Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The Four Noble Truths in Context
On Sunday, March 10, 2024, after meditation, we watched a talk The Four Noble Truths in Context from Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu.

In this talk, aimed at practitioners who have previously encountered the Four Noble Truths, Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu starts by speaking on some misconceptions about the Truths which he has observed in academics, then goes on to speak in depth about the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of dukkha (usually translated as “suffering”).

The Four Noble Truths are foundational to the Buddha’s teachings. Briefly, they are:

  • The existence of dukkha, or suffering
  • The cause of suffering, which is clinging (or “attachment”, or “thirst”)
  • The possibility of the end of suffering, or nirvana
  • The way to bring about the end of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path

As Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says, each Truth has an associated duty:

  • We must comprehend the truth of suffering
  • We must abandon the cause of suffering
  • We must realize the end of suffering
  • We must develop the path to the end of suffering

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu introduces his talk by speaking about what he sees as various scholarly misunderstandings of the Four Noble Truths. As he says, “nobody can agree on anything except the fact that there are four of them”. This introduction is primarily a closer look at the terms which are translated as “noble” and “truth” in English. The word “truth” can be confusing if understood as referring to a statement about facts. However, the Buddha used “truth” to refer both to statements about facts and to the facts themselves. So the “truth of suffering” is the reality of suffering, not a statement about suffering. “Noble”, meanwhile, can have several different meanings which can apply here. In Pali, it can mean something which is true for everyone, which is the case for the Four Noble Truths. One can also see the word “Noble” here as meaning “ennobling”, or “the most important”.

Next, Ṭhānissaro says that, although in modern times the teaching of Buddhism often starts by explaining the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha very rarely started his own teachings this way. Instead, he started with something we refer to as the “graduated discourses”. This was never written down, perhaps because it was customized for every listener. What we know about it, is that it started with topics that listeners would be familiar with, to establish trust in the Buddha. He would speak about the feelings associated with generosity, and with acting virtuous. He would establish that these acts feel good, but also lead eventually to a rebirth in the heavens. But then, in heaven, one develops bad habits which eventually lead to a lesser rebirth, starting the cycle again. Once a listener starts to see this cycle, the Buddha could introduce the Four Noble Truths.

The first Noble Truth is the truth of dukkha. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu thinks this is best translated as pain, stress, or suffering, and doesn’t like the common translation of it as “unsatisfactoriness”. The Buddha does give concrete examples of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, and death is dukkha. Not getting what you want is dukkha. Having to be with what you don’t like is dukkha. Sorrow, distress, and despair are dukkha.

Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu goes further and identifies suffering (dukkha) as clinging, which can also be translated as “feeding”. There are five categories (skandhas in Sanskrit, khandhas in Pāḷi, often translated as “aggregates”) of material and mental factors that are the focus for clinging. And there are four different ways of clinging to each of them. The duty of the first Noble Truth is to comprehend that each of these combinations is suffering.

After the talk, one of the points which came up in the group’s discussion was that the talk was a bit confusing, and was not aimed at beginners. We also discussed the teacher’s claim that the common definition of dukkha as “unsatisfactoriness” is (for him) “unsatisfactory”. It wasn’t entirely clear what he meant by that. Finally, it seems that many of us happened to be thinking of pizza even before Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu used an example of eating pizza in a discussion about clinging to sensuality. An apt example!

Happy Learning!


From the Teachers: The First of The Four Noble Truths

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The Four Noble Truths in Context” by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu*


* Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) is an American Buddhist monk of the Kammatthana (Thai Forest) Tradition. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1971 with a degree in European Intellectual History, he traveled to Thailand, where he studied meditation under Ajaan Fuang Jotiko, himself a student of the late Ajaan Lee. He ordained in 1976 and lived at Wat Dhammasathit, where he remained following his teacher’s death in 1986. In 1991 he traveled to the hills of San Diego County, USA, where he helped Ajaan Suwat Suvaco establish Metta Forest Monastery (Wat Mettavanaram). He was made abbot of the Monastery in 1993.