Returning to the Roots of Mindfulness: The Four Noble Truths

I’m astonished at the impact of Buddhism on contemporary Western culture. Psychologists are churning out books about mindfulness at a pace that still surprises me.

In all the hoopla, however, we can forget that mindfulness — the precise and nonjudgmental awareness of our present-moment experience — is an ancient teaching. It comes directly from the Four Noble Truths taught nearly two millennia ago by the Buddha.

When an idea such as mindfulness ignites so quickly and spreads so widely, we benefit by returning to its historical origins. Then we can check for current misunderstandings.

The biggest danger is that we’ll cherry-pick such ancient teachings for “tips and tricks” that feed our desires for success, sex, and money — and ignore anything else. Preventing this outcome is the main reason for this post.

Please note that my understanding of the Four Noble Truths is shaped largely by the teachings of Steve Hagen, author of Buddhism Plain and Simple. I find his explanation of the Four Noble Truths to be the most penetrating and useful.

The First Noble Truth: Dukkha

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is that dukkha exists.

Unfortunately, the word  dukkha is untranslatable. It is often rendered in English as  suffering. But this misleading. Even sukkha — satisfaction, or pleasure — falls within the realm of dukkha if we relate to it in an unwholesome way.

We’ll better understand dukkha when we remember two things.

First, dukkha is a layered concept. The most obvious layer is pain — physical and emotional. Yet there’s much more.

Dukkha also points to the fact that  everything changes. Our experience is pure flux. Even the most intense pleasures fade away.

We usually ignore this fact, though. We try to make some experiences last forever and other experiences end forever. The result is that we are duped and constantly at odds with reality.

That’s dukkha in a deeper sense. It’s a profound  dissatisfaction with a basic fact of our existence — impermanence.

Second, dukkha can end. You’ll often see the First Noble Truth rendered as “life is suffering,” but that’s inaccurate.

The whole message of Buddhism is that dukkha is optional. We don’t have to suffer. We don’t have to struggle with change.

In fact, we can relate to impermanence in a way that liberates us. And the rest of the Noble Truths explain how.

The Second Noble Truth: How Dukkha Arises

The Second Noble Truth is that dukkha has a source — our tendency to grasp at pleasure and repress pain.

The Buddha called referred to this tendency as tanha, which we can translate as  craving.

To understand craving is to make a life-changing discovery: Dukkha does not result from painful circumstances in life or the behavior of other people. Rather, dukkha arises with craving.

Also, craving is an “inside” job. It is something that we  add to our experience. Craving is something that we do.

The Buddha talked in detail about how craving arises. He pointed to five basic stages in the process — the five aggregates:

  • Matter is physical form. This includes the human body. However, craving is ultimately about  mind, not matter. The other four aggregates are all aspects of mind.
  • Perception is pure awareness of our moment-to-moment experience without any effort to describe it or change it. At the level of pure perception, there is just one unbroken stream of experience. Nothing is separate from anything else.
  • Sensation is our pure physical experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching. Sensations exist on a continuum from pleasant to neutral to unpleasant.
  • Conception is the realm of thinking and language. Conception separates perceptions and sensations into distinct categories: Self versus other. Past versus present versus future. And much, much more.
  • Intention is the realm of motivation. Once we separate experience into separate things, we compulsively  move toward the things we like and  move away from the things we dislike. Over time this hardens into longing and loathing, greed and hatred — in short, craving.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to craving. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths explain.

The Third Noble Truth — How Dukkha Passes Away

The Third Noble Truth is that when craving ends, dukkha ends. When we see and accept the impermanent nature of all things, we are liberated.

We see that it’s pointless to grasp at any experience with the hope of making it permanent. We understand the futility of clinging to anything that constantly changes.

Third Noble Truth reminds us that Buddhism is not a religion in the traditional sense. Buddhism is not based on belief in God — or belief in anything else, for that matter.

The Buddha saw beliefs of any kind as a form of craving: holding fixed ideas about fluid realities. Beliefs generate disagreement that can harden into conflict and violence.

The Buddha was not interested in theology or grand intellectual schemes. He was interested only in one thing: The end of dukkha.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path

The Fourth Noble Truth is that we can live in a way that allows craving to pass away. This way of life is called the Eightfold Path:

  • Right view is understanding the Four Noble Truths.
  • Right intention is a strong resolve to awaken to the end of dukkha — the strength of intention you’d have if your hair were on fire and you wanted to put it out.
  • Right speech is avoiding deception, rudeness, crude conversation, and speaking ill of others.
  • Right action flows naturally when we release craving and selfish intention.
  • Right livelihood is making a living in ways that do not harm other people.
  • Right effort in meditation avoids the extremes of laziness and exhaustion by following a “middle path” — being relaxed and alert at the same time.
  • Right concentration is the ability to focus attention during meditation.
  • Right mindfulness is to using attention see impermanence at work in the present moment.

Please note a few things:

  • The Eightfold Path is not a journey to future destination. To practice the path is to be liberated now.
  • Each step in the path begins with the word right. However, this word is not used in the sense of right versus wrong. Right in this context means effective and in tune with reality.
  • Though we list the elements of the Eightfold Path as separate steps, they are not separate in practice. To take any step is to practice the whole path.

Distortions of the Four Noble Truths

In our current enthusiasm for mindfulness, we can easily forget its origin in the Four Noble Truths. Self-help authors distort this teaching when they ignore the historical context and try to mix mindfulness with run-of-the-mill New Age teachings.

Take reincarnation, example. Reincarnation is based on the belief that 1) we have an essence — a permanent identity, soul, or eternal self, and 2) this essence moves from body to body over the course of many lifetimes.

The Buddha explicitly denied both points. He taught that the elements of our experience — the five aggregates — are constantly changing. And by definition, anything that changes constantly cannot have a permanent identity. Anything that is impermanent cannot remain “itself.”

This means that there is no soul to pass from body to body. There is nothing to reincarnate.

The notion of “living with intention” presents another problem. Many self-help authors tell us to focus on setting goals and achieving them. 

Not happy? No problem. Just do two things: First, determine what you want. Second, change your thinking and behavior to “manifest” or “attract” what you want. The result is “abundance” that flows from clear intention.

According to the Four Noble Truths, this is pure delusion. In fact, living with this kind of intention is a prescription for suffering.

The enlightened person lives without any intention except freedom from dukkha. Though many of us will find this teaching counter-intuitive, it is perfectly consistent with the Four Noble Truths.

Consider this: Setting a goal in order to become happy means identifying yourself as fundamentally incomplete and separate from something that will complete you. When you’re mindful of your present moment experience, however, all you see is just one never-ending, ever-changing stream of sensation. 

At the level of pure sensation, nothing is separate. There is no “self.” There is no “other.” There is just an unbroken Whole. (Some teachers refer to it as Mind, with a capital m. )

This also means that there is nothing “out there” to “get” that will “make” you happy. As the poet Basho reminds us, “No amount of sitting will turn you into a Buddha.”

In fact, the practice of mindfulness reveals that you already are a Buddha. When you see your connection to the Whole, you can act appropriately in the moment without self-centered intention. Wisdom and compassion arise spontaneously.

To make our happiness depend on achieving goals is to impose conditions: I’ll be happy when and if I get… (complete this sentence with anything that you believe will make you permanently happy).

In contrast, mindfulness reveals fulfillment without conditions — an unshakable serenity. Now.

This realization is the precious gift embodied in the Four Noble Truths. And, said the Buddha, it is available to anyone who is willing to walk the path.