The Four Noble Truths provide the fundamental framework of Buddhist psychology. A traditional medical model describing the symptom, etiology, prognosis and treatment for suffering, the Four Noble Truths are presented in two causally linked dyads: 1) suffering and its causes; 2) freedom and it causes. The significance of this teaching is that by studying, reflecting and realizing its meaning, one obtains everything one needs to become free and happy.
Suffering is to be understood
The Cause is to be abandoned
Freedom is to be realized
The Path is be cultivated
I. Truth of Suffering
A. Ordinary Suffering
B. The Suffering of Change
C. The Suffering of Conditioning/Habit
II. Truth of the Origin
III. Truth of Cessation
A. Complete freedom is possible
B. Suffering is created by mind, thus Freedom is created by mind
C. Learning and personal effort are the conditions of freedom
IV. Truth of the Path
A. Three Higher Trainings
B. Three Types of Learning
C. Three Sources of Learning
I. First Noble Truth: Suffering
The unconscious or unawakened life leads to unavoidable suffering and dissatisfaction. The nature of suffering is threefold:
A . Ordinary Suffering: Birth, illness, old-age and death, separation from loved ones, having to be with difficult ones, and the loss of objects of desire are unavoidable and painful.
B. Suffering of Change: All things are impermanent, temporary and fleeting. Even people and experiences that provide some measure of happiness eventually become the source of suffering because they do not last.
C. Suffering of Conditioning: The five-fold mind/body life-systems (body, sensations, perceptions, intentions, and consciousness) that constitute the appearance of “self” are conditioned by disturbing emotions (kleshas) and compulsive habits (karma). This is consistent with current stress research that suggests that our mind/body process has evolutionarily (genetically and biologically) been conditioned or determined by fight-flight reactivity. In other words, stress and suffering are somehow “embedded” in our psycho-biology if left as is.
II. Second Noble Truth: Cause of Suffering
Buddhist psychology is based upon a rational and empirical science of causality and avoids two extremes of theism (the belief that a God figure or external presence determines our life and events) and materialisms (the belief that things are random and without causal determinants). Buddhism asserts that one’s current experience of suffering or happiness is the direct result of one’s previous actions (karma) conditioned by disturbing emotions (klesha) or virtues (paramitas) respectively.
There are Three Causes of suffering (two secondary and one primary):
A. Desire/attachment: The untrained, unconscious mind compulsively pursues pleasure in objects, experiences and people outside of the self, unaware of their impermanent nature. Desire is due to a perceptual exaggeration of the positive qualities of an object, while attachment is the inability to let them go.
B. Aversion/Avoidance/Anger: The untrained, unconscious mind compulsively avoids, rejects or resists unpleasant objects, experience and people, unaware of the causal process of their arising. A desire thwarted, lost or unattained leads to disappointment and anger. Anger is due to a perceptual exaggeration of the negative qualities of an object.
C. Delusion/misperception: The primary root cause of the other two secondary causes is our habitual state of unawareness, which erroneously perceives reality. When we are unaware of the salient characteristics of reality (ie. emptiness/interdependence, impermanence, and suffering) we cannot accurately respond to our situation. At the heart of our desirous attachment and aggressive avoidance is the incorrect belief that a self within us and things exists as an intrinsically real, separate, independent, fixed and permanent entity. This is our fundamental misperception. Because of the minds instinctive tendency to reify (making something real that it not) the self, we become self-centered, preoccupied with gratifying the self, and hostile about protecting the self.
C.2. Three Characteristics of Self and Phenomenon:
1) Emptiness or No Self: There is no intrinsically real, unrelated, enduring, separate, autonomous self within us or things. This does not mean that no self exists at all, as is asserted in nihilism. Our self and objects do exist in an interrelated, interdependent, constantly changing matrix based on causes and conditions. According to Buddhism nothing exists absolutely; everything is relative and interdependent. Things that are fixed or absolute by definition cannot be related to, as they theoretically lay outside the causal matrix of interdependence. The flip side of emptiness is that because all things lack intrinsic reality or a fixed self, they can be related to, and can change. We could not learn, grow and change if we were really as fixed as we unconsciously believe ourselves to be. When you hear “all things are empty” this does not mean they don’t exist, it simply means they are empty of inherently existing from their own side. Ultimately, the “self” is a mere consensus designation of language, falsely reified and superimposed over a causal arising of interdependent phenomenon or parts, themselves lacking any inherent, intrinsic reality.
2) Impermanence: Because things are empty and lack inherent autonomy/existence they are impermanent and non lasting. The molecules and sub-particles that comprise things and the sub-processes that constitute the life systems are empty of any lasting core, thus come into being, persist for some time and eventually decay. Change, the flow of life and the passing of time is contingent upon emptiness.
3) Suffering: Because things lack inherent existence (emptiness) they are subject to change and do not endure (impermanence). As a result of this constant change process (birth, death and rebirth) some measure of suffering is unavoidable. It is the price of being part of an open interdependent system. Some amount of pain is built into the fabric of existence because it is not static, rather an open system. The question is how much extra suffering do we create by misperceiving, attaching and avoiding this natural process. As they say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Other sources consider the third characteristic to be Freedom. Phenomenon are impermanent because they lack an essential essence, and because they lack any essential essence their nature is "free" to learn, grow and change. The most fundemntal characteristic of mind is its potential for enlightenment or complete freedom.
III. The Third Noble Truth: Freedom
It is possible for a human being to be completely free of the causes of suffering. The word Buddha means “Awakened”, and represents the full flowering or peak potential of a human being. The word freedom means “free from something” as in “sugar free” and “caffeine free”. There are two things an awakened person is free from: afflictive emotions (kleshas) such as greed, hatred, delusion, pride, envy, jealousy etc; and compulsive habits/actions (karma). Nirvana means to cease, to end. What ends for the awakened mind are the emotional afflictions and the compulsive habit actions that emerge from the afflictions.
Habits here are threefold and include any action of body (behavior), speech (words) and mind (thoughts) that are done with unawareness or inattention. Karmic results and consequences are determined by one’s intentions and actions. Good karma is the result of actions of body speech and mind done with a positive mental state, realistic perception and altruistic intention, while bad karma results from actions committed under a negative mental state, unrealistic misperception of self and reality and self-centered intention. Since current intentions are so vital in producing future outcome and experience, in Buddhist psychology a premium is place on decreasing afflictive emotions that obscure pure perception of reality in order to create wholesome actions.
Since the causes of suffering lie within the mind through afflictive emotions, unconscious habits and misperceptions, than freedom also lies with in the mind, through sublime emotions, conscious and altruistic habits each based on accurate perception of self and reality.
The Third Noble Truth asserts a generous and optimistic view of the mind and its potential. In order to say that all minds can eventually become free, it is understood that an innate inborn potential for freedom is already present, albeit obscured by misperception, habit and afflictions. The path of Buddhist psychology becomes the process of removing the delusion, bringing the cessation of actions and afflictions, and consciously developing virtues (paramitas) such as generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom that will lead the mind to full awakening. The fully developed or awakened mind is characterized as infinitely “clear and knowing”.
IV. The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to Freedom
The Path to freedom entails Three Higher Educations, Three Types of Learning, and Three Sources of Learning.
Three Higher Trainings:
1. Ethics or Virtue:
Right Actions, Speech, and Livelihood
2. Mental Discipline:
Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration
Right View of reality and Intention
Three Types of Learning:
1. Wisdom born of “hearing” includes listening to, reading about and studying the Dharma using one’s intellect.
2. Wisdom born of “reflection” takes the concepts one has studied and applies critical reasoning, reflection, discussion and debate in order to come to a more correct and intuitive understanding.
3. Wisdom born of “meditation” takes ones intuitive understanding and applies it in an analytic meditation in order to come to an experiential insight.
Here meditative learning is just one aspect of the contemplative path. Ideally we should not overemphasize meditation practice to the exclusion of studying correctly and reflecting accurately about contemplative principals. Time for studying and discussing is as important as time on the cushion.
Three Sources of Learning (aka Triple Refuge):
1. Teachers. The Buddha or one’s mentor. The source of knowledge acquisition in the Buddhist tradition comes through a long lineage of masters that trace their origin directly back to Shakyamuni Buddha. Role modeling is essential, as knowledge is passed directly from mentor to student.
2. The Teachings and Methods. In order to develop along the contemplative path one not only needs a teacher, but also the precise science, methodologies and art to practice for one self.
3. The Community. Those that value and uphold the Teachings and Methods. Because contemplative learning is largely counter intuitive and counter cultural, strength and support is often found in numbers.