The Nobility of the Truths
by Bhikkhu Bodhi
The most common and widely known formulation of the Buddha's
teaching is that which the Buddha himself announced in the First
Sermon at Benares, the formula of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha
declares that these truths convey in a nutshell all the essential
information that we need to set out on the path to liberation.
He says that just as the elephant's footprint, by reason of its
great size, contains the footprints of all other animals, so the
Four Noble Truths, by reason of their comprehensiveness, contain
within themselves all wholesome and beneficial teachings. However,
while many expositors of Buddhism have devoted attention to explaining
the actual content of the four truths, only rarely is any consideration
given to the reason why they are designated noble truths. Yet it
is just this descriptive word "noble" that reveals to
us why the Buddha chose to cast his teaching into this specific
format, and it is this same term that allows us to experience,
even from afar, the unique flavor that pervades the entire doctrine
and discipline of the Enlightened One.
The word "noble," or ariya, is used by the Buddha to
designate a particular type of person, the type of person which
it is the aim of his teaching to create. In the discourses the
Buddha classifies human beings into two broad categories. On one
side there are the puthujjanas, the worldlings, those belonging
to the multitude, whose eyes are still covered with the dust of
defilements and delusion. On the other side there are the ariyans,
the noble ones, the spiritual elite, who obtain this status not
from birth, social station or ecclesiastical authority but from
their inward nobility of character.
These two general types are not separated from each other by
an impassable chasm, each confined to a tightly sealed compartment.
A series of gradations can be discerned rising up from the darkest
level of the blind worldling trapped in the dungeon of egotism
and self-assertion, through the stage of the virtuous worldling
in whom the seeds of wisdom are beginning to sprout, and further
through the intermediate stages of noble disciples to the perfected
individual at the apex of the entire scale of human development.
This is the Arahant, the liberated one, who has absorbed the purifying
vision of truth so deeply that all his defilements have been extinguished,
and with them, all liability to suffering.
While the path from bondage to deliverance, from worldliness
to spiritual nobility, is a graded path involving gradual practice
and gradual progress, it is not a uniform continuum. Progress occurs
in discrete steps, and at a certain point -- the point separating
the status of a worldling from that of a noble one -- a break is
reached which must be crossed, not by simply taking another step
forward, but by making a leap, by jumping across from the near
side to the further shore. This decisive event in the inner development
of the practitioner, this radical leap that propels the disciple
from the domain and lineage of the worldling to the domain and
lineage of the noble ones, occurs precisely through the penetration
of the Four Noble Truths. This discloses to us the critical reason
why the four truths revealed by the Buddha are called noble truths.
They are noble truths because when we have penetrated them through
to the core, when we have grasped their real import and implications,
we cast off the status of the worldling and acquire the status
of a noble one, drawn out from the faceless crowd into the community
of the Blessed One's disciples united by a unique and unshakable
Prior to the penetration of the truths, however well endowed
we may be with spiritual virtues, we are not yet on secure ground.
We are not immune from regression, not yet assured of deliverance,
not invincible in our striving on the path. The virtues of a worldling
are tenuous virtues. They may wax or they may wane, they may flourish
or decline, and in correspondence with their degree of strength
we may rise or fall in our movement through the cycle of becoming.
When our virtues are replete we may rise upwards and dwell in bliss
among the gods; when our virtues decline or our merit is exhausted
we may sink again to miserable depths.
But with the penetration of the truths we leap across the gulf
that separates us from the ranks of the noble ones. The eye of
Dhamma has been opened, the vision of truth stands revealed, and
though the decisive victory has not yet been won, the path to the
final goal lies at our feet and the supreme security from bondage
hovers on the horizon. One who has comprehended the truths has
changed lineage, crossed over from the domain of the worldlings
to the domain of the noble ones. Such a disciple is incapable of
regression to the ranks of the worldling, incapable of losing the
vision of truth that has flashed before his inner eye. Progress
towards the final goal, the complete eradication of ignorance and
craving, may be slow or rapid; it may occur easily or result from
an uphill battle. But however long it may take, with whatever degree
of facility one may advance, one thing is certain: such a disciple
who has seen with immaculate clarity the Four Noble Truths can
never slide backwards, can never lose the status of a noble one,
and is bound to reach the final fruit of Arahantship in a maximum
of seven lives.
The reason why the penetration of the Four Noble Truths can confer
this immutable nobility of spirit is implied by the four tasks
the noble truths impose on us. By taking these tasks as our challenge
in life -- our challenge as followers of the Enlightened One --
from whatever station of development we find ourselves beginning
at, we can gradually advance towards the infallible penetration
of the noble ones.
The first noble truth, the truth of suffering, is to be fully
understood: the task it assigns us is that of full understanding.
A hallmark of the noble ones is that they do not flow along thoughtlessly
with the stream of life, but endeavor to comprehend existence from
within, as honestly and thoroughly as possible. For us, too, it
is necessary to reflect upon the nature of our life. We must attempt
to fathom the deep significance of an existence bounded on one
side by birth and on the other by death, and subject in between
to all the types of suffering detailed by the Buddha in his discourses.
The second noble truth, of the origin or cause of suffering,
implies the task of abandonment. A noble one is such because he
has initiated the process of eliminating the defilements at the
root of suffering, and we too, if we aspire to reach the plane
of the noble ones, must be prepared to withstand the seductive
lure of the defilements. While the eradication of craving can come
only with the supramundane realizations, even in the mundane course
of our daily life we can learn to restrain the coarser manifestation
of defilements, and by keen self-observation can gradually loosen
their grip upon our hearts.
The third noble truth, the cessation of suffering, implies the
task of realization. Although Nibbana, the extinction of suffering,
can only be personally realized by the noble ones, the confidence
we place in the Dhamma as our guideline to life shows us what we
should select as our final aspiration, as our ultimate ground of
value. Once we have grasped the fact that all conditioned things
in the world, being impermanent and insubstantial, can never give
us total satisfaction, we can then lift our aim to the unconditioned
element, Nibbana the Deathless, and make that aspiration the pole
around which we order our everyday choices and concerns.
Finally, the fourth noble truth, the Noble Eightfold Path, assigns
us the task of development. The noble ones have reached their status
by developing the eightfold path, and while only the noble ones
are assured of never deviating from the path, the Buddha's teaching
gives us the meticulous instructions that we need to tread the
path culminating in the plane of the noble ones. This is the path
that gives birth to vision, that gives birth to knowledge, that
leads to higher comprehension, enlightenment and Nibbana, the crowning
attainment of nobility.
Buddhist Publication Society Newsletter cover essay #20 (Winter
Copyright © 1992 Buddhist Publication Society
For free distribution only