The Four Noble Truths
by Khensur Jampa Tegchok Rinpoche
The Buddha “turned the Dharma wheel” — that is, he gave sets of teachings — three times. In the first turning of the Dharma wheel in Varanasi in northern India, he taught the four noble truths. As we saw above in the section on the middling capacity, the four noble truths are true duhkha, true origins, true cessations, and true paths. For each of these four, the Buddha prescribed a particular activity. He said true duhkha — all the unsatisfactory and suffering situations involved in being born under the influence of afflictions and contaminated karma — is to be known and understood. Once we clearly understand the three kinds of duhkha, the natural result is that we will want to be free of them.
The way to be free of them is to eliminate their causes — the afflictive obscurations, which are the afflictions and karma that cause rebirth in samsara without choice. Therefore the Buddha explained true origins, stating, “True origins are to be abandoned.”
When we rid ourselves of the origins of all duhkha, we attain true cessation. By means of meditating on the ultimate nature of reality, the afflictions and defilements that are the origin of all our duhkha can be completely removed from the mind in such a way that they never reappear. Thus the Buddha said true cessation, the third of the four noble truths, is to be actualised or manifested. When all afflictions, their seeds, and the karma that causes rebirth have ceased, we attain liberation, the state of being free of cyclic existence.
Liberation is freedom from all of the duhkha of the six realms of cyclic existence. When we attain liberation, true cessation, which is the extinction of all afflictive obscurations — that is, the nonexistence or purity of the afflictive obscurations — is attained in our mind at the same time. So liberation and cessation come down to the same thing. It is like looking at the same object from different angles.
The way to actualise true cessations is by practising true paths, the fourth of the four noble truths. Thus the Buddha said true paths are to be cultivated and to be meditated on. The main true path is the direct realisation of emptiness. The emptiness of true duhkha is meditated on to abandon afflictions pertaining to true duhkha; the emptiness of true origins is meditated on to abandon afflictions pertaining to true origins, and so on for the rest of the four noble truths. Although there is a slight difference in subtlety between the afflictions pertaining to true duhkha and those pertaining to true origins and in how difficult they are to abandon, there is no difference between the emptiness of those two truths. It is the same with the other truths.
Previously I said that the last two noble truths — true cessation and true path — are the Dharma Jewel that is our real refuge. Now we understand why. Actualising the eradication of duhkha and defilements in our own mindstream and realising the paths leading to that is what protects us from duhkha. There is no other door to peace or nirvana. No external being can protect us in this way.
In the second turning of the Dharma wheel, the Buddha taught such sutras as the Perfection of Wisdom sutras that explain the emptiness of inherent existence. The Heart Sutra that we recite at the beginning of teachings comes from this turning of the Dharma wheel that was done primarily at Vulture’s Peak in Rajragriha, India. In the third turning of the Dharma wheel, the Buddha taught sutras such as the Sutra Unravelling the Thought, in which he taught the tenets that became the Chittamatra system. At that time, he also taught the tathagatagarbha, or buddha nature.
Now those of you who are new to Buddhism also have a basic idea of the Buddhist worldview. While older students will already be familiar with these concepts, it is good to review them. I don’t think you will have much trouble understanding these ideas on an intellectual level because you have had a good education that encourages you to investigate and think about things. You can build on this by reading, studying, attending teachings, and contemplating what you have learned.