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Back to the Basics: The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path

posted by Evelyn Cash

By Evelyn Cash

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking a step back and revisiting some of the very basic
teachings of the Buddha.  I think it can be helpful from time to time to go back and
reconsider teachings you haven’t thought much about in a long time; it can bring a fresh
perspective and re-energize your practice.

When I learned about Buddhism in my high school Comparative Religions class, I basically came
away with the understanding that there were two teachings of primary importance to Buddhists:
The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path. In my tenth grade mind, these two
teachings were roughly equivalent to the Five Pillars of Islam or the Mitzvah of
Judaism. I thought that, in order to be Buddhist, a person had to believe in
The Four Noble Truths and follow The Eightfold Path in a devotional way, similar to a
Muslim’s dedication to prayer five times a day. I knew that Buddhists meditated
and I was interested in that aspect of the tradition even then but the idea of following all
eight of the folds of the path seemed just a little too difficult for me. I
couldn’t (and indeed, still can’t) remember each one of the eight folds without consulting a
book and so my interest in Buddhism, however small it was at the time, waned pretty quickly.

Now, as a Zen student who has been practicing for a few years and feels quite committed to
the Buddhist path, I look at the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path in a completely
different way. On the one hand, my tenth grade self was right – these teachings
are at the very core of Buddhist practice. On the other hand, 15 year old
Evelyn was completely wrong (as usual).

Let’s quickly review The Four Noble Truths:

1.)   
The truth of dukkha (typically translated as “suffering”)

2.)   
The origin of dukkha

3.)   
The cessation of dukkha

4.)   
The path leading to the end of dukkha which is: (you guessed it) The Eightfold
Path.

And now, The Eightfold Path:

1.)   
Right View

2.)   
Right Intention

3.)   
Right Speech

4.)   
Right Action

5.)   
Right Livelihood

6.)   
Right Effort

7.)   
Right Mindfulness

8.)   
Right Concentration

It is true that the Four Noble
Truths
and the Eightfold
Path
are central to Buddhist practice. It has been passed down that these
were the first teachings the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment under the Bodhi
Tree. Whether the story is true or apocryphal, it points to the importance of
these teachings within the Buddhadharma. The Four Noble Truths can be viewed as
the basic “mission statement” of Buddhism. In short, they present the
deceptively simple statements that life contains suffering, that our over-attachment to the
things and ideas in our life creates this suffering, that there is a way to end our suffering
and lastly the Buddha presents his method for ending suffering which is contained in the
eightfold path. These short, simple statements explain the basic rationale
behind Buddhist teachings. If life did not contain suffering or if there was no
way to end suffering, there would be no real reason to practice the
Buddhadharma. One could argue that the dharma teachings and practices exist to
address the situation described in the Four Noble Truths.

In college, as I began to take a second look at Buddhism, I learned much more about the Four
Noble Truths and Eightfold Path than the simple lessons I had been taught in high
school. I learned that the Four Noble Truths are not a creed or statement that
Buddhists need to accept on blind faith. Instead, our approach to the Four
Noble Truths should be more akin to the laws of physics such as Newton’s laws of motion. For
example when  students learn that an object in motion will remain in motion unless it is
acted upon by an external force, they may initially have to take this law on
“faith.” Every high school physics class includes basic experiments and
problems to give the students first-hand experience showing that Newton’s first law of motion
does in fact hold true (at least on the level of classical
mechanics
, let’s not get into quantum mechanics or special relativity
today). The Four Noble Truths are actually quite similar to this.
Depending on our experiences in life, we may have to initially take it on faith that life
contains suffering (I’ve also heard this as “life is unsatisfactory” and both work fine) and
that our suffering is caused by clinging to various objects or ideas in our
lives. As we start to pay attention to our lives more closely, we’ll see that
some level of suffering results when we cling to our possessions or to the ideas we have
about ourselves. I think all of us have realized this on some level at some
point in our lives. As a kid, I remember realizing that all of the expectations
I had leading up to Christmas or my Birthday almost always led to some form of disappointment
and even if I did get exactly what I wanted, the joy of it eventually faded. In
a way, the first half of the Four Noble Truths is simply stating the obvious and we’ve all
come to a similar conclusions in our own lives..

The Eightfold Path can be viewed as the Buddha’s solution to the “problem” of
suffering. As a teenager, I thought that Buddhists attempted to strictly adhere
to each aspect of the Eightfold Path in the same way that Orthodox Jews strictly adhere to
kosher laws. In practice, the
Eightfold Path provides a road map to help us work towards letting go of our clinging and
ultimately ending our suffering. For me, it’s a lot easier to break up the
Eightfold Path into its three parts and view each as separate and interrelated paths of
practice. The three paths (or trainings) break down like this:

  • The Wisdom Training, containing: “Right View” and “Right Intention”
  • The Moral or Ethical Training, containing “Right Speech,” “Right
    Action” and “Right Livelihood”
  • The Concentration Training, containing: “Right Effort,” “Right
    Mindfulness” and “Right Concentration.

I personally loved Daniel Ingram’s
one act play
on the these three aspects of the practice from his book: “Mastering the Core Teachings of the
Buddha.”
First of all, the play is hilarious and it actually does a pretty
good job explaining how these three aspects work together on the path to realization. 
Buddhist practice is most effective when each one of these three paths is practiced regularly
and kept in balance.  Meditation contains the Concentration and Wisdom training while the
Ethical training involves keeping the precepts and carrying the lessons of the dharma into
daily life.  Because these are trainings and not commandments, the practice is on-going and
it will encounter the occasional ups and downs. For example, the practice of Right Speech
does not imply that lying is a sin that will be punished, it just means that you try to
recognize the harm in lying and you resolve to do better in the future.  The “folds” of the
Eightfold Path are like markers on the trail to get you back on track.  As you cultivate
Wisdom, Concentration and Ethics, you begin to learn the trail by heart and have less need
for the markers.

As it turns out, my elementary understanding of Buddhism was correct, if perhaps a little
simplistic.  It is true that the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are at the very center
of Buddhist practice.  However, they are not rules sent down from on high to be taken on
blind faith and strictly adhered to; like much of the Buddha’s teachings, they must be
practiced and directly experienced in order to be of any benefit.



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Comments read comments(3)
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ellen9

posted November 16, 2009 at 1:57 pm


thanks, Evelyn, that was great. I like the reminder about the four noble truths being like Newton’s laws of motion – not laws from on high, but laws observed from the ground up.



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Anan E. Maus

posted November 16, 2009 at 6:50 pm


I think that our understanding of Buddhism and all its practices and tenets is not a static thing. That the more in depth our practice, the more we discover in the teachings.
I think there is too much of a desire to want Buddhism to conform to what we want it to be, rather than a desire to find what Buddhism is and conform to that.
By that I don’t mean authoritarian dogma, I mean the search for truth. And that search for truth can come full circle and absolutely become a kind of rebuke of our limited devotion to morality. The higher we strive, the higher we find there is to strive.
Behavior that we think is perfectly fine today, we may not find acceptable tomorrow, as our consciousness changes and our desire for moral perfection grows.
There is no Buddhahood without moral perfection. Just because that is a long road ahead of us now, does not mean we should dismiss the importance of that being the goal.
We need to both accept ourselves and love ourselves as we are, and also strive for something beyond. Otherwise, our own lethargy will just catch up to us, make a million excuses and water down our path to next to nothing.
gassho



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Alexis

posted December 9, 2009 at 12:56 am


The idea that suffering can be alleviated by practicing the eightfold path is so contrary to the experience of most people that this may explain why the eightfold path is not more widely practiced in our culture. Yet, as this essay correctly points out, the four noble truths and the eightfold path were the central teachings of the Buddha. As he himself said, “I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.” So I appreciate this essay for reminding me that these are the core truths of Buddhism. I work as a project manager, so I have a pragmatic view of how the eightfold path can alleviate suffering. If when I’m sick, the doctor has a right understanding of my symptoms and test results, makes a right decision (diagnosis) about what my illness is, confirms it with a second opinion (right speech) and comes up with the correct treatment(right action), then I’ll be cured and my suffering will be over.



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