Notes from Geshe Jampa Tegchok's Book: Transforming Adversity into Joy and Courage

On the path of the middle-level practitioner, we look deeply into our present state as well as into our potential, as expressed in the four noble truths (4NTs).

  • Understanding the 4NTs, the determination to be free from cyclic existence and to attain liberation will arise and grow in our mind.
  • This gives us the confidence that, through practicing the Buddha’s path, we can arrive at a state of lasting happiness.

Verse 9 of The 37 Practices of Bodhisattvas deals with the entire practice of the middle-level practitioner, the essence of which is the four noble truths:

Like dew on the tip of a blade of grass, pleasures of the three worlds
Last only a while and then vanish.
Aspire to the never-changing
Supreme state of liberation—
This is the practice of Bodhisattvas.

The "three worlds" are the three realms of cyclic existence:

  • The desire realm consists of celestial gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hellish beings. These beings all desire the objects of the five senses—pleasing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects—from which they derive some sense of happiness.
  • The beings in the form realm have subtle bodies.
  • The beings in the formless realm have only the four mental aggregates, i.e., no bodies.
  • Even though these gods experience the ecstasy of the form and formless concentrations, all instances of happiness in the three realms are contaminated in that they are under the control of ignorance and the other disturbing attitudes.
  • In this way, they are like a dew drop—they don’t last long and are not to be trusted in terms of providing lasting happiness.
    • Therefore, there’s no point in being attached to them or in putting much effort into gaining them.
    • Instead, put effort into attaining the unchangeable, supreme bliss of liberation and enlightenment.

The Importance of Understanding the Four Noble Truths

The 4NTs are:

  • The truth of unsatisfactoriness or suffering
  • The truth of its origin
  • The truth of its cessation
  • The truth of the path to its cessation

These truths are called noble because they are four topics understood to be true by the noble ones (aryas) who have directly realized reality.

Why is it important to meditate on the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence?

  • Attaining enlightenment requires effort.
  • In order to create the causes for enlightenment, we must first generate the altruistic intention to seek enlightenment in order to benefit all living beings.
  • To do that, we must develop compassion, i.e., concern about the suffering of others.
  • We can only develop compassion if we clearly recognize and have concern for our own suffering, so that we are determined to be free from cyclic existence and attain liberation.
  • To generate this renunciation, we need to understand the disadvantages of cyclic existence and the advantages of liberation.
    • If we don’t see the disadvantages of cyclic existence, we won’t wish to be free from it.
    • If we don’t wish this for ourselves, how can we wish it for all sentient beings?

There are two methods to see the unsatisfactoriness of cyclic existence: contemplating the 4NTs and contemplating the 12 links. We focus here on the 4NTs.

  • The first two NTs are one pair of cause and effect—true suffering and true origin—and show how we wander in cyclic existence.
  • The last two NTs are another pair of cause and effect—true cessation and true path—showing how we can leave cyclic existence.
  • By understanding the 4NTs, we will know what is to be practiced and abandoned in order to attain liberation, and how to do this.
  • The Buddha taught the 4NTs out of his compassion for all sentient beings, wishing for them to have lasting happiness.
  • The 4NTs should be contemplated over a long time, as they contain everything we need to know about what to practice and what to abandon on the path.

The Four Noble Truths in Brief

In the first NT, the truth of suffering, suffering does not refer only to overt pain, but also to the unsatisfactory nature of cyclic existence. We come to understand suffering by contemplating the three, six, and eight sufferings.

True sufferings are the result of our disturbing attitudes and karma, which are the second NT, the true origin or cause of suffering.

  • The root of all the disturbing attitudes is the misapprehension of a self, i.e., self-grasping ignorance.
  • Based on this ignorance, the root and auxiliary disturbing attitudes arise.
  • These, in turn, motivate our actions, or karma, which bring about all the unsatisfactory (and often painful) experiences we undergo in cyclic existence.

Thus, by meditating on true suffering and true origin (1st and 2nd NTs), we develop distress at being in cyclic existence and wish for liberation.

The third NT, true cessation, is the state of having been liberated from disturbing attitudes and karma. This state is called liberation or nirvana.

We must practice the fourth NT, the path, in order to eliminate disturbing attitudes and karma. The path can be described in terms of either:

  • The three higher trainings
    • Ethical discipline—Refers mainly to abandoning the ten negative actions
    • Meditative stabilization—Makes our mind more powerful and able to stay firmly on a virtuous object; an afflicted state of mind cannot arise at the same time as a virtuous state of mind
    • Wisdom—In dependence upon the above two methods, wisdom cuts the very root (cause) of cyclic existence, the apprehension of a truly existing self.
      • By cutting this, suffering and its causes are destroyed and true cessation is attained.
      • True cessation is brought about in dependence upon wisdom, specifically the uncontaminated wisdom realizing selflessness.
  • Method and wisdom
    • Method refers to practices we do to accumulate positive potential.
    • The two higher trainings in ethical discipline and meditative stabilization are the method side of the path.
    • Wisdom refers to practices which directly cut the root of cyclic existence.
    • The higher training in wisdom is the wisdom side of the path and is the actual antidote to the disturbing attitudes.
    • To cut through the disturbing attitudes and karma and eliminate them forever from our mindstream, we need to generate an uncontaminated path (one which is not conjoined with the disturbing attitudes). Wisdom is just that.

Note: The liberation aimed for by the Bodhisattvas is more than a cessation of the disturbing attitudes and karma.

  • It’s also the extinguishment of all stains of the disturbing attitudes.
  • The stains of dual appearance are left on the mind even after the disturbing attitudes themselves have ceased.
  • These stains are the obscurations to omniscience; once a Bodhisattva eliminates these, s/he attains full enlightenment, i.e., non-abiding nirvana (abiding neither in cyclic existence nor in the complacent peace of personal liberation).

The Order of the Four Noble Truths

Sometimes the 4NTs are taught in a different order, e.g., the two causes—origin and path—are explained before their respective results—suffering and cessation.

  • This is the order in which they actually occur, i.e., cause followed by effect.
  • However, in general, the order of explanation is: true suffering, true origin, true cessation, and true path.
  • The Buddha followed this sequence in his teaching because it’s very important to recognize true suffering at the beginning.

Regarding meditation:

  • We do analytical meditation to understand the various unsatisfactory conditions or sufferings of cyclic existence (1NT).
    • When we gain an experience of them, we then place our mind firmly on that experience using stabilizing meditation.
    • The more we meditate on suffering, the more we are motivated to end it.
  • To end suffering, we’ll want to find out its causes so we can stop creating them (2NT).
    • So after contemplating true suffering, we contemplate true origin.
    • We’ll see that suffering arises from karma, which is produced in dependence on the disturbing attitudes, which are rooted in self-grasping ignorance.
    • We’ll see that self-grasping ignorance can be eliminated because it is a misconception.
  • Thus we become certain that we can attain the true cessation of suffering and its origin (3NT).
  • We will recognize that the way to abandon self-grasping ignorance is to meditate on the true path (4NT), since this path is principally the wisdom realizing the non-existence of the self that is adhered to by ignorance.

This is the order in which the 4NTs unfold in meditation and thus is the order in which to practice them.

Notes from Venerable Thubten Chodron's Talks about the Third Noble Truth

Obstructions to Clear and Knowing Mind

The third noble truth is true cessations, which is the eradication of the defilements and their seeds in such a way that they can never return again.

  • This brings up the whole question, "Is it possible to attain liberation, to cease the afflictions?"
  • If it is possible, then what we’re doing has meaning and purpose.
  • The Buddha said it is possible, and the great sages have explained why.

We start by seeing that the basic nature of the mind is that it’s clear (able to reflect objects, formless) and knowing (it can be aware of and engage with objects).

  • So why doesn’t our mind know everything if it has that nature?
  • There are many things that can obstruct us from knowing:
    • physical obstructions (e.g., walls keep us from seeing what’s on the other side of the wall)
    • distance obstructions (we can only see so far)
    • defects in the sense powers (eyes, ears, human brains, etc.)
    • the obscurations on our mind due to our ignorance and negative karma, afflictions, seeds of afflictions, etc.
    • Though the mind has the ability, the possibility, to perceive clearly, it’s limited; it’s like a mirror that has dirt on it.
  • So the next question comes, "Can these obscurations be eliminated?"
    • The nature of the mind is pure.
    • The afflictions themselves are adventitious, i.e., they are temporary.

Conventional and Clear Light Mind

There are reasons why the afflictions can be eliminated.

  • The nature of the mind is pure.
    • We can see this by the fact that the afflictions are not always present in the mind. If the nature of the mind were afflicted, then the afflictions would be there constantly.
    • Our own experience shows us that anger, e.g., arises and fades away.
  • The "clear light" nature of the mind has two meanings.
    • The clear, knowing nature of the mind, the conventional nature of the mind
    • This conventional nature of the mind is neutral, i.e., neither virtuous nor non-virtuous; however, it can be transformed into virtue (e.g., by realizing emptiness).

Cleansing the Mind of Ignorance

The other reason why the afflictions can be eliminated is that they are adventitious.

  • They’re only there because something is sustaining them temporarily.
  • What’s sustaining them is ignorance.
  • The reason that the afflictions can be eliminated is because the object that ignorance apprehends—true existence—does not exist.
    • When we generate the wisdom that sees that true existence does not exist, then ignorance can’t last.
    • The wisdom is perceiving the opposite of what ignorance perceived.
    • Because wisdom is perceiving reality, and ignorance is not, wisdom can overpower the ignorance.
    • When wisdom overpowers ignorance, there is no appearance of true or inherent existence at all.
    • As you meditate over and over, you are able to use the wisdom to cleanse the mind of both the seed of ignorance and the ignorance, completely, as well as the predisposition or latency of ignorance.
    • So all those things can be cleansed from the mind through the wisdom that sees things as they are.
    • Wisdom cannot get rid of our good or virtuous qualities, because these aren’t based on ignorance.
    • The afflictions—attachment, anger, jealousy, fear, anxiety, clinging, craving, etc.—can’t exist without ignorance.