The Four Noble Inter-Truths

Thich Nhat Hanh at Sarnath, October 21-22, 2008 Banara Shoreline Allan Hunt Badiner photo

No fewer than 50 monks and nuns from Plum Village, and another 50 more monks from the local Tibetan Institute, as well as 200 lay members of his delegation, and other lucky onlookers sat on the landscaped lawn opposite the imposing Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath to hear Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) speak about the Four Noble Truths.  Over 100 feet high and delicately carved with geometrical and floral patterns, the stupa marks the area where the Buddha gave his first sermon, not coincidentally, on the Four Noble Truths.

The Dhamek Stupa has special significance to modern Buddhism as it is the site where in 1835 British archeologist Alexander Cunningham had his hunch confirmed Sarnath was a significant place in the life of the mysterious “Booda,” and proceeded to uncover the many sites of Buddhaland and their significance. Built in the spot of many earlier constructions as excavations reveal ancient brickwork, the stupa was partially destroyed by Moslems in 1194, and when workmen were removing more stone from it in 1794 they broke into a casket later discovered to have contained remnants of the Buddha’s remains.

At the base of the stupa, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun, Thay appeared to represent a kind of return of the Buddha to the scene. He contextualized the Four Noble Truths in light of the concept of “interbeing”- that nothing or no one exists alone, that all things exist in relation to all other things.  “In each of the four truths is found the other three,? explained Thay.  To understand suffering is to realize the causes, and when the causes are understood, the way to stop them are understood.  “The teaching of the Buddha is not about suffering,” Thay pointed out as he smiled widely, “it is about how to be happy.”

“There can be no joy without suffering.” In what might be described as the “no pain-no gain” school of Buddhism, Thay clarified how our willingness to face our loneliness and pain can bring us more understanding, and it is this understanding that forms the foundation for true joy.  “We push away our suffering with consumption, and then we lose the opportunity to transform it–Suffering and happiness inter-are since suffering is essential for growth and for learning compassion.”

Thay pointed out that the eightfold path to end suffering was not so formidable or difficult as is often believed and that in each moment there is the opportunity for right action. “Send someone an email today? tell them you understand their pain.”

Following the teaching, Thay led the hundreds of listeners in walking meditation around the stupa and then through the park to the Mulagandha Kuti Temple, erected by the Mahabodhi Society, for a short service. A caravan of buses brought the delegation back to Banaras, where many of the participants organized visits to the burning ghats, or to music concerts at the Ganges View Hotel, or out for some late evening shopping in the narrow lanes of the ancient city.

The city of Banaras itself, aside from its nearby suburb of Sarnath, is important in the history of Buddhism, no less in the history of human civilization itself.  The oldest continuing urban culture on the planet, Banaras remains essentially the same as when the Roman empire was at its peak, or when Athens was in its finest glory.  Banarsi citizens dress in the same way, eat the same foods, and live in the same relationship to its holy river Ganga, as they did since before recorded time.  Mark Twain once visited the city and wrote that it was “older than history itself.”

The Buddha was no stranger to Banaras.  In his early days of searching for the truth of our human predicament, the city was the great urban center of his world. It was here that he studied with the most respected Brahman teachers, met his peers who later became his disciples, and practiced what he learned in the great Forest of Bliss on the city’s edge–home to seekers and sadhus from all over India.

Still chaotic and charismatic as it is colorful and claustrophobic, the ancient alleyways leading to the ghats of the holy river are the heart and soul of sacred India, a place of pilgrimage, daily devotion, and death.  Also known as Kashi and Varanasi, the City of Shiva may be known as the most auspicious place to die, yet it is certainly bursting with life!

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