Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

14.10: The Four Noble Truths of Human Life

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)

    Following his enlightenment, the Buddha began to teach what he had realized. In his first lesson, he described the Four Noble Truths: 1) suffering is an unavoidable reality in human life; 2) the source of suffering is craving or desire, and the bad karma it creates; 3) the craving that leads to suffering can be destroyed; 4) the Middle Way is the path to eliminate craving and suffering (Suzuki, 1960; World’s Great Religions, 1957; Wilkins, 1967). People often ask why there is so much suffering in the world. When this question is asked, there is usually an unspoken desire to remove this suffering from the world. The Buddha, however, taught us that we cannot escape from reality. Who has never been sick? Who never dies? Who can live without desiring something? The problem is that when our cravings are satisfied, we typically find that we want something else, or something more, we never seem to be really satisfied. And so this cycle of craving, temporary satisfaction, craving again, and so on, continues throughout our life, unless we consciously do something to break the pattern. The Buddha taught us how to do that: by following the Middle Way.

    The Middle Way is also known as the Eightfold Path, because there are eight aspects to it: 1) right knowledge, 2) right intention, 3) right speech, 4) right conduct, 5) right livelihood, 6) right effort, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration. Some believe that each step depends on what goes before it, so that in order to reach higher levels of this discipline one must accomplish the lower levels (Wilkins, 1967). A hierarchical series of steps like this is reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In Buddhism, we must begin with an understanding of how things really are, an understanding of the four noble truths, impermanence, and interbeing (right knowledge). We must then develop the right intentions, to want to be compassionate, selflessly detached, loving, and non-violent. Once we have developed a conducive state of mind, we can choose to refrain from lying, gossiping, swearing, and other misuse of language (right speech). We can avoid doing things that are immoral, irresponsible, cruel, or illegal (right conduct), and we would not choose a career which required us to do any such things (right livelihood). Then we would be able to focus our will on avoiding any unhealthy states of mind, and on eliminating them quickly should they arise (right effort). Finally we could become more aware of our sensations, feelings, minds, and bodies (right mindfulness), so that we might focus on the discipline necessary to continue our practice of the Middle Way (right concentration).

    These principles provide the basis for a practical code of conduct, which all Buddhists must follow, known as the Five Precepts. They are: 1) to abstain from killing, 2) to abstain from stealing, 3) to abstain from sexual misconduct, 4) to abstain from lying, and 5) to abstain from mind-altering intoxicants (World’s Great Religions, 1957). The first four seem to follow naturally from the Eightfold Path, but the last one is somewhat more interesting. The problem with intoxicating drugs, such as alcohol, is that they cloud the mind. They make it difficult for us to make responsible choices, which is what the Middle Way is all about. Also, if you think back to our discussion of karma, the intentions behind your actions are as important, if not more important, than the actions themselves. When you have made a choice to use intoxicating drugs, and then violate any of the other precepts, it is the consequence of your earlier choice. And who needs bad karma on top of bad karma?

    “Calm and compassion are so precious. Make sure not to lose them through intoxication.” – Kornfield, 1994

    Characteristics of Existence


    The Buddha said that “everything arises and passes away…existence is illusion” (in Byrom, 1993). The idea that nothing is permanent is a central belief in Buddhism. People are born, grow up, grow old, and die. Buildings wear down, cars break down, and enormous trees wither away. Even mountains are eventually worn down by erosion. However, children are born, new cars and buildings are built, new plants grow, and life goes on. The implications for Buddhism are quite interesting. If everything, and everyone, changes, then even someone who is enlightened will change! One cannot be a Buddha, for they will change. We must always continue to grow. Likewise, Buddhism itself will change, so most of their doctrines are not seen as static. They anticipate change over time.

    For psychology, this has both good and not so good implications. For people who are depressed or anxious, they might take heart in impermanence, since things should eventually get better. Indeed, studies on the effects of psychotherapy often show that some people get better over time without treatment. However, if things seem to be going great, if you are happy and having lots of fun, those things will change too. But knowing this, we can prepare ourselves for it. An important aspect of coping with life’s challenges is a sense of being in control. Although there are a wide variety of variables that contribute to individual resilience, maintaining a positive state of mind can help, and knowledge can help to maintain that positive state of mind (Bonnano, 2004, 2005; Folkman and Moskowitz, 2000; Ray, 2004).

    If we practice mindfulness and meditation, we can begin to see the impermanence of our lives. As we let go of our attachments to our self-image, our life will flow by like the pictures of a movie, each one a separate image, which only appears to flow smoothly when viewed at high speed. As we observe these fleeting images, we see how our sensations, thoughts, feelings, every aspect of our lives, change so quickly. We might then embrace the change that is truly our life. This process of letting go can be very difficult, but also very liberating (Goldstein and Kornfield, 2001).

    “Do not seek perfection in a changing world. Instead, perfect your love.” – Kornfield, 1994


    As we learned with the first of the Four Noble Truths, suffering is an integral part of the human experience. It is easy for us to think of suffering in terms of big pictures: war, famine, natural disasters, and the like. But how often do we think of suffering as an inherent part of our daily lives? Life is difficult, it is a struggle, especially the way most of us live it. A struggle can only lead to suffering. The ultimate outcome of life’s struggle, should we lose the battle, is death. If we could defeat death we would end up alone, and that loneliness might be even worse than the original suffering itself (Suzuki, 1962). Still, we do not even need to look at suffering in terms of a lifetime battle against aging and death, we can see suffering in every moment of the day. Goldstein and Kornfield offer a marvelous description of the daily challenge to be satisfied (2001). It goes something like this. Suppose we woke up on a day when we had no obligations at all. It might be tempting to stay in bed all day, but eventually we become uncomfortable because we have to go to the bathroom. Finally we go, and then crawl back into bed to get warm. But then we get hungry, so finally we get up to get something to eat. Then we get bored, so maybe we watch TV. Then we get uncomfortable, and have to change positions. Even each pleasurable moment is brief, and fails to bring lasting satisfaction. So on, and so forth. We just keep suffering!

    The source of this suffering is attachment. We are attached to pleasurable things because we crave them. We are also attached to things that are not pleasant, because they occupy our mind and we cannot be free. The Buddha says, “Free yourself from pleasure and pain. For in craving pleasure or in nursing pain, there is only sorrow” (in Byrom, 1993). It may seem strange that we would be attached to our pain, but the word is used differently here than in most of Western psychology. Traditionally, psychologists think of attachment in a positive way, such as the attachment a child feels toward his or her parents. And yet, some cognitive psychologists do talk about individuals whose automatic thoughts lead them into consistently negative states of mind by disqualifying positive events, catastrophizing events, taking everything too personally, etc. (Pretzer and Beck, 2005). In Buddhism, attachment is neither positive nor negative, it is simply anything that reflects our illusion that the natural world is real. Only when we let go of our attachments to this world can we be one with the universal spirit, and only then can we end our suffering. There is also something hopeful in suffering. Bodhidharma taught that every suffering is a Buddha-seed, because suffering leads us to seek wisdom (in Red Pine, 1987). In this analogy, he describes the body and mind as a field. Suffering is the seed, wisdom the sprout, and Buddhahood the grain.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Gotama Buddha taught that suffering is the result of craving or desire. Many of us have heard the saying that money is the root of all evil. Is our society excessively focused on buying more and bigger things? Do you ever find yourself obsessed with some material purchase? What problems, if any, have you experienced because people were more concerned with getting things than caring about the people around them?


    In keeping with its origins in Yoga, Buddhism teaches that there is no immortal, unchanging soul. All that we are is a temporary collection of attributes, made up of the body, the feelings, the perceptions, the reactions, and the consciousness of the mind (which, coming from the brain, is really part of the body). It is because we confuse our true self (the transcendental self) with this temporary collection of illusory things that we crave satisfaction, and ultimately suffer as a result. Now it may seem illogical to reject everything we are familiar with, including our own physical body, as an illusion, but Buddhists would suggest that there is a danger in choosing intellectual logic over faith. According to D.T. Suzuki (1962), “Faith lives and the intellect kills.” Try the following exercise. Consider your body. Is it real? How much food have you eaten in your life, and where is it now? How many times have you gone to the bathroom, and where did all of that come from? It certainly isn’t the same as when you ate it! Your body has been replaced many, many times. It is being replaced right now. It isn’t real, it is only temporary, ever changing. The same is true with your mind. Even when William James discussed the stream of consciousness, he described a constantly changing awareness, one in which you cannot have the same thought twice. It just isn’t possible. James (1892) realized that we cannot establish a substantial identity continuing from day to day, but concluded that our sense of continuity must reveal a functional identity. Arriving at a very different conclusion, Buddhists consider this to be maya, our inability to see things as they truly are (Suzuki, 1960).

    These three characteristics of existence (impermanence, suffering, and selflessness) can be somewhat unsettling. It is not very appealing to believe that we don’t really exist, that we will suffer as long as we believe we do exist, and all of it will just eventually pass away anyway. So, how does one continue in this practice? It is important to keep as our goal a true understanding of the way things are, and the practice of meditation and other aspects of Yoga and Buddhism will help to deepen our realization of these basic truths (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001). The practice remains challenging, however, because as we deepen our understanding the characteristic most often occupying the center of our greatest realization is that of suffering (Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Suzuki, 1962). We must then put aside our intellectualizing, we must slay it and throw it to the dogs, experiencing what Buddhists call the “Great Death” (Suzuki, 1962). Only then will we know the greatest wisdom and compassion. This is the beginning of our transcendence. It is not a separation from others, but a realization that we are all one. In other words, we are all in this together.

    Interbeing – A Connection Between All People and All Things

    Many people are familiar with the golden rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you! This Christian saying also has great implications when considered from a Buddhist perspective. Based on the same philosophical/cosmological perspective as Yoga, Buddhists believe that there is one universal spirit. Therefore, we are really all the same, indeed the entire universe of living creatures and even inanimate objects in the physical world come from and return to the same, single source of creation. Thus, we could alter the golden rule to something like: as you do unto others you are doing unto yourself! This concept is not simply about being nice to other people for your own good, however. Much more importantly, it is about appreciating the relationships between all things. For example, when you drink a refreshing glass of milk, maybe after eating a few chocolate chip cookies, can you taste the grass and feel the falling rain? After all, the cow could not have grown up to give milk if it hadn’t eaten grass, and the grass would not have grown if there hadn’t been any rain. When you enjoy that milk do you remember to thank the farmer who milked the cow, or the grocer who sold the milk to you? And what about the worms that helped to create and aerate the soil in which the grass grew? Appreciating the concept of interbeing helps us to understand the importance of everyone and everything.

    The value of this concept of interbeing is that it can be much more than simply a curious academic topic. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes very eloquently about interbeing and its potential for promoting healthy relationships, both between people and between societies (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995):

    “Looking deeply” means observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. The result is insight into the true nature of the object. When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. It “inter-is” with everything else in the universe. … When we see the nature of interbeing, barriers between ourselves and others are dissolved, and peace, love, and understanding are possible. Whenever there is understanding, compassion is born. (pg. 10)

    Having understood this concept, how might it apply to personality? One of the best known cross-cultural topics in psychology today is the distinction between collectivistic vs. individualistic cultures (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). It is generally accepted that Western cultures focus on the individual, whereas Eastern cultures focus on society as a collective group. One can easily imagine how people whose religious and cultural philosophy focus on a single, universal spirit (the basis of interbeing) would focus more on their family and societal groups than on the individual. Both individualistic and collectivistic cultures seem to have advantages. People living in individualistic cultures report higher levels of subjective well-being and self-esteem, whereas people in collectivistic cultures have tend to have lower levels of stress and correspondingly lower levels of cardiovascular disease (Triandis & Suh, 2002; Triandis et al., 1988). In collectivistic cultures people tend to view the environment as relatively fixed, and themselves as more flexible, more ready to fit in (Triandis & Suh, 2002). The collectivistic perspective supports the value of social cooperation and social interest (something Alfred Adler would likely appreciate). Still, even within cultures there are individual differences. There are idiocentric persons (those who favor individuality) living in collectivistic cultures, and allocentric persons (those who favor ingroups) living in individualistic cultures. The best relationship between personality and culture may be the “culture fit” model, which suggests that it is best to live in the culture that matches your personal inclinations.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The concept of interbeing suggests that all things are ultimately connected. Have you ever taken the time to think about all the things that had to happen, and all the people who were involved, in producing anything you hold in your hand? What about all the things that had to happen, and all the people who were involved, in your creation? And if we are all connected in some way, if we are all interbeing, what have you done to value those relationships?

    Connections Across Cultures:

    The Non-Violent Struggles of Mahatma Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the 14 th Dalai Lama

    The four men listed above are famous in a variety of ways, but they are probably best known for their commitment to nonviolence as a way to achieve political and social justice. Most importantly, they vowed non-violence while those around them were committed to terrible violence in order to deny justice to others. The two who are not alive today were both assassinated, and the other two were forced to live in exile. Gandhi was a Hindu who practiced Yoga, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama are Buddhists, and M. L. King, Jr. was a Christian, and it was their spiritual beliefs that so profoundly determined those aspects of their personalities that demanded peace.

    Gandhi (1869-1948) is considered the father of modern India. He was born when the British ruled India, and spent much of his life fighting for the independence of his homeland. Twice he was imprisoned by the government, even though he insisted that all protests should be nonviolent. Indeed, he had established a movement of nonviolence known as Satyagraha. Ultimately this movement was successful, and India achieved its independence. Gandhi, however, was assassinated less than a year later. As he died, he spoke the name of God: Rama (Easwaran, 1972; Wilkinson, 2005).

    Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-present) was born in Vietnam, and saw his country dominated first by the French and then by communists. During those difficult times he helped to develop what he and his friends called “engaged Buddhism.” Rather than sitting in the temple meditating, they went out into the villages and tried to help the poor people of Vietnam. When confronted by soldiers they did their best to remain mindful, and to feel compassion for the soldiers who threatened them. After all, it was clear to Thich Nhat Hanh that many of those young soldiers were frightened themselves, and so their behavior was very hard to predict. Thus, the calm and peace that accompany mindfulness was often essential for protecting everyone in those terrifying encounters. After being exiled from Vietnam in 1966, he established a community called Plum Village in France, where he still resides today (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1966, 2003).

    Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was a major figure in America’s civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. The King children learned at an early age about the realities of racism in America. Coming from an educated and socially active family, both his father and grandfather were ministers, he vowed at an early age to work against racial injustice. According to his sister, he said he would turn the world upside down (Farris, 2003). However, he always insisted on doing so in a nonviolent fashion. For this commitment to nonviolence, in 1964 he became the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the peace prize and the passage of both the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, discrimination continued in America. So did the nonviolent protests led by Dr. King. Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (Burns, 2004; Hansen, 2003; Patrick, 1990).

    The Dalai Lama (1935-present) lives in exile in India, though he also spends a great deal of time in America. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, he appealed to the United Nations, other countries, and even tried to reach an agreement with the Chinese leadership. Eventually, however, he was forced to leave Tibet in 1959. Today, nearly 50 years later, he continues to seek a peaceful resolution resulting in freedom for Tibet. He also works to deliberately cultivate feelings of compassion for the Chinese, believing that someday those who have harmed the people of Tibet will have to face the consequences of their actions (Dalai Lama, 2002). The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

    These men have more in common than simply their shared belief in nonviolence. In addition to M. L. King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, as Nobel Laureates are entitled to do, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the same award. Dr. King had received a letter from Thich Nhat Hanh asking for help in protesting the Vietnam war, which by the 1960s involved the United States. Dr. King was impressed by the Buddhist monk, and once appeared with him at a press conference in Chicago (Burns, 2004). Dr. King was also familiar with and impressed by the teachings of Gandhi. In 1959 he traveled to India to learn firsthand about Gandhi’s Satyagraha, the basis for Gandhi’s nonviolent independence movement (King, 2000). In 1966, Dr. King delivered the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at Howard University (Hansen, 2003). Since both the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh are alive today, they have met one another and the Dalai Lama has written several forewords for books by Thich Nhat Hanh. If these men from different countries and different cultures can share so much through the simple (though not easy) practice of nonviolence, perhaps there is something special here for everyone to learn more about.


    Meditation Techniques

    Meditation is the means by which we control our mind and guide it in a more virtuous direction (Dalai Lama, 2001). Modern brain imaging techniques have even begun to identify the brain regions involved in these processes (Barinaga, 2003). There are many different meditation techniques in Yoga and Buddhism, and no one technique is necessarily better than another. What is most important is to pick one type of meditation and stick with it. Meditation takes practice. Most of us find it very difficult to relax and clear our mind. Even when we do, it is difficult to stay relaxed and keep our mind clear. We are distracted by constant thoughts, getting uncomfortable, we have itches and sneezes and whatever… But over time we can get better at relaxing. It helps to have a well-described procedure, and it can be very helpful to meditate in a group (especially if they offer classes or lessons on how to meditate). If you try meditation, don’t get discouraged the first few times. Keep it up. As with all paths toward self-improvement, it takes time to progress in your ability to meditate.

    Some of the writings of Master Dogen (1200-1253), the monk who founded Japanese Soto Zen, have survived during the 800 years since he lived (in Cook, 2002). Master Dogen recommends a very traditional form of seated meditation. Basically, sit straight up on a comfortable cushion with your legs crossed. Place your right hand in your lap, palm up, and your left hand on your right hand in the same manner, so that your thumbs touch slightly. Keep the eyes slightly open, the mouth closed, and breathe softly. Next comes the hard part: “Think about the unthinkable. How do you think about the unthinkable? Non-thinking.”

    Non-thinking may sound strange, but it is a fascinating experience for those who achieve it. It can actually make a 3- or 6-hour mediation seem to go by more quickly than a shorter meditation in which you never quite clear your mind. If it sounds a little too strange, don’t worry, it isn’t the goal of every form of meditation. Some forms of meditation focus on a mantra, or in Christian mediation a short prayer. Trying to focus on God through the celestial eye (in the middle of the forehead) is also a common technique. The Dalai Lama describes several different approaches in one of his books (Dalai Lama, 2001), and Thich Nhat Hanh discusses being reasonable in one’s approach to longer meditations (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991). Once again, there is not a right or wrong method of meditation. Whatever technique you try, whether from a book, a guru, a teacher, or a group, it is whatever works for you on your path to personal development.

    Soto Zen and Zazen

    Soto Zen is one of the two forms of Zen popular in Japan. Soto Zen emphasizes zazen, which translates loosely as “sitting meditation.” It is believed that this form of meditation, common to the way most Americans envision meditation, is a tribute to the legend of Zen founder Bodhidharma spending nine years meditating while staring at a wall (Suzuki, 1962). However, there is a problem in the literature on zazen. For those who believe that zazen can help to achieve Buddhahood, the masters have taught that it cannot work. Still, it remains the essential core practice. How can this be? According to Alan Watts (1957), it may be better to consider an alternative translation of zazen, in which it translates as “sitting just to sit.” In this view, zazen results in a clear mind, the condition necessary for enlightenment. A wonderful resource for practicing basic meditation of this type has been provided by Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist who trained as a Buddhist monk. Meditation for Beginners (Kornfield, 2004) not only briefly describes the history, purpose, and benefits of meditation, but it also includes a CD with guided meditations led by the author.

    Rinzai Zen and the Koan

    The other form of Zen popular in Japan is Rinzai Zen, founded by the monk Eisai (1141-1215). Buddhists in the Rinzai school practice zazen, but they also emphasize the curious practice of meditating on a koan, a riddle that has no answer. The Soto school of Zen frowns upon the use of the koan, considering it to be superficial and possibly misguided, something of a gimmick. But within the Rinzai school the Zen masters became concerned about what they saw as problems within the communities practicing Zen. One of the chief concerns of the Rinzai masters was the reliance on absolute quietude, pure meditation purely for the sake of meditation. They believed that Zen comes from life, and therefore must grow out of life (Suzuki, 1962). They were also concerned about the intellectualization of Zen, the belief that discerning logic could lead to enlightenment (again, concerned that the pursuit of logical ideas became its own pursuit). And so they developed the koan. The purpose of these unsolvable riddles is to put an end to logical thinking, to stop the wandering minds of students and to create a profound sense of doubt in the student’s mind (Reps and Senzaki, 1994; Suzuki, 1960, 1962; Watts, 1957). The presentation of the student’s views on a koan to the Zen master is an important time, and advanced students may even challenge whether the master appreciates how deeply the student understands Zen. These periodic visits to the Zen master to present an answer to a koan are known as sanzen (Suzuki, 1962; Watts, 1957).

    Although koan are considered unsolvable, they do have answers. Certainly the most famous koan is the one in which the monk Joshu is asked: Does a dog have Buddha-nature? Joshu replied, “Mu!” Mu is the Chinese symbol for “no thing” or “not.” The understanding of this koan is not found in the odd answer, or in Joshu’s apparent refusal to provide a straight answer, “Mu” is Buddha-nature! If you find this particularly difficult to understand, I suggest you back up to the quote I gave you from the writings of Bodhidharma. I doubt it will make it any more clear, but perhaps it will help to illuminate the philosophy of non-attachment: don’t worry too hard about understanding, just understand.

    A student of the Rinzai school of Zen will actually study many koan, and the process is kept quite secret. Obviously if the answers to these koan were known, then students could offer the apparent answers. I say apparent answers because a Zen master would clearly recognize the mindless answer of one who really does not understand the koan. Since the process is kept secret, not many koan are publicly known, but there are some available. Not all koan are quite as odd as Joshu’s “Mu;” some are seemingly easier to understand, but challenge our concepts of defining aspects of the natural world. For example, the monk Daie used to carry a short bamboo stick, and he would say, “If you call this a stick, you affirm; if you call it not a stick, you negate. Beyond affirmation and negation, what would you call it?” (Suzuki, 1962) This is clearly a challenge to move beyond logic, beyond the normal way of thinking about things. Enlightenment, of course, does not come from normal ways. Through the use of meditation to clear our minds, and the use of koan to challenge our perspectives, Rinzai Zen seeks to offer a path toward enlightenment that will be successful.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Have you ever practiced meditation, or perhaps contemplative prayer? If you have, how does it make you feel? If you haven’t, does it sound attractive? Were you surprised to learn that the practice of meditation is so old, and that it has counterparts in all of the major religions?


    Mindfulness is a form of meditation that occurs throughout every moment of the day. Indeed, it is very important to live fully in every moment, and to look deeply into each experience (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995). By being mindful, we can enter into awareness of our body and our emotions. Thich Nhat Hanh relates a story in which the Buddha was asked when he and his monks practiced. The Buddha replied that they practiced when they sat, when they walked, and when they ate. When the person questioning the Buddha replied that everyone sits, walks, and eats, the Buddha replied that he and his monks knew they were sitting, knew they were walking, and knew they were eating (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). Mindfulness can also be applied to acts as simple as breathing. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, conscious breathing is the most basic Buddhist technique for touching peace (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1991, 1995). He suggests silently reciting the following lines while breathing mindfully:

    Breathing in, I calm my body.

    Breathing out, I smile.

    Dwelling in the present moment,

    I know this is a wonderful moment!

    The concept of mindfulness, viewed in its traditional way, is also being used today in psychotherapy. Two recent books address the use of mindfulness either in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy to treat depression (McQuaid and Carmona, 2004) or as its own approach to the treatment of anxiety (Brantley, 2003). McQuaid and Carmona (2004) discuss how combining cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness together can provide a much stronger approach to treatment than either technique alone. Since the approaches have much in common, they amplify the effectiveness of each, and given their differences, they offer a complete path to moving beyond simple recovery toward more positive self development. Dr. Brantley (2003) moves more completely into the practice of mindfulness, emphasizing that it must become a way of life. It is not simply a clever therapeutic technique or gimmick.

    Discussion question \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Mindfulness refers to maintaining a meditative state throughout the day. A similar approach is essential to cognitive/behavioral therapy. Are you aware of what you do during the day, or are you overwhelmed with being too busy? Could you see the practice of mindfulness as a helpful way to deal with your hectic life, and perhaps reduce stress at the same time?

    Enlightenment and the Ideal Person

    Concepts of Enlightenment

    There are a wide variety of different concepts of enlightenment. One concept that is somewhat familiar in America is nirvana. Nirvana refers to the extinction of all ideas and concepts, thus resulting in the end of suffering due to the craving that results from being attached to anything in the natural world. In the Theravada tradition this should be the goal of all Buddhists, and a person who achieves nirvana is referred to as an Arhat. Other Buddhists, however, seek to avoid nirvana, because it leaves all others behind.

    In the Mahayana tradition, an ideal person would be a Bodhisattva, one who vows to forego complete enlightenment until all other beings have been enlightened. According to Thich Nhat Hanh (1995), such individuals touch mindfulness, and as a result of living mindfully they can touch the Buddha and shine their light of awareness on everything they do. The desire to help others achieve enlightenment comes from the deep compassion developed by Bodhisattvas. Mindfulness leads to this compassion, as it leads one to develop Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta, which means “mind of enlightenment” or “mind of love,” is an inner drive to fully realize oneself and to work for the well-being of all (in other words, it is the driving force of being a Bodhisattva; Dalai Lama, 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995, 1999).

    Curiously, some Buddhists distinguish between “bodhi” as a temporary flash of enlightenment, which can even occur following arduous meditation or by accident, and “nirvana” or true liberation, which can only result from proper knowledge and dedicated practice (Mathew, 2001). This concept is similar to what Maslow described as the difference between a peak experience and a plateau experience. A peak experience is a brief period of fulfillment, usually associated with a particular event. A plateau experience, on the other hand, is a lasting feeling of oneness with the world around us. What is of particular importance for the study of personality is the recognition that individuals with certain personality characteristics, such as being kind-hearted and open-minded, can more easily accomplish long-term fulfillment, whether we call it nirvana or self-actualization.

    Compassion and Loving-Kindness

    “Just as compassion is the wish that all sentient beings be free of suffering, loving-kindness is the wish that all may enjoy happiness” (Dalai Lama, 2001). With these simple words about Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has captured the history of psychology briefly presented in the introductory chapter: that psychology focused for many years on helping to identify and treat mental illness (hopefully freeing people from suffering), whereas now there is a strong movement toward positive psychology (hoping to improve well-being for all). This recognition of compassion as the strong feeling or wish that others be freed from suffering comes from mindfulness. As one becomes truly aware of the suffering involved in human life, and if one is able to feel genuine empathy for others, then compassion naturally arises (Chappell, 2003; Dalai Lama, 2001; Goldstein & Kornfield, 2001; Thich Nhat Hanh, 1995). Compassion has described as the ideal emotional state (Bankart et al., 2003; Cook, 2002; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003), and Carl Rogers considered genuine empathy to be essential for client-centered therapy to be successful. Aside from Rogers, however, have other psychologists begun to examine the value of compassion and loving-kindness? The answer is an unequivocal “Yes” (Bankart et al., 2003; Batson et al., 2005; Cassell, 2005; Dockett & North-Schulte, 2003; Keyes & Lopez, 2005; Khong, 2003; Ragsdale, 2003; Schulman, 2005; Young-Eisendrath, 2003)!

    “Life is so hard, how can we be anything but kind?”

    - Kornfield, 1994

    This page titled 14.10: The Four Noble Truths of Human Life is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.