Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Four "Knowable" Truths, Part 1

The first teaching that the Buddha gave after his awakening was what has become known as "The Four Noble Truths." Many people have some difficulty with that title. Why "noble?" What does this mean? How does the word "noble" relate to the teachings themselves? It can be so confusing that once, at a Spirit Rock retreat, Phillip Moffitt half-jokingly polled the retreatants to see if we could come up with a better word.

In the Pali language (as spoken by the Buddha), this teaching is entitled cattāri ariyasaccāni, which literally translates as "The Four Aryan Truths," and refers, apparently, to the Indo-Aryan race of people. Arya, in Sanskrit, translates as meaning "civilized," so in that way "noble" has some credence.

As I often do, however, I got out my trusty dictionary and looked up the etymology of "noble." It turns out that the word comes from the Latin "nobilis" meaning "well known," and from an earlier version, "gnobilis," meaning "knowable." Therefore, whoever came up with "noble" as the title of this teaching may have been on the right track, albeit inadvertently.

I have two primary reasons for renaming this teaching. The first is that these truths are knowable. They are not ancient writings that have nothing to do with how we can operate more effectively in the world. On the contrary, these are living, relevant teachings that we can know and apply in modern daily life. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point of the teachings, there is a component to these truths that insists on the knowing of them.

When we apply these Knowable Truths, either in our meditation practice or in daily life, we go through two stages: 1) the recognition of the Truth as being present, and 2) the knowing that the Truth is present. For example, we can work our way through the first three Knowable Truths (the Truth of Suffering, the Truth of the Cause of Suffering, and the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering) this way: "There is suffering, and the knowing of it; there is a cause of suffering, and the knowing of it; there is the abandonment of the suffering, and the knowing of it."

Such is the genius of this teaching that, taken together, these three Truths provide the entire foundation of the Dharma, or the teachings of the Buddha. They are all the teachings we need to help us diminish or even eliminate suffering (at least temporarily) in our daily life. We can realize these three Truths during our meditation practice, and we can then take what we learn in practice and actualize it in our daily life.

In a series of postings to follow, I will be examining each of the Four Knowable Truths in order, including a new perspective on the Fourth Knowable Truth: the Knowable Eightfold Path. Stay tuned...




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