Robert Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 1

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The Four Noble Principles

This chapter offers a radical critique and reorganisation of the traditional Buddhist 'Four Noble Truths' to make them compatible with the Middle Way. 

Click on the summaries below to view full text of each section.


a) The Middle Way

An argument that the Middle Way, symbolised in the Buddha's life-story, provides the best tool for the evaluation of Buddhist teachings. It preserves the most important insights offered in the Buddha's teachings, offers an approach that is genuinely universal rather than culturally or historically limited, and avoids the difficulties involved with appealing to any metaphysical source of teaching. The Middle Way itself should provide the first of a revised set of Four Noble Principles (rather than 'Truths').


b) The Three Marks of Conditioned Existence

An argument that the Buddhist concepts of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence) and anatta (insubstantiality) point towards insights of great practical usefulness that have been confusingly presented by the Buddhist tradition. These are best seen not as metaphysical 'truths' about the conditioned universe, but as practical principles as to the best way to respond to certain common circumstances in which we tend to overrate the satisfactoriness, permanence or substantiality of the conditions we encounter. A hypothetical and practical restatement of what is commonly known as the 'First Noble Truth' should form the Second Noble Principle, tributary the Middle Way as the first because this provides the basis for interpretation of it.


c) Greed and hatred

The Buddhist tradition correctly identifies that greed and hatred are a major source for a lot of our problems, and recognising this is an important starting point to responding practically to it. However, it doesn't follow from the problems created by greed and hatred that completely eliminating them (as traditionally depicted in the idealised Buddha figure) is the answer to those problems, any more than complete starvation is the answer to obesity. The 'Second Noble Truth' in traditional Buddhism should thus be adapted into a practical principle allowing us to fully recognise the many ways in which greed and hatred do very often create unnecessary suffering that can be practically addressed through our mental states and outward activity. However, it is misleading to elevate greed and hatred into metaphysical principles which can only be overcome through their opposite (enlightenment).


d) The possibility of progress

The key insight offered by the Third Noble Truth in traditional Buddhism is just the possibility of progress, overcoming all our bad habits. However, Nirvana, like many other elements of the traditional 'Four Noble Truths', has been confusingly presented as a metaphysical principle, which it is assserted one must accept in order to make progress. It is not necessary (and indeed, it is unhelpful) to believe in the Buddha's enlightenment, or any other kind of enlightenment, to believe in the possibility of progress. It is also not necessary to have a final goal in mind when one sets out on a lengthy and mysterious journey. The 'Third Noble Truth' thus needs to be radically simplified into the Fourth Noble Principle, that progress is possible: a point discoverable through experience, not accepted through metaphysical faith.


e) The Four Noble Principles

The chapter concludes with a summary of the re-phrased and re-ordered principles that have been arrived at.


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