The Understanding of the Four Noble Truths
Attachment, lobha, and aversion, dosa, frequently arise in our daily life. We know in theory that they are dhammas, non-self, but when they arise, do we realize them as only nama elements? We notice it when we have dosa but we think about “our dosa” or name it dosa, instead of realizing it as a nama element.
Lobha and dosa are cetasikas accompanying akusala citta. In theory we know that citta is different from cetasika. Citta experiences an object, it is the chief in knowing the object, and the accompanying cetasikas that share the same object have each their own characteristic and function.
Lobha and dosa are different cetasikas. We can begin to be aware of them when they appear, but only when panna has been developed to the stage of insight knowledge can it clearly see lobha and dosa as nama elements devoid of self. At this moment we still confuse the characteristic of nama such as seeing with rupa such as visible object, and thus, we are bound to take them for self. It is necessary to listen to the Dhamma and consider it over and over again, otherwise there is no foundation for right awareness of nama and rupa. This should not discourage us, we can continue to study with awareness any kind of reality that appears. This kind of study is the beginning of understanding the characteristics of realities. Acharn Sujin said:
“Intellectual understanding is not enough, it is only thinking about realities. But knowing this is in itself a condition for right awareness. Awareness can arise very naturally. We touch many things in a day without awareness. When there is a moment of right understanding, there is sati, samadhi (concentration or one-pointedness) and effort, and there is no need to think, “I should try more.” There is effort already.
The understanding of non-self will grow. Nobody can condition anything, even a reality such as sound. Sound arises when there are conditions for it. Who can do anything? There are conditions for each reality.”
Effort, viriya, is a cetasika arising with many cittas, it can accompany akusala citta and kusala citta. Thus, when there is mindfulness of a nama or rupa, effort, viriya, accompanies the kusala citta. With regard to concentration, samadhi, this is a cetasika that accompanies each citta, thus also the kusala citta with mindfulness. We should not try to focus on one particular dhamma, then there is a concept of self who selects an object of mindfulness and that is a hindrance to the development of panna.
The last day of a long and strenuous bus journey we traveled from Gaya to Nalanda and then on to Patna. The road from Gaya to Nalanda was full of deep holes, and while the bus was trying to avoid these holes it was rocking to and fro, from side to side, like a boat going on a rough sea. We had lunch in the Thai monastery of Nalanda where we offered dana to the monks. After Nalanda the bus was frequently held up in the towns and villages where huge, sometimes frightening crowds celebrated the last day of the Hindu festival of Durka Pujja. We arrived in Patna around nine in the evening and this was the end of our two weeks journey. This extremely long day caused me to have severe stomach aches while sitting in the bus and during these moments I was considering painful feeling and pondering over it.
Later on, in Patna, Acharn Sujin reminded me of the difference between awareness and thinking:
“There is still the
idea of, ‘it is my pain’. Even though pain has a characteristic it is still
me, me, me. There can be thinking, ‘pain is not mine, it is just a reality’,
but pain arises and falls away while there is
thinking about it. Do we really know nama and rupa? We should know that pain is a reality which is nama, but is there development of understanding of any kind of dhamma so that insight knowledge, vipassana nana can arise? Everyone knows that there is pain, but it is ‘my pain’ until it is understood as just a reality. The concept of me or mine is deeply rooted, until understanding is developed to the stage that nama is realized as nama and rupa as rupa.
There can be awareness of a reality as nama, as just the reality that experiences, even if it is not clear yet. It is developing, there can be some understanding of the characteristic of nama. When panna has been developed to the degree of vipassana nana the understanding of nama and rupa will be clearer. How can that degree of understanding arise if there are no moments of developing understanding now? Panna has to begin.”
When sati of satipatthana arises, it can be aware of realities that appear through the six doorways. One can begin to be aware of nama, the reality that experiences, and rupa, the reality that does not experience, even though their characteristics are not yet clearly understood. There can gradually more understanding of nama and rupa. There are seven kinds of rupa that appear all the time in daily life: visible object appears through the eye-door, sound through the ear-door, odour through the nose-door, and flavour through the tongue-door. Through the bodysense there is the experience of solidity, appearing as hardness or softness, temperature, appearing as heat or cold, and motion, appearing as motion or pressure. After these rupas have been experienced through their relevant sense-doors, they are experienced through the mind-door. Afterwards other mind-door processes of cittas arise that know concepts on account of the rupas that have been experienced. Processes of cittas experiencing rupas through the sense-door and then through the mind-door arise and fall away extremely rapidly. We do not notice it that a particular rupa is experienced through the mind-door after it has been experienced through a sense-door. We are ignorant of the mind-door process. Namas, citta and cetasika, are experienced only through the mind-door. When there is awareness of seeing it has arisen in a sense-door process and then fallen away, but its characteristic still appears and it can be object of mindfulness arising in another process.
We listen to the Dhamma and in this way we have more understanding of the reality appearing at this moment, be it nama or rupa, be it kusala or akusala. When understanding based on listening has been developed there are conditions for the arising of direct awareness of the characteristics of nama and rupa as they appear one at a time. When satipatthana has been developed more thoroughly, stages of vipassana nana, insight knowledge, can be reached. The first stage is: distinguishing the difference between the characteristic of nama and the characteristic of rupa, nama-rupa-pariccheda-nana. This kind of panna realizes through the mind-door the difference between nama and rupa. A moment of insight knowledge is different from the moments when nama and rupa seem to appear together, such as seeing and visible object. When insight knowledge arises there is no self, nama and rupa appear one at a time as non-self. There is no world, no thinking of concepts of person or thing, there is nothing else appearing but nama and rupa.
When nama and rupa appear as they are through the mind-door, there is no doubt about what nama is and what rupa is, and no confusion about what the mind-door is. There is no thinking about the different doorways, the cittas arising in a sense-door process and the mind-door process succeed one another extremely rapidly. After the moments of vipassana nana have fallen away, doubt arises again, and thus, one has to continue developing insight so that the following stages of vipassana nana can arise. However, one should be detached and not try to reach higher stages. Acharn Sujin said:
“Ignorance and desire are hindrances to the development of vipassana. One should not be interested in it whether the next stage of vipassana nana arises or not, otherwise there are expectations again. It does not matter when the next stage of vipassana nana arises. With vipassana nana panna has reached another level. Panna is non-self.”
So long as enlightenment has not been attained, the idea of self has not been eradicated yet and one has to continue developing satipatthana so that higher stages of insight can be reached and eventually enlightenment can be attained.
At this moment lobha and dosa may appear, but they do not appear as merely dhammas, elements devoid of self. Acharn Sujin said, “Kusala and akusala appear, but it is “us” all the time. We think of kusala that has fallen away with an idea of self.” Someone asked, when lobha and dosa are realized as only namas, whether their different characteristics are also known. They have different characteristics but now we do not know yet as namas. When panna has been developed to the degree of insight knowledge, their characteristics do not change, but they are realized as nama elements devoid of self. Panna realizes akusala as dhamma and kusala as dhamma, it realizes all that appears as dhamma.
We discussed different sounds that can be loud or soft, and different flavours that can be sweet or sour. Someone wondered whether these different characteristics appear when there is awareness and they are realized as just rupa. Acharn Sujin answered:
“Citta can experience everything, there is no need to use the names low or loud sound. Citta can know everything and panna can understand everything that appears.”
It is the same with the different flavours, their characteristics cannot be altered; they are, for example, sweet or sour and they appear as such. Panna can realize them as only rupa, and this is different from thinking of concepts, such as an apple that is sour or sugar that is sweet. There can be awareness of realities as they naturally appear, we should not imagine that there is a neutral sound or a neutral flavour.
Someone had doubts whether it would ever be possible to attain insight knowledge. Acharn Sujin answered that what the Buddha taught is the truth and that what is true can be realized. If we do not know the characteristic of the reality appearing at this moment we cannot realize the four noble Truths and become enlighhtened. The understanding of the four noble Truths is not merely knowing their names: the noble truth of dukkha, of the origin of dukkha, of the cessation of dukkha and of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Dukkha is the truth that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent and thus unsatisfactory, that they are no refuge. The origin of dukkha is craving: so long as there is craving we are in the cycle of birth and death and there is no end to dukkha. The cessation of dukkha is nibbana. The way leading to the cessation of dukkha is the eightfold Path. The Truth of dukkha has to be understood, the Truth of the origin of dukkha, craving, has to be abandoned, the Truth of the cessation of dukkha, nibbana, has to be realized, and the Truth of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha has to be developed.
We read in the “Kindred Sayings” (V, The Great Chapter, Kindred Sayings about the Truths, Ch 2, The Foundation of the Kingdom of the Dhamma), that the Buddha, when he was dwelling at Isipatana, in the Deer-park, explained to the five disciples the four noble Truths. The Commentary to this Sutta, the “Saratthappakasini, explains about three “rounds” or intertwined phases 1 of realizing the four noble Truths:
knowledge of the truth,
knowledge of the task that has to be performed, kicca nana
knowledge of the task that has been done, kata nana 2
We read in the Sutta referred to above (in # 2) that the Buddha, after he explained the four noble Truths, said:
Monks, at the thought: This is the noble Truth about dukkha, - there arose in me, concerning things unlearnt before by Tathagatas 3, vision, insight, understanding and wisdom, there arose in me light. Monks, at the thought: This noble Truth about dukkha is to be understood... At the thought: This noble Truth about dukkha has been understood (by me),- there arose in me, concerning things unlearnt before by Tathagatas, vision, insight, understanding and wisdom, there arose in me light.
Monks, at the thought: This is the noble Truth about the arising of dukkha... there arose in me light. Monks, at the thought: This arising of dukkha must be put away... Monks, at the thought: This arising of dukkha has been put away... there arose in me light.
In the same way the Buddha explained about the third noble Truth, the ceasing of dukkha: the comprehension of it, knowledge of the task, namely, that it is to be realized, and knowledge that it has been realized. He explained about the fourth noble Truth, the way leading to the ceasing of dukkha: the comprehension of it, knowledge of the task, namely that it has to be developed, and knowledge that it has been developed.
Acharn Sujin referred very often to these three “rounds” or phases and explained that without the first phase, the firm understanding of what the four noble Truths are, there cannot be the second phase, the performing of the task, that is, satipatthana, nor the third phase, the fruit of the practice, that is, the penetration of the true nature of realities.
With regard to the first phase, she said that there should be the firm intellectual understanding of the first noble Truth, and that means understanding that there is dhamma at this moment, that everything that appears is dhamma. Dukkha is the characteristic of dhamma that arises and falls away at this moment.
We cannot control what has arisen because of conditions. It only lasts for an extremely short time, it has to fall away. When seeing appears there cannot be hearing, hearing must have fallen away. There can only be one citta at a time experiencing an object. Seeing, hearing or thinking are insignificant dhammas that arise just for an extremely short moment and are then gone. They are impermanent and thus dukkha, unsatisfactory.
As regards the second noble Truth, we should thoroughly understand that attachment is the cause of dukkha. We should realize it when we cling to the idea of self. When we are seeing, thinking or considering the Dhamma there may be an idea of self who does so. When we are looking for ways and means to have more awareness, we cling to wrong practice, a form of wrong view, ditthi, which causes us to deviate from the right Path. Wrong practice prevents us from naturally developing the understanding of realities. It is necessary to have a keener and more refined knowledge of attachment, otherwise it cannot be eradicated. We can find out that it arises countless times, more often than we ever thought.
As regards the third noble Truth, this is nibbana, and nibbana means the end of clinging and all other defilements. We should have the firm intellectual understanding that detachment and the eradication of defilements is the goal. We should be convinced that it is possible to attain this goal if we follow the right Path.
As regards the fourth Noble Truth, the way leading to the end of dukkha, we should have the firm understanding that the development of satipatthana is the only way leading to this goal. We should understand the difference between right view and wrong view. When we are really convinced that there is no other way but the development of satipatthana, we shall not deviate from the right Path. Thus, we should not follow after the past nor desire for the future, we should be aware of any reality appearing now.
When we listen to the Dhamma and consider what we hear the intellectual understanding of realities, that is, the first phase, sacca nana, gradually develops and then it can condition the arising of satipatthana. This means that the second phase, knowledge of the task, kicca nana, begins to develop. The practice, patipatti, is actually knowledge of the task that is to be performed, kicca nana. Thus, there are different levels of panna: intellectual understanding based on listening to the Dhamma, and panna accompanied by sati that is directly aware of the characteristics of realities appearing now through one of the six doorways.
These are the dhammas we studied and considered before, but now they can gradually be verified and directly understood. Knowing the difference between the moment there is no sati but only thinking about nama and rupa, and the moment there is awareness of one characteristic of nama or rupa at a time is the beginning of the development of satipatthana. Gradually we shall realize nama as nama, and rupa as rupa, we shall realize their different characteristics.
When one has reached the second phase, knowledge of the task or the practice, the first phase, intellectual understanding of the truth, is not abandoned but develops further. One understands more deeply what the four noble Truths are and one sees more clearly that satipatthana, awareness of what appears now is the only way leading to detachment from the idea of self and to nibbana which is the end of defilements. The clinging to self is deeply accumulated and very persistent. When panna develops it sees even the more subtle clinging to a self or the clinging to sati. A moment of right awareness is very short and attachment can arise in alternation with clinging. If panna is not keen enough, one will deviate from the right Path. There cannot be immediately clear understanding of realities, but we can begin to develop understanding of the realities we used to take for people, beings and things.
Acharn Sujin reminded us that we should not move away from the present moment and that we should abandon desire for sati. She said that it seems that we wish to develop sati, reach the stages of insight and attain enlightenment, all for our own sake. However, the goal of the development of satipatthana should be understanding of the truth of anatta, thus, the truth that there is no “me”.
When the first stage of insight knowledge arises, panna has reached a higher level. At the first stage of insight the difference between nama and rupa is realized, but not yet their arising and falling away. As we have seen, there is at that moment no notion of self, no world, only nama and rupa. Although there is some result of the development of satipatthana, panna has to be developed further. One begins to realize the arising and falling away of realities at the third stage of insight knowledge, and more fully at the fourth stage that is called the first stage of maha-vipassana nana. In the course of the different stages of insight panna penetrates more thoroughly the three characteristics of impermanence, dukkha and anatta, and it realizes the danger and disadvantages of conditioned dhammas, of nama and rupa. Panna sees the unconditioned dhamma, nibbana, as true peace, as the deliverance from conditioned dhammas. When finally nibbana is attained, the four noble Truths are penetrated, and the third phase, kata nana, which through the successive stages of insight knowledge has gradually been developing, has been fulfilled. Then, the task that had to be done has been done.
When the third phase
develops, the first and the second phases are not finished or abandoned,
they also develop together with it. Thus we see that there are many degrees
in each of the three phases of knowledge of the four noble Truths. They
are intertwined phases. When the first stage of enlightenment, the stage
of the “streamwinner”, sotapanna, is attained, the latent tendency of wrong
view and of doubt about realities is completely eradicated. However, before
enlightenment was attained, the tendencies to wrong view and doubt were
gradually being eliminated by the development of insight, otherwise they
could not become completely eradicated. After the first stage of enlightenment
has been attained, panna has to develop further to the second, the third
and the fourth stage of enlightenment. At the stage of arahatship the task
has been completely fulfilled: what had to be understood has been fully
what had to be abandoned has been completely eradicated.
Acharn Sujin stressed the importance of the three phases because they make it apparent that sati and panna of satipatthana can only arise when there are the right conditions, a firm foundation knowledge of what the objects of satipatthana are and of the way of its development, that is, the development of right understanding of dhamma appearing now. The three phases make it clear that the development of satipatthana is very gradual and they remind us of the importance of the goal of the development of understanding: detachment from the clinging to self and the abandonment of all defilements.
In the following sutta we are reminded that ignorance and wrong view give rise to all kinds of akusala, whereas right understanding leads to freedom from all defilements. The “streamwinner”, sotapanna, who has attained the first stage of enlightenment, has eradicated wrong view and wrong practice, he cannot deviate from the right Path. He has no more conditions to commit evil deeds leading to an unhappy rebirth. We read in the “Gradual Sayings” (Book of the Tens, Ch XI, # 5, By knowledge):
Monks, when ignorance leads the way, by the reaching of states unprofitable, shamelessness and recklessness follow in its train. In one who is swayed by ignorance and is void of sense, wrong view springs up. Wrong view gives rise to wrong thinking, wrong thinking to wrong speech, wrong speech to wrong action, wrong action to wrong livelihood, wrong livelihood to wrong effort, wrong effort to wrong mindfulness, wrong mindfulness to wrong concentration, that to wrong knowledge, and that to wrong release.
But, monks, when knowledge
leads the way, by the attainment of profitable states, the sense of shame
and self-restraint follow in its train. In one who is swayed by knowledge
and has good sense, right view springs up. Right view gives rise to right
thinking... right concentration gives rise to right knowledge, and that
to right release.
1. In Pali parivattam,
which means cycle or round. There are three rounds or intertwined phases,
that is to say, one phase runs into the next one. As will be explained,
when there is the second phase, the first phase is not abandoned, and when
there is the third phase, the first and the second phases are not abandoned.
2. Sacca means truth and nana means knowledge; kicca means task; kata means what has been done.
3. Tathagata or “thus gone”, an epithet of the Buddha