The Four Noble Truths - Preface
The Tibetan Buddhist monastery I trained in, Sera, lies outside the city of Mysore in South India. It was built by refugees from the original Sera Monastery near the capital of Tibet who had escaped following the Chinese Communist occupation in 1959. The Sera I joined in 1970 as a thirteen-year-old monk is now unrecognizable—its small cluster of buildings has now expanded to become a sprawling campus. At that time, there was only one mail delivery a week—sometimes only one every two weeks. These days young monks have laptops to exchange emails whenever they want or else they can go to one of four or five crowded internet cafés.
It is not only the physical monastery that has changed. The worldview of the monks is different as well. When I was studying Buddhist philosophy, very few monks had any doubt about the accuracy of the cosmology in the traditional Abhidharma texts, which give precise dimensions for the universe; the vast majority believed that the structure and origin of the universe was exactly as the texts explained. Although a few elder monks still take the texts literally, nowadays most of the monks have either seen the outside world or have at least seen science documentaries. Whether their understanding of modern science is good or not, they no longer accept the Abhidharma explanation of the universe literally.
Such radical changes at one small Buddhist monastery in India in such a short span of time mirror changes in the rest of the world. Huge technological, economic, and scientific developments have transformed both humanity and the planet we live in. In many cases the changes have been positive, but certain changes have been negative and even extremely destructive.
And although technological advances have solved many superficial difficulties that humanity once faced, the fundamental human problems remain as they always have. In both wealthy and developing countries, we find the same basic human difficulties, whether dissatisfaction or disharmony, poverty or prejudice, and see that, as always, they are mainly created by human beings themselves.
In this world so radically changed yet still grappling with the same fundamental concerns, I feel great benefit can be gained from reexamining the old wisdom. For this reason I chose to write this series of books.
The people now interested in studying and practicing Buddhism live in the twenty-first century, in the middle of all this modern technological and economic development. Their leisure, lifestyle, and commitments are totally different from the norm of even just fifty or sixty years ago. I feel, therefore, that Buddhist texts and study materials must take into account modern society’s lifestyle.
Furthermore, due to the ease of travel, many Westerners have received teachings in Asia or have heard Asian teachers in the West. For many students of Buddhism, study has been in a piecemeal fashion, dependent upon whatever teachings were available. Many people have listened to various subjects but have never received a solid overview, one starting from a fundamental Buddhist teaching, such as the four noble truths, and progressing systematically up to the most profound teachings, such as those of highest yoga tantra. For that kind of person, I wanted to provide a structured program.
And I wanted to make it as accessible and relevant as possible. Today vastly more books on Buddhism are available than even ten or fifteen years ago, but many are either translations of great texts and therefore quite traditional in style, or else they are written by Western scholars and hence academic and dense. Both kinds of books can benefit people, but often they are not so accessible. For a long time I have felt that there is a need for Buddhist teachings explained in some detail but in very plain language, without Buddhist jargon. No question the Buddha’s teachings are relevant, but the way they are presented makes a great difference as to whether people can actually assimilate them into their everyday lives. It is my hope that this series provides something easily readable, yet still with depth and structure, that allows people to read and study over a year or two and take these wonderful teachings into their lives in a way that is truly meaningful. That has been my goal for The Foundation of Buddhist Thought series.
I have chosen six subjects with the hope that they will lay out a comprehensive overview of Buddhist thought. The four noble truths, the first teaching the Buddha gave after he attained enlightenment, is the logical starting point. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has given teachings on the four noble truths on many occasions, says that they are the blueprint for all Buddhist teaching and practice. Within them lie the root of all Buddhist philosophy and the entire path to enlightenment. Whatever we study after the four noble truths will echo back to this most essential teaching, and conversely this teaching will be revealed in everything else we study.
If the four noble truths explain the human condition, the next two books, Relative Truth, Ultimate Truth and Buddhist Psychology, deal with the Buddhist theories of reality, external as well as internal. Then based on these, the remaining three volumes address what it means to be a practicing Mahayana Buddhist. Volume 4 looks at the vast altruistic mind called the mind of enlightenment (bodhichitta), and volume 5 looks at the wisdom that understands that all things are interdependent and lack intrinsic nature. The final volume gives a glimpse into how the tantric practices are done.
These books evolved from the two-year courses I have been leading in Great Britain, France, and Spain since 1997, as well as from the correspondence course that grew out of the campus courses. If you find the books beneficial, you might consider enrolling in The Foundation of Buddhist Thought correspondence course, where you will explore the subjects in more depth under the guidance of qualified tutors.
If we examine our lives, it is not difficult to see how we are continuously searching for some form of happiness and trying to avoid the pitfalls and dissatisfaction that seem to plague our existence. This is as true for us living in this modern technological world as it was for the people of the Buddha’s time. And now, just as then, we are continually getting it wrong. Everything the Buddha taught was to lead us out of the suffering we so unskillfully inflict on ourselves and to bring us to a profound and lasting happiness. The problem is not one of relevance but of accessibility. I hope that this series will allow you to enter into one of the world’s great philosophical traditions.
Geshe Tashi Tsering
The Four Noble Truths is the end product of a long and very dynamic process. It is a modified version of the course book written by Geshe Tashi Tsering for the first module of his study program, The Foundation of Buddhist Thought.
In 1994, when Geshe Tashi took up his role of resident teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London, he saw that the text-based, passive learning usually associated with Tibetan Buddhism in Western Dharma centers often failed to connect with the material in a meaningful way, and so, incorporating Western pedagogic methods, he devised a two-year, six-module course that he felt would give a solid overview of Buddhist thought.
The sources for this series from Wisdom Publications, of which this is the first volume, are the transcripts of Geshe Tashi’s teachings from the first two London courses. Geshe Tashi reworked these texts into the materials you have in your hands. Most of Tibetan philosophical literature is derived from oral teachings, and this is true to some extent of each of the books in this series, but I also think that these texts surpass this level. Well-read in Western science and philosophy, and with a good command of English, Geshe Tashi is very much the author— in every sense of the word—of these books.
When I first met him in 1992, Geshe-la was staying at Nalanda Monastery in southern France, studying both the English language and the Western mind. My respect for the diligence and enthusiasm with which he worked has only increased over the years. At the time, however, I had no idea of the depth of his knowledge.
Born in 1958, in Purang, Tibet, Geshe Tashi escaped to India with his parents a year later. He entered Sera Mey Monastic University at thirteen, and spent the next sixteen years working for his Geshe degree, graduating as a Lharampa Geshe, the highest possible level. He is a classmate of another notable Geshe who is also very important to Buddhism in the West, Geshe Thupten Jinpa, chief English language translator of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
After a year at the Highest Tantric College (Gyuto), Geshe-la began his teaching career in Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, the principal monastery of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Geshe Tashi then moved to the Gandhi Foundation College in Nagpur, and it was at that time that the FPMT’s Spiritual Director, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, asked him to teach in the West. After two years at Nalanda Monastery in France, in 1994 Geshe Tashi became the resident teacher at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London.
His first years at Jamyang set the tone for his residency. When the center moved to a derelict courthouse in 1996, Geshe Tashi worked alongside the volunteers—scraping walls, clearing debris—I even saw him in overalls and wellington boots clearing out blocked drains. He has been very much part of the Jamyang community ever since.
And it is this sense of Western ease combined with his deep insight into Buddhist philosophy that has informed his teaching. Geshe Tashi not only understands us, but also in many ways is one of us and so can offer Eastern wisdom with a Western approach—one that we are comfortable with and one that is also utterly relevant to our lives. The Gelug school is thought to be the most scholastic of the four traditions in Tibetan Buddhism, and if you engage Geshe-la in debate you will certainly feel the sharpness of his intellect. However, his emphasis is always on the experiential—according to Geshe Tashi, if it stays academic, it is worthless. Comfort might be found in dry scholasticism while the heart remains untouched, but this is a comfort he never allows us.
As with the other books in the series, many people have been involved with its development. I would particularly like to thank Bhikku Bodhi for allowing us to use his translation of the sutra, the core of this book.
I would also like to offer my warmest thanks to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the head of the FPMT and the inspiration for the group of study programs to which The Foundation of Buddhist Thought belongs. Rinpoche is the font from which all else flows.
There are too many other people who have been involved with the course and the books to mention by name, but I would like to sincerely thank them all—those who helped to develop the course; the transcribers, readers, and designers of the books; and the tutors of the course among them. And of course, Geshe Tashi, an amazing inspiration.
It has been a real joy to edit Geshe Tashi’s words. My very limited knowledge has undoubtedly meant that his ideas have been blurred and distorted in some instances, and for this I offer my deepest apologies. It is my sincere hope that the reader will gain the same inspiration and insight from this book that has been gained by the many hundreds of students who have already been fortunate enough to study The Foundation of Buddhist Thought.
How to cite this document:
© Geshe Tashi Tsering & Jamyang Buddhist Centre, The Four Noble Truths (Wisdom Publications, 2005)
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