The Four Noble Truths

By Peter Della Santina

 

With the Four Noble Truths we enter the real heart of the teaching of the Buddha. The Four Noble Truths are one of the most fundamental of the schemes delineated by the Buddha. In many important particulars, they virtually coincide with the whole of the doctrine of Shakyamuni. The understanding of the Four Noble Truths is synonymous with the attainment of the goal of Buddhist practice. The Buddha himself indicated as much when he said that it is failure to comprehend the Four Noble Truths that has caused us to run on so long in the cycle of birth and death. The importance of the Four Noble Truths is similarly indicated by the fact that the Buddha's first discourse, delivered to the five ascetics at the Deer Park, near Benares, was the Dhammachakkappavattana Sutta, which had as its subject the Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way. In the formula of the Four Noble Truths--that is, the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path--we have a summary of the teaching of the Buddha in theory and in practice.

The therapeutic nature of the Four Noble Truths

Before turning to a consideration of the Four Noble Truths individually, I would like to draw your attention to a few facts about the formula in general. In this context, it is appropriate to recall that the ancient science of medicine had enjoyed a certain degree of development by the time of the Buddha. One of the fundamental formulas evolved by practitioners of the science of medicine in ancient India was the fourfold scheme of disease, diagnosis, cure, and treatment. If you consider carefully these four stages in the practice of the science of medicine, it will be apparent that they correspond very closely to the formula of the Four Noble Truths: (1) the truth of suffering clearly corresponds to the first element of disease; (2) the truth of the cause just as clearly corresponds to the element of diagnosis; (3) the truth of cessation corresponds to the achievement of a cure; and (4) the truth of the path just as clearly corresponds to the course of treatment of a disease.

Cause and effect

Having said this about the therapeutic nature of the formula of the Four Noble Truths and its resemblance to the formula evolved by ancient practitioners of the science of medicine in India, I would like to make another point which, although conceptual, is nonetheless very important for a correct understanding of the Four Noble Truths. When Sariputta, who was to become one of the Buddha's most outstanding disciples, came upon Assaji, one of the first five ascetics to embrace the Buddha's teaching, he asked him about it. Assaji is said to have replied that he could not tell Sariputta much about the Buddha's teaching because he was relatively new to it. Nonetheless, Assaji went on to give a summary of the teaching of the Buddha that goes something like this: "Of things that proceed from a cause, their cause the Tathagata has told, and also their cessation; thus teaches the great ascetic." The accounts report that Sariputta was greatly impressed by the few words spoken by Assaji. He went to find his friend and fellow seeker-after-truth Moggallana, and the two of them sought out the Buddha and became his disciples.

Assaji's very brief summary of the teaching of the Buddha tells us something about the central conception that lies behind the formula of the Four Noble Truths: it indicates the importance of the relationship between cause and effect. The concept of cause and effect lies at the heart of the teaching of the Buddha, and it also lies at the heart of the formula of the Four Noble Truths. In what way? The formula of the Four Noble Truths begins with a problem, namely, the first of the four noble truths, the truth of suffering. The problem of suffering arises from causes, causes expressed in the second noble truth, the truth of the cause of suffering. Similarly, there exists an end of suffering expressed in the third noble truth, the truth of cessation, and a cause of the end of suffering, that is to say the path, which is the last of the four truths. In the fourth noble truth the cause is absence: in other words, when the causes of suffering are removed, the absence of such causes is the cause of the cessation of suffering. If you look more closely at the Four Noble Truths, you will see that they divide quite naturally into two groups. The first two truths, those of suffering and its cause, belong to the realm of birth and death. Symbolically, they can be pictured in the form of a circle, because they operate in a circular manner. The causes of suffering produce suffering, and suffering in turn produces the causes of suffering, which in their turn again produce suffering. This is the cycle of birth and death, or samsara. The latter two truths, the truth of the cessation of suffering and the truth of the path, do not belong to the realm of birth and death. They can be represented figuratively through the image of a spiral, in which the movement is no longer merely circular but is now directed upward, so to speak, toward another plane of experience.To return for a moment to the conception of cause and effect in the context of the Four Noble Truths, it is clear that these four truths stand in a causal relationship, one to another, within each of the two groups just indicated: the first of the four (the truth of suffering) is the effect of the second (the truth of the cause), while the third (the truth of cessation) is the effect of the last of the truths (the truth of the path).

If we remember the importance of the relationship between cause and effect when we consider the Four Noble Truths, I believe we will find them easier to understand. Likewise, if we recall the importance of the principle of cause and effect, it will be of great help to us as we proceed in our survey of the fundamental teaching of the Buddha, whether in the context of the study of karma and rebirth or that of interdependent origination. In short, we will find that the principle of cause and effect runs like a thread throughout the whole of the teaching of the Buddha.

The first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering

Let us now turn our attention to the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering. Many non-Buddhists and even some Buddhists find the choice of suffering as the first of the four truths disturbing. It is said that such a choice is indicative of pessimism. I have often had people ask me why Buddhism is so pessimistic. Why does it choose to begin with the truth of suffering? There are a number of ways this question may be answered. Let us consider, for a moment, the attitudes of pessimism, optimism, and realism. In practical terms, let us suppose that someone is suffering from a serious illness but refuses to recognize the truth of his condition. His attitude may be optimistic, but it is also surely foolish, inasmuch as it precludes taking any measures to remedy the disease. Such an attitude is analogous to that of the ostrich who, it is said, buries its head in the sand and so convinces itself that no danger threatens it. If a problem exists, the only sensible course of action is to recognize the problem and then do whatever is necessary to eliminate it.

The Buddha's insistence on the need to recognize the truth of suffering is therefore neither pessimistic nor optimistic: it is simply realistic. Besides, if the Buddha had taught only the truth of suffering and had stopped there, then there might be some truth in the charge that his teaching is pessimistic. However, the Buddha only began with the truth of suffering. He went on to teach the truth of the cause of suffering and, even more importantly, the truths of its cessation and of the means to achieve its cessation.

I am quite sure that, if we are honest with ourselves, all of us will admit that there is a fundamental problem with life. Things are not quite as they should be. No matter how much we may try to run away from this fact, at some time or other--perhaps in the middle of the night, in a crowd of people, or for just a moment during an ordinary working day--we do come face to face with the reality of our situation. We realize that something, after all, is wrong somewhere. This experience is what impels people to seek solutions to the fundamental problems of unhappiness and frustration. Sometimes these solutions are only apparent, like the attempt to eliminate unhappiness by accumulating more and more possessions. Alternatively, people may seek solutions to the fundamental problems of life in various forms of therapy.

In Buddhism, the truth of suffering can be divided into two categories. These are, broadly speaking, physical and mental. Physical suffering includes the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death. You will recall that in Chapter 3 we mentioned Prince Siddhartha's encounter with the facts of old age, sickness, and death in the shape of the three sights of an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. Here, we find a fourth form of suffering added, the suffering of birth. Birth is suffering both because of the physical pain experienced by the infant and because it is from birth that the other forms of suffering, such as old age, inevitably follow. Birth may be said to be a gateway through which the other sufferings naturally follow. I think we need hardly spend much time on the sufferings of old age, sickness, and death. We have all observed the suffering of old age, the inability to function effectively and think coherently. Most of us have experienced for ourselves the suffering of sickness, and even if we have had the good fortune always to be healthy, we have seen the suffering of others afflicted by disease. Again, we have all observed the suffering of death, the pain and the fear experienced by the dying person. These sufferings are an unavoidable part of life. No matter how happy and contented we may be at a particular moment, the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death are inevitable.

In addition to these physical sufferings, there are mental sufferings: the suffering of separation from what is dear to us, the suffering of contact with what we despise, and the suffering of frustrated desires. Often, in the course of our lives, we are separated from the people and places we love. The requirements of career or country sometimes force us to leave our homes and loved ones. Change and death can bring about separation from the people and places we love. Again, the course of our lives often brings us into contact with people and situations we would rather avoid, such as a colleague or superior at work who is antagonistic toward us. Such a situation can make our time at our place of work a genuine torment. The suffering of contact with what we despise can also take more extreme forms, such as the experiences of flood, fire, famine, persecution, war, and other natural and manmade disasters. Finally, most of us, some time or other, experience the suffering of frustrated desires. We experience such frustration when, for instance, we cannot obtain the things we want, be it a job, a car, a house, or even a partner.

These mental and physical sufferings are woven into the fabric of our human existence. But what about happiness? Is there no happiness at all in life? Of course there is; however, the happiness we experience in the course of our lives is impermanent. As long as we still enjoy youth and health, we may find happiness in a comfortable situation or in the company of someone we love, yet all these experiences of happiness are conditioned, and therefore impermanent. Sooner or later, we will experience suffering.

The second Noble Truth, the cause of suffering

Now, if we really want to solve the problem of suffering, reduce and eventually eliminate it, we must identify its cause. If the lights go out and we want to eliminate the darkness, we must identify the cause of the problem. Is it a short circuit, has a fuse blown, or has the power supply been cut off? Similarly, once we have recognized the problem of suffering, we must look for its cause. Only by understanding the cause of suffering can we do something to solve the problem.

What is the cause of suffering according to the Buddha? The Buddha taught that craving is the great cause of suffering. There are various kinds of craving: craving for pleasant experiences, craving for material things, craving for eternal life, and craving for eternal death. We all enjoy good food, our favorite music, pleasant company, and the like. Enjoying such things, we want more and more of them. We try to prolong such pleasant experiences and to experience them more and more often. Yet somehow we are never completely satisfied. We find, for instance, that when we are very fond of a particular type of food and eat it again and again, we soon get bored with it. We try another kind of food, like it, enjoy it, and still, after a while, we begin to get bored with it. We go on to look for something else. We even get tired of our favorite piece of music. We get tired of our friends. We look for more and more. Sometimes this chase after pleasant experiences leads to very destructive forms of behavior, like alcoholism and drug addiction. All this is craving for the enjoyment of pleasant experiences. It is said that trying to satisfy our craving for pleasant experiences is like drinking saltwater when thirsty: it only increases our thirst.

Not only do we crave pleasant experiences, we also crave material things. You can see this very clearly in children, although we all suffer from it. Take any small child into a toy shop and he or she will want every toy in the shop. Eventually persuaded by his parents, he will settle for one of the toys. Almost as soon as he has gotten it, he begins to lose interest in it. Without fail, within a few days the toy lies neglected in a corner of the room and the child wants another toy. But are we really very different from young children? Almost immediately after buying that new car, don't we begin to want another, even better one? When we move into a good house, don't we often think, "This house is all right, but it would be still better if I could find a bigger one, say one with a garden, or one with a swimming pool?" It goes on and on, whether it is a set of trains, a bicycle, a video recorder, or a Mercedes Benz. It is said that the craving for acquiring wealth and material things involves three major problems that cause suffering. The first is the problem of getting them. You have to work hard, perhaps skimp and save, to buy the new car you wanted. Next, you have to look after it and protect it. You worry that someone may damage your car. You worry that your new house may catch fire or be damaged by the wind or rain. Finally, there is the problem of losing possessions, because sooner or later they will fall apart or we ourselves will die.

Craving for existence or eternal life is a cause of suffering. We all crave existence, life. Despite all the suffering and frustration we experience, we all crave existence, and it is this craving which causes us to be born again and again. Then there is the craving for nonexistence, that is to say, the craving for annihilation, which we might call a desire for eternal death. This craving expresses itself in nihilism, suicide, and the like. Craving for existence is one extreme, while craving for nonexistence is the other.

At this point you may be asking yourself, "Is craving alone a sufficient cause of suffering? Is craving alone enough to explain suffering? Is the answer as simple as that?" The answer is no. There is something that goes deeper than craving, something that is, in a sense, the foundation or ground of craving--namely, ignorance. Ignorance is not seeing things as they really are. It is failing to understand the truth about life. Those who consider themselves well educated may find it offensive to be told they are ignorant. In what sense are we ignorant? Let me say this: without the right conditions, without the right training and the right instruments, we are unable to see things as they really are. None of us would be aware of radio waves were it not for the radio receiver. None of us would be aware of bacteria in a drop of water were it not for the microscope, or of subatomic reality were it not for the latest techniques of electron microscopy. All these facts about the world in which we live are observed and known only because of special conditions, training, and instruments.

When we say that ignorance is failing to see things as they really are, what we mean is that, as long as we have not developed our minds--and, through them, wisdom--we remain ignorant of the true nature of things. We are familiar with the fear that we experience when we see an unidentified shape in the darkness by the side of the road while walking home alone late at night. The shape may actually be a tree stump, yet it is our ignorance that causes us to quicken our steps. Perhaps the palms of our hands begin to perspire; we may reach home in a panic. If there had been a light, there would have been no fear and no suffering because there would have been no ignorance about the shape in the darkness. We would have seen the tree stump for what it is.

In Buddhism we are concerned with ignorance about the nature of the self, soul, or personality. Such ignorance means regarding the self as real. This is the fundamental cause of suffering. We take our bodies or feelings or ideas to be a self, soul, or personality. We take them to be a real, independent ego, just as we take the tree stump to be a potential assailant. But once you assume this conception of a self, there naturally arises the conception of something apart from or other than your self. And once the conception of something different from your self occurs, you automatically regard it as either helpful to and supportive of your self or as hostile to it. Thus elements of the reality that you assume is different from your self are either pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable.

From the conceptions of self and something other than the self, craving and aversion naturally arise. Once we believe in the real existence of the self--in the real, independent existence of the soul or personality apart from all the objects we experience as belonging to the external world--we then want those things we think will benefit us and shun those things we think do not benefit us or may even be harmful to us. Because of the failure to understand that in this body and mind there is no independent or permanent self, attachment and aversion inevitably thrive. From the root of ignorance grows the tree of craving, attachment, greed, aversion, hatred, envy, jealousy, and the rest. This entire tree of emotional afflictions grows from the root of ignorance and bears the fruit of suffering.

The third Noble Truth, the truth of the end of suffering

Ignorance is the underlying cause of suffering, while craving, attachment, aversion, and the rest are the secondary or immediate causes of suffering. Having identified the causes of suffering, we are now in a position to reduce and eventually eliminate suffering. Just as identifying the causes of a physical pain puts us in a position to eliminate that pain by means of eliminating its causes, so when we identify the causes of mental suffering, we are then able to reduce and eventually remove that suffering by removing its causes--ignorance, attachment, aversion, and so on. This brings us to the third of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of the end of suffering. When we begin to talk about the end of suffering, the first obstacle we must overcome is the doubt that exists in some minds about whether or not the end of suffering is really possible. Can suffering really be ended? Is a cure really possible? It is in this context that confidence, or faith, plays an important role. When we speak of confidence or faith in Buddhism, we do not mean blind acceptance of any particular doctrine or creed. Rather, we speak of faith in the sense of admitting the possibility of achieving the goal of the end of suffering.

Unless we believe that a doctor can cure us of a physical pain, we will never seek his advice, never undergo the appropriate therapy, and may consequently die of an illness that could have been cured had we only had sufficient confidence to seek help. Similarly, confidence in the possibility of being cured of mental suffering is an indispensable prerequisite to effective practice. Here, too, you may say, "How can I believe in the possibility of nirvana--the complete end of suffering, supreme happiness--if I have never experienced it?" But as I remarked earlier in this chapter, none of us would be able to hear radio waves were it not for the development of radio receivers, or see microscopic life were it not for the invention of the microscope. Even now, most of us have never observed subatomic reality, yet we accept its existence because there are those among us with the special training and appropriate instruments to observe it.

In this case, also, the possibility of attaining the complete end of suffering--namely, nirvana--ought not to be rejected simply because we have not experienced it ourselves. You may be familiar with the old story of the turtle and the fish. One day the turtle left the pond to spend a few hours on the shore. When he returned to the water, he told the fish of his experiences on dry land, but the fish would not believe him. The fish could not accept that dry land existed because it was totally unlike the reality with which he was familiar. How could there be a place where creatures walked about rather than swam, breathed air and not water, and so on? There are many historical examples of this tendency to reject information that does not tally with what we already are familiar with and believe. When Marco Polo returned to Italy from the East, he was imprisoned because his accounts of his travels did not corroborate what was then believed about the nature of the world. And when Copernicus advanced the theory that the sun does not circle the earth but vice versa, he was disbelieved and ridiculed.

Hence we ought to be careful not to dismiss the possibility of a complete end of suffering (the attainment of nirvana) just because we have not experienced it ourselves. Once we accept that the end of suffering is possible, that a cure for our ills does exist, we can proceed with the steps necessary to achieve that cure. But unless and until we believe that a cure is possible, there is no question of successfully completing the needed therapy. Therefore, in order to realize progress on the path and--gradually, eventually--the complete end of suffering, we must at least have initial confidence in the bare possibility of achieving our goal.

When we refer to the third noble truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering, we have in mind this goal of the Buddhist path. The Buddha once said that, just as the ocean, although vast, is of one taste, the taste of salt, so also his teaching, although many-faceted and vast as the ocean, is of one taste, the taste of nirvana. As you will see, there are many facets to the teaching of Buddhism--the Four Noble Truths, the three ways of practice, interdependent origination, the three characteristics, and so on--but all have one goal in view, and that is the cessation of suffering. This is the goal that gives all the various facets of teaching that we find in Buddhism their purpose and direction.

The end of suffering is the goal of Buddhist practice, and yet the cessation of suffering is not exclusively transcendental or supra mundane. The point at issue here is an interesting one. If we consider, for instance, the question of the final goal of other faiths, such as the Semitic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, we find that there are two goals. One has its expression in this life and this world, in terms of building a kingdom of love, prosperity, and justice here and now; the other, higher goal consists of attaining heaven in the afterlife. In Buddhism, in contrast, the conception of the goal of practice is more comprehensive. The cessation of suffering of which the Buddha spoke is very broad in scope. When we speak of the end of suffering in Buddhism, we can mean (1) the end of suffering here and now, either temporarily or permanently; (2) happiness and good fortune in future lives; and/or (3) the experience of nirvana itself.

Let us see whether this can be explained in greater detail. Suppose we happen to be in dire poverty, with insufficient food, shelter, clothing, medicine, education, and so forth. Such conditions constitute suffering just as surely as do birth, old age, sickness, death, separation from what we love, and so on. When we remedy the situation here and now, through greater prosperity and improved standards of living, our suffering is reduced. Buddhism teaches that the particular happiness or suffering that we experience in this life is the consequence of actions we have done in the past. In other words, if we find ourselves in fortunate conditions now, these advantages are the result of good actions done in the past. Similarly, those who find themselves in less fortunate conditions are suffering the consequences of unwholesome actions done in the past.

What does Buddhism offer in the way of the end of suffering? Practicing Buddhism in the short term results in relative happiness in this life. This happiness can be of a material nature, in the sense of improved physical conditions; it can be of an inner nature, in the sense of greater peace of mind; or it can be both. All this can be achieved in this very life, here and now. This is one dimension of the end of suffering. Being of this life, it might be roughly equated with what Christianity calls "the kingdom of God on earth."

In addition to this, the end of suffering in Buddhism means happiness and good fortune in the next life. This implies rebirth in fortunate circumstances, where we enjoy happiness, prosperity, health, well-being, and success, whether as a human being on this earth or as a celestial being in the heavens. We can liken this dimension of the end of suffering to the heaven of which the monotheistic religions speak. The only difference is that, in these religions, heaven once attained is permanent, whereas in Buddhism one's right to enjoy happiness has to be sustained and renewed. The goal offered by Buddhism does initially mean happiness and prosperity in this life and in future lives. But it is also more than that, and here it differs from the other religions in question. Not only does Buddhism promise happiness and prosperity in this life and the next, it also offers liberation--nirvana, or enlightenment. This is the total cessation of suffering. It is the ultimate goal of Buddhism and it is also attainable here and now.

When we speak of nirvana we encounter certain problems of expression, because the exact nature of an experience cannot be communicated merely by speaking about it--rather, it must be experienced directly. This is true of all experience, whether it be the experience of the taste of salt, sugar, or chocolate or of one's first swim in the ocean. All these experiences cannot be described exactly. To make this point, suppose I have just arrived in Southeast Asia and am told of a very popular local fruit called durian. I can question people who live in the area and who regularly eat and enjoy durian, but how can they ever explain to me precisely what it is like to eat it? It is simply not possible to describe accurately the taste of a durian to someone who has never eaten one. We might try comparison or, alternatively, negation; we might say, for instance, that durian has a creamy texture or that it is sweet and sour, and add that it is something like jack fruit and not at all like apple. But it remains impossible to communicate the exact nature of the experience of eating durian. We find ourselves confronted with a similar problem when we try to describe nirvana. The Buddha and Buddhist teachers through the ages used similar devices to describe nirvana--namely, comparison, and negation.

The Buddha said that nirvana is supreme happiness, peace. He said that nirvana is immortal, uncreated, unformed; beyond earth, water, fire, and air, the sun and moon; unfathomable and immeasurable. Here we can see the various devices that Buddhism used to describe nirvana, such as the sort in which nirvana is likened to something we experience in this world. For example, occasionally we are lucky enough to experience great happiness accompanied by profound peace of mind, and might imagine that we are experiencing a faint glimpse of nirvana. But a jack fruit is not really like a durian, and nirvana is not really like anything in this world. It is not like any everyday experience; it is beyond all the forms and names we might use, and in terms of which we experience the world.

The point is that, to understand what nirvana is really like, you must experience it for yourself, just as to know what durian is really like, you must eat it. No number of essays or poetic descriptions of durian will ever approach the experience of eating one. Similarly, we have to experience the end of suffering for ourselves, and the only way we can do this is by eliminating the causes of suffering--the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. When we have eliminated such causes of suffering, then we will experience nirvana for ourselves.

The fourth Noble Truth, the end of suffering

How, then, can we remove these causes of suffering? What are the means by which we can remove the afflictions that are the causes of suffering? This is the path taught by the Buddha--the Middle Way, the path of moderation. You will recall that the life of the Buddha before his enlightenment falls into two distinct periods. The time before his renunciation was one in which he enjoyed every possible luxury; for example, the accounts tell us that he had three palaces, one for each season, filled with sources of pleasure to an extent scarcely imaginable in his day. This period of enjoyment was followed by six years of extreme asceticism and self-mortification, when he did without the basic amenities of normal life, lived out in the open, wore the poorest garments, and fasted for long periods of time. In addition to such deprivations, he tormented his body through various practices like sleeping on beds of thorns and sitting in the midst of fires under the cruel heat of the midday sun.

Having experienced the extremes of luxury and deprivation--and having reached the limits of these extremes--the Buddha saw their futility and thereby discovered the Middle Way, which avoids both the extreme of indulgence in pleasures of the senses and the extreme of self-mortification. It was through realizing the nature of the two extremes in his own life that the Buddha was able to arrive at the ideal of the Middle Way, the path that avoids both extremes. As we shall see in the chapters to come, the Middle Way is capable of many significant and profound interpretations, but most fundamentally it means moderation in one's approach to life, in one's attitude toward all things.

We can use the example of the three strings of a lute to illustrate what we mean by this attitude. The Buddha had a disciple by the name of Sona who practiced meditation with such zeal that he encountered nothing but obstacles. Sona began to think of giving up his vows and abandoning the life of a monk. The Buddha, who understood his problem, said to him, "Sona, before you became a monk, you were a musician." Sona replied, "That is true." Then the Buddha said, "Being a musician, you should know which string of a lute produces a pleasant and harmonious sound: the string that is overly tight?" "No," replied Sona, "the overly tight string produces an unpleasant sound and is likely to break at any moment." "Then," said the Buddha, "is it the string that is slack?" "No," replied Sona, "the slack string does not produce a pleasant and harmonious sound. The string that produces a pleasant and harmonious sound is the string that is not too tight and not too loose." In this case, a life of indulgence and luxury may be said to be too loose, without discipline or application, whereas a life of self-mortification is too tight, too hard and tense, and likely to cause a breakdown of the mind and body, just as the overly tight string is likely to break at any time.

More specifically, the path to the Buddhist goal of the cessation of suffering is like a medical prescription. When a competent doctor treats a patient for a serious illness, his or her prescription is not only physical but also psychological. If you are suffering, for instance, from a heart condition, you are not only given medication but are also asked to control your diet and avoid stressful situations. Here, too, if we look at the specific instructions for following the Buddhist path to the end of suffering, we see that they refer not only to one's body--actions and words--but also to one's thoughts. In other words, the Noble Eightfold Path, the path leading to the end of suffering, is a comprehensive path, an integrated therapy. It is designed to cure the disease of suffering through eliminating its causes, and it does so by means of treatment that applies not only to the body but to the mind as well.

Right understanding is the first step on the Noble Eightfold Path. It is followed by right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Why do we begin with right understanding? We do so because, to climb a mountain, we must have the summit clearly in view. In this sense, the first step on our journey depends on the last. We have to keep the goal clearly in view if we are to travel a path which can take us surely to that goal. In this way, right understanding gives direction and orientation to the other steps of the path. We can see here that the first two steps of the path, right understanding and right thought, refer to the mind. Through right understanding and right thought, ignorance, attachment, and aversion can be eliminated. But it is not enough to stop there because, to achieve right understanding and right thought, we also need to cultivate and purify our minds and bodies, and the way to do this is through the other six steps of the path. We purify our physical being so that it will be easier to purify our minds, and we purify and develop our minds so that it will be easier to attain right understanding.

For the sake of convenience, the Noble Eightfold Path has been divided into the three ways of practice: (1) morality, or good conduct (2) mental development, and (3) wisdom. The eight steps of the path are divided into these three ways of practice as follows: (1) right speech, right action, and right livelihood belong to the way of morality; (2) right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration belong to the way of mental development; and (3) right understanding and right thought belong to the way of wisdom. Because it is necessary to purify our words and actions before we can purify our minds, we begin our progress along the path with morality, or good conduct.


From The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism, by Peter Della Santina. With permission of the author.