The Message of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths
by Sylvia Boorstein


Accounts of the Buddha’s life, said to have been told by generations of disciples before they were written down and codified as scripture, often begin with the words, “Thus I have heard,” which carry the sense of oral tradition into the present. The teacher-to-student, elder-to-novice tone of the narratives invites us into a centuries-old community of storytellers who made the Buddha’s practice their own practice. We are in the line of people who have heard the story.

The sermon called “Setting into Motion the Wheel of Truth” is the account of the Buddha’s first formal teaching after he declared his enlightenment, his experience of deeply understanding both the cause of and the remedy for suffering. It includes, before the Buddha’s statement of the Four Noble Truths as the summary of his insight, the fact that he gave this teaching to five monks he met walking near Benares. A story told about that encounter describes how the five monks, recognising the Buddha from afar as the person who had formerly done ascetic practice with them, said disparaging things to each other about him.

As one account has it: “They agreed among themselves, ‘Here comes the monk Gautama, who became self-indulgent, gave up the struggle and reverted to luxury,’ ” and only reluctantly agreed to listen to him. That same account describes how at the end of the Buddha’s teaching, as one after another of the monks understood the truth of what he had said, “the news travelled right up to the Brahma world. This ten-thousand-fold world-element shook and quaked and trembled while a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared in the world.”

The stories my friends and I tell each other about our experience of hearing the Four Noble Truths for the first time resemble, though in twenty-first-century English-language idiom, the account of what happened in Benares. My view that I was stuck forever with my worrying, fearful, often sorrowful mind-the victim of whatever events my life had in store for me-“shook and quaked” at the news that a liberated mind, a mind at ease in wisdom and filled with compassion, was a possibility. Long before I had any confidence that I would be able to see clearly, it was thrilling just to know that it was possible for human beings-like the Buddha, who was a human being-to become, through practice, free of suffering.


When I teach the Four Noble Truths, I say them this way:


Life is challenging. For everyone. Our physical bodies, our relationships-all of our life circumstances-are fragile and subject to change. We are always accommodating.


The cause of suffering is the mind’s struggle in response to challenge.


The end of suffering-a non-struggling, peaceful mind-is a possibility.

The program for ending suffering is the Eightfold Path. It is:

1. Wise Understanding: realising the cause of suffering;

2. Wise Intention: motivation to end suffering;

3. Wise Speech: speaking in a way that cultivates clarity;

4. Wise Action: behaving in ways that maintain clarity;

5. Wise Livelihood: supporting oneself in a wholesome way;

6. Wise Effort: cultivating skillful (peaceful) mind habits;

7. Wise Concentration: cultivating a steady, focused, ease-filled mind;

8. Wise Mindfulness: cultivating alert, balanced attention.

Each time I teach the Four Noble Truths I re-inspire myself. They make so much sense. Every step of the practice path is an ordinary, everyday activity of human beings. I say, “Look what a feedback loop this is! It’s a never-ending, self-supporting system. Any piece of it builds all the other parts. The more we understand the causes of suffering, the greater our intention; the wiser and more compassionate our behaviour, the clearer our minds; the deeper our understanding of suffering, the stronger our intention; over and over and on and on.”

I especially like to teach the steps in this 1 through 8 progression, because I always want to pause and emphasise Wise Mindfulness. It reaffirms for me the goal of practice. Paying attention, seeing clearly in every moment, leads — by way of insight—to appropriate response.

I sometimes end a Four Noble Truths teaching by saying, “That was a lot of words. But truly, what the Buddha taught was simple: When we see clearly, we behave impeccably.” If I want to be sure that I’ve made the point that acting wisely and compassionately is the inevitable, passionate imperative of the heart that comes from realising the depth of suffering in the world — that we pay attention for goodness’ sake — I say it this way: “When we see clearly, we behave impeccably, out of love, on behalf of all beings.”


Until quite recently, no one ever challenged me when I said that the Buddha said, “We ought to practice as if our hair is on fire.” I thought it was a good metaphor for the energy level needed to meet the lifelong challenge of keeping the mind clear, remembering what’s important, refining the capacity of the heart for goodness. Then a young woman came to see me during lunchtime at a daylong mindfulness workshop. She said, “That’s an awful image. It’s so frantic.” She reminded me that Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Life is so short, we should all move more slowly.”

When I taught again in the afternoon, I went back to the hair-on-fire metaphor and suggested that I thought it had to do with urgency and not alarm. I told the group how inspired I had been when one of my teachers — describing how easily we are caught up in rehearsing for the future or ruminating over the past, all the while not awake to present experience, not choosing wisely — had said, “It’s your life. Don’t miss it!” I wanted to tell a story about what being awake to present experience means, and immediately thought of a famous one from the Zen tradition.

A tiger gave chase to a monk who had been walking peacefully near a cliff, and the monk, running as fast as he could, had no choice but to leap off the edge of the cliff to avoid being eaten. He was able, as he leaps, to grab hold of a vine trailing over the cliff. He dangled in mid-air with the tiger snarling at him overhead and under him a very long fall into a rushing river full of boulders. Then he noticed a mouse gnawing at the vine. He also noticed, growing out of a cleft in a rock in front of him, a strawberry plant with one ripe berry. He ate it. He said, “This is a very good strawberry.”

The monk’s situation is a dramatic example of everyone’s situation. We are all dangling in mid-process between what already happened (which is just a memory) and what might happen (which is just an idea). Now is the only time anything happens. When we are awake in our lives, we know what’s happening. When we’re asleep, we don’t see what’s right in front of us.

A year after my husband and I were married, we moved to Kansas. To our extended families in New York and New Jersey, Kansas was impossibly far away. We developed the habit — maintained through all our moves and all these years — of including a recent photo of us in the New Year greeting that we send each year, so that our relatives would feel that we were staying in touch. As our family grew, the photo went from two people, to three people, to four, then five, then six. Then the number of people in the photo stayed the same for many years, but the children in it got bigger and everyone in it got older. By and by, as my sons and daughters chose life partners, more people joined the photo. They had children, and then even more people were in the photo. With increasing years and increasing people, the project of taking the August photo, which had begun as simply as, “Let’s step out into the backyard for a minute,” became more elaborate. It required a lot of advance planning to coordinate schedules.

The photo taking, in a recent year, happened just under the wire for sending the greeting cards on time. I brought the film to the photo shop early the next morning, went for an hour-long bike ride while the pictures were being developed, and then went back to the photo shop to choose the best of them to make duplicates for the cards.

The photos were great. Several of them had all of us smiling. I picked the one I thought was best.

“How many prints do you need?” the saleswoman asked.

It was then that I realised that I didn’t need any. Everyone we had needed to send photo greetings to — parents, aunts, uncles — had died. I felt genuinely surprised and a bit embarrassed. I had explained to her earlier that I needed the prints developed promptly so I could send my cards on time.

I thought of whom else I could send a card to. I have two cousins. Seymour has a few. My friends have varying views about the political correctness of supporting the culture’s use of religious holidays for mercantile gain, and they mostly don’t send cards. My children’s in-laws? That seemed like a good idea. They would, I thought, enjoy seeing the whole family.

Just then I realised that I was trying very hard to wring the last bit of possible pleasure out of a situation that didn’t exist anymore. The trying was tedious. I also realised that the increasing effort, each year, to get everyone together in a good mood to take a photo had become tedious.

“I don’t need duplicates after all,” I said, indicating the display of our family pictures in front of me on the counter. “So many of these are fine. I’ll have enough for everyone.”

I walked through the parking lot on my way to my car feeling dismayed about my whirlwind, enthusiastic attempt to orchestrate a project without a cause, and thinking, “How can I not have noticed before now that the list of relatives is down to nothing? All of those people didn’t die in the last year.”

An hour before, I’d been riding my bike, feeling energetic and vital, and now, quite suddenly, I felt old. I started to tell myself a sad story about how tired I was from rushing around, and then I realised, “No, I’m not. That’s not true. I’m not tired. I’m startled to find that so much of my life has happened, that all my older relatives have died, that I am — if things go as they should — next in line in this family for dying. But not yet. Now I’m alive.” I laughed as I saw that I had almost been trapped by my chagrin and dismay — they both siphon energy out of the mind — into missing my opportunity. I turned around, went back to the photo shop, and found the same saleswoman.

“I’m back,” I said. “I decided I want an eight-by-ten of the one I liked best.”

As she was writing up the order for the enlargement, she looked up at me and said, “Eight-by-ten?”

I said, “No. I changed my mind. Eleven-by-fourteen.”

She smiled. “Are you sure?”

I said, “Yes. I’m sure. This is a very good photo.”


The Buddha was an old man, past eighty years old, when he died. On the evening he died, knowing that he was dying, he preached for the last time, encouraging his monks to continue on steadfastly with their practice after he was gone. The Buddha’s words, translated into modern idiom, reassure “I was only able to point the way for you.” He also said, “Be a lamp unto yourself!” reminding them, and I think us as well, that we need to see the truth for ourselves for it to free us from confusion — and that we can!

I imagine the scene twenty-five hundred years ago with all of the monks gathered around the Buddha, anticipating with sorrow his impending death, and simultaneously being roused and inspired and encouraged. He reminds them that “everything that has a beginning ends,” which seems to me both the core of his teaching and — in that moment — a consolation.

The Buddha’s final words, often translated as “Strive on with diligence,” have an echo of exhortation about them. I find them thrilling. Those words connect me with a sense of faith and confidence in the possibility of freedom that I think the Buddha must have aroused in his followers. I imagine him saying, “Move with sureness into the future.”


For many years I taught mindfulness at Elat Chayyim, a retreat centre in the Catskill Mountains of New York, every October. It’s a great pleasure for a Californian, for whom the seasons don’t change very much, to see signs of an oncoming real winter: the leaves changing colour, many of the trees already bare, and birds, great flocks of them, flying south. Elat Chayyim seems to be on the flyway of geese, and they honk as they go by. I watch them. I notice who the lead goose is, the one I think is giving instructions for synchronised flying. I wonder how those instructions are transmitted, because the squadron shifts direction all at once. Sometimes when I see the flock shift suddenly east or west, sometimes even north, I think to myself, “Go south, go south!” Then I think, “They don’t need my help.”

The geese turn by themselves, all together, probably in response to an internal signal that they’re going the wrong way. They know where they’re going. They’ll get there. They’ll stay a while. Then they’ll fly north. They’re always travelling. They never finish. Neither do we.

When I began spiritual practice in the 1970’s, my friends and I believed we would become — once and for all — enlightened. I think we were inspired by the Buddha’s own enlightened vision and the words he spoke when he understood the mechanism by which the mind — in confusion — weaves individual experiences into an ongoing, seemingly unbroken narrative of a life in which one finds oneself cast as the author of the drama, the principal player, and the hero and victim of everything that happens. Realising that the sense of owning that role is illusion — and that the role itself is burdensome, frightful to play — the Buddha was able to stop. He said, “The ridgepole is broken. House builder, you will build no more!” He knew he had destroyed, forever, the habit of rebuilding the sense of a separate self. He was free.

I have moments in which I understand that there is no one who owns the narrative of my life, no one to whom the events of my life are happening, that all of creation is a huge, interconnected, amazing production of events unfolding in concert with each other, connected to each other, dependent on each other, with no separation at all. When these moments happen, I feel happy, at ease, and grateful. I think of them as experiences of enlightenment. They are real and I trust them, but they don’t last. However clearly I see, however much I think, “Now I will never lose this perspective,” my mind makes wrong turns and I do lose it.

When I discover that I am — once again — confused, I try to remember that the habit of return is what matters. I credit myself with the insights I’ve had and assume that I can get them back. I think about the Buddha charging his monks with the responsibility to go on by themselves. I think about the geese, programmed for their journey, and I imagine that we are programmed for our journey as well. I pay attention. I make course corrections. I think about “Strive on with diligence,” or “Move with sureness into the future,” and I remember that I don’t need to move into the whole of the future. Just the next step.

Lotus 200.

Fools attempt to avoid their suffering, the wise enact their pain. Drink the cup of sky-nectar while others hunger for outward appearances.

— Mahasiddha Saraha





















Like the earth, a balanced and well-disciplined person resents not. He is comparable to an Indakhila. Like a pool, unsullied by mud, is he, — to such a balanced one life’s wanderings do not arise.

— The Buddha

The Benefits of Reciting the Six-Syllable Mantra
by Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche

Everyone has assembled here in order to recite the six-syllable mantra. It is indeed the best way to make our human lives meaningful. In this world, the six-syllable mantra is the most suitable practice for ordinary people like ourselves. Lord Buddha has taught many different kinds of Dharma teachings, and if all those teachings are summarised in a nutshell, it is the six-syllable mantra. There can be no Dharma practice more profound than this mantra. Reciting the six-syllable mantra is extremely beneficial and necessary at this point of time. We have taken countless births in samsara, and every time we are born in samsara, we committed lots of negative karma and we have had many transgressions of precepts and vows. All these downfalls, transgressions and defilements can be purified through the recitation of this mantra.

Not only do we have this precious human life, we also possess the Buddha-nature, which is the potentiality or the seed for attaining complete enlightenment. Generally speaking, all sentient beings are Buddhas. The only difference between a Buddha and a sentient being is that the Buddha is free from all defilements while the sentient being is not. The moment the defilements are removed from the Buddha-nature of a sentient being, the sentient being becomes a Buddha. It is important to know that all these defilements which have covered our mind are temporary. They can be removed and eliminated through skillful methods such as by reciting the six-syllable mantra. All these defilements that have covered our Buddha-nature have been accumulated from countless lives in samsara. And all these defilements fall into two categories – the defilement of afflictive emotions and the defilement that obstructs one from realising the absolute reality. Both these defilements can be purified and eliminated from its roots through the recitation of the six-syllable mantra.

Everyone of us here has formed this great opportunity to recite this mantra. We must appreciate that we have formed this great opportunity through our good karma and great aspirations in the past. Each mantra that we are going to recite here will be more precious than all the wealth of the entire world, because at the end of our lives, none of that wealth can be taken with us to our next birth, but each of the mantra that we are going to recite here can be “taken” with us, even after this life. If we do not recite the six-syllable mantra, and we do not do any Dharma practice or any mental transformation, then at the end of this life, we have to go empty-handed.

I’m sure everyone of us who is here has come with devotion and faith in the Dharma. And through such devotion and faith, the power and benefit of the recitation will be extremely great. With this recitation, we can truly benefit from the teachings of the Buddha, and benefit all mother sentient beings. The six-syllable mantra actually represents our Buddha-nature. In other words, the six-syllable mantra is our own enlightened nature in the form of mantra. The six-syllable mantra also represents the three bodies or the three ‘kayas’ – Dharmakaya*, Sambhogakaya* and Nirmanakaya*.

When we do the recitation, we should not miss any word of the mantra, we should pronounce each word very clearly and completely from OM to HUM in a pleasant melody. During the recitation, we should constantly feel that we are doing the recitation in order to purify the karmic defilements, the negative karmas and the afflictive emotions of all mother sentient beings. We should again and again make supplications within our mind and say: “May all mother sentient beings attain Enlightenment. May all mother sentient beings get the opportunity to meet the Buddha within themselves.”

During the recitation, we should also keep our body, speech and mind absolutely pure by getting rid of non-virtuous deeds that we usually commit. We should try to spend the few days in this retreat like a monk in a monastery. In this way, when we do the recitation with virtuous body, speech and mind, and pure aspiration for the benefit of all mother sentient beings, then truly there will be no practice better than the recitation of this mantra. During this retreat, if we can, we should also at all times refrain from eating meat, consuming alcohol or smoking. We should try and maintain a pure body, speech and mind. And with that kind of body, speech and mind, whatever practice we do will be more powerful and meaningful. Thus, when we do the recitation, there is a great power to it which will bring happiness and peace to all sentient beings.

I personally have received some kind of a prediction or prophecy from the three ‘kayas’ to benefit sentient beings by expounding the powerful benefits of the six-syllable mantra. Because of that, I have been promoting the recitation of the six-syllable mantra everywhere. I would like to reiterate that all the defilements, all the negative karma that we have been accumulating, can be purified and dispelled from our mind because they are temporary. It is very important to know that the recitation of the six-syllable mantra is the antidote to these temporary defilements. The benefits of reciting the six-syllable mantra are so immense that they are immeasurable. Hence during the recitation of the mantra, you should constantly supplicate within your mind:

“May all the defilements in the minds of all sentient beings and myself be purified. May all of us get the opportunities to meet the Buddha within face to face. May all sentient beings and myself take birth in the land of bliss, in Western Paradise – the land of Amitabha Buddha, after death, and from there may all of us attain complete Enlightenment.”

In this way, you can benefit yourself as well as others. The six-syllable mantra which we called “mani” is the most suitable Dharma practice that ordinary people like ourselves can have. Through this skilful way of practice, we have the way to become enlightened, we have the way to purify our minds. If we don’t attempt to expel the defilements and negative karma from our minds and practise in this way, then we will always remain as ordinary sentient beings.

You should recite the mantra at all times, even when you are walking and sitting, and not just at the shrine. You should recite the mantra whenever you can, and as often as you can. If you recite OM MANI PADME HUM, you will meet the Buddha within.

My health hasn’t been good for the past few months. Even then, I have decided to come here to lead this retreat. Because I thought if I do not come and lead this retreat, it would be like giving up on sentient beings and if I do that, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas will not be pleased. Thus, despite my poor health, I am here.

* Dharmakaya : The Body of ultimate reality which is the absolute emptiness aspect of all Buddhas.
* Sambhogakaya : The Bliss Body of a Buddha.
* Nirmanakaya : The Manifestation Body of a Buddha.

The deepest reasons to love yourself have nothing to do with anything outside you – not with your body or with others’ expectations of you. If you ground yourself in your own goodness, nothing will be able to damage your self-esteem.

–17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje






















If you’ve been practising for years, you should be seeing some results, If you’re not, you may be missing the point.

The result of spiritual practice should be our inner transformation into better human beings. After practising for months or years, we should be less prone to anger, pride, and jealousy. Our practice should lead us to a vaster, calmer mind.

For example, the whole point of dieting is to lose a few pounds, not to collect knowledge and become an expert on each and every diet. You may have heard about different diets and read many books, but you won’t lose weight unless you put one of them into practice in your everyday life. Similarly, if you do not implement the teachings, your destructive emotions and self clinging will not diminish, and the Dharma instructions will be of no use to you, no matter how many you receive.

— Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche

The Path from Recognition to Rejoicing
by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

Again, you can certainly continue your relationships, your friendships, and whatever you cherish as important in your life, just don’t let yourself become so swallowed up by them that you behave like a roller coaster, allowing the associated emotions to make you erratic and unstable. When you become like a roller coaster, at some point you lose your appreciation for the relationship, or whatever else you’re so attached to. You wear out your ability to bear these roller coaster emotions. Even if you are loving to each other in the beginning of a relationship or you care deeply about something important to you, sooner or later such emotions will make you feel resentful. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can work with these situations just like we work with all our attachments and grasping to the self.

The more we can work with our grasping and attachment to the self, the more open space and awareness we have to see more deeply what we need to do in our lives. This provides us with a great reference point, and helps guide us along.

I want to emphasise that this is not about being hard on ourselves. When we talk of seeing one’s self as a “foe,” for instance — as it is stated in the traditional teachings — I particularly want people not to take this statement in a negative personal light and beat themselves up, because that is not the proper practice here. The practice is meant to increase our relaxation, increase our spaciousness and detachment, not to overwhelm us with judgments and self-aggression. Please understand that this is a very fine line, especially in the West. You have to be very discerning to know when you’re becoming self-aggressive or getting into a heavyhanded, ineffective way of relating to your mind. Truly letting go of your attachments and grasping to the self requires your critical intelligence, awareness, and perceptiveness. Avoiding self-aggression requires a very keen interest, and the knowledge that there is an entire lineage which stands behind this way of working with the mind. And that lineage is not neurotic.

When we are aggressive toward ourselves, there is often a lot of attachment already present. Because we’re attached to seeing ourselves as “good” or “special,” we become aggressive toward ourselves. We’re talking about letting go of all grasping to the self. People who are very aggressive toward themselves are often perfectionists. They cannot relax sufficiently. They often can’t apply their intelligence skillfully because they are too fixated on their agenda or on comparing themselves to others. Let’s also admit that this happens from time to time with each of us. So it is important to know there exists a non-neurotic way of working with our mind, and we need to figure out how to do it. Much of this is detailed in the teachings, but we still have to find our own personal path within that context. Otherwise, we may find ourselves converting the Buddhist teachings into self-aggression, beating up on ourselves. Since we already have this tendency naturally, adding to it won’t do us any good at all.

So, it is very important to separate these two things: truly learning to let go, and being hard on yourself. Patrul Rinpoche, the nineteenth century master, says many times that although two things may look similar, we need to know how to distinguish them. I think becoming clear about this particular distinction is very important, especially for Westerners, for whom issues of self-esteem are often problematic. So I’m taking the time to explain this idea thoroughly, rather than assuming that people already understand it.

In other words, people have to develop their sense of renunciation even further. For this, people have to develop greater joy in renouncing negativity and grasping to the self. The joy has to come from deep within, because this is related to effective practice, to becoming free. It’s common sense to realize that before you can make any change you have to see what the problem is. If you are truly interested in letting go of a problem, then seeing the problem clearly should be joyful. There’s a saying: “Applying diligence must come from great joy within.” So I don’t want people to take these teachings in the wrong way. It’s not at all about becoming a martyr. It’s about getting free from grasping to the self. Okay? There’s a big difference!

Once one has entered the path of the Buddha’s teachings, one should learn how to practice correctly, or else dharma practice can become a fault. Gampopa said, “If you do not practise the Dharma according to the Dharma, the Dharma itself becomes the cause of falling into the lower realms.” Some who practise the Dharma nevertheless fall into the lower realms. Therefore, it is very important that we understand how to actually engage in practice, to know the essence of the teachings, the application methods, and the desired results. Only then will one’s dharma path be unerring.

— Garchen Rinpoche