Meditation for Awakening to the Noble Truth of Suffering

The Four Noble Truths are regarded as the central teaching of the Buddhist tradition and provide the framework upon which all other Buddhist philosophy and meditations are based. These noble truths are as follows: the truth of suffering, the truth of the origin of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of this suffering.

These four truths are based on the realizations of the prince Siddhartha, who would later reach enlightenment to become the Buddha Shakyamuni. It is said that the Buddha’s very first teachings after attaining enlightenment were these teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

Prince Siddhartha’s early life in India was one of great wealth and privilege, where he was given every luxury imaginable. But he soon realized that none of these comforts were bringing him true happiness, and he began to venture outside the palace walls.

On these early trips, the young prince was first exposed to the sufferings of impermanence. As he toured the town, he saw the sick, the aging, and the dying people in the streets. He recognized that, in spite of all the comforts one may possess, no one can avoid the sufferings of sickness, old age, and death.

As he continued to venture from the palace, Prince Siddhartha also saw a meditator and was introduced to the idea of a spiritual life. This was the moment in which he saw that there was another way to live.

At this point, he abandoned his life as a prince and renounced the kingdom. He dedicated his life to spiritual practice and eventually came to the profound realization of enlightenment. Through this awakening, he came to recognize the Four Noble Truths, including the Noble Eightfold Path, which outlines the essence of Buddhist practice and provides eight practical instructions that lead to the cessation of all suffering.

These eight interconnected factors are to be developed simultaneously in our lives, and they instruct us on the following ways to live: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Shamatha Meditation

The most effective method to begin cultivating some realization of the First Noble Truth, the noble truth of suffering, is to practice shamatha meditation. Through gradually training our minds to remain focused on one object of meditation for a period of time, we start to familiarize ourselves with the underlying thought patterns and afflictive emotions that cause so much restlessness and suffering in our lives.

To those who have not done any meditation, shamatha practice may at first sound very easy or relaxing. We are instructed to focus on one single object, most often a blue flower or our breath.

As we begin this practice, we discover it is actually very challenging to sit still. The mind is constantly distracted with racing thoughts and conflicting emotions. What we believed might be relaxing is actually very difficult at first! Our physical bodies are filled with discomfort and our minds suddenly seem even more restless and distracted than ever before. This early stage is crucial to our recognition of the nature of suffering. Though observing this discomfort, we begin to see that we are always running away from these feelings. When we cease to distract ourselves with worldly activities, we notice that there is tremendous suffering just beneath the surface of even a seemingly happy or privileged life.

If we persevere with our shamatha practice for a period of time, we will begin to gain some experience. There are five different levels of realization in shamatha meditation, which are compared to different states of water, ranging from the first stage, in which the mind is a waterfall of rushing thoughts, to the fifth stage, in which the mind has attained a state like that of an ocean without waves.

At this fifth level of shamatha meditation, we have reached a stage of very good attention without much distraction and disturbance. When we experience this fifth level of concentration, we will observe that our minds have become very clear and mindful. Now the shamatha meditation can become the base on which we cultivate more insight meditation.

With that insight, we will begin to see something that we have never seen before. We will begin to recognize that what we have believed was real in the past is not actually true. Perhaps the Four Noble Truths are called “noble truths” because they help us to move beyond our conditioning toward a more accurate view of the reality of our human existence.

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Excerpted from Awakening to the Noble Truth, © 2014, by Lama Migmar Tseten.

Lama Migmar Tseten has served as Buddhist chaplain at Harvard University since 1997 and is founder of the Sakya Institute for Buddhist Studies in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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