According to ancient Buddhist writings, at about the time of his enlightenment under the bo tree, Shakyamuni [the Buddha] reflected on the Law of Causation. Since this law is extremely difficult, to enable ordinary people to understand it he organized his teachings in the form of the Four Noble Truths, which are a clarified version of the Law of Causation. Whereas the Law itself is for the understanding of people of outstanding wisdom, the Truths were devised for the sake of teaching ordinary human beings. In the cases of the five ascetics, Yasa, his parents, his wife, and the rich men of Benares, Shakyamuni employed the teaching of the Four Noble Truths to lead to an understanding of the Buddhist interpretation of the world and human life and thus to enable these people to attain initial enlightenment.
The Four Noble Truths were taught on the basis of a principle of healing spiritual suffering and misery that is similar to the principles that doctors follow in curing illnesses of the body. To effect a cure, a doctor must first accurately diagnose the illness. If his diagnosis is incorrect or insufficient, a complete cure will probably be impossible. For instance, pain in the stomach can be caused by various ailments. If the doctor diagnoses incorrectly and, acting on the basis of that diagnosis, warms the patient's body when it should be cooled, or vice versa, he will not only fail to cure but will also probably aggravate the situation. Accurate diagnoses spell the difference between good doctors and quacks.
The next requirement for treatment is a correct understanding of the cause of the illness. Of course, if the diagnosis is incorrect, it is impossible to understand the cause. On the other hand, a correct diagnosis does not always guarantee correct interpretation of the cause. Illnesses caused by external wounds, overeating, overdrinking, overwork, bacteria, or other factors all demand different kinds of therapy. This is the second stage.
To understand the nature and cause of the trouble, the doctor needs fundamental knowledge and experience concerning the organism in its sound, well state—that is, knowledge about good health. Health is usually judged on the basis of such things as facial color, temperature, respiratory rate, pulse, blood pressure, and so on according to standards for the patient's sex and age. But in more intensive examinations more exacting, higher standards of judgment make it possible to uncover abnormalities even in people who seem perfectly healthy. The more exacting the ideal standards on which health is judged, the more clearly are maladies and their causes seen and the wider the range of treatment that can be applied. This is the third stage.
The final stage of therapy is to apply the treatment judged best in each case on the basis of knowledge, experience, and judgment gained from the first three stages. All methods, direct and indirect, are used that will cure the illness and restore sound health. Among the direct methods are medication, injections, operations, and other mechanical or physical treatment. Indirect methods for curing and for restoring good health include such things as heat or cooling treatments, rests, walks or exercise, diets, bathing, and so on. If the method employed is the proper one, the patient will gradually be freed of negative physical aspects, and positive ones will accrue to him, restoring good health.
Just as there are four stages of therapy for physical illness, so there are four stages in the process of relieving suffering and misery that are illness of the spirit. Those stages are set forth in the Four Noble Truths.
Shakyamuni, a great physician of the spirit with abundant wisdom and experience, conformed his treatment—teaching of the Law—to the illness of the individual. The nature of his teaching method is to offer different doctrines according to the spiritual and intellectual capacities of the audience, just as a doctor adjusts therapy to the needs of the patient.
The first of the Four Noble Truths (the Truth of Suffering) states that all existence is suffering. The nature of the state of suffering must be accurately understood. No matter whether the individual diagnoses his own suffering or that of others, suffering itself must be clearly seen for what it is. It is wrong to interpret as a normal state something that is actually suffering or to suffer when there is no cause to do so. In other words, the first requirement is to see things accurately and completely, neither in a distorted way, as through colored glasses, nor partially, as through clouded glasses. In order to allow people to see things correctly, before teaching the Four Noble Truths, Shakyamuni employed the gradual teaching method that I have already described. This method enabled his followers to accept the Law of Causation and to understand causation correctly.
The second of the Four Noble Truths (the Truth of Cause) postulates that illusion and desire are the cause of suffering. Since there is no suffering without a cause, it is essential to determine whether that cause is the outcome of internal or external elements or a combination of both. If the cause is understood, by eliminating it one eliminates the suffering itself.
The third of the Four Noble Truths (the Truth of Extinction) deals with the ideal condition in which suffering has been totally extinguished. This is the standard against which to judge suffering and nonsuffering. Although only a person who has reached this state can understand it completely, correct awareness of ideals and even scant familiarity with the Four Noble Truths gives a certain amount of knowledge about it. Without such knowledge, it is impossible to recognize suffering as suffering, to know that elimination of the cause of suffering removes the suffering itself, or to put into practice the meaning of achieving such an elimination.
The fourth of the Four Noble Truths (the Truth of the Path) sets forth the means of eliminating suffering step by step. Doctors use either direct or indirect methods to cure illness. The direct methods attack the symptoms. The indirect methods restore general bodily health. Similarly, the fourth of the Four Noble Truths prescribes indirect and direct methods. Either the desires and the attachments causing suffering are directly eliminated, or a state or environment in which such desires and attachments and the suffering they entail do not occur is produced. The Eightfold Path contains all the direct and indirect methods needed to remove suffering and to build a perfect personality in physical and spiritual terms. Developing such a personality—that of a Buddha or an arhat—resembles physical therapy aiming both to cure the present sickness and to create a sound, healthy body in which sickness does not occur. The comparison with the healing principle shows how rationally organized the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths is. It further shows the identity between these Truths and the research attitude of such fields of learning as modern natural science.
Scientific investigation adopts a two-stage method. In the first stage, laws are formulated about the operations of the phenomena under investigation (natural science for natural phenomena, the humanities for phenomena of human culture and civilization, and the social sciences for social phenomena). In other words, the first step in scientific investigation is discovering the Law of Causation in the world of phenomena. This is identical with the Buddhist method of acquiring a correct view of the world and of human life as operations of the Law of Causation. Understanding the actual world as suffering arising from desires and attachments in the terms of the Four Noble Truths correspond with the first stage of scientific investigation.
The second stage is the application of the Law of Causation. Creation of conditions and states of affairs that human beings consider ideal is a matter of applied research. All the conveniences of civilization and the products of culture have resulted from the application of scientific laws. Putting to use laws of phenomena in spiritual culture, politics, and economics for the sake of the improvement of humanity would probably result in the creation of an ideal culture and society. Viewed in this light, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths—in a wider sense, of the Law of Causation—is in line not only with medical science but also with all of the other sciences. It is amazing that Shakyamuni evolved these teaching, which distinguish Buddhism from all other religions and philosophies, as long as two thousand five hundred years ago. The teachings prove the universal applicability, truth, and rational nature of the doctrinal theories of Buddhism.