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Buddhism 101: The Four Noble Truths
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Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
September 13, 2015 - Dallas, Texas

So in Vietnamese Buddhism, which is one of my favorite forms, because it is a very open-hearted and open-minded approach, there are three main schools of Buddhism in Vietnam: the Zen tradition, the Theravada tradition, which teaches Vipassana and metta, and also the Pure Land tradition, which is very heartful and emotional, and they emphasize chanting Amitabha's name to evoke that infinite light quality within ourselves. There's also a small fourth tradition in Vietnam, which is the esoteric tradition which emphasizes the use of rituals and mantras and secret teachings.

So anyway, you can see in Vietnamese Buddhism a little bit of everything, but in our tradition with Thich Nhat Hanh, the emphasis is much more on Zen and mindfulness, so the other aspects of the lineage are also in here, and you can feel it, like especially the Pure Land approach of the heartfulness. You can feel that energy in Thich Nhat Hanh's approach.

So, before I begin on teaching on the Four Noble Truths, I just want to share very briefly with you our main energy centers. I really like this teaching, because I see the trinity in everything now, and especially in our own teachings of Buddhism, but also in our own body. So you have your lower energy center that is connecting us to the earth and the physical aspect of life, the heart energy center that connects us to our humanity and our emotionality and our human nature, and then our upper energy center, which connects to our higher mind and spiritual aspects and to the cosmos and to the spiritual realms.

So, in Mahayana Buddhist teachings, we believe that Buddha nature is everywhere and is in everything that we see and everyone that we know is a manifestation of Buddha nature, so everything is Buddha nature and everyone is the manifestation of Buddha nature. But we are like baby Buddhas that don't quite know that we are Buddhas, so we are awakening to that as we progress and grow and cultivate our spiritual practice. Someone 2,600 years ago fully woke up to the reality of Buddha nature, of who he really is, and so they called him Buddha because of that. But all beings have the potential to become enlightened and be called Buddha in a sense.

And over the centuries, people have visualized artistically and in various ways different Buddhas and bodhisattvas to express all the qualities of Buddha nature. All of these qualities are also in the Buddha of 2,600 years ago, and there also qualities within each and every one of us. I have divided all of these qualities into three. So there is the quality of wisdom, the quality of love, and the quality of true spiritual power or skillful means. And that is why Amitabha has three meanings: infinite light of wisdom, infinite love of the heart, and infinite life of our true spiritual power and skillful means.

So, there is only one historical Buddha that we know of, yet all of us have the potential to express and manifest that Buddha nature, and various archetypes have been developed within Buddhism to symbolize these various qualities of Buddha nature that were also expressed in the Buddha of 2,600 years ago and can be manifest in us. So my three favorites are Amitabha, Quan Yin—also known as Avalokiteshvara—and Medicine Buddha, or the Buddha of healing.

So these three Buddha/bodhisattva archetypes are not necessarily historical persons, but they become historical through people in history who embody these qualities of infinite light, infinite love, infinite life, and they remind us that there are these very wonderful qualities that are meant to be expressed and manifested in the world. It reminds us that enlightenment is not about escaping suffering and blissing out in nirvana, but that true enlightenment, full enlightenment, is once you awaken, you also serve, and you serve by shining infinite wisdom for people, helping them to understand the truth. You radiate love, and you also serve and help in their practical realities, such as a need for shelter, healing, friendship, whatever.

So these three convey—and these are the most popular archetypes in Buddhism. There are many, many others, many of these Buddhas and bodhisattvas that express various combinations of these energies, but I like to simplify things for people, so I have broken it down into these three major archetypes. Amitabha to remind us of the infinite light and wisdom, Quan Yin, the enlightened heart of love, and Medicine Buddha, to remind us of the infinite light of the true power and true healing and true service to all beings. So, that is my understanding of it. Of course, you don't have to take my word for it, but that is just how I see it after all these years of practice.

Julie: ChiSing, may I ask a question?

ChiSing: Yes.

Julie: So, speaking about all of these Buddhas that we have a vision of or a representation of that you say are not historic, when we do the mindfulness training ceremony, many of them are named. So only the Siddhartha Gautama, the Shakyamuni Buddha, was historical. These others—Ksitigarbha and all that—embody qualities but didn't ever actually walk on earth that we know of?

ChiSing: Some of them may have actually been historical, but we don't really know. But that is not what is important in this kind of practice. What is important is that we recognize these qualities and we can see them in others and in ourselves. And when we actually see them in others and ourselves, they become historical, don't they?

Julie: Right. Right.

ChiSing: We are the ones who historicize all of human nature here and now. Thanks for the question. So, I want to get into my topic now, but before I do, this is something I shared a few weeks ago. Here is the earth realm, and surrounding all realms is the realm of our true nature, Buddha nature. That is always holding us. And whatever realm we are in, whether we are in a realm of enlightenment or a realm of delusion or a realm of happiness or a realm of suffering, we are still held, all of us. All of us are held in the loving, embracing Buddha nature.

So, the realm of those who live truly fully enlightened would be Buddhas, and those who are on the way to enlightenment are bodhisattvas, and of course, to us human beings, a Buddha and bodhisattva are almost the same, because who are we to judge who is more enlightened than others? So really, Buddhas and bodhisattvas are in the same category.

And then there is also the realm of what I would call expansive souls. I will just use the word soul. But I know in Buddhism, there is a teaching of the no soul and no self, but that doesn't mean that you do not exist. It just means that it is not what you really think it is. But we have to use human words, so I will use the word soul. So there are expansive souls who are uplifting and who are on the way to enlightenment, who are good.

And then there are what I might call mixed souls or average souls. They have a little bit of positive and negative all blended in. That is actually I think the majority of people on earth, and there are down here—I will call them contracted. Okay? I won't say bad souls. I will say contracted souls. So they have a lot of suffering and a very limited understanding of truth, and they kind of create hell for themselves and for other people around them.

Now for people on earth, guess what? All of the realms exist here together, and that is why it is so crazy to live here on earth. It is a very challenging classroom here on earth because we get to coexist with all of these different beings, from Buddhas and bodhisattvas all the way down to expansive and mixed and contracted souls. We are all living here together. We are all learning to relate mindfully to each other wherever we are at. And there is no judgment. Buddhas do not judge people just because they are low, in a different cosmic consciousness than they are. They only have love and understanding, because where they were, that is where they used to be. All Buddhas start out just like that. So there is no judgment. There is only compassion and understanding and the desire to serve and help.

And I believe personally in continuing the existence of our consciousness in some way. So you can call it rebirth or reincarnation or whatever. I do believe that, and that is why we can come back to the Earth from these higher states and bring some of that higher energy influence back to the earth to help contracted souls to evolve. So anyway, that is just my particular understanding of reality. But you do not have to believe anything I'm saying. And Buddhists have various different ways that they talk about this sort of thing, but this is my experience, my easy version of my experience.

All right. Now to my actual topic. Let me use this background paradigm. I'm going to talk about the Buddha's basic teachings on suffering and happiness. Number one is the teaching on suffering, and it is very helpful for us to know the difference between pain and suffering, because the Buddha does not promise us but if we practice we will eliminate all pain, but rather that we can stop suffering. So do not think that you're going to stop the pain or stop the fact that you age, that you have pain in life, that there are unexpected things that happen that don't go the way you thought they should. All kinds of crises happen here on earth. Pain is a part of life, or this sensation of unpleasantness is part of the fabric of life. We have to learn how to understand that that is part of physical life.

But suffering, on the other hand, it is our mental addition to the reality of life. Suffering is a mentally created reality. So you may have pain. You may be going through cancer. You may have had someone die on you. You may be going through a move or a breakup or whatever, or something happens at work that is not quite what you are hoping for. All of these are aspects of pain, but we add our suffering, our mental suffering, when we dwell on it, when we put stories around it, when we create all kinds of stories in our head about it. Oh, this must mean I'm not lovable. Or oh, this must mean I am a terrible person. We have all these mental and emotional additions on top of reality. And that is suffering.

So, there is a saying in Buddhism and other traditions now across the world, on bumper stickers and T-shirts: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Okay. Repeat with me. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Audience: Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

ChiSing: This is your new mantra. So I will give you an example I always tend to use. So, I'm walking over here and I stub my toe. Ouch. Oh, that really hurt. Okay. So, the sensation is just pain, right? It is just unpleasant. But I add suffering when I think about it. Oh my gosh, that really hurts and I don't like it. And, oh my gosh, I will have to go to the hospital because it is broken, and what if I don't get to the hospital in time because it is closed today. By tomorrow, I might have gangrene, and they're going to have to cut off my leg, and I will be a one-legged person for the rest of my life. Nobody is going to want to marry me, and I will be on my deathbed all alone.

That is suffering. Suffering. We add on top of the normal pains in life. So, we have to just accept that there is pain in life and accept the fact that suffering is not necessary. But there is a second part. What causes unnecessary suffering? That is what we want to do, because we want to be able to reduce suffering, right? I want to stop making unnecessary suffering on top of the inevitable pain. So, there is the main cause, called craving. However, craving has its counterpart, which is aversion, the same energy, but in a different direction.

So craving and aversion are really the same energy, but craving is like pulling toward yourself, and diversion is pushing away from yourself. It is that same push/pull type of energy, just one is pulling toward you, and the other is pushing away. So craving and aversion really are the same thing. That is why sometimes we just think of craving as the cause of suffering, but really, it you can divide it into two: craving and aversion.

But guess what? Craving and aversion are both based in a third primary cause of suffering, which is delusion or ignorance. I like delusion because that is a stronger word than ignorant. So, because we do not understand the nature of suffering and happiness, we start craving things that are not going to help us in the long run. And we start pushing away things that could help us in the long run.

I really used to like—and I still do. I don't do it anymore, but I used to love Braum's peppermint ice cream, and sometimes when I would feel a little bit depressed or something, I would buy a gallon of ice cream, sit down and watch a couple of movies, and I would finish the whole tub of ice cream. Now the first few bites were pleasant, and I like it, but after having the whole gallon in my tummy, it was not fun. I felt terrible. It did not help my depression. So that is one example of craving something that at first might be pleasant, but actually can bring suffering and unpleasantness. So be careful of what you pray for, because not everything that you pray for ends up being the best for you, just because the initial pleasantness of it may attract you.

Same thing with aversion. Like doing a little bit of exercise during the week, at least a few times a week, is so helpful. I mean, we know now that people who do light exercise a few times a week, even just walking, have better prospects in their future health in the long run. So you do not have to be an Olympic athlete. You can just do something simple like walking for a few minutes every day or every other day. But exercise, even though we know it is good for us, when you first do it, is it pleasant? No. It is achy. It really does not feel good. But you know if you do it enough, you start getting the hang of it, and then you start really getting the benefits of it.

The same thing is true with meditation. For beginners, it is not easy at first usually, especially if you have no one to guide you in the process. But you know it is good for you, and you keep doing it, just as much as you can. Start off small, five minutes every other day or whatever, and then build from there. If you can do that, then you can start to realize that even though it is a little difficult at first, when you keep doing it, it actually brings benefit. So we are deceived and deluded about the nature of craving and aversion, because not everything that we crave is something good for us, and not everything that we resist is bad for us. We have to be aware of our tendency to only crave pleasure and avoid pain, because sometimes pleasure can lead to more suffering, and a little bit of initial pain can lead to great pleasure.

So, I'm going to get back to the delusion part a little bit later here, but I just want to finish off the rest of the Four Noble Truths. The good news: There is a possibility to stop the causes that lead to suffering. So it is possible, and this state of going beyond suffering is nirvana. And remember, nirvana does not mean no unpleasantness or no pain in life, no aging, no dying, no sickness. It does not mean that. It means that it is your mind that makes more suffering on top of it, and ending this is possible. The Buddha did it. Many others in history have done it, and you can do it, too. True happiness is a possible reality.

And the fourth is also good news. There is the path that you can follow, a spiritual path of practice to cease causing yourself and others suffering, the path to nirvana. And that path is the Eightfold Path, which can be divided into the categories of wisdom, ethics, and meditation. The word meditation does not necessarily just mean sitting meditation. It can also mean walking, lying down, standing. It can be living in a mindful life. It can be chanting practice. There are all kinds of practices that elevate your consciousness to nirvana. That is what we mean by meditation.

But these three—wisdom, ethics, and meditation—must go together to create this path that liberates us, that shows us how to stop creating more suffering, unnecessary suffering. So I might go into detail a little bit more next week on the Eightfold Path, but you can divide it into three parts: wisdom, ethics, and meditation. And so the thing about a lot of spiritual traditions in the world, sometimes they only emphasize ethics. Once in a while they might emphasize wisdom also, but very few of them emphasize meditation. But you need all three, wisdom, ethics, and meditation, for the full impact of liberation. So just make sure that you have the balance of these things.

Now I also see this trend, because meditation is becoming so popular these days, like yoga. In the last 20 years, boom, all these yoga centers, all these meditation centers. I guess Spirit is doing something in the world, but the problem is a lot of these people who are meditating or doing yoga, they are ignoring other parts. They are ignoring the ethics and maybe even wisdom, or maybe they are trying to study but not actually practicing. So we have to be careful because we need to have balance with all of them. We need to have understanding. We need to have our ethical behavior developed, and we have our minds transformed through meditation and mindful living, all three at the same time.

Okay. So, let's see. What time is it? Do I have time? No, I don't. Okay. Well, maybe next week I will share with you delusions. We have four main delusions about impermanence, about the nature of the self or nonself, and the nature of suffering and happiness or suffering and nirvana. There are actually originally three, but I do four because early Buddhism talked about impermanence, nonself, suffering. Later Buddhism talked about impermanence, nonself, and nirvana. So nowadays, we put them all together and have four rather than three: impermanence, nonself, suffering and nirvana. If we can understand the truth of these, not just intellectually, but in our being, we can begin the process of letting go of these delusions that cause suffering. So I'll talk more about that next week.

Thank you.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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