The Noble Eightfold Blog

The Four Noble Truths

by Eric Van Horn

Copyright © 2015 Eric K. Van Horn

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Table of Contents


As we have just seen, the Buddha had his Awakening, and he describes that Awakening in terms of the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha spent the next 7 weeks immersing himself in his Awakening. [Mv 1-7] In the first of those weeks he came to an understanding of his most subtle and challenging teaching, that on causation. It was also during this time that Brahmā convinced the Buddha to teach his Dharma.

The Buddha then set off to find his former companions, samaṇas who were doing the same ascetic practices that he had been doing. It was to them that he gave his first sermon, the "Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta: The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma" [SN 56.11]. This is the discourse in which he teaches the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha gave his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath, India. Ever since then deer have had a special meaning in Buddhism. You often see two reclining deer at the top of the entrances to Buddhist monasteries:

deer Figure: Deer and the Wheel of the Dharma

The site of the Buddha's first discourse was later commemorated by building a "stupa" (literally "heap" - it is a mound or structure that contains relics) - the "Dhamekh Stupa" - there. You can visit it today. It is one of the places that the Buddha recommended devout pilgrims visit during their lifetimes:

damekh stupa Figure: The Damekh Stupa

Nearby there is a Buddhist monastery, the Mulagandhakuti Vihara. And every evening, monks and lay pilgrims chant the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. There is a very nice rendering of this sutta being chanted in Pāli on the Abhayagiri Monastery web site. (Internet search: "dhammacakkappavattana audio abhayagiri")

Mulagandhakuti Vihara Figure: the Mulagandhakuti Vihara
first discourse Figure: Statue outside the Mulagandhakuti Vihara commemorating the Buddha's first discourse

The hand position of the Buddha in this photograph is the "teaching mudra". The significance of the thumb touching the first finger is that he is teaching the first noble truth. You will see statues of the Buddha with this mudra, but he will be touching a different finger. The number of the finger indicates which noble truth he is teaching, 1-4.

Another interesting fact about this sutta concerns its name. You may be wondering, well, if the sutta is about the Four Noble Truths, why is it called "The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma?"

For this discussion, we need to look at a bit of Indian lore. In ancient India there was the notion of a "wheel turning monarch". The wheel motif comes from the wheels of a chariot. A wheel turning monarch - "chakravarti" in Sanskrit, "cakkavatti" in Pāli - is a "universal ruler", one "whose chariot is rolling everywhere without obstruction". This literally means that no one else's army can keep him from going where he wants. But the most important attribute of a chakravarti is that he is just, moral, ethical, and benevolent. As long as the monarch is in power, the "wheel is turning".

Buddhism adopted this symbolism. When a Buddha becomes enlightened, and "then transmits the teachings to a disciple", he is said to have set the Wheel of the Dhamma - "Dhammacakka" - in motion. As long as the teachings are transmitted, the wheel continues to turn.

OK, so back to the Deer Park. The Buddha gives his teaching on the Four Noble Truths. One of the ascetics was a samaṇa named "Kondañña". And as the Buddha finished his discourse, this happened:

Gratified, the group of five monks delighted at his words. And while this explanation was being given, there arose to Ven. Kondañña the dustless, stainless Dhamma eye: Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation. - [SN 56.11]

That last line is the important one. What Kondañña has just done is extrapolate from the Four Noble Truths another of the Buddha's wisdom teachings, and that is the teaching on causality. The Buddha has not yet given this teaching, but Kondañña has seen into the truth of Awakening and become enlightened. He is now an Arahant, and the Wheel of the Dhamma has been set in motion. The Dhamma has been transmitted. And from this point on, Kondañña will be known as "Añña Kondañña", which means "Kondañña knows".

The First Noble Truth

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering. - [SN 56.11]

The Pāli word that is translated here as "suffering" is "dukkha". "Suffering" is the most common word used in English translations. Unfortunately, "suffering" does not capture the layers and flavors of the word "dukkha". As a result, many people prefer to leave the word untranslated.

The Buddha himself never defines dukkha. Rather, as he does here, he gives lists of things that are dukkha. Some people say that the Buddha taught that life is suffering. He never said that. He simply provides us with an inventory.

The word "dukkha" is translated variously as "unsatisfactoriness", "stress", and "suffering". "Suffering" is the most pointed and the one with the hardest edge. But dukkha can also mean that in the midst of pleasant experience, there is a kind of unsatisfactoriness. All of our experience is conditioned, and when those conditions are no longer present, then the pleasant experience is not there, either. This is the nature of our conditioned existence. It is inconstant and unreliable. And as the Buddha says here, when we have something we don't want, we suffer, and when we don't have what we want we suffer, and this is how we spend a great deal of our lives.

The Second Noble Truth

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination. - [SN 56.11]

Our normal way of living is to seek pleasure. We crave. We become bandied about by our addictions, large and small.

The other side of craving is "aversion". With unpleasant experience, we don't want it, so we push it away. The effect of this is that in addition to the unpleasantness of the experience, we increase the unpleasant experience by adding our reaction to it. You have probably seen people who are relatively even-keeled when things go badly. They just never seem to get that upset. And then there are people who over-react to even the smallest problem.

We spend most of our existence going back and forth between craving and aversion, and if nothing else, it's exhausting. This is why translating "dukkha" as "stress" is so fitting. "Stress" correctly identifies the direct experience of dukkha. We are constantly getting pushed and pulled by craving and aversion, and sometimes we are just confused. This confusion is also dukkha.

The Buddha gives us three types of craving. The first is the obvious one, craving for sense pleasure. He also adds craving for existence and non-existence. Craving for existence is common in most people. We don't want to die, and if we do die, we want to end up somewhere nice. Craving for non-existence is the desire for annihilation. This is what happens to people who are suicidal. These types of craving define our existential dilemma.

The Third Noble Truth

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonreliance on it. - [SN 56.11]

The Third Noble Truth is the Good News.

The Four Noble Truths are often compared to a medical treatment. The First Noble Truth is the diagnosis of our condition. The Second Noble Truth is the cause. The Third Noble Truth is the end of the disease. The Fourth Noble Truth is the course of treatment.

The Fourth Noble Truth

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. - [SN 56.11]

This is the Noble Eightfold Path. This is the training that we must follow to be free from dukkha.

There is both a linear and a non-linear aspect to the Noble Eightfold Path. We have actually begun our practice at the end, with right mindfulness and right concentration.

However, it took a certain amount of wisdom for you to become interested in meditation, and that is at the beginning, in right view - which can also be called "wisdom" - and "right intention". We want to do something good.

And as we progress on the path, at times we will be focusing mainly on one aspect of the path or another. Right now we are focusing on right view. But each aspect of the path re-enforces every other aspect. Nonetheless, there is also a method to the order in which the Buddha presents the path.

If your practice is not grounded in a correct understanding of "the map" - right view - it is easy to get lost. This is the purpose of studying and understanding right view. It is easy to misunderstand meditative experiences. Look at what happened to the Buddha on his journey. His first two teachers thought they had found final liberation. They did not see the whole picture. This is why we are studying right view before we get too much further.

It is also worth mentioning what "right" means. A lot of people have trouble with that word. "Right" is not a value judgment, as in "I'm right and you're wrong". This is how religions go to war with each other. We certainly don't need any more of that.

Here is a way to understand the use of "right" in this context. When I was a teenager I really got into working on my car. It was the 1960's, and there was a famous book about fixing Volkswagens called How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. I mean, this book is a classic. I can't believe that it is still in print. Not only is it still in print, it is a best seller. It was written by a legendary guy named John Muir. (He is descended from the naturalist.) John Muir brought more joy to more backyard mechanics than anyone else in history. Sadly he died prematurely at the age of 59 of a brain tumor, but he left behind quite a legacy.

Once I had a bad CV ("constant velocity") joint. If you don't know what that is, don't worry about it. Hardly anybody does. But it was a tough job: greasy, knuckle scrapping, hard work. The CV joint, as I recall had 5 or 6 studs that had to be lined up on the axle, and while you squeezed underneath your VW, you had to get everything lined up just right to get the CV joint on.

That is the meaning of "right" in this situation. It fits properly. Everything lines up.

There is a sense of balance. You are neither too far to one extreme or the other.

Balance is a big issue in meditation. That is why we constantly evaluate the breath. Are we too sleepy? We need more energy. Are we too restless? We need to calm down.

We need to hit the mark precisely, or the CV joint won't go on.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the heart of Buddhist practice. Someone once asked the Dalai Lama, "With all of the different schools of Buddhism in the U.S., how can they reconcile their differences?" The Dalai Lama said to concentrate on the Four Noble Truths, because it is the one teaching that all the schools of Buddhism agree on.

Right View

And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to suffering, knowledge with regard to the origination of suffering, knowledge with regard to the cessation of suffering, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering. This is called right view. - [DN 22]

The first two path factors are the "wisdom division" of the path.

There is a discourse in the Majjhima Nikāya called the "Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View" [MN 9]. It is the most exhaustive treatment of right view in the canon. Curiously, this discourse was not given by the Buddha, but by one of his chief disciples, Sāriputta.

Sāriputta was quite an extraordinary monk. In the discourse "Foremost" the Buddha says, “Bhikkhus, the foremost of my bhikkhu disciples with great wisdom is Sāriputta.” [AN 1.189] High praise indeed, from the Buddha himself.

Sāriputta had an extraordinary intellect. Intellectual brilliance is not necessary to become enlightened, and for that I am extremely thankful. However, Sāriputta had that type of mind and temperament. Many of the most exhaustive and detailed discourses in the Pāli canon were given by Sāriputta.

(Interesting little fun fact: Sāriputta was from a tiny village in India. After he died they buried his ashes in a large stupa there, and that stupa became the centerpiece for one of the largest Buddhist universities in India, "Nalanada Vihara". During the first millenium there were 10,000 monks studying at Nalanda. Sāriputta's little village became the Buddhist equivalent of Princeton, New Jersey.)

Sāriputta's stupa Figure: Sāriputta's stupa at Nalanda

The discourse on right view, as noted, goes into considerable detail. But I think we can summarize the key points as these:

  1. The Four Noble Truths, which is what we are discussing here.
  2. Virtue (ethics/morality), also known as "the wholesome and the unwholesome". This will be the next topic we discuss.
  3. Causality, the Buddha's teachings on cause and effect, to wit, that we live in a universe of causes and conditions.
  4. Karma, i.e., that we inherit the consequences of our actions.
  5. The Three Marks of Existence, i.e., that all conditioned things are impermanent, do not have a permanent essence, and ultimately are unsatisfying. Note that the only thing that is unconditioned is Nirvāṇa ("Nibbana" in Pāli).

These are the wisdom teachings of the Buddha, and we will discuss each one of them in turn.

(Note: Many years ago in my job as a software engineer, the first Macintosh computer came out, and I had to learn how to program it. Everything was so different from anything we had ever done before. That included the technical documentation. That Macintosh came with an early edition of the documentation called "Inside Macintosh". Apple did not even have time to do a proper printing of it, so they printed what came to be fondly known as "the phonebook edition" of Inside Macintosh. It literally looked like the Manhattan phonebook.

Inside Macintosh was about 1000 pages. At that time no one had ever seen technical documentation that long. It was quite overwhelming. And the inside joke among computer programmers was that to understand any one chapter you had to understand all the rest.

The Buddha's teachings are a little like that. You have to work your way through them iteratively, visiting and revisiting each topic. They are like pieces of a puzzle. So you just have to work with each piece as best you can, and if you keep at it, eventually you will see the big picture.)

Right Intention

And what is right intention? Being intent on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness. This is called right intention. - [SN 45.8]

The Buddha was incredibly adept at taking concepts and notions that were well-known in India at that time, and turning them a few degrees to the left or right to give them a new, different, and deeper meaning. It is one of the fun aspects of studying the discourses, to see his nuanced use of language.

One of those twists he applied to the notion of karma. Now the word "karma" literally means "action". Thus, you might be able to deduce from what has already been written here that if we are skillful in our actions, we will have a wholesome result now or in the future. And there is some truth to that.

But the Buddha put the emphasis on the intentions behind the actions:

It is intention, bhikkhus, that I call kamma. For having intended, one acts by body, speech, or mind. - [AN 6.63]

Everything that we do has an intention behind it. The issue is how skillful is that intention? We have a lot of intentions that are there for all sorts of nefarious, unskillful reasons. But usually we act without awareness, without knowledge or skill, without even being consciously aware of what we are doing or why. We are controlled by impulse.

Larry Rosenberg says that our thoughts and emotions are like little Nazis controlling our actions. We give them such great power, and in doing so, we give up any real control we have over our lives. We think that our thoughts are "ours", but really, our thoughts are more akin to the tail wagging the dog. As the saying goes, "Don't believe everything you think".

Usually we act out of habit. Given the same situation, we will react the same way 9 times out of 10. It may even be 10 out of 10. And every time that we react in the same way in the same circumstances, we reinforce that habit. In other words, we make it worse, and acting in a different, more thoughtful and skillful way, is less likely.

Part of what we are trying to cultivate is attention to what we are doing and why. What motivates us? Is it something wholesome, like generosity, kindness, good will, compassion, love and wisdom? Or is it something else, something that gets us into trouble, and causes the poor people around us all kinds of mischief?

In the West we are used to hearing that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". And there is some truth to that. If you give a homeless alcoholic money, that is not very skillful. Their next stop is probably a liquor store. But there is a difference between good intentions and skillful intentions. If you give that homeless person a sandwich or some clothes, or - perhaps more importantly - your full attention, that is a skillful - "right" - intention. And if you can get him to ordain as a monk, you are really cooking. There are different kinds of homelessness. There is the crushing failure of the streets, and the liberating freedom of the monastery.

Habits are not inherently a bad thing. Bad habits are. One of the things that we are trying to do it to cultivate good, skillful habits. Good habits are self-reinforcing. Good habits make us happier. Being generous makes us happy, being loving makes us happy, being wise makes us happy. We just are not normally tuned into that kind of happiness. So one of the things we are working on is to twist that dial so we get a clean, clear signal, a signal that brings us in harmony with the world around us.

Right Speech

And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter. This is called right speech. - [SN 45.8]

The next three path factors are the "virtue division" - ethics and morality - of the path.

The word "morality" can conjure up a pretty negative response. When my son was in college, he took a class on ethics and morality. I was quite excited about that because of what I had learned from Buddhism about ethics.

Unfortunately his teacher taught ethics and morality in a mind numbingly depressing way. His view was that ethics and morality are something that we have to do, but that they are incredibly burdensome. They are a cross that we have to bear.

The Buddha's teachings could not be more different. Think of a time in your life when you lied about something. How did that make you feel? Being deceitful does not bring you joy and happiness. Speaking abusively, or talking behind someone's back, or gossiping does not make you feel very good, either. So the Buddha's teaching on ethics is to be aware of the effects of our actions on the mind. And speaking in a way that is skillful and wise will make you infinitely happier and more at peace with yourself than speaking in a way that causes harm.

We probably cause more problems with speech than with anything else we do. Whoever made up that saying about "sticks and stones" was completely off the mark. Countries go to war because of unskillful speech. Marriages break up. Fights start. People can be terribly hurt by unskillful speech. I am pretty sure that someone has said something to you that has been extremely painful. I am also guessing that you have said something that hurt someone else. I know I have.

Of all the Buddha's teachings on ethics and morality, the ones on speech are - I think - the hardest to master. We are so used to having words fly out of our mouths without any thought or care. Some years ago I was in a Zen saṅgha, and one week our teacher told us to pick one precept on which to work especially diligently. Everyone in the group but one chose speech, just because it is so hard.

There are four different types of wrong speech in Buddhism:

  1. Being deceitful - This does not just mean "not lying". People can say something that is factually true, but it can still be deceitful. It can also have no benefit, and cause harm.
  2. Speaking harshly or abusively - This type of speech is meant to hurt someone.
  3. Speaking in a way that "causes discord in the community" - This would include spreading ill will, talking behind someone's back, etc. Fox News is a monument to this type of wrong speech.
  4. "Idle" speech - This is gossip, talking without any positive purpose or intent.

This does not mean that you have to sugar coat everything you say. The Buddha was from the warrior class, and he was not shy about reprimanding misbehaving monks. The difference is that he did it without malice or ill will. He did it out of compassion, right intention. That is a very tricky thing, to be able to do that. It is useful to think about our speech as having some positive result, now or in the future, not necessarily that it is pleasant.

Inevitably the question comes up - something like - suppose you are hiding Jews from the Nazis, and they ask, "Are there any Jews in the attic?"

The answer is that in time and with increased awareness you can learn how to respond in a skillful way that does not involve lying. You could say, "I have done nothing that would bring shame to this family". You could say, "I am an honest and law-abiding citizen". There are many things you could say that would not be lying. You speak in a way that is skillful, and compassionate, and kind.

To be sure, we will work on something like right speech and we will be off the mark sometimes, maybe most of the time. But remember, that is why we call these "practices". We work on them. These skills develop over time. When you start, it is like learning archery. You don't even know how to hold the bow. Then you know how to hold the bow, but you can't hit the target. Then you can hit the target, but your shots are all over the place. Finally, with time and effort and practice, you can hit the bulls-eye every time.

Right Action

And how is one made pure in three ways by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given. He does not take, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them. Abandoning sensual misconduct, he abstains from sensual misconduct. He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. This is how one is made pure in three ways by bodily action. - [AN 10.176]

There are three types of wrong action listed here. The first is "the taking of life".

The canonical definition of killing extends to living beings that have "breath and consciousness". This includes people and all animal life, including insects, but not plant life. The Pāli word for "killing" also has the connotation of harming. Thus this first definition of wrong action is sometimes called "basic non-harming".

As with the other ethical teachings of the Buddha, two things stand out. The first is, if you kill something or hurt it, what effect does it have on the mind? I had an uncle who was sent to a farm at the age of 14 where his job was to kill chickens. That is what he did all day. He killed chickens. When my mother would tell this story it always made her cry. Here was this young boy who had to drop out of school so he could do this hideous job, and he hated it.

I have a friend who fought in the Viet Nam War. He once told me that the people who had the most bravado about being soldiers were not the ones who fought on the front lines. In fact, it is very common for combat soldiers to subsequently go into a medical field, something that heals and not harms, and that is exactly what he did.

And of course, throughout history we have had various euphemisms for what we now call "post-traumatic stress disorder" (Internet search: "george carlin shell shock"). This is a stark reminder of what killing can do to our minds.

I do not hunt or fish, so I cannot comment on what effect that has on the mind. I can only invite you - if you do those things - to see what the mind does with that.

One of the things that happens as our mind develops concentration and tranquility, is that acting virtuously becomes more reflexive. It becomes a good habit. In the beginning we have to really think about what we are doing. But over time, a calmer more peaceful mind will naturally gravitate toward ethical action. Our fear and habits lose some of their control over us. Being kind and empathetic becomes more natural. You step around the ants and the spiders because in your heart you know that all living things want to live.

The second type of wrong action is stealing, but note the phrasing here: "abandoning the taking of what is not given". It is also common to take some poetic license - for emphasis - and use the phrase "do not take what is not freely given". That, I think, accurately describes the essence.

There is an interesting side story about this wording. In the Buddha's home country of Sakya, this is how the law against stealing was phrased. It was civil law. There is a story in the canon (it occurs in several places, including the Vinaya, the monastic code) about 6 Sakyan princes who were inspired to "go forth" and become disciples of the Buddha. They left Sakya with their barber Upāli. At a certain point in their journey they removed their princely clothes and jewelry and gave them to Upāli with the expectation that he would take them back to Sakya with him.

However, Upāli reasoned, "the Sakyans are a fierce people. They will think that I have murdered the youths, and they might kill me". So Upāli, too, decided to go forth and ordain as a monk. But before he sets off, he takes the fine things and hangs them from a tree, saying, "Let him who finds it take it as a gift". By saying this, anyone who took these things would not be guilty of stealing because he had "freely offered them". It is a piece of Sakyan civil law captured in the story. [Vin ii.182]

(The story has an even happier ending. Upāli becomes enlightened and a highly revered monk, foremost in knowledge of the Vinaya.)

We find all kinds of ways of rationalizing taking things, everything from the office pens to a dollar we find on the streets. I think the wording of this type of wrong action makes it pretty clear what stealing is.

The third type of wrong action is sexual misconduct. The way Sharon Salzberg phrases this is to "abstain from using your sexual energy in a way that causes harm to yourself or someone else". That, too, I think makes this pretty clear. An interesting case is prostitution. Sex with a prostitute may not cause harm to the customer, but may be extremely demeaning to the prostitute. And even where sexual activity is not deceitful, like an open marriage, you have to carefully consider the potential harm. People do more crazy, violent, destructive things over sex than any other activity.

The first rule in the monastic code is this:

Should any bhikkhu - participating in the training and livelihood of the bhikkhus, without having renounced the training, without having declared his weakness - engage in sexual intercourse, even with a female animal, he is defeated and no longer in affiliation.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, The Buddhist Monastic Code, Chapter 4: Pārājika]

In the monastic code there is a lot of space devoted to the topic of sex. Given the above passage, you would think it is pretty clear what the rule about engaging in sex is (i.e., don't). But people find all kinds of ways of pushing the bounds. There are pages and pages in the Vinaya about what exactly constitutes sex. (Yeah, I know, I wouldn't think it's that hard, either.) Monks are not even allowed to be in the company of a woman unattended for fear of that being misinterpreted. This is an area where you have to tread particularly carefully, because our sexual energy is so powerful.

Right Livelihood

And what, bhikkhus, is wrong livelihood? Scheming, talking, hinting, belittling, pursuing gain with gain: this is wrong livelihood. - [MN 117.29]

Once again, the rule of thumb here is whether or not your job is causing harm.

This can be a tricky issue. I have had jobs where I thought I was doing some good, but in retrospect I probably was not. And conversely, there are jobs where I was quite concerned about the ethics involved, and we probably did a lot of good.

The Buddha does give us some pretty straightforward advice on what constitutes wrong livelihood:

A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison. - [AN 5.177]

And any kind of livelihood that breaks one of the other ethical principles is suspect as well.

Be wary of confusing right livelihood with political correctness. I went to a retreat once where - with the mere piece of information that I was a software engineer - I was treated to a lengthy, public berating by a prominent meditation teacher about the evils of corporations. I never said a word. She read my occupation from a sheet of paper and off she went.

I was a psychology major in college, and I was originally trained as a community organizer. I worked for several years in social service organizations. I finally left that career under troubling circumstances that involved corrupt administrators. In all of those jobs I had to deal with rampant incompetence. I eventually came to believe that most social service organizations are ineffective, and most therapists do little to help their clients.

In my career as a software engineer I spent most of my life working for a company dedicated not to making a profit (I used to jokingly refer to it as "a non-profit corporation"), but to improving medical care through technology in the field of medical informatics. While they were not ultimately very successive, the intentions of that group of people were above reproach.

Being ineffective does not necessary make you guilty of wrong livelihood, but be careful about making snap judgments based on a particular occupation. Even the Dalia Lama said once that if a psychotherapist can not help a large majority of clients (I think he said "80%"), they should find another line of work. It is not enough to have a good sounding job; you have to be effective, too.

Right Effort

And what, bhikkhus, is right effort? Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states…. He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states…. He generates desire for the maintenance of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecay, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. This is called right effort. - [SN 45.8]

The last three path factors are the "concentration division" of the path.

The quote above gives one common rendering of right effort. It is common to define meditation as something passive. The instruction is to "be with whatever arises". But as you can probably see by now, we are trying to do something quite active. We are training the mind, making it more serene and calm, more skillful. Simply being with whatever arises does not accomplish what the Buddha is entreating us to do. You can be with some pretty unskillful mind states.

(Many years ago I started running for exercise. At that time the popular type of training was "long, slow distance", or "LSD" training. The theory is that by running long, slow distances, you can train the body to run faster. However, after a couple of years of running long, slow distances, I found that what I had trained myself to do was - not surprisingly - run long, slow distances. I never got faster. You can do what you train yourself to do, and if all you train yourself to do is "be with whatever arises", that is all you will ever be able to do.)

Here the Buddha is pretty clear about what our aim is:

  1. Make an effort, arouse energy, apply your mind, and strive for the "nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states".
  2. Make an effort, arouse energy, apply your mind, and strive for the "abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states".
  3. Make an effort, arouse energy, apply your mind, and strive for the "arising of unarisen wholesome states".
  4. Make an effort, arouse energy, apply your mind, and strive for the "maintenance of arisen wholesome states".

- [SN 51.13]

These are the "Four Right Efforts", "Four Right Exertions", "Four Great Efforts", "Four Right Endeavors", or "Four Right Strivings".

Right effort is also about balanced effort, the optimal application of energy. This is especially important in the West where we are so results oriented and achievement oriented. We can really get ourselves tied up in knots. This practice takes lots and lots of time and lots and lots of patience and lots and lots of persistence. On one hand, we have to do it or nothing will happen. On the other hand, if we push too hard that has its own problems. We can burn out and quit.

The Buddha covers this problem in a lovely discourse to Soṇa the monk. He uses the analogy of a musical instrument whose strings are neither too loose nor too tight:

Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling at Rājagaha on Mount Vulture Peak. Now on that occasion the Venerable Soṇa was dwelling at Rājagaha in the Cool Grove.

Then, while the Venerable Soṇa was alone in seclusion, the following course of thought arose in his mind: “I am one of the Blessed One’s most energetic disciples, yet my mind has not been liberated from the taints by non-clinging. Now there is wealth in my family, and it is possible for me to enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds. Let me then give up the training and return to the lower life, so that I can enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds.”

Then, having known with his own mind the course of thought in the Venerable Soṇa’s mind, just as a strong man might extend his drawn-in arm or draw in his extended arm, the Blessed One disappeared on Mount Vulture Peak and appeared in the Cool Grove in the presence of the Venerable Soṇa. The Blessed One sat down on the seat prepared for him. The Venerable Soṇa paid homage to the Blessed One and sat down to one side. The Blessed One then said to him:

“Soṇa, when you were alone in seclusion, didn’t the following course of thought arise in your mind: ‘I am one of the Blessed One’s most energetic disciples, yet my mind has not been liberated from the taints by non-clinging . Now there is wealth in my family, and it is possible for me to enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds. Let me then give up the training and return to the lower life, so that I can enjoy my wealth and do meritorious deeds’?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“Tell me, Soṇa, in the past, when you lived at home, weren’t you skilled at the lute?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“What do you think , Soṇa? When its strings were too tight, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“When its strings were too loose, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“No, Bhante.”

“But, Soṇa, when its strings were neither too tight nor too loose but adjusted to a balanced pitch, was your lute well tuned and easy to play?”

“Yes, Bhante.”

“So too, Soṇa, if energy is aroused too forcefully this leads to restlessness, and if energy is too lax this leads to laziness. Therefore, Soṇa, resolve on a balance of energy, achieve evenness of the spiritual faculties, and take up the object there.” - [AN 6.55]

When we are sleepy, we need more energy. When we are restless, we need more calm. The practice always comes back to balance.

Right Mindfulness

And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. He remains focused on the body in and of itself - ardent, alert, and mindful - putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. He remains focused on feelings in and of themselves... the mind in and of itself... mental qualities in and of themselves - ardent, alert, and mindful - putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. - [SN 48.10]

There is probably more misunderstanding about the word "mindfulness" than any other in Buddhist practice.

The Pāli word for mindfulness is "sati". It literally means "to recollect" or "to remember". This has more meaning in India, where to know something is to have memorized it. At the time of the Buddha and for hundreds of years afterwards, "sati" meant a) learning the discourses, b) remembering what you learned through your own experience, most especially in your practice, and then c) bringing that to bear in the present moment. In the above quote we see the phrase "remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago".

However, the word "sati" - mindfulness - has taken quite a beating in its Western imported form. The word "mindfulness" is usually taught as something resembling "attention". The word "mindfulness" is defined this way at Wikipedia:

[Incorrect rendering of "mindfulness"]

Mindfulness is the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment. - [Wikipedia]

Here is how Psychology Today defines it:

[Second incorrect rendering of "mindfulness"]

Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. - [Psychology Today]

You have probably seen definitions like this.

But the word "attention" in Pāli is not "sati" but "manasikāra". Further, the Buddha does not prescribe simple attention, he teaches "appropriate attention", also called "wise attention", which in Pāli is "yoniso manasikāra". Thus, the attention is not "non-judgmental" or simply "open":

Bhikkhus, I say that the destruction of the taints is for one who knows and sees, not for one who does not know and see. Who knows and sees what? Wise attention and unwise attention. When one attends unwisely, unarisen taints arise and arisen taints increase. When one attends wisely, unarisen taints do not arise and arisen taints are abandoned. - [MN 2.3]

In the same sutta he says:

Here, bhikkhus, an untaught ordinary person, who has no regard for noble ones and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, who has no regard for true men and is unskilled and undisciplined in their Dhamma, does not understand what things are fit for attention and what things are unfit for attention. - [MN 2.5]

Thus, there is wise attention and unwise attention, and the attention of those skilled in the Dhamma and the attention of those who are not skilled in the Dhamma. There are things fit for attention and things unfit for attention. The type of wise attention that the Buddha prescribes has skill, meaning and purpose. But however you look at it, mindfulness - "sati" - is not "attention".

Despite the confusion, the rendering of "sati" as "mindfulness" is actually quite clever:

When, in the nineteenth century, T. W. Rhys Davids encountered the word sati while translating DN 22 into English, he tried to find an English term that would convey this meaning of memory applied to purposeful activity in the present. Concluding that English didn’t have an adequate equivalent, he made up his own: mindfulness. This, of course, wasn’t a total invention. In fact, Rhys Davids’ choice was apparently inspired by the phrasing of the Anglican prayer to be ever mindful of the needs of others - i.e., to always keep their needs in mind. Rhys Davids simply turned the adjective into a noun. Although the term mindfulness has its origins in a Christian context, and although its meaning has ironically become so distorted over the past century, its original meaning serves so well in conveying the Buddhist sense of memory applied to the present that I will continue to use it to render sati for the remainder of this book.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Right Mindfulness]

The Buddha usually linked mindfulness with other qualities. For example, in the "Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta: The Four Foundations of Mindfulness" [MN 10] he links mindfulness with ardency and alertness:

He abides contemplating mind as mind, ardent, alert, and mindful… - [MN 10.3]

This formula repeats itself as a "stock phrase" in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta.

The Buddha's instructions, then, are to be (1) ardent, (2) alert, and (3) mindful, and to do so with wise attention:

All three of these qualities get their focus from what the Buddha called "yoniso manasikara", "appropriate attention". Notice: That's "appropriate attention", not "bare attention". The Buddha discovered that the way you attend to things is determined by what you see as important: the questions you bring to the practice, the problems you want the practice to solve. No act of attention is ever "bare". If there were no problems in life you could open yourself up choicelessly to whatever came along. But the fact is there is a big problem smack dab in the middle of everything you do: the suffering that comes from acting in ignorance. This is why the Buddha doesn't tell you to view each moment with a beginner's eyes. You've got to keep the issue of suffering and its end always in mind.

- [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, "Mindfulness Defined"]

From the standpoint of practice, the best way to understand "sati" is that it means to "keep something in mind". We start by keeping the breath in mind. But we do so on a foundation of right view, what we are learning here. That is very important, meditating with a firm foundation of right view. Otherwise you could just follow the breath forever, and who knows where that might take you? Maybe - probably - nowhere. So in our current examination of the Four Noble Truths we are starting to lay the groundwork for where the breath can take us.

As I mentioned in the chapter on Breath Meditation, there is an art and a craft to meditation. Suppose you are a crafts-person, and you make fine furniture. When you are building a beautiful dresser, with curved, sculpted legs, and wood inlay, finished with a custom crafted oil stain, at any given moment you bring to bear all the knowledge and training that you have. Everything that you learned from teachers and mentors and peers, and everything that you have read, everything that you have learned on your own, along with skills that you perfected like the precise way to hold a carving blade, the amount of pressure to get the cut just right, along with your energy and attention and state of mind in the present moment. That is "mindfulness".

There are two well-known suttas specifically devoted to mindfulness. The Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta is one that I have mentioned several times. This sutta is quite important and will get its own chapter. The other one is the "Anapanasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing" [MN 118], and likewise, it will get its own chapter.

Right Concentration

And what, friends, is right concentration? Here, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a bhikkhu enters upon and abides in the first jhāna, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion. With the stilling of applied and sustained thought, he enters upon and abides in the second jhāna, which has self-confidence and singleness of mind without applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he abides in equanimity, and mindful and fully aware, still feeling pleasure with the body, he enters upon and abides in the third jhāna, on account of which noble ones announce: ‘He has a pleasant abiding who has equanimity and is mindful.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous disappearance of joy and grief, he enters upon and abides in the fourth jhāna, which has neither-pain-nor-pleasure and purity of mindfulness due to equanimity. This is called right concentration. - [MN 141.31]

As you can see here, the Buddha defined right concentration as the four jhānas, the states of meditative absorption.

The subject of jhāna practice is covered in detail later, with instructions on how to enter these states. For now I will just give a brief description.

There is some confusion about what jhāna is, and just what mind states qualify as jhāna. In the Pāli canon, there are four jhānas. Each jhāna is distinguished by “jhāna factors:"

  1. 1st jhāna - applied and sustained thought, rapture and pleasure
  2. 2nd jhāna - self-confidence and singleness of mind, rapture and pleasure
  3. 3rd jhāna - pleasure and equanimity
  4. 4th jhāna - equanimity

In addition, the canon describes five "arupas", or “immaterial attainments", that are also states of concentration:

  1. The base of boundless space
  2. The base of boundless consciousness
  3. The base of nothingness
  4. The base of neither perception nor non-perception.
  5. The cessation of feelings and perceptions

The confusion comes from a later reformulation of what constitutes jhāna in the Visuddhimagga.

The Visuddhimagga was written by Buddhaghosa (literally "voice of the Buddha") around 430 CE in Sri Lanka. It is the mainstream interpretation of southern (Theravada) Buddhism. In the Visuddhimagga the first four arupas become jhānas 5-8, and the fifth arupa drops out of the group altogether. Even later the fifth arupa informally comes to be called the “9th jhāna”. Thus by later understanding there are either 8 or 9 jhānas.

According to the Buddha, any of the first four jhānas can lead to an Awakening. However, the most common path is to master the first four jhānas prior to Awakening, just as the Buddha did.

It is not trivial to attain jhāna, but it is possible. It takes diligence, patience and persistence,. The attainment of jhāna is one of the things toward which we are working.

When you are practicing, you start with mindfulness. When mindfulness becomes strong, it leads to concentration. Eventually they become mutually supporting. Strong mindfulness leads to greater concentration, and strong concentration leads to greater mindfulness. It is a positive feedback loop.

And in the meantime, you are developing some wonderful qualities: calm, serenity, tranquility, and a sense of well-being. There is a process of self-nurturing. You are taking care of yourself, and you are creating a place of safety and healing for yourself.

As concentration and mindfulness reinforce each other, you are developing "samatha" and "vipassana", serenity and insight.

These two things - serenity and insight - occur in him yoked evenly together. - [MN 149.10]

You may have heard the expression "dry insight". The notion behind dry insight is that Awakening can happen without jhāna. But the evidence in the Pāli Canon is overwhelmingly against that idea. The arguments for dry insight are, at best, a stretch, while the Buddha’s teachings show that jhāna is central to the practice leading to Awakening.

(In the Vissudhimagga jhāna morphed into something impossibly difficult, literally attainable by only "1 in a million". If that were true, then almost no one could become enlightened. So then you backtrack by saying, well, jhāna isn't really required to become enlightened.)

It is also worth noting what "insight" means. In a Buddhist context, insight refers to one of the supermundane teachings, such as dependent origination/co-arising (the Buddha’s law of causality), karma (wholesome actions bring wholesome results), the Four Noble Truths, and the "three marks of conditioned existence". The three marks are anicca, anatta and dukkha, that is, 1) that all conditioned things are impermanent (the only unconditioned thing is Nirvāṇa), 2) that all conditioned things are “not-self” (i.e., they lack a permanent essence), and 3) that – because they are inconstant and unreliable - they lead to suffering. The suffering comes because we attach ourselves to conditioned things in the delusion that they will never change, which of course they do.

These are the wisdom teachings of the Buddha.

However, this does not mean that meditation cannot lead to more mundane, every day insights. These mundane insights can and do occur in meditation. But the real prize is insights that you get into the supermundane, to a final Awakening, and freedom from suffering, anxiety and stress.


In this section we looked at the Buddha's most fundamental teaching, the Four Noble Truths. These are not simply static facts. There is an activity associated with each one:

  1. The Noble Truth of Suffering is "to be understood". [AN 6.63]
  2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering is "to be abandoned:"
    "But whosoever overcomes in this world this shameful craving, which is difficult to suppress, finds his sorrows fall from him, as drops of water from a lotus leaf". [Dhp 336]
  3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering "is to realized":
    "And what, bhikkhus, is the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving". [SN 22.104]
  4. The Noble Truth of the Eightfold Noble Path "is to be developed":
    "And what, bhikkhus, is right view that is noble, taintless, supramundane, a factor of the path? The wisdom, the faculty of wisdom, the power of wisdom, the investigation-of-states enlightenment factor, the path factor of right view in one whose mind is noble, whose mind is taintless, who possesses the noble path and is developing the noble path". [MN 117.8]

We looked at the heart of the Buddha's training in how to become free from suffering:

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Right mindfulness leads to right concentration, and they become mutually reinforcing. Further, as the Buddha tells us, the first seven path factors act as a support for the eighth path factor, jhāna. But all the path factors must be developed in a balanced way, and are mutually supportive.