Four Noble Truths Part 1

The First Noble Truth

The first noble truth is suffering.  In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha defines suffering as the following: “Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain grief, and despair are suffering,; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering–in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.”  As I mentioned in the last blog, I like to categorize suffering into three areas namely: physical, emotional, and spiritual.  The first two areas are obvious, the third is existential angst or a deep painful loneliness that can only be alleviated by spiritual awakening. I think when the Buddha says that the five aggregates of attachment are suffering he is including this spiritual suffering.

The Buddha described a human being as being composed of five aggregates or parts namely: form, sensation, perception, mental formation, and consciousness.  Form is the physical body composed of the four elements of earth, air, fire, water, and ether or prana (a subtle energy or life force).  Sensations are the physical sensations felt in the body caused by physical stimulus or emotions.  They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.  Perception in this context is not the act of perceiving with your senses but the cognitive act of recognizing something once it is experienced though your senses.  You experience something with your senses and your mind compares it with its memory and then assigns a label to it such as “chair” or “dad” or “anger” or “something new I haven’t seen before but it looks like this”.  Perception happens very quickly and is non-verbal.  Mental formation is the common translation for the Pali word “samkara” (samskara in Sanskrit).  It is also translated as “impression” and “volition”.  Desire, anger, sadness, fear, happiness, compassion, and peacefulness are all mental formations.  You hear something or see something or think of something and it causes a mental formation to manifest in your body and mind.  Consciousness is the experience that arises from the contact between a sense organ and a sense object.

In Theravada Buddhism there are six different consciousnesses namely: eye consciousness, ear consciousness, nose consciousness, tongue consciousness, body consciousness, and mind consciousness.  The mind is seen as another sense organ and its objects are thoughts and emotions.  As the Buddhist tradition developed over time two more consciousnesses were classified namely: the afflicted consciousness and store or ground consciousness.  Afflicted consciousness can be thought of as the ego, the experience of being a separate entity in time and space.  The store or ground consciousness is where all of the mental formations are stored, developed, and come out from.

So what did the Buddha mean when he said that the five aggregates of clinging are suffering?  This sounds on the face of it like a very extreme and negative statement.  It sounds like he is saying that just to be a human being is suffering itself.  Yes of course there is suffering in the world and for some people it is constant but for others there are times of contentment, pleasure, and happiness where no suffering is present.  So what does he mean?  In my opinion, I think what the Buddha is saying is that compared to enlightenment or spiritual realization, the experience of being a human being as we normally think of it is suffering.  In other words, the greatest worldly happiness a person can experience in this life pales in comparison to the happiness of enlightenment.  The greatest worldly safety and comfort we can secure in this life pales in comparison to the safety and comfort of enlightenment.  As I mentioned in the last blog, an enlightened person is someone who has awakened from their identification with conditioned reality and realized the unconditioned reality.  I think the experience of being these five aggregates is another way of saying identification with conditioned reality and therefore it is suffering when compared with realizing the unconditioned reality.  This is not to say however that we should look upon conditioned reality with contempt.  It is considered very fortunate in the buddhist tradition to be born a human being because it is in a human body that we can become enlightened and, as we shall see in the second noble truth, it is in overcoming our craving and aversion towards conditioned reality that we can awaken from our identification with it.  So it is not to inspire contempt that the Buddha is pointing out the first noble truth but to broaden our horizon of what is possible.

The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this suffering as a noble truth should be understood.  Practically speaking that means recognizing the different forms of suffering when they manifest in our daily lives and being with them, not turning away from it or reacting to it but looking directly at it.  I will talk more about this in terms of daily practice when I get to the fourth noble truth which is the eight fold path.  When suffering has been understood at the deepest level that is enlightenment.  This is why the Buddha said that when you understand one noble truth completely you understand them all.  They inter-are.

The Second Noble Truth

The second noble truth is the cause of suffering which is craving.  In the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra the Buddha says: “it is this thirst (craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed.  It finds fresh delight now here and now there, namely thirst for sense-pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for non-existence (self-annihilation).”  In other teachings the Buddha groups craving with ignorance and aversion as one of three poisons which keep us bound to the wheel of birth and death.  Aversion is in a sense another form of craving, it is wanting to get rid of something instead of wanting to attain something.  Ignorance of our true nature is what provides the ground for the craving and aversion to arise.  In his teaching on the 12 links of interdependent origination the Buddha describes in depth the second noble truth so I will go into that now.

The 12 Links of Interdependent Origination

The twelve links are:

1. Avija   2. Samkara   3. Vinnana   4. Namarupa   5. Salayatana  6. Phassa

7. Vedana   8. Tanha   9. Upadana   10.Bhava   11. Jati   12. Dukha

Avija is ignorance, samkara is mental formation and in this case volition, vinnana is consciousness and in this case re-linking consciousness, namarupa is the body-mind, salayatana are the sense bases, phassa is contact, vedana is senation, tanha is craving, upadana is grasping, bhava is becoming, jati is birth, and dukha is suffering.  In your past life at the time of death, because you were ignorant (1st link) of your true nature the volition (2nd link) to survive and become something propelled you into your present lifetime through the relinking consciousness (3rd link).  This gave rise to the body-mind (4th link) which gave rise to the sense bases (5th link) which gave rise to contact (6th link) with the outside world.  This contact causes sensations (7th link) to arise which gives rise to craving (8th link) which you act on by grasping (9th link) which sews new seeds of karma in this lifetime and builds your karmic momentum until when you die there will again be the craving to exist which you will grasp causing you to become (10 link) your new form in your next birth (11 link) and then you will have to endure the suffering (12 link) that is inherent in conditioned reality.

So the 12 links can be seen as a description of the process of birth and death over three lifetimes and the engine that runs it.  Different names are given for the different links depending on the past, present, or future lifetime being talked about but actually some of the links are different names for the same thing and some of the links are not re-named but are implied in other places of the chain.  The 2nd link is volition and the 8th link is craving.  Both are volition and both are craving.  The 3rd link is re-linking consciousness and the 10th link is becoming.  Both are the bridge consciousness between one life and the next.  The 4th link is body-mind and the 11th link is birth, both are describing the manifestation of a new body mind.  The 1st link, ignorance, is implied between the 7th link of sensations and the 8th link of craving.  There are further implications that can be made but I will not go on for the sake of brevity.

So the link of craving is just one link in this chain and yet the Buddha states in the second noble truth that craving is the cause of suffering.  Why did he single out this link?  He said that craving, a volition, and the subsequent action of grasping is where the seed of karma gets sewn and it is here that a person can make a difference in the course of his our her life.  Ignorance of our true nature is just as much a cause of this cycle of birth and death as craving but we can not willingly dispel our ignorance while we can exercise a certain amount of control over our craving and the subsequent action.  When we identify with and act on craving and aversion we further entrench our identification with conditioned reality and therefore increase our ignorance of our true nature.  On the other hand, when we experience pleasant or unpleasant sensations and do not identify with or act on the subsequent craving or aversion we weaken our identification with conditioned reality and therefore decrease our ignorance of our true nature.  That is why the Buddha said it is the space between sensations and craving where we can drive the axe and break the chain.  The other links of the chain are pretty much foregone conclusions that happen without our control.  So craving, and aversion which again is another form of craving, is the active cause of suffering.  The suffering of identifying with conditioned reality and the inherent pain that comes with that on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.

Now what if you don’t believe in rebirth?  I personally have never had a memory of my past lives but I am favorably disposed to the theory of rebirth being true because so many other things the Buddha and other realized masters have taught have rung true in my life.  However, even if you are skeptical of the idea of rebirth you can look at these teachings on the 12 links in the context of your present life.  Say for example you are at work and somebody speaks harshly to you (6th link contact).  This causes unpleasant sensations to arise in you (7th link sensations).  This causes anger in you and the desire to yell at the person (8th link craving).  You act on the craving and yell at the person (9th link grasping).  Once you decided to act and started yelling you sewed a karmic seed and set the wheel in motion of becoming (10th link becoming) an angry person and so you then were “re-born” (11th link birth)  as an angry person and then you had to and will have to suffer (12th link suffering) the consequences of your actions.   Now take the same story and play it a different way.  You experience the unpleasant sensations and notice the anger and desire to yell come up but instead identifying with that and acting on it you keep your cool and just stay with the sensations letting yourself cool off.  Then you act in a way that resolves the situation in a good way for all involved.  You have still been reborn but this time it is as a happy person with less ignorance of your true nature.  It is these mechanics of sensation, volition, and action that are the essence of karma and the process of increasing or decreasing our identification with conditioned reality.  That is why the Buddha said that when you really start to see the 12 links in your life you start to see the Dharma or the Truth.

The Buddha goes on to say in the “Turning of the Wheel of Dharma” sutra that this craving which is the cause of suffering should be abandoned.  Practically speaking this means that we have to cultivate the capacity to be with pleasant and unpleasant sensations and not react to them out of craving and aversion but be present with them and act out of wisdom and compassion.  The complete abandonment of craving at its deepest level is enlightenment or nirvana.  Nirvana means the extinguishing of the flame of craving.  I will talk about how we practice the abandonment of our every day craving and aversion which leads to the great abandonment when I discuss the 8 fold path.




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John Freese

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The three marks of conditioned reality

The Buddha taught that conditioned reality has three characteristics: anicca, dukha, and anatta.  Conditioned reality includes the six senses of eye, ear nose, tongue, body, and mind and the world experienced through them.  Anicca is the Pali word for impermanence.  In conditioned reality everything is always changing, nothing stays the same.  The cells of our bodies are constantly being born and dying as we go from being a baby to an adult to an old person to death. Our thoughts and emotions are alway changing, one day we are happy, the next day we are sad, one minute we are thinking about this, the next minute we are thinking about that. Our physical health and material wealth are always changing.  The world around us is always changing as it moves from day to night, month to month, season to season.  Our relationships change, the weather changes, plants animals and humans are born and die, civilizations come and go, species come and go, even the earth and the sun manifested at one point and will disintegrate at one point. So nothing in conditioned reality is permanent.

Dukha is the Pali word that is normally translated as suffering but it also means the inability to satisfy.  In conditioned reality we experience physical pain and disease, emotional pain, and spiritual pain.  For many people it is a struggle just to survive.  For others they may be materially secure but they are not happy in their family, relationships, career etc… Some people may be content with their family, job and relationships but they still feel unfulfilled deep down, they feel that something is missing, perhaps even an existential angst.  Some people may be overall content and free from worry but no matter how good we have it we will one day have to let go and therefore even the things in conditioned reality that bring us happiness contain within them the seeds of suffering.  This is why the Buddha taught that conditioned reality is not able to permanently satisfy us and therefore has the characteristic of dukha.  He said that the only thing that can bring us permanent happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment is spiritual realization.

Anatta is the Pali word for non-self.  A human being who is not realized (which is the vast vast majority of us) identifies with his or her body and mind as who he or she is.  The Buddha said though that our body and mind are not who we are.  Mind here includes the five sense consciousnesses of eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body, the mind consciousness which perceives thought and emotion, and the ego or the sense of being a distinct individual entity in time and space.  The Buddha said that all of these things are impermanent and subject to birth and death, they are part of conditioned reality and are not self.

In contrast to conditioned reality the Buddha spoke of unconditioned reality.  He said if it were not for the unconditioned there would be no liberation from the conditioned.  The Buddha (whose name literally means “awakened one”) is somebody who woke up from his identification with conditioned reality and realized his true nature which is the unconditioned reality.  He said that our identification with conditioned reality is like a man seeing a rope on the ground and mistakenly seeing it as a snake.  He said that realizing the unconditioned reality is like the the man seeing the rope as it really is and realizing that there never was a snake in the first place.  In other words, based on our ignorance we mistakenly identify with our body and mind as who we are and we experience ourself as a separate entity in a world around us.  Upon awakening to our true nature this ignorance is destroyed.  The Buddha often referred to himself as the Tathagata which means “one coming from suchness”.  This suchness is our true nature, the ground of being.  As I understand it, conditioned reality manifests from and consists of suchness. The subject and object of awareness both manifest from the same ground and when a person realizes this fully then there is no more duality, no more experience of being a separate self in time and space, no more suffering.

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Meditation Instructions

Sit in an upright and comfortable posture.  If you are sitting on a cushion on the floor sit on the front 1/3 of your cushion so that your pelvis can tilt forward.  This will support your lower spine and free your abdomen to breathe more easily.  Ideally both knees are on the ground giving you three points of contact, your two knees and your sits bones.  If your knees don’t touch the ground you can put some cushions underneath to support them.  Another option is to use a meditation bench.  If sitting on the floor does not work for you you can put a cushion on a chair and sit on the front 1/3 of the cushion.  It also helps to roll up a towel and put it under the back legs of the chair to give your pelvis a little more forward tilt.  Whether you are sitting on the floor or in a chair, your hands can be resting on your thighs or in your lap, the main thing is that there is a straight vertical line from your shoulders to your elbows so that your back is not strained.  Your eyes can be closed or half open which ever is more comfortable for you.  Once you have settled in your posture then begin getting in touch with your breath.

Open up to the experience of your breath, the natural rhythm of the in breath and the out breath.  You can imagine you are at the beach watching the waves of the ocean come in and out.  Become aware of the beginning middle and end of the in breath, a slight pause, the beginning middle and end of the out breath, a slight pause, and the beginning of the cycle again.  Don’t try and control the breath in any way, just let it be natural.

To help the mind be more focused you can bring your attention to a point about two inches below the navel and about two inches inside.  In Japanese Zen this point is called the Hara.  It is a natural place to be aware of the rhythm of the breath.  You can feel the movement of the breath initiated here.  Also by focusing here chi or prana is generated in the body helping the body and mind be more energized and clear.  Open up to the sensations you experience here while breathing in and out.

To help the mind keep from wandering off you can practice counting the exhalations as you focus on the hara.  As you breathe out count silently to yourself “one”.  On the next exhale count “two”, the next one count “three”, keep going until you get to ten.  When you get to ten then begin again at one.  As you say the number in your mind let the sound travel the entire length of the exhalation i.e. “oooooooonnnnne” “twoooooooooooo” “threeeeeeeeeeee”.  Count in a very gentle and relaxed way.  Your effort should be gentle yet persistent.  If at some point you lose your count then begin again at one.

As you sit you will experience physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, sounds, etc… coming and going.  Just let these things come and go naturally.  Don’t try and control them or block them.  The point is just to be aware of what is going on without reacting to it.  If you notice that you got carried away just gently come back to hara and counting your exhalations.  If you feel pain in your body but it is not too bad then just let it be there.  If it becomes uncomfortable then change your posture to a more comfortable one.  If at some point you get tired of counting the breath then just take a break for a few breaths and then start again.

At a certain point in your practice you may start to experience a stillness or silence, a sense of presence and clarity.  It may be that the effort of counting the breath actually gets in the way of experiencing this stillness.  Thoughts may still be coming and going but you find focusing on the breath more disturbing than the thoughts.  If this happens then let go of the breath and just rest in open awareness.  If at some point your mind starts getting pulled away too much then come back to the breath.  In other words use the technique of counting the breath as long as it is helpful for you to stabilize the mind and let go of the technique when it is no longer helpful.

Another technique that may be helpful is that when you start to experience the silence or stillness, gently point your mind towards what you experience as the source of that stillness of silence.  Again use this technique as long as it helps and let go when it gets in the way.

It is good to sit 30 minutes a day at a regular time when your stomach is not full.  After sitting you may like to do walking meditation for 5 or 10 minutes.  As you breathe in step with your left foot and as you breathe out step with you right foot.  Pay attention to your feet touching the ground and the breath coming in and going out.  You can say the word “in” as you breathe in and “out” as you breathe out.

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Golf in Taos and Road Home

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Played a cosmic round of golf Thursday in Taos with my new 70 year old friend John Wells. Camped in Copper Breaks State Park near Quanah TX last night. No moon but the stars were so bright I could walk around without a flashlight.

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Retreat and Wheeler Peak Hike

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Just finished a 5 day silent retreat. Then I hiked up Wheeler Peak yesterday. Here was the retreat schedule:

  • 5am wake up
  • 530 sitting, walking meditation, chanting
  • 7 breakfast
  • 8 work: chopping and stacking firewood
  • 930 break
  • 10 sitting
  • 11 yoga
  • 1230 lunch
  • 130 rest
  • 330 sitting in forest
  • 430 discussion
  • 630 dinner
  • 745 sitting
  • 845 rest
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Upper Valley in Red River

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