The Four Noble Truths

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Two schools, Theravada and Mahayana, and their teachings (the Four Noble Truths) are the essence or bottom line of Buddhism. If you understand all about the Four Noble Truths and what the Four Noble Truths teach, it's very possible you will have a clear understanding of what Buddha teaches.


There's more to do in our lives than simply struggle for survival. If we spend our lives searching for temporary satisfactions, then our human life is almost the same as creatures' lives. If we misuse our human life and human capacity by only looking for material satisfaction, ignoring our inner world of consciousness, then we will live and die like other creatures.

Buddhists see this as unfortunate. Buddhism teaches there is more to life than simply struggling for day-to-day survival. Our studies and practice can bring inner peace. That real peace or inner happiness starts in our mind, not with material objects. Material objects can become a source of pain and suffering based on the way we perceive them.

And if we perceive the physical world with a deluded mind, the world becomes a source of pain and suffering.

The first two Truths deal with suffering. The first Truth establishes the truth of suffering, the second the origin of the cause of suffering.

The Truth of Suffering

The Truth of Suffering is very important to understand. We're not really talking about physical pain and emotional suffering. We're talking about deeper levels, not obvious to the ordinary mind.

The first Truth identifies three kinds of suffering: the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and the suffering of pervasive conditioning.

The suffering of suffering refers to all kinds of unpleasant experiences associated with the physical body and with the mind that ordinary beings see as undesirable.

The suffering of change and the suffering of pervasive conditioning are difficult to understand because many of us misinterpret them not as pain, but as joy or pleasure. Much of our daily emotional pain comes from not recognizing pleasures as sources of pain.

All our pleasurable experiences are sufferings of change. All sensory experiences, all sensual pleasures are sufferings of change. To our ordinary mind, pleasurable experiences seem real joy or happiness. So this is difficult for us to accept.

But, if we analyze all our pleasurable experiences, we see they comply with the nature of suffering in two ways. All pleasurable experiences give us instant gratification, but the same satisfactions then cause us trouble. That's because the same satisfactions turn into pain or the cause of new suffering. Sooner or later the same satisfactions cause a craving for more, and the more we enjoy, the less pleasurable the pleasure becomes. We go, go, go, and at the end, what? Dissatisfaction. Disappointment. Confusion.

So we call this the suffering of change because the pleasure never lasts long and never meets our expectations. We always think complete satisfaction can be attained when we reach the object of our desire. We think this is how we will be fulfilled. But attaining the object of our desire will leave us looking for more.

All our pleasurable experiences are no more than scratching itchy skin. When we first scratch an itch, there is a little bit of joy, definitely. To enjoy that little bit of joy, then to look for more itchy skin is ridiculous. But that's how we experience pleasure, and it's really silly.

These pleasurable experiences are seen as pleasurable because, when we experience the pleasure, for a brief moment we are not in intense suffering. That's all. That's it. Then, a new problem comes.

If we carefully analyze this, we can come to the conclusion that pleasurable experiences are temporary. And they leave us more dissatisfied. Disappointment and frustration arrive because the more we enjoy, the less pleasurable our pleasure becomes.

When that happens, whom do we blame? We blame others. In reality, this or that person, this or that object is not the cause of the problem. The main problem comes from our mind.

We have over-expectations, which people cannot meet. Since our expectations go beyond what's possible, the real problem is our own unrealistic expectations. First, our mind creates something. Then our mind projects this creation on external things or objects, and our projection becomes real to us. If our projection is realized in an attractive way, we become attached; if our projection is realized in an unpleasant or unattractive way, we become repulsed. So our mind is attracted to or repulsed by its own creations.

We are victims of our own minds. We are victims of our own creations.

Question: Does form really exist?

Answer: Form exists to the ordinary mind. If we go deeper, the cup becomes unfindable. First, we look at the cup, then molecules or color or shape. What is really left in that object that exists as cup? Nothing is there. That very inability to find a cup, that undetectability is called emptiness.

The Truth of Suffering (continued)

Understanding that all pleasurable experiences are a source of frustration makes sense of Buddha saying, "Life is suffering." Many people, when they hear, "Life is suffering," think that Buddhism is depressing or negative. But, if we think how pleasurable experiences become frustrating and create frustration, confusion, and disappointment, it is possible to make sense of Buddha saying, "Life is suffering."

There are other kinds of suffering: the suffering of not getting what we are looking for, the suffering of getting what we are looking for; the suffering of too much togetherness, the suffering of too much loneliness; the suffering of changing one's status.

We suffer when things change. And we have no guarantee of health, of good relationships with others, of power, of material possessions. We always live with some form of insecurity, and we always have to look for some form of external protection.

One of the obvious signs of an unenlightened being is insecurity and the need to look for protection from the physical world. In brief, I could say what we are looking for from the physical world and what we get don't match. This big mismatch is a source of pain. If we see this, the suffering of change makes sense. Compare this to your day-to-day life, and you'll see.

In Buddhism, you learn there is a cure. If there were no cure, simply thinking about this would bring additional pain. Our purpose is to understand there is a real cure.

First, think about what really went wrong in us so that we have problems, where things are twisted. Second, ask how we twist things. Third, ask how we distort things and events, how we try to explain things to ourselves, but explain incorrectly.

We don't explain reality properly. We keep trying to put it together in the way we want to see things, in the way we wish things to be. After studying these things, we can understand what reality is and in what ways we magnify, making things and events bigger and nastier and uglier. We do this to reality until our perceptions are skewed and our experiences are affected, and then we ask others to share our problems.

Here is the Buddhist understanding of psychology, of valid and invalid perceptions and what makes perceptions valid or invalid. When a perception becomes invalid, mistaken in regards to what is actual, we must understand that affects our personal experiences.

We need to understand this not only intellectually but experientially. That understanding will only come to us through meditation practice.

  1. We must understand the nature of mind. What is the mind or perception or consciousness? Is it just brain waves? Or is consciousness separate from brain waves?

  2. How does the mind function? Can the mind function without body functions?

  3. How does the mind create through its thought processes? We need to understand how and in what way the mind creates and why the mind creates. We are always thinking. There is almost no moment in time when the mind is not creating. According to the Abhidharmakosha and Buddhist psychology, the mind is always thinking because it is always looking for full satisfaction. If our mind was somehow satisfied or happy, there would be no need to think. The more dissatisfied we are, the more we think. We're always thinking, thinking about our unhappiness until we are exhausted.

  4. In what way does the mind create and in what form do these creations become real?

  5. Once these creations become real, how does this affect our personal experience?

  6. Once our creations have affected our personal experience, how does this interfere with our relationship with the rest of the world?

According to Buddhism, every phenomenon has a unique freshness. Our ordinary mind cannot experience that unique freshness. We cannot experience that unique freshness because the moment we see something we automatically put into play our conceptual elaborations. Our conceptual elaborations make it impossible to see things fresh because the moment we come into contact with something, our elaborations are already there.

We need to enhance the capacity of our mind to experience things as they really are without the interference of our thought processes. Our thought processes always go beyond what an object is. Or we underestimate.

Question: What about expectations from prior experiences that we think are reasonable because that's the way reality works?

Question: What's the line between useful memory and unrealistic expectations?

Answer: Memory in the convention sense is useful to prevent bad consequences and negative results. But, at the same time, if we're trying to know based on past experiences, we're already distorting what the experience is this time. If we're seeing based on past experiences, we can't see something brand new. We say, "Oh, I saw this yesterday," but it makes no difference what you saw yesterday; this is today. Yesterday, you became angry; today you see the same person and bring your anger back. Then it's difficult to give someone forgiveness and accept an apology.

Question: Is the most mysterious step between thinking and thinking our thoughts are real?

Answer: We should ask how our mind makes thoughts real. When you're in a deep sleep, and you have a dream, a dream dog becomes a real dog to you. If that dream dog bites you, you do not make a distinction between a dream dog and a real dog. Things become real to us because our mind perceives this object or that object real based on its appearance. For example, when there's not enough light to see things clearly, our mind applies generic images. You are walking in an area and carrying information you have heard about this area, "This area is dangerous for snakes. This person got bitten; that person got bitten." At that very moment, you see a rope, curved like a snake. You're confused. You have the generic image. You have the stories. There is not enough light. The rope becomes a real snake to you. You see the rope as a snake purely based on appearances. You are unable to see reality as it is.

Question: What is the relationship between thought and the elements of the fundamental world?

Answer: Thought has no role in creating the elements of the fundamental world.

Question: Where did the elements come from?

Answer: The elements are not created by our mind. The wetness of water, the hotness of fire are not created by our mind. Their limitations are created by our mind. An example: Our mind says, "This is a water glass, and this is a wine glass." In 1994, when I was on tour, we traveled the country and stayed in different families' houses. Their kitchens would have many things. Some of my friends would grab a glass to drink water, and our host would be a little bit annoyed because he had applied limitations to the wine glass. His mind made the glass fit only to drink wine, and he would be upset. That is a limitation created by our mind. Every phenomena is limited by us. According to the Mind Only or Cittamatra school, you are right. That school says the mind is the Creator, and all things are our minds' creations. Then the question is, "Who created the mind?" If mind creates mind, creator and creation are the same; action and agent become one. That is a logical contradiction.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, August 3, 2001.

The Four Noble Truths: A Review

I will repeat a little bit.

The first of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering. Many of our human problems arise from the way we deny the facts of life or reality. We deny the impermanent nature of our life or reality. We knowingly and unknowingly deny the reality of constant change.

We have expectations. We have expectations about our health, our friendships, everything. When our expectations are not matched, we have problems.

Primarily, there are three types of suffering. The suffering of suffering. The suffering of suffering describes physical and emotional discomfort. Physical and emotional pain are suffering; this kind of suffering is obvious to us.

The suffering of change. This includes all our sensory experiences, our sensual pleasures. Pleasure, in fact, is not real joy, but merely a brief moment when we aren’t experiencing intense suffering. And sensory pleasure leads to more problems. The more we enjoy, the more we need. We try to make the pleasure bigger and bigger, but in the end, we are frustrated, and the pleasure disappears. This is not really pleasure, so we call this "the suffering of change."

The suffering of pervasive conditioning. From the moment of birth, we are subject to sickness, aging and death. Everyone’s life is subject to these changes in well-being. This is called the suffering of pervasive conditioning.

Animals understand, and try to avoid, the suffering of suffering. The second type, the suffering of change, they cannot perceive. They do not have the capacity to understand this as suffering. Initially, humans have problems understanding this, too. Contemplation and analysis are required. Understanding comes when your life experiences match your intellectual understanding. Then you see all your sensory pleasures are not really pleasure.

Ancient non-Buddhist schools understood pleasure was not real happiness, but believed that the solution was to go into deep samadhi and remain for eons. Unfortunately, when you return, the problems return.

In the meditative state you can have joy and confuse that with liberation. But when you come out of samadhi, you replace that joy with pleasurable experiences and generate a false view.

If you are really searching for liberation, you must understand the suffering of pervasive conditioning. Birth itself is the cause because it makes us subject to all these problems. Thus, our main spiritual target is to stop birth; that is the only way to attain liberation.

Don’t misunderstand this as renunciation. We aren’t talking about renouncing the material world and the suffering of suffering and the suffering of change. We’re talking about renouncing the suffering of pervasive conditioning, which is the root of the other two kinds of suffering.

Any form of life is subject to these three sufferings - the suffering of suffering, the suffering of change, and the suffering of pervasive conditioning – and this is called samsara.

All things, all material objects in day-to-day life operate under the control of delusions and distorted thoughts that serve as the source of pain and suffering. We will suffer as long as we remain under the control of delusions and distorted emotions and thoughts.

We try to see things and objects the way we want to see them. We want them to perform the way we want or act the way we wish. This is what we call control.

As soon as our minds release that wish, the object can become a source of joy. As long as we experience delusions and distorted emotions or thoughts, people and objects remain a source of pain. Our deluded mind limits our joy.

Without changing our inner expectations and perceptions, we have no means of changing the physical world. Therefore, the main emphasis in Buddhism is changing the inner world, achieving a spiritual transformation. This spiritual transformation is nothing more than making our perceptions purer and purer until we are capable of seeing reality as it is.

The Second Noble Truth

The second of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of the origin of suffering. This has two parts: delusion and karma. We have already discussed karma.

The Sanskrit word for delusion is "klesha." Delusion or "klesha" means any aspect of the mind that, once fully arisen in the mind, makes a person unhappy.

Anger is an example. As it arises, the person feeling anger also feels very unhappy. He or she loses control, loses the ability to act in a skillful way, and becomes an obedient student of anger.

Delusion arises as the mind is disturbed. So any state of mind that actually disturbs you is called a delusion: anger, attachment, hatred, resentment, pleasure. All arise from the false notion of self or a sense of "I." We mistakenly create a self. And that self has three characteristics: independence of body and mind, a sense of being unitary or single, and a sense of being unchanging or eternal.

First, we are concerned with that self when we say "I," or "my body," or "my mind." We take that body or mind as a possession, and we assume the "I" or self is the owner. Under the influence of anger, we see that self vividly in our mind and are concerned with what we perceive as affronts to that self.

Second, we see the whole rest of the world as somehow against our "self." We look at the world with a funny expression, when something happens that we don’t like, as if the world rose against our self. That’s why when you meditate, it’s important to smile at the world.

Third, we see the self as unchanging. Around eight or ten years old, we perceive a self that, from then on, doesn’t change as we age. That I or self or myself appears to our mind as unchanging. Intellectually, we understand that our body looks different at different ages, but our experience of the self seems unchanging. This is a false notion or misperception of the self.

These three problems force us to see a gap between ourselves and others.

Then we divide the whole world into two, ourselves and things and objects having to do with the self. We think the rest of the world has nothing to do with us. That is a big problem.

These delusions arise from the false notion of self. And they give rise to the two most powerful emotions we experience, anger and attachment.

Anger arises because we believe an event or object or person has nothing to do with us. Attachment arises because we think an event or object or person has everything to do with us.

In anger, we experience one hundred percent dislike; we want the object or person out of our sight or hearing. When we’re angry we say, "Get out of here."

When we are attached, we experience one hundred percent liking, and we make an effort to obtain the object or get closer to the person.

Jealousy is a more complicated emotion because it has an element of attachment, of anger, of liking, of disliking. It can be very confusing.

Anger, attachment, and the false notion of the self are called "the three poisons of the mind."

The false notion of the self prevents us from seeing reality, constantly distorting our perceptions. The false notion of self gives rise to generic images of things and objects, which we confuse with the object itself.

Take our example of seeing a rope and believing it is a snake. In appearance, the rope may match our generic image of a snake. Everybody knows this is a misperception. The question is: How does this misperception happen?

It’s not that we see a snake as a rope, but that we believe in the generic image we instantly refer to without analysis. We grasp or cling to the appearance we believe in, making the appearance of the rope one with the appearance of a snake.

Ninety-nine percent of our misperceptions are mistakes in appearance.

The rope, the basis of our mistake, is still there, still a rope. But it becomes the basis of our consensual or conventional reality.

Consider this cup. Everyone agrees, regardless of culture or language, with the necessity of the cup. It holds fluid. The necessity is there whatever we call a cup. Its function has nothing to do with its name or label.

It is necessary to understand this to understand where delusions come from. We must understand where delusions come from because we need to destroy the false notion of self. When we are finally able to see the false notion of self as the root of delusions, we can understand that delusions create karma. And the force of delusions and karma create samsara.

So birth itself is the cause of pain and suffering.

According to the Abhidharmakosa, written by Vasabandhu, there are 26 delusions, six of them root delusions. (Vasabandhu and his brother Asanga lived in the fourth century. One wrote a pivotal text on Buddhist psychology, the other on Buddhist cosmology.) The 20 secondary delusions are the side effects of the six root delusions. Attachment is one of the root delusions. Stinginess, for example, is one of the 20 secondary delusions. Similarly, anger is one of the six root delusions. Hatred and malice are symptoms or side effects. Pride is one of the six root delusions. Haughtiness is a symptom or side effect.

The six root delusions are attachment, anger, deluded doubt, pride, ignorance, and wrong views.

The 20 symptoms are hatred, malice, outrage, haughtiness, stinginess, laziness, jealousy, non-conscientiousness, etc.

Attachment is a very tricky emotion. Attachment is an emotional feeling of intimacy or closeness. When attachment arises in a mild form, it mixes with pity or compassion. So there is a similarity between attachment and compassion. But there is an important difference: While both are feelings of intimacy, there is an element of looking for self-fulfillment in attachment. When that is not met, the feeling of closeness disappears.

However, with compassion, you are not looking for self-fulfillment.

Regardless of the person’s behavior, you will never lose that feeling of closeness. With compassion, you experience, with full force, your desire to avoid harm. You want, instead, to help. You are ready and prepared to help, regardless of who the person is or what the person has done. You feel a deep concern about the person’s well-being and happiness; there is a willingness to avoid causing harm and to help.

When attachment arises, it can end up causing more problems than anger.

Anger will never bring attachment. But superficial love can bring hate.

"Real" love has no element of self-fulfillment. It is based on who the person is, rather than what that person will bring back to you.

Among non-Buddhists, Mother Theresa is one of the best examples of someone expressing real love. She experienced joy when she took care of lepers. We would run away.

We make distinctions, seeing ourselves as superior, others as inferior.

We need the ability to see ourselves in others, to see ourselves undergoing what others go through. That kind of love never brings back pain, only joy.

Five independent attachments exist. By "independent," I mean that each has its own object. The five are form, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

Each has its own object and is consumed by that particular object.

A sixth attachment is sexual attachment; it is the strongest because it has all the elements of the five independent attachments. Think, analyze, compare. Consider your own personal experiences, and you’ll see that sexual attachment includes form, sound, taste, touch, and smell.

Each attachment causes its own unique negativity or problem or complication. Each attachment distorts the mind.

Question: How do you explain a drug addict's attachment to drugs or an alcoholic's attachment to alcohol?

Answer: The main cause is form. The pleasure is gained from the form of a drink, whether the addiction started from taste or from how it feels to be drinking.

Question: When you move beyond taste to craving, what form of attachment is it?

Answer: Originally the attachment develops from taste; later on, you become addicted to the continuity of pleasure.

Question: I’m confused because you’ve named the five senses, but I thought mind would be included.

Answer: Each sense perceives a special object, but the information goes back to the mind through the senses. So attachment ultimately is related to the mind, not the senses. When we see an attractive form, what becomes attached is the mind. We receive information through the senses. But it is not the senses that become attached. The senses send information back to the mental consciousness. From the second moment on, you’re already distorting the information and becoming emotionally attached.

When we see an attractive object, our sense perceives it as it is, and that information goes to the mental consciousness and is distorted. Our mental consciousness perceives the object as more than it really is or less than it really is. If you see the object as inherently attractive, with inherent qualities to make you feel good, there’s the problem. The mental consciousness become attached to the object of the senses. And it is always mistaken. It always sees the object as less than it is or more than it is; it always under-estimates or over-estimates. If our emotional response would match perfectly what the object is, we wouldn’t have problems.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, August 17, 2001.

The Four Noble Truths: Continued

The Third Noble Truth

You could say the ultimate goal of the Buddhist spiritual quest is to reach or attain the third of the Four Noble truths, which is cessation of suffering or nirvana. Nirvana is a Sanskrit term of liberation or freedom, total release from suffering.

Nirvana is a pure state of mind. The mind attains that perfectly pure reality, without distortion; the mind perceives the material world as it actually is. Our mind’s habit of habitual distortions is the reason that we can’t, right now, perceive reality as it actually is. Every moment we perceive the physical world we are constantly distorting it in our mind; what we perceive does not match reality.

Our mind constantly distorts things and events, and we respond with emotional responses. Our distortions and our resulting emotional responses create a never-ending mismatch between what we perceive and what actually exists in reality; this is called delusion or, in Sanskrit, klesha. This is the root of our suffering.

Cessation or nirvana is a state of mind that eradicates this habit of distortion and our inappropriate emotional responses. Nirvana is not a place, not a destination, not a physical world separate from our human world. Nirvana is a state of mind where in delusions are eradicated irreversibly, forever. The world around us becomes a source of joy, rather than a source of pain.

Our ultimate goal is to reach nirvana.

In order to reach that state of mind, first we must understand inherent pain and suffering and who created this pain and suffering. Are our pain and suffering created by the mind itself or by an external force?

According to Buddhist understanding, yes, there are many problems. Life itself, you could say, is suffering. Life is full of suffering because we are subject to all sorts of problems. The origin of these problems resides within us. Delusions are generated from our false notion of self, our misconception of self. In order to reach nirvana, you have to eliminate the root of delusions, which is the false notion of self.

While you can reduce suffering by perfecting shamata meditation, you cannot eradicate the false notion of self through shamata meditation alone. That false notion of self that forces you to divide the world into "I" and "you" is the problem.

The notion of "I" creates attachment; the notion of "you" creates anger. "I" we bring to "our" side. Whatever is not associated with "I" we put on the "other" side. So the notion of "I" gives rise to attachment; the notion of "you" gives rise to anger and aversion.

This sense of "I" and "you," this false notion of self and its resulting anger cannot be shaken by shamata meditation alone. The false notion of self can only be eliminated by combining shamata meditation and vipassana meditation.

Training and a profound understanding of shamata and vipassana meditation are required to get rid of delusions and the root of delusions, the false notion of self. At the same time, it is important to understand how shamata and vipassana serve as antidotes to eradicating delusions and the false notion of self. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand the possibility of achieving nirvana.

Nirvana is a pure state of mind, the ability to perfectly perceive reality without judgment, without turning material objects into a source of pain, because your emotional responses match reality.

Nirvana is not a temporary state. It is eternal. Nirvana has four characteristics, which are simultaneous and complete.

  1. Cessation or gokpa, a factor that arises from nonexistence.

  2. Peace or shiwa, cessation in peace.

  3. Satisfaction or gynom, totally satisfying satisfaction, a peace or joy or bliss that does not cause a craving for more.

  4. Emergence or neygyung, definite, permanent total emergence.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism differ somewhat on the subject of nirvana. According to Theravada Buddhism, when you reach nirvana you still retain subtle remnants of self. These subtle remnants are not destructive; they do not create problems. The individual is totally consumed by nirvana, and, due to the subtle remnants of the self, forgets the rest of the world. This is called individual liberation.

Question: Is the body also gone?

Answer: According to Theravada Buddhism, once you reach this state, you dissolve physically. You cannot be seen.

Question: So there might be someone here right now?

Answer: Who knows? But they forget humanity; they are not watching you.

In Mahayana Buddhism even this subtle remnant of self needs to be abandoned. When it comes to being helpful to others, the subtle remnant of self creates obstacles, becomes a hindrance. That subtle remnant of self limits your mental capacity or power. You can’t 100 percent read other people’s minds, their intentions, needs and desires. If you can’t read others’ intentions, needs or desires, even with good motivation, it is more difficult to help others. In many cases, even with good intentions, instead of helping, we hurt others. You could make the situation more intense, more serious, even though your motivation was good.

Just so, we distinguish between liberation and enlightenment. Liberation is eliminate of delusions in the mind of psyche, but subtle remnants of the self are still there. In enlightenment, the subtle remnants of the self are eliminated, and because of this you are one with the world; you are complete.

The fundamental path to attain liberation is shamata and vipassana meditation. The full force of the path, its full, liberating force is reach only when shamata conjoins with vipassana. The actual path that has 100 percent potential to lead to the cessation of suffering starts when you conjoin shamata and vipassana.

The Fourth Noble Truth

The fourth of the Four Noble Truths is the truth of the path. There are five paths which are gradual and attained in sequence: accumulation, preparation, seeing, meditation, no more learning.

If you understand the differences among the five stages, you realize they are nothing more than the Noble Eightfold Path.

  1. Right action.

  2. Right speech.

  3. Right livelihood.

  4. Right effort.

  5. Right mindfulness.

  6. Right concentration.

  7. Right view or understanding.

  8. Right thoughts or intention.

All of this comes under three categories: training in ethics and morality; training in meditation or concentration; training in wisdom. These are called The Three Baskets. Ethics or morality includes right action, right speech and right livelihood. Training in meditation includes right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. Training in wisdom includes right view and right thought.

This is the Buddhist supermarket; everything you need you can get right there.

When you have a better understanding of the five paths, you will see they are nothing more than the Noble Eightfold Path.

First, we will deal with the five paths.

Accumulation: A person will only reach accumulation after his or her experience of unfabricated renunciation. That means you loosen the strength of attachment, without giving up the physical world and the objects of the five senses. When you reach this, you will gain relief from driving yourself crazy over sensory pleasures. However, this is not about giving up the physical material world, running away to the mountains to live like a wild animal.

When you experience unfabricated renunciation, along with a precise understanding of emptiness, you have reached the first path.

Question: How do you know your attachments have loosened enough?

Answer: The value of objects is still there; particular objects may still mean a lot to you. But deep down you no longer see yourself as dependent on them for sensual satisfaction. You perceive the value of objects, but you are not dependent on them for happiness.

Question: Why is it called accumulation?

Answer: I told you. Don’t play with words; play with meanings.

Question: Your take on this week (9/11/2001) will help us know how to feel.

Answer: This is very complicated. My reaction is that the human mind is so powerful in both a negative way and a positive way. When the mind is used in a negative way, yes, like this week, we have suffering created by the human mind.

Question: We can’t change this? Things like this just happen?

Answer: By physical force, we can’t change. Physical force is not really a solution. It’s only a temporary solution. You may destroy one individual by physical force, but that may cause two more to rise up, and this will go on for generations and generations and generations. The main cause still remains.

Myself, I sit and watch and feel compassion for both the victims and those who did it. They did it not because they are happy, but because they are unhappy.

Question: One person went to get coffee and survived. All the others in his office died. Why not him?

Answer: That has to do with karma. We all die at some point.

Question: If we don’t stop one person, that person can do it again and again. We want to prevent that person from hurting us.

Answer: If one person is doing this, then yes, the best solution would be destroying that one person. But I think it is like a spider web. If only one person is involve, then it is easy, but when more are involved, it’s really difficult.

Question: Please finish the answer on karma.

Answer: This depends on how deep your understanding of karma is. The question becomes what type of karma this person has, what type of karma the other person has.

Question: Are we assuming death is bad, that death means bad karma?

Answer: From the Buddhist point of view, death is not a punishment.

Question: What about killing? What about imposing yourself on another, that separation of I and you?

Answer: Yes, it’s bad. But this is not coming from a single source. This is coming from collective karma, and that’s complicated, too. Sometimes, it’s better not to mention anything. This problem didn’t come from one single source so it’s very complicated.

Question: There’s not one single reason it happened.

Answer: Yes, there’s not one single reason. The reasons are complex. The source of the problem is complex. If you go search for one source, one reason, you cannot find it.

Question: Isn’t violent death bad?

Answer: Three factors are involved: the state of mind at death, (for example, the people who killed probably felt horrible fear, confusion, anger). The state of mind activates the karmic force; so fear, for example, could activate a negative karmic force. Finally, the degree of attachment to existence is important; everybody has a fear of dying, of not remaining in the world. All this determines the condition of our next life. In general, if you failed to die peacefully, you failed to live peacefully in some way in your lifetime.

Question: Our death reflects our life?

Answer: Yes, of course, our life determines our death; our death reflects our life.

Question: Say I’m traveling on a train or a plane and this happens. What is the best thing to do?

Answer: Say mantras and prayers. The key thing is to rest in the present moment. Say your mantras and your prayers honestly. If you are in panic and fear, who knows, you could be saying them backwards. I’m serious. In 1959, I was still in Tibet; I was little. Tibetans had no weapons, but they wanted to fight back. Their only weapons were swords. They went to fight the Chinese, and were so angry and upset, they would hold the sword the other way around. When they were fighting and losing, they went to ride away on horseback and got on the horses backward. They were trying to ride facing the tail. There are many stories, real stories. Recite mantras. There are no guarantees, no guarantees.

Question: This is not about justice.

Answer: Yes, this I agree. It is very, very difficult. You need lots of training. Be careful. Stay in the present moment, no matter what the circumstances are.

Question: Is it our thoughts or our emotions that take us away from the present moment?

Answer: The key is shamata meditation to gain control of thoughts and emotions, so you won’t be taken away from the present moment, so your thoughts and emotions don’t have power over you. Everything in the mind is not real. Most of the time, when thoughts come into our mind, we make them real. If we don’t do this the moment a thought comes, the thought pops like a bubble. It disappears. Where? It disappears where it came from. Just like a bubble, if we don’t make a thought real, it pops and disappears. That kind of training is needed, and meditation is aimed at gaining that power.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, September 14, 2001.

The Four Noble Truths: Continued

When we carefully study the Fourth Noble Truth, we can see the entire spiritual approach of Buddhism, which includes the paths and the bhumis, the antidote to delusions and karmic obscurations and the four types of dualities. With the means to overcome delusions and dualities, ordinary perception becomes purer and purer, not only in terms of quality but in the way we perceive reality. We become more capable of actually perceiving reality; we become exposed to reality, rather than imposing on reality.

The essence of the Buddha's teachings

The Four Noble Truths are the essence, or bottom line, of Buddha’s teachings in Theravada, Mahayana or Trantrayana. Without an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, Buddhist practice is meaningless. It won’t bear spiritual truth. With an understanding of the Four Noble Truths, higher Tantric realization comes naturally.

Without a proper understanding of the Four Noble Truths, it is difficult to get a complete picture of Buddha’s teachings. Without a proper understanding of the Four Noble Truths, your understanding of Buddhism is piecemeal, not complete. Without a proper understanding, you might say, "Here is my room for shamata meditation, and here is my room for vipassana." You would have to change rooms, change the cushion.

What makes a practice a Buddhist practice?

What makes dharma practice Buddhist practice is an understanding of refuge and an individual experience of what refuge means to you and how it brings back to you some spiritual effect on your mind. What makes dharma practice Buddhist practice is an understanding of refuge, an experience of refuge and what the three jewels mean to you.

Secondly, we could say what makes dharma practice Buddhist practice, what makes it an antidote to our delusions, is an understanding and experience of renunciation. Without an understanding and experience of renunciation, one could say whenever we engage in dharma practice, it will be corrupted by the eight mundane thoughts or concerns: We are happy when good things happen, unhappy when good things don’t happen. We are happy when we are praised, unhappy when we are criticized. We are happy when we gain what we want, unhappy when we lose what we want. We are good when we feel good, bad when we feel bad.

Compassion, and bodhicitta and emptiness

As long as our dharma practice is corrupted or polluted, it is almost impossible for our dharma practice to be an antidote to our delusions. What makes our dharma practice not only Buddhist practice and an antidote to delusions but a Mahayana practice, too, is great compassion and bodhicitta. This especially makes Tantric practice fruitful and effective: great compassion, or mahakaruna, and bodhicitta. What makes dharma practice unlimited, unbiased and impartial is the realization of emptiness.

All this – compassion, and bodhicitta and emptiness – will be discussed when we study the Six Perfections, the fundamental or main precepts for those who have generated great compassion and bodhicitta. The purpose is to dedicate your entire life to the service of others. But, in order to be effective in your service to others, you need the Six Perfections. Without the practice of the Six Perfections, generating great compassion and bodhicitta, you won’t be effective helping others. Sometimes in books the words "compassion" and "bodhicitta" are used interchangeably, used as synonyms. They don’t mean the same thing.

Compassion is one of the mental factors. Bodhicitta is prime mind or consciousness. In Buddhist psychology, there are 51 mental factors and seven prime minds or consciousnesses. This is not like Zen, where there is big mind or universal mind that we all share.

Compassion is a cause of bodhicitta. Compassion is not part of bodhicitta but a primary cause of it. A cause cannot be part of the result; maybe in the West, but not in the East.

Dharmakirti wrote the Pramana Varttika. He was the greatest Indian logician. In the Pramana Varttika he explained not only the law of karma, but the entire law of cause and effect and what is meant by cause and effect, what’s necessary for something to be a cause of something, what things are involved and needed to be the effect of a cause and their relationship.

A cause cannot be part of an effect. If a cause could be part of its own effect, then the relationship between cause and effect would be deceptive or destroyed. So compassion is the cause of bodhicitta, but is not bodhicitta.

The compassionate mind or the bodhicitta mind is obtained through practice. They are not part of the untrained mind. Until we reach Buddhahood, compassion and bodhicitta will remain a state of the nonperceiving or nonapprehending mind. They are not a part of knowledge, but have to obtained by practice. Compassion itself is non-perceiving mind; it doesn’t have any apprehending object.

Hypothetically, we could say we all do have compassion or bodhicitta, but what does this compassionate mind perceive? Our knowledge as a human being is gained through pain and suffering. When we think, think, think, we will reach a deeper understanding or knowledge of compassion. At the beginning our understanding of compassion is fabricated. At some point, it will become unfabricated, innate, a feeling that arises complete with mental joy, a wish for all living beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. And when that feeling becomes part of our mind, that is compassion.

Does that feeling perceive suffering? The need to relieve that human being from suffering? Or is it a mere feeling, with nothing specific perceived? Compassion is a pure, empathetic or sympathetic feeling, a wish or desire for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering, in which there is a full force to take action. Now, if we really have that sympathetic feeling, does that sympathetic feeling really perceive something, or is it mere feeling? I’m not asking about a compassionate person. "Compassionate" refers to a person, one who has a feeling of compassion. I’m asking about compassion itself.

Question: You’re saying the feeling itself doesn’t discriminate?

Answer: That feeling itself is called non-perceiving mind. Does a feeling itself perceive? No, a feeling doesn’t perceive anything; a feeling remains mere feeling until we reach Buddhahood. Again, compassion is a pure sympathetic or empathetic feeling, a wish for others to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering with the full force to take action. One who has compassion is a compassionate person; one who has boddhicitta is a bodhisattva.

The Abbhidharmakosa says compassion is a mere state of feeling; it does not perceive. The first stage is non-perceiving, but through cultivating that state of feeling, compassion becomes a part of our mind, of our thinking process, so it is always present in our mind. However, until we reach enlightenment, the feeling of compassion remains non-perceiving mind. A "non-perceiving state" means it’s not part of our knowledge or wisdom. As soon as we reach enlightenment, that feeling of compassion becomes knowledge and wisdom. This is a huge difference between an ordinary being and an enlightened being. When enlightened wisdom is infused with the feeling of compassion, saturated, that is called conjoined. As ordinary beings, we can hold that feeling of compassion, but it is not part of our knowing mind. Before enlightenment, compassion is not part of our knowing mind. It will become part of our knowing mind as soon as we become enlightened. The knowing mind is the perceiving mind.

Consider hunger. You say, "I feel hungry." Does that feeling of hunger perceive bread? When we talk about hunger we are talking at the level of feeling, not the level of concept. If hunger is at the level of feeling, either it is associated with a physical sensation or it is associated purely with a mental sensation. Only two choices.

In both cases, whether physical sensation or mental sensation, both are a feeling. In Buddhist psychology, a feeling is part of perception or conscious. If feeling hungry is part of the mind or consciousness, then it must have all the characteristics of the mind. Then the question arises, is it knowing mind or not-knowing mind?

If it’s knowing mind, does it know something? The more relevant question: If it’s a knowing mind, then it must perceive food. I feel hungry; does the feeling of hunger perceive something or not? You need to study this so you can understand that compassion is non-perceiving mind. No matter how profound or deep your feeling of compassion, as long as you are in an unenlightened state, the feeling of compassion will never become part of knowledge or wisdom.

Does compassion perceive the suffering of a human being? Or the need to do something for him or her? Does compassion perceive the person or being who is suffering? Or does compassion perceive the need to do something for him or her? If we say one of these, Dharmakirti will come here.

We say, "I feel." There is someone who feels; there is something to be felt. There is a duality here, the feeler and something to be felt. When we talk about the feeling of hunger, there is the feeling and the feeler. If there is feeler and feeling, there is something to be felt.

Oh yes, Buddhist psychology is crazy.

Bodhicitta, in the beginning, is fabricated. At some point, it becomes spontaneous. Bodhicitta is the fabricated or unfabricated inspiration or aspiration to deeply wish to attain Buddhahood by recognizing that attaining Buddhahood is the only true cause to relieve every living being from suffering and the causes of suffering. Without Buddhahood, every inspiration or aspiration is temporary, is limited. When we understand the way to relieve suffering is to think, talk and act to attain Buddhahood, then that is boddhicitta.

So the definition isn’t difficult. Here, we are digging, doing research: What does compassion look like? What are the elements? What does bodhicitta look like? What are the elements?

In the Abhidharmakosha, compassion and bodhicitta are non-perceiving mind. Compassion and bodhicitta are the two factors that need to be cultivated within our thoughts or mind, aiming to destroy our self-cherishing attitude. Our senses always return to our happiness, our well-being, the "I," which really narrows our way of thinking, our attitude. We are more concerned about I, I, I, thinking that will bring more peace, when it actually brings more suffering.

Compassion and bodhicitta are meant to destroy that attitude about the self, the self-cherishing mind. When we destroy that, we don’t destroy who we are; who we are can survive in the normal world. But we worry about this; with our naïve perception we think, "If I don’t care for myself, who will care for me?"

According to "Abhisamayalamkara," the cultivation of compassion or bodhicitta will bring tremendous inner freedom, by which one is capable of making sincere emotional contact with others, heart-to-heart contact. This brings inner freedom. And what ensues is a sense of universal responsibility.

We understand that biased thoughts and feelings are baseless. Once that understanding comes, it’s very easy to cultivate bodhicitta itself.

Remember, there are three kinds of suffering:

  1. the suffering of suffering,

  2. the suffering of change,

  3. and the suffering of pervasive conditioning.

Every human being knows how to get rid of the sufferings of suffering. When it’s cold, we all know how to protect ourselves from the bad weather. So our concern about releasing other human beings from the suffering of suffering is not that effective.

If you put time and effort into it, you have the potential to deal with the suffering of change. You can handle it. But no ordinary human being on earth can deal with the third problem, the suffering of pervasive conditioning. The suffering of pervasive conditioning means that our very existence itself is contaminated. The suffering of pervasive conditioning means that our existence is corrupted by delusion, by karmic imprint.

With an understanding of this comes a sense of universal responsibility. Until then, we hold someone close because they did something good for us, even though we don’t know what will come tomorrow. And we hold someone distant because yesterday he or she gave us a dirty look. All human beings have the same problems of pervasive conditioning.

There are four lines in the text of Lama Chopa, the Guru Yoga or Guru Puja text. It is a prayer or supplication:

Since no one wishes to have even the slightest suffering,

Or is ever content with the happiness he or she has,

There is no difference between myself and others,

Therefore, inspire me to rejoice in the happiness of others.

You visualize your guru or spiritual master in the form of Buddha Shakyamuni or Padmasambhava or whatever. You hold this image as realistically as possible and make the wish or prayer, filled and saturated with the meaning of what you recite. This helps in the practice of generating compassion or bodhicitta.

No one wishes to have even the slightest suffering. No one wishes suffering that lasts a second. And happiness that lasts hours or days is not satisfying. Everyone is the same. In reality, we are in the same situation. We hold someone close in a wish for happiness; we push someone away in a wish to avoid unhappiness.

But if we develop compassion and bodhicitta, we develop a sense of universal responsibility. Then there comes a powerful aspiration to attain full enlightenment. When we hold that awareness of the need to attain enlightenment, we understand that is the only way to release every living being from this polluted or corrupted existence.

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, December 7, 2001.