Why the four noble thruths are wrong

02/11/2012

The four noble truths are given in Buddha’s first speech, and the first one includes “birth is dukha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are dukkha.” This is one popular translation, and dukkha is usually understood as “suffering”.

When we look closer at them for a moment and do not take them for granted, we find them flawed. Besides people who claim never to have been ill, there are those who die young and therefore not age. There are more logical problems with death, as we should understand it as being braindead, and with birth, as the five aggregates (skandha) according to the Sutta Pitaka include mental formations (samskara) like thoughts and opinions and a consciousness (vijnana) that a newborn obviously does not possess. The four noble thruths thus seem to stem from a lack of medical knowledge. It is ridiculous when Buddhists, if monks or laypeople, consider them a prerequisite for being (called) a Buddhist.

Interestingly enough, the only sutra spoken by a woman, the Shrimala Sutra (pdf) of the Mahayana tradition, has already corrected this wrong view. It calls three of the four noble truths conditioned and impermanent, thereby false and deceiving. The three truths of ‘there is suffering’, ‘there is a cause for suffering’ and ‘there is a way’ (the eightfold path) are not a refuge and not the highest truth, according to this sutra. As a result only the third noble truth is considered highest wisdom, namely ‘there is annihilation of suffering’. In other words, ‘true’ is that suffering can be extinguished, untrue is that there is suffering per se, untrue are the definitions (phases) of suffering and untrue is the eightfold path. How lucky Mahayana Buddhism is to know those wise words of a woman.

The Shrimala Sutra is quite unique, progressive and advanced in another area, the Bodhisattva vows. They sound quite different to those of the Brahmanetsutra that are usually taken and given as precepts in the zen tradition. They speak about respecting those who have taken the vows (of the Shrimala Sutra, of course), not being stingy or greedy, staying poor (more specifically: sharing any wealth, “assisting the poor and friendless”, the diseased, troubled, trapped and bound) and using the dharma “with a mind unoccupied by material things” to serve “the multitude of beings”. So far, so good.

This blog wouldn’t exist if it just took any sutra for granted as a whole. In one vow, the catching and keeping of animals is desribed as a “wicked occupation”, and those involved in it – though not abandoned – obviously risking “subjugation”. In the teeth of the passage’s unclarity it leaves open an “inclusion” of the wicked. That is at least better than to exclude all killing (and thus diminish the work of soldiers and butchers), stealing (making it hard for some starving people to survive), lying (which is impossible according to scientists) or sex (for monks, leading them to abuse of novices), as the Brahma Net Sutra does in its popular major vows.

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