The four noble truths formula is best known as one of the key insights gained by the Buddha on the night of his awakening, and has become a ubiquitous schema for organizing and presenting his teachings. Many books on Buddhism include four chapters corresponding to suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, and innumerable talks are organized along these lines as well.

The schema can also be regarded as a phenomenological device, guiding the meditator through a specific experiential landscape. The description of the four truths in the Establishment of Mindfulness Discourse (Majjhima Nikaya 10) culminates with the phrase “one is aware as it actually is, ‘this is suffering . . . this is the arising of suffering . . . this is the cessation of suffering . . . this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’” In this context the formula is a road map directing one’s insight into how experience is constructed and can be deconstructed, moment by moment.

I would like to suggest a third way in which the four truths formulation can be fruitfully used: as a template for social, economic, political, and environmental transformation. I imagine a four-part process of inquiry that can be implemented by any group of people, in any part of the world, under any circumstances. It might help to be led through the process by a skilled facilitator, but this is not strictly necessary. The method can be applied from the grassroots up, by local people with intimate knowledge of their own world and its own unique challenges.

The first step is to acknowledge suffering in all its manifestations by simply asking the question “In what ways are people suffering here?” This is an exercise of naming what is actually happening, of cataloging symptoms clearly and empirically, of depicting the manifestations of suffering, without trying to link any of it at this stage to larger issues. Perhaps these people are hungry or do not have access to clean water; or these people have no jobs; or these people have insufficient access to human rights or dignity; or these people are hated by another group of people; or . . . The list in many cases will be very long.

The second step is to take that list and see to what extent specific causes can be identified for each of the instances of suffering. In one case it might be a lack of money; in another a corrupt official, or perhaps a cultural bias, a recent environmental disaster, or a fundamentally unfair political system. The idea is to answer each item on the suffering list with a particular cause or set of causes. In some cases there will be a simple and local cause, in other cases there may be a long list of interrelated causes. But every instance of suffering will have a cause, and it may turn out that many forms of suffering are rooted in the same conditions.

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