Stop chasing “wants” and look inside for happiness — A contemporary perspective on The Four Noble Truths

Although the teachings are 2500 years old I find The Four Noble Truths relevant for contemporary life, possibly even more so now in the age of internet where we can feed every temptation and in many cases get instant gratification at a click of a few buttons.

The Four Noble Truths deal with what in Sanskrit is called duhka. There is not a very precise translation of this word to English but the most often used English word for duhka is suffering.

I don’t like this translation as it is focusing on the feeling that often is very dramatic — suffering — and the power of The Four Noble Truths is that it’s a way of relating to self and life long before it may turn into suffering.

The dictionaries offers other translations as well. Such as pain, unhappiness and stress, and my preferred translation: dissatisfaction.

I find that dissatisfaction covers the entire range of unpleasant experiences from mild irritation to tormenting suffering, and I think this is important as most of our experience of life hopefully is at the lighter end of the scale.

By reflecting on The Four Noble Truths I experience that I can catch myself before sliding downwards on the spectrum towards suffering.

The Four Noble Truths are said to be Buddha’s first teaching and the most important as it encompasses the entire Buddhist path in four short sentences.

1. The Noble truth of Dissatisfaction

Accepting that the presence of dissatisfaction in life and according to the Buddhist scriptures there are three roots of dissatisfaction.

  • Ordinary dissatisfaction or Blatant dissatisfaction
  • Dissatisfaction produced by change
  • The dissatisfaction of conditioning

Ordinary dissatisfaction is the closest to what we would call suffering and concerns the suffering of birth, sickness, ageing, dying and death. Not only birth and dying as in entering and leaving this world but also birth and death of our identity, similar to how Joseph Campbell describes the Hero’s Journey.

Dissatisfaction produced by change is the worry we experience as we go about life and experience events, actual and perceived. We worry about facing tough situations, about losing relationships or possessions, about not achieving what we wish, and worrying about what may happen in the future.

The last form of dissatisfaction is dissatisfaction of conditioning. This is often connected to our ego story — how you experience life and make sense of it. Our grasping to make sense of ourselves in the world that over time has led to habitual behaviours that keep us in a state dissatisfaction.

Dissatisfaction from conditioning could for example be your habitual avoidance of conflict which leaves you with a feeling of being unseen, unheard which seeds resentment.

Or your habitual inclination to fuel your good mood with too much alcohol leaving you with regret the day after.

Or you habitual shopping to chase temporary highs of instant gratification.

2. The Noble Truth of the Cause of Dissatisfaction

The cause of dissatisfaction is craving and the grasping at self.

Grasping at self is the endless motion of the mind trying to make sense of self in relation to the world so you can create an ego-story to give yourself a sense of safety.

This motion evolves around grasping at the ideas, concepts, things, desires and activities that uphold our ego-story.

We tend to be caught up in focusing on what we don’t have rather than what we have, believing that if only we could get that thing we desire then our lives would be more complete.

Maybe you see your neighbour’s nice car, or your colleague’s high-street clothes, and think to yourself that you need to upgrade to feel better about yourself. Craving external things to elevate your ego-story.

Craving and grasping is expressed through karma, which simply means action and the idea that every action causes an effect. There’s no fatalistic meaning to karma, karma is not retribution, it’s simply a consequence of our choices.

3. The Noble Truth of the End of Dissatisfaction

This follows from the 2nd Noble Truth. The end of dissatisfaction is to stop craving and stop grasping at upholding your ego-story.

The two main schools for Buddhism differ on what the ultimate goal of the end of dissatisfaction is.

In Theravada, the Orthodox tradition, the ultimate goal is Nirvana, the ascension beyond duality. This is called to become an arahat.

In Mahayana the ultimate goal is to become a bodhisattva, which means reaching a state of almost enlightened, or being enlightened but choosing to stay in this world to help others reach enlightenment.

The difference between reaching Nirvana and becoming a bodhisattva is that in Nirvana “you’re done”, whereas in the Mahayana tradition, becoming a bodhisattva, a central idea is to help others to become enlightened.

In the Mahayana tradition there’s an emphasis on bringing your practice out into the world to inspire others to walk the Buddhist path.

My Buddhist home, Rinzai Zen, is a branch of the Mahayana tradition and host a meditation community I’ve named xingru from the teachings of Bodhidharma, which means Entrance by Practice.

This implies that it’s not enough to meditate and read the scriptures but you are encouraged to bring your insights into everyday life — live it and share it.

4. The Noble Truth of the Path the End for Dissatisfaction

What is the path that leads to the end of dissatisfaction? It is The Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation.

- The Buddha

Sounds easy enough right?

I’ll unpack the much dissected The Eightfold Path in another story and continue the exploration of the fourth Noble Truth by pointing your attention to the lesser known teachings The Two Entrances and Four Practices by Bodhidharma

According to this teaching The Two Entrances to enlightenment are (1) Entrance through Principle (liru) and (2) Entrance through Practice (xingru).

Entrance through Principle means to use the teachings as the path to enlightenment.

Entrance through Practice means to live by The Four Practices that encompasses all other practices.

  1. Making amends for injustices, or Accepting injustice
  2. Accepting worldly conditions, or Being unmoved
  3. Not craving, or Stop seeking
  4. Practicing the Dharma

Making amends for injustices means to accept that every effect comes from cause. Everything you experience now is rooted your past choices and experiences so you should accept all the difficulties in life without complaint and see it as an opportunity to practice.

Accepting worldly conditions means to accept that everything shall pass. When you experience fortune and joy, and when you experience misery and sorrow, they are borne out of conditions stemming from cause and effect. Conditions change but your mind remains. It’s the practice of not being stirred by worldly conditions.

Not craving means to stop seeking happiness outside of yourself and accept that happiness comes with when we turn inside and stop seeking.

Practicing the Dharma is to live in the truth of how things are, that all beings are inherently pure, and we stop getting caught up in form — good or bad, better or worse, like or dislike, light or dark. Practising the dharma is to live an undivided life, freed from duality.

It simple, not easy, so start in the small

The Four Noble Truths are easy to grasp but the practice of living it is a life long journey.

Start by noticing with when your everyday life experiences connects with The Four Noble Truths.

When you experience a sense of dissatisfaction, stop for a moment to reflect:

  • What type of dissatisfaction is this?
  • Which feelings and thoughts is bubbling up?
  • What’s my internal story about myself and this situation?
  • Is this story true?
  • Could there be other perspectives on the situation?
  • Does this situation really matter?

A first small step but many small incremental steps will over time build to something great.

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I also host weekly virtual meditations in the Rinzai Zen tradition, on Mondays 20:00–21:00 CET and you’re welcome to join us. More info here.

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