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A Commentary by the Venerable Master
Hsuan Hua

The Four Holy Truths

Chapter Eight

INTRODUCTION

This is the chapter on the Four Truths, also known as the Four Noble Truths. It is the Dharma which the Buddha explained to the five Bhikshus when he first accomplished the Way. Within the Four Holy Truths are included all dharmas. It’s sad to say however, that there are people who claim to understand the Buddhadharma and yet who question whether there really are Four Holy Truths. How pathetic!

They don’t even know whether the Four Holy Truths exist or not; however, they still travel everywhere lecturing on Buddhism. What do you think? Wouldn’t you say that is pitiful?

THE FOUR HOLY TRUTHS

  • The Truth of Suffering.
  • The Truth of Accumulation.
  • The Truth of Extinction.
  • The Truth of the way.

The first of the Buddha’s disciples to become enlightened to the Four Truths was the Bhikshu Ajnatakaundinya. When he heard the Buddha speak the Four Holy Truths, he became enlightened. The Buddha spoke the Dharma of the Four Holy Truths to cross over the Five Bhikshus. He spoke Three Turnings of the Four Holy Truths.

THE FIRST TURNINGS OF THE FOUR HOLY TRUTHS

  • This is suffering; its nature is oppression.
  • This is accumulation; its nature is enticement.
  • This is the Way; its nature can be cultivated.
  • This is extinction; its nature can be certified to.

THE SECOND TURNINGS OF THE FOUR HOLY TRUTHS

  • This is suffering; you should understand it.
  • This is accumulation; you should cut it off.
  • This is the Way; you should cultivate it.
  • This is extinction; you should certify to it.

THE THIRD TURNINGS OF THE FOUR HOLY TRUTHS

  • This is suffering; I already understand it, and I don’t need to know any more about it.
  • This is accumulation; I have already cut it off, and I don’t need to further cut it off.
  • This is the Way; I have already cultivated it, and I don’t need to cultivate it more.
  • This is extinction; I have already certified to it and I don’t need to further certify to it.
This is called the Triple Turning Dharma Wheel of the Four Holy Truths. As soon as the Buddha explained this Dharma, Ajnatakaundinya immediately certified to the fruit.

At that time, Shakyamuni Buddha took a handful of leaves and some grass and asked all his disciples, “Are there more grass and leaves in my hand or in the rest of the world?”

His disciples answered, “Of course the amount of grass and leaves in the rest of the world is more. There is no way to calculate the amount—much more than what is in the Buddha’s hand. Basically there is no comparison.”

Then the Buddha said, “The Dharma that I have already spoken is comparable to the leaves and grass in my hand. And the Dharma that I have not spoken is comparable to all the rest of leaves and grass in the entire world. There is that much Dharma that I have not spoken yet.”

At that time Manjushri Bodhisattva asked, “Is all the Dharma which the Buddha hasn’t spoken yet included within the Four Holy Truths? If it is included within the Four Holy Truths then the Buddha has already spoken it. If it is not included within the Four Holy Truths then there needs to be a fifth.”

Then he Buddha said, “Although the Four Holy Truths include all dharmas, there are still many principles within the Four Holy Truths that I haven’t explained yet —as many as the grass and leaves on the entire earth. So though I have spoken of the Four Holy Truths, I have only spoken a very minute part of their entire meaning. I haven’t spoken very much.” And so, the Buddhadharma is inconceivable, for though the Buddha had spoken the Four Holy Truths, he only spoke a small part.

The Saha world is a conglomeration of millions of sufferings. There is no way to know how many there really are. They are limitless and boundless. But because of a single thought of ignorance, people of the world become confused. Because they are confused, they turn on the wheel of the Six Paths. People are born and then die, die and then are born. They turn around and around in this wheel and never get out of it. They take suffering to be happiness. They spin around in the world and forget to return to their source. They linger in the world and don’t remember to come back, just like water that flows out and is unable to return to its source. How many kinds of suffering are there? Basically there are boundless and limitless sufferings, but according to the Yogachara Shastra, there are 110 kinds of suffering.

THE 110 KINDS OF SUFFERING ACCORDING TO THE YOGACHARA SHASTRA

ONE KIND OF SUFFERING: Relying on and revolving in non-differentiating karma.

TWO KINDS OF SUFFEREING: 1) desire; 2) stupidity.

THREE KINDS OF SUFFERING: 1) Suffering within suffering; 2) Suffering of decay; 3) Suffering of process.

FOUR KINDS OF SUFFERING: 1) birth, 2) old age, 3) sickness, and 4) death.

FIVE KINDS OF SUFFERING:

  • birth, old age, sickness, and death
  • being apart from the ones you love.
  • coming together with the ones you hate.
  • not getting what you want.
  • the scorching blaze of the five skandhas.

In addition there are:

SIX KINDS OF SUFFERING,
SEVEN KINDS OF SUFFERING,
EIGHT KINDS OF SUFFERING,
NINE KINDS OF SUFFERING,
TEN KINDS OF SUFFERING.

That makes a total of fifty-five kinds of suffering. Add to that:

NINE CLASSES OF SUFFERING

ALL-PERVASIVE SUFFERING, which opens up into two kinds: a) suffering from past lives b) suffering from present conditions, that is, one’s present life.

  • VAST SUFFERING, which further divides into three kinds.
  • THE SUFFERING OF ALL DOORS, which further divides into four kinds.
  • THE SUFFERING OF DEVIANT PRACTICES, which further divides into five kinds.
  • THE SUFFERING OF FLOWING AND TURNING, which further divides into six kinds.
  • THE SUFFERING OF THINGS NOT BEING IN ACCORD WITH ONE’S WISHES, which further divides into seven kinds.
  • THE SUFFERING OF OPPOSITION AND HARMING, which further divides into eight kinds.
  • THE SUFFERING OF CONTINUAL PURSUIT OF THINGS, which further divides into nine kinds.
  • THE SUFFERING OF THE SUFFERING OF ALL MODES, which further divides into ten kinds.

A total of fifty-five kinds of suffering.

Thus, 55
+ 55
--------
110 kinds of suffering.

That is the suffering of relying on and revolving in non-differentiating karma? It means that one has no control over one’s own karma. One doesn’t know where one is going. One just bobs up and down in the great seas and where one is floating to, one doesn’t know. It’s not just one living being who endures this kind of suffering. All beings with sentience – every single one of them – floats indecisively in the sea of karma. They float back and forth in the sea, suddenly up, suddenly down, suddenly east, and suddenly west. They run off everywhere in the ten directions but they’re not in control over this running around. They are revolving in their karmic retribution which they have no control over, and so they are compelled by it. They undergo this kind of suffering, and it’s very difficult to put an end to. This is the first suffering of non-differentiating karma whereby one is not in control of and therefore gets caught up in karmic retribution.

The second suffering has two aspects. The first is the suffering of desire, and the second is the suffering of stupidity. Desire is the basic root of all the myriad sufferings. Those who are greedy to be rich have a desire for wealth. Those who are greedy for sex have a desire for sex. Those who are greedy for high positions have a desire for high positions. Those who are greedy for fame have a desire for fame. Those who are greedy to be leaders have that kind of desire. Whatever one is greedy for is the kind of desire one has. If one is greedy for food, then one has a desire for food. If one is greedy for clothes, then one has a desire for clothes. If one is greedy for sleep, then one has a desire for sleep. These thoughts of desire control one to the point that one is totally upside down, mixed up, and muddled. For example, why do some people become thieves? It’s because thieves have a desire that they can’t fulfill and so they have to break the law in order to fulfill their desire. Why do some people like to gamble? It’s because of desire. Why do people dislike following the rules? It’s because of desire. And why is it that people consider things that are not really freedom to be freedom? It’s all because of desire. Desire is the basic root of all suffering. Why does desire arise? Because of ignorance – because of a single unenlightened thought. After that it turns into desire.

A single unenlighteded thought produces the three subtle marks.
Based on circumstances, the six coarse marks arise.

Once there is desire, then you go out to do all kinds of muddled and mixed up things. So desire is extreme suffering. Once there is desire, love arises – the love between men and women.

But Sages cut off the desire. They have no greed. Why does greed arise? It’s because of desire. As soon as one has desire, then the greed never stops. No matter what one is greedy for, it is still desire. If one wants to drink wine, one has desire. If one wants to eat fine food, one has desire. If one wants to drink good, rich drinks with vitamins in them, one has desire. One is being controlled by desire. One thinks that being able to do all of these things is freedom, but actually all of these cravings are examples of being controlled by desire, to the point that they’ll drive one totally upside down. One thinks, “I’d really like a treat,” or “I’d really like to have a drink of this.” Perhaps one thinks, “I would like to buy a nice car,” or “I would like to buy a boat,” or “I would like to buy an airplane. If I have an airplane of my own then I’ll be able to fly wherever I want to go. This is wonderful beyond words.” However, it’s still desire. It’s all just a case of being controlled by desire. If one didn’t have any desire, then these questions wouldn’t arise.

Once desire arises, then there is love. But eventually, the things one loves will change or to bad, and then it turns into suffering. For example, one buys a car and as soon as one starts driving it around, one gets into an accident, and people get hurt. Now would you say that is suffering or not? The car changed and went bad, and so it caused suffering – this is the problem with cars. Now as for the problems with airplanes and yachts, the problem of desire. That is the primary problem.

The second aspect of the second kind of suffering is the suffering of stupidity. Being stupid is extremely suffering. People who are stupid take what really isn’t good to be good. They don’t recognize the truly good things. They are confused and inverted and they do upside-down things. Though they might not undergo retribution now, in lives to come they’ll have to undergo bitter retribution. Because of the things that they have done wrong, they will receive a delayed – if not an immediate – retribution. They may do a wrong or crazy act today, and in a few years get it back in one way or another. Or maybe they have to wait until next life to pay it back. Maybe they will have to wait two lives before they receive the retribution. That is delayed retribution, not an immediate retribution. Often, stupidity brings this kind of delayed suffering.

Stupid people form attachments to things and people. They get attached to something and say, “This is mine, everything is mine. All of these things belong to me.” When one gives rise to attachment, one is displaying stupidity. When one is stupid, one doesn’t understand things, and one curses heaven and earth, or curses people for what happens to one. One says things like, “Everyone else is at fault. They have all done me wrong.” As a result, one is always worried and upset, and has to undergo two kinds of intensely unpleasant feelings. The first is pain of the body. It feels just as is someone were stabbing one. The second is pain of the heart – deep pain and distress within one’s heart. This is the principle of the two kinds of suffering.

There are also three kinds of suffering:

  • Suffering within suffering
  • Suffering of decay
  • Suffering of process

1) The suffering within suffering means that within all the suffering that already exists, there is more suffering: suffering on top of suffering. What does this mean? For example, one maybe very poor, so that all one owns is a small shack. Then a big storm comes and destroys one’s little house. Originally one was poor but now, one doesn’t even have a house to live in. That is suffering within suffering.

2) Second is the suffering of decay, which means, in the beginning, everything was really fine. But the good goes bad and turns sour. This is a kind of suffering experienced by rich people. Originally, they were wealthy, but circumstances cause them to lose their fortunes.

3) Third is the suffering of process. This refers to the continual process of going from birth to death. First one is young, and one grows up and then from growing up, one grows old and from growing old, one dies. This process continues without cease. This is also suffering. So even if you don’t have the suffering of adversity and poverty, and you don’t have the suffering of losing your wealth and position, nonetheless, no one can escape the suffering of process.

There are also the four kinds of suffering, that is, birth, old age, sickness, and death. Then there are the five kinds of suffering, also the six kinds of suffering, seven kinds of suffering, eight kinds of suffering, nine kinds of suffering, and the ten kinds of suffering. If you add them all together, there are a total of fifty-five kinds of suffering.

Besides these, there are another nine classes of suffering, that further divide into another fifty-five kinds.

THE NINE CLASSES OF SUFFERING

All pervasive suffering: Absolutely everything in the world is suffering. This further opens up into two kinds of suffering: suffering as a result from past causes, that is, past lives and the suffering from present conditions, that is, circumstances from this very life.

Vast suffering: This does not only refer to the suffering endured by a single individual, but also to the suffering undergone by the citizens of all countries, en masse, for example, citizens of an entire country going through the same types of adversities at the same time, such as epidemics, inflation, and so forth. This further opens up into four kinds of suffering.

The suffering of all doors: This is suffering undergone in each individual family; every family has its unique set of headaches. This opens up into four kinds of suffering.

The suffering of deviant practices: Deviant practices are cultivated by adherents of externalist ways. Harboring improper knowledge and views is also a kind of suffering. This further divides into five types of suffering.

The suffering of flowing and turning: This refers to the revolving wheel of the six paths–spinning around and around in an endless vicious cycle. This suffering further opens up into six kinds of suffering.

The suffering of things not being in accord with one’s wishes: It is suffering when one does not get what one wants. This further divides into seven kinds of suffering.

The suffering of opposition and harming: Here, not only does one not get what one wants, one further attracts harm and injury to oneself. This further divides into eight kinds of suffering.

The suffering of continual pursuit of things: People, lacking intelligence, run after their desires, mistaking this for freedom, whereas actually it is just a lot of pain. This further divides into nine kinds of suffering.

The suffering of the suffering of all modes: Absolutely everything in the world is suffering. There is nothing which is not suffering. This further divides into ten kinds of suffering.

Altogether, these nine classes of suffering and their implications come up to fifty-five kinds of suffering. Add these to the previous list already discussed (also fifty-five), and there is a total of 110 kinds of suffering.

Now basically, there are millions upon millions of suffering, and there is no way to speak about them to the end. But now, to facilitate your understanding, let up just briefly discuss the Eight Sufferings, which are

1) The suffering of Birth

2) The suffering of Old Age

3) The suffering of Sickness

4) The suffering of Death

5) The suffering of Being Apart from Those one Loves.

6) The suffering of Coming together with those one Hates.

7) The suffering of not Getting what one Seeks.

8) The suffering of the Scorching Blaze of the Five Skandhas.

1) The Suffering of Birth: The experience of birth is like the experience of a turtle when its shell is ripped off. If you had a live turtle and ripped its shell right off, now what do you think, wouldn’t the turtle experience a lot of suffering? That’s what being born is like. At the moment of birth when one’s skin comes in contact with the air for the first time, it is as painful as if being cut by a sharp knife. That’s why babies cry.

2) The Suffering of Old Age: What’s the suffering of being old? One’s eyes get blurry, one’s ears get deaf, one’s teeth fall out, and one’s hands and feet can’t function properly anymore. So there is a saying:

Don’t wait until you are old to cultivate the Way.
The lonely graves are those of young people.

When you get old, the things you eat don’t seem to have any flavor. When you try to walk, your legs don’t want to cooperate. You try to pick up things and your hands don’t listen to you. You are tottering and in the decline of old age. So the ancients had a poem about old age:

Your skin is wrinkled up like a chicken, and your hair has turned crane-white.
See how you limp and hobble along?
Gold and jade fill your entire house,
And yet you can’t put off the ailments of old age which make you decrepit.
Despite thousands upon thousands of pleasures,
Impermanence finally arrives.
Therefore, the only path of cultivation
Is to recite “Amitabha Buddha!” all the time!

When you age, your skin gradually becomes all wrinkled up like chicken skin and your hair turns the color of the white crane. You’re feeble and senile and can’t even walk straight. Your gait becomes unsteady and wobbly. At this time, even if you have storehouses full of gold, jade, and precious stones, you can’t stave off the advancing of old age and sickness. You just waste away and invites you to have a drink with King Yama. Therefore, the suffering of old age is very bitter.

3) The Suffering of Sickness: Being sick is even more suffering! There are many kinds of sickness, but no matter what kind of sickness it is, it is difficult to endure. Even heaven and earth get sick. For instance, when there is a very heavy rainstorm, or lightning and thunder, that’s heaven and earth getting angry. Heaven and earth get angry, too, and sometimes as a result, humankind is destroyed in the process.

Sometimes there are earthquakes, which means that the planet is sick. Sometimes there are huge typhoons and tornadoes, which indicate that there is too much hatred around. The ancients said that hurricanes are the result of too much anger and hatred. Now scientists have their own explanation for the existence of hurricanes. But if you have your eyes open, you can see that in the center of a hurricane there are ghosts or spirits or demons who are whipping up the wind. They are whipping up the wind to such velocities that it kills people and in the process destroys the trees, homes, and buildings. And all the while, these ghosts are having a grand old time. “Wow, this is a riot! This is fantastic amusement!” They kill people as casually as people would kill a mosquito or a fly. For those malevolent beings it seems there’s no problem at all, nothing wrong about it. That’s because these strange demons and weird ghosts like to harm people and tear them apart. But up to the present, people haven’t believed these kinds of principles. They have said it isn’t true that malevolent beings instigate storms. Instead they say that hurricanes are precipitated due to a special kind of atmosphere inversion. How often does this sudden atmospheric inversion happen? Out of nowhere, all of a sudden there are clouds and stormy weather. And although science has its own explanation, it is not complete or fully substantiated.

Now suffering in sickness is still not the utmost suffering. The most extreme suffering is the suffering of death.

4) The Suffering of Death: When it comes time to die, you’ll feel like a calf whose skin is being ripped off. Think about it, if there’s a cow and you flay it while it is still alive, how much would it hurt? So, it is very difficult to die. If you don’t believe it, you can try it out yourself. You can die and see what it is like. But if you believe, then don’t try it out. It isn’t like science where they run experiments on everything. You won’t want to experiment with dying. To this day, nobody has yet come up with a method that delivers us from sickness and death and ensures us eternal life.

Even the Buddha did not invent such a method. But out of great compassion he left us with eighty-four thousand Dharma doors, to teach us how to cultivate. But if you don’t cultivate, even the Buddha will have no way to help you.

5) The Suffering of Being Apart from Those you Loves. “Love” is the feeling you have toward someone or something you like. When you love someone or something, you want to be together with that person or object all the time. You never want to part from them. However, sometimes circumstances arise in which people must be parted from those that they love and this brings on an acute kind of suffering.

6) The Suffering of Being Together with Those you Hate: For example, there is a person whom you absolutely can’t stand; you find it so hard to be around such a person that you want to leave him. However, when you deliberately go to another place to be away from him, you run into another person who is exactly like the person whom you couldn’t stand. So that’s the suffering of being together with those you hate.

7) The Suffering of Not Obtaining What you Seeks: Suppose there is something you really want, but circumstances prevent you from getting it for your own. You want it, but you don’t get it. No matter what you do, there is no way to fulfill your own wishes. That is the suffering of not obtaining what you seek.

8) The Suffering of the Scorching Blaze of the Five Skandhas: The Skandhas are form, feeling, thinking, activity, and consciousness. They tie you up so you have no freedom. The Five Skandhas are as severe as a huge blaze. They consume you to the point that you burn to death. So this is also suffering.

Now, everyone should “know suffering.” If you know suffering you can bring forth the resolve for Bodhi, and end birth and death.

SUTRA:

THE FOUR HOLY TRUTHS, CHAPTER EIGHT.

COMMENTARY:

CHAPTER EIGHT of the Flower Adornment Sutra is about the FOUR HOLY TRUTHS. Why are they called “Holy” or Sagely truths? Because they are a method people can rely upon to certify to the sagely fruition. One can enter the flow of the sages by means of these Truths, and thereby leave suffering and obtain bliss.

Previously, we’ve discussed the First Holy Truth, that of Suffering. So now, we are going to explain the Second Holy Truth – the Truth of Accumulation. Accumulation means amassing, piling up; it means accumulating afflictions. But accumulation is beckoned by our own self-nature, and so it is said, “Accumulation becons by nature.” If there is a filthy place, then a lot of flies come. But if everything is clean and pure, then the flies won’t come. So absolutely everything is called in by your self-nature.

The Third Holy Truth is the Truth of Extinction. It is the position of the still quiescence of the unconditioned. The Fourth and last Holy Truth is that of The Way. The Way is cultivated. So it says,

Know Suffering,
Cut off Accumulation,
Aspire toward Extinction,
Cultivate the Way.

First of all, you have to truly recognize suffering for what it is. Then you should cut off the accumulation of afflictions. Next, aim at still extinction, the cessation of all suffering, and cultivate the Way. This has been a general discussion of the Four Holy Truths. Now, the Sutra text goes on to describe the various names and characteristics of each of the Four Holy Truths in great detail.

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