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From the Two Truths, the Four Truths; from the Four Truths, the Three Precious Gems

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, May 2012

Session Two: From the Two Truths, the Four Truths

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:41 hours)

Today I’d like to continue with our discussion from last night, in which we were speaking about how from the two truths you get the four truths and from the four truths you get the three refuges, which although it sounds very technical, nevertheless actually is a very practical type of approach.

Working toward a Spiritual Goal

If we are aiming for a spiritual goal, there are two ways of working toward that:

  • One is to just have faith that it is possible to achieve that goal, and on the basis of that faith then you work toward it, and as you proceed further and further through your training, you eventually become convinced that it is possible to achieve that goal. In other words, if the goal is to overcome and eliminate your suffering so that you never suffer again, and if you have faith that it actually is possible to achieve that, then as you work toward it, if your suffering gets less and less and less, then you become convinced that “Well, maybe it actually is possible to achieve that goal.” And as part of your progress toward that goal, you study more, you learn more, you meditate more, and through that you become convinced logically as well that that goal is attainable.

  • The second way is to first become convinced through reason and logic that the goal is attainable, and then you work toward it.

These are the two approaches that are usually discussed in terms of the two methods of developing bodhichitta, if we want to put it into the classical Buddhist formula.

First you develop relative bodhichitta, which is aiming for your own future enlightenment that hasn’t happened yet but can happen, and you want to do that to benefit everyone. So you have faith that it’s possible to attain it, because you realize that the only way that you’re really going to be able to help everybody is if you attain this state in which you understand fully cause and effect and how to help everybody.

And then as you progress further and further, you develop what’s called deepest bodhichitta, which is the understanding of voidness – which we were discussing yesterday – to put it in very simple words, that things don’t exist in impossible ways. So you understand reality. And when you understand reality, you understand that it is possible to see reality, that the nature of the mind is capable of not projecting fantasy but just perceiving reality itself. So that goal is attainable. You understand it logically.

But the other approach that we can have is first to develop that understanding of reality, which means we understand that enlightenment is possible – so deepest bodhichitta first – and then on that basis you are convinced that you can attain enlightenment, and then you work toward it. And we find the second approach in one of the texts by Nagarjuna, a great Indian master, called A Commentary on Bodhichitta [Bodhichittavivarana].

And this second approach, where we become convinced logically that it is possible to achieve enlightenment first, is paraphrased with this verse that we’re discussing: “from the two truths, the four truths; from the four truths, the Three Refuges.” So the whole purpose of this is to help us to understand that liberation from suffering so that it never recurs and enlightenment so that we understand absolutely everything – that that actually is possible; it’s based on reality. And when we are convinced that it actually is possible – and moreover that I’m capable of achieving that, not that just Buddha Shakyamuni was able to do it – then it gives us a great deal of strength and stability in our spiritual practice. Although it’s not terribly easy to understand, nobody ever said that it was easy.

So in our short time together that’s what we’re trying to begin, the process of thinking about, trying to figure out, and gain some conviction that liberation and enlightenment actually is possible.

The Two Truths

Yesterday we discussed this first line:

By knowing the meaning of the two truths, which is the foundation, the way in which all things abide,

So the foundation in which this whole discussion rests is the presentation of the two truths, which are the two truths about how everything exists, how everything functions (the way in which all things abide is the way it’s said in the text). And these two truths about everything are both equally true:

  • The first truth about things, in the context of our discussion here, is that things arise dependent on causes and conditions. And of course we can go further: things are dependent on their parts; things are dependent on what the concepts for them refer to. There are many different levels of what things depend on, but in this context the main point is cause and effect, cause and effect not just in a physical sense but also in terms of an experiential sense, particularly in terms of our experience of happiness and unhappiness in relation to the compulsiveness of karma.

  • And the deepest truth about things is that although things might not appear like that to us because of our projections; those deceptive appearances, impossible ways of existing, do not correspond to reality. So there’s something totally absent – voidness is the term for it – which is an actual corresponding referent to the garbage that our minds project.

So these are two facts about everything, everything that happens, everything that we experience in our life. It’s coming from causes and conditions and does not exist in any sort of impossible way, which would be like isolated just by itself without any causes and conditions.

The Four Noble Truths

So it’s on the basis of reality that Buddha then was able to understand what he formulated in terms of the four truths. So that’s the second line:

We become certain about how, through the four truths, we keep entering but also can reverse our uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

Now, as I explained yesterday, the four truths, usually called the “four noble truths,” these are seen as being true by highly realized beings. Which is an interesting point; it means that it’s not just Buddha who sees these as being facts and being true, but those who have reached a certain stage before Buddhahood – quite a long way before Buddhahood actually – when they reach this stage they’re able to see that these four facts are true. And at what stage does this occur? This occurs when you have nonconceptual cognition of voidness, of reality. So it’s totally accurate, totally decisive, this understanding or perception of voidness, and it’s nonconceptual, which means that you’re not perceiving it through a category, the category voidness.

When we think through a category, like the category dog – when you think of a dog, you have something that represents a dog. And for everybody that could be slightly different, what represents a dog when you think of a dog. So when you see a dog on the street or in your home, you perceive it through this category and through this image that you might have of what a dog is, and you sort of fit it together. When you perceive something nonconceptually, it’s without all this – a category and something that represents it – it’s just straightforward. The technical term is that it’s bare or it’s naked, in a sense, of these other things. You perceive it and you know what it is without having to fit it into the box voidness. These categories are like boxes that you fit everything into when you perceive things. And things don’t exist in boxes is the point.

So these beings, these highly realized beings, the Sanskrit word is aryas, they perceive reality without putting it into a box of reality: “Now I’m seeing reality.” They understand fully, accurately, and decisively what they’re perceiving – they perceive reality – but they do that without fitting it into this box reality or voidness. That’s what it means in simple language. That’s not so easy. Even though we might not verbalize the box that we put things into, that’s the usual way in which we perceive everything – we put it into boxes, as if things existed in boxes by themselves, separate from everything else, in its own box.

Anyway there’s no need in our present context to explain further about conceptual cognition. The point being that you don’t have to be a Buddha to be able to perceive reality in this way. And when we can perceive reality in this way, then we can perceive what’s called the four truths, the four noble truths, as being true – we’re accurate about it, we’re certain about it – and we see that nonconceptually.

So what are these four truths? The first one is suffering. The second one is the cause of suffering. Third one is the stopping of suffering and its causes. And the fourth is the path, meaning the understanding that acts as a path, that will lead to this and result from it. And there’re called truths, so true suffering, true cause, etc.

And this entire discussion is within the context of rebirth, which means beginningless and endless individual mental continuums. And we discussed that just a little bit last night, and there really isn’t time to go further into that, but this is also a foundation here. It has to do with cause and effect. Remember we discussed about the moment-to-moment individual experiencing of things? If it’s operating in terms of cause and effect from moment to moment, then it can’t have an absolute beginning in which it starts from nothing, so that cause and effect doesn’t operate in terms of how it starts. And it doesn’t have an effect the last minute so it turns into a nothing. So that’s impossible. So from just the basic truth of cause and effect, you have to conclude that individual mental continuums have no beginning and no end, so therefore rebirth.

True Suffering

So what is true suffering? There are three aspects to it:

  • There is our usual unhappiness. That’s called the suffering of suffering. Right? Unhappiness. It’s interesting. It’s not necessarily the same as pain. When we talk about happiness and unhappiness, and we talk about pleasure and pain, those are two different things. Pleasure and pain are physical sensations, whereas happiness and unhappiness are states of mind. So there are some people that experience pain and are happy that they’re experiencing pain, and some people are experiencing pleasure and they’re very unhappy about it. So these are two different variables. So we’re talking about unhappiness, and we all know what that’s like, and that’s described in terms of worse types of rebirth filled with all sorts of suffering and terrible unhappiness.

  • Then the second type of suffering is called the suffering of change, and it’s referring to our ordinary happiness. And the problem with our ordinary happiness is that it never lasts, it never satisfies – we always want more – and if we have too much of it, then we get annoyed, and it turns into unhappiness. Like eating too much of your favorite food at one time makes you sick, and then you don’t want to eat any more, and so you’re unhappy about it. So this is a problem; this is not satisfactory, not stable. And what happens is that in our ordinary life it goes up and down, so sometimes we’re feeling happy, sometimes unhappy, and it goes up and down. And there’s no security, because regardless of what is going on around us, you never know how you’re going to feel in the next moment. All of sudden, you might feel unhappy; you might feel bored. It just goes up and down, up and down all the time.

  • The third level of suffering, the third type of suffering, is called the all-pervasive suffering, and it’s the basis for our experiencing the up and down of unhappiness and ordinary happiness. And the basis for that is our uncontrollably recurring existence or rebirth – in Sanskrit that’s the word samsara – we keep on being reborn over and over again with a type of body, a type of mind, that’s going to be the basis for experiencing the up and downs of ordinary happiness and unhappiness. So this is the true suffering, the true problem. That’s the main suffering that one would see if you see reality.

True Cause of Suffering

Now, if you see reality, this is a situation where we experience the up and down, up and down, and there’s a basis for it continuing, and it just goes on and on and on. This is the reality that one sees is true. And when we see this, then because we understand reality, we understand that this has to happen because of a cause. Remember, the main point of relative truth is that all these things arise from a cause. So what is the true cause of this? What is the true cause for why, as it says in the verse, we keep entering our uncontrollably recurring rebirth? In other words, how does it happen? What is the cause for perpetuating this repeating cycle?

What did we see in our discussion last night? We saw that we can understand that if we are experiencing unhappiness it’s the result of destructive behavior, and if we’re experiencing ordinary happiness it’s the result of constructive behavior. But we have to add here the translation of the word karma, which I’m translating these days as compulsive. So it is compulsive destructive behavior or compulsive constructive behavior. We’re not talking about the constructive behavior of what a Buddha does. We’re talking about compulsive constructive behavior, somebody who is compulsively doing good which is based on an ego trip, compulsively having to be perfect and do everything right. It can be quite neurotic.

So if we are acting in a compulsive way, as we saw a little bit last night, this is because of being under the influence of disturbing emotions. We discussed that in terms of compulsive destructive behavior. So out of anger we might kill somebody. Out of greed we might steal something. Out of naivety we might think that the way that we act has no consequence: We’re not going to get caught. It doesn’t matter. If I steal, it’ll be fun. This type of naive type of attitude.

So what is behind this type of compulsive destructive behavior is unawareness. Unawareness (ma-rig-pa) is often translated as ignorance. So what are we unaware of? The first level of it is that we’re unaware of cause and effect. If you really understood and were fully convinced – understand means accurate and fully convinced of cause and effect – then you wouldn’t act destructively, because you would know that “If I act destructively, ultimately I’m going to suffer from that. I’m going to feel unhappy. I’m going to experience unhappiness.” We’re not talking about punishment; we’re just talking about what is the cause for why we feel unhappy a lot of the time.

When we talk about unawareness, there’s two types. Either we just don’t know that acting in a destructive way is going to ultimately bring unhappiness to us, or the other way is that we think in the opposite way: we think that “if I act destructively, it’s going to bring me happiness. If I steal, it’s going to make me happy. If I kill my enemy, it’s going to make me happy.” And even though immediately after acting destructively, we might feel happy – “Ah, I killed that mosquito,” and now we’re really happy that we got rid of this – nevertheless if we talk in terms of long-term consequences (that no matter what’s going on, sometimes we feel unhappy), this is because of this destructive behavior, and that comes from this unawareness of cause and effect, of relative truth.

Now, I won’t pretend that that’s easy to understand, what I just said, in a few sentences. It’s not. Obviously only when you’ve reached this very high level are you fully convinced of that and understand it fully, but it’s something that one needs to work with. But the deepest cause is that I haven’t understood cause and effect, that I feel unhappy because I haven’t understood what the cause of unhappiness is, which is this destructive behavior, which means to act under the influence of disturbing emotions. In other words, to use a Western way of saying it, my mind is filled with anger and greed and naivety and jealousy and arrogance and all these things, and that leads me to act compulsively, and on the basis of that, I’m going to feel unhappy a lot of the time, to put it in a very simple way. That’s the connection that we need to make.

And in terms of the happiness that we perceive that we experience, this comes from an unawareness of the deepest truth of things. Actually, to be more accurate, we’d need to say that unawareness of the deepest truth underlies both constructive and destructive behavior. So for destructive, you have both unawareness of deepest truth and relative truth. And for constructive compulsive behavior, you just have unawareness of deepest truth. So I’ll explain that.

We spoke about this also a little bit yesterday when we spoke about how it might appear from this voice going on in our heads that there’s a little me sitting inside that’s the subject, the one that is worried all the time – “What should I do?” etc. – and always wants to get its own way, but that is not corresponding to reality. There is no such thing. We exist, but we don’t exist like a little figure in our head. So when we are unaware of that, unaware of how we exist – so we’re unaware of deepest reality – then we identify with this projection of the fantasy of this little me inside. And because it doesn’t correspond to reality, we feel insecure about it. So being insecure, we try to make ourselves secure, and of course it can never succeed. You can never feel secure; you always feel insecure no matter what you do.

And one mechanism is these disturbing emotions. So we feel that if “I can just get something to me, that’s going to make me secure,” so we have greed and attachment and lust. Or “If I can just get it away from me, I’ll feel secure,” so that’s anger, repulsion. Or naivety: “If I just pretend that whatever’s threatening me doesn’t exist and I am in a state of denial, that’ll make me secure.” Well, on that basis we have destructive behavior. You act on the basis of anger, so you kill, you yell, you hurt others. Or greed: you steal. Or you engage in inappropriate sexual behavior that’ll hurt somebody. Or naivety about the fact that you have feelings and that you will be hurt be what I say, and so I can say all sorts of cruel words to you but so what? So that’s destructive behavior, both naivety about deepest truth – how we exist – and then the naivety about cause and effect in terms of acting destructively.

And in terms of constructive behavior, although we might not act on the basis of disturbing emotions, nevertheless there is still this naivety underlying it or confusion or unawareness about how we exist. So we try to prove or establish that we exist by being perfect, by being good, by always being the good mother, or something like that – “This will make this sense of a solid me feel secure” – and of course it never succeeds; you never feel secure. Well, because we’re doing something constructive, like helping others, helping our children, and so on – okay, you’ll feel a little bit of happiness, but it’s ordinary happiness. It’s not going to last, it’s never going to satisfy, and so on, because it’s based on this unawareness of how we exist, the deepest level.

So the third type of suffering, what’s the cause of that, of the continuing basis for experiencing the up and down of unhappiness and ordinary happiness? Here we have a very complicated scheme called the “twelve links of dependent arising.” I will not explain all of that to you, since we don’t have time, but just explain a little bit the relevant points to our discussion. Okay. Now, to put it quite simply, karma, you remember, is referring to compulsiveness. On the basis of compulsion, we act in a certain way; it could be destructive or constructive.

Compulsion. What does that mean? Compulsion has the connotation that you don’t really have control over it, like somebody compulsively tapping their fingers. And that is arising from – I should have said it first – you feel like doing something. I feel like yelling at you, or I feel like giving you a big hug. The Tibetan word for it is just “I want to do it,” “I wish to do that,” “I like to do that.” It has these meanings. And then this factor of compulsion comes in, and then you do it. And then, to simplify it, that builds up a certain tendency to repeat that action and the tendency to experience unhappiness if it was a destructive action or happiness if it was a constructive action, ordinary happiness. And then this tendency is going to be activated at some point by certain conditions, and then it ripens, and so we feel happy, or we feel unhappy or I would like to yell again at you, or I would like to give you a hug. And so this is a perpetuating scheme – it goes on and on and on – because we’re constantly experiencing this wish to continue this type of behavior, if we talk on that level, so that type of pattern of behavior repeats and repeats and repeats, and we’re always experiencing this up and down of happiness and unhappiness.

Now, the interesting question, the relevant question, is: How do these tendencies get activated to produce the result so that you feel like repeating the behavior? What’s explained very elegantly with the twelve links, although it’s extremely complex, is that we’re experiencing happiness and unhappiness, this up and down. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or anything. Even when we’re asleep, maybe we’re in an in-between state, that sometimes we don’t sleep very well and we’re not really very happy. In any case, we’re experiencing this. And how do we experience it? What is our state of mind while we are experiencing unhappiness and happiness, ordinary happiness? The Sanskrit word for it is thirst (trshna). It’s usually translated as craving, but the actual word that’s used in Sanskrit means thirst. So when we are experiencing unhappiness, we’re just dying of thirst to get rid of it, like you want to get rid of being thirsty. And when we’re experiencing happiness, we don’t want to be separated from it, and we want more. It’s like when you’re really thirsty and you take the first sip – that’s not enough, is it? You don’t want to be parted from that. You want more. And then what kicks in, what comes in, is this grasping for a solid me – “I have to get rid of this unhappiness,” “I have to not be rid of this happiness” – this is what activates these karmic tendencies, this state of mind. Okay? Now, this is then the true cause of this all-pervasive suffering.

These tendencies to experience happiness, unhappiness, and so on – they’re coming from, remember, compulsive behavior mixed with disturbing emotions, and that comes from our unawareness of reality, deepest level – how we exist – and in terms of destructive behavior, also unawareness of relative reality, relative truth, cause and effect. So the actual basic cause is this unawareness of how we exist, because that’s with both constructive and destructive behavior. So that’s the real troublemaker that causes these tendencies to be there, tendencies to feel happy, unhappy, and to repeat our behavior. And if we look also at this thirst, this craving – “I’ve got to get rid of this unhappiness” or “I’ve got to not be rid of this happiness. I have to have more” – what’s coming with that is again this unawareness of how I exist, that I’m the one, me me me, and it’s so important that I not be parted from happiness, it’s so important that I not be unhappy, as opposed to “Okay, I’m happy or unhappy. So what?” and not making a big deal out of it.

So that true cause for why we keep on perpetuating our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, the foundation for up-and-down suffering, is our unawareness of the two truths, of reality.

True Stopping of the Causes of Suffering

The third truth is true stopping, a true stopping of the cause of suffering and therefore a true stopping of suffering. So why is it possible to remove forever this unawareness about reality? Why? Because when you perceive or project what is unreal, what doesn’t correspond to reality, there’s no foundation for it. It doesn’t correspond to reality, so there’s nothing that is upholding it. The term that’s used in Tibetan is referring to… For instance, in a drama when you have scenery, you have some sort of picture of a landscape or something like that, and then you have a stick behind it or something that holds it up. And so the Tibetan term for this means that there’s nothing holding up these projections of what’s impossible, there’s nothing behind it holding it up. So there’s no actual reality corresponding to it that’s holding it up and supporting it.

So when there’s nothing holding up this piece of scenery, what happens? The scenery falls. It’s not held up anymore. So if you can keep focused on the fact that there’s nothing holding up, there’s nothing behind, nothing corresponding in reality to, what is appearing – there’s a big solid me sitting in my head – you can stay with that forever, and then there’s no way that this scenery can go back up. This drama of the little me in the head worrying “What should I do?” and “I have to do this” and “I have to be perfect” and “I have to get my way” and so on. So then we stop playing this drama of the little me sitting in our head that’s talking all the time and worrying. So in other words, when we see that there never was something that’s holding up our projections, that’s supporting it in reality – so when we see reality, then the way the mind is is that it’s not projecting anything anymore in terms of what’s impossible. And on the basis of that, then we’re not going to be activating these tendencies anymore, because there’s nothing to activate it. You’re not: “Me me me. I’ve got to be happy. I’ve got to stop being unhappy.” And if there’s nothing to activate the tendency, then you can’t say that you still have a tendency. Something can only be a tendency for a result if there can be a result. The whole concept of a tendency is dependent on there being a result (if there’s no result, it can’t be a tendency for anything).

So that’s how you can reverse (in other words, get out of) uncontrollably recurring rebirth. So even though our mental continuum can be absolutely filled with tendencies, karmic tendencies, from beginningless time – which is a strange term, beginningless time, but anyway, beginninglessly – it doesn’t matter. If there’s nothing to activate these tendencies, there aren’t any more tendencies. And because we stay with that awareness, that understanding, we don’t build up any more tendencies – we don’t build up any more compulsive behavior and so on that would bring about any more tendencies – so uncontrollably recurring rebirth and the basis for this up-and-down happiness/unhappiness are gone, finished. True stopping.

So because there’s an absence of impossible ways of existing and there’s the understanding of that, there’s an absence of all the disturbing emotions and all the unawareness that would be confused about that. That’s a very subtle point. I just said it very glibly, very quickly, but that’s a very, very subtle, difficult point. Because there’s a total absence of what’s impossible, and that’s reality, then there can’t be confusion about it. When you are focused on that absence of what’s impossible, you can’t have confusion about it. Anyway, I don’t want to go further on that point.

True Pathway Mind to Bring about a True Stopping

The fourth noble truth, then, is usually translated as true path, but what that is referring to is not something that you walk on, but it’s referring to states of mind, understanding, that like a path will lead you to a goal and will result when you do reach the goal. So that’s the understanding of the two truths, correct understanding of the two truths. That will act as the pathway that will bring about – the more and more you become accustomed to it so that you can have it all the time – it will bring about the true stopping of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, so true sufferings.


So this is the way that we derive the four truths from the two truths.

How do we enter samsara – according to the words of the verse here, how do we keep on entering uncontrollably recurring rebirth – and all sorts of suffering? That’s discussed with the first two truths, so true suffering and its true causes. So basically we are entering into samsara because of our confusion about the two truths, our unawareness. Either we don’t know reality, or we imagine it to be something quite different from reality. And how do we get out of this? The third and fourth noble truths: true stopping, and what brings about the attainment of that true stopping is the true pathway mind, I call it – the state of mind that will bring us there (in other words, from understanding the two truths). So from not knowing the two truths of reality, we get the first two of the four noble truths; and from knowing it, we get the second two of the four noble truths, the third and fourth ones.

Okay. So although this is a very complex topic – I don’t pretend that it is an easy topic – this is the way that we work with the Buddhist teachings to try to gain some conviction that it is actually possible to achieve the goals that Buddhism describes, that we’re aiming for with our Buddhist practice. So this indicates the approach of how we would need to, based on having heard this type of explanation – and maybe listening to it again, because it’s recorded (it’ll be on my web site, it’ll be available) – think about it more and more and more, and then once you really understand it (which means accurate and decisive) and you put it together with all the other things that it implies, through meditation you can familiarize yourself with it, make it a habit of seeing this.

So on the basis of that process of listening, thinking, meditating, then we can gain conviction that the goal that we are aiming for with our practice is actually possible, that it is fact, that it can be attained and that I can attain it if I put in enough work. And then our practice can become much more stable. It’s not just based on “Well, I believe it’s possible. I don’t really know. Well, I’m pretty sure, but I’m just presuming that it’s true,” but instead of that we’ll become certain. This we’ll discuss this afternoon.

So let’s end our morning session with that, and then we’ll continue. Thank you.