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Why we do what we do: The Four Noble Truths no doubt form the most fundamental part of the Buddha’s spiritual system and an ancient strategy for problem solving. Yet, its efficacy and purpose lies in the application of the fourth noble truth, the path to the cessation of suffering (སྡུག་བསྔལ་འགོག་པའི་ལམ་གྱི་བདེན་པ་). It is only through the adoption of the path that one can end suffering and solve problems. In this respect, even the recognition of the problem, knowledge of its causes and aspiration for its solution all form parts of the path. To reiterate the Buddha’s medical metaphor, the fourth noble truth is the medical treatment one must follow in order to cure the disease. If one does not follow the path, the whole point of the teachings on four noble truths is lost.

In most Buddhist literature, the path to enlightenment is divided into five stages. One starts on the Path of Accumulation (ཚོགས་ལམ་) when one primarily gathers the resources for seeking enlightenment such as education, knowledge, teachers and merits. Then, on the Path of Preparation (སྦྱོར་ལམ་) one fully engages in the practice of the paths such as meditation, mindfulness, enthusiasm, patience, wisdom, etc. When one has the first direct experience of the four noble truths, the non-existence of self, the transitory nature of conditioned things, etc. one reaches the Path of Seeing (མཐོང་ལམ་). One then engages in persistent practice to make the direct experience a familiar and spontaneous habit on the Path of Practice (སྒོམ་ལམ་). Through sustained practice, one eliminates the negative emotions and actions and enhances the positive qualities. When one has fully eradicated the negative aspects of the mind and uprooted the cause for further rebirth and suffering, one attains the Path of Non-training (མི་སློབ་ལམ་). One’s training for enlightenment and nirvāṇa is over and one has attained the cessation of suffering.

In the first sermon on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha taught the path to enlightenment through the Right Eightfold Path, which consists of the eight crucial factors one has to cultivate in order to reach the cessation of suffering. He declared: “Now this, Bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

He taught that one needs the right view (ཡང་དག་པའི་ལྟ་བ་) or vision, understanding and knowledge of the situation and general way things work in order to start a project such as an endeavour to end suffering. In the specific Buddhist sense, one must have the philosophical view and understanding of the dependent origination and the law of cause and effect. Then, one must generate the right intention (ཡང་དག་པའི་རྟོག་པ་) or idea, thought and motivation to pursue the objective. One must have a positive state of the mind and a wholesome plan. Then, one must effectively communicate such thought or plan with calm, coherent, clear, pleasant and effective right speech (ཡང་དག་པའི་ངག་).

Speech is followed by right action (ཡང་དག་པའི་ལས་) or positive engagement and hard work, which should eventually become one’s right livelihood (ཡང་དག་པའི་འཚོ་བ་) or profession and lifestyle. One must put more right effort (ཡང་དག་པའི་རྩོལ་བ་) into such work with enthusiasm and diligence and do so with right mindfulness (ཡང་དག་པའི་དྲན་པ་) or awareness and conscientiousness. It is by having right concentration (ཡང་དག་པའི་ཏིང་ངེ་འཛིན་) or focus without distraction that one can realize the intended result. The Noble Eightfold Path, thus, covers the most essential aspects of the Buddha’s path to cessation of suffering and the strategy to solve existential problems. The eight factors are also crucial for successful execution of any project.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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