So today is Dhamma Day, Asalha Puja. On this day, some 2600 years ago, the Buddha gave his first teaching to the five ascetics he had previously trained under. I decided to reread it this morning, from Bikkhu Bodhi's In the Buddha's Words, but it's available here as well.
It starts with a description of the Middle Way, presumably because he was addressing a group of people who thought he had abandoned the spiritual path and returned to worldly pleasures. He told them, both running after sensual pleasures and engaging in self-mortification are of no benefit to anyone.
Then the bulk of the sutta focuses on the Four Noble Truths. I read from Thich Nhat Hanh that the Chinese translated these as the "Four Wonderful Truths" or "Four Holy Truths". I thought I'd lay them out here, so I could reflect on them a bit and also ask some questions.
Many inherent elements of our lives can be sources of stress and unhappiness. This should be understood.
The origin of stress and unhappiness is clinging to things, running after things: grasping for pleasures, clinging to life, and interestingly "craving for extinction". Perhaps someone could help me understand this last part. Was the Buddha talking about suicidal thinking? Or did he mean extinction in the more spiritual sense? Was he saying that even craving for awakening was a source of suffering? This Noble Truth should be abandoned. Does that mean we should abandon clinging? Or does it mean we should abandon the truth of clinging? The wording is confusing to me.
If we allow craving and clinging to "fade away", if we let go of it, we'll be free from the suffering it causes. This should be realized.
The way that leads to letting go of clinging, and therefore ending suffering, is the Noble Eightfold Path, which the Buddha lists here but without going into detail. This Eightfold Path should be developed.
I like that progression: from understanding, to abandoning, to realizing, to developing. I know the 4NT aren't necessarily meant as a progression, but I see something like that here. And the last stage is developing, which suggests an ongoing, never-really-ending process.
It occurred to me this morning that mindfulness is really an amazing way of observing these Truths in action. I sit down and do some preliminary exercises—body scanning and so on—and then I just sit with my thoughts. Lo and behold, the thought pops up that I'm bored or in pain and I want to get up. There's stress and the origin of stress: wanting things to be different from what they are. And mindfulness is the tool that allows me to sit and watch these thoughts go by and "fade away". Neat.
So Happy Dhamma Day, everyone. It would be really nice to hear what the 4NT mean to you. How do you see them in action? How do you work with them?