The Four Truths: Part 2
Bird songs filled the early evenings at Sarnath Park. This day was no
exception. High up in the trees, the little birds had returned to their
nests. Chirpings recounted the day’s fares – delicious finds, perches
with fantastic views, and refreshing water splashes. Narratives of
harrowing escapes from powerful beaks and talons were the favored
highlights captivating the attention of every bird young and old alike.
Down below, Kondanna and his friends resumed their meditation. They did
so with renewed fervor given the insights of their friend, the Buddha.
The Buddha, however, did not join them. He and Sanjay went for a walk. They walked in silence; all the while, Sanjay was mustering up enough courage to ask what was on his mind.
“Ummm, …ummm…” unable to contain his curiosity any longer, Sanjay struggled to word his question. “Can you tell me about the truths?”
“What does truth mean to you?”
“It means…that it is true. It is not a lie. It is not false, not made up, not fake.”
“Yes, the truth is simply the way things are,” confirmed the Buddha.
“You said before that we could know the truth. Now that you know, can you please tell me so I’d know, too?” Sanjay felt somewhat relieved having asked his question as respectfully as possible.
“Sanjay, if Kondanna wants to know Uruvela Village, your family and neighbors, can you tell him?”
“That’s easy. I’ll tell him everything I know,” Sanjay’s voice showed that he would not hold anything back.
“Afterwards, will he be able to pick out your mother and Mr. Gupta from a crowd?”
Sanjay’s brows knitted as he thought more carefully, “I don’t think so; for that, he has to see them with his own eyes. He has to meet them in person first, and then he has to also remember their faces.”
“Exactly, so I can tell you the truths in words, does that mean you know them?”
The Buddha kept walking while his pupil’s countenance grew pensive. A brief silence produced a deeper reflection from the youth.
“Hearing something doesn’t mean I know it. People can tell me things, but to really know for myself, I have to see, hear, and feel those things for myself… like how I learnt all about fire and how to make it, right? So you can tell me the truths but it doesn’t mean I know them really…but it can start me thinking, right? It’s like what you said earlier – start with some good understanding, and then it’s up to me to grow it like a tree. Then, one day I will get to eat apples, and peaches.”
The Buddha nodded with a smile. “Yes, Sanjay. Now,” he continued, “what is a fruit that nobody wants?”
“A poisonous fruit.”
“It will make us suffer terribly and we may even die from it.” Sanjay recalled how his stomach hurt so badly once because he had eaten some poison berries which looked deliciously red.
“Is suffering bad?”
“Oh yes. Who wants to suffer? Everyone wants to be happy. This is why we all want to run away from suffering.”
“Does running away work?”
Sanjay’s face reddened, and his head lowered, “Maybe only temporarily, but it always comes back.”
“How does it come back?”
“When you told us kids you were leaving, I couldn’t stand the pain inside me, so I followed you and left behind my mom. Now I realize that the exact pain I felt for not wanting you to leave I’ve given her. She must be terribly sad and worried by now. I took off without saying a word. And Mr. Gupta, he must be furious at me for not showing up for work.” Sanjay felt this big lump in his throat but he continued. “This is really what I am sorry about – I knew it was wrong to run away but I still did it anyways and so I’ve hurt my mother and people.” The words just gushed out and so did Sanjay’s tears. “I feel so very guilty, selfish and heavy. I must be a horrible boy in front of you which is the last thing I want.” The thoughts and feelings that were troubling him were now in the open.
A small pond was in view. “Let’s sit down and watch the fish,” the Buddha patted Sanjay gently on the shoulder. The two sat down at the edge of the pond. The water was so clear that its little dwellers could be easily spotted. They sat quietly for a while before the Buddha spoke again.
“When the mind is perfectly knowing, not confused, then it is like a clear water pond, not murky. The little fish, the turtles, the newts, the plants, and all the pebbles and rocks in it can be seen in their respective places. Similarly, a perfect mind sees and knows all there is to know about suffering and so gains freedom from it.”
Sanjay was baffled. All he could think of was to not make mistakes so he won’t have to feel so miserable ever again. Why would he want to know all about suffering? He and his friends always looked for fun and games. They hardly ever gave suffering any thought. Feeling confused, he asked, “I don’t understand. To know suffering…doesn’t that mean I have to suffer? Isn’t it easier if I just run…a...uh…I mean not think about it or focus more on the happy things?” Sanjay held back just in time to avert attention to his own folly again.
“Sure, no one wants to suffer. As far as suffering is concerned, we don’t want to know. We want nothing to do with it. We don’t want to hear about it. We don’t want to talk about it. We think by ignoring it, it’ll walk away. But the truth is we suffer. It is a part of life whether we acknowledge it or not. Like these fish in the pond, they are here whether we look at them or we look away. It is because we don’t understand suffering at all that we don’t know what to do with it. Actually, we don’t have to be afraid of suffering.”
“Like the monster in my kitchen,” Sanjay recalled his own early childhood misapprehension about fire.
“Yes, it’s the same. I looked very carefully at suffering and found out all there is to know about it: where it comes from, how it comes and stays, how it goes away but keeps coming back, and how to become free of it. Now I know the truths about suffering.”
“…so you’re not afraid of pain and unhappiness any more?” Sanjay asked not quite believing that it was even possible.
“No more fear, and what’s more, no more confusion. When suffering no longer confuses your feelings and thinking, you are clear and so you won’t make mistakes.”
“I guess that’s what happened to me.” Sanjay right away connected to the meaning of the words in his own experience. He continued, “I didn’t want you to leave and my feelings inside confused me. It sort of made me lose my mind…so I followed you without first thinking. Afterwards, I thought of my friends who said good-bye to you. They were not swayed by their feelings. They are still living at home, and going to school and playing every day. Me, I am still very unhappy now, feeling ashamed of myself. It’s so funny, even though you are sitting here right next to me, I’d rather be home now.”
Sanjay looked away feeling very awkward and at odds with himself. Just then a thought came to his mind – he could make up for his mischief. Feeling hopeful, he begged the Buddha, “Please, you must show me how to be free of suffering and then I’ll share it with everyone! I promise!”
“That’s very good; you should do that. I can tell you a little to start. Then it’s good for you to think more about it. Try to connect to the meaning in your own life. It’s also good for you to ask me questions whenever you don’t understand. In this way, your understanding will grow little by little.”
Sanjay was eager to hear about the wonderful truths be it just a little to start.
“Now tell me, Sanjay, if your mother told you not to step in dung, what would you do?”
Sanjay thought to himself, “Did he say dung? It’s nasty, and stinky… avoid it at all cost!” He wanted to laugh but then he realized that his teacher was waiting for an answer. He composed himself and said, “I’d pay attention and look ahead of me so I could walk over i…t.” Sanjay struggled to speak properly on such a subject!
“What if you don’t know what dung is?”
“No way, I’d recognize it anywhere!” The boy’s eyes widened in disbelief.
The Buddha laughed and Sanjay, too, and all the tensions and knots came undone and the young heart was unshackled.
“Very good. That’s the First Truth – know that all living beings suffer. So it’s important to know and recognize suffering in all its sizes, shapes and colors. Know it so well that you’d recognize it anywhere!”
Sanjay thought that it shouldn’t be so hard because he could draw upon the many examples from his friends and from his own experiences. He should be able to learn it all in a few weeks.
The Buddha read Sanjay’s thought at that moment so he continued, “And it will take some time, not just a few weeks. When you take the time to look, you will begin to understand more. For example, when you are feeling unhappy, don’t just follow it; ask yourself why.”
Sanjay responded confidently, “I’m unhappy when I don’t get what I want or when I get what I don’t want.”
“Does your unhappiness come from outside or from within you?”
“Uh…I think it’s from the outside. Things on the outside and some people make me unhappy. Just like some things and some people make me happy.” Sanjay recalled the grumpy old man at the teashop who was always complaining and calling him names. His buddy, Rishi, got even for him by shooting down the old man’s clothes line every time he passed by his house. That thought brought a smile to Sanjay’s face.
“Then are you always happy whenever you have those happy things and people around?”
Sanjay knew that was not true. “No. It’s funny how I need the outside things to make me happy. But I also know that even if I have them, the happiness somehow does not last. I always need more…again and again, I have to have something.” Just then, Sanjay realized, “It’s my wanting. It causes me to feel that if I don’t have this or that then I am not happy.” Sanjay looked to the Buddha hoping for an explanation.
“Yes, Sanjay.” The Buddha continued, “Your unhappiness comes from somewhere – from causes. And the causes are linked directly to you, to your wanting.”
“Is wanting bad?”
“Your wanting depends on how you see, understand and think. If you just want without understanding how things are, and how people are, then you will run into trouble, and you won’t be happy. Suppose you want the water in this pond to be clear like this all the time. And then I wash my feet in it, how would you feel then?”
“Uh… I won’t like it.”
“You’d be a little angry at me?”
“Yes.” Sanjay was at first hesitant to acknowledge the slightest negative feeling towards his teacher – hypothetical or not.
“It would be my fault then. I made you angry?” the Buddha continued to ask?
“No. It was stupid to want the water to stay clear in the first place. That really was the root of the problem.” Sanjay replied as he began to connect to what the Buddha had explained earlier. He half-muttered to himself, “It depends on me. What I want should make sense, otherwise, I’d get stuck and unhappy.”
“Excellent Sanjay, you’ve got the point. It’s important to know how your unhappiness arises just like how you’ve understood where your anger came from in our example. Know the root, the causes of suffering and that is the Second Truth.”
Sanjay was happy to win his teacher’s approved. He felt more at ease to think quite openly. “And then I can pull the suffering out by its roots to stop the suffering?”
“Yes, and that is the Third Truth – know that suffering can stop. Isn’t that good news? But you don’t stop it by pulling it out or throwing it out. If you feel pain in your stomach, would you take out your stomach and throw it out?”
“No, I’d take medicine for the pain to go away. My mom knows how to mix this plant drink that works real well on stomach pains.”
“And afterwards, how would you prevent the pain from coming back?”
“Don’t eat things that I don’t know about like delicious-looking berries. Be careful, and eat right.”
“It’s the same thing here. To prevent suffering from taking root, you have to be careful and live right. Think and act with understanding, patience and effort, and not through your wanting. Know how things are – not what you think they ought to be…and you won’t make so many mistakes – so less suffering. What do you think, Sanjay?”
“Yes. If I knew what I know now, I wouldn’t have left home in the first place. I won’t do it ever again, at least not like that!” Sanjay resolved.
The Buddha continued. “I see life as a road – a road that can lead us out of suffering to true happiness by living right. Know this road, and stay on it – this is the Fourth Truth. Walk it until you reach its end. No question, the road is long, but while you’re on it, your suffering will already become less and less.”
“Can you be our guide then on this road you’ve found?” Sanjay pictured himself and his friends following the Buddha on an exciting journey. “Is true happiness a place where every day is a holiday and we can play all day long?” he asked the Buddha.
“Sanjay, to you, happiness feels like a holiday every day – but this inner joy I have found is a million times better. I can be your guide if you wish. There will be many sidetracks and distractions to veer you off course so I will mark the road with signs for you to follow.”
“What are these signs?” Sanjay was eager to know.
“The signs point to the right way of looking at things, the right meditation, and the right way of behaving. Together, they make up right living – which means to live in the truth, moreover, to live a useful life creating the seeds of happiness for yourself and for others.”
The young student did not fully understand what the Buddha had just said yet it didn’t bother him. Somehow, he knew he had been given some very precious seeds and it was up to him now to grow them. Sanjay was not afraid. He knew it would take time and effort to really get the Truths. He also knew he had the greatest teacher ever to show him and guide him. The latter had already told him to ask questions and Sanjay was going to do precisely that!
“What is considered right?” he asked feeling determined to live in the truth.
“It’s actually very simple. Right means in all that you think, say, and do, don’t harm others, people and animals alike. Instead, try to be good and helpful to them, and to yourself equally.”
Sanjay felt that he could do that. “Is this road of right living for children like me, too? Or do I have to wait till I grow up?”
“No. It’s for everybody regardless of age. You can start this very moment.”
“Really… how?” Sanjay could scarcely believe it.
“Begin with a sincere wish.” The Buddha then closed his eyes, pressed his two palms together and said, “From now on, I wish to free living beings from suffering, myself included. I will do my best and may I be able to do it.”
Sanjay closed his eyes and repeated what the Buddha said. His brows were tightly knitted as he said the words truly meaning every word.
“Very good, Sanjay, I am very happy for you. I also make a wish now that you’ll develop your understanding about the Four Truths until you know them perfectly.”
The Buddha then started to get up, “We should head back before it gets dark. By the way, soon after I left your village, I met a peddler who was just on his way there. I asked him to deliver a note to your mother. The note said for her not to worry, that you are safe with me, and that I will bring you home in a couple of months.”
Sanjay’s eyes welled up and his heart was filled with gratitude towards his teacher. The setting sun flooded the woods with a soft orange hue. The Buddha and his young disciple together walked side by side.
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