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The FOUR TASKS of the Noble One
August 15th, 2012

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The FOUR TASKS of the Noble One

I regularly state that following the precepts or living according to the eightfold path are 'natural' to the Enlightened person and that these have nothing to do with 'following' rules / dogma. Here and there, I have given explanations focusing on the absurdity of clinging to rules when the  #Dharma   is about getting free (including from clinging to rules). Of course, rules might be useful, e.g. to stop the ego-centered "I know better" habit, but they would still be a round-about approach when it comes to freedom… so, here is an explanation in relation to the Four Noble Truths and how texts and translations can be misleading.

There are reasons to believe that the Buddha never spoke of four 'noble truths' (K R Norman, "a philological approach to Buddhism") and that such understanding was introduced later; they could just as well be the "truths of the Noble One," i.e. "the truths of Gotama." In such a context, the truths easily lose the capital T, and take the meaning of 'teachings' or 'points'.
This would make sense indeed, as the Buddha repeatedly warned us against asserting 'Truths' and against 'permanent' Black&White concepts… What the Buddha repeatedly talked about was life: ethical life, life as an experience, the eightfold path as a way of life, etc. So the four 'noble truths' should probably be referred to as the "four 'tasks' given to us by Gotama."
When taking such a perspective, the four tasks of the Noble One might be presented quite differently from the usual four 'Noble Truths.'

The Four Noble Truths are commonly given as "life is suffering, suffering arises from clinging, clinging can cease, this is the path to cease clinging."
The order in which they are presented is interesting: final statement (on saṃsāra), then cause associated, then final statement (on nirvāṇa), then path associated: that is to say, backward (effect back to cause) between the first and second Truths, forward (nirvana as a 'goal') between the second and the third, backward (goal back to path) between the third and the fourth.
While linearity is not a key trait of Indian thought, 'backward, forward, backward' remains questionable when so rapid.
Moreover, we get a disconnect between the 'unconditioned' nirvāṇa and a path which cannot lead to nirvāṇa! The path is useful, it removes barriers preventing us from crossing to the other shore, but removing barriers does not in itself make you cross…

A presentation of the four 'tasks' would differ slightly. It presents "fully understanding the suffering in life" as the first task, i.e. having an insight that impermanence challenges us and nothing really secure exists. The second task is to "move from the understanding of suffering to weakening (letting go of) our attachments." The third task is to "weaken our attachments enough so that they cease." And the fourth is then to "finally experience a new way of life, free from greed, hatred and delusion."
It is interesting to note that the last elements of the eightfold path are right mindfulness and concentration, which should lead to new insights. The four noble 'tasks' are then cyclical (classic Indian view). This echoes the "sudden awakening, gradual cultivation" from many Seon / #Zen   schools: insight, cultivation, then new insight…

One might think that such a rephrasing doesn't change the message much, and in some way that is correct: this is obviously still  #Buddhism  we're talking about. It would be surprising if the basis of 25 centuries of tradition could be that easily shaken.

There is nonetheless something really deep in such a rephrasing: nibbāna is repeatedly described as the 'un–conditioned' in the sūtras, but many people make the attainment of nirvāṇa (as if it was a place, a destination) 'conditioned' to following the eightfold path. Many monastics cling to such a perspective for self-importance and self-interest. This mistaken view is very common in Asia and elsewhere, and leads to suggesting that the best a lay person can hope for is becoming a monk in this life or the next… The four 'tasks' reverse this: nibbāna is the starting point of a new life, not the goal! It isn't the result of the path, it is the initial insight allowing a different perspective on life, a new way of living.
In a way, enlightenment should come before becoming a great monastic! Nibbāna should not be mystified, seen as rarely experienced (only at the end of a perfect life, if you're lucky)… The eightfold path is defined by eight mindfulness practices, none of which states "be a monastic"! "Right view" sounds more like a consequence of the extinction of greed, hatred and stupidity, not a cause. Similarly, "right intention," "right speech," "right action," "right livelihood," "right effort" are also consequences, not causes… They support "right concentration" and "right mindfulness," leading to new insights and further "seeing things as they are"! 

A common error about Buddhism is in describing it as 'depressing' because its goal is extinction. This is a mistake, primarily because too few people ask "extinction of what?" What is extinguished here is greed, hatred and ignorance; so it's quite far from being depressing! To see nibbāna as 'the start of a new life' rather than an 'extinction' avoids the classic, depressing misinterpretation.

Of course, no transcription is perfect and no translation is right… but maybe a shift in translation can allow a shift in perspective and a new insight!

The 'Middle Way' is often described as between 'extremes' (the extremes of asceticism and indulgence) but this is a weird translation. Apparently, the etymology of the Pāḷi doesn't suggest 'extreme' as a translation, but would rather suggest 'dead end.' Thus the middle way is not the way in the middle (one among three possible ways), but the only way that is not a dead end. The superfluous is limitless, hence desire is never satisfied. Tame the desire, be mindful of what's needed or required at any given time (i.e. tame desire, not life!), and you shall walk free.

You have buddha-nature, i.e. there is nothing preventing you from having an insight now and cultivating it. No precept, no path, is a pre-requisite of 'looking at your life.' If you struggle to establish a first observation, may I suggest reading my very short, recent post on the cause of suffering ( 

[Illustration: D Wallez]