What is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering? It is the remainderless fading and cessation of that same craving; the rejecting, relinquishing, leaving and renouncing of it. But whereon is this craving abandoned and made to cease?
Wherever there is what seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it is abandoned and made to cease. There is this Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.
This Noble Truth must be penetrated to by realising the Cessation of Suffering....
This Noble Truth has been penetrated to by realising the Cessation of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before. [Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11]
The Third Noble Truth with its three aspects is: 'There is the cessation of suffering, of dukkha. The cessation of dukkha should be realised. The cessation of dukkha has been realised.'
The whole aim of the Buddhist teaching is to develop the reflective mind in order to let go of delusions. The Four Noble Truths is a teaching about letting go by investigating or looking into - contemplating: 'Why is it like this? Why is it this way?' It is good to ponder over things like why monks shave their heads or why Buddha-rupas look the way they do. We contemplate...the mind is not forming an opinion about whether these are good, bad, useful or useless. The mind is actually opening and considering. 'What does this mean? What do the monks represent? Why do they carry alms bowls? Why can't they have money? Why can't they grow their own food? We contemplate how this way of living has sustained the tradition and allowed it to be handed down from its original founder, Gotama the Buddha, to the present time.
We reflect as we see suffering; as we see the nature of desire; as we recognise that attachment to desire is suffering. These insights can only come through reflection; they cannot come through belief. You cannot make yourself believe or realise an insight as a wilful act; through really contemplating and pondering these truths, the insights come to you. They come only through the mind being open and receptive to the teaching - blind belief is certainly not advised or expected of anyone. Instead, the mind should be willing to be receptive, pondering and considering.
This mental state is very important - it is the way out of suffering. It is not the mind which has fixed views and prejudices and thinks it knows it all or which just takes what other people say as being the truth. It is the mind that is open to these Four Noble Truths and can reflect upon something that we can see within our own mind.
People rarely realise non-suffering because it takes a special kind of willingness in order to ponder and investigate and get beyond the gross and the obvious. It takes a willingness to actually look at your own reactions, to be able to see the attachments and to contemplate: 'What does attachment feel like?'
For example, do you feel happy or liberated by being attached to desire? Is it uplifting or depressing? These questions are for you to investigate. If you find out that being attached to your desires is liberating, then do that. Attach to all your desires and see what the result is.
In my practice, I have seen that attachment to my desires is suffering. There is no doubt about that. I can see how much suffering in my life has been caused by attachments to material things, ideas, attitudes or fears. I can see all kinds of unnecessary misery that I have caused myself through attachment because I did not know any better. I was brought up in America - the land of freedom. It promises the right to be happy, but what it really offers is the right to be attached to everything. America encourages you to try to be as happy as you can by getting things. However, if you are working with the Four Noble Truths, attachment is to be understood and contemplated; then the insight into non-attachment arises. This is not an intellectual stand or a command from your brain saying that you should not be attached; it is just a natural insight into non-attachment or non-suffering.
Here at Amaravati, we chant the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta in its traditional form. When the Buddha gave this sermon on the Four Noble Truths, only one of the five disciples who listened to it really understood it; only one had the profound insight. The other four rather liked it, thinking 'Very nice teaching indeed,' but only one of them, Kondanna really had the perfect understanding of what the Buddha was saying.
The devas were also listening to the sermon. Devas are celestial, ethereal creatures, vastly superior to us. They do not have coarse bodies like ours; they have ethereal bodies and they are beautiful and lovely, intelligent. Now although they were delighted to hear the sermon, not one of them was enlightened by it.
We are told that they became very happy about the Buddha's enlightenment and that they shouted up through the heavens when they heard his teaching. First, one level of devata heard it, then they shouted up to the next level and soon all the devas were rejoicing - right up to the highest, the Brahma realm. There was resounding joy that the Wheel of Dhamma was set rolling and these devas and brahmas were rejoicing in it. However, only Kondanna, one of the five disciples, was enlightened when he heard this sermon. At the very end of the sutta, the Buddha called him 'Anna Kondanna'. 'Anna' means profound knowing, so 'Anna Kondanna' means 'Kondanna-Who-Knows.'
What did Kondanna know? What was his insight that the Buddha praised at the very end of the sermon? It was: 'All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.' Now this may not sound like any great knowledge but what it really implies is a universal pattern: whatever is subject to arising is subject to ceasing; it is impermanent and not self.... So don't attach, don't be deluded by what arises and ceases. Don't look for your refuges, that which you want to abide in and trust, in anything that arises - because those things will cease.
If you want to suffer and waste your life, go around seeking things that arise. They will all take you to the end, to cessation, and you will not be any the wiser for it. You will just go around repeating the same old dreary habits and when you die, you will not have learned anything important from your life.
Rather than just thinking about it, really contemplate: 'All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.' Apply it to life in general, to your own experience. Then you will understand. Just note: beginning....ending. Contemplate how things are. This sensory realm is all about arising and ceasing, beginning and ending; there can be perfect understanding, samma ditthi, in this lifetime. I don't know how long Kondanna lived after the Buddha's sermon, but he was enlightened at that moment. Right then, he had perfect understanding.
I would like to emphasise how important it is to develop this way of reflecting. Rather than just developing a method of tranquillising your mind, which certainly is one part of the practice, really see that proper meditation is a commitment to wise investigation. It involves a courageous effort to look deeply into things, not analysing yourself and making judgements about why you suffer on a personal level, but resolving to really follow the path until you have profound understanding. Such perfect understanding is based upon the pattern of arising and ceasing. Once this law is understood, everything is seen as fitting into that pattern.
This is not a metaphysical teaching: 'All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.' It is not about the ultimate reality - the deathless reality; but if you profoundly understand and know that all that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing, then you will realise the ultimate reality, the deathless, immortal truths. This is a skilful means to that ultimate realisation. Notice the difference: the statement is not a metaphysical one but one which takes us to the metaphysical realisation.
With the reflection upon the Noble Truths, we bring into consciousness this very problem of human existence. We look at this sense of alienation and blind attachment to sensory consciousness, the attachment to that which is separate and stands forth in consciousness. Out of ignorance, we attach to desires for sense pleasures. When we identify with what is mortal or death-bound, and with what is unsatisfactory, that very attachment is suffering.
Sense pleasures are all mortal pleasures. Whatever we see, hear, touch, taste, think or feel is mortal - death-bound. So when we attach to the mortal senses, we attach to death. If we have not contemplated or understood it, we just attach blindly to mortality hoping that we can stave it off for a while. We pretend that we're going to be really happy with the things we attach to - only to feel eventually disillusioned, despairing and disappointed. We might succeed in becoming what we want, but that too is mortal. We're attaching to another death-bound condition. Then, with the desire to die, we might attach to suicide or to annihilation - but death itself is yet another death-bound condition. Whatever we attach to in these three kinds of desires, we're attaching to death - which means that we're going to experience disappointment or despair.
Death of the mind is despair; depression is a kind of death experience of the mind. Just as the body dies a physical death, the mind dies. Mental states and mental conditions die; we call it despair, boredom, depression and anguish. Whenever we attach, if we're experiencing boredom, despair, anguish and sorrow, we tend to seek some other mortal condition that's arising. As an example, you feel despair and you think, 'I want a piece of chocolate cake.' Off you go! For a moment you can absorb into the sweet, delicious, chocolate flavour of that piece of cake. At that moment, there's becoming - you've actually become the sweet, delicious, chocolate flavour! But you can't hold on to that very long. You swallow and what's left? Then you have to go on to do something else. This is 'becoming'.
We are blinded, caught in this becoming process on the sensual plane. But through knowing desire without judging the beauty or ugliness of the sensual plane, we come to see desire as it is. There's knowing. Then, by laying aside these desires rather than grasping at them, we experience nirodha, the cessation of suffering. This is the Third Noble Truth which we must realise for ourselves. We contemplate cessation. We say, 'There is cessation', and we know when something has ceased.
Before you can let things go, you have to admit them into full consciousness. In meditation, our aim is to skilfully allow the subconscious to arise into consciousness. All the despair, fears, anguish, suppression and anger is allowed to become conscious. There is a tendency in people to hold to very high-minded ideals. We can become very disappointed in ourselves because sometimes we feel we are not as good as we should be or we should not feel angry - all the shoulds and shouldn'ts. Then we create desire to get rid of the bad things - and this desire has a righteous quality. It seems right to get rid of bad thoughts, anger and jealousy because a good person 'should not be like that'. Thus, we create guilt.
In reflecting on this, we bring into consciousness the desire to become this ideal and the desire to get rid of these bad things. And by doing that, we can let go - so that rather than becoming the perfect person, you let go of that desire. What is left is the pure mind. There is no need to become the perfect person because the pure mind is where perfect people arise and cease.
Cessation is easy to understand on an intellectual level, but to realise it may be quite difficult because this entails abiding with what we think we cannot bear. For example, when I first started meditating, I had the idea that meditation would make me kinder and happier and I was expecting to experience blissful mind states. But during the first two months, I never felt so much hatred and anger in my life. I thought, 'This is terrible; meditation has made me worse.' But then I contemplated why there was so much hatred and aversion coming up, and I realised that much of my life had been an attempt to run away from all that. I used to be a compulsive reader. I would have to take books with me wherever I went. Anytime fear or aversion started creeping in, I would whip out my book and read; or I would smoke or munch on snacks. I had an image of myself as being a kind person that did not hate people, so any hint of aversion or hatred was repressed.
This is why during the first few months as a monk, I was so desperate for things to do. I was trying to seek something to distract myself with because I had started to remember in meditation all the things I deliberately tried to forget. Memories from childhood and adolescence kept coming up in my mind; then this anger and hatred became so conscious it just seemed to overwhelm me. But something in me began to recognise that I had to bear with this, so I did stick it out. All the hatred and anger that had been suppressed in thirty years of living rose to its peak at this time, and it burned itself out and ceased through meditation. It was a process of purification.
To allow this process of cessation to work, we must be willing to suffer. This is why I stress the importance of patience. We have to open our minds to suffering because it is in embracing suffering that suffering ceases. When we find that we are suffering, physically or mentally, then we go to the actual suffering that is present. We open completely to it, welcome it, concentrate on it, allowing it to be what it is. That means we must be patient and bear with the unpleasantness of a particular condition. We have to endure boredom, despair, doubt and fear in order to understand that they cease rather than running away from them.
As long as we do not allow things to cease, we just create new kamma that just reinforces our habits. When something arises, we grasp it and proliferate around it; and this complicates everything. Then these things will be repeated and repeated throughout our lives - we cannot go around following our desires and fears and expect to realise peace. We contemplate fear and desire so that these do not delude us anymore; we have to know what is deluding us before we can let it go. Desire and fear are to be known as impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self. They are seen and penetrated so that suffering can burn itself away.
It is very important here to differentiate between cessation and annihilation - the desire that comes into the mind to get rid of something. Cessation is the natural ending of any condition that has arisen. So it is not desire! It is not something that we create in the mind but it is the end of that which began, the death of that which is born. Therefore, cessation is not a self - it does not come about from a sense of 'I have to get rid of things,' but when we allow that which has arisen to cease. To do that, one has to abandon craving - let it go. It does not mean rejecting or throwing away but abandoning means letting go of it.
Then, when it has ceased, you experience nirodha - cessation, emptiness, non-attachment. Nirodha is another word for Nibbana. When you have let something go and allowed it to cease, then what is left is peace.
You can experience that peace through your own meditation. When you've let desire end in your own mind, that which is left over is very peaceful. That is true peacefulness, the Deathless. When you really know that as it is, you realise nirodha sacca, the Truth of Cessation, in which there's no self but there's still alertness and clarity. The real meaning of bliss is that peaceful, transcendent consciousness.
If we do not allow cessation, then we tend to operate from assumptions we make about ourselves without even knowing what we are doing. Sometimes, it is not until we start meditating that we begin to realise how in our lives so much fear and lack of confidence come from childhood experiences. I remember when I was a little boy, I had a very good friend who turned on me and rejected me. I was distraught for months after that. It left an indelible impression on my mind. Then I realised through meditation just how much a little incident like that had affected my future relationships with others - I always had a tremendous fear of rejection. I never even thought of it until that particular memory kept rising up into my consciousness during meditation. The rational mind knows that it is ridiculous to go around thinking about the tragedies of childhood. But if they keep coming up into consciousness when you are middle-aged, maybe they are trying to tell you something about assumptions that were formed when you were a child.
When you begin to feel memories or obsessive fears coming up in meditation, rather than becoming frustrated or upset by them, see them as something to be accepted into consciousness so that you can let them go. You can arrange your daily life so that you never have to look at these things; then the conditions for them to actually arise are minimal. You can dedicate yourself to a lot of important causes and keep busy; then these anxieties and nameless fears never become conscious - but what happens when you let go? The desire or obsession moves - and it moves to cessation. It ends. And then you have the insight that there is the cessation of desire. So the third aspect of the Third Noble Truth is: cessation has been realised.
This is to be realised. The Buddha said emphatically: 'This is a Truth to be realised here and now.' We do not have to wait until we die to find out if it's all true - this teaching is for living human beings like ourselves. Each one of us has to realise it. I may tell you about it and encourage you to do it but I can't make you realise it!
Don't think of it as something remote or beyond your ability. When we talk about Dhamma or Truth, we say that is here and now, and something we can see for ourselves. We can turn to it; we can incline towards the Truth. We can pay attention to the way it is, here and now, at this time and this place. That's mindfulness - being alert and bringing attention to the way it is. Through mindfulness, we investigate the sense of self, this sense of me and mine: my body, my feelings, my memories, my thoughts, my views, my opinions, my house, my car and so on.
My tendency was self-disparagement so, for example, with the thought: 'I am Sumedho,' I'd think of myself in negative terms: 'I'm no good.' But listen, from where does that arise and where does it cease?...or, 'I'm really better than you, I'm more highly attained. I've been living the Holy Life for a long time so I must be better than any of you!' Where does THAT arise and cease?
When there is arrogance, conceit or self-disparagement - whatever it is - examine it; listen inwardly; 'I am....' Be aware and attentive to the space before you think it; then think it and notice the space that follows. Sustain your attention on that emptiness at the end and see how long you can hold your attention on it. See if you can hear a kind of ringing sound in the mind, the sound of silence, the primordial sound. When you concentrate your attention on that, you can reflect: 'Is there any sense of self?' You see that when you're really empty - when there's just clarity, alertness and attention - there's no self. There's no sense of me and mine. So, I go to that empty state and I contemplate Dhamma: I think, 'This is just as it is. This body here is just this way.' I can give it a name or not but right now, it's just this way. It's not Sumedho!
There's no Buddhist monk in the emptiness. 'Buddhist monk' is merely a convention, appropriate to time and place. When people praise you and say, 'How wonderful', you can know it as someone giving praise without taking it personally. You know there's no Buddhist monk there; it's just Suchness. It's just this way. If I want Amaravati to be a successful place and it is a great success, I'm happy. But if it all fails, if no one is interested, we can't pay the electricity bill and everything falls apart - failure! But really, there's no Amaravati. The idea of a person who is a Buddhist monk or a place called Amaravati - these are only conventions, not ultimate realities. Right now it's just this way, just the way it's supposed to be. One doesn't carry the burden of such a place on one's shoulders because one sees it as it really is and there's no person to be involved in it. Whether it succeeds or fails is no longer important in the same way.
In emptiness, things are just what they are. When we are aware in this way, it doesn't mean that we are indifferent to success or failure and that we don't bother to do anything. We can apply ourselves. We know what we can do; we know what has to be done and we can do it in the right way. Then everything becomes Dhamma, the way it is. We do things because that is the right thing to be doing at this time and in this place rather than out of a sense of personal ambition or fear of failure.
The path to the cessation of suffering is the path of perfection. Perfection can be a rather daunting word because we feel very imperfect. As personalities, we wonder how we can dare to even entertain the possibility of being perfect. Human perfection is something no one ever talks about; it doesn't seem at all possible to think of perfection in regard to being human. But an arahant is simply a human being who has perfected life, someone who has learned everything there is to learn through the basic law: 'All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.' An arahant does not need to know everything about everything; it is only necessary to know and fully understand this law.
We use Buddha wisdom to contemplate Dhamma, the way things are. We take Refuge in Sangha, in that which is doing good and refraining from doing evil. Sangha is one thing, a community. It's not a group of individual personalities or different characters. The sense of being an individual person or a man or a woman is no longer important to us. This sense of Sangha is realised as a Refuge. There is that unity so that even though the manifestations are all individual, our realisation is the same. Through being awake, alert and no longer attached, we realise cessation and we abide in emptiness where we all merge. There's no person there. People may arise and cease in the emptiness, but there's no person. There's just clarity, awareness, peacefulness and purity.