What the Buddha Taught:

The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path

Study and Discussion Guide

Red Rocks Zen Circle

January 2020

The Four Noble Truths

“I teach one thing and one thing only:  that is, suffering and the end of suffering.    –The Buddha

The Four Noble Truths

-There is suffering in this world – dukka.  There is a stream of dissatisfaction in life.

Dukka is caused by our desires, attachments, clinging and thirsting.

-Our personal desire system can be stopped or cessated.  There is well-being and we can enjoy it.  There is liberation. 

-The Eightfold Path is the teaching, activity and process of stopping our attachment to desires, which cause our suffering. This can bring us freedom.

The Elements of the Eightfold Path

Prajna:  The Cultivation of Wisdom

-Wise View

-Wise Intention

Sila:  The Cultivation of Ethical Conduct

-Wise Speech

-Wise Way of Living

-Wise Action

Samadhi:  The Cultivation of Stability and Clarity in the Mind

-Wise Effort

-Wise Mindfulness

-Wise Concentration

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth:  There is suffering (“dukka”).

From Thich Naht Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:  

In the beginning, we sense that something is wrong, but we are not able to say exactly what it is.  We make some effort to escape, but we cannot.  We try to deny our suffering, but it persists.  The Buddha said that to suffer and not know we are suffering is extremely painful. 

Recognizing and identifying our suffering is like the work of a doctor diagnosing an illness.  The wounds in our heart become the object of our meditation.  We show them to the doctor, and we show them to the Buddha, which means we show them to ourselves.  We need to treat them with kindness and non-violence.  We need to embrace our fear, hatred, anguish and anger.  We learn to stop running from our pain. 

Instead, with all our courage and tenderness, we recognize and acknowledge this suffering, which includes illness, pain, depression, fear, or a difficult relationship.  We practice sitting and walking meditation, and we open to what is here.  With this we come to realize that we have stopped running away from our pain.  Our practice is to be with our suffering and take good care of it.

From Buddhist Teacher Joseph Goldstein:  To not see dukka ….. is dukka.

From Zen teacher Bernie Glassman:  Our biggest problem is that we don’t want to have any problems.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth: 

The Cause of Suffering is Craving, or Desiring.

(We cling to a personal desire system.)

From Zen teacher Byakurin Judith Ragir, The Eightfold Path

The nobility of the Second Truth comes from knowing that we can’t extinguish desire.  Zen Buddhism doesn’t ignore desire or try to destroy it.  We practice with it. 

Our desires come from holding on to that which we think will produce happiness for our self.  Part of the work in Buddhism is the deconstruction of a solid sense of “self.”   We redirect ourselves toward the teaching of interdependence, which makes our “selves” more porous. 

Otherwise, if we believe in this singular self, then we have to defend it and try to grasp what the self thinks it needs.  That is a personal desire system:  a system built around a self and its imagined needs.

The Buddha spoke about three hungers that help to produce this system of desires.  These are the basic human instincts that create our complex arrangement of desires.  The Three Hungers are:

1.  Wanting to hold on to sensual pleasures

2.  Craving “being”:  wanting to be alive

3.  Craving “non-being”: wanting to escape the pain of being alive

The first hunger is quite easy to understand.  A desire to prolong sensual pleasure also implies an aversion to pain and difficulty.  We want sensual pleasure, friendships that are easy, and we don’t want to face our difficulties

The second hunger is the craving for being.  Our most basic instinct is to physically survive.  In interpersonal relationships, we may hunger to be seen, and we may have a fear of invisibility.

The third hunger is the craving for non-being.  These are our urges to escape life and its problems.  In a spiritual life, it is the craving for transcendence.  This craving for oblivion is also the basis for addictions, and for the painful attraction to suicide.  Interpersonally, we may be afraid of intimacy and relationship, and want to escape being seen.

These hungers function within us all the time. To bring them into awareness helps us make our choices with more consciousness. 

The Third Chinese Zen Ancestor wrote:

The Great Way is not difficult

For those who are not attached to preferences.

When love and hate are both absent

Everything becomes clear and undisguised.

When our attachments to the positive aspects of life and our aversion to the negative aspects of life are absent, life present itself just “as it is” and each moment is suchness itself.

The Third Noble Truth:

The Personal Desire System Can Be Released.

The Third Noble Truth is the possibility of well-being and freedom.  It is possible to heal our difficult lives.  This well-being is the effect of practicing the Fourth Noble Truth, which is the Eightfold Path.

As we begin to soften our egocentric desires, our endless chasing after satisfaction will relax.  Our natural wholeness is apparent as it is, always here and now.  This is not something we attain.  It is more an unraveling of our idea of a separate self.  We have always been whole.  This person right here has never been separated from the mystery of life.  The experiencing of this truth creates a lessening of our suffering.  

It is not easy to let go of the way we have been brought up to see the world.  We have to being to see the world with different eyes:  our Buddha eyes.  This new way of seeing helps us to go beyond conventional reality, which is based on appearance only.  We can learn to “return to the Source.”  Each moment can be seen as arising and returning to the Whole.

From Joko Beck, Everyday Zen:

We all want a life of freedom and compassion, a fully functioning human life.  And a fully functioning human life can be attached to nothing, not to a practice or even the Truth – if we’re attached to Truth, we can’t see it. 

The process of Zen practice is to see through, not to eliminate, anything to which we are attached. We could have great wealth and be unattached to it, or we might have nothing and be very attached to having nothing. 

Most practice gets caught in the area of fiddling with our minds.  “My mind should be quiet”.   Our mind doesn’t matter:  what matters is non-attachment to the activities of the mind.

The first problem in practice is to see that we are attached.  And as we do consistent, patient zazen we begin to see that we are nothing but attachments; they rule our lives. 

But we never lose an attachment by saying it has to go.  Only as we gain awareness of its true nature does it quietly and imperceptibly wither away;  like a sandcastle with waves rolling over it, it just smooths out and finally – where is it?  What was it?

The question is not how to get rid of our attachments or to renounce them;  it is the intelligence of seeing their true nature, which is impermanent and empty.  We don’t have to get rid of anything. 

The most difficult are the attachments to what we think are “spiritual” truths.  Attachment to what we call spiritual is the very activity that hampers a spiritual life. So long as we have a picture of how we’re supposed to be or how other people are supposed to be, we are attached, and a truly spiritual life is the absence of this. 

So as we practice zazen let’s be aware of this central issue:  the practice of non-attachment.  Each of us has a choice.  What will it be?  We can choose the path towards freedom and compassion.

The Eightfold Path

Part 1:   Prajna:  The Cultivation of Wisdom

-Right View

-Right Intention

RIGHT VIEW:   Excerpts from “Right View and Its Actualization”,

By Myoan Grace Shireson,in The Eightfold Path

The Buddha’s Eightfold Path is an ongoing experiential process, so following the Path is not something you get or have – it is something that you do.  Finding and adhering to this path requires Right View:  realizing that Buddhist practice, rather than our current course of endless craving, can help end our suffering.

Watching life from Right View is a continuous activity, not an object that we grasp and keep.  It is best to think of Right View as Right Viewing – as an activity that we engage in.  Understanding Right View means to accept that the activity of practice, not our impulses, will help us live more fully.

We initiate Right View and learn to activate and stabilize it on the meditation cushion. The experience of Right View, the view from the cushion, becomes familiar to us:  it is the view of this very moment as it is, not as we wish it to be.  

The entire Eightfold Path depends on Right View.  And Right View depends on a shift from our habitual selfishness to a life-centered view.

Resting in Right View, we resist the urge to protect the imaginary self on its imaginary and proprietary cloud.  Right View functions to help us see all of life as interconnected and unfolding in an unbounded sky. This is why Right View is the beginning, the middle, and the return to the Eightfold Path. 

In meditation, by intentionally bringing body, breath and mind to one place, we begin to perceive true reality.  We stop dreaming and scheming and begin to be more fully present.  We turn away from the thinking-imagining function of our minds and towards our felt experience of the present moment.  We begin to experience our personal mind and its activity within universal awareness.


Excerpts from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, by Thich Naht Hanh

Thinking is the speech of our mind.  Right Thinking makes our speech clear and beneficial. 

But to practice Right Thinking is not easy.  Our mind is often thinking about one thing while our body is doing another.  Mind and body are not unified.  That’s why conscious breathing is so important. When we concentrate on our breathing, we bring body and mind back together and become whole again.  When body and mind are not together, we get lost and we cannot really say that we are here. 

There are four practices related to Right Thinking:

1.”Are you sure?”  If there is a rope in your path and you perceive it as a snake, fear-based thinking will follow. The more erroneous your perception, the more incorrect your thinking will be.  Please write the words “are you sure?” on a large piece of paper and hang it where you will see it often.  Ask yourself this question again and again.  Wrong perceptions cause incorrect thinking and unnecessary suffering.

2.”What am I doing?”  Sometimes I ask one of my students this question to help her release her thinking about the past or the future and return to the present moment. 

Asking yourself “what am I doing” will help you overcome the habit of wanting to complete things quickly.  Smile to yourself and say, “Washing this dish is the most important task in my life.”  If your thoughts are carrying you away, use mindfulness to bring yourself back.  When you are really here and you do things in mindfulness, you will be happy and a resource for many others.

3.”Hello, habit energy.”  We tend to stick to our habits, even the ones that cause us to suffer. Workaholism is one example;  today, our way of working is rather compulsive and prevents us from having real contact with life. 

Our way of being in the world depends on our way of thinking, and our way of thinking comes out of our habit energies.  When we recognize this, we only need to say, “Hello, habit energy” and make good friends with our habitual patterns of thinking and acting.  Then they will lose much of their power over us.

4.”Bodhichitta.”  Our mind of compassion is the deep wish to cultivate understanding in ourselves in order to bring happiness to many beings.  With bodhichitta as the foundation of our thinking, we have a powerful motivating force for the practice of mindful living.

When you practice Right View and Right Thinking, you dwell deeply in the present moment, where you can touch seeds of peace and liberation, heal and transform your suffering, and be truly present for others.

The Eightfold Path

Part 2:  Sila, the Cultivation of Ethical Conduct

-Right Speech

-Right Way of Living or Right Livelihood

-Right Action


Excerpts from “Right Speech:  The Dance of Understanding”

By Tonen O’Connor, The Eightfold Path

And what, bhikkus, is right speech?  Abstinence from false speech, abstinence from divisive speech, abstinence from harsh speech, abstinence from idle chatter;  this is called right speech.     – The Buddha

We should look closely at why speech is specifically included in Buddhist ethics.  I believe it may be because speech is an action driven by our understanding of the nature of the world in which we exist and by our desire to communicate that understanding.  Buddhists have a deep understanding of our world as completely inter-dependent and constantly changing.  Our ethical behavior is grounded in this understanding, rather than in an unchanging and permanently given set of principles.

However we approach speech, we need to be aware of not only what we say, but how we react to what others say.  Our intentions may be good, the intentions of others may be good, and we may still find hurt in the air.

And to really think about speech, we must include non-verbal modes of communication, such as gesture, behavior and demeanor.  Even when we think that we are not saying anything, we are communicating who we are.

Right speech must be factual in nature and true to the emotional states of both speaker and hearer – no embellishing for effect, no glossing over unpleasantness, no outright fabrications – and we must be aware of whether or not this is the moment to say these particular words.  My life is inextricably bound up with yours, and recognizing this, I must try not to blurt out something inappropriate for the moment. 

Another component of Right Speech is Right Hearing.  This may be the most difficult of all.  We can perhaps learn to stop blurting out hurtful or untrue words, but we often hear the words of others filtered through our ego and tainted by delusions about our self. 

I believe that there is a deep-seated pleasure when we use Right Speech in its meaning of true, correct and beneficial.  We sense its “rightness” as an acknowledgement of the truths of impermanence and inter-dependence. With this comes the ease of no longer being alienated and separate.  Now we move with the flow of the mighty stream of life.  It then becomes natural to have sympathy with other beings since we are rowing this boat together.  I try to find speech that is appropriate and beneficial for it is being offered to companions on this Path.


Excerpts from “Right Livelihood:  Work as Spiritual Practice”,

By Misha Shungen Merrill, The Eightfold Path

In our culture many people face a stark choice:  we either go away from the world into some monastic environment for spiritual training, or we immerse ourselves in the everyday world of material needs and desires, “visiting” our spiritual life an hour or so a week.  To integrate both paths, however, is to understand the fundamental interconnectedness of our lives where Right View and Right Livelihood intersect.  It is a manifestation of the Buddha’s Middle Way, in which everything from meditation to the family bank account offers a seamless practice opportunity.

Our real job …. our life job … is to become awake to who we really are.  When we remember this, we will be less likely to separate our work from our practice.

In traditional Buddhist societies, work and leisure are often experienced as two sides of the same coin, and the coin itself is understood to be the total expression of spiritual life.  Everything from running a board-of-directors meeting to cleaning the toilet is seen as both useful and meaningful work deserving dignity and appreciation.  Right Livelihood is about valuing all work that is done in a meaningful and useful way, and honoring both the work and the one doing the work.


Excerpts from Thich Naht Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

Right Action means Right Action of the body.  It is the practice of offering love and preventing harm, the practice of nonviolence toward ourselves and others.  The basis of Right Action is to do everything from awareness, from mindfulness.

Right Action is closely linked to the Five Mindfulness Trainings (used at TNH’s Plum Village practice center in France).  The First Training is about reverence for life:  “Aware of the suffering caused by destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals.  I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.”  We may be killing every day by the way we eat, drink and use the land, air and water.  We think that we don’t kill, but we do.  Mindfulness of action helps us to be aware so instead of harming we can begin helping.

The Second Training is about generosity.  “Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing and oppression, I am committed to cultivating peace and learning ways to work for the well-being of all.  I will practice generosity by sharing my time, energy and material resources with those who are in need.  I am determined not to possess anything that should belong to others.”  This training tells us not just to refrain from taking what is not ours or exploiting others.  It also exhorts us to live in a way that brings about justice and well-being in society.  When we do something to promote social justice, that is Right Action.

There are many things that we can do to practice Right Action.  We can protect life, practice generosity, behave responsibly, and consume mindfully.  Right Action is a manifestation of all the other steps in the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path

Part 3:  Samadhi, the Cultivation of Stability and Clarity in the Mind

-Right Effort

-Right Mindfulness

-Right Concentration


Excerpts from “Right Effort:  Learning to Fly”,

By Teijo Munnich, The EightFold Path

When I first encountered Right Effort as a young Zen practitioner, my first understanding was that it was just getting yourself to the meditation cushion.  Some forty years later, that is also my final conclusion.  The awareness that is cultivated by just sitting in silence brings freedom to our lives even beyond what we can see. 

As humans, we want to feel confident about what we do, so we stay within the realm of knowing.  But Buddhist practice challenges us to “not know” because everything is always changing,so there is nothing that we can know for certain. For me Right Effort is the willingness to take that step into the unknown, not for the purpose of stepping out of life, but to step into life. 

From Thich Naht Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

Waking up this morning, I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment

And to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.

Reciting this gatha can give us energy to live the day well.  Twenty-four hours are a treasure-chest of jewels.  The practice is to smile as soon as we wake up, recognizing this day as an opportunity for practicing.  It is up to us not to waste it.  This is Right Effort.


From Thich Naht Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings

Right Mindfulness is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.  When Right Mindfulness is present, the Four Noble Truths and the other elements of the Eightfold Path are also present. 

Right Mindfulness is the energy that brings us back to the present moment.  To cultivate mindfulness in ourselves is to cultivate the Buddha within.

According to Buddhist psychology, the trait “attention” is universal, which means that we are always giving our attention to something. Our attention may be appropriate and beneficial, as when we dwell fully in the present moment.  Or it may be inappropriate as when we are attentive to something that takes us away from being here and now.

The Sanskrit word for mindfulness means “remember”.  Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment.  The character the Chinese use for mindfulness has two parts.  The upper part means “now” and the lower part means “mind”.   A miracle of mindfulness is to be present and able to touch deeply the blue sky, the flower, and the smile of a child. 

Do not lose yourself in the past.  Do not lose yourself in the future.  Do not get caught in your anger, worries, or fears.  Come back to the present moment, and touch life deeply.  This is mindfulness.


Excerpts from Pat Enkyo O’Hara, “Right Samadhi”, The Eightfold Path

Over two thousand years ago in India, a woman follower of Shakyamuni wrote a verse:

I cultivated a state of mind

That depends on nothing else and cannot be measured,

I became focused, collected,

I am free, and I will always be completely free.

This woman, called Sona, describes a “state of mind” that sounds centered and composed and at the same time unrestrained.  When she says that it “depends on nothing else”, it’s as if she experienced a quality of mind that doesn’t hinge on her life situation, her past, or on whether she is feeling good or bad, happy or sad. 

Instead, it is a way of being that renders her centered and at one with her wholeness, just as it is.  As she plainly says, she is “free”.  It is quite an expansive and remarkable statement, given the times and her situation as a female follower of Shakyamuni and mother of ten.

Now, when I go to my cushion to sit meditation, I am often still overflowing with various thoughts, ideas, things to do, and sometimes, as I sit down and regulate my breathing, I am still chatting with myself about this and that.  This is when I say to myself, “stop talking.” 

When I stop talking to myself, I begin to sink into a flow of experience that really has no description; it simply is, is flow itself. It is moment-to-moment aliveness, spacious experience of myself as an element in the life of all Life. 

Recently, after zazen, I wrote:

Sitting quietly,

I meet myself,

Stripped of words and ideas,

Just this, just this, nothing is left out!

Thousands of years apart, two women drink of the same river, the healing waters of wholesome concentration, or Samadhi.

How we long for a recipe, a clear instruction on how to enter into right concentration.  As you can imagine, there are as many systems of such instruction as there are streams of the Dharma.

My own experience with concentration comes from my American Zen Buddhist tradition. We were taught to assume a balanced upright position, to begin by counting our breath until our concentration was focused enough to stop counting.  We might then maintain attention on the breath until we achieved sufficient focus to drop any object of attention and simply “sit zazen.” 

Zen Master Dogen then tells us, “Now sit steadfastly and think not-thinking.  How do you think not-thinking?  Beyond thinking.  This is the essential act of zazen.”

It is hard for us to get our minds around the concept of “beyond thinking.”  Accustomed to “doing”, to grasping for something other than what’s here, we have to learn to drop into the stream of breath, no longer counting it, but being it.  The thinking, the intentionality drops away, and we can simply enjoy the ebb and flow of Samadhi:  this is “beyond thinking.”  It is more like riding on a slow-moving current in a broad river.

One ancient master said that thinking about Samadhi is like being outside the gate, and zazen is returning home and sitting in peace.   ~  ~  ~