The Cascading Four Noble Truths

Many teachers emphasize the non-linear nature of the eightfold Noble Path. Each step in the path helps to reinforce all of the others. And of course that it’s true. However, there is also a method behind the order in which the steps appear in the path. Right concentration, for example, cannot be developed without the other seven as a basis. (This is not my opinon; this is actually stated in the canon.)

Right view, of course, comes first, and it is not possible to develop any of the other seven past factors without right view. Right view provides a map, and without a map you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there.

Of course, in the beginning our understanding of right view will not be very deep. You have to start somewhere so you start with whatever wisdom you have and work from there. However, it’s very important to keep working at your understanding of right view so you stay on course.

Many years ago in my job as a software engineer, when the first Macintosh computer first came out, I had to learn how to program this new machine. Everything was so new then, including the technical documentation. The very first Macintosh came with an early edition of the documentation called Inside Macintosh. Apple didn’t even have time to do a proper printing of it when the machine was released, so they printed what came to be fondly called the phonebook edition. It literally looked like the Manhattan phonebook.

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

The Buddhist teachings are a little like that. You have to work your way through them iteratively, visiting and revisiting each topic. And unfortunately there are very few discourses where the Buddha gives an overview of the whole of his teachings and the whole of the practice. In fact, because of the way discourses were given, learned, and remembered, the convention was to give relatively short talks on very specific subjects. In this way they could be easily memorized, because, of course, this was a verbal tradition and not a written one.

This is one reason why there is so much misunderstanding of the Buddhist teachings. At the time of the Buddha and for 1,000 years or so afterwards, the monks memorized the discourses. And they didn’t just memorize a few selected ones, they memorized a great many of them. So once they memorized all of these discourses, they could piece together an overall map in their minds of the whole of the teachings.

One of the things that typically happens when you practice this path, is that something you read in a discourse or heard in a talk will get planted like a seed your mind. And it may be years later that your practice develops to the point where you suddenly understand something you’ve been told or read. This is one of the important aspects of the Pali word for mindfulness, which is “sati”. As I’ve written before, the word “sati” literally means to recollect, and one aspect of that recollection is to remember what you learned when you were able to finally understand it.

We no longer practice in that way. Very few Buddhist practitioners have read even a small portion of the canonical literature. So it’s very easy for someone to read one discourse that is disconnected from the rest of the canon and to take something out of context.

As an exercise for myself – and one that I hope will be of value to others – I have put together a map of the whole path. To be sure, I would like to issue the usual caveats. I don’t claim that in any way this is exhaustive. However, I think it is helpful to put the basic teachings of the Buddha’s into an outline, using the Four Noble Truths as the organizing principle. And this is what follows. It is what I call the Cascading Four Noble Truths. You can click on the down arrows to expand any section.

I look forward to hearing from anyone who quibbles with the way I have organized it, or things that I’ve missed, or things that I simply gotten wrong.

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One Response to The Cascading Four Noble Truths

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