Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature

1. The Self, the Four Truths, and Their Sixteen Attributes

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THE FOUR TRUTHS of the āryas are four facts that āryas — beings who directly see the ultimate nature of all persons and phenomena — know as true. These four truths establish the fundamental framework of the Buddhadharma, so a good understanding of them is essential. In this chapter we will look at the four truths in general, and in subsequent chapters will examine each one in detail.

The four truths describe the unawakened and awakened experiences of this merely designated self, so to begin with I would like to share some reflections on the self — the person who is reborn in cyclic existence, practices the path, and attains awakening.

Three Questions about the Self

I enjoy interfaith gatherings and appreciate the genuine in-depth dialogue and cooperation that result from them. At one such gathering in Amritsar, India, each participant was asked three questions: Is there a self? Is there a beginning to the self? Is there an end to the self? Here are my thoughts.

Is There a Self?

Most non-Buddhists assert an independent self — an ātman or soul — that takes rebirth. What leads them to say this? Although we know that our adult bodies did not exist at the time of our births, when we say, “At the time I was born . . .” we feel there was a self that was born and that this same self exists today. We also say, “Today my mind is calm,” indicating that our mind is different today than yesterday when it was disturbed. But we feel 6the I is the same as yesterday. When we see a flower, we think, “I see,” and it feels that there is a real person who sees it.

In all these cases, although we know that the body and mind change, we still have the sense of an enduring I that is the owner of the body and mind. This is the basis for believing there is a permanent, unitary, independent self that goes to heaven or hell or is reborn in another body after death. From this comes the conclusion that there must be an unchanging, independent I that is present throughout our lives and remains the same although the mental and physical aggregates change. This I is the agent of all actions such as walking and thinking.

While both Buddhists and non-Buddhists accept the existence of the self, our ideas of what the self is differ radically: most non-Buddhists accept the existence of a permanent, unchanging soul or independent self, while Buddhists refute it. Although no Buddhist philosophical school asserts a permanent, unitary, independent self, these schools have various ideas of what the self is: the mental consciousness, the continuum of consciousness, the collection of aggregates, or the mere I that is merely designated. The Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka, which is generally accepted as the most refined system of tenets, says the self is merely designated in dependence on the body and mind. Because the self is merely imputed, we can say, “I am young or old” and “I think and feel.” If the person were a completely different entity from the body and mind, it would not change when either the body or mind changes.

Is There a Beginning to the Self?

Those who believe in an external creator assert an autonomous intelligence that does not depend on causes and conditions. This being, they say, created the world and the sentient beings in it. For many people the notion that God created life fosters the feeling of being close to God and willingness to follow God’s advice to be kind and refrain from harming others. Their belief in a creator spurs them to live ethically and to help others.

Some faiths such as Jainism and Sāṃkhya do not assert a creator, but I do not know if they believe the ātman has a beginning.

A repeated theme in Buddhism is dependent arising, one aspect of which is that functioning things arise due to causes and conditions. When explaining the twelve links of dependent origination, the Buddha said, 7“Because of this, that exists. Because this has arisen, that arises.” Because of this, that exists points out that things come into existence due to causes and conditions; they do not appear without a cause. If something has no causes, what makes it arise? If things do not depend on causes and conditions, why does a seed grow into a plant in the spring but not in the winter? If our lunch came into being without a cause, it would arise without groceries, pots, or cooks! Therefore everything — the body, the mind, and the external universe — depends on causes and conditions.

Because this has arisen, that arises illustrates that causes, like their results, are impermanent. If causes did not change, they would continue to exist even after producing their results. However, for a result to arise, its cause must cease; for an apple tree to grow, the apple seed must cease. It is not possible for a permanent creator or prior intelligence to create the universe and beings in it without itself changing. Each person, thing, and event arises due to its own causes, which in turn have come about in dependence on their causes. There is no discernable beginning.

Furthermore, things are produced by their own unique causes, not by discordant causes — things that do not have the capability to produce them. It is not the case that anything can produce anything. A daisy grows from daisy seeds, not from metal. Our bodies and minds each have their own unique causes.

Causes depend on conditions to produce their results. If conditions were unnecessary, a sprout could grow in the dead of winter or in parched soil; it would not depend on warmth and moisture to grow. Multiple causes and conditions are necessary to bring a result.

Each cause not only produces its own results but also arose due to the causes that produced it. The sprout is the cause of the tree that grows from it as well as the result of the seed from which it grew. If an external creator were the cause of the universe, he or she would also have to be the result of a previous cause. He would be a caused phenomenon and could not exist independent of causes.

If Buddhists do not accept a self, who takes rebirth? Although the Buddha refutes a self that exists independent of all other factors, he accepts a conventional self that is dependent on causes, conditions, and parts. This self is designated in dependence on the body and mind, so the question of whether the self has a beginning depends on if the body and mind have 8beginnings. The body is material in nature. Scientists currently say that all matter can be traced back to the Big Bang. How did the Big Bang occur? There must have been some material substances, energy, or potential for matter that existed before the Big Bang, and conditions must have been such that it exploded. Here, too, we see that things must have causes that are affected by other conditions and therefore change and give rise to something new.

Our minds change moment by moment; the mind is impermanent and arises due to causes that have the ability to produce each moment of mind. The first moment of mind in this life has a cause, because without a cause it could not exist. The cause of our minds was not our parents’ minds, because both of our parents have their own individual continuity of consciousness, as do we. The substantial cause (upādānakāraṇa) of our minds — the cause that turns into the mind — cannot be our bodies or the sperm and egg of our parents, because the mind and body have different natures: the mind is formless and has the nature of clarity and cognizance, while the body has physical and material characteristics. The only thing we can point to as the cause of the first moment of mind in this life is the previous moment of that mind in the previous life. This continuity can be traced back infinitely, with one moment of mind producing the next moment of mind; there is no beginning.



1. Everything that is produced arises from causes; nothing can arise causelessly.

2. Causes are impermanent; they must cease in order for their result to arise.

3. There is concordance between a cause and its result. A specific result can only arise from the causes and conditions that are capable of producing it.

4. Apply this understanding to the existence of the physical universe and of your mind.


Is There an End to the Self?

Within Buddhism there are two positions regarding this question. Some Vaibhāṣikas say that when an arhat (someone who has attained liberation from saṃsāra) passes away (attains nirvāṇa without remainder of the polluted aggregates), the continuum of the person ceases to exist, like the flame of a lamp going out due to lack of fuel. Because the polluted aggregates are produced by afflictions and karma, when arhats pass away there is no continuity of their aggregates, since their causes — afflictions and polluted karma — have been ceased. Because the aggregates are necessary for the existence of a person, they say that the person no longer exists.

There are difficulties with this assertion: when the person is alive, there is no nirvāṇa without remainder of the polluted aggregates, and when this nirvāṇa has been attained, there is no person who attained it. In that case, how could we say, “This person attained this nirvāṇa?”

Furthermore, there is nothing that can eradicate the mindstream — the continuity of mind. The wisdom realizing selflessness eradicates afflictive obscurations, but it cannot destroy the clear and cognizant nature of the mind. For this reason Mādhyamikas and most Cittamātrins assert that after a person attains parinirvāṇa — the nirvāṇa after death — the continuum of the purified aggregates exists. These purified aggregates are the basis of designation of that arhat; thus the person does not cease to exist when he or she attains parinirvāṇa. Motivated by compassion, bodhisattvas who have overcome afflictive obscurations continue to take rebirth in cyclic existence. The continuity of buddhas’ mindstreams also remain forever.

From the viewpoint of Tantrayāna, after an arhat passes away the subtlest mind-wind continues to exist and a person is posited in dependence on this. That self is called an arhat. Someone who has attained full awakening obtains the four bodies (here “body” means collection) of a buddha. Since the mind’s ultimate nature is emptiness, the emptiness of the awakened mind becomes the nature truth body — the final true cessation of a buddha and the emptiness of that buddha’s mind. The subtlest mind becomes the wisdom truth body — the omniscient mind of a buddha. The subtlest wind becomes the form bodies of a buddha — the enjoyment body and the emanation bodies. An ārya buddha — a person who is a buddha — exists by being merely designated in dependence on these four bodies.


The Four Truths

In classical India, many spiritual traditions spoke about the unawakened state of saṃsāra and the awakened state of nirvāṇa, each tradition having its own description of duḥkha, its origins, cessation, and the path leading to cessation. Saṃsāra means to be reborn with karmically conditioned aggregates. Specifically, it is our five aggregates, subject to clinging (upādāna) and appropriated due to afflictions and karma.1

Liberation is freedom from the bondage of rebirth with polluted aggregates, impelled by afflictions and karma. Polluted means under the influence of ignorance. Liberation comes about by ceasing the ignorance and karma that cause cyclic existence. The mind renouncing duḥkha and intent on liberation is a precious mind that needs to be cultivated with care. Renunciation does not mean relinquishing happiness; it is the aspiration for liberation, the determination to seek a higher and more enduring happiness than saṃsāra can offer.

The first teaching the compassionate Buddha gave was the four truths: true duḥkha, true origins, true cessations, and true paths. These four truths cover our present state, one that is replete with unsatisfactory conditions (duḥkha) and their origins, and presents an alternative: nirvāṇa (true cessations) and the path leading to that. The Buddha did not create the four truths; he simply described the truth about saṃsāra and its origins as well as the truth that a path exists to cease those and bring about nirvāṇa.

We may wonder why these truths are sometimes called the four noble truths. After all, what is noble about suffering? Noble indicates (1) they were directly realized and taught by noble ones — āryas, those who have realized the ultimate nature directly, and (2) knowing these truths ennobles us by enabling us to become āryas. They are called truths because it is true that duḥkha and its origins are to be abandoned and it is true that cessations and paths are to be adopted. These four are true according to the perception of the āryas, and they are true in the sense that they form a nondeceptive explanation that will lead us beyond suffering.

The Buddha spoke of the four truths in many sūtras. In the first turning of the Dharma wheel, the Buddha presented the four truths by means of three cycles: first he identified the nature of each truth, then he spoke of how to engage11 with each one, and finally he described the result of realizing each truth.

The Nature of Each Truth

In terms of their nature, true sufferings (duḥkha) are the polluted aggregates that are principally caused by afflictions and polluted karma. More broadly, true duḥkha consists of polluted bodies, minds, environments, and the things we use and enjoy. In Compendium of Knowledge Asaṅga says, “If one asks what is true duḥkha, it is to be understood both in terms of the sentient beings who are born as well as the habitats in which they are born.” The body and mind are internal true duḥkha because they are in the continuum of a person; the environment and the things around us are external true duḥkha, which are not part of a person’s continuum. All true origins are also true duḥkha, although not all true duḥkha is true origins. All afflictions are unsatisfactory, but our bodies and our habitats, which are unsatisfactory, are not causes of saṃsāra.

What propels this process of uncontrollably and repeatedly taking the psychophysical aggregates of a being of one of the three realms? It is the true origins of duḥkha — afflictions and polluted karma (actions). The chief affliction that is the root of saṃsāra is the ignorance grasping inherent existence — a mental factor that apprehends phenomena as existing in the opposite way than they actually exist. Whereas all phenomena exist dependently, ignorance apprehends them as existing independently. The Tibetan term for ignorance — ma rig pa — means not knowing. Even its name implies something undesirable that disturbs the mind and interferes with happiness and fulfillment. Since the cause of cyclic existence is inauspicious, its effect — our bodies, habitats, and experiences in cyclic existence — will not bring stable joy.

Ignorance narrows the mind, obscuring it from seeing the multifarious factors involved in existence. From ignorance stems various distorted conceptualizations that foster the arising of all other afflictions — especially the “three poisons” of confusion, attachment, and animosity. Afflictions in turn create karma that propels saṃsāric rebirth. In the context of the four truths, the Buddha identified craving as the principal example of the origin of duḥkha to highlight its prominent role.


True cessations are the exhaustion of true duḥkha and true origins. From the Prāsaṅgika viewpoint, they are the emptiness of an ārya’s mind, specifically the purified aspect of the ultimate nature of a mind that has abandoned some portion of obscurations through the force of a true path.

True paths are āryas’ realizations informed by the wisdom directly realizing selflessness. With the exception of ethical restraints that are imperceptible forms, true paths are consciousnesses. Pāli sūtras emphasize the eightfold path, which is subsumed into the three higher trainings, as the true path. Of the eight, right view — the wisdom realizing selflessness — is what actually cuts the root of cyclic existence.

The four truths comprise two pairs, each pair having a cause-and-effect relation. True origins cause true duḥkha, and true paths bring about true cessations. Technically speaking, true cessation — nirvāṇa — is not an effect, because it is unconditioned and permanent.2 However, attaining nirvāṇa is due to a cause, which is the true path. The Buddha goes into more depth about the nature of each truth in the Establishment of Mindfulness Sutta (DN 22:18–21):

And what, monastics, is the ārya truth of duḥkha? Birth is duḥkha, aging is duḥkha, death is duḥkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair are duḥkha. Encountering the undesired is duḥkha, being separated from the desired is duḥkha, not getting what one wants is duḥkha. In short, the five aggregates subject to clinging are duḥkha . . .

And what, monastics, is the ārya truth of the origin of duḥkha? It is that craving that gives rise to rebirth, bound up with delight and attachment, seeking fresh delight now here, now there: that is to say, sensual craving, craving for existence, and craving for nonexistence.

And what, monastics, is the ārya truth of the cessation of duḥkha? It is the remainderless fading away and ceasing, the giving up, abandoning, letting go, and detachment from it [craving].

And what, monastics, is the ārya truth of the way leading to the cessation of duḥkha? It is just this ārya eightfold path — namely, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.


To look more closely at the Buddha’s description of true duḥkha: We are already aware of the suffering involved in birth, sickness, aging, and death. Sorrow is our response to misfortune and disagreeable situations. When sorrow intensifies so that it becomes unbearable, we cry out or weep. This is lamentation. Pain refers to physical pain of whatever sort; dejection is mental pain, unhappiness, and depression. Due to pain or dejection, suffering becomes overwhelming and we despair, giving up hope because we see no recourse to solve our difficulties.

Encountering the undesired is meeting with what is disagreeable. However much we try to avoid difficulties, they keep coming in one form or another. We encounter relationship and financial problems as well as prejudice, injustice, and climate change.

Being separated from the desired occurs when we have what we like and then are separated from it. Once we have friends, relatives, a job and income, a good reputation, and so forth, we do not want to lose them. Although we cling to these, it is impossible to hold on to them forever because they are transient by their very nature. The greater our attachment, the more painful our eventual separation from them will be. For this reason the Buddha said that worldly things are unsatisfactory and lack the ability to bring lasting happiness.

Not getting what we want is the situation of having unfulfilled wishes and needs. We seek good health, financial security, and stable relationships; we wish to stay young forever and have an excellent reputation. However much we want these, we cannot achieve them to a degree that fulfills us, and fall prey to frustration, moodiness, and despondency. This experience is common to the rich and the poor, the popular and the lonely, the healthy and the ill.

The above circumstances are fairly easy to discern in our lives. In them we find three types of duḥkha. There are (1) evident pain — the duḥkha of pain — and (2) the unsatisfactory situation of not being able to hold on to the pleasant — the duḥkha of change. (3) The basis upon which these arise is the body and mind — the five aggregates subject to clinging. Because we have these five aggregates, all the other unsatisfactory situations arise. This is the pervasive duḥkha of conditionality, which is intrinsic to the five aggregates that are clung to with ignorance.

The five aggregates are momentary processes, bound together in 14relationships of mutual conditionality. We believe ourselves to be independent persons, existing above and beyond the body and mind or existing within the body and mind and having control over them. This idea of being an independent self is delusion. Until now we have never examined how we grasp the self and simply assume there is a self in control of the aggregates.

When we look deeply into the nature of the five aggregates, we see that they are simply momentarily changing processes that are in a constant flux. They arise and pass away without interruption, giving rise to the next moment in the same continuum. What we consider to be the person consists of only momentary material and mental aggregates.

Our bodies and minds are transient by nature. There is no further cause or external condition for their changing and passing away other than their having arisen. The Buddha said, “Whatever has the nature of arising, all of it has the nature of ceasing.” This is subtle impermanence, and to realize it clearly through direct experience requires great mindfulness and concentration. This realization is very valuable because, when coupled with the understanding that our aggregates will never be something secure that we can take comfort in, it leads us to seek the origin of duḥkha and to investigate if it can be eradicated and, if so, how.

Repeatedly taking the five aggregates occurs due to ignorance, craving, and karma. Not only are our present aggregates the product of past ignorance, craving, and karma, but they also become the basis in this life for the arising of more ignorance, craving, and karma, which lead to taking another set of five aggregates subject to clinging in the future, which are under the control of ignorance, craving, and karma.

In pointing to craving as the prime example of the origin of duḥkha in the above passage, the Buddha was not disregarding the role of ignorance, other afflictions, and karma. Ignorance obscures the mind from knowing things as they are, and within that unclarity, craving is an active force that creates duḥkha. It does this in several ways: First, craving arises toward whatever is pleasurable. It seeks out objects, cognitive faculties, consciousnesses, contacts, feelings, intentions, thoughts, and images that are agreeable. In short, craving makes us into addicts who perpetually seek more and better physical and mental pleasures. Causing us to cling to the objects that appear to give us pleasures, craving breeds dissatisfaction and a sense of lacking. Thinking that gratifying all our desires will bring us happiness, 15we find ourselves immersed in cheating, lying, backbiting, and other harmful behaviors. In sum, craving lies behind much of the karma that projects rebirth in cyclic existence.

In addition to motivating many of the destructive actions we engage in during our lives, craving arises forcefully at the time of death, ripening the karmic seeds that project the next rebirth. As death approaches, craving seeks to preserve our sense of being an independent person; we do not want to separate from the body and mind of this life that are the basis for fabricating an independent self. However, during the death process, the body’s ability to act as the support for consciousness ebbs, and craving gives rise to clinging, which propels the mind to seek rebirth in another body. According to the karmic seeds fertilized by craving and clinging, the mind connects to another body at the moment of rebirth. For human rebirths, this is the moment of conception. When consciousness joins the fertilized egg, all five aggregates of the next rebirth come into existence together. The fertilized egg is the body; and along with consciousness come feeling, discrimination, and miscellaneous factors, thus forming the basis of the person of the new life.

The true cessation of duḥkha is the relinquishment of the afflictive obscurations, especially craving. In our daily lives, we may experience facsimiles of cessation — for example, the peace and relief we feel when we let go of having our way or of insisting on being right and having the last word in an argument. While the final true cessation is nirvāṇa, āryas attain several partial cessations while on the path each time they abandon a certain portion of afflictions and their seeds.

The Pāli tradition speaks of four types of cessation; not all of these are nirvāṇa:

(1) Cessation by factor substitution (P. tat anga nirodha) occurs after we have cultivated the antidote to a particular affliction and temporarily eliminated it. When angry, we meditate on fortitude, and when filled with sensual craving, we contemplate the unattractiveness of the body. By substituting a virtuous state of mind for a nonvirtuous one, there is a cessation by factor substitution.

(2) Cessation through suppression (P. vikambana nirodha) is the result of attaining the meditative absorptions. Strong samādhi temporarily overcomes the manifest forms of the five hindrances and other defilements 16(P. saṃkleśa, saṃkilesa), bringing the peace and bliss of concentration. Since the defilements are not active during meditative absorption, it seems that they have been eradicated. However, they have only been suppressed and their seeds remain in the mindstream.

(3) Cessation through eradication (P. samucheda nirodha) is the cessation attained through penetrative wisdom that cuts off the defilements so that they can never arise again. This cessation is attained beginning at the stage of stream-enterer (path of seeing), progresses through the stages of once-returner and nonreturner (path of meditation), and culminates in arhatship (path of no more learning).

(4) The ultimate cessation of defilement (P. achanta nirodha) as explained in the Pāli tradition is the reality that is the ultimate absence of all defilements. Cutting off defilements completely depends on a reality that is completely free from defilements, a reality that is ever-existing, unconditioned, and unborn. It is the existence of this unborn state — the reality of nirvāṇa — that makes the eradication of all defilements possible.3 This nirvāṇa is the object of penetrating wisdom. When wisdom sees the truth of nirvāṇa and actualizes true cessation, defilements are eradicated.


1. Remember a time when you applied an antidote to an affliction such as greed or the wish for revenge, and that affliction temporarily subsided.

2. Consider that it is possible for afflictions to subside for a longer period of time due to the force of having strong concentration that makes the mind extremely tranquil and peaceful.

3. Consider that it is possible to perceive reality directly and, by this, eradicate some level of defilement.

4. Consider that it is possible to deepen and stabilize that perception of reality so that all afflictive obscurations are eradicated such that they can never return.

5. Make a strong determination to do this.


True cessation is attained not by wishing or praying for it but by means of training the mind. The principal true path that trains the mind is the right view — the wisdom realizing selflessness. We must put energy into understanding the four truths, first intellectually, then experientially, and finally with penetrative wisdom. When a person on the śrāvaka path penetrates the four truths with direct realization, she becomes a stream-enterer and has entered the stream leading to nirvāṇa. She becomes an ārya who will proceed to nirvāṇa and never again be an ordinary being. When those following the bodhisattva path gain this realization, they become ārya bodhisattvas and will irreversibly proceed to full awakening.

How to Engage with Each Truth

How do we engage with or practice the four truths? True duḥkha is to be fully known or understood, true origins is to be abandoned, true cessations is to be actualized, and true paths is to be cultivated. Maitreya’s Sublime Continuum (Ratnagotravibhāga, Uttaratantra) says (RGV 4.57):

In the case of disease, we need to diagnose it, remove its causes,

attain the happy state [of health], and rely on suitable medicine.

Similarly, we need to recognize our duḥkha, remove its causes,

actualize its cessation, and rely on the suitable path.

The Result of Each Truth

In terms of the resultant understanding of the four truths, true duḥkha is to be fully understood, but there is no duḥkha to understand; true origins are to be abandoned, but there are no origins to abandon; true cessation is to be actualized, but there is no cessation to actualize; and true paths are to be cultivated, but there are no paths to cultivate.

This may be understood in two ways. The first is common to all Buddhist schools: once we have completely understood duḥkha, there is no more duḥkha to understand; once we have totally overcome its origins, there are no more causes of suffering to overcome; once we have perfectly actualized cessation, our liberation is complete and there are no more cessations to actualize; and once we have fully cultivated the path, there is nothing more to cultivate.

According to the uncommon Madhyamaka approach, the Buddha is 18referring to the ultimate nature of the four truths, their emptiness. His thought is that it is possible for us to overcome true duḥkha and its origins and to actualize true cessations and true paths because their very nature is empty of inherent existence. Since they are primordially empty and have never existed inherently, duḥkha and its origins can be eliminated, and true cessations and true paths can be actualized. Their ultimate nature, emptiness, is also called natural nirvāṇa, and this allows for us to attain the three other types of nirvāṇa: nirvāṇa without remainder, nirvāṇa with remainder, and nonabiding nirvāṇa.4

According to the Madhyamaka approach, true duḥkha is to be fully understood on the conventional level, but on the ultimate level there is no true duḥkha. That is, true duḥkha exists on the conventional level by being merely designated by concept and term, but on the ultimate level there has never been inherently existent true duḥkha; true duḥkha is naturally empty of inherent existence. It is similar for the other three of the four truths: they exist conventionally, but ultimately cannot be found by ultimate analysis.

The Coarse and Subtle Four Truths

According to the Prāsaṅgikas’ unique presentation, the four truths have both a coarse and a subtle form. Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharmakośa) and Asaṅga’s Compendium of Knowledge (Abhidharmasamuccaya) described the coarse four truths: True duḥkha is all unsatisfactory circumstances arising from grasping a self-sufficient substantially existent person. True origins are grasping a self-sufficient substantially existent person and the afflictions and polluted karma arising from this grasping. True cessations are the abandonment of the duḥkha and origins that arise from grasping a self-sufficient substantially existent person. True path is the wisdom that sees the absence of a self-sufficient substantially existent person. This is the view held by the lower philosophical tenet systems.

The subtle four truths are described by the Prāsaṅgikas: True duḥkha is the unsatisfactory circumstances that are rooted in grasping inherent existence and karma. True origins are grasping inherent existence of persons and phenomena and the afflictions and polluted karma that arise from this grasping. True cessations are the complete eradication of these, and 19true path is the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence. As true origin, grasping inherent existence is much subtler and more tenacious than grasping a self-sufficient substantially existent person. It is also more difficult to identify when meditating on selflessness.

Ordinary beings can directly realize coarse selflessness — the lack of a self-sufficient substantially existent person. But this realization alone cannot remove the root of cyclic existence, the ignorance grasping inherent existence. At best, it can temporarily abandon coarse self-grasping and the afflictions that depend on it. Therefore the wisdom realizing the lack of a self-sufficient substantially existent person is not an actual true path capable of cutting the root of cyclic existence, and the cessation of this grasping is not an actual true cessation. Here we see the far-reaching implications of the Prāsaṅgikas’ way of positing the object of negation and the importance of identifying it correctly in order to cultivate the wisdom that sees it as nonexistent.

The Sixteen Attributes of the Four Truths of Āryas

The sixteen attributes of the four truths are found in the Treasury of Knowledge, Asaṅga’s Śrāvaka Grounds (Śrāvakabhūmi), and Dharmakīrti’s Commentary on Reliable Cognition. They are taught to protect sentient beings from duḥkha by helping them to develop wisdom and insight (vipaśyanā). Each truth has four attributes, which counteract four distorted conceptions about each truth. In addition to eliminating these sixteen misconceptions, which are obstacles to attaining liberation, the sixteen attributes establish the existence of liberation and the method to attain it. Each attribute is a quality of that truth and reveals a specific function of that truth.

If you have doubts regarding the possibility of eradicating duḥkha forever and if you wonder if nirvāṇa exists and if it is possible to attain it, contemplation on the sixteen attributes of the four truths will be very helpful. As we reflect on them, we may discover that we hold some of the misconceptions that are refuted. Making effort to understand the sixteen attributes will help us to dispel these, clearing the way for wisdom to arise.

Unless otherwise noted, the sixteen attributes are presented according to the common view acceptable to all Buddhist tenet systems. The unique 20Prāsaṅgika meaning is also presented when it differs from this.5 Please note that while each truth is often stated in the singular (e.g., true origin), it has many components, so sometimes it is expressed in the plural (true origins).

Four Attributes of True Duḥkha

True duḥkha (duḥkha-satya) is the polluted aggregates principally caused by afflictions and karma. They include internal true duḥkha, such as our polluted bodies and minds, and external true duḥkha, such as our habitats and the things in it.

The four attributes of true duḥkha — impermanent, duḥkha (unsatisfactory), empty, and selfless — counteract four distorted conceptions (ayoniśo manaskāra) or conceptualizations (vikalpa viparyāsa) — believing impermanent things to be permanent, things that are by nature unsatisfactory to be pleasurable, the unattractive to be attractive, and what lacks a self to have one.6 The Buddha said in Distortions of the Mind (AN 4.49):

Perceiving permanence in the impermanent,

perceiving pleasure in what is duḥkha,

perceiving a self in what is

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The Self, the Four Truths, and Their Sixteen Attributes

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