Rebirth: The Shaky Foundation of the Four Noble Truths


The Four Aryan Truths

There are many ethnolinguistic groups which speak over 200 different Indo-Aryan languages. Prominent examples include Hindi and Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi and so on. Indo-Aryans form the majority of all peoples in South Asia and are native to the northern Indian subcontinent. It is commonly believed that Indo-Aryan peoples began to enter the Indian subcontinent around 1800 BC. Indo-Aryan peoples called the cultural norms and language the shared arya, that is, “noble.” This term, arya, is frequently used in Buddhism and reflects such historical origins. Significantly, the so-called Four Noble Truths, so fundamental to Buddhist philosophy, are literally the Four Aryan Truths. Similarly, the Noble Eightfold Path is the Aryan Eightfold Path.

The man now known as the Buddha lived his whole life in the heartland of the Indo-Aryan peoples, that is, the Ganges Plain. The Indo-Aryan peoples believed this to be the centre of the cosmos. So they suitably called it The Middle Country. It was the Four Aryan (Noble) Truths that the Buddha communicated to the five ascetics, who had previously followed him, in his first sermon, the Dhammachakka Sutta. He preached this in the Deer Park in Sarnath, near Benares, modern Varanasi in north India, some 300 kilometres south from where he was born in Lumbini, now part of Nepal.

One Pali sutra teaches that by proclaiming the Four Noble Truths the Buddha founded the Kingdom of Truth, as acknowledged by the shouts of the earth-inhabiting devas, recognizing that the supreme kingdom of truth the Buddha had established could not be opposed by any being, no matter how exalted. This acknowledgement was also confirmed by many different kinds of devas from other realms. Their shouts reached the Brahma world, composed of 10,000 sub-worlds, all of which quaked and from which an infinite, mighty light shone forth. [Mahavagga, First Khandaka 6.30-31 (Vinaya Pitaka)].

What this sutra says is highly significant because it teaches: (1) that the proclamation of the Four Noble Truths was a cosmic event; (2) that is communicated foundational realities applicable to all realms of existence; and (3) that is was endorsed by those occupying the highest realms of existence.

The Dhammapada states: “...of truths the Noble Four are best” (20{The Path}:273b). Indeed, for Durkheim it was these four noble truths and the practices derived from them that formed the sacred heart of Buddhism and so justified his designation of Buddhism as a religion, in that while it did not (originally) involve the worship of gods, it still admitted the existence of sacred things.

An Outline of the Four Noble Truths

The Buddha said, “I teach only one thing - there is dukkha (‘suffering’) and there is an end of dukkha (‘suffering’)” (Majjhima Nikaaya: Snake-Simile Sutta [Alagadduupamasutta]). Similarly, the Dhammapada clearly teaches that each of these truths must especially be understand with reference to the problem of dukkha:

Take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha,

and you will grasp the Four Noble Truths:

dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the end of dukkha,

and the Noble Eightfold Path that takes you beyond dukkha.

That is your best refuge, your only refuge.

When you reach it, all sorrow falls away (14{The Awakened One}:190-192)

The word dukkha is popularly translated as “suffering”. However, a better rendering is “unsatisfactoriness.” Given that the translation “suffering” is used so extensively it is impossible for us to avoid this usage ourselves. But it must be understood, as the explanation of “suffering” will itself soon make clear, that when we do speak of suffering we are conceiving of this in an extremely broad manner.

In the Buddha’s first sermon, he briefly explained the Four Noble Truths as follows:

"Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha, separation from the loved is dukkha, not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving.

"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

(Dhammacakkappattavana Sutta: Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion, Samyutta Nikaya, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu; I have left dukkha untranslated)

In short, the Four Noble Truths are:

1. All life (cyclic existence) is “unsatisfactoriness” or “suffering” (dukkha) and thus essentially “evil”.

2. This “suffering” or unsatisfactory set of conditions is caused by desire.

3. This “suffering” or unsatisfactory set of conditions can be brought to an end through the elimination of desire.

4. To eliminate desire one must live a virtuous path following The Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths and Rebirth

The Mahasaccaka Sutta ("The Greater Discourse to Saccaka", Majjhima Nikaya 36) gives one of several versions of the Buddha's way to liberation. He attains three types of knowledge, namely knowledge of his former lives, knowledge of death and rebirth, and knowledge of the destruction of mental obstacles. So with respect to knowledge of his former lives, the Buddha declares:

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two...five, ten...fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion.”

What does the second form of knowledge consist in? We read:

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. I saw — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — beings passing away and re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.”

What is meant by the third type of knowledge attained by the Buddha? He recalls:

"When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of [undesirable mental states]. I discerned, as it was actually present, that 'This is dukkha... This is the origination of dukkha... This is the cessation of dukkha... This is the way leading to the cessation of dukkha.. These are [undesirable mental states]... This is the origination of [such states]... This is the cessation of [such states]... This is the way leading to the cessation of [such states].' My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the [undesirable state] of sensuality, released from the [undesirable state] of becoming, released from the [undesirable state] of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, 'Released.' I discerned that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'[1]

So the third form of knowledge constitutes the pinnacle of the Buddha’s enlightenment which effected his release or liberation from the cycle of samsara and the state of ignorance. And, significantly, it consisted in his understanding of the four noble truths: the reality of dukkha, the origination of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha and the way leading to the end of dukkha.

It will be observed that in the Mahasaccaka Sutta certain things are presupposed or taken for granted: (1) that reincarnation or rebirth is a reality; (2) that it is possible to recall one’s previous births; (3) that it is possible to develop a perfectly pure mind; (4) that karma is the fundamental determinant of the social status, physical appearance and life-circumstances of every person; (5) that it is possible to identify undesirable mental states and overcome them; and (6) that it is possible to escape samsara and never be reborn; (7) that any form of rebirth is necessarily evil; (8) that all that is needed in order to achieve ultimate liberation is an understanding of the fundamental nature of reality – as represented by the Four Noble Truths; and (9) the Buddha did succeed in achieving this ultimate state. It has to be said that not one of these nine assumptions is clearly demonstrable or empirically testable.

In his first sermon Gautama also provided this explanation as to how he attained a purified state of knowledge and insight, centering in his grasp of the Four Noble Truths:

And when, monks, in these four noble truths

my due knowledge and insight

with its three sections and twelve divisions

was well purified, then monks,

in the world with its gods, Mara, Brahma,

its beings with ascetics, priests, gods, and men,

I had attained the highest complete enlightenment.

This I recognized.

Knowledge arose in me;

insight arose that the release of my mind is unshakable:

this is my last existence;

now there is no rebirth.

What does the Buddha by his mention of three sections and twelve divisions? He means that that three stages or insights are involved in properly understanding each of the Four Noble Truths, hence twelve insights in all.[2] Firstly, in order to properly understand the First Noble Truth it is necessary to begin by simply recognizing or acknowledging the truth of dukkha in an objective, non-personal manner (“There is dukkha”). Secondly, one recognizes what needs to be done. Accordingly, one determines not to avoid personal suffering but instead decides it should be part of one’s meditative practice to seek to understand the nature of dukkha (“Dukkha must be understood”). Thirdly, one successfully achieves such an understanding of dukkha, after a period of genuinely seeking to understand its nature and experiencing its reality (“Dukkha has now been understood”). The same three stages or insights are also applied to the other three noble truths: the statement, the prescription and the (successful) result of having practiced.[3]

There are some major epistemological difficulties involved here. One begins by acknowledging a supposed truth – “life is dukkha”; “craving causes dukkha”; “dukkha is ended when craving is extinguished”; “there is a way of bringing about this cessation.” But how can I possibly know that “life is dukkha” unless I already have a profound understanding of life or existence and of what constitutes dukkha? It is certainly not a self-evident truth. This is so even if dukkha was thought of in a simplistic and reductionist manner as merely pertaining to the experience of physical, emotional or psychological suffering. It is especially so when it is recognized that dukkha refers to far more than merely such experiences of suffering. The same problem arises with respect to all of the other noble truths. In short, the Buddhist account of that which leads to enlightenment and ultimate liberation is not a carefully reasoned position. It begins with unproven assumptions which are somewhat modified versions of prior philosophical positions that many, though certainly not all Indo-Aryan peoples already held prior to the Buddha’s birth. Examples include the concepts of rebirth, samsara, karma and liberation.

Pali Buddhist texts provide evidence that not all accepted such concepts. For example, in the Samannaphala Sutta (The Fruits of the Contemplative Life) the Buddha is confronted by the annihilationist Ajita Kesakambalin who states plainly: “With the break-up of the body, the wise and the foolish alike are annihilated, destroyed. They do not exist after death.”[4] Yet it is apparent that such concepts [rebirth, etc.] were integral to much of Indo-Aryan philosophical thought and this too is reflected in many sutras referring to the views of non-Buddhists.[5] Further, in Pali Buddhist texts it is hard to find any critical evaluation of such critical and foundational concepts.[6] It follows that the account of the Buddha’s own journey to enlightenment cannot avoid dogmatism. We are simply told that this is the way it is.

Epistemological problems are exacerbated by totally unfalsifiable claims found in the famous Lotus Sutra (Mahayana) that:

“Incalculable ages ago, during the Vinirbhoga Era in the Mahasmbhava world, a Tathagata named Bhishmagargitasvararaga appeared in the world, showing to his disciples and bodhisattvas in the presence of gods, men and demons that teaching which includes the Four Noble Truths and….” (Chapter XIX, Sadaparibhuta)

As we evaluate all of the above, it becomes evident that the Buddhist understanding of “life” and “dukkha” is only comprehensible on the basis of an underlying presupposition that there are sentient beings in many realms of existence that are locked into a tragic, repeating cycle of birth, death and rebirth (samsara). “Life” is existence in any realm that falls within samsara and ‘dukkha’ denotes the unsatisfactory state of being reborn as a human or any other sentient being within samsara.[7] Similarly, the second noble truth is equally dependent on the doctrine of rebirth. So Bhikkhu Bodhi observes:

“The Buddha himself has clearly indicated that the root problem of human existence is not simply the fact that we are vulnerable to sorrow, grief and fear, but that we tie ourselves through our egoistic clinging to a constantly self-regenerating pattern of birth, aging, sickness and death within which we undergo the more specific forms of mental affliction.”[8]

In the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, the Buddha tells his monks:

“"Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you” (Part 2, The Journey to Vesali).

The absolute dependence of the Four Noble Truths on the reality of rebirth is recognized by Sugunasiri who in 2010 wrote Rebirth as Empirical Basis for The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Thanissaro Bhikkhu similarly recognizes this:

“He [sc. the Buddha] also made rebirth an integral part of his explanation of the four noble truths and the understanding of causality — dependent co-arising — on which those truths are based.”

He adds:

“In other words, part of the practice even today lies in confirming that the Buddha was right about the connection between karma and rebirth, and that his rightness was timeless: These teachings are integral to the four noble truths, and in particular to the path of practice leading to the end of suffering.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi comments:

“…we come upon the indisputable fact that the Buddha himself taught rebirth and taught it as a basic tenet of his teaching. Viewed in their totality, the Buddha's discourses show us that far from being a mere concession to the outlook prevalent in his time or an Asiatic cultural contrivance, the doctrine of rebirth has tremendous implications for the entire course of Dhamma practice, affecting both the aim with which the practice is taken up and the motivation with which it is followed through to completion.”[9]

Suganasiri also makes much of the three “knowledges” attained by the Buddha on the night when he achieved enlightenment, which he calls Knowledge I, Knowledge II, and Knowledge III. Knowledge III, the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, occurred during the third watch between 2am and 6am. But this was preceded by Knowledge I, “the memory of living in past lives.”[10] Suganasiri spuriously speaks of this as “empirical” knowledge, but, if so, it was only to the Buddha himself and not obviously accessible to anyone else’s sense experience. Knowledge II, it the knowledge of additional rebirths, the lives of those with whom he himself had interacted in his own past lives.[11] Consequently, a full knowledge of the reality of rebirth is claimed to be the launching pad for Siddhartha’s ability to know the Four Noble Truths. He concludes that “the First Truth is grounded in the Theory of Rebirth. In other words, without that experience of the First and Second Watches, there would have been no First Noble Truth.”[12]

If there is no such thing as rebirth, no such thing as samsara and no such thing as a karmic force that predetermines the nature of future rebirths, then the whole ideology loaded into the Four Noble Truths crumbles to the ground. The cab never leaves the rank because it has no fuel.

The Gospel and the Four Noble Truths

By way of a Christian response to the Four Noble Truths, Seamand proposes[13]:

1. Suffering is a fact of life

2. The cause of suffering is sin

3. The cure for sins is the suffering of Christ

4. The way of deliverance is through faith in Jesus Christ

This provides one possible methodological framework for presenting the gospel. But at a deeper level, as we have seen, the gospel needs to address the foundation upon which the Four Noble Truths stand, namely the assumption of reincarnation or rebirth.

We are created by God as embodied living beings with the human body being absolutely integral to what it means to be made in God’s image, to live out God-likeness in the way we relate to others, to the world around us and ourselves. The doctrine of reincarnation involves a very low view of the human body and is on these grounds alone dehumanising. But, additionally, reincarnation teaches that we can be reborn as an animal, hungry ghost, hell being, asura (warlike being) or deva (godlike being still trapped in samsara). Indeed, even if we are reborn as a human (an extremely unlikely prospect in many schools of Buddhism) it is very possible we might then have a different gender. Consequently, the doctrine of reincarnation is thoroughly dehumanising because there is nothing sacrosanct in any sense about being the human beings that we actually are.

In addition, the incarnation of Christ himself is relativised. If reincarnation is true then he is at best an enlightened being, somewhat like the Buddha, who can provide us with guidance but, like the Buddha, cannot save us. His death and resurrection are evacuated of redemptive power. We are on our own, left to our own devices as we struggle through future rebirths to undo the damage done by the bad karma of prior lives.

Against this, the Gospel speaks wonderful words of hope. We are treasured by God as the human beings he has created and we know that he does not want anybody to perish but wants each and every one of us to gladly receive all that he has provided for us through Christ’s death and resurrection so that we too may be resurrected as part of a gloriously exalted new humanity in a new heavens and a new earth.

Bibliography

Lopez, Donald S. Four Noble Truths. Brittanica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Four-Noble-Truths Viewed 18/8/20.

Bhikkhu Bodhi 1998. Dhamma Without Rebirth? Available at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_06.html Viewed 18/8/20.

Mejudhon, Ubolwan 2003. “Evangelism in the New Millenium: An Integrated Model of Evangelism to Buddhists Using Theology, Anthropology, and Religious Studies.” Edited by David Lin & Steve Spaulding. Sharing Jesus in the Buddhist World. William Carey Library: Pasadena, California, 95-119.

Sugunasiri, Suwanda H.J. 2010. Rebirth as Empirical Basis for The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Sumeru: Richmond Hill, Ontario. Available at: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/25925/1/rebirth.pdf Viewed 18/8/20.

Sumedho, Venerable Ajahn. The Four Noble Truths. Available at: https://cdn.amaravati.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The_Four_Noble_Truths_-_Ajahn_Sumedho.pdf Viewed 15/8/20.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu 2102. The Truth of Rebirth. And Why it Matters for Buddhist Practice. Available at: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/truth_of_rebirth.html Viewed 18/8/20

Ury, Thane Hutcherson 2017. Chapter 19. Buddhism. World Religions and Cults Volume 2. Available at: file:///E:/TOURO/Synthesis%20of%20Files%20from%20Apr%2023%202016%20onwards/Religion%20and%20Religions/Buddhism/Buddhism%20Articles/Ury%20Buddhism.pdf Viewed 15/8/10.

Notes

[1] Translations are awkward. Where I have put “undesirable states” one translation has “fermentations” and another “taints”, both unhelpful, unclear renderings. Another possible translation might be “defilements.”

[2] See Sumedho, 7.

[3] Sumedho, 7.

[4] See too Payasi Sutta in which Prince Payasi also presents annihilationist views against an horrific backdrop.

[5] See Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Truth of Rebirth.

[6] In the Payasi Sutta, while Kassapa counters Prince Payasi’s annihilationist declarations, it is only with his own set of contentions, none of which appeal to anything that comes close to demonstrating the reality of rebirth.

[7] Dukkha “is characteristic of existence in the realm of rebirth, called samsara (literally ‘wandering’).” So Lopez. Similarly, Bhikkhu Bodhi states: “The aim of the Buddhist path is liberation from suffering, and the Buddha makes it abundantly clear that the suffering from which liberation is needed is the suffering of bondage to samsara, the round of repeated birth and death.”

[8] Dhamma Without Rebirth?

[9] Dhamma Without Rebirth?

[10] Rebirth, 6.

[11] Rebirth, 7.

[12] Rebirth, 11.

[13] Mejudhon, 113.

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