There are four main holidays in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar marked for special celebration and practice. These commemorate important stages in the life, realization, and teaching of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Devoted Buddhists throughout the world celebrate these holidays, or “Duchen”, with extensive offerings, practice, and prayers. It is said that the merit accumulated from virtuous activities on these days is multiplied by millions of times.
It is Anyen Rinpoche’s wish that in the near future, we as a Sangha will begin to honor these holy days together. He believes that as serious Buddhists, we can and should root the tradition of celebrating the Four Duchen here in North America. In the near future, there will be special teachings and practice that will give us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the Dharma and accumulate vast merit for the benefit of all sentient beings on these very special days.
The following is from a Dharma talk on the Four Noble Truths given by Anyen Rinpoche on Chokor Duchen, The Festival of Turning the Wheel of Dharma, on the 4th day of the 6th month in the Tibetan lunar calendar.
The Four Noble Truths
Today is a very special day in the Buddhist calendar. It marks the anniversary of the first turning of the wheel of Dharma by the Buddha. It is said that the Buddha Shakyamuni sat in meditation for six years while enduring many trials and hardships, and then sat with determination under a Bodhi tree until he finally attained complete liberation and the state of Buddhahood. After he attained that realized state, he said “I have found nectar-like dharma: profound, peaceful, luminous and uncompounded. No matter who is taught, who could understand? I won’t speak, but will remain in the forest”
Later, he was he was requested to turn the Wheel of Dharma by Brahma and Indra who offered him a right-turning white conch shell and a gold dharmachakra, saying: “Please turn the wheel of the dharma” so beings can put the Dharma into practice.
So that is how it came to be that on this day in Varanasi, the Buddha Shakyamuni began to teach on the Four Noble Truths, which were the first teachings that he gave.
On this special day in Tibet, people will rise early to practice, especially in the monasteries. Even out in the community, lamas will give teachings to lay people and monastics alike early in the morning. Then people will make many vast offerings including water bowls, incense, butter lamps, money, and the recitation of many prayers.
Why is this? On these four special days during the year, this being one of them, the merit accumulated from any practice will be multiplied by 100 million times. Therefore, devoted Buddhists make special effort on these days to engage in truly virtuous activities. So any listening, contemplation, or meditation on the Dharma, any merit that is accumulated, becomes very powerful because it is being done on this anniversary of the first teaching of the Dharma. Additionally, any activity of generation or giving rise to bodhicitta, even if we only offer one candle or butter lamp, becomes equal to offering 100 million. So the virtue accumulated on this day is very vast and it is not possible to accumulate this kind of virtue on an ordinary day.
We are celebrating the day the teachings of the Buddhadharma were brought into the world by the Buddha Shakyamuni. In America, there are many Buddhists who have been practicing the Dharma for a very long time. However, it is not known or celebrated by many Buddhists. We don’t make the effort to listen to, or contemplate on, the Dharma on a day like today. Instead, we just do what we normally do. We are simply trying enjoy ourselves, distract ourselves, make ourselves busy and not have to think of other things, maybe just relax. Or maybe we are just engaging in our normal non-virtuous activity like drinking and smoking, or whatever we do in our free time. So, on a day like today, we should make more effort to be mindful, to turn our body, speech, and mind towards accumulating virtue.
When the Buddha Shakyamuni first taught, he taught to five retinues. As followers of the Buddha Shakyamuni and this tradition, for the sake of an auspicious connection, I will give a short teaching on the Four Noble Truths as well.
The Four Noble Truths can be understood to have the complete teachings on the nature of reality within them. General we articulate them as:
The truth of suffering
The truth of the origin of suffering
The truth of the path, and
The truth of cessation
The first three of these have to do with our conventional world. For example, that our ordinary world is full of suffering, where the suffering originates, and how we can transcend that suffering through taking up the path. The final truth, the truth of cessation, is the truth of Ultimate Reality. For that reason, we not only say that all of Dharma is contained in these teachings, we also say they contain all of conventional and ultimate reality.
So the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering. It is said in the Uttaratantra that, “The truth of suffering is the object of knowledge and the origin of suffering is the object of abandonment.” What does this mean? Suffering is something that we have to examine and understand. Suffering is something that can’t be avoided. It’s something that we experience on a daily basis. No matter what, suffering is going to happen! Without examining suffering, emotionally and intellectually, we cannot develop what is called renunciation, the motivation of wanting to transcend the suffering of ordinary, worldly life. This renunciation is an important part of the Buddhist path. Without this, we won’t have any enthusiasm or energy to practice. We’ll just be complacent and continue to do the same things we’ve been doing all along.
For most contemporary Buddhists, we have a kind of contaminated form of renunciation. We feel exhausted by worldly suffering, because there’s no escape from it. Yet, we still have this extreme attachment to our ordinary lives as well. So we feel like we are being pulled in two directions. We want to practice the Dharma but we self-sabotage our practice. This is because we have another agenda. We want to keep everything we have just the way it is.
Of course, I could talk about the various types of suffering for a very long time. Suffice it to say that from the time the child enters the womb, the mother experiences great physical and emotional suffering during pregnancy. The child experiences suffering as well, being cramped in a small space. The mother and child can even die during childbirth. From the time the child is born, suffering only increases. Even when surrounded by loved ones, one experiences the sufferings of change, old age, sickness, and finally death.
Through much of our lives we’ll suffer because of the wealth we never had but wish we did. We’ll suffer from all the effort we put into getting the things we think will make us happy. Or we get things that we think will make us happy then we fear losing them. Sometimes, even when things are going well for us, we have anxiety and fear about things changing. We experience all kinds of physical, emotional, and mental suffering. Now we’re healthy but we worry about becoming sick. There are so many kinds of suffering and they are all happening to all of us, even if not in exactly the same way. But certainly we are experiencing suffering all the time.
Then of course, there is the suffering of the fear of death as well as the actual experience of dying. It is terrifying and according to the Buddhist view, that fear can be carried with us even into the intermediary states, or Bardos, after death and before we take another birth.
From the moment we are born until the moment we die, we experience so many different kinds of suffering. And so, the goal on the Buddhist path is to understand what the root of suffering is, then eradicate that suffering by taking up the path. It’s taking up this path that is the cause for the cessation of suffering.
So this first Noble Truth of Suffering is extremely important. If we don’t understand suffering as suffering, if we’re unwilling to accept the fact that we are perpetuating a habit of suffering, then we won’t be motivated to practice the Dharma and we won’t bring the necessary energy to the Buddhist path. Understanding this first truth gives us the willingness, energy, and enthusiasm to change.
Suffering is something that is important to examine as an object of knowledge. If we examine it emotionally, intellectually, and analytically then we can discover what the root of suffering really is. And if we understand that, it becomes easier to do something about it. But if we don’t understand the origin of suffering then how are we supposed to know what kind of conduct to take up or abandon? How are we supposed to know what kind of habits to abandon? We may just think to ourselves: “Oh, I’ll just work through this suffering myself. I’ll just get over it and through it however I can.” But without any kind of plan, or using some technique or path to help us do that is just sort of foolish. The truth is, if we were able to do it on our own, we would have already done it.
This is why the First Noble Truth was taught first, as the root of all practice.
The Four Noble Truths then are the essential basis for spiritual practice. Just as it was said in the Uttaratantra, suffering is the thing we need to understand. After that we need to know the origin of suffering, the thing we need to abandon. The most general way of explaining what the origin of suffering is to call it our afflictive emotions, our emotional state. These are not just our painful emotions that we dislike but also our desires, wishes, and hopes: anything we’re attached to. All of these are laden with disappointment. As long as we have these afflictive emotions then a peaceful state of mind, where we don’t suffer, is not possible.
Specifically, we can say that afflictive emotions give rise to karma. Maybe this is a new idea for you, or maybe you just don’t like the idea of karma yet, but it is just like habits. We get habituated to emotional responses. Sometimes these emotional responses are unhealthy or self-sabotaging, but regardless, the way that we respond to things in the world brings us suffering over and over again because we just don’t know any other way to do things. This is called building up a karmic tendency. This is what causes us to continue to take birth in samsara and turns this wheel of cyclic existence.
So after we understand the First Noble Truth, we need to understand this object to be abandoned, our afflictive emotions which cause us to accumulate karma or strong habitual responses.
And so what is the thing to be relied upon? That is the path. But it’s not just any spiritual path. If we want to attain a state of enlightenment, the state that Shakyamuni Buddha himself attained, we have to follow exactly the path that he taught. We can’t create something new, or mix something new into it because we can’t be sure of the result. Therefore, we take up the path exactly how the Buddha taught it.
But because there are so many different types of beings, Shakyamuni taught 84,000 teachings of the Dharma. He gave an ocean of teachings in the classifications of Sutra and Tantra. He gave so many teachings so that all the different kinds of beings could find the teaching that made perfect sense to them and everyone could have the chance to practice this Buddhist path if they wished.
So when we take up and rely on the path and we abandon the afflictive emotions, this leads to the truth of cessation, the cessation of suffering. Then, of course, one will attain the state of the particular path they have taken up. For example, if one has taken up the Hinayana path, the result will be the state of an Arhat. If one has taken up the Mahayana, one will attain the state of perfect Buddhahood. And if one takes up the Secret Mantrayana, one will achieve the “inseparable result”.
The Secret Mantrayana path also has the special quality of being very quick. It is said that by taking up this path one will attain the inseparable result in sixteen lifetimes. There have even been some very special practitioners, such as Longchenpa, who have attained this result in one lifetime.
However, all realization is possible because of relying on The Four Noble Truths.