Noble Truths, Noble Path


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A couple of years ago I published a book titled Reading the Buddha’s Discourses in Pāli, intended to help students of Buddhism learn to read the texts of the Pāli Canon in the language in which they have been preserved, the ancient Indian language now known as Pāli. The book, based on a weekly program in Pāli that I conducted over the course of three years, was primarily a Pāli-English reader, furnished with detailed grammatical explanations and a glossary. After the book was published, several of my students suggested that I prepare an anthology composed of the suttas used in that book but stripped of the linguistic and grammatical apparatus.

The present work is my response to that request. It contains all the suttas from Reading the Buddha’s Discourses, but with the original translations slightly revised to make them more “reader friendly.” In several cases I have restored portions of the original texts not included in the reader because they were less relevant to its purposes. The introductions to each chapter have been expanded to provide more background information on the material, and I have added the verses attached to a number of suttas that were not included in the reader. In chapter 4, I replaced the first sutta (SN 12:1), a concise statement of the formula of dependent origination, with the sutta that immediately follows it (SN 12:2), which amplifies the bare formula with definitions of the twelve factors. And at the end of the section on the noble eightfold path, I have added the Oghavagga, the “chapter on the floods,” to provide a comprehensive overview of the governing purpose of the Buddhist path.

The present anthology differs significantly from another anthology I published in 2005 called In the Buddha’s Words. The purpose of the earlier anthology was to provide a 2comprehensive picture of the Buddha’s teaching that incorporates a wide variety of suttas into an organic structure designed to bring to light the intentional pattern underlying the Buddha’s formulation of the Dhamma and thus to equip the reader with guidelines for understanding the teachings in the suttas as a whole. The structure governing that book was based on a scheme of three aims underlying the Buddha’s teachings, each largely determined by the audience he was addressing and the circumstances that occasioned the discourse. These three aims are: well-being and happiness visible in this present life; well-being and happiness in future lives; and the supreme good, the attainment of nibbāna. The expression “welfare and happiness visible in this present life” refers to the happiness that comes from following ethical norms in one’s family relationships, livelihood, and communal engagements. The “welfare and happiness pertaining to a future life” refers to the achievement of a fortunate rebirth, a pursuit that rests on the planks of kamma and rebirth. The third benefit the Buddha’s teaching is designed to bring, the supreme or ultimate good (paramattha), is liberation from the cycle of repeated birth and death. This is to be achieved by cultivating the threefold higher training in moral conduct, concentration, and wisdom.

The present anthology serves a different purpose. It aims to take us straight to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching, summed up in two interrelated structures: the four noble truths and the noble eightfold path. The first covers the side of doctrine, the second the side of training. These two structures are often joined together into what is called the dhamma-vinaya. In this compound, dhamma represents the teaching that illuminates the nature of things; the primary response it elicits is understanding. Its counterpart, vinaya, often signifies monastic discipline but can be interpreted more broadly as comprising all the factors that lead to the removal (another meaning of vinaya) of the mind’s hindrances and fetters. The primary response it calls for is practice.

The internal unity of the Dhamma is guaranteed by the fact that the last of the four noble truths, the truth of the way, is the noble eightfold path, while the first factor of the noble eightfold path, right view, is the understanding of the four noble truths. 3From this, we can see that these two mainstays of the teaching penetrate and include one another, the formula of the four noble truths containing the eightfold path and the noble eightfold path containing the four truths. Both the truths and the path are called “noble” (ariya). The truths are called noble because they are the truths taught by the supreme noble one, the Buddha; because they are the truths seen by the noble disciples who have arrived at the core of the Dhamma; and because they are the truths accepted as a framework of understanding by those who aspire to the status of spiritual nobility. The path is called noble because it is the path walked by all the noble ones of the past who have attained the goal and by those of the present and future who seek the fruit of clear knowledge and liberation.


The suttas or “discourses” compiled in this anthology are all taken from the Pāli Canon, the collection of texts recognized as authoritative by the Theravāda school of Buddhism, the Buddhist tradition that today flourishes in Sri Lanka and the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, with branches extending elsewhere throughout the world. The Pāli Canon consists of three major divisions, for which reason it is also called the Tipiṭaka, the “Three Baskets.” The first is the Vinaya Piṭaka, the Basket of Monastic Discipline; the second is the Sutta Piṭaka, the Basket of Discourses, the teachings spoken by the Buddha and his leading disciples; and the third is the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, the Basket of Treatises, a rigorous systematic presentation constructed from the teachings of the Sutta Piṭaka.

While the Pāli Canon belongs to one particular Buddhist school, the texts preserved in the Sutta Piṭaka, particularly the first four collections, are not unique to the Theravāda tradition but often have parallels in the collections of other early Buddhist schools. Although these schools perished long ago, they have left behind texts still found in translations into Chinese, Tibetan, and other ancient languages; in some cases versions in Indian languages like Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and Gāndhārī have been found. These versions usually correspond fairly closely to their Pāli counterparts, pointing back to a common origin before the different schools went their separate 4ways. It is presumptuous to claim that one version of the discourses is intrinsically more archaic than the others, but since the Pāli Nikāyas are the most accessible version and are preserved in an Indian language close to the language in which they were first compiled, for practical purposes they can be regarded as the most ancient records of the Buddha’s teachings available to us. They stem from the earliest period of Buddhist literary history, a period lasting roughly 150 years after the Buddha’s death, and thus take us as close as possible to what the Buddha actually taught.1

The Sutta Piṭaka consists of five collections called Nikāyas. The four major Nikāyas are:

1.The Dīgha Nikāya: the Collection of Long Discourses, thirty-four suttas arranged into three vaggas, or books.

2.The Majjhima Nikāya: the Collection of Middle Length Discourses, 152 suttas arranged into three vaggas.

3.The Saṃyutta Nikāya: the Collection of Connected Discourses, close to three thousand short suttas grouped into fifty-six chapters, called saṃyuttas, which are in turn collected into five vaggas.

4.The Aṅguttara Nikāya: the Collection of Numerical Discourses, approximately 2,400 short suttas arranged into eleven chapters, called nipātas.

The Dīgha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya, at first glance, seem to be established principally on the basis of length: the longer discourses go into the Dīgha, the middle-length discourses into the Majjhima. But the two also appear to differ in their aims. The suttas of the Dīgha Nikāya seem to be largely directed at a popular audience, intended to inspire faith and devotion among adherents of Buddhism and to attract potential converts by demonstrating the superiority of the Buddha and his doctrine over his contemporaries. The Majjhima Nikāya seems largely directed inward toward the Buddhist community, intended to acquaint new disciples, particularly monastics, with the doctrines and practices of the Dhamma.

The Saṃyutta Nikāya is organized by way of subject matter. Each subject is the “yoke” (saṃyoga) that connects the discourses into a saṃyutta or chapter, of which there are altogether 5fifty-six. Hence the title of the collection, the “connected (saṃyutta) discourses.” Since this collection provides detailed treatment of the major doctrines of Early Buddhism, it may have been intended largely for doctrinal specialists. And since many of these suttas are concerned with subjects of contemplation designed to generate direct insight into the teachings, they may also have been intended for accomplished meditators.

The Aṅguttara Nikāya is arranged according to a numerical scheme derived from a peculiar feature of the Buddha’s pedagogic method. The Buddha often formulated his discourses by way of numerical sets, a format that helped to ensure that the ideas he conveyed would be easily retained in mind. The Aṅguttara Nikāya assembles these numerical discourses into a single massive work of eleven nipātas or chapters, each representing the number of terms upon which the constituent suttas have been framed. Such an arrangement made it especially useful for elder monastics charged with teaching junior recruits, and also for preachers in teaching the laity.

Besides the four major collections, the Sutta Piṭaka includes a fifth collection called the Khuddaka Nikāya, a name that means the Minor Collection. Originally it may have consisted merely of a number of minor works that could not be included in the four major Nikāyas. But as more and more works were added to it over the centuries, its dimensions swelled until it became the most voluminous of the five Nikāyas.


The suttas in this anthology have all been taken from the Saṃyutta Nikāya. I originally chose the Saṃyutta as the basis for my Pāli reader to ensure that the suttas to be studied from a linguistic angle display the fairly uniform terminology and highly structured mode of presentation typical of that collection. But there was another reason I chose the Saṃyutta as the basis for the course and for this book, a reason that pertains to the doctrinal rather than the linguistic side of the Buddhist canon. It seems that the major chapters of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, if rearranged, provide a systematic overview of the Dhamma that mirrors the pattern of the four noble truths. An anthology from this collection can thus enable the student of Early 6Buddhism to see into the heart of the Buddha’s teachings as directly and clearly as possible.

Before I sketch the underlying plan of this book, I should state as a precaution against misunderstanding that the texts included in this anthology are not intended to span the full range of the Buddha’s teaching. They do not deal with such fundamental matters as the multiple planes of existence, the operation of kamma and its fruits, the prospects for temporal happiness, and the corresponding practices of generosity, ethical conduct, and related virtues that contribute to gradual progress toward the final goal. Rather, in relation to the three aims of the Dhamma mentioned above—well-being and happiness visible in this present life, well-being and happiness in future lives, and the ultimate good—these texts all pertain to the ultimate good, the attainment of nibbāna or liberation. They illuminate the Buddha’s radical diagnosis of the human condition—and more broadly, the condition of all sentient existence—in the light of the four noble truths. They underscore the pervasive flaws inherent in the round of rebirths, trace our existential predicament to its deepest roots, and lay out the path to unraveling our bondage and winning irreversible release.

The pattern that lies at the heart of the liberating Dhamma emerges from the order of the chapters found here. The first chapter contains selections from the Saccasaṃyutta (SN 56), the Connected Discourses on the Truths—the four noble truths, which are described as “the special Dhamma teaching of the buddhas” (buddhānaṃ sāmukkaṃsikā dhammadesanā, for instance at DN I 110). The four noble truths serve as the most concise statement of the Dhamma, a “matrix” that generates all the other teachings and a framework into which most of those teachings can fit.

The suttas in the Saccasaṃyutta, however, seldom elaborate upon the content of the four noble truths. The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56:11), commonly known as the First Sermon, provides concise definitions of the four truths, and these are repeated in several other suttas of this saṃyutta. But for the most part the discourses of the Saccasaṃyutta highlight the contextual role of the four noble truths, stressing the urgency of directly realizing them. For details about the actual content 7of the truths, we have to look elsewhere, and other chapters of the Saṃyutta Nikāya provide us with the material we require.

It is noteworthy in this respect that the Buddha’s discourses, as found in the Pāli Canon, are linked through a complex network of allusions and cross-references. A theme or topic treated briefly in one place may be elaborated elsewhere; a term used in one sutta may be analyzed and unpacked in another. For example, a sutta on the noble eightfold path (such as SN 45:8) identifies “right mindfulness” with the four establishments of mindfulness and offers a stock formula defining it, but it does not explain what these four modes of developing mindfulness actually involve in practice. For a fuller explanation we have to consult another sutta (DN 22 or MN 10), which describes the practice in detail.

Accordingly, we can see the four noble truths enunciated as a set in the Saccasaṃyutta to be pointing toward other chapters in the Saṃyutta Nikāya for fuller treatment. The formula for the first noble truth states that the noble truth of suffering consists in the five clinging-aggregates (see 1.4). For a fuller account of the five aggregates, and thus of the first noble truth, we would turn to the Khandhasaṃyutta (SN 22). I have taken a selection of suttas from the Khandhasaṃyutta to make up chapter 2, which I subtitle “the meaning of suffering in brief,” echoing the words of the first discourse: saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.

Another sutta on the four noble truths (SN 56:14) defines the first noble truth as the six internal sense bases. Since it is through the six sense bases that all the other phenomena included in the five aggregates arise—feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness—I have designated the sense bases “the channels through which suffering originates.” Selected suttas from the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta (SN 35) therefore make up chapter 3 of this book.

Many discourses state that craving is the origin of suffering, yet this declaration is not explicated in the suttas on the four noble truths. The statement seems to be an oblique way of pointing to an intricate process involving the interplay of a multiplicity of factors. In the Nikāyas we find these factors fused into a lengthy chain that lays bare the causal dynamics that underlie the round of repeated birth and death and thus 8the genesis of dukkha. This chain is expressed by the formula of dependent origination (paṭiccasamuppāda), which usually consists of twelve terms joined by relations of conditionality. The chain situates craving in the middle. At the head of the chain we find ignorance, the most fundamental root, from which emerges a string of factors leading up to craving; and from craving the chain continues further until it culminates in old age and death and all the expressions of existential distress encountered in the course of life, summed up as “sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and misery.”

Suttas on dependent origination are collected in the Nidānasaṃyutta (SN 12), a selection from which makes up chapter 4 of the present work. Here it will be seen that the chain of conditions occurs in two modes. One is the mode of origination, which corresponds to the truth of the origin of suffering and shows how each factor gives rise to its successor. The other is the mode of cessation, which corresponds to the truth of the cessation of suffering and shows how removing the condition eliminates its effect.

The fourth noble truth, according to the Buddha’s first discourse, is the noble eightfold path, described as “the way to the cessation of suffering.” But while the eightfold path may be the most comprehensive and best-known formulation of the path—including as it does cognitive, ethical, and meditative factors—it is not the only set of practices that the Buddha taught as the way to the final goal of his teaching. Rather, he presented the path from different perspectives, governed by the needs and aptitudes of the people being taught. The broadest scheme lays out a group of seven sets of factors containing altogether thirty-seven principles called in Pāli the bodhipakkhiyā dhammā, “the aids to enlightenment” or, more poetically, “the wings to awakening.” These seven sets, partly overlapping, are: the four establishments of mindfulness, the four right kinds of striving, the four bases for spiritual power, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the noble eightfold path. Chapters on each of these have been collected in the last volume of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, the Mahāvagga, the Great Division, which might have also been called the Maggavagga, the Division on the Path.

Chapter 5 of the present work is devoted to texts on the path 9of practice. If, however, I had attempted to include here suttas representing all seven groups, this would have strained the limits imposed on this volume. I have therefore restricted my choice to suttas drawn from three groups: the four establishments of mindfulness, the seven factors of enlightenment, and the noble eightfold path.

Since the systematic cultivation of mindfulness might be called the essential practice of the way to liberation, I begin with suttas from the Satipaṭṭhānasaṃyutta (SN 47). When mindfulness reaches a certain degree of maturity, it becomes the first of the seven factors of enlightenment, the starting point from which the other six factors emerge; thus suttas from the Bojjhaṅgasaṃyutta (SN 46) constitute the second section of this chapter. And when the seven factors of enlightenment reach their pinnacle, they bring into being the liberating eightfold path, the truly noble path, and thus suttas from the Maggasaṃyutta (SN 45) constitute the third section of this chapter.

The goal of the path is nibbāna. Nibbāna has already been indicated obliquely in the chapter on the four noble truths as the cessation of suffering. Again, it is implied in the chapter on dependent origination as the cessation of each of the links in the formula of dependent origination. Nevertheless, in those chapters it has not been shown explicitly in its own nature. To provide a fuller picture of the goal of the teaching, I have included, as chapter 6, a selection from the Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta (SN 43), the Connected Discourses on the Unconditioned, which offers thirty-two epithets for the goal, with nibbāna being only one of them. Each of these is equated with the destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, and the destruction of delusion, to be reached by various avenues of practice, elaborately laid down in this chapter.

At the conclusion of many suttas in the Nikāyas, when the Buddha has finished his discourse to an inquirer, the inquirer responds with a stock statement of appreciation: “Excellent, Master Gotama, excellent, Master Gotama! Just as one would turn upright what had been overturned, or would reveal what was concealed, or would point out the path to one who is lost, or would hold up an oil lamp in the darkness, thinking, ‘Those with eyes will see forms,’ just so the Dhamma has been revealed in many ways by Master Gotama.”


My hope is that readers of the present volume will echo this exclamation of delight and then dive more deeply into the Dhamma, both as a fascinating field of study and as a path to a meaningful and fulfilling life.


I have used as my basic source for the Pāli texts the electronic version of the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana Tipiṭaka (version 4.0), which is based on the printed edition resulting from the Sixth Buddhist Council held in Myanmar in 1956. Occasionally, however, I have adopted an alternative reading found either in the Pali Text Society’s Roman-script edition or in the Sri Lankan Buddha Jayanti Sinhala-script edition. Since my purpose here is simply to present a translation of an acceptable version of the texts, I have not attempted to construct a critical edition and thus I have not commented on the variant readings in my notes.

Source references following the title of each selection cite the chapter number of the Saṃyutta followed by the number of the sutta within that chapter. I follow the numbering scheme used in my published translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. This is followed by the volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pāli text. Thus “SN 56:1; V 414” is Saṃyutta Nikāya, chapter 56, sutta 1, found in volume V, page 414 of the PTS edition. The numbering of suttas in the Saḷāyatanasaṃyutta (chapter 35) occasionally differs across the different editions of this volume, depending on whether the discourses in a group are considered a single sutta or separate suttas. In chapter 3 of this book I have used the numbering scheme of the Connected Discourses, which differs from that of the PTS edition of the Pāli text. Hence in the detailed list of contents and again in chapter 3, I give the sutta number of the PTS edition in brackets following my own number.

The same principle of numbering applies to references to other Nikāyas in the notes. While in my translations of full Nikāyas I have provided many long and detailed explanatory notes, in this book, in order to let the suttas speak for themselves, I have tried to keep the notes to a minimum. Many of my notes refer to the commentary to the Saṃyutta Nikāya, titled 11the Sāratthappakāsinī (Spk). This was written by the Indian monk Buddhaghosa, who came to Sri Lanka in the fifth century to compose commentaries to the four Nikāyas and perhaps other canonical texts. His commentaries were not original works expressing his personal interpretations but were based on older commentaries, no longer extant, that had been preserved in Sri Lanka in the ancient Sinhala language. His main task, as he saw it, was to draw out the explanations found in the ancient commentaries, remove redundancies, and translate the explanations into the language of the canonical texts. His purpose, presumably, was to make the commentaries intelligible to monastics living beyond Sri Lanka.

The book also contains a Pāli-English glossary. This has not been arranged in alphabetical order—whether according to the Pāli alphabet or the English alphabet—but according to the order of the chapters in this book. It provides only the Pāli terms for the key components in each chapter.

I would like to thank John Kelly for help with the proofreading and the staff at Wisdom Publications for another fine job of production.

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