and sure of our opinions about how things appear, and start to look a little more closely at the way we function.
From view, intention arises. Ngak'chang Rinpoche's essentialised comment on this is: From the empty space of understanding, in which awareness and view are indivisible, Mind moves towards form and view emerges as intention. To express this at a mundane level, I could say: "The idea (view) arises that I want an ice cream, so I (the motivated) arise to go and buy an ice cream". Through our intellectual understanding of the causes of unsatisfactoriness, we cultivate the intention and desire to remember that we are not solid, permanent, separate, continuous & defined rather we are the ebb & flow of existence & non-existence. We try to become aware of when we lapse into selfishness, irritation and dullness. We try to become aware of when we indulge in obduracy, aggression, obsession, paranoia and depression. We try to remain true to the intention of living the view, in terms of ceasing to create the causes of the experience of unsatisfactoriness.
From this basis, our communication with the outside world begins to reflect our intention. We avoid communicating rigid preconceptions and expectations. We try to keep our communication open and fluid without judgements and expectations. We try to be direct, and refrain from being devious or manipulative in our interaction with the world. Through our attempts to maintain right view and right intention, our communication at all levels reflects this. It begins in terms of externals and becomes increasingly subtle.
Our interaction with the world at the level of conduct or action reflects our attempt to maintain right view, right intention and right communication. We are direct and open in all our activities. We don't attempt to manipulate people or our experiences of them. We respect others as beings who have the capacity for liberation, and we take responsibility for ourselves. We do not allow ourselves to be lazy or slovenly so that we cause more work for others, whilst also respecting our own needs for relaxation and rest. Right view and intention permeate our conduct, so that we act appropriately as practitioners. We are modest, but do not allow ourselves to be abused. We have fun but not at the expense of other people. We live life to the fullest, but not to the detriment of our more formal spiritual practices. In effect we live by the Five Precepts. This is right conduct.
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