Gotama, the man we call the Buddha, lived in the northeast of what is now India roughly between 480BCE and 400BCE. In his first teaching, he presented his listeners with ‘a middle way’ that avoided the religious dead ends of his time – mortification and indulgence. This path is based on his understanding of why human beings experience suffering and how we can stop suffering: what traditional Buddhists call the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths in traditional Buddhism are: 1) Life inevitably involves suffering; 2) Suffering is caused by craving; 3) We can be free of suffering if we stop craving; and 4) There is a way of thinking, acting, and meditating that leads to complete liberation from suffering.
Based on his analysis of the relevant Pali texts and the line of interpretation developed by the English-born Buddhist monk Ñāṇavīra Thera in the 1960s, Stephen Batchelor has reinterpreted The Four Noble Truths as a fourfold task. For Stephen, Gotama’s teachings about dukkha are not truths to be believed, but injunctions to transform our lives and promote human flourishing in this world.
Stephen has created a pithy summary of these task – ELSA: Embrace life, Let go of what arises, See its ceasing, Act! (AB, p.70)
To tread this middle way, we need to practice these four seriously important tasks, and they are to:
- Experience life – acknowledge and deeply understand and embrace the human condition, especially its inevitable difficulties
- Let go of instinctive reactivity – the clutching and fantasising that these difficulties usually stimulate in us
- See the stopping of that reactivity – experience the profound peace of mind that comes from this letting go, and
- Act – respond, say, see, set a direction in our lives, cultivate a path – ‘the eightfold path’ – in which we work on eight aspects of our lives:
- Complete vision – our understanding of our life process
- Complete intention – our intentions
- Complete speech – our communication with others
- Complete action – our ethically significant actions
- Complete livelihood – our approach to work
- Complete effort – the effort we put into our spiritual development
- Complete mindfulness – our presence of mind, and
- Complete collectedness – our mental integration.
Seriously tackling these four tasks (or fourfold task) – which is best understood as a positive feedback loop rather than a linear progression – leads to a process of awakening, of realising our full human potential to live intelligently, compassionately and hopefully with wisdom. Alone, or with others, we can experience the deepest fulfilment that we humans are capable of experiencing.
In this talk, Stephen Batchelor examines and sketches these four tasks.
To learn more about the fourfold task, listen to these two talks by Stephen Batchelor:
A fourfold task, part 1
A fourfold task, part 2