The only thing more fundamental to formal Buddhist belief than the Four Noble Truths is Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels. No one who does not accept the Four Noble Truths can call himself or herself a Buddhist (originally I wrote “Buddha”!). But what do the Four Noble Truths mean? We can address this using the method of questioning.
The popular formulation of the Four Noble Truths goes something like:
1. Life is suffering.
2. Suffering is caused by desire.
3.The end of desire is the end of suffering.
4. The way to end desire is the Noble Eightfold Path.
I will restate them as follows in more exacting language, to clarify what we are really talking about:
1. The nature of rebirth is to suffer.
2. The root cause of suffering is the attachment of desire.
3. Through the extinction of the attachment of desire, suffering ceases.
4. The way to extinguish the attachment of desire is to follow the noble eightfold path in accordance with the middle way between all extremes. The eight steps are an elaboration of the perfections of the body (word, deed, and livelihood); heart (effort, mindfulness, and meditation); and mind (understanding and intention).
Much is made of the psychological implications of the Buddha’s teachings, and his apparent reticence with respect to questions concerning metaphysics. Nevertheless, a metaphysical construct underlies and implies them, as they too are implicit in reality. Therefore the question arises, What is the reality implied by the Four Noble Truths? Or, what is the essential nature of the Four Noble Truths?
Rebirth is the fundamental characteristic of samsara, the differentiated phenomenology that human beings as sentient subjects experience in and through the body as “lived reality,” governed by karma, the law of cause and effect on all levels – mental, verbal, and tangible. It is rebirth, driven by karma, and characterized by suffering, that is the fundamental problem of the Buddha. The Buddha does not accept any mode of existence that implies change (or flux) as a solution to this problem, since desire posits stasis and all lived realities are impermanent and transitory by nature. This is the very definition of samsara. Therefore the Buddha posits transcendence as an absolute goal that necessarily implies the cessation of lived reality. This may or may not imply the cessation of the ontological substrate itself, since there are an indefinite number of suffering beings besides oneself. Salvation only applies to the individual who achieves the goal of absolute transcendence on their own. The salvation of one does not imply the salvation of all. Therefore, to end samsara itself one would have to contrive it so that everyone in a single human generation achieves transcendence altogether. Although possible in theory, given what we know about the extent of the universe, it does not seem plausible. Therefore, we take the view that samsara, understood metaphysically or ontologically, is eternal and infinitely differentiated, rather than finite and limited. There are other good arguments for this view too, especially all the same problems that are associated with theism, including theism itself. This leads us further, to the ultimate view that samsara is actually the natural antipode of nirvana and that reality itself must be trans-dual. In some schools this view is called the “clear light.” This leads to the realization that samsara and nirvana are one, and further to the realization that pain and suffering themselves are illusions, swallowed up in the natural perfection that must be the true ground. Nevertheless the experience of suffering exists, even if only as the illusion of an omniscient and perfect Buddha nature. This is the trans-dual view.
The infinity of samsara implies an infinity of individually differentiated mind streams. This also corresponds to what we experience in the world. These mind streams are not atmans because their continuity is temporal, not spatial. They are not extended. They are the fundamental reality of samsara and their interaction creates perception that in turn creates lived reality, characterized by desire, suffering, and ignorance. However, as we have shown desire and suffering to be illusions, so too is ignorance an illusion of the underlying Buddha nature that is the subtle essence of the mind streams themselves. The mind streams themselves are essentially information, i.e., karmic propensities or tendencies. Thus, lived reality itself is information/energy. “Matter” is a delusion of the senses.
The Buddha never states that transcendence implies cessation in the ontological sense. In fact he continuously implies that the individual who achieves transcendence is immortal. What is rejected is not even samsara which, as I have shown, is ontologically inherent and inexhaustible, but illusory attachments that create the illusion of suffering, concealing the fundamental Buddha nature from its own realization. The cessation implied by nirvana is the cessation of an illusion, resulting from the delusion that lived reality presents a complete and self-sufficient explanation of existence, especially the belief in the self that underlies the illusions of permanence, satisfactoriness, attachment, etc. The attachment to desire is therefore ultimately extinguished by the realization that there are no selves, no permanent things that can be possessed and held in stasis forever, and that therefore to desire these things in a fixed way or “with attachment” inherently causes pain. That this view has social and political implications is evident.
Theoretically, one can enjoy existence from moment to moment, without attachment, as a Buddha does, but such a solution is short-lived, for the price of the enjoyment of existence is the end of rebirth. If I am not attached then why would I choose to create the karma of rebirth? It is a catch-22. This karma is itself created by desirous attachment. This is why mystical hedonism so-called (of the type associated with Aleister Crowley, for example) is self-contradictory and potentially self-destructive. One can only enjoy the world when and to the extent that one renounces it. Only the real renunciate dare practise Tantra, the rarest jewel of all.
Since desirous attachment is caused, i.e., by ignorance, it is not inherent and can be extinguished through karmic means on the levels of body, heart, and mind in accordance with the middle way between extremes. The middle way has two aspects. Horizontally, it is the energy of peace, balance, and equilibrium. Vertically, it is the power of truth achieved by the pursuit of the trans-dual. The perfection of the body implies control of speech, action, and livelihood, both negative (i.e., self-restraint) and positive (i.e., good speech, good deeds, and good livelihood). This latter is for the bodhisattva, who seeks rebirth in the service of the future. The arhant who seeks to transcend rebirth as soon as possible and for himself alone abstains also from good speech, action, and livelihood, in order to avoid creating merit that may lead to rebirth.
I have written elsewhere on the perfections of the body and how too literal understanding here is self-contradictory. The Buddha himself refers to these perfections as elementary and inferior, which is not to say that they are not necessary prerequisites. The core perfections here are: not killing, not stealing, chastity, no alcohol, and not lying.
The perfection of the heart includes effort, mindfulness, and meditation. The perfection of effort implies enthusiasm. The perfection of mindfulness implies the realization of the essential emptiness of awareness. The perfection of meditation implies mental concentration or control.
Finally, the perfection of mind includes understanding and intention. Understanding implies the complete and perfect comprehension of dharma as the fundamental law of life. He who has right view knows through questioning that the dharma is true. He knows. Intention implies the will to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, the ultimate altruistic aspiration.
The perfection of the body is the perfection of action.
The perfection of the heart is the perfection of energy.
The perfection of the mind is the perfection of reason.