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Sutras from the Old Way – 1st Sutra – Four Noble Truths Q&A

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 11/30/2002
In Topics: Early Buddhism, Pali Canon

This is the continuation of 1st Sutra – Four Noble Truths talk, containing the Question & Answer period.

Sutras from the Old Way – 1st Sutra – Four Noble Truths

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Nov 30, 2002

Transcribed and edited by Murray McGillivray and Barbara Byrum

Some years ago, I and some other colleagues at Zen Center participated in creating a study curriculum for Zen Center, which would be not only a study of Zen texts per se, but a study of all of Buddhism that would be relevant to a Zen practitioner. We thought that it would be very important for people who study Zen to know some basic teachings from the Pali Canon, since this is part of our practice as well.

So we made a compendium of a selection of teachings from the Pali Canon, not necessarily the most important ones, or the greatest ones, but the ones that we thought were important. We created a little book called “Sutras from the Old Way.”

In the beginning of this book there’s an introduction to the selections that I want to read and comment on. There’s a text called Hokyoki, which is the journal of Dogen’s studies with his teacher that he kept when he was a young man studying in China. When Dogen heard his teacher say “Drop off body and mind!” he had his awakening experience. So this phrase, “drop off body and mind,” is a kind of a code for Dogen for the essence of the meaning of Buddhism, the essence of the meaning of Buddha’s mind or teaching. His teacher, Rujing, said, “Dropping off body and mind is zazen. When you do just sitting, you are free from the five sense desires and the five hindrances.”

Dogen was astonished to hear his teacher say that zazen is already the essence of Buddha’s mind. This is maybe not surprising to us, but it might be surprising to hear that it’s also the same thing as being free from the five sense desires and the five hindrances. So he’s saying, “Are we supposed to be practicing not just Zen but also the old way?” And the Master said, “Descendants of ancestors (meaning Zen students) should not exclude the teachings of either vehicle. If students ignore the Tathagata’s sacred teachings, how can they become the descendants of buddha-ancestors?

So there were, and still are, some Zen people who advocate Forget studies, forget Buddhism, it’s just the insight from the cushion! But Dogen wasn’t one like that. He actually advocated studying Buddhism. He didn’t even like to talk about Soto Zen or even Zen. He said we’re just doing Buddhism, just doing buddha-dharma.

I believe, and many scholars agree, that the later developments of Buddhism – Mahayana Buddhism and tantric Buddhism and Zen – are not contradictory to these early teachings. They’re simply developing and bringing out aspects of the teachings. Much of everything that you find in Buddhism is really found in the early teachings, in either explicit or in implicit form.

So having said that, I thought we’d start at the beginning with the first sutra, the Sutra on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma. It is said that this is the first sermon that the Buddha gave after his awakening.

Thus have I heard.

As everyone here no doubt knows, that line is spoken by Ananda. Every Buddhist sutra begins with Ananda, who remembered everything that the Buddha ever taught.

Once the Blessed One, the Buddha, was staying in the Deer Park in Isipatana near Varanasi.

I was just talking to a friend the other day who’s about to go to India. I once went to India, and I went to this place—you can go there, maybe some of you have been there—the Deer Park outside of Varanasi, where there is a great stupa. It’s kind of amazing. I’m not that sentimental myself, but somehow when I went outside Varanasi to the Deer Park and saw this circumambulating the great stupa at the Deer Park, I just burst into tears.

The Buddha addressed the bhikkhus of the group of five, the five ascetics that I was mentioning.

There are two extremes which should not be followed, bhikkhus, by someone who has gone forth (that means, gone forth into the religious life and given up worldly pursuits and seeking truth). One extreme is pursuing sense-pleasure, which is low, vulgar, worldly, ignoble and produces no useful result.

He is talking about excessive profligacy and hedonistic indulgence. I think the Buddha recognized that there is grabbiness – so much desire and thirsting and craving – even in very ordinary states of mind and average, everyday experience. Grabbiness is that kind of attachment, that kind of thirsting and craving within any sensual experience. It is not just overeating, or overdrinking, or overindulging in this or that, but any time you see or hear or taste or touch. If you are craving and grasping and pursuing that experience, that’s one extreme. The other extreme is the opposite of that: devotion to self-denial. Here he’s telling this to the ascetics, right? They need to hear this!

With practice you see how subtle craving is. You begin to see that craving, and this kind of thirsting that he’s talking about, is the cause of suffering. It’s not that one action is bad and one action is good. It becomes clearer to you: Oh, I see, as soon as I have this kind of grasping, very quickly after that, I have suffering. I didn’t really see it before, but now I see how unsuccessful and how kind of stupid the way that I’ve been conducting myself was.

The problem with the language of some of these texts is that they sound as if what’s being advocated is a kind of self-denial or tremendous discipline and restraint. But, no, I think what’s being indicated is a kind of simple and quiet enjoyment of one’s life, absent this kind of craving and grasping. And seeing the difference takes some subtlety. It actually takes some sensitivity to one’s own experience, and I think, realistically, some time and discipline of practice. One’s pleasure in this or that is relative to one’s own sensitivity and one’s own mind, one’s own spirit. So as you develop your mind and your spirit, you find ways of enjoying very simple things, and you realize that to crave and take more than is necessary is actually uncomfortable.

The opposite is devotion to self-denial, which is painful, ignoble, and roduces no useful result. Avoiding both these extremes, bhikkhus, the middle way that the Tathagata has awakened to gives vision and insight-knowledge, and leads to peace, profound understanding, full realization, and to nibbana.

So he’s saying that one extreme is worldly life, which is the pursuit of accumulation of things and experience – the affirmation and building on desire. The opposite of that, retreat into a religious life, would be full of self-denial and the demonization of worldly things. What we’re looking for, he says, is a kind of way of life that brings us pleasure in the sense of peacefulness and stability and sustainability. He didn’t always speak of the middle way in this particular way, but I think he spoke of this initially because he was addressing ascetics, who exactly saw these two extremes. They demonized the world; they were trying to mortify their flesh, because it was somehow wrong or bad.

So, then, the basic question: What is the middle way? How do you live that?And what is the middle way that the Tathagata has awakened to, which gives vision and insight-knowledge, and leads to peace, profound understanding, full realization, and to nibbana? It is the eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is the middle way that the Tathagata has awakened to.

I’m not that big a fan of the word “right” here, because it evokes a strait-laced attitude. I think that this word actually means “attuned,” or “aligned,” not “askew.” If something is “right,” it means it’s straightforward. It’s perfectly aligned and attuned.

This is saying is that the middle way requires a whole way of life, which has many different aspects to it. In each aspect one should strive for a kind of attunement, where you’re not leaning to one side or the other. Religious practice can be just another avenue for greed and delusion; all the things that you can do in the world you can do exactly in the same way in religious practice! So he’s saying be attuned, be aligned with reality as it really is. Don’t be fighting it. Align yourself with it. That’s the way to be peaceful; that’s the way to be happy.

In your views, in the way that you look at things and understand things, you align and attune your views away from selfishness, away from avoidance, and toward a kind of accurate and clear acceptance of what is. And then, when you have a view like that, your mind and heart will produce the proper intentions based on accurate views. You have intentions that are in tune with what’s best in you as a human being. The words that come out of your mouth will be helpful and beautiful, and not nasty and negative.When you speak words like that, it will inspire you towards action, which is also attuned and aligned, and when you have attuned and aligned action, naturally you’ll want to have a way of life, a way of earning your daily alms, that will be righteous and not harm others.

When you have all that taken care of, you’ll want to make the right kind of effort to practice meditation. Then you’ll practice awareness in your daily life, and that awareness you’ll also take to your cushion, where you’ll be able to practice a strong concentration. And that strong concentration will deepen your mind and deepen the subtlety of your understanding, so that you will have views that are even more accurate and more aligned with the way things are.

In other words, the eightfold path, the program that he’s laying out here, is an endless program of going back to living your life with an ever greater degree of clarity, understanding, and alignment with reality and with what is..Then he teaches the bhikkhus the first formulation of the four noble truths:

Bhikkhus there is a noble truth about dissatisfaction.

This famous “dissatisfaction” is translated many other ways. “Suffering” is usually the way that you hear the word dukkha translated. This is the first truth. It is the recognition that all conditioned things have the nature of suffering. In later sutras it becomes clear that when he says “the noble truth of dissatisfaction,” what he means is that this is the nature of conditioned existence – not just things we don’t like, or certain things we would call suffering. He’s saying, Suffering is a lot more pervasive than you think it is. The word dukkha means that even if things are going well, there is dissatisfaction, there’s a little anxiety. You know that feeling: I can’t believe things are going so well, what’s going to happen next? The anxiety that’s inherent in existing in a human world with an impermanent mind and body.

The Buddha gives a few really good instances of what he means by dissatisfaction or suffering:

Birth is a problem.

It’s true, you know. When you’re born you have many problems right away, and they continue. So even coming into the world in the first place is a problem. We know this because everybody who comes into the world starts crying immediately when they get there, because it’s a shock. It’s a big shock and trauma to come into the world after you’ve been floating around in space, in this wonderful situation of total love and belonging. All of a sudden, somebody says, Alright now, breathe. And don’t stop until you die. This is a shock! It’s a problem! It’s a lot of work. Then there are all kind of problems: they make you go to school, you have to learn relationships, and you have to get a job! Even if everything goes well, you still have those problems.

Then, if you’re born, you’re going to age. Aging is difficult. The older you get, different things start not working. It’s very hard. And then, you have to die. All these things are a consequence of being born. People think, Oh, she died of cancer. Well, that’s not really true, she didn’t die of cancer, she died of life! If she were never born, she wouldn’t die. Cancer is an incidental cause of death. The real cause of death is birth.

So this is all a big problem. Then there’s sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair that come into every human life, no matter what. These things are also unpleasant and difficult.

In brief, the five grasped aggregates are unsatisfactory.

“The grasped aggregates” mean you. In other words, being a person with sense organs, a mind, emotions, impulses, in an impermanent body. This is a drastically unworkable situation. Recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of happiness, the beginning of real pleasure. If you don’t recognize this, you’re already doomed, because then you’re going to be looking for some sort of quick fix, some sort of band-aid. This is going to be your problem: you’re going to be putting a band-aid on that which is a bigger wound than a band-aid can fix. And the more you keep doing that, your frustration is only going to grow as time goes on. At first you might think, Oh, good! I put the band-aid on, and I feel much better now. But as time goes on, the wound is bigger, and the band-aid is not working, and you become much more unhappy. So you first have to realize the fix you’re in, as it really is.

The Four Noble Truths are set up as the most simple form of logic, almost like a medical diagnosis. First of all, what is the disease; then what causes the disease; then find a way to remove the cause; and then, finally, there’s health. So that’s basically what the four noble truths are saying.

So the second truth is the cause. What is the cause of this condition? It is desire.Or, I would say, clinging, grasping, craving, endlessly wanting – something more or different from what’s there. This is the human condition. That’s what moves us forward: grasping and clinging and desiring something that isn’t there.This clinging and craving and grasping gives rise to relish and passion, running here and there, delighting in this and that. This might sound good, actually, to most of us! That’s not so bad! Passion? Excellent! Running around here and there? I like to travel! Delighting in this and that? Why not! But he’s saying, that’s exactly the point. We like all that. We hear that, and we think, Oh, that’s really good! But that is the problem. We don’t understand the real nature, the fundamental nature, of our conditioned existence, and so we’re following our craving and our grasping and our desires. We are running around, delighting in this and that.

Bhikkhus, there is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering.

It is the complete fading away and cessation. It is the quieting, I would say, the calming, the spaciousness that can surround this kind of clinging and desire. When that happens, there is abandonment and relinquishment. There’s freedom, peace, ease, and joy.

That’s possible. How? He then repeats the noble eightfold path, which he mentioned earlier: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

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