Mangala Sutta: Seeing the Four Noble Truths

Venue: TIMS

Ven Aggacitta continues with the last but one blessing of the Mangala Sutta.

We are almost finished with the blessings of the Mangala Sutta after a long series of talks based on them. Two weeks ago we talked about the blessing of living the holy life by observing celibacy as a fundamental requirement. Last week when Bro Ong was ordained as a samanera, he acquired this blessing.

Today I will talk on the blessing of seeing the Four Noble Truths. If we can follow the Buddha’s teachings and understand the Four Noble Truths, which are very profound, we can achieve Nibbana.

There are many types of truth. In our present context, it is important that we understand the distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth. For example, conventional truth tells us that a monk is sitting here giving a Dhamma talk. Ultimate truth tells us that there is nobody here but only impersonal mental and physical phenomena arising and passing away from moment to moment.

Compare this to a TV screen. When the TV is switched on, there is a display of swift moving light and colour in the form of small dots, and sound as vibrations. From these fundamental units we perceive shapes, movement, images, people, scenes and a story that causes us to laugh, cry, and be otherwise emotionally and mentally involved. This is a good simile of how conventional truth derives from ultimate truth — there is actually no one on the screen, which goes blank when the TV is switched off.

To understand ultimate truth is not easy, as we have been familiar with conventional truth from the time we were small. Two years ago when TIMS held a youth camp, a mindfulness game was played to introduce the participants to ultimate reality. Each was blindfolded and asked to identify different objects using senses which are not and cannot normally be used to identify those particular objects, e.g. trying to differentiate between salt and sugar by mere touch. Thus they had a glimpse of how to experience ultimate truth directly, without going through the veil of preconceived ideas based on conventional truth.

When we meditate, we try to observe the ultimate truth of sensory perceptions–called ultimate realities–in order to realise the Four Noble Truths. Ultimate realities are things that we can directly experience through our senses without going through the process of reasoning, imagining or conceptualising. Examples of ultimate realities are colours, sound, smell, tastes, bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions.

Now that you have an idea of what ultimate reality is like, I can proceed to explain the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth says that everything is suffering. However, if we start to expound the Truths with the First Truth, people will run away. A person who’s new to Buddhism will wonder, “Why do I want to be a Buddhist if it is all suffering? I’m happy as I am!”

So, Ajahn Brahmavamso has this very novel approach. He says we should not start expounding the First Truth like that. Instead, he suggests the following order:

  • 1st Noble Truth : There is real happiness (i.e. Nibbana)
  • 2nd Noble Truth: There is a way that leads to real happiness
  • 3rd Noble Truth: There is real unhappiness (i.e. suffering)
  • 4th Noble Truth There is a cause for real unhappiness, which is craving.

So, today I’d like to explain the Four Noble Truths in a different order, starting with the Noble Truth that there is true happiness. This true happiness is the ultimate, permanent happiness of Nibbana. But in order to understand what is true happiness we must first distinguish it from unreal happiness. So, what is not real happiness?

Transient happiness is not real happiness. It is a form of dukkha or suffering, which can be understood in three aspects::

  • Dukkha dukkha
    This is obvious suffering, as when one suffers a bodily injury or mental anguish.


  • Viparinama dukkha
    This is changeable happiness that is actually potential suffering. For example, one who gambles and wins is happy but when one cannot repeat the win one then feels unhappy. Thus happiness changes into suffering when it cannot be repeated or perpetuated.


  • Sankhara dukkha
    This is suffering that is inherent in the impermanent, conditional nature of things. Things that arise and pass away due to certain causes and conditions are called sankharas. Therefore, they are said to be suffering because they are continuously oppressed by impermanence. For most of us, it is only through meditation that we can understand this inherent suffering. As we closely observe the ultimate realities experienced through the senses, we are able to perceive things arising and passing away from moment to moment. Then we can appreciate this Noble Truth of suffering or real unhappiness.

Once I had a discussion on the Noble Truth of suffering with a non-Theravada meditation master. He opined that suffering is caused by unrealistic desire and that realistic desire does not bring suffering. Conventional reality is easy to see but not so ultimate reality. For example, with the naked eye we see that a fluorescent lamp emits a continuous stream of light. The reality is that the light that is emitted is a flickering, continuously coming on and going off at such a speed that we see a continuous stream and not the flickering. A Harvard professor conducted a scientific study on the effect of mindfulness meditation on the ability to see this flickering. The study revealed that after meditation, his subjects were able to see this process very clearly.

When I was in Myanmar, a dhamma worker told me that he would not be reborn again because he had no attachments — yet he was a chain smoker! At every moment we are creating kamma, kusala or akusala, which can ripen at any time. For example, it is through our good kamma that we are reborn as human beings but we are still suffering because of past kamma. This process of kamma-making will not just end. It is only when we can truly and completely realise the Four Noble Truths that we can become arahants, free from defilements and rebirth. This is a lofty blessing.

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