By Thich Nhat Hanh in September 1994
The first Dharma talk of the Buddha after his enlightenment was about the Four Noble Truths. They express the cream of his teachings and method of practice. The Buddha continued teaching the Four Noble Truths right up until his “great passing away” (mahaparinirvana). It is important for us to study and learn deeply the practice of the Four Noble Truths.
The first noble truth is dukkha, which means ill-being, uneasiness, pain, or suffering. All of us suffer to some extent: we have some malaise within our body and our psyche. We have to recognize and identify it, to acknowledge the presence of ill-being and to touch it. Sometimes we may need the help of a teacher.
The second noble truth is samudaya, the origination of ill-being: how our ill-being came to be, its roots. We suffer and we recognize that suffering is there, and then we look deeply to see its origins. Without first touching our ill-being, there is no way we can look deeply into it and understand the second noble truth of origination. “This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not.” It is very simple. There is no need to make it complicated.
The third truth is nirodha, cessation: the absence or extinction of ill-being. This is good news. IT means ill-being can be transformed or removed. If you think that Buddhism says that everything is suffering and that we cannot do anything about it, that is the opposite of the Buddha’s message. The Buddha taught us to recognize and acknowledge the presence of ill-being, but we must not forget that he also taught the third noble truth, the possibility of the cessation of ill-being. If there is no possibility of cessation, what is the use of learning and practicing Buddhism? When a doctor diagnoses an illness she also tells us how to remove that illness. That healing is possible is the third truth, and it makes both the patient and the doctor happy.
The fourth noble truth is the path, magga: Right Views, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Just as the second noble truth is the origination of ill-being, the fourth noble truth is the origination of well-being.
To summarize: (1) This is dukkha, ill-being. (2) This is samudaya, the origination of ill-being. (3) This is nirodha, the cessation or annihilation of suffering. 4) This is magga, the path or way. It is important for us to understand the interbeing nature of the Four Noble Truths. To understand dukkha, we have to understand origination, cessation, and path. If we don’t know the three other truths, we don’t understand dukkha. In Buddhism, dukkha has a specific meaning that can be understood only when we also understand the truths of origination, cessation, and path.
When we look deeply into the nature of ill-being, we see origination. But we also see the cessation of ill-being and the path. In fact, we need ill-being in order to see the path. The origination of ill-being, the cessation of ill-being, and the path for the cessation of ill-being are all found in the heart of ill-being. If we are too afraid to confront ill-being, we cannot realize the path. Don’t try to run away from your ill-being. Make peace with it, touch it. The Buddha said, “The moment you understand the nature of your ill-being, the moment you know how your ill-being has come to be, you are already on the path of release from it.” (Samyutta Nikay 247) If you know what has come to be and how it has come to be, you are already on the way to emancipation.
We have to understand the language the Buddha used. Ill-being means the absence of well-being. When ill-being is there, well-being is not there. Cessation means the absence of ill-being, which is the presence of well-being. When night is no longer there, something else must be, and that is day. In the West, when you want to teach someone mathematics, you say, “I will teach you mathematics.” But in Asia we sometimes say, “I will remove the lack of knowledge of mathematics from you.” The meaning is the same, but the expression is different. In Buddhism, we always encounter language like that. So we have to understand that the presence of ill-being means the absence of well-being, and the absence of ill-being means the presence of well-being. If we prefer, instead of saying “cessation,” we can use the word well-being. They mean exactly the same thing.
There are two pairs of cause and effect – ill-being and its origination, and well-being and its origination. There is a path leading to ill-being and there is also a path leading to well-being. If well-being is there, if happiness is there, if you are able to smile and enjoy the here and the now, there must be causes for your well-being, for the origination of your well-being. The fourth noble truth, the path leading to well-being is called by the Buddha the Noble Eightfold Path. In Chinese and Vietnamese, we call it the Path of Eight Right Practices. This path leads to the cessation of ill-being and to the presence of well-being.
The second noble truth, origination, is also a path. We can call it the Ignoble Eightfold Path, or the Path of Eight Wrong Practices. So there are two pairs of cause and effect: (1) Ill-being and the path leading to ill-being, which the Buddha called origination (which we can also call the Ignoble Eightfold Path, or the Path of Eight Wrong Practices) and (2) the cessation of ill-being, namely the presence of well-being, and the path leading to it, which is called the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Path of Eight Right Practices.
To share the teaching of the Buddha with the people of our time, we should be able to translate it into the kind of language that even young people can easily understand. This is why we have retranslated the Five Wonderful Precepts, using language capable of conveying the meaning of the Buddha to the people of our time. Each era needs a new kind of language that can convey fresh insight and understanding. We cannot renew our tradition without insight, and when we have true insight, we need language that is appropriate to convey it. This has happened throughout the history of Buddhism.
In our practice, we learn the way to transform ill-being and bring about well-being. It is important for us to learn the Noble Eightfold Path and put it into practice in our daily lives. We have to penetrate the interbeing nature of the eight elements. Each element contains the other seven. We cannot understand one if we do not also understand all eight. In geometry, to define line we use the notion of point, and to define point we use the notion of line. A point is the intersection between two lines. A line is a point that moves. The Eightfold Path is the same. The first element of the path is Right View, but we cannot understand Right View if we don’t understand the other seven rights.
Right View means right understanding, insight, and wisdom, which are both the fruits of the practice and the base of the practice, the cause and effect. By practicing, we improve the quality of our views. In fact, if we continue to practice, we find out that all our views are wrong views. But we have to make the effort to have views that are relatively free from errors. We all have the seeds of Right View in us: seeds of understanding, awakening, and wisdom, but they may be buried deep in our store consciousness. Our parents may have treated us badly, as if we were not capable of anything. Instead of inspiring self-confidence in us, they gave us low self-esteem. Our teachers, friends, and society also may have only watered the seeds of our low self-esteem, saying we were stupid and good for nothing. The Buddha taught that each of us has in us the seeds of Buddhahood, the capacity of waking up and understanding the nature of reality. That see of understanding in us is the baby Buddha herself.
When we stand before another person, we can place our hands together to form a lotus flower, bow, and say, “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.” We can recognize and touch the seed of Buddhahood in that person. This is not just being polite. We really touch the seed of Buddhahood in the other person and help it grow. When we bow to a child in that way, we help her grow up beautifully, with self-confidence. If we allow the seed of Buddhahood in us to be watered, to be taken good care of, it will grow and flourish.
Right View has to do with perceptions. When we walk in the twilight, without a flashlight, we may perceive a piece of rope as a snake, and we might even scream. We suffer because of our fear, which is born from that wrong perception. The degree of Right View in us depends on our perceptions. That person has love for us. She really wishes us to be happy, but we don’t see it. We think she hates us and is trying to destroy our reputation. That person may be your mother, your lover, or your friend. It happens all the time. We are unable to see things clearly. We have wrong perceptions that prevent us from having Right View so our level of understanding and awakening is quite low.
In daily life, we have to look deeply at our perceptions and not believe so easily in them. We must always return to our perceptions and question whether we got it right or not. To do that, we have to practice mindfulness and concentration in daily life. Otherwise we might take this sound or that image in ways that are opposite of what they really are, of what was intended.
I know one young man who suffered terribly because of a wrong perception. His father had been away, and when he returned home, he learned that his wife was pregnant. His neighbor had been visiting regularly and been very helpful, and the father was sure that the child was not his but his neighbor’s, and this wrong perception settled in so deeply that he became icy and distant from his wife. She had no idea why he had become so cold, and she suffered a lot. And of course, the baby within her also suffered. All three of them suffered, as did other members of their family seeing them like that. One wrong perception made many people suffer for many years.
The child was born and grew in that atmosphere of suspicion and wrong perceptions. When he was twelve, his uncle, who was visiting, commented on how much the boy looked like his father and only then did the boy’s father accept him as a son. Much damage had been done in twelve years to the whole family, and now, many years later, the extent of the damage continues to reveal itself.
We have to be very careful about our perceptions. We may think that the other person hates us, and much suffering can come from just one wrong perception. The Buddha said that most of our suffering comes from wrong perceptions. That is why we have to listen and look carefully and avoid wrong perceptions as much as possible. We must always go to the person who said or did something and ask him if our perception was correct. We have to learn to see things more clearly in our daily lives and avoid wrong perceptions as much as possible. Our Right Views have very much to do with our perceptions.
Wrong Thinking also has to do with wrong perceptions and Wrong Views. Because all eight folds of the path are linked to each other, we cannot practice just one. To practice is to practice all eight. We have to remember the nature of interbeing of the eight elements of the path.
The poor father was so caught in his pride that he suffered enormously. Although he suspected that the child was not his, he did not have the courage to tell his wife. That is always a huge mistake. Don’t be so sure of your impressions. If you suspect something, go to the other person and ask. Pride has no place in true love. Do not let pride stand between you and that person. Always go to the other person and say, “I suffer. Please help me. Please tell me, why did you do that?” If you act like the father, you will cause suffering to yourself, to the one you love, and to many other people. The mantra I would like you to practice is, “Are you sure?” Are you sure of your perceptions? Don’t stick to that feeling, that perception, that belief, that impression. You will avoid a lot of suffering in the future if you are open to reexamine and explore each of your views.
In Buddhist literature, ditthi (Sanskrit: drsti, views) always means wrong views. Your view is from just one point. That is why it is called a point of view. If you go to another point, you will see other things. The first view was not complete and therefore not entirely a Right View. In the sutras the word “view” always means Wrong View. That is why we hear the expression, “All views are wrong views.” Our practice is to eliminate more and more the elements that are wrong from our views. If you have a view of something, be aware that if you look more deeply and practice more mindfulness, attention, and concentration, you will discover that the quality of your view can be improved.
Nuclear scientists have a view concerning electrons that they are pleased with, but they are careful. They continue to develop better accelerators, because they know that there is more to be discovered. They know that all views about the electrons are wrong views. We practitioners must do the same. We can never be sure of our views. Attachment to views is the greatest obstacle in the practice. We should be patient and careful, never too sure of our perceptions.
In each of us there is a river of perceptions flowing day and night. To meditate means to sit on the bank of the river and observe all perceptions. With the energy of mindfulness, we can see the nature of our perceptions and untie the knots that bind us to our wrong perceptions. All our suffering has its roots in our wrong perceptions, so please practice the mantra, “Are you sure?” Always refer to it, and try to look more and more deeply. Our views can be more or less wrong. When we have true understanding, we transcend all kinds of views, even our views of the Four Noble Truths. Looking deeply, we can appreciate the teaching of the Prajnaparamita: “no ill-being, no origination of ill-being, no cessation of ill-being, and no path.” It means we have to look again. Our view that the Buddha taught that life is suffering, that all existence is ill-being is not correct. If we practice the Ignoble Eightfold Path, ill-being will arise naturally, but if we practice the Noble Eightfold Path, our life will be filled with joy, ease and wonder. We will examine the other Right Practices later on.
This article on The Four Noble Truths is edited from a Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village in July 1994. It will be included in a book on Basic Buddhism, to be published by Parallax Press in 1995.
Photos: First photo by Tran Van Minh. Second photo by Lynn MacMichael. Third photo by Therese Fitzgerald.