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The Four Noble Truths

The Teaching on the Four noble truths was the first Teaching given by the Buddha Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, shortly after his Enlightenment, his Awakening.
Most of you know that 2,500 years ago in Bodhgaya in India the Buddha attained Perfect Awakening, Omniscience. Following this he didn't immediately give any Teachings, but as a result of the urgent requests of certain gods and many Bodhisattvas he decided after a period of seven weeks to begin teaching. So his first Teaching concerned Suffering, its origin, its cessation and the Path leading to its cessation.
In the first part of the teaching we shall present details of the Noble Truths in a way that will be quite technical, using the appropriate terms so that you know them and can maybe take them down. Later, you can ask for explanations for anything that isn't yet quite clear from this teaching, or about anything else concerning Buddhism.
 
The Noble Truth of Suffering
The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering
The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering
The Noble Truth of Suffering
This is the pure knowledge of suffering as it is, which means the state we are in, the state of suffering we experience.
- There is the Suffering of Suffering: this refers to a certain type of mental suffering experien-ced as a result of physical suffering. We suffer because we experience suffering! The suffering of suffering makes the suffering we feel much more effective. It is born of a very strong attachment to the aggregates and to our physical condition. 
- The second type of suffering is called the Suffering of Change. One could explain it using the example of someone who has been walking for a long time and who then sits down in a comfortable chair. He will feel great pleasure, and will say to himself, " ah, that feels really good," whereas from the moment he sat down suffering set in, since if he remains seated for a very long time he will go on to experience suffering. Yet the suffering will only become ap-parent at a later point, after the experience of what we can call pleasure; and yet the suffering was there from the beginning. It is a more subtle form of suffering, more difficult to discern.
- The third form is even more subtle. It is not a form of suffering that one can experience in the form of pain or something. It is called All Pervasive Suffering. This suffering is felt by all beings who are formed from aggregates. The moment that there is an " individual " this suffering is present, and it remains until the person who realises the presence of this suffering generates the wish to leave the cycle of existence for ever, in other words someone who generates ve-ry, very strong renunciation. This type of suffering exists in all the six realms of existence: god, demi-god, human, animal, hungry ghost and hell realms.
 
When we look in more detail, we can talk of: the four aspect of Suffering:
 
- The first aspect : Suffering. This concerns the Five aggregates; it is the expression of pain. But to understand it we need to understand the origin of these aggregates, the nature of our body, of our environment. If we look at a picture of the Wheel of Life (Samsara), around the edge there are 12 boxes which represent what are called the Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination. The fact that the Wheel of Life is on the inside of these Links means that the Links are the origin of Samsara and of suffering. Each one arises in dependence on the next. Normally we would consider six of these Links as part of the Truth of Suffering, and the other six as part of the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering, but this might seem quite complicated and so we shall look at the Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising later. 
 
So let's return to the four aspects of the Noble Truth of Suffering. We have just looked at the first aspect, that of suffering itself.
- Let's now look at the aspect of Impermanence. Once we have properly understood Suffering and the fact that all the aggregates are simply the result of causes and conditions, we can easily understand that if we put a stop to the causes, the aggregates come to an end. So, the aggregates are impermanent. We will look at some specific meditations on impermanence in the fourth Noble Truth. It is very important to understand impermanence, it's the very basis for understanding the Path. It's the basis for obtaining Liberation.
But to make it clear, Liberation is, for the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, only one stage; the spiritual Path continues after reaching Liberation, while for the Lesser Vehicle, the Hinayana, the goal is Liberation from suffering, from the cycle of rebirth. In the Mahayana, each practitioner is fundamentally motivated by the wish to help others. If he seeks to attain to a state of Wisdom it is in order to be able to help others to do the same. He will not seek out his own Liberation only, but will seek insight into all phenomena in order to be able to help all beings. The higher the degree of realisation the more one can help others. Since the State of a Buddha is characterised by Omniscience, the person who follows the Way of the Great Vehicle wishes to attain this State of Consciousness. We have already seen that if we stop the causes which create the five aggregates, these aggregates disappear; thus they are impermanent. When we speak of our aggregates as they are now, we say that they are contaminated. Why ? Because they are the cause, indeed the basis, of the creation of negative Karma, and they are the result of previous mental afflictions. This is not the case with the aggregates of Buddhas, which are themselves pure, uncontaminated, born of wisdom. 
- The third aspect of Suffering is Emptiness. We will certainly talk about this again, because an extensive explanation would take many days. But in essence, when we see this " Self ", this " I ", this grasping after individual selfhood, we can say that there are two levels of " Self ". There is the acquired Self and the innate Self.
The acquired Self arises as a result of philosophical conceptualisation. In other words, certain wrong philosophical views seek to affirm the existence of this Self as a permanent entity, contrary to an understanding of impermanence. This is an attachment to a sense of self developed from some philosophy or religion.
Even animals possess an innate Self. From birth there is attachment to this Self which is believed to be an autonomous entity.
This Self is not part of the aggregates. It's simple - if I cut my arm off I won't find my Self there in the arm, nor will I find it in any other part of my body; I wouldn't be able to find any individual identity in any place in my body. So the Self is not part of the aggregates.
But then one can't say that the Self is completely different from the aggregates, since the aggregates live through this Self. Do you understand? The Self is neither the same as nor different from the aggregates.
The realisation of this aspect of Emptiness is the realisation that the Self is not different from the aggregates. 
- The fourth aspect of Suffering is Not-self. This refers to what I have explained above, but just as with the aspect o f Emptiness one realises the fact that the Self and the aggregates are not different, here the Not-self refers to the fact that the Self and the aggregates are not identical either.
It's a bit subtle and complicated, but I think it is good to have an overview of the four aspects of Suffering.
The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering
We have seen that the aggregates are produced in dependence on many factors. So it seems impossible that there could be no cause, or that there could only be a single cause for these several results. Buddhism doesn't consider that there is a God creating everything, or that the origin could be of a permanent nature.
So now we shall look at the Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination, those twelve factors which lie at the origin of suffering and of the cycle of conditioned rebirths. The six last interdependent Links are generally explained as part of the Truth of Suffering because the first six concern the origin of suffering, whilst the last six concern the resulting suffering.
The origin of our suffering arises indisputably from all our various passions, our attachments, and all the negative causes which we have created in the course of our lives. We can speak of the Ten Non-Virtuous Actions
We shall also look at the Six Primary Mental Afflictions which, as their name indicates, lie at the heart of the formation of our mental afflictions, our negative attitudes and negative karma. 
1 Attachment, attraction to pleasant but impure phenomena, thereby making it difficult for us to separate ourselves from them.
2 Irritation (Aversion), ill-will towards those things that cause us suffering or displeasure.
3 Pride, an aspect of contentment, grasping on to an elevated view of oneself.
4  Ignorance, not understanding the nature of pure or impure phenomena, or conceiving of them in a mistaken way; this serves as the basis for the other mental afflictions.
5 Doubt, which keeps us held in uncertainty and prevents us from engaging in virtuous activities.
6 The Five Wrong Views : 
- Grasping to a Self on the basis of the aggregates.
- Extreme Views, either eternalism or nihilism.
- Views which promote bad views and the aggregates.
- Views as correct and true.
- Views which give value to false ethics and practices, which grasp on to false ethical practices or observances as foundations for Purification.
- Wrong Views, denying what is realistic and promoting what is unrealistic.
It might seem strange to see Suffering appearing before the Origin of Suffering in the order given above, and then later following a more logical order. This is because it is easier to understand the origin once one has fully understood the the result. If someone tries to describe to you the way a motor works before you've seen it working for a while, you'll find it harder to understand.
Having become aware of the Suffering in which we live our lives and having reflected on its Origin we now arrive at the next stage: realising that if there is an origin there can also be an End.
The Noble Truth of Cessation of Suffering
When we have fully understood the Noble Truth of the Origin, we can understand how we are trapped in the cycle of rebirth, and also that the mind is fundamentally pure, although its fu nctioning is influenced by its afflictions.
It is important to understand that our rebirths come about on the basis of the impermanent aggregates, and also that in eliminating the causes we break this chain of reincarnations. This means that there is a remedy, a powerful antidote, that is: Wisdom realising Non-Self and Emptiness.
The Cessation of Suffering is therefore the fruit of work which enables us to erase various levels of attachment.
Through this Realisation one attains to the Cessation of Suffering, to Liberation. This gives rise to a state of peace because one reaches a state beyond suffering, a state which is Auspicious since one has attained to peace, a state of Bliss, of satisfaction, a state of deliverance from the mental afflictions.
Whoever reaches this State, this Liberation, is delivered for ever from the cycle of conditioned rebirth (conditioned because it proceeds under the influence of karma, both positive and negative).
Cessation is definitive; the afflictions can never return.
The Noble Ttruth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering
But to arrive at this State of Liberation we must apply ourselves to following a Path which shows us how to end Suffering by stopping the causes of this suffering, mainly by employing methods for the purification of accumulated negative potential, by meditating on Non-Self and on Emptiness, but also by avoiding committing the Ten Non-Virtues (see p. 9) and by doing our utmost to accumulate positive energy and attaining the highest possible Wisdom.
The various meditations on the impermanence of events, on Death, on the fact that after we die (which can happen at any moment) we will be forced out of our control by our accumulated karma to take another birth - all these are means by which we can achieve a better understanding of the nature of phenomena and of impermanence. By using our reason we should generate a certain fear of what could happen to us if we were to die now. This should lead us to take Refuge, which is the first step on the Path, from which everything else develops.
In Taking Refuge we recognise the Buddha as the Doctor who has identified the illness; the Dharma, or the Teaching of the Buddha, as the right Medicine which is able to cure us; and the Sangha, or the Community of those who follow the Teachings of the Buddha purely, as those who are able to offer us the Medicine.
Refuge is a recognition of the fact that we do not have the capacity, as we are now, to offer truly effective help to the vast numbers of beings who, like us, are living in suffering, and that we have a lot to learn in order to develop Wisdom. Thus we should engage in a spiritual Path in order to make progress in the right direction.
Implied here also is the search for a Spritual Guide, someone who can give appropriate teachings as we need them, and who can understand and evaluate the progress of his pupil. This search can take time. We don't just accept anybody as our Guide, not just because they have a good reputation, or because they look good or are " nice " to us or because they have dark skin and oriental eyes. We seek our Master in the same way as we seek a rare and precious object. We examine the teachings we receive in the same way that we make sure that an object is pure gold and not fake.
The Buddha himself said that we shouldn't believe in what He said simply because He was the Buddha but because we ourselves have carefully analysed what he has said, passed it through the sieve of our reason and found that it is true and able to guide us to Liberation and Wisdom. It is better to take our time before deciding to approach a Guide and requesting him to consider taking us as his pupil, rather than walking out on a Lama and speaking ill of him at the first remark from him which might not meet with our approval. If we decide, after a cer-tain number of y ears, that such and such a person is a suitable Guide, we must be able then to accept his advice to us, accepting that he has Right View and the necessary clairvoyance to enable him to guide us.
To proceed on the Path we must mainly follow eight forms of conduct which make up the Noble Eightfold path 
In order to be able to deploy such stable attention, in order to develop the meritorious qualities and the conditions for Awakening, one engages in the Path of the Sutras and/or the Tantras.
The Tantras are divided into four main classes :
- Kriyatantra, or Action Tantra. This deals mainly with outer acts (washing, physical practices, rules of behaviour and dress), but also with meditation and contemplation.
- Uppatantra, or Behaviour Tantra. This also deals with exterior acts, but puts more emphasis on meditation practices, with less emphasis on exterior acts; there is more of a balance.
- Yogatantra, or Tantra of Union. This is concerned mainly with spiritual union in meditation, with less emphasis on exterior acts.
- Anuttarayogatantra, or Tantra of Unsurpassable Union, which refers exclusively to meditation practices involving the union of Method and Wisdom.
Through practice and effort the practitioner follows the Path which leads him to Buddhahood. These are five stages known as The Five paths :
- The Path of Accumulation, during which one accumulates Merit, deepens one's wisdom and purifies negative karma. This is a time of gathering the positive causes and conditions necessary for the development of the practice.
- The Path of Preparation, which links the period of accumulation and one's attainment of experience, and whose purpose is to lead us to the Path which follows. We are purified to the point where our negativities are no longer an obstacle to practice. At this level the practitioner can no longer take a lower rebirth.
- The Path of Vision (Seeing) is obtained at the first moment of direct experience of Emptiness. The gross level of emotion is eliminated.
- The Path of of Meditation. This is when sustained concentration is developed on the direct perception of Emptiness. The subtlest levels of afflictive emotions, which are part of basic Ignorance, disappear.
- The Path of No-More-Learning. This the Path beyond which there is nothing more to learn. During this stage the "Vajra-like" meditative state cuts through the final veil which separates the practitioner from Omniscience. Buddhahood is thus attained.
On the various Paths the practitioner makes efforts to follow and develop the Six Perfections, or Paramitas.
In the Mahayana you will often hear people talking about Bodhisattvas. These are beings who have developed Bodhicitta, or the Awakening Mind.
The key word in the Teachings of the Great Vehicle is Bodhicitta, the Awakening Mind. At its heart is the wish to help others, not simply in material ways, which of itself is no bad thing, but also in spiritual ways. It is the commitment of oneself to the Enlightenment of others.
There we are, this was just an overview of the Four Noble Truths, an attempt to give a broad view of various concepts within Buddhism, and especially Tibetan Buddhism. 

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"Whatever joy there is in this world, all comes from wanting others to be happy. Whatever suffering there is in this world, all comes from wanting oneself to be happy."
- Shantideva

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