Change: 7. The four noble truths

But (it will be asked) if this is the structure of that deception and craving which underlie the generation of all ill, and if the Buddha’s Teaching is (as it claims to be) concerned entirely with ill and the path leading to its ceasing (“Both formerly, monks, and now, it is just suffering that I make known and the cessation of suffering.” — M. 22: i,140), then why is there nothing found in the Suttas about recursive hierarchies? To which the simple answer must be: there is, repeatedly and on many levels. And if it is due to recursiveness that deception and craving achieve their stability then a closer look at this peculiar creature may better help us to understand (and, we may hope, to end) the ill which is its consequence. Perhaps, then, there is value in an examination, even at length, of ways in which the Suttas illustrate the principle of recursiveness.

The most fundamental level of the Buddha’s Teaching is that of the four noble truths: the truth of dukkha,[22] the truth of the arising of dukkha, the truth of the ceasing of dukkha, and the truth of the path leading to the ceasing of dukkha. The fourth truth is, in its expanded form, that of the noble eightfold path, namely, right view, right attitude, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. The first of these factors, right view, is defined (at e.g. D. 22: ii,312) as knowledge of the four noble truths. Such knowledge will of course include knowledge of the fourth of these truths, namely the noble eightfold path; and it will of course include knowledge of the first factor of that path, namely right view. Therefore right view means (among other things) having right view about right view. Further, it means having right view about right view…about right view. Not only does one know, but one knows that one knows. As with properly aligned mirrors, which reflect each other’s images endlessly, so too the hierarchy of knowledge is recursively infinite.

But what about the unenlightened, who do not see the four noble truths? They, of course, have wrong view. And if right view means knowledge of knowledge, then clearly wrong view will entail ignorance of ignorance. Such unfortunate individuals not only do not see the four noble truths; they do not know that they don’t see them. Indeed, they do not even know that they don’t know…that they don’t know that they don’t see them. And what is this but precisely the same recursive structure already described in our discussion of self-deception?


22. We have been using a variety of terms — dissatisfaction, suffering, and so on — to serve where, in Pali, the single word dukkha tells all. It will be convenient in the following discussion to use this singular word rather than the variety of English terms, none of which cover as wide a territory as dukkha. [Back to text]

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