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Godwin Samararatne
Discovering Meditation

Retreat at the Waldhaus
Day 8: The Four Noble Truths


Godwin: So what we will try to do now is to explore together the Buddha’s teaching of the Four Noble Truths, and to see how far we can apply them in our daily life and our spiritual life. Just using it as a model to free ourselves.

The Four Noble Truths are as follows:

the first is Suffering;
the second is The Cause of Suffering;
the third is Freedom;
and the fourth is The Way to Achieve Freedom.

Or another way of stating it is to use the medical model where we express the truths as: Sickness, The Cause of Sickness, Health, and The Course of Medicine. So in meditation what we are trying to do is to use the medicine.


Now the first question I would like to raise for discussion is: Why did the Buddha call suffering a noble truth? How does suffering become a noble truth? What is so noble about suffering?

It’s because we have to experience suffering to feel the need to be free of it. Unless we know that we are sick, the need to take medicine will not arise. There are people who are sick, but they do not know that they are sick. Hence the need to find and use the medicine does not arise. We deserve a big plus that we know there is a sickness and that we are trying to discover the medicine and use it. A big plus!

Let us spend some time with this aspect of suffering. There is another word which is interesting - disease. It means that you are not at ease. So we will explore some areas and aspects of suffering or disease, not being at ease. Yesterday, we realised that having relationships is not always easy. I feel that this is the biggest disease. Certainly it is a very important area as we have discovered. And it is useful to reflect why this is such a big disease. What are the other forms of disease in this world?

Retreatant: Being hungry.

Godwin: I am happy that you mentioned it because in Sri Lanka people know what it is like to feel hungry. Here I do not think that there are opportunities to experience it. Am I right?

Retreatant: I meant being mentally hungry.

Godwin: That is nicely put: being mentally hungry. So now we can find out which is the greatest suffering, whether it is physical hunger or mental hunger. It is an interesting area to explore. I think some of you may not even be aware of some forms of poverty. Sometimes it is good to be exposed to other cultures and different situations. Then you will realise what a lot of - how shall I put it - abundance and consumerism there is here. I will just give an example. When you come to the West, there are so many choices. I am always being asked: Would you like this tea or that one or another one? Because there are so many varieties available.

One day I was taken by a friend of mine to have some ice-cream, and there were about 30 varieties of ice cream! And I was asked to choose. I did not know how they would taste, so I just said: I would like this one. In Sri Lanka there are no choices. In our Centre there are only limited choices, simple choices, like: do you drink water or do you drink tea? For breakfast there is only one meal. If you do not like it ... That reminds me: there was once a Western monk staying there and I always used to say to people: Try to eat the food here as if for the first time - that is the way to survive here. But the monk said: I eat it as if for the last time!

So because of this affluence, in these affluent countries there is a disease which I call affluenza! Have you heard of this disease? It is very interesting to see the rest of the world suffering due to a lack of things, and here the suffering is due to affluence. I would like to say something about this on the last day, because I feel this is something important for you to reflect on. So this is one form of suffering. Anything else, any other forms of suffering?

Retreatant: There is suffering because of loneliness; and relationships are sometimes a cause of suffering.

Godwin: You speak of it as though from experience. It is quite true. Actually in Sri Lanka I meet both types of suffering. There are people who are single and alone, old and so on. This can really be a cause of suffering. And when there is a war going on, there is so much violence, tension and unrest around that it is certainly not easy to live. It is neither pleasant nor satisfactory.

So these different types of suffering exist, but there is a very subtle kind of suffering that is presented in the Dhamma. Not to get what you want is certainly a source of suffering. But what is more subtle is that even to get what you want can also be a sort of suffering. Isn’t this an important point for us to reflect upon?

Here you have so many toys; even grown-ups have so many toys! You feel you would only be happy, content and satisfied if you can get this toy or that toy. Perhaps one such toy is to travel around the world. Thus you may long for that, and you get it, but at the end of it there is nowhere else to go!

This is why I said one has to have a very deep sensitivity to be aware of these conditions and situations. It shows that the dimension of suffering has so many facets and aspects. It is interesting that the Buddha started with this. Suffering is a fact. It is a fact that every human being can experience and has experienced.

The Cause of Suffering

Now the second noble truth is not so easy and clear. Because here you are told that the cause of suffering is your own models, your own expectations, your own ideas, your own assumptions, your own desires, your own wanting things to be only your own way. This is the cause of suffering.

I feel that the second noble truth is extremely important because it is only when you realise it that the third and the fourth noble truths can follow. So we will spend a few minutes just reflecting on the implications of the second noble truth.

One point is that when you see this, you have to take responsibility for what is happening inside yourself. This is not an easy teaching. To have complete self-reliance and to say: I create my own suffering and therefore only I can free myself. This is because there are some easier teachings where you are told: I will help you, you have only to trust or surrender to me and everything will be all right. You do not have to do anything, only have trust, faith, belief and so on. Hence this second noble truth is an extremely radical teaching. It is not an easy teaching.

What is also difficult and subtle is for you to fully realise this truth. Take the example I gave this morning. Someone had stolen from you what you consider as extremely precious, something that is more precious than your own life. And when you were sad and suffering, someone asked you: Why are you sad? Why are you suffering? So you said: That person took my most precious possession. When we are angry and are sometimes asked: Why are you angry? we answer: This person hurt me. He did such and such to me, that is why I am angry.

Freedom from Suffering

So you see the second noble truth is something very subtle to realise. When a person’s precious possession has been stolen, he says he feels sad because this man stole it. But can the person respond differently with something other than that reaction? Can he let go of his identification with what he considers as something very precious? If he can do that, then he will realise there is no suffering. So this is a very hard medicine. In fact, some medicines are not very pleasant, and not very sweet. So this medicine that is presented is also not very easy.

Once I met a Tibetan monk and I asked him: Did you suffer when you were tortured? According to the Dhamma, how do you see that? And he said: I knew that it was because these people were torturing me that I was suffering. But as a meditator I had been practising very hard with physical pain, sitting for two or three hours at a stretch. So when they were torturing me, I was trying to see how far I could work with the pain rather than hate the person torturing me. I tried my best to use the Buddha’s medicine when I was suffering. Sometimes I was very successful and I had real gratitude for the Buddha’s teaching for I saw that the medicine was working. And when the medicine was not working and I was suffering, I thought: May I be able to practise more.

I read a very moving account which was similar 177 to this, but it was recounted by a Christian priest. I do not know all the details. He was being tortured in a prison, to get a confession out of him. But the priest was quite calm and silent. So the man who was torturing him said: Why don’t you speak, don’t you know that I can kill you? He answered: Don’t you realise that my body is already dead? This is the medicine. It is difficult medicine, it is hard medicine, but it is based on an interesting principle.

The Way to Achieve Freedom

Now I would like to say something about what we do with the medicine, because we are all here trying to take the medicine and to taste the medicine. But we can also be doing other very interesting things with the medicine.

For instance, we can read all about the prescription without taking the medicine. I know of scholars in Sri Lanka - we have outstanding Buddhist scholars - who know the medicine from A to Z. When you listen to them speak, you feel that they have really taken the medicine. But they have only spoken from books. I was a librarian and I also considered books as my toys. This can be a trap, where you are accumulating knowledge about the prescription, about the medicine, and talking to others about the medicine, but you have never tasted the medicine yourself.

Then there are those who like to give the medicine to others but they have never taken it themselves. These people are sometimes meditation teachers! They are very good at getting others to take the medicine, saying: It is wonderful, it is great, and so on.

So you see, there are many traps to fall into. I will mention a few more. Another one is to take the medicine for some time and when you realise nothing is happening, you try to change the medicine. Here in the West you have many medicines, sold in what I call spiritual supermarkets. You try one medicine for a few days, then maybe after seeing an advertisement, you start trying another medicine. You continue changing them without really giving any of them a chance, or really making a commitment to a particular medicine.

Then another thing some people do is to take the medicine only on meditation retreats. They say: In everyday life I cannot take the medicine. It is just impossible. So I am waiting for retreats to take the medicine. Hence they do one retreat after another! This is another way of taking the medicine.

Yet another very subtle way of using the medicine is to use it to do just what you like to do. I will give one or two examples of this. One medicine that is offered is you must learn to be kind to the body. So in everyday life you say: Getting up at 6 o’clock to meditate is not very kind to the body.Getting up at 8:30 or 9.00 is good enough. What is dangerous is that you are using the medicine to do only what you like to do.

Another very dangerous misuse of the medicine is to do anything you like to others, because according to the second noble truth people create their own suffering. That is a very dangerous medicine. The Buddha had warned against that. He said it is like catching hold of a poisonous snake at the wrong end. In a relationship, such a meditator can inflict suffering on another person and then say: Are you suffering? You create the suffering yourself. You hurt your own mind. I am just doing what I should be doing. Very easy! You see how complicated human beings are. The medicine is meant for healing oneself and others. But here one is using it in a very destructive way. So once again, one has to be very clear and sensitive.

This brings up the importance of having spiritual friends around. You should be very grateful for the feedback you get from them, because we sometimes have what are called blind spots where we cannot see things clearly ourselves. But with all these difficulties, with all these blind spots, if you can really take the medicine then you realise that the medicine is really helping you.

In practical terms what does it mean to say that the medicine is working? In simple terms it is when you realise your suffering is becoming less and less. Or to put it more positively, you discover you have more loving-kindness. Symptoms from the sickness will arise as the monsters will still arise, but you are very clear about the medicine and you have the confidence that the medicine is going to help you, because you know it through experience.

I am reluctant to speak about stages, but what I would like a meditator to achieve is such a state where he or she can say with complete self-confidence that there is no problem when the monsters arise that he or she cannot deal with because he or she knows the medicine that works. Then the meditator comes to a state in which whether the monsters come or not makes no difference. Why? Because he or she knows what to do when they are there. And when they are not there, he or she knows that too.

Another very important sign that the medicine is working is having loving-kindness towards other people. When you see people suffering from the same sickness, and you realise that the medicine is working for you, you engage them and say: Please try this. I think this aspect - to be able to give to others, to be able to help others - is very important in our practice. I was very happy to hear from the yoga teacher that her own teacher would say in the morning: Now whom can I help today?’ You can ask yourself the question during the whole day: How can I help other people? And then do it.

This is a very good medicine, because otherwise, as I said on the first or second day, one of the dangers is that when you take to meditation, self-awareness and introspection, you become so self-centred and preoccupied with yourself that you have no regard for the people around you. This can be another danger of the medicine. So it is extremely important while helping yourself to help others also. In fact, it is a very effective medicine because otherwise with our problems, suffering and wounds we can really be preoccupied and overwhelmed by them, to the extent we haven’t any regard, concern or sensitivity for others. Hence this is an effective way to forget your worries and concerns by seeing how far you can relate to another person.

I would just like to share an experience of a meditator at Nilambe. She had some deep wounds, deep problems. So being in isolation she was with them most of the time. As this is a meditation centre, a retreat centre, you have a lot of time by yourself and you can really become stuck in this inner world that you have created. So sometimes I encourage meditators to go and help people so as to see the suffering of others, because in Sri Lanka there are so many opportunities to witness different forms of suffering. She went to a home where there are retarded children, disabled children, and when she saw them with all their suffering, her own suffering was forgotten. She forgot her problems and picked them up and cared for them. There was an immense change in her.

Questions concerning the Four Noble Truths

I think I will stop now and if you have any questions, any disagreements, please present them. It is a very important theme.

Retreatant: Can there be suffering because of the desire of others, for instance when someone sexually assaults another person?

Godwin: I am happy you mention sexual assault, because I have been trying to help some people who have been sexually abused, and people who have been raped. So I will share very briefly how the medicine can be given in this situation.

One thing I realised from the victims was that they were very angry at the person who was responsible for that incident. When I worked with them, I did not tell them about the second noble truth. I told them: Yes, you are suffering. All this has been created by the other person. I can understand your anger. As I said on a previous occasion, I would tell them: Please go somewhere and show your anger, express it and bring it out.

Another thing I experienced with them was that they felt guilty. They felt responsible for what the other person did to them. Here again I would tell them: It is natural that you feel guilty. But let us work slowly, gradually, gently to find out how far you can let go of the guilt. I did not tell them that the guilt is their own creation. I said: It is okay that you feel guilty, but see how far you can forgive yourself. It is not easy and it takes some time, but slowly, slowly the medicine may start to help.

Another thing I realised was the way they related to their body. Because of what had happened to their body they hated their body. Sometimes they felt alienated from their body, as if it was someone else’s body. So when they told me: Well, I feel as if this body is not mine, I did not say to them: This is the Buddha’s teaching, this body is not yours. I told them: It is natural that you should feel this way. And I have some exercises I give to people to work with the body.

So this is the beauty of the medicine. It is so flexible that it can be used in a very creative way, used according to where the person is. For such people I do not give a lecture on the Four Noble Truths!

Any other questions?

Retreatant: Can people be harmed by their education?

Godwin: I do not see a difference between sexual abuse and educational abuse. I meet both types of individuals. I meet individuals who have been abused by educational conditioning. Their whole lives have been programmed by it. So again it is a matter of using the medicine very creatively so that the other person can realise how he or she is affected by the coloured glasses of their education. And slowly, slowly to see whether they can catch glimpses of what happens when they do not wear these coloured glasses.

Retreatant: Is suffering caused because of desiring itself or because of what you desire?

Godwin: It is your desire, your identification and your wanting that cause suffering. When I spoke about the Second Noble Truth, I said it is very subtle and that it is really not easy because you have to take responsibility. But when I meet a child or a sexually abused person, I would never say: You have to take responsibility. When I work with children, I never use the words ‘meditation’ or ‘Buddhism’. As I said, this is the beauty of the medicine. You have to see what medicine is appropriate to give, when to give it and how to give it. You should read the life of the Buddha. How he used the medicine with different people is very touching. I will tell a very touching incident that is mentioned:

A child maybe five or six years old suddenly came to the conclusion that her doll had died. She was urging her parents to invite the Buddha for the customary ceremony because the doll had died, and she would like the Buddha to come and officiate at it. I can visualise the scene:

The man went before the Buddha and said: Please come for a ceremony. The Buddha replied:

What is the ceremony for?

My daughter's doll has died.

What can I do when your daughter’s doll has died?

Yet my daughter would like you to come and officiate at the ceremony.

Okay, I will come.

This is the beauty of it, that the Buddha can come down to the level of a child. I can relate many such stories which bring this out very well. He did not tell the Four Noble Truths to the daughter, or stress the Second Noble Truth.

Any other questions please?

Retreatant: Why should there be different medicine for one person and for another?

Godwin: There are some people who have the space, the clarity, the understanding to use the medicine for themselves. Then there are those whom you meet who attend the so-called psychiatric clinics, where I would not speak about the Second Noble Truth. With different people, a different kind of relationship and connection have to be built.

I must say honestly this medicine of self-reliance is not what we want. You have to be really mature for it. But this is the beauty of the Teaching. In the Dhamma there is teaching for people at all levels.