From ‘Dukkha, Non-Self and the Teaching on the “Four Noble Truths” ‘, by Peter Harvey, in “A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy” (edited by Stephen Emmanuel)

2016-04-07-21-22-50
The view from Stable Cottage

 

“To unpack and translate “ ariya-sacca[commonly translated as ‘noble truth’], one needs to look first at the meanings of each word and then how they are most plausibly related. The term sacca (Skt satya ) is regularly used in the sense of “truth,” but, just as its adjectival use can mean either “true” or “real,” so its noun meaning can be either “truth” or “reality” – a genuinely real existent. The Sanskrit word satya is related to the word sat , “existence/being,” and both can have religious connotations.

[…]

In “ ariya-sacca ,” sacca is a noun, and there are three reasons why its meaning here cannot be “truth.” Firstly, it is said that the second ariya-sacca (the origination of dukkha ) is to be abandoned (SN.V.422): surely, one would not want to abandon a “truth,” but one might well want to abandon a problematic “reality.” Secondly, it is said that the Buddha understood “ ‘This is the dukkha ariya-sacca ,’ ” not “The ariya-sacca ‘This is dukkha ’ ” (SN.V.422), which would be the case if sacca here meant a truth whose content was expressed in the words in quote marks. Thirdly, in some suttas (e.g. SN.V.425), the first ariya-sacca is  explained by identifying it with a kind of existent (the bundles of grasping-fuel – see below), not by asserting a form of words that could be seen as a “truth.” In normal English usage, the only things that can be “truths” are propositions – i.e., something that is expressed in words (spoken, written, thought). It seems odd to describe an item in the world, whether physical or mental, as itself a “truth.” “Truth” (and falsity) potentially comes into it only when we try to give a correct description of what there is. Something said about dukkha , even just “this is dukkha ,” can be a “truth,” but dukkha itself can only be a true, genuine reality . 6 Hence “true reality” is here best for “ sacca ,” which still keeps a clear connection to “truth” as the other meaning of sacca . What of the term ariya ? As a noun, this means “noble one.”

[…]

In this context, ariya must mean “the spiritually ennobled,” and the compound “ ariya-sacca ” must mean “true reality for the spiritually ennobled.” […] “The Four True Realities for the Spiritually Ennobled (more briefly, Realities for the Noble Ones)”

[…]

The DCPS [Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta] says that the first of the four is “to be fully understood”; the second is “to be abandoned”; the third is “to be personally experienced”; the fourth is “to be developed/cultivated” ( bhā vitabba ). To “believe in” the ariya-saccas may play a part, but not the most important part. At the end of the DCPS, one of the Buddha ’ s hearers, Kondañña, becomes a Stream-enterer, yet he responds not with belief in the ariya-saccas but with a kind of transformed vision: the “stainless Dhamma -eye” arises, and he has insight into the nature of these four crucial realities and their relationship: that, as dukkha has an identifiable cause, it can be ended.”

[…]

(MN.III.169).

The word dukkha has been translated in many ways, with “suffering” as the most common, so that the above passage is generally translated, “Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering . . . ,” but “suffering” is an appropriate translation only in a general, inexact sense. The English word “suffering” is a noun (as in “his suffering is intense”), a present participle (as in “he is suffering from malaria”), or an adjective (as in “the suffering refugees”). If one translates “birth is suffering,” it does not make sense to take “suffering” as a noun, as it is not the case that birth, etc., are themselves forms of suffering – they can only be occasions for the arising of the experience of suffering, things which often entail it. Nor can “suffering” be here meant as a present participle – it is not something that birth is doing ; and as an adjective “suffering” applies only to people. However, in the passage on the fi rst True Reality, dukkha in “birth is dukkha . . . ” is an adjective – as shown by the fact that the grammatical gender changes according to the word it qualifi es – but is not applied to a person or to people. The best translation here is by the English adjective “painful,” which can apply to a range of things.

In fact, the basic everyday meaning of “ dukkha ” as a noun is “pain” as opposed to “pleasure” ( sukha ). These, with neither- dukkha -nor- sukha , are the three kinds of feeling (vedan ā ), with dukkha explained as covering both physical pain – dukkha in the narrowest sense (DN.II.306) – and unhappiness ( domanassa ), mental pain (SN.V.209–10).

[…]

It applies to all those things which are unpleasant, stressful, unsatisfactory, imperfect, and which we would like to be otherwise.”

[…]

Is Buddhism “pessimistic” in emphasizing the unpleasant aspects of life? Buddhism teaches that transcending the stress of life requires a fully realistic assessment of its pervasive presence. One must accept that one is “ill” if a cure is to be possible: ignoring the problem only makes it worse. It is certainly acknowledged that what is “painful” is not exclusively so (SN.III.68–70). The pleasant aspects of life are not denied, but it is emphasized that ignoring painful aspects leads to attachment, while calmly acknowledging the painful aspects have a purifying, liberating effect. Thus the Buddha says in respect of each of the fi ve aspects of body and mind:

The pleasure and gladness that arise in dependence on it: this is its attraction. That it is impermanent, painful ( dukkha ), and subject to change: this is its danger. The removal and abandonment of desire and attachment for it: this is its transcending.

(AN.I.258–9; BW.192)

Happiness is real enough, and the calm and joy engendered by the Buddhist path help  effectively to increase it, but Buddhism emphasizes that all forms of happiness (bar that of nirvāna ) are fleeting. Sooner or later, they slip through one’s fingers and can leave an aftertaste of loss and longing. In this way, even happiness is to be seen as dukkha .

[…]

viññana (Skt vijñā na ), “(discriminative) consciousness” […]also known as citta , the central focus of personality which can be seen as “mind,” “heart,” or “thought.” This is essentially a “mind set” or “mentality,” […] Its form at any moment is set up by the other mental skhandhas , but in turn it goes on to determine their pattern of arising, in a process of constant interaction.

[…]

persistent character traits are due merely to the repeated occurrence of certain cittas , or “mind-sets.” The citta as a whole is sometimes talked of as an (empirical) “self ” (e.g., Dhp.160; cf. 35), but while such character traits may be long-lasting, they can and do change, and are thus impermanent, and so “non-Self,” insubstantial. A “person” is a collection of rapidly changing and interacting mental and physical processes, with character patterns reoccurring over time. Only partial control can be exercised over these processes; so they often change in undesired ways, leading to suffering. Impermanent, they cannot be a permanent Self. Being “painful,” they cannot be a true, autonomous “I,” which would contain nothing that was out of harmony with itself.”

[…]

While nirvāna is beyond change and suffering, it has nothing in it which could support the feeling of I-ness; for this can arise only with respect to the khandhas , and it is not even a truly valid feeling here (DN.II.66–8; Harvey 1995 , 31–3). That said, it should be noted that, while “all dhammas are anattā ” – “everything is non-Self ” – clearly implies that there is no Self, the word anattā does not itself mean “no-Self ” – i.e., does not itself mean “there is no Self.” It simply means that what it applies to is not a Self or what pertains to it. Moreover, the non-Self teaching is not in itself a denial of the existence of a permanent self; it is primarily a practical teaching aimed at the overcoming of grasping. Indeed, when asked directly if “self ” (in an unspecified sense) exists or not, the Buddha was silent, as he did not want either to affirm a permanent Self or to confuse his questioner by not accepting self in any sense (SN.IV.400–1). A philosophical denial of “Self ” is just a view, a theory, which may be agreed with or not. It does not necessarily get one actually to examine all the things with which one actually does identify, consciously or unconsciously, as Self or essentially “mine.” This examination, in a calm, meditative context, is what the “non-Self” teaching aims at. It is not so much a conceptual idea as something to be done , applied to actual experience, so that the meditator actually sees that “ all dhammas are non-Self.”

A mere philosophical denial does not encourage this, and may actually mean that a person sees no need for it. While the suttas have no place for a metaphysical Self, seeing things as non-Self is clearly regarded as playing a vital soteriological role. The concept of “Self ” and the associated deep-rooted feeling of “I am” are utilized for a spiritual end. The non-Self teaching can in fact be seen as a brilliant device which uses a deep-seated human aspiration, ultimately illusory , to overcome the negative products of such an illusion. Identification, whether conscious or unconscious, with something as “what I truly and permanently am,” or as inherently “mine,” is a source of grasping or attachment; such attachment leads to frustration and a sense of loss when what one identifies with changes and becomes other than what one desires. The deep-rooted idea of “Self,” though, is not to be attacked, but used as a measuring-rod against which all phenomena should be compared, so as to see them as falling short of the perfections implied in the idea of Self. This is to be done through a rigorous experiential examination of the phenomena that we do identify with as “Self,” “I,” or “mine”: as each of these is examined, but is seen actually to be non-Self, falling short of the ideal, the intended result is that one should let go of any attachment to such a thing. In doing this, a person finally comes to see everything as non-Self, thereby destroying all attachment and attaining nirvāna . In this process, it is not necessary to give any philosophical “denial” of Self; the idea simply withers away, as it is seen that no actual instance of such a thing can be found anywhere (MN.I.138; SB.161–5).

Overall, it can be said that: (i) in the changing, empirical self, no permanent Self can be found; (ii) yet one of the constructing activities is the “I am conceit” – the gut feeling or attitude that one is or has a real Self, a substantial I, expressed in self-preoccupation, self-importance, and ego-feelings; (iii) as a person develops spiritually, their empirical self becomes stronger as they become more centered, calm, aware, and open; (iv) in this process, awareness of all the factors of personality as non-Self undermines grasping, and so makes a person calmer and stronger; (v) at the pinnacle of spiritual development, the liberated person is free of all the causes of dukkha , and thus lacks any “I am” conceit, yet has a mahattā , “great (empirical) self ” (It.28–9; Harvey 1995 , 55–8): they are strong, spiritually developed people.

[…]

Now this , monks, for the spiritually ennobled, is the originating-of-the-painful ( dukkhasamudaya) true reality. It is this craving ( tan h ā ; Skt trsnā ) which leads to renewed being, accompanied by delight and attachment, seeking delight now here, now there; that is, craving for sense-pleasures, craving for being, craving for non-existence.

So the key origin or cause of dukkha is “ ta_ h ā .” This literally means “thirst” and clearly refers to demanding, clinging desires which are ever on the lookout for gratifi cation, “now here, now there,” in the changing, unreliable world, demanding that things be like this . . . and not like that. . . . It contains an element of psychological compulsion, a driven restlessness ever on the lookout for new objects on which to focus: I want , I want more, I want different. This propels people into situations which open them to pain, disquiet, and upset. We like things to be permanent, lasting, reliable, happy, controllable, and belonging to us. Because of such longings, we tend to look on the world as if it were like this, in spite of the fact that we are repeatedly reminded it is not.

We are good at ignoring realities: spiritual ignorance. Thus arise what are called the “inversions” ( vipallā sa ; Skt viparyā sa ) of mind, of perception or view: looking on what is impermanent as if it were permanent; looking on what is dukkha as if it were happiness, or happiness-inducing”

[…]

“Besides craving, another important cause of dukkha is “views” ( ditthi )

[…]

“A further summary of the causes of dukkha is “attachment”

[…]

the ending of thirst for the “next thing,” so as to give full attention to what is here, now; abandoning attachments to past, present, or future; freedom that comes from contentment; not relying on craving so that the mind does not fixate on anything, adhering to it, roosting there. When craving and other related causes thus come to an end, dukkha ceases. This is equivalent to nirvān a (P. nibbāna ), also known as the “unconditioned” or “unconstructed” (Skt asaskta ; SN.IV.360–73), the ultimate goal of Buddhism (Collins 1982 ). As an initial spur to striving for nirvāna , craving for it may play a role (AN.II.145; Webster 2005b , 134–5), but this helps in the overcoming of other cravings, is generally replaced by a wholesome aspiration, and is completely eradicated in the full experience of nirvāna : nirvāna is attained only when there is total non-attachment and letting go.

Nirvāna literally means “extinction” or “quenching,” being the word used for the “extinction” of a fi re. The “fi res” of which nirvā_ a is the extinction are described in the “Fire sermon” (SN.IV.19–20; BW.346; SB.222–4). This teaches that everything internal and external to a person is “burning” with the “fi res” of attachment, hatred, and delusion and of birth, aging, and death.

[…]

When the Buddha was asked if an enlightened person, after death, “is,” “is not,” both or neither of these, he set the questions aside as irrelevant to the spiritual quest, and as all infected with the idea of Self. There has been much speculation on what the Buddha ’ s silence on this matter might imply (Harvey 1995 , 208–10, 239–45; 2013 , 78–80).

[…]

One who adds mental pain in response to physical pain is said to be like a person shot with one arrow then being shot with a second arrow (SN.IV.208–9). Indeed, any Noble person, from a Stream-enterer upwards, is not “afflicted in mind” when “afflicted in body.” This is because they are free of Self-identity view – they do not relate to any of the khandhas as Self or as related to Self – so undesired change in any of the khandhas (whether bodily or mental ones) does not lead to experiencing “sorrow, lamentation, pain, unhappiness and distress” (SN.III.2–4).

[…]

The arahat Sāriputta says that “There is nothing in the world through the change and alteration of which sorrow, lamentation, pain, unhappiness and distress might arise in me,” even if such change was the death of his teacher, the Buddha – though he would acknowledge the loss of a source of welfare for the world (SN.II.274). Accordingly, it is said that, when the Buddha died, those disciples who were not arahats grieved, while the arahats “endured mindfully and clearly aware, saying, ‘All conditioned things are impermanent – what is the use of this?’ ” (DN.II.158). “

From ‘Dukkha, Non-Self and the Teaching on the “Four Noble Truths” ‘, by Peter Harvey, in “A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy” (edited by Stephen Emmanuel)

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