Four noble truths

As a psychologist it is very attractive to hear teachings espoused by Buddha which instruct individuals who are suffering to look for the answers within

The Four Noble Truths are a very important set of teachings (Dharma) that were first offered by the Buddha after his experience of “Awakening”. The attraction of the Dharma (Hindu) or Dhamma (Pali) is the strong psychological foundation that is embedded in this set of teachings. As a psychologist it is very attractive to hear teachings espoused by Buddha which instruct individuals who are suffering to look for the answers within. Furthermore, there is the corollary tenet of this model that we have all the resources we need within providing we know, or we are taught how to access these resources. It is instructive to understand the deep psychological roots of this model by understanding some of the history and dynamics of the young Prince Siddhartha Gautama who lived in Northern India in the 6th century B.C. and how he pioneered a model of transformation that is accessible to anyone who seeks a profound yet pragmatic truth.  (See history of the Buddha).

  • The first Noble Truth or ennobling truth grows out of the Buddha’s insights as he sat under the Bodhi tree contemplating the fact of dissatisfaction in life that all humans will encounter. We all will know some form of illness, aging and death. To understand this as just a fact of existence is ennobling if we can embrace these truths without attachment or aversion we are ennobled or empowered to just accept a fundamental truth about human experience. Buddhism has often been misunderstood in the Phrase “life is suffering” when it was actually presented by the Buddha as life inevitably bringing different types and degrees of dissatisfactions. The Pali phrase of Dukkha is the phrase used in the original teachings. Life experiences will bring “Dukkha” the literal translation is from the meaning of how an ox cart offers a bumpy ride if the axle is either too tight or too loose causing a “bumpy ride”. So, synonyms might include qualities of unreliability and unsatisfactory or This is Dukkha, a bumpy ride. It can be as simple as being a little hungry to suffering with some great loss. For us to “get it” that life will offer this reality and it doesn’t have to be a big dramatic deal is how we can be illuminated by the first Noble Truth. Accepting this truth requires wisdom and enhances our wisdom as we work with it.
  • The second Noble Truth the psychologically powerful dynamic we are all familiar with, i.e., we all want things much of the time to be other then they are. In learning-theory we know that human being s move toward pleasure and away from pain. All creatures are subject to the reinforcement and conditioning processes of the nervous system which guide them to avoid pain and to seek pleasure. Because our human intellect allows us to ruminate on the past and to anticipate the future we very easily will grasp on to that which we want and have aversion to that which we do not want. This grasping and aversion also known as attachment enhances our suffering. We create a “bumpy ride” by not being at peace with the realities that life may be offering us. The cause of our suffering is our expectation that life should be “peachy keen” or easy, smooth, pleasant, fun. Pick your adjective. In fact, life occasionally offers all of these attributes only they don’t last alas they are impermanent. If we can allow our experience through acceptance to be just what it is and not be filled with aversion, or the fantasy that everything should be perfect then we will in fact have less dissatisfaction. Then our suffering can end. 
  • This is the Third ennobling Truth. Suffering can end. Alleluia! It’s great to know that by recognizing our attachment and tendencies of grasping and learning to let go of that behavior/pattern or suffering dukkha can end. Just let go of attachments. It sounds simple – just let go. Not! That’s why there is a Fourth Noble Truth. It offers us a path for how to let go. It is called the Eightfold Path.
  • The Fourth Noble Truth offers us the Path for how to identify, let go of and replace our unhealthy thinking patterns with tools of attention, choice and concentration. The eight factors of the path are listed as follows:
  • Right Understanding or View
  • Right Intention or Thought
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

The language of the elements of The Path is instructive in guiding us toward what is “right”. Right can also be thought of as that which is wholesome or skillful. Skills that will lead us toward our own awakening. Wholesome in that when we practice these steps we endeavor to bring no harm to self or others. The Path has been categorized into three essential qualities: ethical conduct, mental discipline and wisdom.  

Wisdom is demonstrated in the first two steps on the Path. By Right or Wholesome Understanding what we are directed to is to get it that the whole of the Four Noble Truths are operating in our perceptions and actions from the moment we first open our eyes in the morning. That is, we will have dissatisfactions, we will have attachments and they can be dissolved if we have the Right View of life. It is skillful to notice this and to also remember that whatever does arise is impermanent. If we start each day with a skillful attitude that embraces these truths we are ennobled to move forward through life with a much better attitude.

The next part of the wisdom quality is Right Intention or Right thought. It useful to note that what we are paying attention to becomes our intention. This is where cognitive behavioral therapy and Buddhist psychology intersect so nicely. Cognitive therapists endeavor to teach their patients that some of their repetitive thinking is distorted and may lead to more distorted thinking and depressed mood. If we note the quality of our thinking we have an opportunity to redirect our thoughts and change our intention. Today’s thoughts become the seeds for tomorrows reality. So, it is wise for us to notice what we are allowing to play on the screen of our mind.  If our intention is to transcend old habits that have not served us we then need to stop old thought patterns that may be self-limiting or damaging. If we do the same thing over and over again we will get the same result this according to Einstein is the definition of insanity.

We can see how these first two wisdom steps can get us going in the right direction to move toward change. A guiding principle of bringing no harm to self or others will move us to the next set of Truths in the ethical grouping of qualities.

In Right Speech, Right Thought and Right Intention we work toward not harming others by our words, actions and how we earn a living. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese scholarly evolved Buddhist teacher instructs to only speak when it is timely, necessary and useful. When we think of the gossiping and small talk that we waste time with it illustrates how skillful speech would be a refreshing change on our patterns. If we are not harming others in speech we are not contributing to the “bad Karma” of bad or harmful behavior. As a psychologist I use the term “Karma” not referring to any past life phenomenology, rather thinking of how our habit patterns will be strengthened if behaviors are repeated. The mind tends to do what has been done in the past. This is true from a behavioral learning perspective as well as in insights gleaned from neuroscience. So, ceasing old patterns and engaging in new behavior offers the brain new pathways that will become easier to access. Donald Hebb, an early neuropsychologist noted “neurons that fire together become hard-wired together”.

Right, Skillful Action clearly has the same benefits and pitfalls that we discussed in the skillful speech section. Certainly, kind and compassionate behavior are habit patterns we wish to develop. Selfish, angry rude behavior will generate certain responses in others which could come back to haunt us in this lifetime. We can see how this ethical quality assists our progress on a path to awakening. It is difficult in a society with leadership in government which operates without regard for ethics. Some of our elected leaders in government promote certain behaviors which are not kind and compassionate. So, it is all the more important for us to model ethical behavior that is skillful and wholesome.

Right Livelihood instructs us to not engage in a vocation or job which is illegal, immoral or bringing harm to others. Examples of this are blatantly harmful endeavors like drug dealing , human trafficking, or engaging in schemes which can mislead and cheat people intentionally.

The Mental Discipline cluster of skills offers us skills in a sense where “the rubber meets the road” The psychological relevance of these steps on the Path I hope will become obvious. Right Effort involves having the sense of ardency and energetic will to: a) prevent evil and unwholesome states from arising in the mind, b) to get rid of such states when they do arise (which we know they will), c) to cultivate good and wholesome states of mind that have not arisen yet and d) to maintain and nourish the wholesome states of mind already present in our minds. We can see some discernment and alertness is required to know what’s going on up there and to choose the right course.

Right Mindfulness involves diligent awareness of 1) What’s arising in the body, 2) the automatic evaluative feeling that comes with perceptions of all phenomena. Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral neither pleasant nor unpleasant, 3) The activity of the mind, the narrative or self-talk we engage in, and 4) All ideas, thoughts and conceptions available to the mind including the Dharma. The Satipatthana-sutta (Setting -up of Mindfulness) is one of the ancient Buddhist texts which elaborates on the importance of how to meditate and enhance mindfulness. Some scholars refer to this aspect of the Path as enhancing mental hygiene.

Right Concentration is a state with which desires, unwholesome thoughts, anger, depression, worry, anxiety and self-doubt are discarded. Feelings of joy and happiness are maintained. Concentration leads to certain transcendent states culminating in pure states of equanimity and awareness.

We can see how this Path which requires practice and discipline has the practical guidance to lead us to personal transformation and potentially enlightenment. The Buddha teaches us to use these practices to end our suffering. It is truly an elegant and enlightening Path.