Four Noble Truths as Tasks

In studying the Four Noble Truths recently, I ran across some new terminology. We could say that the Four Noble Truths are four tasks- The Four Noble Tasks. These tasks need to be accomplished in order to find the peace and confidence the Buddha invites us to experience.

In this teaching, there are three phases to each Truth as written in the Pali (language of the earliest teachings) Canon.

The first phase is to recognize and have the knowledge of each truth. This is similar to hearing and learning about the dharma through our intelligence. Listening to talks or reading or meditating.

The second phase is to know the “tasks” that are to be achieved regarding each truth. These tasks of the second phase are as follows:

  1. To fully understand the truth
  2. To abandon what needs to be let go of
  3. To realize or actualize the truth
  4. To develop and practice each truth continually

In the third phase, a practitioner has fully developed and completed each of the previous tasks for all of the Four Truths. This is to have a fully realized enlightenment.

These tasks seem to be presented with such clarity. The tasks in the second phase seem similar to the “Four R’s” that I have taught quite often in other contexts. I found the Four R’s while studying in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. How do we truly know something and how do we actualize it in our life. I am going to attempt to bring these two outlines together. The similarities seem to me to be a clue telling us how we really practice with the depth of our misunderstandings about life. These clues teach us how we practice and experience freedom.

The Four “R’s” are:

  1. Recognition – being aware of your pattern or what you want to bring forth.
  2. Reliance – As we try to change our patterns, we have to rely on the part of ourselves that feels connected to the whole. We can have faith in interdependence and going beyond our “self”. This is how we find the energy or the power to change how we conduct ourselves in the ordinary, daily world.
  3. Remedy – interrupting our habit patterns through practicing of spiritual principles or mindfulness tasks. We can develop a deep strength which keeps mindfulness of the teaching and appropriate conduct forever in our mind and heart.
  4. Resolve – continuing forever to have these vows in place. We know that to deeply change, we have to resolve to interrupt our old thinking over and over whenever the old patterns arise. We cannot give up!

I have taught the Four “R’s” quite a lot but usually in the context of letting go of our habituated habit patterns. These patterns are based on a person’s desire system that revolves around a “self.” When we revolve around a supposedly solid self, naturally we feel we have to defend ourselves through habit patterns based on our needs and the poisons that grow around them – greed, anger and ignorance.

When I look at the four tasks to actualizing the Four Noble Truths in our life, they are surprisingly similar to the Four R’s. In accomplishing each truth by practicing these tasks, we grow towards the actualization of these truths in our life. The Four R’s as I have previously taught them, seem to be placed mainly in #2 of the second phase – to abandon what needs to be let go of . However, I think they are suggested by the other phases as well.

The first phase – to recognize and have the knowledge of each truth and #1 in the second phase, to fully understand the truth can be related to “A” Recognition. This recognition or awareness is intellectually understanding the teaching. This awareness can also include “B” – Reliance. We know that we need to always rely on the Four Refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

But intellectual understanding isn’t enough. We need to experience these truths and bring forth a change in how we understand the world and its reflection in how we behave. The second phase #3 to realize or actualize the truth, can be related to “C”-Remedy. What is the remedy to Samsara? In order to interrupt samsara, we have to actualize in each moment these truths. The present moment is the truth happening place. It is the only place where we find the intersection of time and space. It is the only place where we can act – where ordinary and extraordinary come together.

The second phase #4 – to develop and practice each truth continually, seems to correspond to “D”-Resolve -over and over, we practice and stay with our vow. Over and over we stay with the present conditions and bring in our truths. We must continually pick ourselves up from our mistakes and start again.

The Third phase concludes: a practitioner who has fully developed and completed each of the previous tasks will have a fully realized enlightenment.