The Goal of Practice

by Mark Knickelbine

This is another installment in a series of postings in which I discuss ideas presented by Stephen Bachelor in a series of dharma talks in late 2010. You can hear them at

In my first post on this blog, I discussed Stephen Batchelor’s reinterpretation of the Four Noble Truths. Using Gotama’s presentation of the Four Truths in the First Sermon, Batchelor reads them as a prescription for a series of interrelated tasks, each giving rise to the next (the same way we would read many of the other series in the suttas, the various Chains of Dependent Arising being the principle example). This simple approach leads to some startling possibilities, the most significant of which is a radical change in the goal of dharma practice.

As I discussed in What is Dukkha?, the first such possibility is that Gotama was not prescribing the cessation of dukkha at all. Rather, what he suggested was that by fully knowing dukkha, we can cease our habitual reaction to the unsatisfactory nature of human experience: craving for things to be different.

This is absolutely clear from Gotama’s explication of the second and third Truth in the First Sermon:

“This is craving: it is repetitive, it wallows in attachment and greed, obsessively indulging in this and that, craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.

“This is cessation: the traceless fading away of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.” (Mv I)

The independence and freedom we gain is not the cessation of dukkha, but the cessation of craving. What Gotama is saying here is not that practice brings an end to dukkha, but to the craving reactions that dukkha provokes in us.

“Cessation”, of course, is a synonym for nibbana, traditionally understood as the ultimate goal of practice. But if we read the Four Truths as links in a chain, we see that nibbana is not the end; there is one link left, the Eightfold Path. Indeed, if we read the Truths in this way, the clear implication is that the goal is not nibbana, but the Path itself.

This fits perfectly with Gotama’s description of the twelve aspects of the Four Truths, which, he claims, were the basis of his awakening:

“Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.

“Such is craving. It can be let go of. It has been let go of

“Such is cessation. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.

“Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated.” (Mv I)

There is no sense here that craving leads to dukkha or that the Path leads to cessation. Gotama instead describes a step-by-step process in which fully knowing dukkha leads to letting go of craving; letting go of craving leads to the experience of cessation; and the cessation of craving leads to the cultivation of the Path.

This is at radical odds with the repetitive formulations of the Truths we find throughout the suttas. Again and again we are told that the Path leads to nibbana, the unborn and deathless state in which birth and consciousness are extinguished and from which the arahant never returns. As with everything else in the Pali canon, we do not know the provenance of these formulae. But, as Batchelor points out, the effect of reading the Path as leading to nibbana is to reconcile Buddhist thought with Vedic soteriology. Just as the Brahmin seeks through various rituals and austerities to leave the realm of birth and death by merging with the ineffable Brahman, the bhikkhu is, through the renunciant austerities of Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, etc, attempting to leave the world of birth and death and rest in eternal nibbana. The traditional reading of the Truths is, therefore, a metaphysical claim, one that tends to tame the subversive nature of Gotama’s teachings and brings them back in line with the mainstream Vedantic doctrine that prevailed in the society of northern India in Gotama’s era.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, the modern Western habit of translating dukkha as “suffering” tends to elide this problem. After all, we can see craving leading to suffering all around us. But if we take Gotama’s definition of dukkha in the First Sermon at face value, the basis of the First Noble Truth is much more than suffering. It is the very nature of human experience: birth, sickness, aging, death, in fact the totality of our psychophysical nature. That any practice can bring these to an end is a metaphysical belief, one that makes the goal of practice incredibly remote, the province of the rare spiritual adept, to be achieved only after many lifetimes. Moreover, the idea that one can have cut off craving “like a palm stump, done away with it so it is no longer subject to future arising” (MN 73) is scarcely compatible with our current understanding of human neurophysiology. Our many approach and avoidance conflicts are not the result of some spiritual or moral pollution, but of 200 million years of evolutionary biology, the hardwiring of which we might tame but will never escape.

Batchelor’s reading relieves the Truths of mythology; instead, the world of human experience reappears. Rather than being a static state of bliss (“Buddhist heaven,” as some think of it), nibbana is an absence — the extinguishing of the three fires, greed, hatred and delusion. Rather than the Path being a discipline to which we must subject ourselves in order to reach freedom, the release of craving is in itself the freedom that permits us to follow the Path. To me, this makes eminent sense. How, when we are in the thrall of craving, are we to know what Right View is? And without Right View, the rest of the Path is equally unfindable. Only when we are able to experience even a moment of the cessation of craving is it possible for us to respond from an untainted intention. This cessation need not be complete and final to have a powerful effect on our lives; yet the more we experience it, the more we may come to trust in its availability, and the more we may see how living mindfully and skillfully in the world leads to greater equanimity and peace for ourselves and everyone around us.

With this reading of the Truths, the goal of practice is not some perfect transcendental escape from life, but a new way to live in this world. The liberation Gotama promised us is not a distant myth, but the immediate freedom not to be governed by our habits and urges, the capacity to embrace the beauty and tragedy of the human condition we share and to respond from wisdom and compassion. And it is a freedom available to everyone willing observe an in-breath, an out-breath.

Incidentally, this reading is also thoroughly consistent with the mindfulness-based therapies that are revolutionizing integrative medicine. These therapies teach us how to calm our minds and direct them to experiencing the bodily manifestation of sensations, emotions and thoughts. That practice helps us see that our sensations are only temporary and changing, and that our emotions and thoughts need not define and overpower us. From that understanding arises equanimity, and from equanimity arises the ability to accept ourselves and others as we are, to listen and respond with compassion. Are ordinary people experiencing nibbana all around us?