Three Vehicles, Four Noble Truths
by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
I would like to welcome everybody who has come from many parts of the country to listen to the teachings, tashi deleg to you all. Tonight there is going to be a general introduction to Dharma. Generally speaking, in Tibetan, when you talk about a practitioner, sanje nampa means a person who is studying something inner. We have inner and outer aspects and the inner aspect means learning about one’s mind, which is within. So that is what it means to be a Buddhist.
Our mind is very important and all our experiences of happiness and unhappiness arise in the mind. So if we can train our minds then happiness will arise naturally. This happiness is real lasting peace which you will have in the external environment as well as in your inner mind.
What are the main teachings of the Buddha? The teaching is that one should pacify one’s mind. So one should generate inner peace in one’s mind. Buddha taught three different gradual paths to help us realise inner peace within our minds. They are Hinayana, Mahayana and the Secret Vajrayana. This is all the different of Buddhist teachings brought into three special points.
So why is it necessary that the Buddha taught in three different ways or three different paths? He presented the teaching in such a way because sentient beings of the world have different types of mind, different characteristics. Some people have very open, vast minds, some people have a very closed type mind. For that reason the Buddha taught varying techniques, not just one. However if one reaches the very end of any of the three paths, the result is the same, the final result is complete enlightenment.
You can have an example of this. We arrived from London today. How did I arrive? I came in a car. I came along one particular path or road. It is possible for another person to have taken a plane and come from London and arrive at Samye Ling. The airport is a little bit further away. It is also possible that a man might come from London to Samye Ling by walking. Who would arrive first? The person who came in the airplane would be the one you would think would arrive first. The slowest approach to Samye Ling from London would be by walking and the medium would be in a motorcar. But the quickest and swiftest way to arrive in Samye Ling would be by plane.
But whichever of the three methods you choose to come from London to Samye Ling, you always end up in the same place; the final destination will be Samye Ling. Some people prefer to go in a plane. Some people don’t like flying, so they prefer to go in a car. Some people are frightened of flying, they think the plane is going to crash and they can’t drive either, because they become extremely carsick. So they have no alternative but to walk. Eventually they’ll get here. Likewise we as human beings want to reach the level of enlightenment. So whether we have followed the path of Hinayana, Mahayana or Secret Mantra Vajrayana, that’s up to our own feeling of connection, how our mind is with these particular paths. Whichever we follow, we get to the same final destination. That was the general explanation of the three types of vehicles, three paths.
The teachings that the Buddha manifested when he turned the Wheel of Dharma can be condensed into Four Noble Truths. All the entire teachings of Hinayana, Mahayana and the Secret Mantra Vajrayana are contained in these Four Noble Truths. What are the Four Noble Truths? The first one is the Truth of Suffering and the second one is the Truth of Origination. The third one is the Truth of Cessation and the fourth noble truth is the Truth of the Path. There we have the four.
If a being wants to reach the level of complete enlightenment, they need to understand these Four Noble Truths. What is the reason for that? The Buddha has given an example. The first truth is like sickness and the second is the cause of sickness. The third one is how to live happily and in prosperity and the fourth is a medicine. If you put all these together, do you think you will be free of illness? If you don’t have illness in the first place, then you can’t become free of illness. You can’t become better, can you, if there is no illness in the first instance? If we say: “becoming better” or “getting over a sickness”, it means that we have to have somebody who is sick in the first place. To be free of sickness, how do we achieve that? We need to understand the cause of sickness. If we manage to understand the cause of sickness and we can pacify it, what happens to us? We will be able to live in happiness and prosperity.
How do we obtain the ability to live happily and in a prosperous state? By taking various medicines. You could also have a few operations! What I really mean is that whatever the doctor says, you listen to him. The doctor might say, “Don’t eat sweet things because they will be harmful to your body.”
If you rely on these three points:1. the type of activity one performs, 2. the type of food one consumes 3. the type of medicine one takes, then one will definitely free oneself from sickness. To free ourselves of sickness we combine the four examples just mentioned.
There is a connection between this and the teachings of the Buddha. The first example of sickness is like the first Truth of Suffering. The cause of sickness, which is the second example, is related to the Truth of Origination. The ability to live happily and in a prosperous state is connected with the Truth of Cessation. The ability to live happily and prosperously is due to a cause. What is that cause? It is the fourth example, which is medicine, which is related to the Truth of Path. This is an explanation of the Four Truths presented by the Buddha.
How can we understand how to practise with these Four Truths? We need to know about the truth of suffering. What do we need to know about suffering? The Truth of Origination means that we have to know what is it we need to abandon. The Truth of Cessation means we have to know what we need to obtain. The Truth of the Path means we have to know what we can depend on. If you can understand these four aspects, realise the meaning properly, then you will understand the general meaning of all of the Buddhadharma which is taught.
How do we understand this Truth of Suffering? How do we remove suffering? Suffering has to remove itself. How do we accomplish that? First of all, we have to understand about suffering. Normally in our minds we have misconceptions, thinking that things are permanent and also we are ignorant of the nature of suffering. As much as you have in your mind a fixed idea that things are permanent; as much as you are ignorant of the nature of things and have great grasping; that is how much you will suffer.
Some people think that they shouldn’t think about suffering at all, and even back away from the word. The person who has this idea does not suffer less. In fact their suffering can become greater. But the majority of suffering that we tend to experience is illusory, not real. If one observes suffering, the suffering will disappear. and we will naturally understand the nature of suffering. If one naturally understands the nature of suffering, it will naturally disappear. So then recognising or understanding the nature of suffering is very important. I will give you an example.
This example is to do with a man who is very scared of snakes. He was constantly thinking: “I don’t want to meet snakes, snakes are very bad for me.” Even if he heard the word “snake” he became scared. But he had a bad friend. So the man who feared snakes was in his house. The light wasn’t good inside, and outside it was dark. The man was at his home quite happily but then the door opened all of a sudden, and his bad friend was there. He had a thin rope in his hand, and he rushed to the man throwing the rope over his head. As the rope fell over the man, who was sitting down on the floor, the bad guy said, “Oh dear, there is a snake on your head!.” When the rope fell on the ground the man who had the fear of snakes thought he had seen a snake, and the rope seemed to move from side to side. “There is a real snake!” He thought he was in great danger and suffered greatly. He couldn’t move and his hair stood on end. “What am I going to do?”
Of course what he had seen was not a snake at all, it was just a thin rope, but the man did not recognise it. Because of that misunderstanding, the non-recognition of the fact that it was a piece of rope, he had a lot of suffering. In reality it was a piece of rope, but his skin was crawling and he was unable to walk – this was all meaningless suffering, wasn’t it? At that moment, what kind of method could he use? The method would be to recognise the thin piece of rope to be just that: a thin piece of rope.
Another friend came. This was a good friend and he said, “That’s not a snake on the floor, look, it’s just a piece of a thin rope.” What a release! Wonderful! All the suffering he had a moment ago had completely gone. He could go where he wanted to and also he picked up the rope. Yet at the beginning he wasn’t able even to look at the rope, because he thought it was a snake.
The first Truth of Suffering means to be aware of and really recognise suffering: what suffering is and how to remove it. This is related to the Truth of Suffering. If we understand the real nature of suffering and how it is, then this is related to relative truth. One will naturally understand relative truth. If one has understanding of this natural state of relative truth, that will give one the power to dispel many types of unnecessary suffering, which one normally goes through. We have many types of meaningless suffering.
I’m travelling around the world, going to many countries and seeing many types of people. And many different kinds of people have conversations with me. There are many people who have all kinds of meaningless problems, meaningless suffering. Most of them are in the West. I’m not talking just about England or Scotland. So, one person came up to speak to me. He said: “Normally I like to drive my car. I am very happy driving, but I have one problem. I can’t drive a car with this problem.” “What’s the problem?” My particular problem is that when I drive and come to traffic lights, I am afraid the traffic lights are going to fall over and hit me on the head. That prevents me from driving, because I’m so frightened of the traffic lights. I’m driving along looking out, in case I meet a traffic light and I can’t drive very well because I’m waiting to see the traffic light.”
That kind of suffering is completely without reason or meaning. There are many problems like that, many sufferings. But if one knew the natural state of the relative truth, that kind of suffering would be dispelled. If one understands the natural state of relative truth and also the nature of emptiness, then all of this meaningless suffering will diminish. Also one’s grasping will diminish.
Now I have a question. I am not asking you, I’m asking myself. You don’t have to worry! So then, we had a thin piece of rope on the table and we thought that was a snake. The good friend came along and said it was a piece of rope, so therefore the suffering was removed. What would have happened if the bad friend had got the rope, which I thought was a snake, and tied it around my neck? At that moment when I knew it was a rope, it would not have been any use for the bad friend to tie it around my neck. What kind of method do we have there? This is the first stage of wisdom. So it’s not enough for you to understand this, we have to go into it in a deeper way.
So, just understanding that a rope is a rope is not enough, but we should understand that the rope is a rope, and there is no point in tying it around the neck. The way we progress or go deeper into understanding of wisdom is understanding emptiness. The understanding of the nature of emptiness is connected with the third truth, the Truth of Cessation. If one really understood completely the nature of emptiness, one would not be able to have the rope tied around one’s neck. Taking an example of Milarepa, the great saint of Tibet, he couldn’t be burned by fire, he could walk through walls or rocks unobstructedly, and no harm could come to him. What’s the reason for that? His body is emptiness and the fire is emptiness, how can the fire of emptiness burn the body of emptiness? If one understands completely the nature of emptiness, this kind of result will happen. If the bad friend tied the rope around one’s neck, there wouldn’t be anybody to have the rope tied around.
Even though we have had a brief explanation of emptiness, it’s not complete, so it wouldn’t be any good for you to jump into fire, you would be burned. That’s just a general explanation of suffering.
Then we’ll talk about the second truth, which is the truth of origination. Related to that are the conflicting emotions in the mind, and karma. The real source of suffering is conflicting emotions in the mind, anger, pride, jealousy etc. and along with that, great grasping. Grasping, along with the five mind poisons, causes us to experience a lot of suffering and problems. If a person has a lot of anger within them, they never gain a state of peace. When they see other people, they think that these people are looking at them with harmful intent. So they just sit there and look at other people thinking: that man is staring me strangely. If one has this great anger within oneself, these experiences will arise. If I put on yellow tinted spectacles, when I look at a house which was painted white I won’t perceive it as white, I shall perceive it as yellow. If I put blue lenses on, I will perceive everything to be blue. If I put green lenses on, I will perceive everything to be green.
So, if we have any of these five mind poisons to a great degree, then we will never be able to obtain a state of peace. Along with these mind poisons we perform activities of negative karma, and the joint result of these is experiencing lot of suffering. If we can clear away the conflicting emotions, then we won’t generate karma; that will be cut off, obstructed. If we don’t generate karma then we don’t generate the cause to experience the fruition, which is suffering, and that will be removing the Truth of Suffering. Finally the karma itself and the suffering will both be eliminated. Then if you want to jump in the fire, it’s okay. If you can dispel all your suffering, then all illusions will also be liberated.
In general, if anyone of us experiences illness, to get rid of the illness, what kind of method can we use? If we can remove or stop the cause of the illness, then the illness will be dispelled. Now I’m going to ask you a question. It’s not difficult.
There is a tall house and on the roof there is a small hole. Through the hole the rain comes drip by drip. It falls down to the floorboards which become rotten over time and all the carpets get soaked. What can we do at that point?
Answer: Sell the house.
Rinpoche. That’s one method. But it’s not the first solution.
Answer: Block the hole. Get a bucket. Stop the rain.
Rinpoche: How can you stop the rain actually?
Answer: That’s why I’m here!
Rinpoche: I’m going to tell you what I think is the best method is to block the hole. If you don’t block the hole, the rain is going to continue to drop down. If you put a bucket or any container there, eventually it will be filled up and spill over. You can also wipe up every drop as it drops down. It never ends, because you haven’t addressed the real problem which is the cause of the rain drops. If you recognise straight away, “There are rain drops falling through the ceiling”, you go up, see the hole, fix it and all is fine. You don’t need to get tired out by cleaning up.
If you can remove the cause of suffering or illness, the suffering or illness will not arise again. If we don’t succeed in really removing all the causes of the illness, it will arise again at some point in the future. You might take one type of medicine and it temporarily cures it, but again it will arise. So it’s not completely removed. It will go on like this, until one really addresses the point, which is removing the whole of the cause. That was the explanation of the second truth, Truth of Origination.
The third truth is the Truth of Cessation. Related to the Truth of Cessation is recognising emptiness and the nature of one’s mind. Emptiness and the nature of one’s mind, which is Buddha nature or Buddha essence are not different, they are actually inseparable. What is the nature of this natural state of the mind, this Buddha nature? It has complete happiness and joy; it doesn’t have any suffering or illness. It’s like that all the time. That is what we call resting in happiness. That is related to the example of living happily and in prosperity. The Buddha has told us that all sentient beings who possess mind all have Buddha nature. Every single being has that. Buddhists and non Buddhists alike have that. Whether you are a religious person or not religious at all, you have that. It’s the same. Also with human beings and animals it’s the same. All beings of the six realms of existence possess Buddha nature. Also the Buddha has Buddha nature. The Buddha nature that the Buddha possesses and the Buddha nature that I possess or each of us possess, is exactly the same, there is no difference. You don’t say that the difference between us and the Buddha is that the Buddha is excellent and I’m bad, the Buddha is excellent and we are also excellent. But because we don’t know that, we are wandering in samsara. It is ignorance about our Buddha nature that makes us wander in samsara. I shall give an example.
There is a man with a big lump of gold. He is driving along in a car and the big lump of gold falls out of the window into mud. He goes up and down but he can’t find the gold. He gives up and drives off. After one thousand years the gold is still in the mud. One day someone comes cleaning the road. If he cleaned it with a machine, he wouldn’t know anything about the gold, but he is cleaning it by hand. While cleaning up the dirt he finds this big lump of gold. He cleans all impurities, mud and stains from it. It becomes very bright and shiny and he puts it on top of his shrine. Now I’m going to ask a question: the gold which was hidden in the mud for a thousand years and the gold which is put on the shrine, which one is the most precious?
Answer: They are the same.
Rinpoche: Yes, they have got the same essence. The absolute truth is like that. The essence of the gold is the same. That is the example given by the Buddha. So the essence of the Buddha and our essence is identical. So then, if the gold is in the mud or the gold is clean on the shrine it’s the same. We are rather like the piece of gold which is covered by mud. The illusions are obscuring us, covering us up. There is the illusion of our impure body, the illusions of the various phenomena that appear to us, different appearances, this is the illusion. And also we have the illusions of birth and death and sickness. But if we understand completely the nature of emptiness of phenomena and our natural state, which is nature of mind, Buddha nature, then gradually over time we will completely purify all the illusions. At that point we will really be able to live happily and in prosperity and we will be like the Buddha, the same. That’s the explanation of the Truth of Cessation.
The fourth truth is the Truth of the Path. The Buddha has taught us the Path in a gradual way. There are two aspects to the path. There is the preliminary practice and the main practice. Within the preliminary practice, divide that into two points, the ordinary preliminaries and the extraordinary preliminaries. Also there are two further divisions in the main practice: shine and lhaktong. This is all related to the Truth of Path.
We depend on or rely on the Truth of the Path. If we practise and depend upon the idea of the Truth of the Path, we will gain a glimpse of our Buddha nature. Slowly, slowly it will become clearer, and eventually the final result will be that we achieve complete enlightenment. That is the explanation of the fourth truth, the Truth of the Path. If you have questions, please ask.
Question: Is all suffering meaningless?
Rinpoche: The answer will be given in a form of an example. So, we have the rope, which we had before. Seeing the rope as a snake, the misperception of a rope to be a snake, that’s meaningless suffering. But then, if you think of the perception of a rope being a rope, that’s related to conventional truth, relative truth and at that point it’s true. It’s true because of the experience of relative truth. But ultimately the rope doesn’t exist even as a rope. So then if one understands the nature of emptiness of phenomena and the natural state of one’s mind as Buddha nature, then the grasping at the idea of a rope being a rope is dispelled. If you want to put this in a brief answer: yes, all suffering is meaningless.
Q: Why does ignorance happen?
R: It is because we don’t recognise Buddha nature, our essence, and therefore we engender suffering. We don’t understand the emptiness of phenomena.
Q: How does ignorance come about?
R: There is no beginning. You can’t say that there is a point when I didn’t have ignorance. Up until now I have had it. The whole of space is beginningless, endless. There is no beginning and no end. Some people have come up with the big bang theory, that space becomes shortened, compressed. They call that space. But the Buddha has stated that that is not space, he doesn’t describe space like that. The Buddha has said that space is unobstructed and permeates everywhere. If you want to persist with the big bang theory, the big bang has to happen within something, it has to have some kind of parameters to big bang in. If there aren’t parameters, how can you big bang? Sentient beings are said to be like endless space, limitless.
Q: If there is no beginning, how can we hope for the end of suffering?
R: You can have no beginning and yet experience ending. For example, if you have a seed and you burn it, it won’t give rise to a shoot. So, there is an end of samsara. There is no end to the nature of one’s mind. If we eliminate impure perceptions or illusions, there is no need for us to travel around in samsara anymore. If you burn a seed, the ashes will not produce a shoot.
Q: Will there be a time when all sentient beings have gained enlightenment?
R: It is actually difficult, because sentient beings are limitless.
Q: How in everyday life can you see the purest self?
R: The best method is to understand the nature of emptiness of phenomena and to realise the nature of one’s mind, the Buddha nature. I’m going to show you an example. Please look. Now I’m rolling the paper into a tube. First of all we train in realising or understanding the nature of emptiness of phenomena. After that gradually we start to understand the nature of the mind. When one is practising the understanding of emptiness and the nature of mind, first one has little understanding of it. Then gradually one repeats the training again and again and then one’s experience or understanding will become greater and greater.
This is an example of illusion. From beginningless time samsara has been evolving round and round like this: illusion, rebirth, samsara (the paper is rolled tightly). Holding into everything, grasping. Now we understand emptiness – it becomes a little bit looser (Rinpoche lets go of his grip from the roll which opens a little). Again one practises and one’s realisation becomes greater. (He pulls the roll into a plain sheet. When he lets go of his grip the paper rolls back into a roll.) When you go outside you lose it! Again you think: “Everything is emptiness.” Then it becomes very vast. (He pulls the paper back into a sheet.) Then you drink a cup of tea. (Rinpoche lets go of his grip and the paper rolls up again.) Again you lose it. Every time you realise about emptiness it’s a little bit better than before. (The paper starts to stay flat.) Again and again you practise until you reach enlightenment, complete Buddhahood. Then one completely pacifies all the illusions.