A Basic Foundation in Buddhism Part 1: Introduction
The four noble truths, the twelve links of dependent-origination and the eightfold path are all fundamental to understanding Buddhadharma — the Buddha's perspective on the nature of phenomena. Here, I would like to introduce the four noble truths in the broadest sense, exploring their significance in relation to the concepts of delusion and awakening.
The four noble truths (四諦; kūtai) are divided into
① the truth of suffering (duḥkha - "A fundamental dissatisfaction or friction akin to a wheel that turns and doesn't sit on its hinge correctly")
② the truth of a cause
③ the truth of cessation
④ the truth of a path
Of these four, 'suffering' and 'cause' are together referred to as the reality-principle of the realm of delusion, while 'cessation' and 'path' are referred to as the reality-principle of the realm of awakening. The realm of delusion refers to the realm in which we live here and now, that is, the sahālokadhātu (裟婆世界; sabasekai); saṃsāra and the totality of conditioned phenomena. The idea of the sahālokadhātu, that is, the realm of duḥkha and saṃsāra, holds this suffering as a fundamental principle of truth.
When you first hear this, you may think, "Sure, this world can be full of suffering, but it can also be fun and full of happiness." I often hear students say, "I just don't resonate with Buddhism". Often when I press for why this is, they answer that they can't get the past the idea of the first noble truth, that is, 'existence as being marked by suffering'.
At the university where I teach, students in their twenties cannot accept this statement. I think this is natural. When I ask older people however, they often resonate with this statement. This may reflect the difference between the young, who focus on the brilliance of their immediate surroundings, and the elderly, who have spent time taking a long hard look at their lives.
Thinking about this, which perspective can be said to be closer to the truth of existence?
Recognition of this first truth is what led to Sakyamuni's search. The Buddhadharma begins with insight into this truth. Ironically, Buddhism is about resolving the question of duḥkha. That is, this is only the start of the Buddhist path. Those who do not yet hold the felt conviction of this truth are not even at the starting point of Buddhism. Once one has looked directly into suffering, along with the terror and desperation of death, one begins the search for solutions. This takes us to the second noble truth; the truth of a cause (of suffering).
The quest for the causes and conditions of suffering takes us to the twelve links of dependent-origination (十二因縁; juniinnen). At the root of these twelve we find ignorance (無明; mumyo) as the fundamental kleśā (煩悩; bonno). That is, from the Buddhist understanding, the specific suffering of duḥkha comes as a result of ignorance and delusion (avidya).
Reading this, you may be thinking, what would a realm without suffering be like? This is of great concern to Buddhadharma. In short, the principle-truth of the realm of awakening refers to nirvāṇa (涅槃; nehan). Nirvana is the noble truth of cessation of suffering (滅諦; mettai). Nirvana, however, has been interpreted in a myriad of ways across the long histories of various Buddhist lineages. Among the Hināyāna and Mahāyāna, for example, we can find interpretations based on the path of devotion (聖道門; shōdōmon), the path of reliance on Amitabha (淨土門; jōdomon), and so on.
Here, however, I would like to provide the basic perspective common to all schools of Buddhist thought.
No matter how wonderful this truth of cessation sounds, it is meaningless without a path to realise it. It is the path to get there which is of most use to us, and this takes us to the third noble truth; the truth of a path (道諦; dotai). There are many interpretations of this path too, and it is said that 84,000 antidotes (dharma-gates) were taught by the Buddha as means to cure 84,000 kinds of affliction. The Shugen lineage for example undertakes this path in part through its characteristic skillful-means of mountain-entry asceticism (入峰修行; nyūbūshūgyō).
Fundamental to understanding all these paths however are the doctrines of the eight-fold path (八正道; hasshōdō) and the six pāramitās (六波羅蜜; rokūharamitsu) which make up the practices of a bodhisattva (菩薩道; bosatsudō).