The Four Noble Truths

By Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche

WHEN THE BUDDHA FIRST TURNED the wheel of Dharma at Sarnath, he taught what are known as the four noble truths, presenting them in three stages. First, he simply named them: The truth of suffering, the truth of origin (of suffering), the truth of cessation (of suffering), and the truth of path (to the cessation of suffering). Second, he taught what kind of action is appropriate of each of the truths: Suffering is to be known, and its origin is to be removed; in order to do that, it is necessary to practice a method, or path, so that cessation can be experienced. Third, he taught that if one knows suffering, there is nothing else that one needs to know; if one removes its origin, there is nothing else that one needs to remove; if one applies the practice, nothing else need be applied; and if one experiences cessation, there is nothing else to experience. Upon hearing this teaching, the Buddha's listeners attained the realization of arhats and bodhisattvas, but we, who are not so fortunate as to hear the Buddha speak, require a more detailed explanation.

Whoever has a body and feelings of pleasure and pain experiences suffering. Beings may enjoy varying degrees of happiness, but no happiness is everlasting, and the loss of happiness itself is suffering. The reason it is called the truth of suffering is that it is inescapable.

Those who suffer are the beings of the six realms, which are the six possible ways of experiencing samsara (the cycle of rebirth, existence unliberated from suffering).

Beings experiencing the hell realms suffer from intense and unremitting heat or cold, and beings experiencing the hungry ghost realm are constantly deprived of food and drink; these beings of the most unfortunate realms must endure their extreme torment for unimaginable lengths of time without actually dying, until the negative karma that brought about such existences is exhausted.

In the animal realm, beings suffer particularly from ignorance or stupidity and are unable to relate their suffering to others. Beings existing in the human realm experience a mixture of happiness and sorrow as a result of having accumulated both positive and negative karma.

The sufferings of human beings include: birth, sickness, old age, and death; the suffering of being separated from that which one loves, and of not being separated from that which one hates; and the suffering of not getting what one wants and of getting what one does not want.

Beings of the demigod realm are more fortunate, but they suffer because of quarreling, fighting, and warfare. The most pleasant existence is that of the gods, who do not experience suffering until the last seven days of their lives. Then they see signs that the end of their life of ease is approaching; they are abandoned by their attendants, their magnificent bodies deteriorate and their beautiful complexions fade. Finally, they foresee the pain of their next rebirth in the lower realms, which they are bound to experience because their positive karma has been used up.


Thus, there is no existence in the cycle of samsara that is free from suffering. There are six realms because there are six poisons, or defilements of the mind (Skt. klesha; Tib. nyon-mongs) that are the seeds or causes of the experience of the various realms. There are no more than six realms because there are no more than six poisons to act as seeds. The six poisons are:

1. hatred, or anger, which creates the experience of the hell realm;

2. greed, or miserliness, which creates the hungry ghost realm;

3. ignorance of how to act virtuously is the cause of rebirth in the animal realm;

4. attachment (virtuous action performed with attachment to the meritorious results) is the cause of human rebirth;

5. jealousy (virtuous action sullied by jealousy) causes rebirth in the demigod realm; and

6. pride, or egotism (virtuous action performed with pride) causes a godly rebirth.

The defilements lead to unskillful actions, which generate karma, the infallible operation of cause and effect in the mental continuum of each individual. The negative karma caused by the defilements is the origin of the sufferings of the six realms. The only way to eliminate suffering is to practice the path, method or remedy that will remove the defilements and the negative karma that they produce.

By developing loving-kindness and compassion it is possible to diminish the defilements, but in order to uproot them completely, it is necessary also to develop the discriminating awareness (Skt. prajna; Tib. she-rab) that arises from the wisdom of emptiness. The development of loving-kindness together with wisdom is the result of following the path of Dharma, otherwise known as the five paths: path of accumulation, path of unification, path of seeing, path of meditation, and path of no learning.

The first, the path of accumulation, has three subdivisions. The first stage consists of taking the first step in the right direction, that is, taking refuge and practicing tranquility meditation (Skt. shamatha, Tib. shinay). The aspect of wisdom that is involved is that of listening to teachings (called the wisdom of hearing), and of reflecting on them with the analytical mind (called the wisdom of contemplation).

The contemplation appropriate to this stage is known as the four applications of mindfulness, which is an examination of the true nature of (1) the body, (2) the feelings, (3) the mind, and (4) all phenomena. By logical analysis it is possible to come to the intellectual understanding that all of these are merely names for interdependent occurrences that lack any true self-existence, this prepares the way for an acceptance of the idea of emptiness (Skt. sunyata; Tib. tong-pa-nyi).

The second stage of the path of accumulation involves the abandonment of negative actions and the cultivation of virtuous actions, by which merit is accumulated. The third stage consists of the development of four qualities, without which further progress on the path will not be possible: (1) aspiration (strong determination to practice Dharma), (2) diligence (enthusiastic effort), (3) recollection (not forgetting the practice), and (4) meditative concentration (one-pointedness of mind without distractions). What was developed on the first path becomes stronger on the second, the path of unification, which is a linking of the ordinary level to the exalted. On this path the practitioner experiences greater tranquility, more joy in virtuous action and fewer negative thoughts; confidence, energy, reflection, concentration, and wisdom increase, and tolerance of obstacles is developed.

Finally the highest possible mundane realization is reached, a momentary experience that occurs during meditation, in which the nature of emptiness is perceived directly. After having this perception, the practitioner is called a noble or exalted one (Skt. arya; Tib. pag-pa), one who has immediate insight into the four noble truths. This experience is like that of blind person whose blindness is cured and who sees colors for the first time; therefore, it is called the path of seeing.

On this, the third path, subtle obscurations remain; the practitioner directly perceives emptiness when in a state of meditative concentration, but when not meditating continues to perceive as before, only with the awareness that the perception is illusory, like a person watching a magic show and seeing through the magician's tricks. This is the level of the first stage (Skt. bhumi; Tib. sa) of the bodhisattva path, and from this stage there is no possibility of falling back.

The fourth path, the path of meditation, is a process of familiarization with the experiences of the path of seeing which stabilizes the realization. It includes the second through tenth bodhisattva bhumis. By the seventh bhumi, all defilements have been removed, and by the tenth bhumi, even their subtle traces, which are like lingering scents, have disappeared. For the benefit of beings, bodhisattvas manifest eight qualities known as the arya eightfold path: right view, conception, speech, action, livelihood, exertion, reflection, and meditative absorption.

At the highest level of the tenth bhumi begins the path of no learning, it is so called because there is nothing more to develop. Actually it is not a path, but a fruition, a result, complete enlightenment, Buddhahood. At this level, as a result of the accumulation of wisdom, the mind is omniscient, meaning that everything is known simultaneously as it really is (ultimate truth) and as it manifests (relative truth); there is never any separation of the two truths. This mind of a Buddha is called the truth body (Skt. dharmakaya; Tib. cho-ku), the ultimate reality. The body of a Buddha, resulting from the accumulation of merit, can manifest in two forms, the emanation body (Skt. nirmanakaya; Tib. thrul-ku), like that of Buddha Shakyamuni, or the pure enjoyment body (Skt. sambhogakaya; Tib. Iong-ku), with the ability to teach higher realized beings or beings in the pure realms, or buddhafields.

However remote this may be from our own samsaric experience, we are basically no different from such enlightened beings. Our enlightened nature is covered by obscurations that can gradually be removed, that is the essence of the teaching of the four noble truths.


Based on a seminar given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche on November 24 and 25, 1984, at Karma Thegsum Choling in New York City.

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