How to Engage with the Four Noble Truths

How to Engage with the Four Noble Truths

Stephen Batchelor

I would very much hope that in taking this course that you don't just find us telling you lots of interesting things but that it actually inspires you to embark on your own engagement with these four great tasks.

This can be done in a number of ways. We’ll be talking about forms of reflection, and contemplation and I hope very much that these teachings enrich your meditation practice. However, in the process of developing understanding we also need to read, to study, to look up some of these old Buddhist texts and take them to heart.

Study the key texts

The key text is the first discourse of the Buddha: the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, or Discourse on Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion. It's only two or three pages in English. I would really encourage you to read this, and not just read it once or twice but to read it in a reflective, contemplative way. It's an extremely rich text: one of these classical documents that the more that you return to it, the more it reveals to you. So please take the time to read this text, read it slowly, read it thoughtfully, and keep coming back to it as we continue through each unit of this program.

You'll also find of course any number of contemporary Buddhist teachers from the Dalai Lama through to Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Thanissaro Bhikkhu who have each written extensively on these themes. Make use of these resources.

Discuss with friends

I'd also encourage you, whenever possible, to discuss these ideas with your friends. This of course will be relatively easy with those who you know through your interest in Buddhism but try engaging with other people. Find out what they think about these teachings and how they respond to the four noble truths. Get people to think about this in such a way that it is likely to offer you fresh perspectives on the material.

As you will come to see, discussion is a major aspect of this course.

Take the teachings into the world

Perhaps the most important aspect of your learning throughout this course will be not what you find in your meditation or what you read but what you learn about how these ideas and practices make a real difference in all contexts of your life. This is not a teaching that’s confined to the monastery or to the retreat center. This is a teaching that provides you with a framework for living in the world. If you can't translate these ideas into the way that you think, work, make choices, communicate with others, then you really have to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Is it just for some private personal fascination, curiosity, or gratification? Or is it really a teaching that has the potential to take root in your experience in such a way that it is then reflected and expressed in the world.

Be creative . . . and inspired

Finally, if you are in any way inclined to artistic activity—be that poetry, painting, music, dance—how might you imaginatively express your understanding of this process? How would you give it form through creative ideas? Through pictures? Through poems?

Here, we'll travel from an exclusive interest in the Buddhist texts to move out into the wider world of human culture. There is a great deal of insight to be gained simply by being open to great works of art. I can think of no more powerful images of old age, and the poignancy and the suffering of old age, than the portraits of Rembrandt as an old man. There is likewise music, poetry, theatre, film.

I feel in so many ways that any kind of serious culture is effectively a reflection upon the nature of human suffering. When we go to watch a play like Hamlet or Macbeth or King Lear we’re not going for light-hearted entertainment. We are going to experience some of the deepest contemplations on human suffering, on the great question of birth and death. There is something within us that responds to this in a very, very deep way.

Whether or not we consider ourselves to be religious, Buddhist, or Christian there is something that transcends all traditions in these works of art that communicate the very core of human experience. The four noble truths, if enriched and illustrated by such examples, will only speak to us more directly and more poignantly than if they're simply relegated to a category of Buddhist studies.