December 03, 2013

What’s Noble about the Four Noble Truths?

The doctrine that brings ordinary people to noble attainmentThanissaro Bhikkhu

When people ask me this question, they often seem a little embarrassed, for fear that it’s impolite or too obvious, but it’s well worth asking. After all, the end of suffering and the path to its end might be noble, but what’s noble about suffering and the craving that causes it? If anything, by attributing all suffering to craving, the truths seem to deny the possibility of noble suffering entirely. And what does it mean for a truth to be “noble” anyway?

A good place to start is with the Pali term for noble truth: ariya-sacca. This is a compound of two words: ariya (noble) and sacca (truth). The first word in any Pali compound, because it’s stripped of its case ending, can function in many ways. This is one of the reasons that people fluent in the language liked to use compounds: they can contain many layers of meaning that reward the person who tries to dig them out. Ancient commentators specialized in the game of digging out these layers, and ariya-sacca is one of the compounds in which they liked to dig. Among the meanings they found in the word ariya is that the truths are ennobling because they bring [CL1] ordinary people to a noble attainment, a happiness that, because it’s unconditioned, is reliable and blameless. The truths are also of the nobles, in that noble—i.e., awakened—people have proven to themselves that these truths are true, and that they’re the most important truths to teach to others. The commentators who dug out these meanings didn’t see this sort of analysis as denying the fact that the truths themselves were noble. They simply saw it as adding resonance to the idea of their nobility.

For instance, even though the truths are true for noble people, they’re not true only for noble people. They’re classed as right view, part of the path that will take you from your not-yet-noble condition and lead you to a noble attainment. In other words, they’re specifically for people who aren’t yet fully awakened. They’re part of the raft that takes you across the river. Once you’re on the other side, you no longer need the raft. From that point on, the path of those who are fully awakened, like that of birds through space, can’t be traced (Dhammapada 92–93). As the Buddha said, what he learned in the course of his awakening was plentiful like the leaves in the forest; what he taught—the four noble truths—is only a handful of leaves (Samyutta Nikaya 56:31).

And the Buddha didn’t save these truths only for those who are on the verge of awakening. Once, when quizzed by a newcomer to the dhamma named Gandhabhaka, he taught the origination and cessation of suffering by using examples from Gandhabhaka’s daily life: Why did he suffer over the death or imprisonment of some people and not of others? Gandhabhaka immediately grasped the basic principle—that all suffering comes from desire—and proceeded to apply those examples to understand the anxiety he felt over his son’s safety (Samyutta Nikaya 42:11). The text doesn’t say that Gandhabhaka gained awakening, but he did see—at least to some extent—how the noble truths are true. If he had taken these truths as a guide to his life, he would have found that they’re ennobling as well.

But what makes the truths themselves noble? Among the various meanings of the word “noble,” my dictionary lists “preeminent,” “highly virtuous,” and “deserving respect.” The noble truths are noble in all three of these senses.

The first sense—preeminence—relates to that handful of leaves. Of all the things the Buddha learned in his awakening, the only lessons that would be beneficial and worth teaching in leading others to awakening were contained in these four truths. As Sariputta once said, all skillful dhammas fall under the four noble truths in the same way that the footprints of all land animals can fit into the footprint of the elephant (Majjhima Nikaya 28). These truths not only provide the framework for understanding everything else that is skillful, but also give directions for how to deal skillfully with whatever arises in experience. Suffering is to be comprehended, its cause is to be abandoned, its cessation is to be realized, and the path to its cessation is to be developed. In this way, the four noble truths is the Buddha’s most overarching teaching—the teaching that puts every experience in its place and tells you the most skillful way to shape your experiences into a path.

This is what the Buddha meant when he stated that he taught suffering and the end of suffering. He did, of course, in his many years of teaching, touch on other topics as well, but he always did so within the overarching framework of how those topics related to an understanding of suffering and its end. Even when he dealt with such far-ranging topics as how to make a marriage work or how to be reborn as a deva or naga, he treated them under the framework of karma, the principle underlying the fact that our actions can either cause suffering or end it. In other words, he was illustrating the principles of right view and showing both how far those principles extend and how useful they can be. If he was asked to take a position on a topic that would get in the way of gaining right view—as when he was asked to take a stand on whether a fully awakened being does or does not exist after death (Samyutta Nikaya 22:86)—he’d refuse to answer on the grounds that doing so lay outside the range of what he taught. For him, any questions that didn’t fall under these truths were a waste of time.

The noble truths are also noble in the second sense of the word: highly virtuous. This is because the act of seeing yourself in terms of these truths is a noble act. Take the first two truths as an example. The first isn’t just “suffering”; it’s the truth that suffering boils down to clinging to the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, fabrications, and consciousness) around which we define our sense of who we are. Seeing your sense of self as inherently stressful provides some distance from it. Instead of simply following the dictates of what you think you are, you can step back from those dictates and see how they can be harmful. In this way, you begin to comprehend them, and in gaining this objectivity, you’re in a better position to act in less selfish ways. The willingness to view your sense of self in line with the first noble truth is a virtuous act in and of itself.

The same point holds for the second noble truth. It’s not just “craving.” It’s the truth that craving is the cause of suffering. To view your cravings in this way gives you some space and puts you in a position where, once you see the stress and suffering they cause, it’s easier to drop them.

Finally, the noble truths are noble in the sense that they deserve respect. This, too, relates to that handful of leaves. Of all the amazing things the Buddha could have reported from his awakening, this is what he chose to focus on: what exactly suffering is, how it’s caused, and how to put an end to it. This indicates that these truths deserve to be placed before all others.

All too often, the world tells us to ignore the suffering entailed in our clinging and caused by our craving, to regard these things as trivial and irrelevant. Our greed, aversion, and delusion are all too happy to ignore these truths in pursuit of their own agendas, the truths that hold more value for them. They prefer that craving be given free rein.

The four noble truths, however, focus our attention right at the suffering we’re causing ourselves and others, and highlight that suffering as the paramount problem in our lives. They force us to make a choice: Which are we going to respect more—our cravings or the truths of how suffering arises and how it can be brought to an end?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu is abbot of Metta Forest Monastery and the translator of numerous meditation guides.

More from the author: Lost in Quotation | Skill in Questions | The Power of Judgment | Hang On to Your Ego

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jakeeagle's picture

Another way to think about the Four Noble Truths is as the Four Enobling Truths. This is more accurately how they were understood using Pali Language (Pali being an ancient form of language that Buddha spoke during his lifetime). This way of using language expresses many nouns as verbs, so that they are not static, but arising and passing away. If you try converting your words in this way you will empower yourself and awaken yourself through your language.

jackelope65's picture

How powerful this grasping that 7 billion people cannot care for each other and the vast universe from which we were wrought. I find it comforting when The Four Noble Truths are revealed again and again with such wisdom. Thank you.

lindaldavis's picture

Another thank you. Your words bring clarity to me always.

ptrsngrp's picture

It has been a long & winding but compassionate path to this blog box.
My father told me I was too sensitive, my mother told me not to change.
I am half a century and I still remember with absolute clarity the day my father was beating my mother with a broken gun. I was a terrified, little girl, for my mother and my father.
All I could think was what did my mother ever do and what was my father suffering from that would make him do this.
It wasn't the first type of compartmentalized thought, and definitely not the last.
I feel I have been with Buddha since before those days, I am at peace, I feel love.

Namaste

Danny's picture

Great article, but I ask myself: How do we address the suffering we see in so many whose cause is not simple greed, anger or delusion but deeper and more complex causes beyond our control as individuals and perhaps can only be taken on collectively, as in the social/symbolic structures in which the subject is formed?

lindaldavis's picture

I have asked these same questions many times. When I unravel these big issues as best I can, rather like peeling an onion, i do find greed and/or anger, and/or delusion at the deepest root of all of it.

Hktony's picture

There are thoughts, many types of thoughts but they are either rooted around the 3 unwholesome roots or wholesome roots.There is nothing more complex than that. Thoughts are given different shapes by the concomitants but the base root are good or bad roots. Greed, hatred and delusion are not simple.

buddhajazz's picture

My favorite response to this Huge Question when the Dalai Lama was asked it, with his inimitable giggle replied "We have more picnics".....

wsking's picture

Hi! Three bows!
But its true, isn't it? We suffer, so we distract ourselves with things. More picnics!

OneVoice's picture

If it came out of anyone else's mouth, the reply would be fatuous. Where do we draw the line between attributing deep spiritual meaning and blind infatuatuation?

wsking's picture

Hi! Three bows!
I love this! All the guy said was "picnics!"

Im going to name my Zafu "Blind infatuation", and my Zabuton, "Deep Spiritual Implication"! It will be like having two sneakers painted with sparkles and stars, " And the right foot will sing "Glory!" and the left foot will shout, "Amen!"
(Every time I try to type the word "sprtual" I leave out the "i's". Is this a message from the universe?)

Dominic Gomez's picture

We can address it as the 5th truth: karma. Suffering today as a result of causes made in previous lifetimes. Buddhism treats the source of negative causes, and that is the (noble) human being him- or herself. We don't go back in the past to change what causes have already been done. We work with the present in order to change the future.

Elvis56p's picture

Thank you Dominic. This is my first time to blog but I just wanted to say I really do enjoy reading your comments.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You are quite welcome!

Hktony's picture

Thank you for such wonderful words of wisdom.