New Moon Day: The Four Noble Truths

February 23, 2009


”It is through not understanding, not realizing four things, that I as well as you, had to wander so long through this round of rebirths. And what are these four things? They are the Noble Truth of Dukkha, the Noble Truth of the Origin of Dukkha, the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha, the Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Dukkha.“ —  The Buddha 


Look at these Four Noble Truths: they are not fancy in appearance. They have no exotic terminology. Consequently some people feel that this set of teachings is too limited in its scope, too mundane, even too basic. And so they look for something else, something with a little more zing: something with deities and magical powers and auspicious stones and golden trumpets. But the initial judgment of those people is not sound. For these teachings are all encompassing in their scope, and they have the Buddha’s enlightenment as their origin and our enlightenment as their goal.

The Four Noble Truths are the very crux of the Buddha’s teachings; they are the source from which all authentic Buddhist practice springs. The sole purpose of practising Buddhism is to understand these truths. For it is by understanding them that one attains the total liberation from all forms of suffering. “I teach one thing and one only: dukkha and the end of dukkha.” For now we will say dukkha means ‘suffering’. Its origin is craving; its cessation is Nibbana; and the path to its cessation is the Noble Eightfold Path.

I don’t read very much: Ajahn Chah and Bhikkhu Bodhi – plus a few others – and that’s about it. And the subject matter doesn’t extend particularly far either: the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. But I’ve been in the robes for over eight years. Shouldn’t I be moving on? Shouldn’t I be tackling something a little more complex? Well, if the Buddha’s words which I began this piece with are correct there’s no need. Those of us who have been committed to the Path for some time should find that we derive more benefit from studying the Truths now compared to when we first encountered them, and that our understanding of those Truths is more penetrative and encompassing. What does this indicate? —  That we need look no further than these teachings.

The Four Noble Truths provide the lantern that guides us from our first tentative steps to the path’s sublime ending: to the bliss of freedom from craving – Nibbana. It is through a glimmer of an understanding of dukkha that we set foot on this path, and it is through the complete understanding of dukkha that we arrive at completion. Our practice must therefore sit firmly and squarely on the four unshakable pillars that are these truths. They are our reference point, our guide, our support, and our refuge.

The Buddha taught that the nature of our duty in regard to each truth is different: The First Noble Truth of Dukkha is to be understood; the second is to be abandoned; the third is to realised; and the fourth is to be developed.

So, where do we begin? Well, with suffering. The reason why the Buddha didn’t mince his words when emphasising the First Noble Truth throughout his forty-five years of teaching was in order to knock us out of our complacency, to jolt us into action; to inspire us to escape from this burning house, this life of suffering. This is why I came to Buddhism. On the morning of my novice ordination day a senior monk present asked me: “Why do you want to become a monk?” Without hesitating I fired back: “Because I’m sick of the world!” “Good.” He said. So we come to Buddhism because of a grasp – weak or strong – of dukkha. But then what? Do we all loaf around moaning about it and getting depressed, accepting that this is our lot as flawed humans? No, because we find the Noble Eightfold Path: the way to be free from dukkha. The Eightfold Path enables us to understand dukkha, to abandon craving, and to realise Nibbana.

The First Noble Truth: Dukkha

The principal message that needs to be stamped indelibly on the mind is this: dukkha is to be understood. For when we understand dukkha craving is automatically abandoned and Nibbana is automatically realised. Of course if we understand dukkha a little we don’t get a little bit of Nibbana: Nibbana is Nibbana. But if we understand dukkha a little then our craving will fade a little, and we’ll be closer to Nibbana. How do we understand dukkha? By patiently and diligently cultivating each factor of the Noble Eightfold Path: by devoting ourselves to virtue, meditation, and wisdom.

So far I have mostly refrained from translating the term dukkha. This is because all words fall far short of accurately conveying its meaning. Dukkha is so far reaching in its scope and so varied in its dimensions that it’s best to gain an understanding of what the term implies and then leave it untranslated.

Essentially, dukkha describes two things: the unsatisfactory nature of all things in existence; and the individual’s actual experience of suffering. What are the things in existence? They are of two types: 1. physical: the planets, the mountains, trees, jewelry, hot-dogs, beautiful bodies, and everything else that we can touch, see, smell, taste and hear; and 2. mental; our inner world: the memories, thoughts, feelings, ideas, etc. When the Buddha taught that all these things are dukkha he was saying that they are all empty, void, hollow, unable to satisfy, unreliable, undependable, unsatisfactory, fleeting, ephemeral, transient, productive of suffering. In terms of the actual experience of dukkha we have the good old ‘ordinary’ sufferings: birth, illness, ageing, death, and all the various shades of mental and physical dis-ease. These are all the experience of dukkha.

Meditation’s role in the Eightfold Path is pivotal: the development of our understanding of dukkha depends on it. For “one who is mentally concentrated sees things as they really are.” It’s true, we can understand dukkha by thinking and reflecting on the world and ourselves but it doesn’t really make the cut when it comes to uprooting craving. For craving to be dug up we must really see dukkha; this is a special seeing that arises through the twofold practice of concentration and mindfulness.

Say there is a lake that is being swept up by the wind, churned by the currents and pelted by the rain. Nothing in that lake is reflected clearly. A mountain lies at its side but because of the disturbance the mountain’s reflection is distorted; we gain a false impression of that mountain. An unconcentrated mind resembles a disturbed lake: it is whipped up and unsettled by thoughts, perceptions, views and desires. Consequently things are not reflected clearly; we gain a distorted view of things. What is it that is not reflected clearly? What are these things that are distorted? The answer is: the things of the world: the sights, sounds, tastes, sensations, odours and thoughts – that is, everything we experience. When our mind is distorted we see these things as being real, satisfactory, as being a source of happiness, worthy of desire, worthy of pursuit. Seeing things in this way brings anxiety, discontentment, fear, sorrow, distress and suffering. What do we see when our mind resembles that vast still lake? We see dukkha. We see that the world is dukkha and that dukkha is the world.

Delving further into this truth of dukkha we find it comprises three levels. The first is ordinary dukkha: the experience of mental and physical pain. The second is dukkha as produced by change. The third is dukkha as conditioned things. ‘Ordinary’ dukkha needs little explanation here, so I will focus on the latter two.

The Dukkha of Change

The mind trained in virtue, mindfulness and meditation sees change. Such a mind is stable, focused, calm and aware and, as such, resembles that quiet and undisturbed lake. With the mind steady and perceptive we begin to see the world reflected correctly. This means that we see the dukkha of change. Before, things were distorted: things appeared to be real, to be substantial, to be – in a way – static and permanent. But now we see change, and we see it everywhere, from the vast to the infinitesimal: from the galaxies, planets and mountains; to thoughts, sounds and sensations. We see it in terms of vast stretches of time: the rise and fall of species, of empires, of countries; we observe it unfolding beneath the powerful beam of present moment awareness: the ceaseless moment to moment arising and vanishing of all sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, odours and thoughts. All is changing: all is being born and dying; created and destroyed; rising and falling; coming together and separating. 

Of course things that behave in this way are incapable of bringing real satisfaction. That is why the Buddha said they are dukkha. Think of British weather (if you know what it’s like). It’s notoriously changeable! It’s true, there are stunningly beautiful moments when that shy warm ball of fire smiles down from its deep blue home and the lupins and butterflies wave back. But those moments don’t last. British people are acutely aware of how good weather never lasts. One minute you’re sitting outside with your trousers rolled up getting your vitamin D, the next you’re dashing for cover from the rain. It’s totally unreliable! You simply cannot depend on it for one minute. All that we experience is just like British weather: unpredictable, unstable and destined to change.

Even joy: “Joy itself is dukkha.” said the Buddha. Ask yourself this: “Is this joy permanent?” The answer, of course, is no. “Being impermanent, can it be satisfactory – a source of happiness?” No. “Is this joy therefore dukkha?” Yes. And so our wisdom deepens, dukkha is gradually unravelled, and craving for things – including joy – wanes. The peace of letting go and non-attachment then settles down to stay.

The Dukkha of Conditioned Things

Besides change there is another aspect to this truth of dukkha: the dukkha of conditioned things. I used to be a little confused by the word ‘conditioned’. To me it was something a bit like shampoo. But it is rather more than that. A conditioned thing is something that depends on something else. Let’s say ‘x’ depends on ‘y’. If ‘y’ changes or is removed so ‘x’ changes or ceases to exist. All things of this world – both mental and physical – are like ‘x’: if ‘y’ is removed ‘x’ cannot persist. Think of this body: it depends on uncountable conditions, for example the correct temperature. This earth is positioned at the optimum distance from the sun for the supporting of life. If it moved a fraction towards the sun we’d frazzle; if it moved a fraction away we’d freeze. We depend on food, we depend on oxygen. Some of us depend on tea! Joking aside, our existence is intricately interwoven with the conditions that support it; in fact, it is nothing outside of those conditions: we are conditioned beings.

This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs: if the conditions we require to live change we cannot continue as we are. But we are not just referring to the matter of life and death when we talk of things being dependent on conditions; we are referring to all objects and experiences. A pleasant feeling that arises when we see something we love depends on that object being present; the object disappears and the pleasant feeling falls away. Or the happiness that arises when the sun shines: the sun goes and so does the happiness. Or the happiness that arises when we stare at the sunset, or when we are praised by someone…. and on and on it goes.

And so our experiences: happiness, suffering, pleasure, joy, pride, excitement, all of these depend on something else. When their supporting conditions change those things fall away. Clearly anything that is conditioned is dukkha – it is unable to satisfy.

Whatever is impermanent and whatever is supported by something else is dukkha. We survey the world and we see the all-encompassing scope of dukkha. The mountains, trees, sunsets, ice-cream, Beethoven’s 5th symphony, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, you, me and our minds – all are dukkha. Life and the world is dukkha. The nature of the world is dukkha. All is changing, nothing lasts, nothing can be relied upon, all depend on conditions. 

But we shouldn’t despair. On the contrary, we should be relieved that the teaching on dukkha has been emphasised and made so clear by the Buddha. He actually said that if there is anyone that we truly care for it is our duty to rouse them and establish them in an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, to help them to understand dukkha. For it is by fully understanding the truth of dukkha that we can be free of dukkha. If we are seriously ill we don’t hesitate to go to the doctor so that we can find out what exactly is wrong, what exactly is the germ that is causing the illness, and what exactly we need to do to get over it. So when we know exactly what dukkha is, so we will know exactly what causes it, and then we will know exactly what to do with the cause: abandon it.

Look closely when you are suffering – you are as sure to find craving in your mind as you are to find clouds in Britain. We are not suffering because someone criticised us, because the sun has disappeared, because we have lost our teddy bear, because things are dukkha; we are suffering because of our craving for things to be other than they are: for things to be reliable, to be permanent, to be satisfactory. But they aren’t! And so we suffer! Craving causes suffering.

The Fire of Craving

Craving, by its very nature, can never be satisfied. It is never appeased because that which is desired is ephemeral and inherently unable to satisfy that same craving. And not only are the things we crave changing: so are we! The seeker and the sought are both in a state of flux; both are in a state of continual agitation and unrest. In this atmosphere of incessant change how can this thirst ever be quenched? The mind propelled by craving is perpetually chasing things that are not real, things that are transient and hollow; it is grasping at shadows, reaching out out at mirages. Craving promises so much – the food to appease our depression, the new iPhone, the new diamond ring – and yet it delivers so little: we almost instantly find that object of desire means nothing, and so the craving blindly continues on its relentless hunt for sources of gratification. “There is no fire like lust, no fever like craving.” Surely the only thing to do is to put this fire out?

It is, but it takes patience. For craving is rooted in ignorance – the ignorance of not understanding dukkha – and the development of the wisdom that will replace ignorance is not a ten-day course. At the beginning we are not able to fully abandon craving: our comprehension of dukkha is still in its infancy. It’s as though we have been searching for gold for a very long time and now we have found it, but we aren’t yet in the position to take it away; we must wait until we have developed the means to extract it. So it is when we start to see the relationship between craving and suffering: we have found the gold (the truth of the cause of suffering) but we cannot extract the ultimate benefit yet.

And so patiently we nurture our wisdom, gradually seeing dukkha and its cause more and more clearly. As our wisdom deepens so does craving wane, until the day when we understand: “This is Dukkha, this is the Origin of Dukkha, this is the Cessation of Dukkha, this is the Path leading to the Cessation of Dukkha.“


The next teaching will be on:

The full-moon day, Tuesday 10th March


4 Responses to “New Moon Day: The Four Noble Truths”

  1. Meena said

    Brilliant Tahn Manapo! – thank you for providing such a clear and practical framework within which to develop an understanding of dukkha.

  2. Tahn Manapo said

    Thanks Meena.

    Now it’s time to have a thoroughly unsatisfactory cup of tea.

    Tahn Manapo

  3. Mark said


    Thank you

    With metta


  4. Tahn Manapo said

    Hello Mark

    Nice to hear from you.


    Tahn Manapo

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