Dharma Talk

What the Buddha Taught - Part One

April 22, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

This explores the Buddha’s actual teachings of ‘dukkha’, the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path; what Buddha did and did not say about the self; and learning to live a life free from anxiety, attachment and aversion to things we can’t control.

Review of za-zen form.

Enough people asked me to meditate this morning that from 10:05 to 10:10 we can do that together. I want to do a quick review of proper form for those who are just joining us.

Decide if you are going to sit on the floor or on a chair. If you are going to sit on the floor, make sure you have a good firm cushion [gesture indicating some number of inches thick between thumb and forefinger] under you that will lift your butt about that high so you can keep a curve in your back.

If you are on a chair, sit near the edge so that you are not leaning back against it.

Sit upright. Pull your ears back so they are over your shoulders. You can also do this by tucking your chin just a tiny bit to make the back of your neck long.

I’ll discuss the mudra again that we use. If you are right-handed, put your left hand over your right hand. If you are left-handed, put your right hand over left hand, both rest in your lap, palms up. The second knuckle of middle finger on the top hand fits the inside of the corresponding knuckle]. It makes a nice fat, soft circle. No tension. I should be able to pull a dollar bill through your thumbs. [Sits down.]

Put a little downward pressure on your diaphragm. Just let your stomach pooch out and follow your breathing.

Your first exhale is “one”. All the way out. Feel it coming out through your nostrils and send it out into the world tenderly, as if you were releasing it to do good work.

If you breathe, if you inhale, you are still alive. That’s the good news.

The next breath is “two”. It’s not “two” on the way to “three”. It’s just – “two”.

And you do that to “ten” if you can. If you can’t, don’t be cross with yourself. Don’t be frustrated. Just go back to “one” and start over. The same thing if your pulse slumps, or if your mudra collapses, or if your thumbs disappear, just do it the way the form is.

Remember that the form is there to help you. The form helps you know when you are doing it right.

And many, many, many, many meditation [meditators over] time have said that just the perfect posture is enlightenment.

So, when you are concentrating on your breath, you are in the present moment.

I’ve told a number of people about this handy timer I use from my iPhone, an app named “Insight Timer”. You can use it for sitting meditation. It will also link you with people all over the world that are meditating. There are classes online. They pay me nothing to say this, are in no way a sponsor, but I’ve been using this for years because it’s so handy for travel.

So, it’s 10:03, right now, we have two minutes.

One of things about Zen monasteries is that they are very strict about time. It’s a way of ordering your 24 hours. It puts pressure on you to become organized and not dawdle. At first it feels really oppressive, at least it did for me, because I was always late, always trying to squeeze in “one last thing” before I was due somewhere. After a while you get used to it, you accept it, go with the flow and discover that you are actually using time, and it’s not using you.

So, it’s 10:04. I’m going to get in my posture. I’ll start the gong at 10:05 and we’ll meditate for 10 minutes. You can site sideways to the screen if you don’t want to look at me. I’ll just be here. Thank you very much for joining me. Thank you very much for asking to meditate with me. It’s really pleasing.


… Remember to keep a little downward pressure on your diaphragm as you breathe. It gives your posture strength. …


Welcome back to the world of greed, hate, and delusion.

There are a couple of things I haven’t figured out yet about the Internet. One was that I tried to post the schedule and say that we’d be meditating from 10:05AM to 10:15AM [PST]. Somebody called me up in the middle of that time. Somebody else sent me a video. I’m glad you are all tuned in, but I need to tell you I don’t have time to watch videos. Maybe somebody can suggest the best way for me to announce what the schedule is, so that people will see it and respect that za-zen space by not communicating during that time. Also, it appeared as if somebody was taking a photograph through my camera. I can’t figure out why, but a flashbulb was going off on my screen. Okay.

Today’s lecture is called “What the Buddha Taught” -- What the Buddha actually taught. When he was asked, he said, “I teach only dukkha and the elimination of dukkha.” Dukkha’s an old Pali word. Pali was not the language of the day during Buddha’s lifetime, but a kind of a formal language for spiritual pursuits– nobody’s vernacular.

Dukkha was translated by early Western scholars (generally Christian) as “suffering”.

As I studied it over time, I began to feel that “suffering” was not the exactly right definition. I think the sense of dukkha is closer to dis-ease, or unease, or anxiety.

Dukkha is not getting what we want.

Dukkha is getting what we don’t want.

Dukkha is trying to hold onto something we like and stop it from changing.

Wanting certain people and events not to be part of our life.

Wanting to avoid sickness, old age, and death.

Trying to control our experiences so that only pleasant things stay with us, and not so pleasant things go away. That’s dukkha.

There is nothing the Buddha taught that will save us from an earthquake, Covid 19, or save us from feeling pain if we cut ourselves, are damaged, or wounded.

Dukkha itself is the mental experience not the actual unambiguous act of being sick. Being sick is very clear. Dying is very clear. Actual pain? is very clear. With this is mind, let’s discuss, the Four Noble Truths, Buddha’s first teaching.

After his Enlightenment, Buddha didn’t want to teach. It took him 49 days to decide to teach, because he was afraid that his insights were too subtle … too difficult for everyday people to understand.

What moves me about him is that finally, he had enough compassion to try. In that 49 day period her refined and refined his understanding in an attempt to make it accessible and the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path represent his first teaching.

The First Noble Truth is the truth that suffering exists. Maybe this sounds commonplace or “everybody knows this” but I often encounter the misunderstanding that suggests that if you are suffering, somehow, it’s your fault. If you hadn’t eaten gluten, if you had just eaten more garlic, if you had just done yoga…. There’s a widespreasd feeling that suffering is neurotic or is a by-product of a deficient spiritual accomplishment.

The truth is that it’s part of the human genome. It’s part of our hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years of being born and living and dying and developing a sense of self that suggests that we are unattached to the rest of the Universe..

The dukkha part is the mental formations. The “should”s and “shouldn’t”s. Judgment. Anxiety. Anger and Jealousy and Arrogance. They’re called poisons because they not only poison us, but they poison our relationships with other people. They are very powerful. They are very hypnotic, and on some level, I’m not sure we ever get rid of them. Even after we are enlightened, we have this karma. I certainly have these impulses and qualities and have to be on guard for them at all time.

I still struggle with a dangerous temper. I still struggle with criticizing people for being stupid (even to myself). In my family it was better to be a thief than to be stupid. So I have strange ideas that I’ve struggled with around that subject. … Happens a lot. But all those struggles and all those thingsare dukkha. It’s the menta lattributes of ignorance and craving.

You get sick and you say, “Oh my god, I’m sick. I have to do such-and-such today. Oh my god, I’m going to be out for a week, and the boss will be angry. This is going to be terrible.” That’s dukkha. Being sick is very clear. Your sinuses are stuffed, you have a fever, you have a headache. There are things to do. The dukkha is consequential, but extra. Unnecessary.

Dukkha is attachment (grasping) the mental formations and our thoughts. That’s the part we can do something about. These thoughts are actually acts of the mind, and they lead to acts of the body and of speech, and one of the reasons that they are important is because we usually believe everything we think. I have a tendency to do that, but after enough practice you stop and you say, “Wait a minute. Let’s check this out. Is this true? I thought it, I know. I’m the smartest man in the world. I thought it, it must be true.” But it might not be true.

And these acts of mind, can slip right past our teeth and hurtful or cause damage. Somebody says something, before we’ve thought, We’ve said, “That’s really stupid.” I’ve done things which hurt others sometimes something physical. I gave the example, I think last week, of a driver cutting you off provoking you to flip him the finger. Well, that impulse [snaps finger] is just like pulling a trigger.

So, one of the things we pay a great deal of attention to and one of the reasons that we meditate is to understand that these acts of mind are not substantial. They are empty. They are as visible as clouds, but like clouds they can’t be grasped. They just rise and fall.The brain is a gland for producing images and thoughts. That’s not the problem.

Stopping the mind does not mean stopping the activities of the mind. It means engaging the mind with the entire body. So that your breathing is mind, your mudra is the mind, your posture is the mind. And when you do that, you are not hooked by a dualism. You’re not hooked to the conveyor belt thoughts that jerk us along.

The Second Noble Truth is That There is a Cause of Suffering. The truth of the cause of suffering. And in a single word, it’s grasping. It’s holding on to things we like and fleeing from things we don’t.

America is an emotional country. We are proud of our deep feelings and our passions, and I’m watching people out in the street right now protesting against all scientific, fact-based advice about this virus. They’re tired of staying home, worried about going broke, and they are saying, “Give me liberty or give me death!” I saw a sign on the TV that said that this morning. And I’m not so perfectly evolved that I can’t agree. “Okay, you can die.” But the problem is that they will take a lot of people with them.

We identify with these emotions and we believe them, a lot more literally than people do in some other countries. Not every culture is the same. The Tibetans say, “Anger is present.” We say, “I’m angry.” That “I” means my identity is angry. It’s in a state where it is totally involved with this emotion that I’m attached to.

So, we can see that for all its gifts, language also demands a tax from us, because when we name things, we tend to believe that they are absolute, and graspable. We certainly do believe our “I” is that way. Most people do.

So, there’s a technical term for this, self-focused desire, self-focused longing, greed, anger, jealousy. The ancient word for that was taṇhā. So, this was recognized thousands of years ago. They’ve just discovered that the Buddha lived 600 years earlier than they thought he did. [citation?] So, archeologists knew that Buddha was born about 2500 years ago. New archaelogical digs have recently pushed that back another 600 years.

Let’s take anger,as an instance. Our anger is one part of it. So, we’re angry. My ‘self’ is angry. But at the same time, my worldview allowing me to believe that I’m an isolated integer in the universe means that my obsessionis blinding me to the truth of interdependence. Buddha called interdependence “dependent origination”. Which means that for something to exist, something else must exist. You can’t have an apple without an apple tree. You can’t have an apple tree without soil, sunshine, water, pollinating insects, microbes in the soil, etc. Since the apple cannot exist without these related items, Buddhists say it is empty of “self.” It’s distinctness is dependent on a point of view!

You can’t have a self without a body, thoughts, impulses, sensations, consciousness. You can’t have those things without sunlight, water, microbes in the soil, people growing and milling cotton and making your clothes ad infinitum, this means that there’s another, equally true way of regarding the world.

We all have self-awareness. We all feel like we’re a separate, discrete entity. That’s one way of looking at it. In the same way that we say body and mind are “not one, not two”—they’re not the same, but not different either. Well, in that same way dependent origination and self-centered or self-consciousness are “not one, not two”.

The problem is that we don’t often pay attention to dependent origination. We don’t ask ourselves, “Why am I so willing to believe everything that comes over the spinal telephone?” Who am I? I mean, my thinking might be right. I’m right some of the time, there are definitely instances where I’ve been wrong.”

If I don’t have a place to research and query, or a teacher or a favorite uncle or a critic who will tell me the truth, every one of us can make mistakes. Believe me, I wrote two books about my mistakes!

Also, it’s not the suffering that comes and goes when we meditate. Emotions will rise, and if our posture is good we can stay with them a while. We can acknowledge them, realize them, and then they’ll disappear. That’s not the problem.

The problem is that when we resist suffering we make it stronger. We go to the gym, and we work out with weights. When we force our muscles to resist they become more powerful. There’s nothing we can feel that’s inherently crazy. But feeling something and not wanting to feel it— that’s crazy. That’s what destabilizes us. That’s what locks us into mental realms.

So, here’s an example. I was born in Englewood, New Jersey in 1941, and 9 years earlier, Charles Lindbergh, a great aviator-hero who ran for US President, had a child kidnapped in my town who was killed. My mom told me that when I was born, for a year, my father walked the halls nearly all night with a pistol, because he was so anxious about somebody trying to come in and steal his son. My father’s father tried to kill him when he was about six years old –for laughing when he stepped on a rake and hit himself in the face with the handle. He chased my father up three flights of stairs and was trying to squeeze him through a little round window in the third floor of his house, such a blood rage, that my grandmother had to knock him unconscious with a heavy metal lamp.

So, there was a lot of rage, and a lot of fear in my house when I was growing up. My father had been a sparring partner of Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, a champion boxer. He was a black belt in jujitsu. He also had attended MIT when he was 15, so he was very smart, very powerful—actually, quite dangerous. So when I saw him frightened about things (anxious) I can remember thinking, “Oh, my god. There’s stuff out there that my dad is scared of. Just the idea of that terrified me and made me believe that he must be frightened because he’s uncertain as to whether or not he can defeat it. Well, if he can’t beat it, what will happen to me? Oh, my god!” …and my little brain was off and running, looking for threats everywhere…

That’s dukkha.

I won’t describe the 30 or 40 years of working with my anger and rage—I wrote two books about it— just trying to be a normal human being or not need all the heroin in San Francisco.

These are human events. It’s one thing if the thought comes through us and we acknowledge it and we let it go. “Well, I’m really anxious”. You know, sometimes my heart skips beats, and it used to be that it would skip once and being a Jewish hypochondriac, I’d go, “That’s it. Look for a place to lay down, so they don’t find me dead in the wrong place.” I would walk around with my fingers against my jugular vein, keeping track of skipped beats.

Now I can just say, “Oh, I’m anxious. Okay.” And accept it. I don’t run from it. It’s not going to kill me probably, and if it was, there’d be no place to run to..

So, first noble truth is suffering exists. Second noble truth is the truth of the cause of suffering.

The third noble truth is the truth of the end of suffering.

The end of suffering, Just as the truth of suffering was grasping, the end of suffering is letting go. Just that. Dukkha doesn’t necessarily arise at every misfortune or pain. It arises when we try to control the experience, when we try to minimize it, when we try to contest nature with our own little preferences—our Small Mind. When we try to control what’s happening. When we don’t accept what’s really happening right in front of us, right in this moment—we are experiencing dukkha.

Who is that “we”? Who’s that “I” that wants to control things? Because it has a name, it has “thing-ness.” We think of it as something with fixed qualities. Maybe a little walnut engraved with your name tucked under your liver. Or maybe a little homunculus, a little miniature you, inside your brain that’s doing your thinking and hearing and seeing and talking.

But the implication of Dependent Origination is that all forms are essentially empty of a separate self. All forms are composed of other forms. My self is made of all non-self elements: Body, form, feeling, thought, impulse, sensation. Sunlight, water, ad infinitum. It’s not that I don’t exist, but rather—“both/and.” In the Heart Sutra, a very basic Buddhist teaching, there is a long list of negatives defining emptiness:

“Therefore in emptiness, no form, no feeling, no perception, no impulses, no consciousness. No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind……” it continues on to say…”no realm of eyes until no realm of mind consciousness. No ignorance and no extinction of it until no old age and death and also no extinction of it.”

It’s a perfect both/and statement. “No old age and death and also no extinction of it.” Form is Form, Emptiness is Emptiness, it’s always both/and.

Buddha refused to say whether the Self did or did not exist. But he did not deny that what we call “the self” is an awareness. The good news is awareness is not fixed. It’s not stamped with permanent qualities. Those characteristics that we consider “me”— “I’m always this way. I always do this.” The good news is that they are just habits. They may be deep. They may be penetrating. (We say that Buddha is still working on himself somewhere.) But you can break them.

And the surest technology on earth for breaking them is meditation. It’s an astoundingly simple technology that will teach you to release dukkha, and just regard it as one among numerous phenomena—internal weather.

If we understand that our suffering is natural; that it’s a part of human experience that we are not neurotic when we suffer, we can begin to own it and investigate it intimately.

We don’t have to control it. We don’t have to push it away. We can actually develop the strength and the patience and the fortitude and the courage to face it. We can do that. Men can do it. Women can do it. A tailor can do it at his workbench.It does not require elaborate regalia, ceremonies, and exotic practices.

The great democratization that Buddha created, growing up in a Hindu culture of castes and Untouchables, the subjugation of women and other cultures—– Buddha threw that all aside.He admitted men and women, different religions, different castes to his teachings because he knew that human problems resided in none of those externals. What he taught was a fundamental liberation.

So, if you realize that your suffering is not a condemnation of this self you imagine inside you; does not indicate some essential flaw in you, you can relax, breathe in and out with it a little while. It’s okay.

The Fourth truth is the Truth of the Path that Leads to the End of Suffering.

So, suffering exists. It’s not neurotic. It doesn’t make you wrong, sick, ill, twisted. There’s a cause to suffering. It’s important to knowe that suffering can end. And finally, there’s a way to end it. That Path is called, The Eightfold Path and we’ll take that up next week. It’s basically a prescription as to how to live a life without causing harm or damage to others.

A great, very famous Zen master named Hakuin Ekaku was a 16th and 17th century Rinzai zen teacher. The Rinzai sect was training the children of royalty in Japan; were training the upper classes to be samurai, to be warriors. They are like the Marines of zen: very disciplined. The Soto sect feeling, which is my own, is softer and more patient— more like – if you walk in the fog long enough, one day you’ll be drenched. The fog represents wisdom.

Hakuin, one of the most famous Rinzai masters. He was a cartoonist. He wrote songs. He did books. He had many kensho and enlightenment experiences, but his final enlightenment, the one that he discerned as the most important, was actually following the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.

The path is a circle, not a hierarchy. I’ve a couple more minutes now, I’ll start talking about it, and then pick it up next week.


Buddhists love these numbered lists. Most of the people were illiterate and these numbers – the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path –actually help us identify and remember things. I think that’s one reason why they’re done that way.

The first thing that we do is begin to train ourselves to identify these taṇhās, these mental events. Disappointment, craving, anxiety – just identify them as they arise. There’s a huge difference between saying, “Oh, if that SOB ever says that to me again, I will slap him into next Tuesday,” and, “Wow, I’m really angry! Where is that residing in my body? What’s bothering me about that? What part of what just happened really triggered me?”

That places your awareness in the driver’s seat. That shift of engagement offers you the discretion and the detachment to tolerate anything your mind brings up.

So, even if we take baby steps, we begin practicing tolerating these feelings. Meditation helps us to develop strength and allows us to become aware of these feelings rising, blooming, and fading away and realizing that though they may generate emotion, they are quite insubstantial. There’s no”there” there.”We can’t grasp them. Like cloud formations: they’re going to change. You can’t hold onto a good mood, and you won’t be able to hold onto a bad mood, unless you fight it.

If you sit still and upright and allow your emotional weather to pass through, your posture, your attention to your breath and mudra, will defend you. You’ll make it. I promise. You will make it.

The steps of the Eightfold Path are normally prefaced by using the word “Right”. “Right Understanding”, “Right Thought”, “Right Perspective”, “Right Effort”. In English, that tends to connote right and wrong, although was not the Buddha’s sense of it. Right means being in alignment with his fundamental insight of Emptiness and Dependent Origination.

My teacher substitutes the word “Buddha” instead of “right”. “Buddhist Thought”, which implies there are other ways to do things, and this is just the way we do it. It feels a little less judgmental and divisive, so I use it as well.

The first step on theEightfold Path is “Buddhist Understanding”, and this means to see the transitory, ephemeral, interdependent nature of all things.

I have these little skulls on my on my malas(the beads Buddhists often wear) which remind me of impermanence. If you think about it, no one has any particularly strong emotions about artificial flowers. They’re not dying, so no limits on their life make them precious. The thing that makes flowers precious is that they are just here for a short time, and are passing away while we are appreciating them. That’s actually true of everything.

And if we consider that deeply, it makes all people equally precious, and certainly the virus has shown us that they are all equal. We’re just here for a short time. We’re unrepeatable experiences, and the person that you hate today is going to be gone tomorrow. And the person that you love today is going to be gone tomorrow.

I just lost my oldest friend the day before yesterday –. From five, six years old until High School, we were inseparable. Of course some sorrow arrives with that loss. I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. But I can weather. I’ve had Forty odd years of practicing “being-with” what arises. It doesn’t matter if I like it or not.It happens. Furthermore it happens to everyone. That’s the understanding. Right Understanding.

Buddha never said that the self existed or didn’t exist. He was not going to get caught in that trap. He did say that it wasn’t fixed. It’s not a fixed thing. And yet all of our experience, and all our assumptions have led us to act as if it’s fixed. And one of the things that is sinking into the formless that meditating does is to allow us to realize what formlessness is and feels like. And to allow that fixed identity to disappear a little bit.

So, this self-awareness, as I said before, is only one point of view. The other point of view that is equally true – it is as true that we have self-awareness as it is that everything is part of one great big thing.

If the earth was closer to the sun, there’d be no water. We wouldn’t be here. If it was farther away, all the water would be ice. If there was no sunlight, we wouldn’t be here. If there was no water, if there were no microbes in the soil growing our food, if there were no pollinating insects, no birds to control the pests, that’s dependent origination. That’s as true for our identity and our bodies as it is for anything else.

So, our small mind, that mind of my self-awareness, that’s one that says, “Oh, I want the world to be this way, I want people to be this way, I want my wife to be this way, I want my husband to be this way.”

That’s small mind. In Big Mind, formlessness, what Buddhists call emptiness, all those distinctions disappear. And they are referred to as “empty” because they have no fixed self. If I dissect my hand and remove the skin, and the nerves, and the blood vessels, and the muscles, and the ligaments, and the lymph, we’re not going to find anything in there that is the “hand”. The word “Hand” is a convenience, but it’s so convenient that we tend to identify things we can name with actual, graspable objects we consider permanent. It’s certainly not true of our self.

We don’t know what color it is, what form it is, where it’s located. I talked about this earlier. This is Right Understanding. This is first step on the path, and because there are seven more steps to go, I think I’ll continue this next week as Part 2.

And I hope you’ll come back, and then I will post a link as to where all these lectures are on my youtube channel, but if you look for Hosho Peter Coyote – Hosho is my Buddhist name – all these lectures are stored there.

So, thank you very much. I don’t have my chimes. I’m going to say my little three-line prayer. I invite you to say it with me.

May all beings be filled with loving-kindness.
May all beings be free from suffering.
May all beings be happy and at peace.
Thank you very much for listening. {Gassho]