His Eminence the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche,
Karma Lodrö Chökyi Senge
The Four Noble Truths
Presented at St. Catherines in Canada, 1990. Translated from Tibetan by Ken McLeod
I would like to express my appreciation to everyone for attending this event and wish all of you who have come to this discussion of the Buddha’s teachings my very best. Before I begin, though, I want to remind you to arouse the pure attitude while receiving these instructions. We do not only receive the teachings to understand Buddhism for our own well being but to be able to help a limitless number of sentient beings by integrating the Dharma in our lives. The altruistic motivation is the wish to receive the teachings in order to truly be able to help others.
There are many different religions in the world. Despite this variety, we see that all religions share a common aim in that they strive to be of benefit to living beings. This is the one feature all religions have in common. When we look at the various traditions and see the way they seek to help others, we find there is quite a variety of approaches. There is a considerable difference among religious traditions in the methods of practice to bring into experience what is the heart of each. While it is reasonable to say that the aim of all religions is concerned with reality, with the way things ultimately are, it is conclusive that this isn’t something that varies or changes. The way reality is described and presented is what varies a great deal from one tradition to another. Very briefly, the heart of the matter is that every religious tradition and a follower’s practice of any particular religion are really directed towards helping others. The questions may arise at this point: How does help come about? How is someone helped through religious practice?
It we look at the way we ordinarily experience life, we see that all of us are basically very similar in that we all want to be happy. We seek to experience joy in our lives and to avoid suffering; we aspire to find some freedom from suffering and pain. As a result, all of us virtually spend a great deal of energy and effort in trying to establish a level of material happiness and comfort. This is everybody’s major project. Some people are successful at that and others aren’t. Whether one is successful or not, final analysis shows this is but a limited form of happiness. When one considers how one might be completely at peace and happy, one understands that it is very difficult for happiness to come from reliance on the way one lives or from what one has, and so forth. In the end, one finds that however successful one might have been, there isn’t any real sort of satisfaction or contentment within.
Then one comes to see that there is an internal situation – let’s say within one’s heart, within one’s mind – in which one has been struggling to bring happiness to oneself internally by relying on external sources. In the end, one come to realize this is a futile endeavour. The questions then arise: Where does one find happiness? What is the way one comes to lasting satisfaction? When one asks these questions, one actually begins to seek a religious or spiritual answer.
Let’s take a person as an example. This person could be any of us who achieves success in the world, who has a home, food, clothes, and income, everything that makes up life. Generally, one thinks such a person should be happy. Certainly, they will usually be physically comfortable. But one can often observe that with a considerable amount of physical comfort and ease in their lives, their minds or hearts may not be at peace, may not be very happy. They are still subject to anxiety, worry, fear, various disturbing emotions, and so forth. On the other hand, some people who don’t have a house, don’t have much food, and hardly have anything to wear are actually very content. In India there are many people who literally live on the streets and yet some of them are actually very happy people. Whenever one sees them, they are laughing and enjoying life. From this one can observe that there is a significant difference between being at peace within oneself, being happy inwardly, in one’s heart, and simply being physically comfortable or having everything nice.
The way one comes to discover or uncover happiness within oneself, to find unmistaken peace, is through the teachings of Buddhism. At least I am going to talk about the teachings of Buddhism, although I am sure this is the concern of any spiritual tradition.
In Buddhism, we have a very large collection of teachings. We talk about 84.000 different teachings of the Dharma, “the teachings of Lord Buddha.” This vast number of teachings is described as being necessary in order to deal with the tremendous range of personalities, characteristics, aptitudes, and temperaments among people and different things. But the point of these teachings is to subdue disturbances within oneself, what we call “disturbing emotions,” so that at the heart of the matter one comes to find peace within oneself through subduing emotional disturbances. The disturbing emotions refer to the various lists of ignorance, anger, envy, pride, craving, and so forth. The key point here is what we might describe as taming or disciplining the mind, our mind, our heart.
One of the great teachers in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism is Jetsün Milarepa, who sang in one of his songs:
“Oh, I don’t know spiritual discipline. The main point is to tame the mind.”
He is talking about a body of teachings known as “moral discipline” or Vinaya in Sanskrit, one of the three sections of teachings in Buddhism. There are also the instructions on discourses, and the analysis of existence, known as the Abhidharma. So, we have the Vinaya, the Sutra, and the Abhidharma, known as the “Three Baskets.” The Vinayapitaka is the excellent word of the Buddha that teachings discipline. The Sutrapitaka is the excellent word of the Buddha that teaches training mental absorption. The Abhidharmapitaka is the excellent word of the Buddha that teaches training superior knowledge.
The instructions on discipline consist of a detailed enumeration of the various ordinations in Buddhism and the code of ethics associated with each. For instance, there is full ordination as a monk or nun and lay ordination. Many people simply regard this as the Buddhist tradition and think it is some kind of custom. They don’t really appreciate the point of this particular code of ethics, and the point is actually very simple. By observing such a code of ethics and the very detailed principles of behaviour, one comes to train one’s own mind and heart. It is our mind or our heart that determines our actions in every given situation. Body and speech are simply servants of the mind, the mind being like a king. Whatever comes up in the mind is translated into the body and speech – they just follow the direction.
And yet, one’s mind has very little control. It is virtually subject to other influences. It is very difficult for most of us to have any kind of focused attention, presence, or mindfulness. In this way, our mind is like a child and just does whatever it wants. It has no discipline or sensitivity for a situation or context but just reacts. Any of you who are parents will know that when a child is spoiled, the parents don’t suffer as much as the child does when it grows up. We find ourselves in a similar situation with our own minds. In Buddhism at least, we feel it is very, very important to train the mind, because the lack of satisfaction and the absence of meaning in one’s life basically comes from the absence of mindfulness, from the lack of presence with what one is doing. And the only purpose of the very elaborate code of ethics taught in Buddhism is to encourage the individual who has taken ordination to be completely mindful of how he or she is acting in every situation. We return to Jetsün Milarepa’s song and understand why he sang:
“Oh, I don’t know what spiritual discipline is. The main point is to tame the mind.”
Let us turn our attention to the idea of suffering or dissatisfaction in life. Generally, when one is dissatisfied, one tries to stop it. As soon as one is aware of injuries, one tries to eliminate them in whichever way one may be able. One feels that if one stops the situation that is making one unhappy, one will be content again. This is a common feeling among most people, I think.
This really isn’t what is appropriate, though, because there is nothing to be stopped in suffering and dissatisfaction. Suffering and dissatisfaction are effects. If one avoids the effects, then nothing has really been gained, because the source remains. So, one can imply a very simple principle: If there is no source, then there is no result. If one can remove the source of dissatisfaction, then there won’t be any dissatisfaction and one won’t have to give up anything or eliminate those things that are not satisfying.
Let me present an example. A tree has branches and roots. If we liken dissatisfaction to the branches (the results or effects) we could cut the branches away but would never have removed the tree (the source). However, if we were to cut the roots of the tree, then it would wither and we consequently wouldn’t have to worry about the branches. This is the reason why the Buddha taught what is known as the Four Noble Truths in the first cycle of teachings he presented, which are primarily concerned with the issue of dissatisfaction in one’s life.
The First Noble Truth - “We need to know about the truth of suffering.”
The first of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering. Lord Buddha taught that suffering is not something to be avoided or stopped but should be known, understood, acknowledged. In the acknowledgement of the truth of suffering there comes an understanding that suffering or dissatisfaction has a source, the second truth.
The Second Noble Truth - “We need to abandon the origin of suffering.”
The second of the Four Noble Truths describes the source of suffering. Lord Buddha taught that the source of suffering is the conditioning effects of one’s actions concerning the way one experiences the world, which is karma, “the infallible law of cause and effect.” He showed that the disturbing emotions lead individuals to act in a given manner. One finds the origin of dissatisfaction and pain that one experiences lies in one’s emotions. So, in the description of the source of dissatisfaction, the Buddha discussed the notion of karma, of “action,” and the way it functions as a seed and develops into a condition and into an experience.
To go over the process by which this takes place very briefly: One finds oneself clinging to a sense of a self and in truth cannot really establish an actual self. The notion of a self is basically an expression of the various “psycho-physical constituents,” the five skandhas. The skandhas refer to the five principal mental and physical constituents of a being: form, sensation, recognition, mental events, and consciousnesses. The Sanskrit term skandha was translated into Tibetan as phung-po, which literally means “a heap” but has the meaning of “aggregation.” Based on the skandhas, we find the propensity to interpret experiences in terms of subject and objects, i.e., one grasps at external objects as though they exist in themselves and at one’s own sense of a self as something that is present and perceives external objects. From that duality, mind’s natural activity manifests as disturbing emotions, for example, as anger against those things or persons that undermine one’s sense of a self or as attachment for those things that support one’s sense of a self.
We talk about the three mind poisons in Buddhism. The fundamental poison is ignorance, not understanding what one is. Not understanding what one is gives rise to the sense of being somebody special, the basis for attachment and aversion. Ignorance, attachment, and aversion are the three poisons that become stimulations. They motivate one to act in various ways, which is what karma, the truth that every action brings about an effect really means.
Many people think that karma is some kind of entity that mysteriously operates as some kind of physical or external force. Should karma be something substantial, then one could just throw it away or easily eliminate it. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Karma describes the way one’s mind operates, the way we ourselves operate and function. Karma is the propensity, the habitual pattern which determines one’s life. This makes it very, very difficult to become free of effects of one’s actions, because they are tendencies established in one’s, in one’s heart.
Consider someone who becomes addicted to alcohol or other drugs. In the beginning, there is no particular pattern, but gradually they drink more and more and develop the propensity to the point where drinking becomes a habit. They are eventually addicted, and it is extremely difficult to give up addictions, which have become a pattern operating within. Essentially, we too are addicted to act the way we do. We can do good, we can do evil. Every action we perform, anything we do establishes specific patterns within and those habitual patterns are stored in the heart of our being, referred to as “the ground consciousness,” closely related to the Buddha nature. Since habits are deeply ingrained in our ground consciousness, the conditioning effects are also deeply established within us. This is the reason it is very difficult to become free of the effects of our very own actions.
The Third Noble Truth - “We need to accomplish cessation.”
As long as one remains confused and unconsciously reacts to the numerous patterns present within oneself, one will never experience freedom from conditioned effects or karma and will continue creating one’s own dissatisfaction, pain, and suffering. Thus, from the Buddha’s point of view, one’s attention needs to be directed towards putting an end to the stimulus, which leads one to act in such a way that one incessantly creates misery. One cannot just stop the process by saying so; it is a gradual approach.
In order to eliminate the origin of suffering, one needs to follow a way or a path, which will definitely lead to the result, which is freedom from bondage. So one comes to a notion of a way of life, of a way of acting, called “the path,” which is a very important theme in Buddhism.
In the Buddhist tradition, there are many different paths that render such help. We have already discussed the ethical approach associated with the various ordinations, a very concrete framework to develop mindfulness. Furthermore, meditation practices enable one to understand that neither the individual nor the world as one perceives it have a determinative existence, known technically as “the two aspects of non-self.” One may also engage in the practices in which one attempts to exchange one’s own happiness for the suffering of others, a practice called “taking and sending.” One may focus one’s mind on understanding emptiness and what it means in relation to the ultimate nature of one’s experiences in the world. These practices are all integrated in the Mahayana or “Great Vehicle of Buddhism.”
In the Tibetan tradition, we also have what is known as Vajrayana, the “Indestructible Diamond Vehicle,” in which we employ an expression of the awakened mind, called Yidam, “the form of a deity,” in practice. By developing a relationship with a specific form of value, we come to be able to transform our experience of the world from one of impurity and dissatisfaction into one of pure openness and fullness.
We see that there are many different approaches and paths within Buddhism, whereas the purpose of all is to overcome deeply ingrained habitual patterns within. We simply base our perception on constructive patterns and seek to make them a part of our lives through wholesome actions of body, speech, and mind.
The purpose of establishing constructive patterns within us is to overcome and eventually eliminate destructive patterns. The key to engage in this process of training is mindfulness, which means being aware of what one does at all times and being aware of what one needs to refrain from, i.e., taking care in all we is and does.
We may furthermore strive to apply another element of practice known as “the awakening mind” in the Great Vehicle, where one seeks to reverse the obsession of self-importance by focusing one’s attention on the well being of others. Employing awakening mind introduces a valuable factor to one’s practice of mindfulness.
We have discussed the third truth and will now turn our attention on the truth of the path or the way to eliminate the basis for dissatisfaction in one’s life, the Fourth Truth which concerns the result, fruition.
The Fourth Noble Truth - “We need to apply the path.”
The Third Truth showed that when the source of dissatisfaction and pain is eliminated from within oneself, then dissatisfaction and pain don’t arise and one finds peace and happiness. When you are free of confusion and the habitual patterns as an expression of it, then unhappiness and misery simply don’t come up. When that is achieved, our Buddha nature, the potential to become awakened present in all living beings without exception, becomes fully manifest.
The Buddha nature is replete with many wonderful qualities and abides within each and every living being non-differentiate. The qualities of value are not manifest due to the discussed destructive mental patterns. When we practice the path of meditation, the habitual patterns are eliminated and all qualities present within all of us naturally become perfectly manifest and operational in the world. Qualities are very beneficial, not only for ourselves but for everyone we come into contact with, we could say, for everyone in the world.
You are aware of the title of this talk, “The Buddha Nature.” The potential for awakening abides in every living being non-differentiate since beginningless time. In itself, it has never been obscured or blemished in any way. Whatever is unpleasant and unsatisfactory in one’s life comes from karma, from one’s long-standing habitual patterns, and from one’s disturbing emotions – the incidental or adventitious impurities that obstruct the pure essence from naturally expressing itself. The incidental stains are not one’s true nature and therefore can be cleared away. Then one’s Buddha nature manifests unimpededly.
We are in truth concerned with training the mind in Buddhism. This training does not refer to an external source, change, or activity. It cannot be imposed upon anyone or sought as something outside oneself. Training the mind means cleansing one’s situation in which one finds oneself, in which one’s mind has no control. Mind continuously loses itself in the many emotional disturbances and distractions arising from within.
We cleanse ourselves by treading the path of mental improvement and integrate our experiences in all we are and do. The essence of every practice is mindfulness and restraint, being aware of what we are doing and being cautious in all situations that we encounter. Then, all destructive patterns in us eventually cease and we realize what we and what all things really are. We become free of ignorance, emotional disturbances, and unhappiness that arise from ignorance. This is the genuine process of training one’s mind.
Closing here, I would like to be available for any questions that you may have.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have always had confusion between the relationship of the intellectual teachings of Buddhism and the meditative teachings or practices, the relationship between these two things and the way in which we behave. Are these two things two paths that lead to the same goal, or are they two paths that lead to different goals? I have a difficulty bringing them together.
His Eminence: We need both. We actually have two different approaches in Buddhism. We say that there are those who pursue practices on the basis of an outlook; they develop an outlook first, which is what you meant by an intellectual understanding. Or there are those who embark on a practice and from that develop a certain outlook or understanding of the world. In fact, there are three elements that are very important. There is the outlook or how we regard the world, there is cultivation in the form of practice, and there is our behaviour, what we actually do. One way to describe this is: 1) the outlook provides the framework for practice; 2) cultivation is the practice itself, and as cultivation comes into experience, 3) we exercise that in all we are and do. It is extremely important for all three elements to be present in the process of purification. But, you said these two don’t seem to go together. I would like to ask you, why do you think that they don’t go together?
Student: I guess it’s not that they don’t go together. It’s just that sometimes I think that only an intellectual understanding might be enough to say, “Yes, I see what you’re saying. I understand what you’re saying.” At other times I realize it’s just the first layer of the onion. I never come to one conclusion about this.
Rinpoche: Basically, an intellectual understanding is very important but doesn’t lead us to an operative understanding. Let’s compare it with recognizing and knowing a person. Simply seeing a person isn’t the same as knowing him or her. Recognizing a person corresponds with intellectual appreciation, which is very important and helpful, but it’s not identical with actually knowing a person. An operational understanding of Dharma comes from practice.
Next question: Jesus had something to do with Buddhism, being directly in India for a number of years with the Essenes. Could you tell us something about this?
Rinpoche: Like you, I have heard about these accounts but don’t have any reliable information of them. From my observation of Christianity and its emphasis on helping and loving others, its emphasis on avoiding evil and on doing good, we find it very similar to what the essence of Buddhism actually is. So I personally have a very high regard for Christianity.
Next question: In these internationally troubled times, would you give us some value through your thinking?
Rinpoche: You are talking about the difficulties of experiencing the world as a whole in a period when we are encountering much dispute and differences. As individuals, we may not have much control or influence on the course of events; we do have within us the possibility of developing a helpful and noble attitude towards the world, though. Personally, I have great confidence and respect for the power of such a positive attitude. If you use it as a basis for formulating aspirations and good wishes about the course of events in the world, then they can come to fruition, the reason why a part of our practice is the constant formulation of such wishes for well being in the world as a whole.
Next question: Once I accompanied some Buddhist monks up a mountain and a Buddhist master was leading them. They walked for several hours in silence. They got to a large cliff and suddenly the Buddhist master turned around and said to the monks, “Two questions I have for you. Where was Buddhism before Buddha?” He continued, “Where is Buddha now?” I was wondering whether you could comment on that?
Rinpoche: Buddha is in our mind.
Student: The second question he asked was, “Where is Buddha now?” Is that the answer to the second question?
Student: The first question was, “Where was Buddhism before Buddha?”
Rinpoche: On the one hand, we could take Buddha in this question to mean the physical presence of Buddha Shakyamuni in the world or it to mean the teachings that he taught being present. This is not what the question really points to. What the question is pointing to is that the essence of the teachings is the ways things really are. So the answer then is: All that we experience, which has always been there. This is where Buddhism is.
Next question: Are you immortal?
Rinpoche: Oh! In the Tibetan tradition, the term “death” refers to the dissolution of the body. We say that the mind is something that doesn’t die. It’s a very good question.
Next question: If the mind is the ruler of the body and speech, and also you say this is Buddha, who or what is in the position to train the mind and what is at the training?
Rinpoche: This is a very special quality of the mind. If you just let mind be, it goes wild. If you train the mind, then it becomes very pleasant.
Student: Who are we?
Rinpoche: Posing questions and giving answers concerning, “Who” and “We” are based on the perspective that there is something that has to train the mind and that the self and the mind are different, which is basic duality. When one comes to understand mind itself, then the question of how the mind trains the mind doesn’t arise.
Student: There are two different states, when the mind is wild and when it is trained. What is it that brings about the change?
Rinpoche: This is the special quality of the mind. We describe the mind as being self-aware and self-luminous. Your question about what it is that makes the change from one state to another concerns mind itself. Does that answer your question?
Student: I’ll think about it.
Next question: Please, can you say, is the mind basically change, subject to time and conditioning?
Rinpoche: Initially, when one is practicing, when one is engaging in the path of practice, the mind or the attitude that seeks to make this kind of change is conditioned. As one progresses, it becomes free and ultimately does not depend on conditions anymore.
Thank you very much.
May the life of the Glorious Lama remain steadfast and firm.
May peace and happiness fully arise for beings as limitless (in number) as space (is vast in its extent).
Having accumulated merit and purified negativities, may I and all living beings without exception
swiftly establish the levels and grounds of Buddhahood.
Transcribed and e dited by Gaby Hollmann, responsible for any mistake.