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  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : The First Noble Truth is About Happiness

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : The First Noble Truth is About Happiness

  • Thursday, March 23, 2023
  • 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM

The First Noble Truth is often translated as "all conditioned existence is suffering" - in this talk Nomon Tim explores the idea that it's also all about happiness.

Stream audio:

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Tim's talk notes:

So we've moved our of our Practice Period schedule now. And we'll go back to our more "usual" schedule of a single 40-minute zazen period, then 10 minutes of walking, then service, then a dharma talk with discussion. Closing as we almost always do with the Ti Sirana - the three refuges chanted in Pali.

There's a little variation on the first Thursday of the month we'll have our bodhisattva precepts ceremony instead of the talk and discussion. That was traditionally totally required of the monks and nuns to do on the full moon and the new moon. The Buddha was pretty serious about paying attention to ethical behavior. So we do that monthly.

The theme of the talks from now all the way through summer it looks like is a broad and deep exploration of the fundamental teaching of the Noble 8-Fold Path. Desiree brought this up from Thich Nhat Hanh's perspective during her shuso class if you were able to attend that. Now we'll spend more time with these wise pointers to a happier, deeper, wiser, kinder life. I'll give the first several talks and then in May, June, July, and August it'll be a mix of me and the other practice leaders and teachers. (And if some of those speakers are wondering: I will get a schedule sign up done soon). 

These teachings, according the mainstream early Buddhist tradition were the first formal teachings given by the Buddha after his big awakening experience under the bodhi tree so long ago. 

It's easy to get lost in the details and lingo of traditional teachings. Here's a brief overview but really the whole things about what we all want: we all want to be happy and free from suffering. This is a set of pointers towards moving our lives in that direction.

The first component of this teaching is called the 4 Noble Truths. There is much debate about the word "noble" there - it's ārya in Sanskrit. To our ears it can make these teachings sound lofty and beyond us, or a little quaint and weird "noble truths"? The world also means  "not ordinary", "valuable", "precious",[a] "pure",[2] "rich". 

The Chinese used the character Zhèng 正 to translate ārya which means correct, straight, positive, or upright.

Good stuff anyway. At least one teacher I know makes the point that these are practices so we should say the four ennobling truths - we practice with this and we are ennobled but that doesn’t roll of the tongue either. 

And this is the stuff that gives Buddhism the reputation of being a bit of a downer. The first noble truth is the truth of dukkha - or the truth of suffering and dis-ease. 

But the thing is it's also the truth of happiness. That life is better if we let ourselves feel fully is the meaning of the first noble truth. Be present and awake and aware to joy and sorrow. Learn not to block, normalize, avoid, rationalize and so on. Feel your life. 

The second noble truth is the truth of cause. This is really practical actually: learn more about what tends to cause happiness and unhappiness. And don't necessarily believe your assumptions. Stress test your ideas. Try things. And back to the first one: pay attention and feel to find out what happens. Get our of your opinions about happiness: learn and experiment. We are so good at becoming experts about ourselves and how we work. But we're also often wrong. Suzuki Roshi's beginner's mind is really important here. 

The third noble truth is usually called the truth of cessation - of the ending of suffering. But of course that also means the truth of growth and change, the truth that more happiness is possible, it really is. And the underlying idea of this is that it's a happiness that's not depending on everything going great all the time. A deeper, more fundamental happiness and freedom. And of course we'll only have that if we do the patient work of the second noble truth learning about what really helps, and the vulnerable and open exploration of the first noble truth of feeling what we're feeling fully and openly.

And the fourth noble truth is that there's a path - there's a plan - there's a way. And in this early teaching the Buddha describes this way as the 8-fold Noble Path. There's noble again. The Sanskrit is āryā ṣṭāṅga mārga. Noble eight path.  And here we start to focus in more on practices and how we live in the world. I'll list them off just for fun - this would be a great list to memorize actually. And here we have another tricky word. They all start with "Right":

Right view, right understanding, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

The "right" doesn't mean "don't get this wrong, do it the right way" - it's so much more of a process than that. The Sanskrit word here is sammā. "Right" isn't the worst translation is means "thoroughly properly, rightly; in the right way, as it ought to be best, perfectly." It's hard to come up with the right words for things.

Practically though right view, the first of the 8, means "become more aware of views and the process of viewing yourself, your experience, the world - become more aware and cultivate a wiser view" And that's wiser there? It's a view that includes what we're constantly learning from the four noble truths. So these lists all circle back on themselves.

Later Buddhism, of which Zen is a part, eventually developed a doctrine of "just one practice" to save us from overthinking and long dharma talks. Doing one practice deeply is practicing completely. So what I suggest from this series of talks is not that you have to get deeply into every step of the path - check each one out for sure but don't worry to much - see what way of exploring, practicing, and playing with your life feels most fruitful now and go deeply into it. 

Anyway it's all about happiness really. We don't have to get too bogged down in making sense of a lot of complex teachings. And being Western people in the post-modern age it's wonderful to include all kinds of knowing and learning and exploring in this journey towards a happier life with more freedom and less suffering.

I stumbled across an really interesting podcast about happiness. The person being interviewed was the Psychiatrist & Zen teacher Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. An 85 year long study of happiness.

Two strongest finding - happiness from

        1) Taking good care of health - I've been trying to run more often since I heard it! 

        2) Maintaining healthy relationships with close others (not necessarily romantic partnerships).

On this second point the Dr. Waldinger said he was surprised and inspired by this finding. It was a much stronger factor than they imaged it would be. And he's tried to take it to heart. As a Harvard person surrounded by overachievers he found himself often working on the weekends and realized he'd been neglecting his friendships. So he's starting working on retraining that impulse "gotta do more!" and arranging a walk or a coffee date on the weekend and working less. He reported feeling happier for it himself. So that's a kind of practice of the four noble truths and also of right view. Working with the assumption that if I get more done I'll be happier, seeing that the data didn't support that - his study has NOT found that  people who got more done at work were happier. That's an assumption drummed into us, well maybe not happier but it's good to be productive right, stuff to do!

In the podcast Dr. Waldinger also reminds us that emotion researchers think about two kinds of "happiness": the fleeting happiness of something really fun or yummy or exciting happening they call "hedonic happiness" - hedonic is the root of hedonism - and a generally quieter sense of life satisfaction they call "eudaimonic happiness" - the Greek word eudaimonia hasn't jumped to English. It was important to the Greek philosophers - Aristotle called it the “pursuit of virtue, excellence, and the best within us” - so he's describing a practice there with the result being a feeling of satisfaction, lasting joy. And Buddhism also has one word - sukkha (the opposite of dukkha) for that kind of lasting grounded happiness and another piti -for the more effervescent joy.

Looping back to Buddhism. You might recall one of the Buddha's idea of right view is seeing reality in accordance with the three marks of existence: that everything's impermanent and changing so don’t go leaning on things like they'll always be here, you'll only suffer; that our self isn't what we think it is - the confusing sounding teaching of "no self"; and the truth of suffering and nirvana. 

This "no self" teaching is interesting in light of Dr. Waldinger's finding that we're happier if we spend more time with trusted friends and family. The core idea of "no self" is we aren't really as  separate as we think we are. My theory of how these connect is that being with trusted others helps us relax our tightly boundaries self. Merging with another a bit is a wonderful way of releasing the tension around self. Makes sense from a Buddhist perspective and fits the data. 

I'll close with a little article by Norman about the practice of relationships that says this in another way:

        Who are we really? 


        We’re not anyone in particular. Every moment, in response to the conditions in front of us, another person, the sky, the flowers, we are created again. That’s who we are: our relationship in this moment. Yes, of course, conventionally, we all have identities, commitments, loves, hates, and preferences. No one avoids that, and we wouldn’t want to. But that’s not all of who we are. That’s the point of Zen practice and, I think, of all spiritual practice: to get in touch with the person that we are beyond the person that we seem to be. 


        We don’t really ever come to that understanding and realization by ourselves. In Zen practice, it is understood that we enact this wisdom in our connection to one another. It’s our dharma relations, renewed moment by moment as we meet each thing and each person, that bring us to the truth and a kind of awakening within and beyond our suffering.


        When you think about Zen stories, this is how they work. They’re not talks given by wise teachers; they’re encounters between people. Every Zen story is the story of a meeting. It’s the story of a relationship—and, as we see from these stories, not necessarily conventional notions of relationships in which we’re fulfilling each other’s needs, but a more profound sense of our connection to one another.


        Zen practice is itself a together practice. We’re always sitting together side by side. In a classical Zen sesshin [retreat], we sit together, walk together, eat together, work together, chant together, and bow together until we become one body. As we continue our practice and understand more, we realize this—that the separate person we are is a conventional person and that we’re also a person beyond that person. That is why our practice is all about compassion, not only in the sense that I am compassionate for you but also in the sense that I am you. My compassion is not me being a nice guy. My compassion is me realizing who I am and knowing that having a heart of love for all creatures, all beings, even a blade of grass, is true to who and what I am. Michael Jackson sang a long time ago, “We are the world. We are the people.” We are the world, and we are the people. That’s why we love one another: because we are one another, and there’s no other way but to love one another.


        There’s a beautiful Zen story about compassion. Yunyan, a Chan master, asks Daowu, his student, “How come the bodhisattva of compassion has so many hands and eyes?” Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, is depicted as having infinite hands and infinite heads with infinite pairs of eyes. 


        Daowu says, “It’s just like reaching back for your pillow in the night,” which we all do. In the night, we somehow feel that the pillow needs to be different, so without thinking about it, without even saying to ourselves, “I think I’ll reach back for my pillow,” we just reach back. It’s automatic. 


        Yunyan says, “Oh, I understand.”


        Daowu replies, “What do you understand?”


        Yunyan says, “There are hands and eyes all over the body.”


        Daowu says, “Well, that’s 80 percent.”


        Yunyan says, “Well, what do you say, elder brother?”


        Daowu says, “The whole body is nothing but hands and eyes.”


        Our whole life and all parts of it, every moment of it, and all of existence is nothing but compassion and love. We don’t need to produce compassion. We already are compassion. 


        All we need to do is wake up to who and what we are, and then naturally, we’re going to have a heart of love not only in actions that appear to be compassionate but all the time: picking up an object with compassion, walking from one room to another with compassion, and, of course, caring for one another with love.


        I’ll close with these three points. 


        First, our separate selves are not all we are. We honor them, but we learn in practice to go beyond them. 


        Second, we always practice together. Even when we’re sitting alone, we’re practicing together. 


         Third, we love this world and we love this life and we’re always trying to help in everything we do.

Let's do small groups as we did last year and I think it'd be helpful to keep working with the structured timed conversations like we did last year when we were exploring what was supportive during practice period.

Prompt: what truly makes you happy? Do you have things that draw you with false promise of happiness? How do you encourage yourself to make choices that lead to real happiness. What words do you prefer to talk about happiness: joy? Settledness? Contentment? What are you after in life and what supports that, what doesn't. Big topic!

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