this and that

- some thoughts on the Four Noble Truths -


Joel A. Wendt

This is an essay on the mind in the light of the Four Noble Truths of
the Buddha.   In my own studies of Buddhism, I found more
satisfaction in considering these very basic questions
myself than I did in any study of all the rich
literature that follows, whether in Zen
or Tibetan Buddhism, or whatever.
I did find it helpful to study these questions,
however, not just for their practical understanding
of mind, but also for how this understanding created a
much better possibility for appreciating the mental processes
of the "other", the thou.   It is this last which is such a ripe fruit of
the Buddha's basic teachings - namely the growing in the own soul of Compassion.


According to John M. Koller's, Oriental Philosophies, the short version of the Four Noble Truths is as follows: "1. There is suffering; 2. Suffering is caused; 3. Suffering can be extinguished by eliminating the causes of suffering; and 4. The way to extinguish the causes of suffering is to follow the Middle Way constituted by the Noble Eightfold Path."

The same text gives these as the supposed actual teachings, or words of the Buddha:

1. "...birth is suffering; decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; presence of objects we hate is suffering; separation from objects we love is suffering; not to obtain what we desire is suffering. In brief, the five aggregates which spring from grasping, they are painful."

2. Suffering "...originates in that craving which causes the renewals of becomings, is accompanied by sensual delight, and seeks satisfaction now here, now there; that is to say, craving for pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for not becoming.".

3. "...concerning the Cessation of Suffering; verily, it is passionless, cessation without remainder of this very craving; the laying aside of, the giving up, the being free from, the harboring no longer of, this craving."

4. the path which leads to the cessation of suffering, " this Noble Eightfold Path, that is to say, right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation."

I would be a complete fool to suggest that I can add anything to this, or to further suggest that I could add anything to all that the great teachers of, say, Tibetan or Zen Buddhism, have said about these fundamental teachings of the Buddha.

Rather, the purpose of this essay is state simply how these ideas have influenced me, and in what way I try to order or structure my life, based on my understanding of this great message.


Being an American means that I tend to the pragmatic, the practical. So my approach, when I spent some time considering these Four Noble Truths, had the tendency to be directly related to my personal existence. No theories, just what was happening in my life that these Truths could lead me to understand.

I was aided in this quest by having heard some lectures, read several books and known several students of Chogyam Trungpa, teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, now deceased. My favorite book of his is: Meditation in Action, Shambhala Publications. In this book is a statement that has, over time, became my central principle when considering knowledge: "...and in that sense Buddha was a great revolutionary in his way of thinking. He even denied the existence of Brahma, or God, the Creator of the world. He determined to accept nothing which he had not first discovered for himself." (ibid. p 5)

This became my motto, and, as regards the Four Noble Truths, I would only understand what I could determine for myself. The Truths became, in this sense, questions to put to myself and to life.

1. There is suffering

This seems fairly obvious. Life is suffering. Yet, what does that mean? What is suffering and what is life in this sense? And, I don't mean to approach this by means of some philosophical definition, but rather simply by observing myself and life. I did think about animals and other kinds of beings for a time, which seemed to have life (plants etc.), but since my knowledge was only of my own consciousness, I eventually decided to confine myself to the consideration of my own suffering, and that which I could observe around me in those other human beings with which I came in contact.

There seemed to be a lot of it. Friends I knew were raped, hurt in cars, lost children, lost the capacity to bear children, lost jobs, lost loves, needed love and had none. Everywhere I looked, within myself and outside myself, there were experiences of pain.

But the Four Noble Truths are not just a logical sequence, they are a whole. The meaning of one effects the meaning of the whole...

2. Suffering is caused

After a time there seemed to me to be two kinds of suffering: self caused and caused from the outside, by an agency (others, fate, god, divine providence, whatever). But the more I explored self caused suffering the more I realized that to think some was caused by others was an error. The error arises because of this:

Every event in life which came to me from the outside, that is what we might call fated suffering, rather than self induced, had a certain quality to it. This quality of fated suffering depended upon how I related to the situation. The fated matter was in itself neutral. If it was experienced as a matter of suffering, that arose because of how I related to it. It was not within the fated experience itself.

Before we get confused, let me deal with physical pain, such as perhaps results from trauma. Certainly physical pain seems on the surface to be fated suffering. However, pain in such a case is not suffering, but increased consciousness. The body is demanding our attention. When we resist, when we desire to not experience the pain, then we have the pain and suffering.

The point of this is to make a distinction between the experience of physical pain, and the suffering, that arises because we are experiencing physical pain. The former is an inescapable physical reality, and the latter is a relationship of the mind to that reality.

Life is suffering and suffering is caused by the relationship of mind to life.

3. Suffering can be extinguished by eliminating the causes of suffering

How I relate to suffering is an act which takes place within my own mind, and for which I can be responsible. But just here we start to get to the tricky part, because we start to come face to face with the problem of mind, and the problem of the I, or the Ego.

Throughout the various teachings of Buddhism, from Zen to Tibetan, to beyond, here is where the nitty gritty comes in. To understand this part, there has to arise some degree of self awareness, some degree of inner awakeness. It is my belief (and only that, because I don't know the whole of Buddhism, only a very small corner), that all the commentaries, all the Sutras, all the koans, and the whole purpose of the various styles of meditation, have to do with this problem.

This is tricky because to some degree the Ego can't take ahold of it. Merely by grasping, by trying to find a strategy, the Ego steps off the deep end and just repeats what it is always doing. Desiring not to desire just leads to more suffering. This is why we find in the various teachings such ideas as no-thingness, no-mind, mindfulness, instant satori, and hundreds of other ways of making an idea about something which doesn't have an idea.

So Buddha, in order to help the crossing of the threshold of this problem provides the Eightfold Path, as a means to cut through the confusion.

4. The way to extinguish the causes of suffering is to follow the Middle Way constituted by the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path has a very interesting structure, in that each element is preceeded by the word "right", as in: ..."right views, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation."

Now what is that? What is meant, in this context, by "right"?

This is where we get to the title of this modest mediation: "this and that". Mind has certain qualities, and one of the main ones is what we might call "discrimination", or the capacity to form distinctions. This is up, that is down. This is right, that is wrong. This is enlightened, that is unenlightened. This is Ego, that is not. This is desire, that is not. This is suffering, that is not. This is my buddha nature, that is not.

Of course, you don't have to be a buddhist to have this difficulty. This is Christian, that is not. This is moral, that is not. Or if you are an anthroposophist: Steiner said this, he didn't say that.

Same problem.

This is what I have learned as a practical matter about this problem - the problem of "this and that".

In any given moment, I may not like the what is, the this. The this could be myself, my feeling life, what someone else is doing, my thoughts, what someone is saying, the price of an object, my lack of health, another driver, my salary, the way the world is, my son's haircut, my wife's spending habits and so forth. Against this this, I will imagine a corresponding that, which will be the what is not.

Between the what is and the what is not there arises a tension, namely my desire for this to change into that. My discriminatory mind by creating the this and the that, also at the same time necessarily creates the tension, which is the suffering. I suffer precisely because I conceive, as an act of mind, of the this (the what is) and its difference from the that (the what is not).

It actually is that simple to conceive, but the real problem is practice. What do I do about this? How do I, if that is what I decide to do, eliminate the this and the that? Of course, just in conceiving the problem this way, I am still in the this and the that, but with this one change. I am now aware of Ego's tricks (or at least the most recent ones).

The practice then comes down to coming back, ever and again, as a matter of slowly developing discipline, to the this and living wholely within the this, which does not stand still, but is rather constantly creative. Trungpa calls it "crazy wisdom". The reason it is crazy is because it (spontaneousness - the this) can't be predicted, can't be stratigized, and can't be controlled. It is a complete intuitive relationship to the this. You could say that the Ego is constantly going beyond its previous condition, rather then remaining stuck in one of its past points of view.

Of course, we should again return to the Sutras, the koans, or whatever practices we have discovered in Buddhism that seem right for us. These practices are the various paths by which one moves from living this and that, to just living this. However, each of us must find their individual way/means through to the this; so it is a great goodness that so much help exists, and in such great variety.

One last comment: The this comes not from the past, but is born in the future. In any given moment, even though "I" am (past looking), "I" really am not (unborn, no mind and so forth). At this level, there really is no difference between Buddhism and Christianty, in practice: " Matthew 18:3: " ...Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."

And this is all I have to say about that.

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