A lot of people know what the 4 Noble Truths are in name only. They go, “Oh yes, I know that! Suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering – that’s the 4 Noble Truths!” But they don’t know how to use it, they don’t know how to apply it to the little everyday things in their lives. And they don’t know how to use it as a tool to reflect in their meditation. So now we will go through exactly how to do this.
The 4 Noble Truths result in a Paradigm Shift for you
The 4 Noble Truths gives you a way of looking at things that causes a paradigm shift. Just a simple shift in perspective will give you a new angle to look at things. Cos it teaches you how to reflect on things that come up in your mind and in your life – to help you let go of things.
If you’re a perfectionist, you’d put so much effort into making all the things around you perfect – so you’d want everything perfect and so, you’d be attached to making everything perfect. But this can give you a lot of suffering.
Now, you can still aim for perfection, but you also realise that having that mindset is a lot of suffering because in life, not everything is going to be roses, not everything is going to always go your way, even though you’ve put in 100%, because there are natural external factors that are beyond your control
The 4 Noble Truths are tools that you need to figure out how to use – not just pray to
So the 4 Noble Truths give you a framework and tools to help you let go of things so that you don’t have to suffer as much. And it teaches you how to reflect in meditation.
Thing is, most Buddhists don’t know how to use the 4 Noble Truths – they just parrot it from memory, thinking that it’s just beginner’s Buddhism. I too was like that until I understood how to use it.
Ajahn Sumedho teaches the 4 Noble Truths better than anyone else in the world
That’s because I stumbled upon someone who understood how to use it and had been using it his whole life – so I adopted his methods of using it. That person is Ajahn Sumedho – Ajahn Chah’s most senior western disciple.
When I first stumbled upon Ajahn Sumedho – I read an interview with him and I thought, “Now that is a guy with some accomplishment. He’s got real Kung fu (i.e., skill) in actually being able to use the teachings. Nothing mystical – real world application of it. Not just theory.”
So I applied his methods of using the 4 Noble Truths to my own life – it worked! Then I found out that his method of reflection came from the original texts – from how the Buddha taught how to reflect on 3 aspects to each Truth.
That’s one of the reasons why I like studying the original sacred scriptures myself – reading the material from the original source rather than second hand interpretations
Because people can be teaching you wrong and may have grasped the teaching wrongly and teaching you incorrect things or going by hearsay or even making up nonsense that they think is correct. But Ajahn Sumedho is pretty spot on cos he knows how to teach others how to use the same things that he uses.
Don’t Suppress inside yourself – instead, try to understand it
Simple lessons from the 4 Noble Truths is to not suppress your suffering but to understand it. Once you understand it, you can penetrate it.
For example, you might think you have to only go with your good emotions and you might think that having bad emotions arise is a sin – so you try to suppress it, right?
It’s like trying to press the bubbles out of your phone screen protector
But it’s like bubbles under your phone screen protector- you push it down in 1 place, then it pops up another. You push it down again and it pops up at yet another place
So initially, I was trying to suppress my thoughts in meditation, to try and reach the state of no thought – but that’s not how you do it
So try not to bottle things up inside of yourself
Cos if you try to suppress something – all you are doing is bottling it up. Over time, if you keep bottling up things, pressure builds up cos you’re not really addressing the issues – you’re just forcing it down and trying to keep the lid on it by sitting on top of the lid to try and prevent it from rising into consciousness
It’s also like trying to keep the lid on a boiling kettle
And if you keep doing that, the pressure will eventually build up to the point where it’ll explode!
Just like how if you keep the lid down forcefully on a boiling kettle, the pressure will gather and gather into immense pressure – til you can’t hold the lid down anymore and the lid eventually flies off, hitting you in the face and the steam scalds you from all the heat and pressure from all that time that you’ve tried to keep forcing those things down and the pressure becomes cumulative over all that time.
You tried to force things down into your unconsciousness (thinking that if you try not to think about them, they will no longer be there) because you are trying to to get rid of them, thinking that’s the way to get rid of the ugly things in your life, the unhappy things, the hurtful things, the sad things – but all that does is make them gather steam and pressure – one day, if you are no longer mindful and forget that you have to force it to keep it down – it’ll just burst like a dam bursting and it’ll explode and it all comes out.
You need a way to release the pressure in a controlled way
So you need a method to let off that steam and diffuse the energy and let it dissipate naturally. Let the heat and steam dissipate naturally of themselves
What’s this like? It’s like when you have a boiling kettle – and there is a pressure release valve – this allows the steam to escape in a controlled manner – so that the pressure has a way to dissipate and the steam is allowed to arise and escape until it disappears into nothingne.ss
And the 4 Noble Truths gives you a method of doing that.
Don’t just brush your garbage under the rug
So rather than just brushing the garbage in your life under a rug, thinking that it has disappeared and then letting the rubbish pile up, then after a while it takes up your whole room and it starts to stink – you are addressing the garbage and just taking it out to be let go of and abandoned and eventually incinerated into nothingness.
Don’t just always Band-aid over things
Don’t suppress the negative. Allow the negative to arise into consciousness to acknowledged, cleansed and to be let go of
So the point is not to suppress the negative things in your life cos that’s just like putting a bandaid over your wounds. It works temporarily, but after a day or two, of if you haven’t cleaned the wound out and there’s a bandaid on top of it, keeping a lid on it – the wound starts to fester and then the bacteria start to multiply and puss starts to build up. Cos that’s what happens if you don’t address the wounds (the unresolved issues and the bad and negative and hurtful things) in your life properly.
So you’ve got to first of all acknowledge that the wound is there – rather than ignore it or try to fake being happy by wearing a mask and putting on a facade to make it appear to the outside world that everything is wonderful.
Faking it has it’s drawbacks
Cos that’s what a lot of self help and self improvement and motivational books and teachers tell you to do – just suppress it and fake it! They say if someone asks you, “How are you?” You’re supposed to say, “Fantastic! And it’s getting better and better!” in an effort to try to tell a lie to your own mind to try fool your mind and get your mind to believe that your life is getting better and better and to try and attract better things in your life (they call this “the law of attraction”).
But this doesn’t work.
Cos first of all, it feels so fake! And when you do things which are fake, there’s an incongruence in your mind and it doesn’t feel pleasant.
Secondly, it requires a lot of energy to try and keep up this facade up and to keep faking it all day everyday- especially if you have unresolved, legitimate issues that you need to really address openly and upfront to try and resolve it and clear it off your slate once and for all.
Eventually when your willpower to keep faking it runs out – you’re still left with those unresolved issues and maybe they’ve gone worse now over time cos you didn’t address them whilst they were still small and manageable.
The 1st Noble Truth
Diagnosing the problem properly first
So basically you need to first of all acknowledge that there’s a wound (whatever they may be) rather than just push the wound into the back of your mind. So this is the diagnosis.
Once you look at the signs and symptoms and do all your tests, and you recognise that it’s
this particular condition- then you can treat it properly.
If you ignore the signs and symptoms or just put a bandaid on top of it – the disease might just keep proliferating unresolved. And if the diagnosis is wrong – guess what, you’ll be treating the wrong disease. So the correct diagnosis is the key.
The first aspect of the 1st Noble Truth to be Reflected upon – There is Suffering
So in the first Noble Truth, the Buddha gives a frame work to reflect on the suffering that you encounter in everyday life – the diagnosis comes first – so the Buddha says, “There is suffering” – is the first aspect to reflect on in the first aspect of the 1st Noble Truth.
So acknowledgement of whatever problems that you may have. Just like a doctor looking at a patient, assessing them with various tests and saying, there is this and this here, and this this there – he’s acknowledging all the diseases and ailments that the patient does and does not have. Acknowledging what is there, ruling out and excluding what is not. So it’s based on information gathered and based on the truth – true and accurate information – you’ve got to establish the facts first and the accuracy of them.
So the Buddha is going, there’s this dukkha there in our lives – this unsatisfactoriness, this discontent, this suffering. Dukkha means these things. So you’re acknowledging the dukkha in your life, not lying to yourself that life is wonderful or faking it. Acknowledging it and allowing it to arise up into your consciousness (not suppressing it)
So notice we’re not suppressing the negative things in our emotions but allowing them to arise up into our consciousness. We’re not being scared of those negative things or judging yourself as being a bad person because we are having those bad thoughts – we are just being okay with allowing them to come out of hiding so that we can be fully conscious of them
Nuances of applying the 1st Noble Truth
Now notice, the Buddha didn’t say “I am” suffering. He said “There is” suffering.
This is a crucial point!
It may seem small and insignificant but this point is of utmost importance if you are to understand how to use the 4 Noble Truths.
For example – if you are sad about something, maybe you usually say to yourself “I am so sad!” and then you cry and wallow yourself in your own misery .
But don’t do that. There’s a better way.
Example of applying the 1st Noble Truth
Instead of saying, “I am” sad, try this – try saying, “There is” this sadness – so you’re taking a step back and observing oh, there’s this sad feeling that’s arisen.
Then you realise – hang on if I am looking at the sadness – then is this sadness really a part of me? No it’s not cos if I am looking at the sadness – therefore I am not that sadness. Sadness is just a feeling, an emotional energy that arises and ceases that I can observe, but it’s not really a part of me.
How to apply the Buddha’s not-self teaching to everyday things
If you can sit back and look at some thoughts, therefore you are not those thoughts. Those thoughts must be something separate from you.
And if you really were those thoughts, you’d be able to tell those thoughts to come and go as you please cos they’d be inherently under your control, naturally.
But thoughts are just thoughts and are not self. They are just mental objects that arise and cease in your mind. Feelings too are just feelings and are not self – they are just emotional energies that arise and cease in your mind.
So you realise the sadness is not you – so you, the observer, are not sad at all, it’s just a feeling of sadness that’s come along to color your mind temporarily.
Understanding the impermanence and instability of things that we observe
And you realise these energies, these feelings have a certain amount of energy – once it’s used up, they dissipate and vanish of themselves. So as long as you don’t feed fuel to the fire of the sadness, it’ll burn itself out eventually. So you don’t even need to try to get rid of the sad feeling – you just allow it to be and let it burn itself out, let it dissipate and vanish all by itself.
So you acknowledge it, allow it to arise and then you allow it to be and allow it to fade away all by itself – you don’t need to really do anything to get rid of it as it gets rid of itself by its very nature.
Like the sun shining brightly when the clouds dissipate
And once the sadness disappears, your mind is no longer clouded over by the sadness – your mind is naturally happy like the sun that’s always been there behind the clouds but now the clouds have all dissipated. Sadness no longer clouds over your mind
That’s why there is sadness. But sadness is just sadness but is not self – it’s not really who you are and not really a true part of you. So you acknowledge the sad happenings in your life A be okay with bad things happening in your life – be okay with the negatives, allow the negatives- why? Because life sometimes isn’t just all roses! And that’s okay. And once you’ve acknowledged it, you allow it to be, tell it to have a seat, stay however long you need to and then allow it to leave whenever it wants- so you let it go.
The difference between visitors/guests vs the host
These thoughts and feelings are just guests, just visitors flowing in and out of your mind – so you let them flow in and you let them flow out of their own accord.
- The guests and visitors are not the host, not the owner of the house.
- You are the owner of the house.
And the guests are not you.
So the second aspect to reflect upon in the first Noble Truth is that “Suffering should be understood”.
And what I’ve just outlined is how to understand how your mind works and how to understand the sufferings that arise and cease within it.
The 4 Noble Truths is like the framework that Medical Doctors use to analyze disease
Cos as a good doctor, you’ve got to really understand the disease that you’re treating – otherwise, how are you going to treat it?
If you look at medical research papers, you have:
- The Diagnosis of the disease
- The Etiology and Pathogenesis of the disease
- The Resolution of the disease
- The Treatment and Management
What’s this? This is just the format of the 4 Noble Truths!
- The Diagnosis of suffering
- The cause of suffering and how it arises
- The resolution of the disease – The state of perfect health (Nirvana) where suffering is completely eliminated
- The path to the perfect health
So you’ve got to understand the pathogenesis of it, how it manifests in different variations, what treatments it will respond to and not respond to as well as contraindications- what things you shouldn’t do to it.
Wisdom pervades the whole path!
So the Buddhist teaching is about wisdom – it’s about understanding. Wisdom pervades the whole path.
In this case, you need to understand how suffering works from both an intellectual level as well as a gut feel, intuitive first hand, direct knowledge level – then you’ll be able to treat it easily.
Without much fuss or fanfare or effort – just right treatment and it will get fixed
So understanding suffering and unsatisfactoriness and how it works on a skill based level will allow you to apply the correct treatment so that a full resolution of the disease can take place.
In the same way that you’ve got to understand the pathophysiology of a disease and the treatment, we’ve got to understand the etiologies of suffering, how it arises and how it can be resolved back to a state of perfect health (Nirvana).
And the treatment we need to apply to effect a full resolution- that’s basically a very simple summary of the 4 Noble Truths – diagnosis, etiology, resolution and the path to effect a full and complete resolution to suffering.
So Noble Truths 1, 2, 3, 4 Truths are like that.
Real World application of the 4 Noble Truths
So it’s not mystical stuff but stuff you can directly observe and try out and apply to whatever arises in your own life – real world application.
If you really want a simple, 1 sentence application that you can use in your reflection and meditation – this is it:
That which is aware of the sadness is not sad, is it?
It’s something separate from the sadness. Sadness is just sadness and it is not self.
That which is aware of the anger is not angry, is it? So the anger is something separate from you. Anger is just anger – just an emotional feeling – and is not self. It’s not really you and not really a part of you – it’s just an emotion energy that arises and ceases of itself. So you don’t have to try to get rid of it. You can let it go and stop identifying with it being your anger or your sadness.
Place your awareness on the anger or the sadness or whatever thought or emotion that comes up – you’ll notice it changes – even when you are observing it intently, it changes and is not still – it’s in constant flux – that’s how you can tell it will end – cos it can’t stay still. So it is uncertain, it is impermanent, it is unstable – it is anicca. So you realize it can burn itself out (but remember not to add fuel to the flames or fan the flames). So you let it go.