Three Rounds and Twelve Aspects of the Four Noble Truths

Three Rounds and Twelve Aspects of the Four Noble Truths

Speech by Ven. Bhikkhu Vūpasama at Columbia University on 2013/4/18

Translated by Betty Chen

I'm very happy to be here at Columbia University again to discuss the Buddha's teaching with you. As Matthew mentioned, we're going to talk about the cessation of suffering in the Four Noble Truths. Most of you have probably already heard of the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the origination of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the way leading to the cessation. But what a lot of people don't know is that there are three rounds within the Four Noble Truths. So within the cessation of suffering, there are three rounds and the meaning behind each round is different. People might be curious as to what the three rounds mean. Before we discuss it further, I'd like to point out that there are different stages of practicing the path of the Buddha's teaching. For a person who has never heard of the Buddha or the Dharma, once he starts to practice on the path, there is a certain order that he should follow. There are some schools that claim it's possible to have an epiphany, a sudden realization or enlightenment. However, that is not true. This kind of sudden realization theory was developed in India, about one hundred years after Pari-nirvana. This kind of advocacy is really not the conventional or shall we say the orthodox view. Even based on common sense, we all know that there is a process to everything. It's illogical to assume that you can get any result without a series of actions, changes or processes bringing about it.

What is the content of these stages in practice? Over the past two thousand years, there have been so many different Buddhist schools with all kinds of views. There is only one path towards enlightenment. But how do you step on the path? How do you practice and in which order? There are many hypotheses. For instance, in Theravada Buddhism, the first step is discipline then calmness and only then is wisdom developed. This theory was formed a hundred years after Buddha passed away. Later, the Mahayana Bodhisattva discipline developed and they had different ideas. Even within Mahayana Buddhism, there are different schools with different assertions. Thus, there are many conflicting theories. What I'd like to talk about today is from the Buddha's first sermon. That first sermon points out stages of practice. I'm sure no Buddhist would disagree. Let's start with the three rounds of Four Noble Truths. The three rounds include all the steps that lead to supreme enlightenment. That statement still maintains to be true after two thousand years. No Buddhist would dare say it's wrong. Unfortunately, it was forgotten.

I believe that you are all very brilliant to be able to attend this university. You must be the elite in your country or hometown. I believe you're smart enough to understand based on your intelligence. I trust that you all have a very rational and logical mind. My advice is: don't discard your intelligence while seeking the truth in religion. I must point out that there are many absurdities in all kinds of religion, Buddhism included. So be careful and don't buy into all of them without doing any research. In Buddhism, there are lots that have nothing to do with the Shakyamuni Buddha at all. Be sure to keep a clear mind.

With that in mind, we're going to proceed to the three rounds of the Four Noble Truths. Please turn to page two on your handout. This is the City Sutra from the Samyutta-Nikaya 12.65. This is the first round of the Four Noble Truths. I'll talk about it briefly. You can read the content yourself and I'll help you digest it in a simple way. This is the story of the Buddha while he was still an ordinary person. One day, the big question of why do suffering of age, sickness and death exist came to his mind. This is a very important question. Why? Before the Buddha found his own way and became enlightened, religion in India was of the indiscriminate type. What does that mean? It means you accept religion without any doubt. For instance, it said in the Brahmin script that Brahma the Creator (God) created the world. Why do you believe that? It's a typical example of the religious claim that if it's God's will, you don't need to ask why. What will be will be. It's a sin to challenge. You are not allowed to ask why. This is what I call an indiscriminate type of religion; you take a big leap before examining rational evidence. In short, answers will be provided but not the reasons.

During that time in India, there was another kind of religion. They do not worship God but believed the world was formed due to karma. Lots of people take for granted that the concept of karma came from the Buddha. That's actually a misconception. Karma did not originate from Buddhism. It has nothing to do with the Buddha at all. The Buddha taught relevant influencing.

He never focused on karma as a form of fatalism or determinism. That idea of karma originated from the Upanishads It's not Buddhism. This kind of assumption is pretty much without proof either. I.e. what you have now is based on what you did in your previous life and your previous life was destined due to another previous life. I guess we all might get curious about The First Cause argument again. This time the answer is that there is no beginning at all. The theory that what I'm facing now is because of what I did in past lives is fatalism or determinism. If we follow this logic, the Boston Marathon Explosion would be a case of karma. Did those victims really deserve it? Therefore, I think the philosophy is totally preposterous.

The Buddha didn't believe in karma at all. What the Buddha taught is relevant influencing. Please keep in mind that relevant influencing is not karma. It's a totally different concept. Please don't mix them up. If all you need is a deity to say your prayers to then it's okay. But if you would rather keep a clear mind and solve all your problems with wisdom in your life, please don't just go with flow. Within this sutra, the Buddha raised the big question of why we're all trapped in the situation of ageing, sickness and death. You can read the detail yourself. The first thing that I like to point out is that the Buddha did not accept any religious theory without a reality check. It says here that life is full of predicaments or sufferings, which are not a test from God or from our bad karma. Yet, they entice people to jump on the ship of faith. The Buddha did not like the theory of a Creator or karma. He wanted to know why and tried very hard to search for the truth. Since we don't have plenty of time here, I'm going to get straight to the point. When the Buddha traced the cause of suffering of aging, sickness and death, he narrowed it down to two main reasons. One is delusion, the other is desire.

What kind of delusion? Delusion is just a general term, what does that term specifically refer to? In Buddhism, there is a very strict definition. Usually we will use the term ignorance, which means you don't know, but that's not a comprehensive term. For instance, I don't know how much money you keep in your wallet. But you can't say that's delusion. Nothing will change in my life without that knowledge. There are a lot of things in our life that we don't need to know. What the Buddha referred to as delusion or ignorance is when we don't know how and why things happen. Also please keep in mind the context within which the question was raised. During the Buddha's time, there were only three kinds of explanations. The first kind is that God creates everything. The second kind points to karma. The third kind is no reason at all. That's just the way it is. These are the three basic attitudes that people held on to in order to explain the world in ancient Indian society. I don't think any of these views make sense. So when Buddha became enlightened, he referred to these views as delusion and the people who hold these views as ignorant. Therefore, please understand when we say delusion, it refers to this view. What the Buddha pointed out is that everything happens with a cause and under a specific influence. We have to know the cause of a problem to solve it. For instance, You got married and love your partner very much but somehow you always get into fights with him or her lately, you have to ask why. In India, before the Buddha became enlightened, people would probably tell you that it's the Creator's will. The question is, why does God bother to do this? Some other guys might tell you that it's due to bad karma. But how do you know it's true? Another guy might describe the situation as that's just the way it is. Even though they all offered explanations, they didn't help much in reality. However, if you accept any of these theories, you probably would feel justified and reassured of yourself.

Now listen to me. The most precious asset of human beings is that we are able to find solutions for problems. We have so many great civilizations that have lasted for thousands of years. The best part of the history is the experience that we inherited from our ancestors to solve problems in life. At the same time, we have come up with our own innovations that shall be passed down to future generations. What's the point of a great civilization if we are not able to pass down effective methodologies that we have inherited and developed to capture all the good solutions in life? So what's wisdom? I would say wisdom is how to move through your predicaments in a calm and easy way. That's the Buddha's wisdom. Anything that happens comes with relevant influencing. We need to understand it comprehensively. The capability of finding a good solution comes with full comprehension.

In Asia, Buddhists have a saying "In the western culture, people believe in God but live the Dharma. In Asia, people believe in Buddhism but they pray to gods to take care of problems". That's why there are so many underdeveloped areas in Asia. The sutra cited here is the first round of the Four Noble Truths, where Buddha raised the big question of how suffering came about. This is the first step; the second step is to get rid of the obstacles according to the way they came along. In other words, first you have to identify the elements of suffering before proceeding to eradicate them. These are two issues of absolute importance. It's a procedure of why and how. That's why we have to refine tonight's topic. The cessation of suffering really involves the origination of suffering. We have to know the origination to tackle the issue of cessation. I have to make a point here that in the first round of Four Noble Truths, cessation means how. The content of cessation of suffering in the first round is to get rid of the elements that cause suffering. That's why the Buddha started with the question of why are there so many restraints in life. The answer is delusion and desire. Delusion means you have no idea how things happened. In Buddhism, relevant influencing mainly refers to difficult situations that sentient beings are trapped in. Ignorance is not being able to understand the situation. Please keep in mind that the point is if suffering comes around due to certain elements, it's destined to change under other circumstantial situations. Most people will feel stress and fear when they come across a difficult situation. But from a Buddhist's point of view, any predicament comes with its relevant influencing. As long as there is influencing, there's the ability to change. Therefore, the Buddhist way to deal with suffering is to change it. A Buddhist's attitude toward suffering is definitely not to bury your head in the sand. It's rather a positive and courageous way of dealing with things rather than to get away from the source of pain. I cannot emphasize this concept enough.

Please listen carefully. For a long time now, there has been a very odd attitude prevailing over the Buddhist population. The saying – "this too shall pass" indicates that all things are only temporary. "This too shall pass" leads to a comprised attitude toward life. The old Chinese saying, "once you kick the bucket, you are not going to bring anything with you" reminds people to let go. No matter what kind of life you're leading, this kind of attitude seems to focus only on the end. I have to tell you that this is not the original view from Buddhism. Why do I have to point this out? This kind of unprepared attitude is not going to serve any purpose. I have to emphasize this again. When a person trapped in a situation thinks that this too shall pass, he is not going to get anything done. Just think it over; when you take a stand like that, do you really plan to do anything?

The rightful Buddhist way to deal with any situation is to fully understand why it happened. You have to master your past in the present. It's not about what happens eventually, it's not about the future. That's not what the Buddha taught. Mastering your present moment enables you to react. The purpose of learning the Dharma is to help us go through life's issues more effectively. I'd like to remind you to be alert. If you believe in God, you probably often hear that God will take on your burdens. It's not like that in Buddhism. The Buddha will never take on your burdens. Think it over. You have learned the Dharma and you cannot ease your problems by giving it to the Buddha. If you don't study your present situation, how are you going to deal with it? Neither God nor Buddha is going to take care of all your problems. Again, if you don't have a strategy for yourself, what's the purpose of being a Buddhist? So you have to be very careful. Don't get wild ideas out of blue. Some people fancy the idea that wisdom will come along with deep meditation. That's not a very smart idea. But I must confess that for the first ten years of my Buddhist life, that was my idea of practicing too. I sat for nothing. Therefore, I sincerely advice you don't do that.

From this sutra, you can see that Buddha didn't just sit there waiting and doing nothing. We have to ask ourselves where the suffering is from and how did the problem start. Once you understand that, understanding is wisdom. Understanding will ease your suffering. Because now you know that as long as we can get rid of the cause, things will change. The understanding of origination leads to the cessation. Then it is qualified to be called wisdom. That's how you help yourself in daily life. That's the way to practice and to benefit you and others.

Now that we know why and how, next step is what. The correct way is to get rid of the cause. The practical procedures that we take is called path in Buddhism. And what are these procedures related to? It goes without saying that these procedures should go along with the reasons that caused the suffering to happen. This is the first round of the Four Noble Truths, the suffering, the origination of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the way leading to cessation of suffering. This is the first round and the focus is to understand. The focus is on understanding and there is no action yet. Of course, after you understand why and how, you need to act. The cessation of suffering we just mentioned is referring to understanding how. Action comes up in the second round. The focus in the second round is how to carry out your understanding methodically. This will be based on our understanding of the first round.

For example, in the first round, we get ill. What kind of illness is it? That is the suffering part. Then we should figure out the cause of illness; that would be the part of origination of suffering in the first round. The knowledge that the illness can be cured when the cause is eradicated is the part of cessation of suffering in the first round. Then comes the knowledge of healing, the procedure that you should take to heal is the way leading to the cessation in the first round. Once we know all four, we have turned the dharma wheel of Four Noble Truths for the first round. The foundation for healing is right here.

Then we start the healing. There are certain procedures that we're going to use. In the process of healing, what kind of attitude are we going to hold? First, of course we'd like to get cured as soon as possible. Act quickly. This is the suffering part of the second round. An urge to get cured as soon as possible is usually coupled with painstaking effort. We would work exuberantly to get rid of the elements that cause our illness. This is the origination of suffering part in the second round. To reach for the goal of health and to be able to remove all ill elements pushes us through the pain. This is the cessation of the suffering part in the second round. This whole process of urging, acting, accelerating is like a race against time. That's the second round of the Four Noble Truths, which focus on speedy and accurate action. The keyword in the second round is action. After we have done all we can do, the problem is solved. That's the third round. What's the content of the third round in Four Noble Truths? The suffering has been eased. That's the suffering part of the third round. The suffering has been abandoned. The second thing is that the origination of suffering has been eradicated. The third thing is that the cessation of suffering has been experienced. This is the cessation of suffering in the third round. The way leading to cessation of suffering has been developed. Suffering has been abandoned. The origination of suffering has been eradicated. The cessation of suffering has been experienced. The way leading to cessation of suffering has been developed and practiced. That's the third round of the Four Noble Truths. The accomplishment of these three rounds leads to liberation and supreme enlightenment. Therefore, I have to sincerely remind you again that Buddhism is not about a god who creates everything. It's not about karma from your previous life that determines who you are now. It's not about the world as just the way it is without any reason. Since you're smart enough to get into the Columbia University, I assume that you wouldn't agree with these views. These three views might provide some kind of self-consolation for your daily problems, but they won't get you out of it in reality.

Nor should we adopt another kind of inappropriate view. For instance, in Asia there is a method of meditation. You're taught to watch your thoughts during meditation. You see your thoughts rise and fall, come and go, up and down. You are taught to just watch your thoughts and disregard anything else. Then you'll realize that all thoughts will come to an end. No matter what you do, they will not stay. You don't think about them and they will pass. You pay a lot of attention to them and they will pass. No matter how hard you try, the thoughts will go away. Once you see through this, you are taught that this is how you let go of everything. Everything shall pass. When you realize that, your mind will emerge into serenity. Why? Because nothing is left.

Your mind will not struggle with the thoughts anymore. Because you know they will pass. I believe that some of you might have learned this kind of meditation. It's quite pristine. It's quite agreeable for many people. I have nothing against it if the purpose of your meditation is only for a calm mind. However, if you'd like to learn something that can be beneficial to your daily life, I would say this kind of meditation is not helpful. Let's put it this way. You may not always get along with a colleague, your family or neighbors. Will you always say this too shall pass? If you have a close relationship, the friction shouldn't last too long. If you have a bumpy relationship, everything is okay too since the conflict shall pass anyway. Eventually, whatever you do will be just bygones. Does that mean you can apply the same rule in your daily life? Just let any problem that comes up pass? Can you live like that? If you live like that, your colleague, your boss, your family or your neighbors might tell you to go away.

My friends, the key point is the Buddha did not teach that famous quote "this too shall pass". We all know that this too shall pass, however the crucial detail is how. It's the journey itself, not the end that counts. Another example, you have a baby, you feed him, you dress him, you may spend a lot of time with him or you may not have time to grow up with him but he'll grow up anyway. But would you use that excuse for not taking any responsibility at all?We all know that the child is going to grow up, but the way he is going to be brought up will make a big difference. Be sure not to treat your child with a negative and pessimistic attitude. Instead of letting go, we focus on what we have and why we have it at the present moment. We can only change courses if we know the reasons behind why we're on a particular path. No matter what religion you believe in or if you're simply interested in Buddhism, I'm sure it's because you are striving for a better life. If what you're learning is not practical, and can't make your life better, what's the purpose? Buddhism is famous for meditation. However, meditation is not about relaxing the body and mind. If you think that the Dharma is just about sitting and loosening up, then there must be some kind of misunderstanding. The sitting posture of meditation is just a convenient way to watch your mental and physical activities more closely. To try to figure out why things happened the way they did. That's the point. My friends, the Dharma is something that you can apply in your daily life. It's very practical. The Dharma that you have learned should help you be successful. That's the Dharma that works. That's why relevant influence is the core of Buddha's teaching.

Matthew asked me to talk about the cessation of suffering tonight. This topic really involves many different levels of teaching in Buddhism. At the earliest stage, it's about how to cease suffering. In the middle stage, it's about the effort that you put in to cease suffering. At the end it's about the accomplishment of ceasing suffering. Many of you have heard of the term nirvana or nibbana in Buddhism. Lots of people consider that as another quirky world. Some people in Buddhism even look down upon nirvana as something that is not compassionate.

As behavior without mercy. Many schools in Buddhism hold unto this kind of view. Actually the term nirvana refers to a solved problem. In other words, suffering has been ceased. Nirvana means the end of the suffering. It's not referring to emptiness or a state of nothingness. That's a misunderstanding. Some people believe that nirvana is a beautiful world in eternity. There are all kinds of odd explanations. The truth is, it is the end of suffering. Anyway, none of us are going to get to nirvana soon. Let's not waste too much time discussing that.

I just want to tell you how to learn the way to solve problems effectively. We shouldn't assume that things should come to an end. Therefore, don't bother to think too much about it now. In China, we have a saying that we all come to the end of our lives naked and empty handed as on the day we were born. Therefore, don't think too much. That's really a bad attitude. A very bad idea. It is true that we all come to the end of our lives naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born. But the meaning of life does not lie on the issue of being full-handed or empty-handed. The point is how you deal with life. Yes we'll all have to give up our wealth, fame, etc when it's time to go but that doesn't mean we can avoid facing reality. One of these days we're going to say farewell to our parents and children. But that doesn't mean we don't care anymore. It's exactly due to the eventual parting that the present moment is so precious for us to get along. The reason for a good relationship is not possession. Get along with each other so you won't feel regrets at the end. This will make our lives better and make it easier for others too. Also it will make the world a better place.

The most precious quality of a human being is that he is able to solve a problem and stop the suffering. Ceasing suffering is the whole point. Life is short. Yet there are many kinds of suffering. That's why it's such an important topic in our lives. Most people are trying to pursue happiness. They rather sweep the suffering under the rug. The truth is happiness is often coupled with suffering. If you don't know how to cease suffering, sitting and relax won't last too long. Sitting without thinking, you might feel less stress. But there is no such simple life. So please keep that in mind and don't waste your life. Don't make Buddhism the opium of your life. That's so sad. I've been a Buddhist for forty years. I've seen so many people use religion as an anesthesia. Even some so-called spiritual teachers provide meditation courses that can really numb your spirit. Buddhism bloomed in most Asian counties over the past hundred years. But the compromised way of teaching by some gurus didn't bring any positive impact toward the society. Society just became weaker and weaker. This is something we need to reflect upon. What's the correct way to learn the Buddha's teaching? What's the correct way to teach the Buddha's teaching? All these topics need to be examined again. You're the elite thinkers of society. I hope you will seriously think over what I just said. Don't make yourself a slave to religion. Become enlightened and stop the suffering. That's the way to do it. That is all for today. Thank you for coming.

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