So, today we celebrate and attempt to recognize the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. What we are trying to recognize is not some historical event, like the Fourth of July, although that sort of historical recognition is, I think, inherently present in the form of a shared idea -- that Buddha was enlightened beneath the Bodhi Tree, that he sat for seven weeks, that there was this dialogue between Buddha and divinities, and so forth.
Nobody alive today was there when these events supposedly happened. There is no contemporaneous record. There is just a simple, ex-post-facto agreement to agree. This is not peculiar to Buddhism's protohistory. This is how we humans do business on everything. We agree to agree that some proposition happened a certain way, and the agreement makes the proposition so. Our "truths" consist, then, of a series of agreements.
And, then again, some of our truths rise to a level above aggregate assumption; they rise to the level of nobility.
There are many, many versions or descriptions of the Four Noble Truths that we have agreed to agree Buddha delivered on or about the event commemorated by today's holiday. The one I like best is the one His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave in Helsinki, in 1988; later codified in his book Dzogchen: Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, underwritten by Sogyal Rinpoche twelve or thirteen years ago, and first published by the now defunct Snow Lion Publications in 2000. These are comments published under the title "Four Truths, Four Seals and Dzogchen."
"The general structure of Buddhist practice," said His Holiness, "is based on what are called the Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha taught in his very first public teaching. They constitute the foundation for the entire Buddhist path. They are:
- the truth of suffering
- the truth of its origin
- the truth of its cessation
- the truth of the path which leads to that cessation"
"Buddha's teaching on the Four Noble Truths is based on the natural needs and desires of all living beings. All of us have a natural instinct to desire happiness and avoid suffering. Therefore the practice of Dharma should be a technique whereby we can fullfil that need. Since what we desire is happiness and what we do not desire is suffering, Buddha first taught the truth of suffering, so that we would be able to recognize suffering for what it is."
Now, you stop and think --- "Well, suffering should be easy enough to understand: no great insight there" --- but, you are mistaken. In many ways, suffering is the least understood aspect of our human existence.
There is an entire apparatus, maintained by our false friend the ego, designed to convince us that we are not suffering, or if we are suffering, it is through no fault of our own.
Suffering stays locked in our subconscious as an ever-present possibility, but one that we strive to avoid by means of suffering's own cause.
This is quite profound.
We think we might like to go for a swim. We throw an imaginary life preserver into a mirage, and then drown when the illusion evaporates.
You ask a hundred Buddhists, "Four Noble Truths?" and they will answer right enough: "Great stuff! Our stuff, you know? Buddhist stuff!" But, of those hundred, maybe one will be prepared to truly admit and fully accept the concept that we are suffering.
Today, there are hundreds of articles on the Four Noble Truths being published all over the known Buddhist universe, and they are all illustrated with shiny pictures of Buddha teaching attentive and gifted students.
You will note our illustration is of Buddha about to get a rock on his head. Why? Because, this world is suffering. Even Buddha had trouble with his relatives and wound up dying of food poisoning. This is not coming from "outside." This is coming from "inside." This is the mirage, remember?
Dalai Lama continues:
"Then although we may enjoy certain degrees of happiness even while we are subject to suffering, true happiness will always elude us as long as we carry the causes of suffering inside us. This is why in the second noble truth Buddha taught the importance of eliminating the origin of suffering, by first of all identifying it. With the third noble truth, he explained that as a result of recognizing that origin of suffering there is cessation, a state that is free from all suffering. Buddha then taught the fourth noble truth, the path that will ultimately lead us to that cessation."
These words are like a stout bridge to comfort. Please do not dismiss them as "too basic," or "baby stuff." To the contrary, it is through sound understanding of these principles that we can meet, and extract the benefit, of every situation, no matter how that situation is at first perceived.
I will give you just a quick example from recent personal experience. Everyone who knows me, knows that I had a rabbit as a companion, and that I was very attached to this rabbit. Many have heard that this rabbit passed away last month, and that I openly grieved for him. I loved him very much, you see? So, the grief was intense.
Because I have had the grand fortune to listen to many realized teachers, I jumped straight into the middle of this grief, to the point where I was incapacitated and exhausted. But, at the same time, miraculously, something else was taking place.
I began removing the causes of the suffering, one by one, and as I did so, the treasure of bodhicitta began to glow.
I immediately recognized that I would extend the love I had for my friend to all rabbits, to all sentient beings, and direct this to the eradication of the illusion of suffering that I was sharing with them -- this basic suffering of separation from ones we love, which arises from mistakenly divided perception of attachment and aversion: attachment to ones we love, and aversion to ones we don't love -- all of this born of the basic failure to recognize emptiness.
That is where the compassion effortlessly arises, you see? No sloppy stuff needed. When you allow yourself to accept emptiness as it is, compassion needs no other cultivation.
For example: I thought of all the simple, little children who had lost a pet rabbit, and how they cried, and how this was fundamentally essenceless... unnecessary... opposed to that which was an ever-present reality.... preventable.... curable. You get the idea, I am sure. You don't have to beat around, working gimmicks, and contrivances. Your heart breaks, bodhicitta awakes, that's all it takes. A thing that might otherwise be tightly fabricated, or constricted, becomes utterly spacious, all by itself.
Well, it is easy enough when you have a bodhisattva come as a rabbit to teach you. But, what if some terrible old man dies? What if some awful old customer like me passes away, much to everyone's enjoyment and relief? You might want to go out dining, and drinking. You might want to dance on the grave. If you had enough to drink, you might want to piss on the grave. Sounds like this might take a little bit more work, doesn't it?
What does Dalai Lama say?
"The conclusion, then, which we can derive from the teaching on the Four Noble Truths, is that this suffering that we do not want, and the happiness we long for, are both dependent, in the sense that they only arise in dependence upon their causes and conditions. The teaching on the Four Noble Truths in fact teaches us the principle of interdependent origination. Happiness, it shows us, comes about only as a result of the interaction of causes and conditions. At the same time, suffering can be avoided, but only if we are able to put an end to the causes and conditions that give rise to it. The teaching on the Four Noble Truths points out that this is our responsibility and we should take the initiative, on our own, to pursue a path that will lead to this end."
Regardless of whether we are mourning and grieving a beloved pet or gleefully urinating on some hated enemy's last resting place, we are delicately balanced on the intersection of knots in a net.
Imagine you are trying to walk across a huge net, a hundred feet above the ground. Just to make it more interesting, imagine that you are trying to do this with your eyes closed. One false step, and you will fall to your doom. Meanwhile, in which direction are you going? You slide along the string until you reach a knot. Now you have four choices: slide back the way you came, or keep sliding in one of the three other directions. More than this, you see, there is an up and a down.
I don't know about you, but the first thing I would do is stop, and open my eyes. Surely, this is some sort of suffering, but what sort?
Dalai Lama says:
"How to recognize suffering as suffering? There are three levels or types of suffering. The first is suffering which is obvious, technically called 'the suffering of suffering.' The second is 'the suffering of change,' and the third, 'the pervasive suffering of conditioning.'
1) 'The suffering of suffering' refers to all those self-evident experiences of suffering, like pain for example, which we would normally identify as suffering.
2) 'The suffering of change' refers to experiences that we usually regard with pleasure or happiness but which, when we are engaged in them for too long, end up leading to frustration, dissatisfaction, and suffering... . The experience that we initially thought of as pleasure or happiness is revealed as something which does not last, since it changes into feelings of dissatisfaction. This kind of suffering is 'the suffering of change.'
3) The third type of suffering, 'the pervasive suffering of conditioning,' embodies a recognition which is unique to Buddhism. To explain this third level of suffering in greater detail, the fundamental tenets of Buddhist philosophy known as the four 'seals' or axioms of Buddhism need to be understood."
So, we will stop right here, and reflect that in this, the explanation of the first of the Four Noble Truths, in the very preliminary stages of discussion, we are being introduced to the greatest gift anyone could possibly give, i.e. the Four Seals.
In the West, you never used to hear very much about the Four Seals. The teachers who came in the last century barely examined the subject. However, this is actually quite important. You might say it is ultimately important. Five years ago, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse wrote an entire book on the subject, What Makes You Not a Buddhist, which turned out to be one of the four or five truly indispensable commentaries on Buddhism in the English language. I like this book so much I always give away copies to people I meet.
The Four Seals are simple enough to state, and I believe Khyentse Rinpoche states them best as follows:
- All compounded things are impermanent.
- All emotions are pain.
- All things have no inherent existence.
- Nirvana is beyond concepts.
Actually, he does this a little more deeply and uniquely:
- If you cannot accept that all compounded or fabricated things are impermanent, if you believe that there is some essential substance or concept that is permanent, then you are not a Buddhist.
- If you cannot accept that all emotions are pain, if you believe that actually some emotions are purely pleasurable, then you are not a Buddhist.
- If you cannot accept that all phenomena are illusory and empty, if you believe that certain things do exist inherently, then you are not a Buddhist.
- And if you think that enlightenment exists within the spheres of time, space, and power, then you are not a Buddhist.
So, here we have the answer to crossing the net, and what to do about the soggy, soggy grave of that hateful old man. Not so difficult anymore, is it?
So, then, today is Chokhor Duchen for 2012.
We believe that everything we do today -- positive or negative -- has a result that magnifies ten million times. All the Buddhists will be busy doing meritorious deeds, right up to the last fraction of a second of the full twenty-four hours.
I am in the western United States, in a high desert called the Mojave, and about all I have to offer you is this little appreciation -- as it comes to mind -- of great teachings and great teachers:
Watch out for falling rocks.
If there is any benefit, let it be yours.