The understanding of the unsatisfactoriness of samsara is the first of a four-fold teaching given by Shakyamuni Buddha called the Dharmachakra-parvatana Sutra, the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This teaching is usually called The Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth is the suffering of samsara. The second is that this suffering has a cause that can be identified and understood. The third is the possibility of the cessation of the experience of suffering. The fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path which can be followed to realise the cessation of suffering. This path is called The Noble Eightfold Path. When approached from the perspective of the play of emptiness and form, this fundamental teaching can be viewed in some depth and with some subtlety. When ‘suffering’ is understood in the more subtle sense of the experience of dissatisfaction—as an illusion created by duality—the three truths that follow can be understood at a deeper level as well.
Shakyamuni Buddha pointed out that if we have true understanding, each truth suggests the subsequent truth to us. If we are able to gain a sense of the hollowness of success and the illusory nature of satisfaction in the dualistic, relative terms of cyclic existence, we can discover the second Noble Truth as a natural outcome. It will naturally occur to us that there must be a cause for this feeling of dissatisfaction. Each truth will naturally progress from the previous one in this way.
There is a tremendously powerful message within The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path, which the Ulukhamukha Sutra presents as a pointing-out instruction. Reflecting on this takes us far beyond the victimised sense of suffering and the way which passes beyond suffering. The Four Noble Truths can be commonly misunderstood as indicating that release from dukkha lies beyond the body and the physical world; but the Ulukhamukha Sutra completely reverses this misconception, and lays open the vast possibility that is inherent in every aspect of every moment of existence.
The truth of the cause of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is suggested to us through understanding the form and emptiness of satisfaction. We see that satisfaction is short-lived and dependent on view and circumstances, and therefore empty as well as having form. We realise that there is something about the way in which we view and experience phenomena that causes our experience of unsatisfactoriness.
In the Sutric texts, the causes of the experience of unsatisfactoriness are said to be karma and klésha2. As was discussed in detail in the previous chapter, we remember here that karma is described as cause and effect, which means that through distorted perception our response creates the cyclic patterns of our neurotic conditioning.
Klésha are the perceptual distortions of attraction, aversion, and indifference which maintain the cyclic patterns of our neuroses. Klésha is the grasping of form and rejection of emptiness. We experience dukkha because we divide form and emptiness. Once we realise that we create our own unsatisfactoriness through dualistic preconception, the possibility suggests itself of allowing our view to change. We realise that we can let go of creating dissatisfaction.
The cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is the third Noble Truth. It is the truth that if there is a cause of dukkha, then there must be a way to stop creating the cause of dukkha. We can cut the cause at the root. We actively create samsara by continually defining our existence according to our need for form. We refuse to let the ebb and flow of our existence be as it is. Once we understand the cause of dissatisfaction, we realise we can simply stop ‘doing’ samsara. We discover that we can allow a view and experience to emerge in which form and emptiness define each other. This completely alters our perception of pleasure. Within the non-dual perspective of Dzogchen, the temporary nature of pleasure ceases to be regarded as problematic. Its temporary nature is simply its empty quality. We do not have to renounce appreciation of pleasure simply because it manifests as form and emptiness. Similarly, we recognise that our experience of pain is referential and also empty. Pain does not need to be feared because of its form quality.
Understanding the possibility of this view and experience inspires confidence that there is a state which can be attained where we are able to exist without the distorted perceptions of dualism. We can exist as happy and satisfied beings.
We may be fortunate enough to meet Lamas who appear to experience their lives as satisfactory whatever occurs; and who direct us toward the fact that our own enlightenment sparkles through the fabric of our self-created conditioning. We are all beginninglessly enlightened, and because of this, our own non-dual state points to itself through the experience of dukkha. Through understanding that unsatisfactoriness is something we create, we can undermine our own creation. We can discover the function and value of spiritual practice. In fact, not to practice becomes madness.
If you realised you were drowning – would you refuse to accept a lifeline? If you realised you were sick – would you reject life-saving medicine?
The fourth Noble Truth is the path that leads to the cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness. Having recognised our experience of dissatisfaction, having understood that we create the cause through duality, and having realised we can cease to create this cause, we can approach the method of practice. The method of practice described in The Four Noble Truths is The Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path is a deep and detailed teaching that can be viewed in many ways. It is a discourse on method. The eight steps are: right view or understanding; right intention or motivation; right speech or communication; right action or conduct; right vocation or livelihood; right effort; right attention or mindfulness; right presence or concentration. To fully discuss this path would be a book in itself, but I will describe it in a little detail in the next chapter. It will be viewed from the perspective of engaging in practice because of the understanding of the need for spiritual activity gained through an understanding of The Four Thoughts.
3. klesha (Sanskrit): nyon-mong (nyon mongs) (Tibetan), dualistic distortion, neurosis