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.
The third part of the process is to go through the itemized causes of suffering and ask what solutions might present themselves for each. The question in each case is this: “What has to change in order for this particular cause of this particular symptom of suffering to cease?” One will inevitably wind up investigating the multiple layers of interdependent conditions that shape and define any situation. At this stage the matter needs to be addressed theoretically rather than practically. Never mind whether a particular solution will work or not—just ask, “What has to be different than it is for this to stop?” (You may recognize here the causal logic of interdependent origination used by the Buddha on the night of his awakening.)
The final phase is to go through the results of all this work and sort out what can or cannot be done. There will surely be some things within reach that can be immediately addressed, even if these are very small things. Other matters will take much more time and effort, but a solution is at least in sight. One thing tends to lead to another, and many destinations can only be reached by taking an oblique path. There will also be things on the list that will seem impossible. But by mapping out their causes, one may be able to begin taking very small steps in the general direction of their solution.
All change in nature is incremental, and according to Buddhist teachings all transformation is gradual. Patience and diligence are powerful tools for personal internal change, and can be used just as effectively to bring about global external change. As the Buddha reminds us: “There is work involving a small amount of activity, small function, small engagements, and small undertakings, which, when it succeeds, is of great fruit” (Majjhima Nikaya 99).
Just as every mind is capable of liberation, regardless of its current state of toxicity, I would like to think that the world, too, is capable of purification, despite every challenge, if only the right formula is applied.
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