Change: 11. The fourth noble truth

Recursiveness in the fourth noble truth needs to be discussed in detail. Fortunately for the length of this essay, however, it need not be done here, inasmuch as it has already been done elsewhere with both conciseness and elegance. Here we shall only comment briefly on that discussion.

In the 117th Sutta of the Majjhima Nikāya (the Mahā Cattārīsaka Sutta, or The Great Discourse of Forty Parts — M. iii,71-78) the Buddha sets forth a Teaching which elucidates the inter-relatedness of the various factors of the noble eightfold path.

Monks, what is noble right concentration with its support (upanisā — see chapter 9) and equipment? Right view, right attitude, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness: whatever is one-pointedness of mind equipped with these seven factors, monks, this is called noble right concentration with its support and equipment.

The eightfold path, then, is not a mere heterogeneous collection of terms: they function as a whole and are structurally inter-related. The Sutta expounds on that relationship.

The key phrase, recurring seven times, is “Monks, here right view comes first.” This should be no surprise: we have seen that the structure of dukkha is stable due to the recursive structure of ignorance. We have already discussed (in section ) the structure of right view (“knowledge of knowledge of…”). That this structure forms the “navigational framework” whereby the path, once discovered, cannot subsequently be lost, should need no expansion.

But to progress on the path requires not only right view. Right effort and right mindfulness are equally fundamental. Right mindfulness is the characteristic of seeing (reflexively) whether there exist defilements as the source of dukkha. It is fundamental because without perceiving faults there is actually no possibility of expunging them, and the eightfold path is essentially a path of purification. (“Monks, this path is the one way for purification of beings, for transcending of sorrow and lamentation, for going to an end of pain and grief, for finding the way, for realization of extinction — that is to say, the four foundations of mindfulness.” — M. 10: i,55-56.)

If, knowing fault from non-fault, one sees no faults, then one can know: “There is in me no fault.” In such a fortunate situation there is nothing further to be done. But if one sees fault then it is necessary — and only then is it possible — to remove that blemish. But this requires not only right view (i.e. knowing fault from non-fault) and right mindfulness (i.e. seeing fault and non-fault) but also right effort (i.e. removing fault, leaving non-fault), for without right effort one is in effect “sitting by the side of the road.”[53]

Thus, after describing both wrong and right view our Sutta continues: “Thus these three things run parallel with and circle around right view — that is to say, right view, right effort, right mindfulness.” Right view, then (as well as right effort and right mindfulness), circles around right view. But unlike the circularity of “ignorance of ignorance,” the circularity of “right view of right view” is not vicious. It is benign, salutary. And so too, we are told, right view, right effort, and right mindfulness run parallel with and circle around right attitude, right speech, right action, and right livelihood. In each case “right view comes first.” In other words, these four factors are established and based upon the recursive structure “right view of right view.” But they are developed and perfected only dependent upon the further involvement of right view with right effort and right mindfulness.

Right view (which, in the noble eightfold path, comes first) is the counterpart of ignorance (which, in dependent arising, comes first). It is the means whereby ignorance is fully eradicated. And so too, right effort and right mindfulness can be seen as counterparts to craving and holding. Both craving and right effort are concerned with drive, with movement. But craving is concerned with acquisition of yet further blemishes (or, if craving objects to that formulation, then it is concerned at least with an acquisition which results in yet further blemishes). Right effort, however, is concerned with expunging of blemishes, and therefore with expunging of craving.

Right mindfulness and holding are both concerned with seeing something. But holding is concerned with seeing an independent permanent pleasurable self, whereas right mindfulness is concerned with seeing the need to discover such a self. Therefore right mindfulness is concerned with seeing holding. Neither right effort nor right mindfulness are recursive (unlike craving and holding). Without right view, mindfulness hasn’t a chance of seeing what needs to be done (and is therefore not right mindfulness), while all effort is mis-spent (and is therefore not right effort). But together with right view these three form an interlocking structure. This framework provides the basis whereby the other factors and the path as a whole achieve stability as the active counterforce to the arising of dukkha. It is this structure which is the support for right concentration, and it is these factors which are its equipment. It is by means of right concentration together with its support and equipment that purification is achieved and right view and the rest are brought to perfection.

When right concentration with its support and equipment is brought to fulfillment then there are also right knowledge and right freedom. With these two additional factors the path reaches completion; for with right knowledge there is knowledge of right freedom; and with right freedom there is knowledge of right freedom. Thus there is established a stable structure which is the counterpart only of nibbāna, extinction (cf. M. 44: i,304), and which is totally beyond the range of ignorance, craving, and holding.

The five aggregates, no longer involved with holding, are also disentangled from being, birth, ageing-and-death, and from any pleasure or unpleasure which can arise dependent upon these. There remain of course those bodily pleasures and unpleasures which can arise from the body’s contingency. But such feelings are no longer regarded as “me” or “mine,” any more than the fallen leaves in the forest, and are therefore not to be accounted as “my pleasure, my pain.” They are of no consequence. And for so long as the five aggregates endure, this structure, culminating in right knowledge and right freedom, will endure. With the breaking up of the aggregates, at death, even this will finally end and utterly cease. It too is counted (by right knowledge, by right freedom) as of no consequence.

The Mahā Cattārīsaka Sutta (which deserves far greater attention than it generally receives) is not merely an explication of the recursive structure of the fourth noble truth. It warrants a careful study also for its sound advice on how to live one’s life in such a way that one becomes ever more capable of seeing the true wealth which is this Teaching, and of seeing how to make proper use of that wealth.


53. Not only he who halts a cart run wild
I call “a driver;” also who restrains
arisen wrath, who purges what’s defiled.
Other people merely hold the reins. — Dh. 222

Or again:

As the smithy purifies
silver bit by bit, the wise
remove their own impurities
at each moment, by degrees. — Dh. 239
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