If Buddhism were to be summarized in one key teaching, that teaching would be about the nature of dukkha (suffering/dissatisfaction) and the cessation of dukkha. There is a fundamental unsatisfactoriness and stress that we all deal with in life. In the next 3 episodes, I will discuss the core Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and some helpful practices we can all work with to deal with the dissatisfaction that arises from time to time in life. This is part 1 of 3.
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism Podcast. This is episode number 82. I am your host, Noah Rasheta. Today, I’m talking about something we all deal with, have dealt with, or will deal with at some point, and most likely many times throughout our lives. That is the dissatisfaction we deal with in life. Before I jump into that, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. With that in mind, I want to jump into this topic. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, how much you have or don’t have. The reality is that as human beings, we deal with this dissatisfaction in life. The fundamental unsatisfactoriness and stress of ordinary life.
If Buddhism were to be summarized into one key teaching, that teaching would be the teaching of the nature of suffering and the sensation of suffering. This is what we know as the Four Noble Truths. This teaching is found in every school of Buddhism. It kind of serves as the core or foundational teaching of Buddhism. I wanted to explore this concept a little bit. Over this episode and perhaps the next podcast episode, I want to address, or I guess, revisit these topics. I talked about this in the first five episodes when I started the podcast, but that’s been years now. I thought it would be fun to revisit this and to go in a little more … with a little more depth the teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the teaching of the Eightfold Path.
I will address that in this podcast episode and the Eightfold Path probably in the next one. For this one, I’m going to talk about the Four Noble Truths. These are often referred to as the Four Truths for those who wish to live a noble life or sometimes referred to as the Four Tasks that we can worth with to have a life with more satisfaction. I don’t want to get hung up or caught up in the wording. The point is that when things aren’t the way we want them to be, we experience dissatisfaction. We all experience this from time to time. Anything that is temporary is Dukkha. This work Dukkha, I want to talk about this for a minute because the essence of the Buddhist teaching is the nature of Dukkha and the cessation of Dukkha.
In early Buddhist texts, the Buddha is reported to have said both formerly and now, it is only Dukkha that I describe and the cessation of Dukkha. This word, Dukkha, is often translated to “suffering” and this is where that expression comes that says “life is suffering” or “Buddhism teaching the cessation of suffering”. The problem is, the word Dukkha means more than just suffering. Suffering is a proper translation, so is dissatisfaction, so is stress or anxiety or unsatisfactoriness. It’s hard … It gets tricky if we try to hang on to just one of those words to translate it. One of the very first teachings that Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment was the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. Each of the truths relates in some way of this concept of dissatisfaction or Dukkha, which is an inescapable part of life.
He taught that anything temporary is Dukkha. We know that everything is temporary and that’s why the expression is used that life is Dukkha, life is unsatisfactory, life is … there’s dissatisfaction in life, life is suffering. There is several variations of how to translate the idea. Again, I think if we were to just look at this as an idea, the idea is that from time to time, life unfolds in a way that we don’t want it to be the way that it is. We all know this feeling. That is Dukkha. Let’s talk about this a little bit. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths, they each have a word. The first one is the truth of dissatisfaction or the truth of suffering, which is the word Dukkha. The second teaching of the Four Noble Truths is the cause of suffering.
They also have a word. Dukkha is a world in Pali. Samudaya is another word in Pali. That’s the one word that represents the second Noble Truth, which is the cause of suffering. The third one is the truth of the end of Dukkha, which is called Nirodha. The fourth is the truth of the path that leads to the end of Dukkha. Magga is that word. You know, when they teach this in classical or traditional setting, you have these four Pali words; Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha, and Magga. I may not be pronouncing those right, but it doesn’t matter. The point of the word is that we lose a lot in translation. All I’m trying to get at with telling you the original words is that the word conveys an idea and the moment you take that word and translate it into another language, you’re going to have stuff that’s lost in translation. That’s inevitable and that’s okay.
Whatever this is making sense as, just know that there’s probably more to it. Just like with the word suffering, there’s more to it. It’s not just suffering. Keep that in mind. You can think of this teaching of the Four Noble Truths in terms of a medical practice where the doctor, in this case the Buddha, diagnoses the problem. The problem is Dukkha. We’ve been diagnosed with Dukkha, which is the fundamental dissatisfaction that we experience in life. He then identifies the underlying causes, determines the prognosis, and finally prescribes a course of treatment just like you would if you went in to visit a doctor. In that sense, I think it makes sense to look at the Four Noble Truths as an action plan for dealing with the inevitable dissatisfaction that we experience from time to time in life.
In this sense, we can view these teachings almost as tasks rather than truths. They’re meant to be things that we do rather than things we believe in. I talked about this when I interviewed Stephen Batchelor on my podcast quite a while back where he explained the teachings of the Four Noble Truths as tasks. He gave us an acronym for us to make it easy to remember. That acronym is ELSA. E is “embrace this instance of suffering”. That’s essentially the first noble truth. The second one is L “let go of the reactive pattern”. The third is S “see the stopping of the reactivity.” The fourth is A “act skillfully”. So, ELSA, embrace the instance of suffering, let go of the reactive pattern, see the stopping of the reactivity, and then act skillfully.
I’ll go into that in a little bit more detail. Like I mentioned before, this teaching, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths forms the core of all Buddhist paths, schools, and traditions. The essence of the Four Noble Truths is to address and embrace the truth of the human condition, which is that in life we deal with dissatisfaction. That’s the topic I want to explore today. Let’s start with this first one. Let’s look at what this means. What does it mean to embrace? The E in ELSA, embrace the situation at hand or embrace the instance of suffering. Again, this is the word Dukkha. It recognizes the presence of suffering or dissatisfaction. In other words, it diagnoses the problem, which is in life difficulties arise and we suffer. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when; a sickness, old age, death.
These are some of the most obvious examples, but of course, there are countless difficulties that we encounter in life form losing your job to dropping your phone and cracking the screen. The nature of reality is that difficulties arise. When they do, we all experience this feeling of unsatisfactoriness. We can begin to embrace the fact that by recognizing that suffering is general, it’s not personal. It’s simply part of the experience of existence. We’ll start to experience … We will experience suffering no matter how hard we try to avoid it, whether we search for a magic formula to remove it, or we try to accumulate enough money to buy it off, or we seek fame to drown it out. It doesn’t matter whether we pray, or we meditate, or we perform rituals to try to shield ourselves from it.
The point is that suffering, dissatisfaction, unsatisfactoriness, in some form will find us. It’s the central problem of human existence. This is the universal diagnosis that the Buddha talked about. It’s not just you, it’s all of us; whether you’re rich, or famous, or powerful, or holy. It doesn’t matter, everyone … and if you think you’re alone with the difficulties that you experience in life, just spend some time talking to others and ask them about their problems. You’ll soon discover that everyone has struggles and everyone has pain and difficulties that they content with. What we learn from the Buddha about embracing suffering is that life is going to be easier for us when we truly accept that suffering is a part of life for everyone. There’s no way around it.
This is the idea of embracing the instance of suffering. When you’re experiencing a moment where you are having this feeling of general dissatisfaction, you can pause and just allow yourself to fully feel it. That’s what’s meant by embracing it. It doesn’t mean accept the situation and resign to it. That’s not the point. I’ve talked about this extensively and I’ll address it again that acceptance is not the same thing as resignation. What we’re accepting is, “I don’t like how things are and I can accept that I don’t like how things are.” That’s kind of what we’re after. Acceptance seems like a lot to ask. People will say, “Are we supposed to just accept all the bad things that happen in the world?” No, the purpose of Buddhist teachings is to try to help us better understand the nature of reality, to gain a clearer understanding of how things are, and acceptance from the Buddhist perspective is not about giving up.
It’s not about ignoring bad things like injustice or suffering. Acceptance in the Buddhist sense is about not resisting or fighting against reality. For example, if you’re feeling a certain emotion, let’s say loneliness. You have to accept what it is you’re feeling before you can skillfully do something about it. If you shy away from acknowledging that you’re feeling lonely and instead you try to ignore that uncomfortable feeling, anything you do to alleviate that discomfort is going to be unsuccessful or much more unskillful because you’re aiming at the wrong target. You’re not dealing with reality. Reality is, “This is how I feel. I’m lonely.” I think we sometimes equate acceptance with resignation or with giving up. But, acceptance is not the same thing as resignation.
I’ve mentioned this before, but several years ago I was dealing with a difficult situation in my life where I experienced a breech of trust from someone close to me. I was upset and I was hurt. At the time, I felt that I shouldn’t be angry so I felt like it was my responsibility to accept what happened and get over it. I was viewing this idea of acceptance a lot, like as if it was resignation. This attitude only aggravated the situation. I probably remained angry about what had happened for longer than I otherwise would have. It wasn’t until several years that I learned what acceptance really was. I had never fully accepted how I felt. I had just pretended to feel a certain way. In reality, I was angry about the situation and then I was angry that I was angry.
I didn’t accept how I was feeling and that prolonged my own pain, the discomfort that I was feeling with it. Upon discovering this, I decided I was finally ready to accept, not the breech of trust, but the fact of my own anger. That’s what I accepted. I was angry and it was perfectly okay to be angry. It felt so liberating to accept my emotions and to stop resisting what I was feeling. This is was marked the beginning of my healing journey. It all started with accepting my reality and giving up my fight against my reality, which is, “I am angry.” From the Buddhist perspective, it’s not that we’re accepting the bad things that happen, we’re just accepting that bad things happen. Once I accept the reality of a situation, I can ask, “Well, now what am I going to do about it?”
That’s kind of acceptance as the start of skillful action. Acceptance is about, again, working with reality and not against it. Think of that for the first Noble Truth, the idea of embracing the instance of suffering. Now, let’s talk about the second one. What does it mean to let go of the reactive pattern? If this is the second Noble Truth, you know, it’s like you’re saying, the way to reduce suffering is to become reactive to difficult things that happen to us, but let’s be honest, that’s hard. How do we let go of that reactivity? The second truth addresses the cause of suffering, the cause of that dissatisfaction. The main cause of our dissatisfaction is the way we habitually react to life as it unfolds; telling ourselves stories that ascribe meaning to events, wondering why painful things happen to us, wishing things were differing, and so on.
Like in the example I gave before, in my case, the cause of much of my dissatisfaction was the story I was telling myself that I shouldn’t be angry. I had a belief, or an idea, or a concept that had been embedded in me since I was young, which is, “You’re not supposed to be angry. You’re not supposed to feel anger. You’re supposed to turn the other cheek,” or things of that nature. That allowed me to deal with an alternate reality, which is the reality was that I was angry and my alternate reality is, “No, I’m not angry. I shouldn’t be angry.” That was the source of a lot of my suffering. We know that suffering emerges when we want life to be different, when we want things to be other than how they are, when we struggle against what is. We get frustrated when the world doesn’t behave the way we think it should and this causes us to suffer and then react.
Experiencing suffering isn’t the real problem. The problem arises in how we react to that suffering. The Buddha taught that when touched with a feeling of pain, the ordinary, uninstructed person sorrows, and grieves, and laments, beats his breasts and becomes distraught so he ends up feeling two pains – physical and mental – just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and right after were to shoot him with another one so that he would feel the pain of two arrows. I’ve talked about this parable in past podcast episodes, the two arrows. Reactivity, in this sense, kind of becomes a vicious cycle. The more we dwell in our sense of suffering, the more we enforce the very cause of it, wanting life to be other than what it is. The more intense the suffering, the more we want to get rid of it, but the more we want to get rid of it, the most intense the suffering will be.
That’s kind of the vicious cycle. That’s what was being taught with the second Noble Truth. Anyone who’s ever punched a hole in the wall or said something in anger and later regretted it, has experienced this reactivity that Buddha was talking about. This is the emotional discomfort of suffering. It can be so great that it seems like the only logical next step is to react to the discomfort, for example, by punching the wall. Letting go of reactivity is letting go of the need to punch the wall. It’s not letting go of feeling whatever we were feeling that made us want to punch the wall. I think that’s an important distinction to understand. The need to react to our own suffering, whether that be in rage or despair, that only creates more suffering when we have to get stitches or repair the hole in the wall.
Ceasing reactivity doesn’t mean we need to let go of the discomfort that makes us feel like punching the wall in the first place. Let’s be honest, that’s not really possible. It’s not like you have a choice that the moment something makes you upset, oh, you chose to be upset. It’s not that simple. As much as we would want to think that it’s that simple, it’s not. Letting go of reactivity is about avoiding the second arrow. It’s more of an act of liberation than it is a sacrifice we have to make. Eventually, we come to understand that letting go of pain is actually no sacrifice at all. That’s the teaching of the second Noble Truth. You may say, “Well, that does sound better. It sounds like a better way to deal with life, but is it realistic? Is it really possible to end this sense of suffering or dissatisfaction that the Buddha talks about?”
Well, for that, let’s look at the third Noble Truth. As mentioned before, we suffer when we crave for life to be other than it is. The third Noble Truth, helps us to understand that in the cessation of suffering, it’s not suffering that ceases, but our craving to not … our craving not to suffer. If that third task is, see the stopping of the reactivity, let’s explore this a little bit. Buddhist practice doesn’t end suffering. I think that’s important to clarify. Suffering is a lifelong reality, but we can let go of our attachment to avoiding suffering, which paradoxically causes us so much unavoidable suffering. This is a tricky concept to grasp because we can’t do away with our craving to not suffer by simple force of will. In fact, when we try to no longer cling to it, we’re clinging to the idea of not clinging.
If we desire to not desire, we’re still caught by desire. We can’t just say, “Okay, from now on, I won’t cling to anything,” because the causes and conditions that give rise to clinging will still be present. That’s kind of the idea that’s going on here. This is like when you’re experiencing anger, to be able to pause and notice that you are observing this experience that you are having. In that case, ask yourself, “Is the observer of the emotion also angry?” In that moment, you can kind of distinguish between the emotion that you experience and the observation of the emotion that you’re experiencing. In that observation, there is a pause that allows you to essentially stop and see the reactivity that’s unfolding. That’s what’s meant by see the stopping of the reactivity. That happens in the pause of observation.
Ideally, you’ll be able to see the emotion and allow it to just be. Seeing the stopping of the reactivity reinforces the embracing the instance of suffering. It’s accepting, “Wow, I’m really mad that this car cut me off and I’m feeling anger and that’s okay. It’s okay that I’m feeling anger. Now, I don’t have to act on the anger.” I think that’s one of the misconceptions with this whole idea is people will say, “Well, I’m trying to practice all this being mindful stuff, but I still get angry when a car cuts me off.” It’s like, “Well, that’s okay because the point wasn’t to not get angry. The point is to deal more skillfully with the anger that you feel when it arises.” Those are two very different things. Keep in mind that idea of the second arrow. That’s what leads us to the fourth Noble Truth, which is the path.
The path is what we talk about often as the Eightfold Path. This is a teaching in Buddhism that is pretty extensive because it deals with eight different areas. I want to address the Eightfold Path, which is essentially the fourth Noble Truth is, what is the path that leads to the end of suffering and how do we start down that path? I will talk about that in the next podcast episode. To summarize what’s been discussed today, remember the acronym ELSA. When you’re faced with a moment of dissatisfaction in life or unsatisfactoriness in your career, whatever it is you’re dealing, that feeling of Dukkha, think of this acronym ELSA; first E, embrace the instance of suffering, accept that this is what you are actually feeling. Let go of the reactive pattern. Remember the reactive pattern, the example is, “I’m angry and my reaction is now I’m angry that I’m angry.” That’s the part I’m trying to stop.
Why am I angry that I’m angry? Why not just be angry? It’s not … What we’re not doing is stopping the anger. Third, S, see the stopping of the reactivity. This is observing in that instance that what I am feeling is one thing and the observer of what I’m feeling, well, that’s another thing. Is the observer also angry? Which leads to the fourth, which we’re going to talk about in the next podcast episode, now, how do I act skillfully after having done that? We’ll go through that a little bit more in the other one. I just wanted to clarify some of these things because over the years since the time I first talked about this topic, I have thought about it and explained it I think in greater detail. Most recently in my book “No Nonsense Buddhism For Beginners” I address this and I wanted to share some of these ideas with you.
Stay tuned for the next podcast episode where I will get into the fourth of these teachings that, how do we act skillfully, and how does that apply, and what areas of life do we react? Which is essentially the teaching of the Eightfold Path. I will jump into that next time. Keep in mind, if you want to learn more about these ideas or these concepts, you can check out the book “No Nonsense Buddhism For Beginners”. There’s information about that on everydaybuddhism.com. As always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. You can write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, you can join our online community at secularbuddhism.com/community to try to continue discussing these ideas. Of course, if you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, you can visit secularbuddhism.com and click the “donate” button.
That’s all I have for now, but I look forward to finishing talking about this topic in the next podcast episode. Until then, until next time, thank you for listening.