the grammar of the four Noble Truths

We’re reading about Buddhist ethics in my Introduction to Philosophy course, and the Four Noble Truths are our focus. Here is how the first Truth is presented in the Sermon at Benares (attributed to the Buddha himself):

“Now, this, O bhikkhus [monks], is the noble truth concerning suffering: Birth is attended with pain, decay is painful, disease is painful, death is painful. Union with the unpleasant is painful, painful is separation from the pleasant; and any craving that is unsatisfied, that too is painful. In brief, bodily conditions which spring from attachment are painful. This, then, O bhikkhus, is the noble truth concerning suffering.”

The remaining three Truths take similar forms. First comes a headline or name for the Truth (respectively: suffering, the origins of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the way to the destruction of suffering). Then–at least for the first two Truths–comes a list of factual claims, e.g., “Birth is attended with pain.” The paragraph ends, “This is the noble truth concerning [the topic of the truth].”

Presumably “this” does not refer simply to the preceding factual claims. The Truth is broader than that; the claims are illustrative or supportive. My instinct is to translate the final sentence into a proposition, a statement or assertion that expresses a judgment or opinion. I don’t think my instinct is uniquely “Western” (whatever that means) or philosophical. Buddhist thinkers have been debating the propositional content of the Truths for two millennia. This debate persists because it’s not self-evident how to restate the Truths as propositions. Should we say: “All life is intrinsically suffering”? “All human (or sentient) life is intrinsically suffering?” “All life includes some suffering, even if there are also happy moments”? “All life begins and terminates in suffering”? Etc.

This choice seems worth debating; the resulting conversation is fruitful. But there is also a good reason for the final sentence to take the form that it does. To assent to a proposition about suffering will not change your life. Your life may change if you really internalize the significance of suffering. In that case, you will understand the “truth of suffering.”

It’s like saying that social injustice in the US is not just a list of injustices. It is an overall condition of the society that you can absorb until it influences your whole stance toward politics. Whether you should take that stance depends on all the separate propositions about particular injustices, so you should evaluate those propositions critically. The (ostensible) Truth of Social Injustice is debatable among reasonable Americans. But the question is whether you should–and whether you have–absorbed that truth.

The Buddha’s way of thinking reminds me of Epicurus and the other founders of Hellenistic schools. Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus includes a formal argument that we should not fear death. Death is a lack of sensation, so we will feel nothing bad once we’re dead. To have a distressing feeling of fear now, when we are not yet dead, is irrational. The famous conclusion follows logically enough: “Death is nothing to us.” (Note that this is a proposition.) But Epicurus knows that such conclusions will not alone counteract the ingrained mental habit of fearing death. So he ends his letter by advising Menoeceus “to practice the thought of this and similar things day and night, both alone and with someone who is like you” (my translation). The main verb here could be translated as “exercise,” “practice,” or “meditate on.” You will be better off if you internalize the truth concerning death; but that takes practice, and it requires a community of people devoted to the same end. The same is true, it seems to me, of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

See also: three truths and a question about happinessPhilosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); and on philosophy as a way of life; and when East and West were one.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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