Monday, March 22, 2010

Reconstructing the Four Noble Truths

I have been spending time digesting revolutionary insights shared by Stephen Batchelor during his day-long at IMC, this last Saturday. Stephen was promoting his new book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. The topic for his talk, was "Deconstructing Buddhism", and deconstructing, he certainly did, from questioning the legitimacy of rebirth concept, to assigning new meaning to the Four Noble Truths. I am most interested in the latter, as it has some important practical implications for practice. Here are my notes:

Stephen Batchelor goes back to original text of Buddha's First Discourse, on the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma - SN 56:11: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta; V 420-24 - and takes a fresh look at the Buddha's expose of what awakening means, and what the Four Noble Truths entail, and how they relate to the Eightfold Path. He also uses the story of the Ancient City - SN 12:65; II 104-7 - to further make his point.

Starting with concluding paragraph of first discourse:

"So long, monks as my knowledge and vision was not entirely clear, about the twelve aspects of the Four Noble Truths, or these Four Noble Truths, I did not claim to have had a peerless awakening in this world with its humans and celestials, its gods and devils, its ascetics and priests. Only when my knowledge and vision were entirely clear in all these ways, did I claim to have had such awakening."

Stephen makes point that awakening is not distinct point in time, nor is it about accessing universal truth, or ultimate reality, but rather a process, that is described in very pragmatic fashion, including a series of tasks (twelve relating to four noble truths). 

First Discourse deserves to be read over and over again, as it contains in one page, essential teachings of the Buddha, who states:
  1. I have awakened to middle path, unlike two dead ends (not "extremes" as is often referred to) of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
  2. Path is the Eightfold Path
  3. These are the Four Noble Truths
  4. This is how to practice the Four Noble Truths, including specific tasks, defined as 12 aspects, three for each of four truths.
  5. This is what I mean by awakening.
Further explanation can be gained from Ancient City story:

"Suppose, monks, a man wandering through a forest would see an ancient path, an ancient road traveled upon by people in the past. he would follow it and would see an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Then the man would inform the king or a royal minister: 'Sire, know what while wandering through the forest I saw an ancient path, an ancient road traveled upon by people in the past. I followed it and saw an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Renovate that city, sire!' Then the king or the royal minister would renovate the city, and some time later that city would become successful and prosperous, well populated, filled with people, attained to growth and expansion.
"So too, monks, I saw the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road? It is just this Noble EIghtfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. I followed that path and by doing so I have directly known aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading its cessation. I have directly known birth . . . existence . . . clinging . . . craving . . . feeling . . . contact . . . the six sense bases . . . name-and-form . . . consciousness . . . volitional formations, their origin, their cessation, and the way leading to their cessation. Having directly known them, I have explained them to the monks, the nuns, the male lay followers, and the female lay followers. This spiritual life, monks, has become successful and prosperous, extended, popular, widespread, well proclaimed among devas and humans."

Metaphor is not just about the path as Eightfold Path, but more importantly about what it leads to, the city that can be restored, or the Four Noble Truths. Viewed in that way, the Four Noble Truths cease to signify the way to the end of suffering, as per traditional model, but are instead representative of another kind of civilization, a new way of life.

Rather than adopting linear medical analogy of effect - cause - effect - cause, that is usually used to interpret Four Noble Truths, Stephen Batchelor opts for a circular loop model, where Eightfold Path leads to Four Noble Truths, that in turns lead to Eightfold Path, in a never ending, continually unfolding process. He sees those teachings as primarily therapeutic, pragmatic instructions to guide us towards better way of living.

Then comes what I consider as Stephen Batchelor's major contribution . . .

Unlike traditional dogma, that asserts that craving is the source of suffering, Stephen Batchelor offers  a radically different view of the Four Noble Truths:

1) All of life is suffering, due to its inherently unreliable, always changing, and tragic nature. We are to fully know life's suffering, as a precondition for our liberation. This can only be accomplished through concentrated attention, moment to moment, deeply feeling the fabric of existence, starting with breath to ground us. So that we can transform our habitual distaste for suffering, into accepting it fully, and therefore radically change the way we are with ourselves, and others.

2) Craving is the effect of suffering, not its cause. Because of dukkha, and five aggregates coming into contact with dukkha, we are naturally moved to look for ways to escape present unpleasantness. We want to get this to get rid of that. Hence craving, with its attendant army of unwholesome states, symbolized by Mara. Even Buddha, after he had conquered power of Mara, kept being confronted with Mara throughout his life. We are to let go of our craving, abandoning its hold on us, even for discrete moments. We turn away from our habitual surface preoccupation with sense gratification, to face the miracle of life and the reality of death. We cease to be victims of our attachments and fears. That can be accomplished through mindfulness.

3) Next comes the cessation of craving, not suffering. Buddha knew tremendous suffering throughout his life, even after he got enlightened. The traditional distinction between pain and added suffering from clinging is really an artificial one. More relevant goal is not to not suffer, but rather to lead flourishing life. We are to experience life free from craving. That is true liberation, at which point the possibility of another way of life opens up. To be unconditioned means to not be conditioned by the three poisons of  greed, hate, and delusion. Leading us to be free to enter the stream.

4) Next is the Eightfold Path, in which we engage the world in a meaningful way. This is a thread that has never been really developed under the traditional dogma. It says, we have the capacity to be awakened at every moment. Once craving is let go of, and we have successfully conquered Mara, we are no longer blocked from experiencing the path. We are to cultivate the path. We become stream-enterer. We become free from morality as just a set of rules. We become independent, autonomous, and free according to light shining within us. It is an affirmation of our transformation, of what really matters to us in our lives, of what it means to be fully awake.

Four actions, descriptive of a single, unified process, each one a precondition for the next one.

I don't know about you, but this totally makes sense. Thank you Stephen, for your courage, and for being a true disciple of the Buddha, always questioning, not afraid to challenge the religious establishment.


  1. This is very interesting. I'm wondering about the statement 'all of life is suffering' though. Isn't that placing a permanent 'condition' on life..or label, such as 'good' or 'bad?' Life is certainly impermanent....that definitely seems to be the case, but I'm wondering if all life has to be suffering.

  2. Wow, this is really great. Thanks for putting it so succinctly. Will have to check out that book...

  3. Nate, thanks for your comment. Actually, I think Stephen Batchelor more precisely said, life is dukkha, with dukkha encompassing unsatisfactory elements of suffering, impermanence, unreliability, etc.

  4. Ah! Yes, I think I can see that. Again, this is very interesting and I think it's great to see different interpretations of teachings. There's certainly no 'one right answer.' :)

  5. Thanks for taking the time to share that (and for obviously taking very good notes). There is much to consider here, but it could well be quite liberating. Wow!

  6. Thanks Michael for taking the time to discover. I agree with you, it is well worth pondering, as it is an interpretation that more closely matches the reality of one's human experience - at least for me!

  7. Terrific post! I only recently came across Batchelor's talks at DharmaSeed, and I have to say his interpretation of Buddhism in general and the Dharma in particular makes the most sense to me. Your second point (Craving is the effect of suffering) is really an eye opener and seems to line up with my own experience. Wow, most of us have the logic of suffering and craving the other way round!

  8. heard his talks and wanted to listen again, but your blog really got the main points i was looking to revisit. it seems to me that stephen is saying that the end of craving is a process. can we really ever just end craving? cultivating attention and using this capacity to be awake in each moment is the work here. the more we do it, the more we are awake. i guess some could get there.

  9. Thanks Vishal, Thanks Craig. I am very glad you found this post helpful. I certainly enjoyed writing it, as it helped me articulate some of the points that were not yet clear to me. Certainly well worth the effort, as we are talking no less than getting to the root of suffering here!

  10. I stumbled on your post and was delighted to find the dharma talks Batchelor gave available online! You can find all four here: