Totality of Perception and the Four Noble Truths

From the Book


By Samdhong Rinpoche


Whatever method is adopted, the goal of meditation should be to achieve a state of mind which is a totality of perception.  Buddhists recognize four different types of perception:


First, there is ordinary perception by the sensory mind (indriya jnana) which comes to us through our eyes, ears, and so on.


Secondly, there is mano-vijnana or inner perception which                 remains only for a short period of time with an ordinary person, for it is almost immediately disturbed and destroyed by relative or associated thoughts.


The third is svasamvedana which means the perception of the mind or consciousness itself. This is also perceived in the ordinary state.


The fourth is yoga perception which can only be achieved when one has developed one-pointedness of mind through the practice of meditation.  After we have achieved the yoga perception, we shall be able to meditate on many phenomena. At present there is no way by which we can perceive sunyata or anityata (the changeableness of compounded things).  We know about these things only by inference.  In other words, our mind only learns through logic and reason about some facts which we are not able to perceive in any other way.  But when a meditator develops one-pointedness of mind and achieves samatha, he will be able to proceed further.  Thus after samatha he will achieve prajna, or the wisdom which knows the Truth; then vipassana, or sight, which will enable him to venture out into the unknown, of which a person in the ordinary state of mind has no conception.


In Buddhism, devotional types of meditation such as dhyana, Samadhi and samapatti, are not considered important.  What is regarded as important is the development of the power of enquiry, discrimination and analysis, and this can only be achieved through vipassana when the mind is in the same concentrated state as in samatha. But in samatha the mind remains concentrated on one point only, while in the state of  vipassana it is not centred.  On the contrary, it enquires, things and analysis without distraction or sinking; it remains its full energy.  It is in this state of mind that a person should meditate on the Four Noble Truths- the reality of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the nature of the cessation of suffering.


In his first sermon, the Buddha repeated the Four Noble Truths three times to his five disciples, and in this first message he gave the entire doctrine of Buddhism.  He expanded and repeated them in accordance with the mental development of his disciples, expanding them, as it were, step by step.  In this first exposition, the Buddha simply enumerated the Four Noble Truths saying: “This is the truth of suffering, this is the truth of the cause of suffering, this is the cessation of suffering, and this is the way to achieve the cessation of suffering.”  When his disciples had thought over, meditated on and contemplated this, he gave them further guidance.  He said: “The truth of suffering must be known, the cause of suffering should be eradicated, the cessation of suffering must be achieved, and the way of the achievement of the cessation of suffering must be practised.” Thus he added something to the Truths by not only pointing out the reality of suffering but by declaring that it must be eradicated.  The cessation of suffering must therefore be achieved and the way to the achievement of the cessation of suffering must be practised.  The disciples meditated again.  Then the Buddha gave the third sermon:  “The truth of suffering must be known, but there is nothing to be known; the cause of suffering must be eradicated, but there is no such cause to be eradicated; the cessation of suffering must be achieved, but there is no such thing to be achieved; the way which leads to the cessation of suffering must be practised, but there is no such way to be practised.”  This was the culmination of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths.

It is clear from this that the Buddha first made certain statements that pointed to a reality.  First he simply stated the subject; then, the “musts” were added to the initial statements; and, finally, he negated all the statements he had previously made.  This indicates to any meditator who begins to experience a transcendental state of mind, the necessity for proceeding gradually.  If he follows this hint, he will reach a state where the meditator, the object of meditation and the act of meditation all dissolve into nothingness, into voidness.  In short, we could say that whatever is perceived by us in our ordinary state of mind must be dissolved or transformed.


There must be a change.  And this change in the present working condition of our mind is the purpose of meditation; it is the beginning of meditation.  Once this transformation takes place, there is neither a beginning nor an end because there is no measurement in time.  We might call it a realization of Is-ness, of things as they are, or the dissolution of the mind into a higher state of consciousness. 


There is something that troubles me and perhaps troubles all of us.  We have all well-developed personalities; we have had a good education; we enjoy taking part in serious discussions about the spiritual life.  We think, read, study and enquire into these matters in depth.  From time immemorial there have been numerous religious systems, traditions, doctrines, philosophies and schools, yet man is unable to end the suffering of all living beings in general and of his own species in particular.  Actually, his suffering seems to have become more acute although he is supposed to have reached the highest level of consciousness and to be evolving in accordance with the theory of evolution.  But is that so? Is man’s level of consciousness of a high order and is it developing or unfolding to an ever higher state?  Experience reveals that it is not developing, but rather deteriorating.


Man has acquired great knowledge in the fields of science, technology and in all temporal, material fields and by it he has provided himself with all that is necessary for living a more comfortable life.  But the misery of the mind – the inner body – does not seem to be decreasing.  We may discuss subjects of a lofty nature in the fields of philosophy and religion, but our thoughts on philosophical subjects become immaterial and are left high and dry in the face of the stark reality of conflict, contradiction and disorder in the every day lives of so many people.  Even in one single day, whether during the morning or evening, whether we are sleeping, eating or talking, our minds are always in a state of contradiction and conflict between “I”, or my present individual self and “the others”, or society.  Having observed all this, one may wonder what is the use of all these great systems, doctrines and philosophies, since we are not able to apply their principles to the upliftment of humanity. The suffering of mankind is not an illusion, it is not ‘maya’ as many like to think; it is a fact – a reality of life which has to be faced by everyone.  And we, so-called spiritual people, have become almost helpless under these circumstances.  We are not only incapable of doing good to the world at large but we are not able to be helpful to even a single individual. 


When I was a child, I was placed in a monastery to become a monk – a good person who would benefit a large number of people.  But looking back on my life, I cannot think of one person who has become more peaceful or less violent as a result of my talks or of my contact with him.  It seems to be that we were not able to do anything for other people; we can only help ourselves.  I wonder then whether it is of any use to hope that in the future we shall be able to help with the upliftment of mankind.  It may be worthwhile to consider the following questions: 

  1. 1.      Even if we are not able to help the entire community, is there any method by which people could develop through our contact with them and be inspired to live a better or more spiritual kind of life?
  2. 2.      Are we really incapable of benefiting even a single person by bringing about some change in his mind?
  3. 3.      Would it be better to do something about our personal transformation and development first?


Perhaps we could diffuse more loving – kindness or give a message which would make people less violent and the world a happier place to live in.  Then mankind might advance towards the discovery and realization of Truth. 


We do many things, but when we seriously examine ourselves at the end of every action, perhaps nothing has resulted from the effort.  Let us, for instance, examine what has happened to the effort which was put into this course for a group of international students.  A large number of good and mature people have spent a number of hours patiently listening to these talks.  I, myself, came here from a distant city and have been struggling with the English language in order to explain certain things to you.  But if we look closely at the entire programme it might seem to have been absolutely useless.  What I had to say, I have said; and when I sat off for Varanasi there will be nothing to carry away with me because nothing has happened and I have achieved nothing.  When I talked to you about meditation, I just repeated words that may just as well have been done by a parrot.  These words were noted by you in much the same way as words read in the newspaper – “Oh yes, this was said and that happened”, and so forth.  This is exactly what happens in the course of our entire life; this tendency is visible in all our activities which are too often valueless and useless.  To feel one’s way through life, to earn one’s livelihood and to talk casually about philosophical or spiritual subjects neither benefits people in general nor any individual in particular. I may be wrong in thinking that there is no hope or sign of encouragement in the present-day world.  Mankind is facing serious problems and no one – neither the politicians nor the religious leaders – seem to have a solution for them.  They all appear to be busy but people are still suffering. 


Is there, then, any possibility of freedom from these difficulties?  Can we find a more effective solution for the problems which face us today – the deterioration of moral values, corruption, poverty, disorder and violence?  Everywhere people are talking about human misery and seem to be seriously concerned about it; can we not find a solution and change the world?


Among the many people who talk about these problems it seems as if there must be a number who have the necessary will-power and determination to eradicate at least some of them.  But perhaps, after all, people are not so seriously concerned with humanity’s predicament except when they themselves are personally involved.  They talk about violence and wars, but our inner consciousness remains unmoved.  We may say, “it is a bad war,” but we do not have the force of mind even to wish that wars should end unless, as we said, our own lives are in danger.  Similarly, we may read in the newspaper that people were killed, but our minds are not moved.  We may talk about it, but it is only talk, and we never use our mental force towards the ending of such problems.  We may vaguely think about it, but our total mental force is not directed towards ending violence so that in the future mankind will not suffer this kind of immorality.


The Buddha taught us that suffering is a truth.  It is a daily truth, because everybody suffers.  The cause of suffering will not cease unless we try to find out what it is.  There is something lacking in us, and so the question of how to tread the way by which suffering is eradicated never seriously arises. 


Serious suffering continues to be present in the world today.  Is there anything we can do for humanity in general, or any thing we can bring about in our personal, individual self?  Can we perhaps think of something which will be immediately effective in bringing about a change for the better? 


Dr Darius H Umrigar MD(AM)

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