“Of these Four Noble Truths, bhikkhus, there is a noble truth that is to be fully understood; there is a noble truth that is to be abandoned; there is a noble truth that is to be realized; there is a noble truth that is to be developed.
“And what, bhikkhus, is the noble truth that is to be fully understood? The noble truth of suffering is to be fully understood; the noble truth of the origin of suffering is to be abandoned; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering is to be realized; the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering is to be developed.
The Four Realities of Life
I was thinking about what to study in the Dhamma/Dharma today, and decided to re-read the Dhammacakkapavattana sutta (Rolling Forth the Wheel of Dhamma SN56.11), but to also read the Chinese parallels. My study was inspired by the ongoing Noble Eightfold Path course by the Buddhist Society of Western Australia (BSWA). On the recording for Day 1 part 3, someone had asked a question about “what is to be done about each of the Four Noble Truths, something which is to be fully understood, realised, etc.?” Ajahn Brahmali mentioned that this was mentioned in SN56.11.
In the blockquotes above, I chose a different text and its Chinese parallel instead, as this more directly shows what one should do with the Four Noble Truths.
But before going on, why do I call them the Four Realities instead? A few reasons:
- The idea of calling them realities came from my Dhamma friend Sylvester, who is something of a Pali maven.
- Looking at the original Pali as well as the Chinese translation 諦 (梵語：सत्य，羅馬化：satyá，巴利語：Sacca) , the translations describe it as “truth”, “reality”, “something that exists and is unchanging”.
- In this age, the word “truth” sounds dogmatic and absolute, when what these four things are describing are actually pretty universal and beyond dogma.
So the four realities of life, translated into plain English, are:
- Reality #1: You’re going to be unhappy at some point
- Reality #2: The reason you’re unhappy, is because you want something
- Reality #3: When you no longer want that something, your unhappiness disappears
- Reality #4: There’s a way to let go of your wanting something (and it’s not just mindfulness!)
What, me unhappy?
When I was younger, I thought that the Dhamma/Dharma was about avoidance: it seemed to me that it was seemingly all about “let’s avoid unhappiness, and let’s just proceed towards this blah-neither-here-nor-there-boring-existence”. It couldn’t be more different in reality.
Yes, my initial Dhamma/Dharma teachers and experiences did veer towards that blah-ness. Yes, a large no of people in the community still practice avoiding bliss and pleasure (sadly; that is a huge blocker to many people’s practice, which is why I am hoping to change the narrative somewhat).
But reality has a very interesting twist: the less you want, the less unhappy you become, and the more happy you are. Ergo, the more you reduce your unhappiness, the greater your happiness is.
The best way to demonstrate the link between wanting, unhappiness and happiness is via two thought experiments, which I ask you to follow for a bit.
Thought Experiment 1
- Think of one of the happiest moments in your life.
- Bring yourself back to that moment, imagine it happening again. Close your eyes if you need to.
- Now, ask yourself: at that happy moment, what did you want? Did you want to be somewhere else, or want anything else?
Thought Experiment 2
- Think about one of the unhappiest moments of your life.
- Bring yourself back to that moment.
- At that unhappy moment, what did you want? Did you want to be somewhere else, or want anything else?
I am willing to bet that your answers for question 3 are pretty different between the two thought experiments.
For me, what is clear is that at the happiest moments of my life, quite frequently, I didn’t want or need to be anywhere or anything else, other than whatever that was present at that moment. Like the time when we were in the Himalayas, staring at the valley as giant vultures flew over our heads. Or when I experienced a bliss far higher than any other sense pleasure.
Conversely, whenever I have unhappy moments, there is always some wanting, usually of an alternate reality that doesn’t exist:
- This water bottle should be better designed
- Why did that person cut into my lane?
- Why did President XYZ do ABC to DoReMe?
- I wish I didn’t feel like this
- I hate this.
What to do next with these Realities
The instruction of how we should treat these four realities is important:
- Reality No. 1 (that we will be unhappy or suffer) is to be fully understood. Not to be avoided (which is pointless since it is unavoidable), but to fully understood. This means inquiry, examining, reflecting. It means accepting, fully.
- Reality No. 2 (that the cause of the unhappiness or suffering is due to wanting) is to be abandoned, or (using the Chinese translation) to be cut off. The question of “What do I want?” is a really good standing question, especially when one is upset or sad.
- Reality No. 3 (that removing the wanting removes unhappiness) is to be realized. [To note, this refers to the absolute state when you absolutely have no more wanting.]
- Reality No. 4 (the way to let go of your wanting) is to be developed.
It might sound straightforward, and I suppose it is, in a way. However, while straightforward, the above isn’t easy… many people have spent entire lives seeking to fully understand, cut off, realize and develop the Four Realities. The results are mixed, because everyone’s starting point is completely different.
However, the important point is to realize the results for oneself over time. Over time, I have come to see that my mind has become much less angry and much less lustful, while contentment and happiness tends to arise a lot more frequently. So I have a very high degree of confidence that this works!
The question, then, is what’s next? How does one proceed or start? That’s for another time.