In this piece I would like to briefly restate my understanding of the Four Truths. This is already set out in my books The Feeling Buddha and Not Everything is Impermanent and will be familiar to those of my students who follow my work closely. It will however be new to those who follow conventional ideas about Buddhism. The former group may also find it useful to have a succinct statement.
The Four Truths are dukkha, samudaya, nirodha and marga. They are often referred to as the Four Noble Truths, but a better translation is Four Truths for Noble Ones.
The commentaries generally take the four to be following the model of a medical prescription or a problem solving formula. On this basis the four represent, respectively, the problem, the cause, the goal and the method. If you follow the method you will defeat the cause, overcome the problem and arrive at the goal. I disagree with this interpretation. I will say why later.
In my understanding, there is a better way to understand this, namely that the four represent, respectively, the stimulus, the response, the alternative and the outcome. Dukkha is inevitable. It spurs us to respond. The response could be better. When it is better we get a better outcome.
Dukkha is the Existential Situation
Let’s clarify that:
Dukkha: Dukkha is our existential situation. This is the starting point. You cannot eliminate dukkha without eliminating sentient life. Dukkha is not something you can get rid off in this life, it is this life.
Samudaya: When we are aroused or disturbed there is energy. We respond. Commonly we deploy that energy to try to get rid of the disturbance. We seek distraction. If that does not work, we seek personal security. If that too is frustrated we become destructive, either to ourselves or others or both. All this tends only to make more dukkha. These three options are included in the original text. The way humans respond to trouble tends to make matters worse.
Nirodha: There is an alternative. When the samudaya energy arises it can be turned to more sublime purpose. This means not letting the energy run wild and not being obsessed with the original dukkha. These details are also mentioned in the text.
Marga: The outcome of nirodha is that one is on a noble path. This is the so-called eightfold path. It is the outcome of using the energy stimulated by our existential situation in a constructive rather than a self-serving manner. That is Buddhism in a nutshell. Humankind, in its scramble to eliminate dukkha is destroying itself and its world. There is an alternative, but few are ready.
Let me give a strong example. Two babies die. The parents experience dukkha. The dukkha is that we live in such a world where babies sometimes do die. The parent of the first baby goes into a depression from which they never really recover. They seek to distract themselves, but it is never enough. They seek personal security by becoming a workaholic or having materialistic obsessions, but it does not succeed. Often they just long for oblivion. Such a person can be a suicide risk.
The parent of the other child is just as distressed, but turns this energy toward some positive purpose. Perhaps they start a service to help parents who were similarly bereaved or a campaign to find a cure for the disease that killed the baby. Perhaps they enter the religious life or in some other way devote themselves to the service of others. Such a person experiences dukkha just like the other one, but it has a very different outcome. In this second case the outcome is a life with a good vision, good thoughts, good words, good deeds, a right livelihood that involves constructive effort, that keeps good things in mind and that is well-focussed. In other words, they are on Buddha’s eightfold path.
Reasons for the Better Interpretation
1. Formal Reason: I think the better interpretation is more likely and better for a number of reasons. First among these is that we can see that Buddha’s teachings are often given in list form and always the order of the list is important. It says what leads to what. One leads to two leads to three leads to four. The commentarial interpretation does not conform to this pattern. It has two leading to one and four leading to three, In my interpretation, one comes first. Two follows. Three is then a possibility and if it is followed, four results. One two three four is the Buddha’s usual way of talking.
2. Buddha's Own Case: The second reason is that it fits Buddha’s own case. He encountered dukkha. Firstly his mother died giving birth to him. Secondly he saw the “four sights”. That was his starting point. He then tried distraction through the luxuries of palace life, followed by a quest to make himself into a spiritual master who would be immune to suffering, followed by realisation that he was getting nowhere, whereupon he broke his relationships with teachers and fellows and went away and tortured himself. Then he had a turn around and realised an alternative. Thereafter he lived a sublime life. Buddha himself did not become enlightened by following the eightfold path, he found the eightfold path by becoming enlightened.
3. Etymology: A third reason for the better interpretation is that it follows the meanings of the words closely. To begin with the tight translation “truths for noble ones” implies that noble ones do not get rid of dukkha nor samudaya but they do have nirodha and marga too. Samudaya implies “what comes up”. Marge does not mean path in the sense of a road that leads somewhere so much as track in the sense of the trace left by someone who has gone somewhere. The eightfold path is not a prescription, it is a list of the characteristics by which you can identify the animal that left the track. If a person leaves a track with those characteristics then they are enlightened. Only an enlightened person is on the eightfold path. Unenlightened people cannot follow the eightfold path - they are incapable.
4. Common Sense: A fourth reason for the better interpretation is that it makes better sense. As a matter of fact, dukkha does not go away. The commentarial solution only works in the sense, drawn from Indian popular spirituality, that if you totally overcome desire and become extinct you will not be reborn and so will not suffer dukkha any more. Modern Western people want to overcome dukkha, but they don’t want to be extinct. The commentarial goal occurs when you die, not in the midst of life. Only in that sense does it make sense. The modern hijacking of Buddhism as a path to happiness by overcoming desire is misplaced. No matter how much you meditate you will not thereby stop babies dying and parents grieving, nor should you. Buddhism is about living a noble life, not a supine one. Buddha was interested in the “end of dukkha” in the sense of “what is it for?” not in the sense of “how do we get rid of it?” “End” has both meanings in Sanskrit just as it does in English and one can readily be mistaken. All the great religions have to face the question of the meaning of suffering. Buddhism’s answer is that one can make it meaningful by deploying the energy that it gives rise to in positive ways. Then the suffering is not in vain.
5. How Buddha taught: A fifth reason for the better interpretation is that it is in line with Buddha’s other teachings, and especially his method. When Buddha met Kisagotami whose baby had died, he did not tell here how to feel better. He told her to go and listen to the stories of many other bereaved people. No doubt she suffered hearing those stories. She suffered more, but it redirected her energy. She had been trying to get dukkha taken away but now she recognised it fully and this enabled her to turn her life in a new direction. Buddha does not tell people how to escape from suffering, he turns them to face it fully, but then to find a way onward. The same is true when he meets Angulimala the killer or Patacara the mad woman. It is also notable that in none of these three seminal cases did he tell the person to go and meditate, nor to follow the programme of asceticism that he himself had engaged in. None of them were meditators. They did ot get awakened by applying a methodology, but by facing existential reality while inspired by a wise and compassionate helper.
How the Alternative is Possible
When we consider all this we might still ask, how is it possible for a person to come to adopt the alternative rather than just do what most people do? When we look at the three seminal cases we see that they all became inspired. A new spirit came into them. They found faith where previously they had had bitterness or despair. This is the basic character of the spiritual life. It may be framed in a diversity of names and concepts, but truly spiritual people are full of faith and inspiration. It is also notable that they got it through an encounter with Buddha. Throughout the history of Buddhism, when we look at the famous stories, people rarely get enlightened by meditating or doing some formulaic practice; they mostly get enlightened when, after seriously struggling with an existential problem, they have a significant encounter with an enlightened person. Enlightenment is transmitted and encounter is a very important part of this. It is not awarded like an exam result to those who worked hard at a syllabus. It is transmitted when a person in deep existential dilemma finds the light, usually through another person, but certainly through something that comes from beyond themselves. It takes some other power. The idea that everything comes from within is mistaken. Nobody gets enlightened by cutting themselves off except those who, like Buddha, after doing so, realise the mistake they have made.
When Buddha realised his mistake he saw that dukkha is inescapable but that the reaction he had to it did not have to be a disaster, there was an alternative and by taking it he was able to turn his life around. This turning around - paravritti - is the real prescription of Buddhism.
This last point is a rider to the above, but an important one. Thinking on these things one may well see that they apply to humanity as a whole as well as to individuals. Human culture seems desperate in its attempts to eliminate dukkha, be comfortable and find happiness, yet mostly these attempts just make matters worse. Humans are now less well adapted to life on Planet Earth than they were ten thousand years ago. Even then they were already causing a good deal of trouble, disturbing the natural balance. If we cannot turn around, there is a real danger that the remaining species of life that we have not already exterminated will also be lost and we shall painfully go with them. We want comfort so we accumulate things. To get things we want money. To get money we need economic activity. To have more economic activity we make things to decay quicker so they have to be endlessly replaced. Thus we become frantic for more, more, more, while squandering what we already have. As we get more glitter we become more shoddy, as we subdue nature we are sawing off the branch we are sitting on. Buddhism is rarely properly understood. When it is there are "some few with but little dust whose lives are turned around. Yet this is not enough to save humanity. There is a hole in the boat and our efforts to avoid getting wet are only tending to make the hole bigger. Will we wake up in time?