After achieving full enlightenment some 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha, whose teachings are at the root of the Tzu Chi Path, gave his first discourse in Deer Park – now known as Saranath, a place located near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, India.
The sermon is called “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth,” also referred to as the “First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.” Within it, the Buddha presents the Four Noble Truths (Sanskrit: ārya-satya) – which one could say encapsulate the entire Buddhist Path toward liberation from suffering. In essence, the four noble truths that were explained are:
- the Truth of Suffering (Sanskrit: duhkha)
- the Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Sanskrit: samudāya)
- the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (Sanskrit: nirodha)
- the Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Sanskrit: mārga)
Addressing the five monks who had assembled there, the Buddha stated:
The Noble Truth of Suffering, monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering — in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.
The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).
The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.
The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.
The notion that suffering is inherent to life and inescapable, while our cravings — alongside our hopes and fears — further contribute to this, isn’t easy to embrace. And yet, contemplating and accepting the universal truths condensed within this set of four profound insights is the start of a path that can lead to the awakening of our inherent Buddha Nature, and ultimate liberation (a state called Nirvana) from the cycle of rebirth and suffering (Samsara).
As Dharma Master Cheng Yen explains:
Everyone has Buddha Nature. But ordinary people are lost because their Buddha nature is overwhelmed by their cravings. What do ordinary people crave for? They crave for many things for themselves, their spouses and their children; they also crave for better careers, good health and so on. However, can all cravings be granted? Endless cravings lead to suffering.
Some people in this modern world live aimlessly and obtain satisfaction through materialistic gains. A flamboyant life is akin to a flower, which will wither after some time. It is also akin to the colorful soap-bubbles which will burst and disappear after a while.
Different people have different life experiences. Some people have never experienced hardship in their lives but are always discontented. The life of a discontented person is bitter. Some people’s lives are very challenging but they are able to endure hardships and live a simple and peaceful life.
To help people get rid of the delusions in their minds, the Buddha tirelessly expounded his teachings to help them realize that to be freed from suffering they had to understand the source of suffering, and that the way to eradicate suffering was by diligently cultivating themselves and eliminating all spiritual impurities from their minds.
As spiritual practitioners, we must not seek only our own liberation. When we have found the right path to follow, we must tap into our compassion and help guide others onto that path as well. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, let us mindfully take in what the Buddha taught, practice his way, and realize what he realized. I sincerely hope that we will all allow our faith to take deep root, hold firm to our commitments, and diligently do good deeds to benefit others.
The section in italics contains excerpts from Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s talks or writing, translated into English from Chinese.