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Godwin Samararatne
Meditation for Everyday Life

Day 5: The Four Noble Truths


The First Noble Truth - Suffering

Godwin: The Buddha often said: I teach suffering, and the way out of suffering. So the Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths which he discovered when he became enlightened for us to work with our suffering and to free ourselves from suffering. So, as you know, the first Noble Truth is the fact of suffering. And it is interesting how people suffer in different ways over the whole world. You know it is a fact. For example, in Asian countries like Sri Lanka there is great suffering due to poverty. In Western countries, especially rich Western countries, which can be considered as affluent, there is also a type of suffering which is called affluenza! You have heard of affluenza? Western affluenza?

So an interesting question arises: why is suffering called a Noble Truth? What is noble in suffering? What is your response to the question? Why is the fact of suffering called noble? Maybe because if we do not suffer, there is no need to find a way out of suffering. Only when we are sick do we need to find a medicine. So in that sense, it really is a noble fact, a Noble Truth. I would like to suggest that hereafter when you are suffering, as I said in the morning, you must say: here I am experiencing the fact of the first Noble Truth. It is a very interesting way of relating to suffering. So I hope, when you suffer, you will really know this.

The Second Noble Truth - The Source of Suffering

Sometimes, when I reflect on the Four Noble Truths, I feel the second Noble Truth is much more difficult, because it says that you must see very clearly that you are responsible for your suffering. It is not so easy, because what is easier is to blame others for your own suffering. That is what comes easily for us. So in that sense it is a very difficult, hard teaching for you to see and to take responsibility for how you are creating suffering yourself.

For this you have to really reflect, and you have to be really alert and awake when there is suffering to see this very clearly. So one needs to be very alert, awake, objective in working with the first Noble Truth. Maybe there are people who are suffering and do not know that they are suffering. It is like people who have a sickness and they do not know that they have a sickness. It is a dangerous situation. So you see the importance of experiencing the first Noble Truth.

And also when you reflect about the second Noble Truth, it is again very interesting, how we create our suffering in so many different ways. We have this tendency to demand things, to demand things from ourselves, to demand things from others, to demand things from life. So this demanding is one thing, but the reality is another. As long as there is this demanding, you may not be able to meet these demands you are making on others, on yourself, on your life. So this is how we are creating suffering for ourselves.

Another way, which I have been emphasising very much, because I think everyone can relate to this tendency, is to give ourselves minuses. So this being very critical, hard on ourselves, giving minuses all the time, this can be really a source of suffering in any situations.

According to the Buddha, the main cause of suffering is this idea we have that there is an "I" or a "me" in all this: that there is an ego. So the ego wants things his way or her way. The best way, I feel, to understand how the ego works is that we have this idea that I am Somebody. So it is really funny that the Somebody wants things his or her own way. The Somebody is such an important person. And when we have this idea, that we are a Somebody, it is very easy to be wounded, to be hurt.

Actually if you analyse the emotions, the emotions are created by this feeling of suffering. Take anger. If Somebody wants others to behave in his way, and then sees that others are not behaving according to his feeling of being Somebody, he gets angry, thinking: they should have behaved according to what this Somebody says.

We are amused. We think it is funny. But when we are Somebody, we do not feel it in that way. We are really hurt, we are really wounded, we are really despondent. Take fear. Fear is related to this. This Somebody might loose something and so Somebody has fear. What about anxiety? This is very important. Somebody might make mistakes. So you are anxious. And if Somebody wants only plusses from others - how can others give minuses to this Somebody? It is impossible. You see, when you analyse it this way, how absurd our behaviour is.

So to see this leads us maybe to develop this sense of absurdity, to see the absurdity of our self-importance. So this is very powerful, when you see the second Noble Truth in this way, how you are creating suffering for yourself; if you can see this clearly, then the way out of suffering also becomes clear to you.

The Fourth Noble Truth - The Path

Then you realise very clearly that only you can work with the suffering that you create yourself. And this is also very difficult, not so easy. To be completely self-reliant, to have complete self-confidence that as I am creating the sickness only I can find the medicine. So it calls for a lot of - what is the word? - courage, a lot of commitment, to see this, to think in these terms, to change your perception and your attitude. Again, it calls for having a lot of powerful and important qualities in our being.

Sometimes I define meditation in my own terms, that is: finding the medicine for the sickness we create ourselves. In a way, since we started the retreat we can say that what we have been trying to do is to discover the medicine. It is very nice, talking to some of you, and seeing the faces of some of you, that I find that the medicine is really working, is really helping. So what we have to discuss tomorrow is how to continue to take the medicine in everyday life. And sometimes the medicine can be very, very unpleasant. As you know, a medicine can be not so very sweet.

In practical terms, when we are meditating some things that arise within ourselves are not very pleasant to look at. I mean, this is the idea of retreats: in this practice of silence, in an intensive atmosphere, these things should arise. In everyday life there is no opportunity for these things to arise. But in such an intensive situation these things which we have not looked at, which we have denied, which we have pushed away become very clear, you start to see them.

That is why I have been encouraging you to bring up the monsters, because then you can really recognise the monsters you have, and you have an opportunity here to learn to work with them and to find the medicine, how to work with them, which is very important. Again, something powerful, something beautiful happens, when you take the medicine and then you really see in your experience that the medicine is working.

Then what happens is, instead of suffering, another factor arises: there is more joy arising, more lightness arising, more understanding arising, more insight arising. That is the time when you develop more and more confidence in the medicine, and then you really have a sense of gratitude and respect for the Buddha who has discovered this medicine.

I would also like to encourage you that when you take the medicine yourself and when you are really seeing the result of the medicine, you make an effort to share the medicine with others. This helps you in your own practice too. I will be talking more about this, perhaps on the last day, or maybe tomorrow. And what is really beautiful about the Buddha's medicine is that we can use it in any situation in our life, for any form of sickness that may arise, the Buddha has found a medicine.

Even when you are sick, even when you are ill - I know some people who have been seriously ill, with fatal illnesses, which will eventually lead to their death - when one can use the medicine, one can relate to that illness in an entirely different way. It is something really inspiring.

I can never forget an experience I had in one of the countries I was visiting, I was giving a workshop on death and dying with a person who was suffering from Aids. He had written a wonderful Dhamma-book, which you should be able to get a copy of. The title of the book is "In the Lap of the Buddha". And the author, the person with whom I have given this workshop, is Gavin Harrison.

So before he had Aids, he was like a playboy. He was having a lot of money, a very good job, he was really enjoying life. Then suddenly he had Aids and the whole world that he was living in collapsed, and he was faced with the reality of what it is to die, which had escaped his mind completely. So when he was in this completely helpless and hopeless situation, fortunately he came across the Dhamma, fortunately he took to meditation.

And as he knew he was dying, he developed this sense of urgency to really make a strong commitment for the practice. He is still living now, the title of the workshop we did was "Dancing with Aids". So now with the practice he is able to really dance with life, handle life, because he has completely lost any fear of death and dying. And just listening to him, and the way he was sharing his experiences, and the way he was telling us how he was using the Dhamma and meditation, I told him directly, in front of every one: I genuinely feel that the fact that you have got Aids has been a great blessing!

So the point I want to make is, the beauty of the Buddha's medicine is that it can be applied to any problem in life, to any situation in life, in your life. As I was saying, it can be in relation to a sickness, it can be in relation to your own dying, or it can be in relation to someone else dying; it can be a problem of relationship, it can be any situation in life - if you have discovered the medicine you will be able to really apply it to any situation in life, nothing is excluded.

Actually in a way, there is nothing more we can add, other than to emphasise the importance of really making a commitment to take the medicine, and also to develop the capacity, the skill, to see the Dhamma, the Buddha's teaching, in any situation, in any problem that you have to face in life.

So tomorrow and the day after tomorrow we will be really going into this question, the problems you might have to face in everyday life. We can discuss how in such situations - it can be any situation in life - in what way we can use the medicine to learn to heal ourselves, or to free ourselves of the suffering that is here.

Learn to be a nobody who cannot be hurt. So from being Somebody, the solution that is offered is learning to be nobody. And when you are nobody, how can anyone hurt you? How can there be any suffering for nobody, because a nobody has no expectations, ideas, models of how things should be. He is going about life without making any demands. So how can such a person suffer in this world?

So with the Four Noble Truths you can work in this way, to use the first two in relation to suffering and to find the cause of suffering. And then when there is no suffering - I am sure you have experienced moments when there is no suffering - to realise why there is no suffering. When you know there is no suffering - you realise: I am not making any demands and am just learning to see thing as they are. And this is what is resulting in the absence of suffering. So in everyday life if you can use the Four Noble Truths in this way, do you need anything else for your practice?

In any situation you can see: are you with the first Noble Truth, are you with the second one, or is there no suffering; and then what is the cause for no suffering? So isn't it within the reach of everyone of us, to learn to use the Four Noble Truths in everyday life in this way? If you have no time for sitting meditation, no problem. But if you can remember to remind yourself of these four aspects in everyday life in any situation, then you will be really using the medicine in a very effective and powerful way.

I think you asked the question yesterday about the Eight-fold Noble Path. In fact in the Four Noble Truths, the last Noble Truth is following the Eight-fold Noble Path. And the four sublime states - Metta, loving-kindness; Karuna, helping others in trouble; Mudita, sympathetic joy; and Upekkha, detachment, are also in a way part of the different aspects of the eight-fold Noble Path.

Questions about the Four Noble Truths

So now to any questions you have.

Retreatant: Is life possible without suffering?

Godwin: Yes. The answer to that is, in one word: yes.

I know exactly what is meant by the question. I think there are some people - as it is rightly said - for whom to be alive, to know that they are existing, they need to suffer. So there are some people who only come alive when there is suffering. It is taking extreme forms in this modern world, especially in the area of violence. There are people who only when they do something violent come alive. This is their way of relating to people.

Did you read about how in a school in America schoolchildren shot at other schoolchildren? Did you read that? So this is being alive! This is the only way they learn how to relate to people, by using violence. So when you read these things, when you hear these things, it shows the real importance of the Buddha's teachings. It is showing an entirely different direction to living, to being alive.

And the question is this: how to help such people? It is extremely difficult to help such people because they are so strongly conditioned to live in this way and this is the only way they know how to live.

Any other questions?

Retreatant: How can we work with anger about noise?

Godwin: I am very happy this question is asked. Because in everyday life you will hear babies crying; you will hear all kinds of noises around you. So this is a very good preparation for everyday life. So how does a meditator work with such a situation? Very good question, very practical situation. On one occasion I said, what we have to learn in such a situation is to observe, to watch our own mind functioning, and not be so much involved in the source of the noise, what is happening externally, but what is happening within us. You have to see that if the suffering is outside, then we would have to change the whole environment, something which we can never succeed in doing. But according to the Buddha's teaching - it is very difficult - the answer is not to try to change the environment but to bring about a change in oneself, inside yourself, and then whatever happens in the environment does not affect you.

So it is a very beautiful thing, in such a situation just to watch your reactions, to watch your monsters arising: anger, minuses, and so on. Then what is important is, if you can have a glimpse even for a few minutes: that child is crying - but there is no reaction. Then you have the realisation of the first Noble Truth and the second Noble Truth, that the problem is not what is happening externally; the solution is in what is happening inside you.

I call this: the lawnmower principle. I will explain what this lawnmower principle is. When I was giving a retreat in a large centre one time, there was a group of very serious, intense, meditators, and in the garden of the centre a member of the staff was using a lawnmower.

One of the meditators got very angry. So he went to the boss, the director of the centre, and said: Please stop that man using the lawnmower. So the boss came running to me and said: Now what do I do? I said: Please allow him to continue to use the lawn mover. And then in the evening discussion I said: Tomorrow also we are going to hear the lawnmower. And when you hear the lawnmower, do not move away from the sound of the lawnmower. Make that the object of meditation and see how far you can make friends with the sound of the lawnmower.

The following evening, in the discussion, this man stood up and said: I am very happy to share with the group that I have now made friends with the lawnmower! And on the last day he even took a photograph of himself with the lawnmower! And he sent me a copy of the photograph. So I call this the lawnmower-principle: it is very important in everyday life. So I hope tomorrow all day the babies will cry! And when they all cry let us use the lawnmower principle.

Retreatant: How can we come out from playing the role of a victim?

Godwin: In such a situation this is where sometimes a kind of reflecting meditation can be very helpful. Because sometimes in such situations you can come to conclusions. You can believe certain things in such situations. But how far are they valid, how far are they objective? So to really reflect and see, how far is my conclusion objective? It is interesting, one way of creating our own suffering sometimes, is that we like to play the victim: see, everyone has got together and done this to me! So poor me, I am the victim of other people's intrigues or whatever.

Are you really a victim, or did you create situations, which you might not be aware of, not be conscious of, where your own behaviour led to such a situation?

So this is why, when you can have a distance from such an incident, and if you can really reflect, you might be able to see that situation not only from one point of view, but from different viewpoints, from different angles. It is a very creative exercise to see something from different angles. We are so fixed with only one idea, one belief, we have not developed the skills of seeing it from different angles. One meaning of the Pali word vipassana is to see things in this way, with different perspectives. So such a reflection will enable you to see such a situation from different standpoints and not only from your one fixed conclusion.

And maybe it is also important to reflect: Is this a pattern in my life? Sometimes due to different situations we create certain patterns, and maybe in every job you ever had you have created a problem like this. So again to reflect: How far have I contributed to this? Is this a pattern in my life? So next time I get a job, I should be more conscious, more alert, more aware, so that I should not create this pattern, which maybe I am causing myself. So any more questions?

Retreatant: Isn't life diminished when we are not suffering?

Godwin: It is not an accurate way of describing life. Because what you have to understand is: when you have joy and absence of suffering, then still there is life! But the difference is that you relate to life in a different way. It is a wrong formulation to say that life is just suffering. A more correct way of saying it is: whatever has been conditioned is suffering. And when there is no conditioning there is an absence of suffering. So you can say while conditioning exists, this makes for suffering. That is a more accurate way of describing that statement. It brings us back to our practical problems in life.

Retreatant: How to work with anger due to a person who arrives late?

Godwin: You know, one solution is to come to Sri Lanka, because nothing and no one arrives on time! Not only human beings, but also trains come late, busses get late. You are lucky if there is a bus in the bus stand. So that kind of culture is very important for the practice. You cannot have any model, any expectation, of what should happen, because always it is very uncertain.

So when things happen on time, what happens is, it gives you a false sense of security: everything is under control. But life cannot be controlled. You really do not know what will happen in life. So the real security is to be open to insecurity, to be open to uncertainty. This is again a very hard, but a very deep teaching of the Buddha.

However, as you are not in Sri Lanka I will tell you how to function in Germany in such a situation. So here again it is the very same principle, to realise, to just watch, the reactions of your mind when the person is getting late. And in such a situation it is really fascinating to watch how with our thoughts we can create a huge story. It is fascinating to watch how we can use thoughts so destructively.

You can create a story in this way: this man is deliberately coming late, this man is consciously coming late. I know this man has always been punctual for other appointments, only when he comes to my appointments is this man coming late. He is a strange man, he is a funny man, he wants me to suffer. Hereafter I will make no more appointments with him! So in this way, until he comes, you can create a huge story. And that story is one thing, and the reality is another thing. And if you ask him: Why did you get late? he might come up with a very sad thing that has happened to him in the morning. So we really do not know. You cannot know why he is getting late.

So you should be grateful to such people because they are teaching you patience, and they are teaching you what suffering you go through because of impatience. One very good principle, one very good advice to follow is, in such situations, not to be surprised. Why are we surprised? Because we think - again it's a demand that we are making - we know how things should be, how things must be. And when things do not go according to that principle, we get surprised.

Actually they are really very good learning experiences in such situations. So please, don't see such situations as a problem, but rather as an opportunity to observe and look at what is happening in your own mind. Then you will be ready to come to Sri Lanka! And then, in Sri Lanka, if you can also learn not to be surprised, you will be very close to enlightenment!

Anything else?

Retreatant: How to work with the eight-fold path?

Godwin: Actually there are eight aspects which are related to: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. So this eight-fold path can be divided into three aspects, into three groups: the first is in relation to right actions, right behaviour, so it comes under morality, or in Pali sila, ethical behaviour. And another section is in relation to meditation, samadhi, or if you like, concentration. And the last stage is developing wisdom.

So it is a way to free ourselves of suffering, to develop our practice, where there will be ethical behaviour, moral behaviour, then cultivation of the mind through meditation, and then developing wisdom. When you develop these qualities, especially the quality of wisdom, then whatever happens, you learn to see things as they are. Or to put it in another way: you realise that there is no Somebody. So this is a way to find freedom, it is a way out of suffering, following this path, developing these qualities that I have mentioned.

Schedule for the Next Day

So this brings up what we might try to do tomorrow. So tomorrow we will meet in the morning as usual, then there will be breakfast. Then there is working meditation. And after working meditation there is no schedule until we meet after the evening meal for a short sitting and the discussion. So all these past days we had this schedule: you come here, I sit in front of you with this bell and tell you, now stand up, now sit down, now do this, now do that. It is like a classroom. Although I am doing it, I do not really enjoy it. So tomorrow there is no classroom, you have to be your own teacher. You have to be self-reliant. You have to take responsibility for what you are doing.

So there will be no given structure tomorrow. You have to discover your own structure. So what I would suggest for tomorrow is to go over all the things that we have been trying to practice during the last few days. And then, when you go over them, please find out, whether you have any doubts, any difficulties. Then in the evening we will meet and I will be going over some of the techniques. So if you have any difficulties, any questions, please ask them frankly.

And reflect on some of the discussions we have had about emotions, about relationships, about suffering and overcoming suffering, and see how far you can really relate them to your life. Be clear whether you have discovered the medicine and whether you have any doubts about that. And again, if there are any doubts please, as we did today, you can even write them down, and then hand them over to Paul.

And as Paul and Joseph have been teaching you body-work, some physical exercises, try to go over them and find out whether you remember them. And again if you have anything to find out, you can ask questions from them, and they will be ready to help you.

I will be available in my room. So please come and see me any time that you would like to meet me. Tomorrow the interviews will be in Sri Lankan-style! So you do not have to write your names down. Just come, and when you come you might see someone else there. So watch your mind. Are you getting frustrated? Are you suffering? Are you becoming impatient? You can then come again later, and then there is another person there! This is preparation for everyday life, having an appointment with disappointment!

And please practise silence during the day until the evening meal. Please, make an effort to do that. Please try to do that, the practice of silence. And in the evening, when you eat your meal, you can start to talk. In the Eight-fold Noble Path there is reference to right speech. Speech is a very, very important area in everyday life. Silence is certainly important. But I would say speech sometimes is even more important. Most of the problems in everyday life are due to wrong speech. I am sure you know this very well.

So tomorrow, when you speak, please see whether you can speak with some awareness of what you are going to say. Please make an effort to do that. We can learn a great deal from our speech, if we learn just to be attentive, just to know if we have enough sensitivity to make an effort to understand our speech. And also another very important aspect of speech is learning to listen. So when other people speak, please make an effort to see if you can really listen to a person. With what Thich Nhat Hanh calls deep listening. It is a very, very important skill to learn: just to listen to another person. Amongst the problems in relationships one of the biggest problems is this lack of communication, because you are not really listening to the other person.