Issue 15: Autumn 2011


By Michael Kogan Muju

We take a handful of sand
from the endless landscape
of awareness and call that
handful of sand the world.
Robert Pirsig

Personal Reflections on The 4 Noble Truths.

The essence of Buddhism lies in the first insights of Sakyamuni Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi tree and saw the morning star glimmering on the horizon. Following his enlightenment the Buddha was quoted as saying the following;

“It is through not understanding and not realizing four fundamental truths that I, disciples, as well as you, have had to wander for so long through an endless round of births, deaths and rebirths.
These four truths are;
the noble truth of suffering,
the noble truth of the origin of suffering,
the noble truth of the extinction of suffering,
and the noble truth of the path that leads to the extinction of suffering.

This world is driven by pleasure, delighted with pleasure, and enchanted with pleasure. Consequently, all individuals who follow such a path based in the pursuit of pleasure will have great difficulty understanding the law of conditionality, and will not understand the dependent origination of all things in the visible and the invisible realms. It is incomprehensible to them how to end all formations of thought, and through this find the abandonment of every endless cycle of rebirth, the fading away of desire, detachment, and extinction ending in the discovery of nirvana; however, there are beings whose eyes are only a little cloudy and they may understand the truth.”
Although the central teachings of the Buddha are entitled the ‘Four Noble Truths,’ it was a number of years into my practice before I began to really take note of them. I think my first reaction was to the constant repetition of that word ‘suffering’. I felt that it gave the philosophy a grim pessimistic feeling that I hadn’t encountered in my brief readings in Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield. It was only much later that I came to realise that the English translation of the Pali word ‘dukkha,’which is constantly repeated in the Four Noble Truths was not the happiest of choices on the part of translators! The dictionary defines Suffering; as the bearing of pain, inconvenience, or loss; pain endured; distress, loss, or injury incurred; as sufferings by pain or sorrow; sufferings by want or by wrongs being in pain or grief; having loss, injury, distress, etc. whereas ‘dukkha,’ could perhaps more accurately be described as ‘dissatisfaction,’ or ‘disquietude’. Having in a number of talks and books heard and seen different views on the etymology of the Pali word I decided to do some research in the great library of the www! The following history and nexus of meanings emerged which illuminates the term ‘dukkha,’ and eradicates the heavy Christian/western overtones.
It is perhaps amusing to note the etymology of the words ‘sukha,’ (pleasure, comfort, bliss) and ‘dukha,’ (misery, unhappiness, pain). The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse or ox-drawn vehicles. ‘Su,’ and ‘dus,’ are prefixes indicating ‘good,’ or ‘bad’. The word ‘kha,’ in later Sanskrit meaning ‘sky, ‘ether,’ or ‘space,’ was originally the word for ‘hole,’ particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan's vehicles. Thus ‘sukha,’ … meant, originally, "having a good axle hole," whilst ‘dukkha,’ meant "having a poor axle hole," leading to discomfort. The Sanskrit prefix 'su' is used as an emphasis suggesting wholesome, high, evolved, desirable, strong. (Sargeant, et. al. (2009: p. 303))
In classic Sanskrit, the term ‘dukkha,’ was often compared to a large potter's wheel that would screech as it was spun around, and did not turn smoothly. The opposite then of ‘dukkha,’was the term ‘sukha,’, which brought to mind a potter's wheel that turned smoothly and noiselessly. In other Buddhist influenced cultures similar imagery was used to describe ‘dukkh’. An example from China is the cart with one wheel that is slightly damaged so that the rider is jolted each time the wheel rolls over the broken spot.

Another teacher I heard, extending the imagery of the axle hole, described ‘dukkha,’ as to be compared to the sand and grit that was ingrained in the grease or lubrication of the axle hole. So out of this etymology emerged a much clearer more earthy meaning of what ‘dukkha,’ meant in Pali although, apparently, this language was not spoken by the Buddha! The paramount power in India for two centuries, spanning both before and after Sakyamuni was the Kingdom of Kosala, of which the Buddha's birth kingdom, Magadha, was a fiefdom. Magadhi seems to have been a dialect of Kosalan, and there is some evidence that this was the language that the Buddha spoke.
It has been said that the Buddha may have derived the logical structure of his truths by noting the methodology used by ancient Indian physicians.
Here the doctor would understand that the patient was ill by observing his or her symptoms.
There is suffering
Using his knowledge and experience and questioning the patient, he would try to find out what they had been doing or had eaten or what had happened to them that was making them ill.
There is a cause to suffering
He would then encourage his patients by telling them that their health could be restored.
There is a way to end suffering
And finally he would prepare the appropriate medicine, give it to the patient and instruct them how to take it.

There is an end to suffering by following the prescription.
The Buddha said many times that his role was to show us the way out of suffering. I recognise that such a pragmatic and rational explanation of how the Buddha came to organise his experience beneath the Bhodi tree doesn’t fit with the legends but it does seem consistent with the nature and style of many of his teachings and thoughts. This balancing of a deeply sensitive intuition along with a pragmatic earthy approach to life is one of many qualities that attracts me to Buddhism.
We might also remember that at first, stunned by the magnitude of his awakening, Siddartha contemplated keeping his knowledge to himself, he could not conceive how he might convey the Four Noble Truths to the world. According to some accounts once he had been persuaded by a visit from the Indian god Sahampati to change his mind his first attempt to teach was a complete failure! On his way from Bodh Gaya to Varanasi he met an ascetic who noting the Buddha’s tranquility questioned him. The Buddha answered that he was the perfectly enlightened one the Buddha. The ascetic somewhat taken aback by this seemingly arrogant statement walked away! Clearly on the rest of the journey to the deer park in Varanasi Sakyamuni must have pondered on this experience. By the time he met his five former ascetic friends he had decided that a different approach was needed if he was to teach successfully.
After having attended a recent talk on The Four Noble Truths I was suddenly powerfully struck by just how original and revolutionary the realisation of the Buddha was. It was probably another 500 years with the teaching of Jesus and ‘love one another as I love you,’ and ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,’ before anything comparable was to be uttered again. In addition if we take note of the revolutionary scientific findings of Copernicus, Newton or Einstein they are, in so far as I understand them, eclipsed by the grandeur and logic of the Buddha’s original vision. These simple utterances of the Buddha remain a path toward freedom for all.
‘One thing and one thing only do I teach, suffering and how to end suffering’ (Majjhima Nikaya 1.140).
To for the image at the beginning of this article and the quote from Robert Pirsig whose book ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ was the first ‘Zen’ book I read and didn’t understand!

Michael (Kogan Muju)
Radiant Light Vow No Abode dwelling

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