World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


Noble Truth

The First of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths is that human existence is suffering, or ill (Pali dukkha), which connotes the idea of an illness generated by the self through its false attachments. Often this condition is described by the metaphor of a universal fire engulfing the world. In Hindu- ism, the human lot of samsara is to go through an endless cycle of death and rebirth, conditioned by nature (the gunas) and rooted in the results of past actions. This is likened to a universal tree, turned upside-down, whose roots and branches trace the sequences of actions (karma) back to the beginning of time: The whole of it is suffering. In Christianity, the doctrine of Original Sin conveys a similar idea: Humans are, by their fallen condition, cut off from God and hence unable to fulfill the true purpose of life. We may try to be good, but in spite of our best efforts, we miss the mark. Original Sin, like the Hindu notion of samsara, is understood to be a condition perpetuated throughout the generations of humankind. (The doctrine of Original Sin also includes an explanation of its cause in the primordial Fall of Man, but that topic is deferred to the next chapter.)

Analogous statements recognizing that the human condition is inveterately ill, deficient, or sinful can be found in the scriptures of many religions. No one is untainted by sin and evil. Few are they who truly seek truth, beauty, and goodness. Even when people begin with the best of intentions, their behavior usually degenerates and ends in acrimony, betrayal, or violence.

The Noble Truth of Suffering (Dukkha) is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering--in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.

Buddhism. Samyutta Nikaya lvi.11: Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth

I look at what ordinary people find happiness in, what they all make a mad dash for, racing around as though they couldn't stop--they all say they're happy with it. I'm not happy with it and I'm not unhappy with it. In the end, is there really happiness or isn't there?

Taoism. Chuang Tzu 18

Affliction does not come from the dust, nor does trouble sprout from the ground; but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.

Judaism and Christianity. Job 5.6-7

This world, become ablaze, by touch of sense afflicted, utters its own lament. Whatever conceit one has, therein is instability. Becoming other, bound to becoming, yet in becoming it rejoices. Delight therein is fear, and what it fears is Ill.

Buddhism. Udana 32

Samyutta Nikaya lvi.11: This is the first of the Four Noble Truths, taken from the Buddha's first sermon. The 'five aggregates,' or skandhas, are the elements of the personality to which we cling in our vain craving for existence. They are: body-form, feeling, perception, activities which make karma, and consciousness. Udana 32: Cf. Lankavatara Sutra 24, p. 398; Svetasvatara Upanishad 1.6-8, p. 398.

Brothers, all is burning. And what is the all that is burning? Brothers, the eye is burning, visible forms are burning, visual consciousness is burning, visual impression is burning, also whatever sensation, pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, arises on account of the visual impression, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion; I say it is burning with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.

The ear is burning, sounds are burning, auditory consciousness is burning, auditory impression is burning, also whatever sensation, pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant, arises on account of the auditory impression, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion; I say it is burning with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.

The nose is burning, odors are burning, olfactory consciousness is burning, olfactory impression is burning....

The tongue is burning, flavors are burning, consciousness of flavor is burning, taste impression is burning....

The body is burning, tangible things are burning, tactile consciousness is burning, tactile sensation is burning....

The mind is burning, thoughts are burning, consciousness of thought is burning.... Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion; I say it is burning with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, with lamentations, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.

Buddhism. Samyutta Nikaya xxxv.28: The Fire Sermon

Farid, I thought I alone had sorrow; Sorrow is spread all over the whole world. >From my roof-top I saw Every home engulfed in sorrow's flames.

Sikhism. Adi Granth, Shalok, Farid, p. 1382

Kisa Gotami had an only son, and he died. In her grief she carried the dead child to all her neighbors, asking them for medicine, and the people said, "She has lost her senses. The boy is dead."

At length Kisa Gotami met a man who replied to her request, "I cannot give you medicine for your child, but I know a physician who can. Go to Sakyamuni, the Buddha."

Kisa Gotami repaired to the Buddha and cried, "Lord and Master, give me the medicine that will cure my boy."

The Buddha answered, "I want a handful of mustard seed." And when the girl in her joy promised to procure it, the Buddha added, "The mustard seed must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend."

Poor Kisa Gotami now went from house to house, and the people pitied her and said, "Here is the mustard seed, take it!" But when she asked, "Did a son or daughter, a father or mother, die in your family?" they answered her, "Alas! the living are few, but the dead are many. Do not remind us of our deepest grief." And there was no house but some beloved one had died in it.

Kisa Gotami became weary and hopeless, and sat down at the way-side, watching the lights of the city as they flickered up and were extinguished again. At last the darkness of night reigned everywhere. And she considered the fate of men, that their lives flicker up and are extinguished. And she thought to herself, "How selfish am I in my grief! Death is common to all; yet in this valley of desolation there is a path that leads him to immortality who has surrendered all selfishness."

Putting away the selfishness of her affection for her child, Kisa Gotami had the dead body buried in the forest. Returning to the Buddha, she took refuge in him and found comfort in the Dharma.

Buddhism. Buddhaghosa, Parable of the Mustard Seed

Samyutta Nikaya xxxv.28: The theme of a world on fire is elaborated in the Lotus Sutra's Parable of the Burning House; see p. 145n. Cf. Genesis Rabbah 39.1, p. 593; Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.1-7, pp. 388f.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Judaism and Christianity. Ecclesiastes 3.1-8

There is an eternal pipal tree, with roots on high and branches downward. The verses of Scripture are its leaves. Who understands this tree understands the Scriptures.

Parable of the Mustard Seed: This parable appears in various sources in the Buddhist tradition. It illustrates the principle of the impermanence of phenomena, the attachment to which is the basis of all suffering. Cf. Diamond Sutra 32, p. 123; Lankavatara Sutra 24, p. 398. Ecclesiastes 3.1-8: This meditation on the impermanence of life is often recited at funerals. Cf. Isaiah 40:6-8, p. 123.

It stretches its branches upward and downward. The states of all things nurture the young shoots. The young shoots are the nourishment of our senses. And below, the roots go far into the world of men; they are the sequences of actions.

This understanding of the tree's shape--its end and its beginning, and its ground--is not open to the ordinary world. The roots of that pipal tree have spread far. With the strong axe of detachment a man should cut that tree.

Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 15.1-3

No creature, whether born on earth or among the gods in heaven, is free from the conditioning of the three states of matter (gunas).

Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 18.40

The question as to when the union of soul with karma occurred for the first time cannot arise, since this is a beginningless relation like gold and stone.

Jainism. Pancadyayi 2.35-36

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Christianity. 1 John 1.8

Nor do I absolve my own self of blame; the human soul is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do bestow His mercy.

Islam. Qur'an 12.53

All men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written,

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.

Christianity. Romans 3.9-12

Bhagavad Gita 15.1-3: Cf. Suhi, M.5, p. 399, Svetasvatara Upanishad 1.6-8, p. 398; Uttaradhyayana Sutra 3.1-7, p. 315; Udana 77, p. 532. On the 'states of all things' (gunas) see the following note. Bhagavad Gita 18.40: The three gunas or qualities of matter are goodness or purity (sattva), energy or passion (rajas), and darkness or inertia (tamas). Every person contains all three qualities in different proportions, as all light is a mixture of the three primary colors. As forces operating within the world of matter (prakriti), the gunas condition human existence and obscure the way to the Self. Cf. Bhagavad Gita 13.19-22, p. 178. 1 John 1.8: Cf. Mark 10.17-18, p. 655; Jeremiah 17.9, p. 455; also Shinran, pp. 913f. Qur'an 12.53: Cf. Quran 4.28, p. 509. Not even Muhammad, the best of men, regarded himself blameless; cf. Qur'an 17.11, p. 389; Hadith of Muslim, p. 508. On the original uprightness of human nature, see Qur'an 30.30, p. 215. Romans 3.9-12: Paul is quoting from Psalm 14, p. 396. Yet every person still has a measure of conscience and moral sense; see Romans 2.14-16, p. 215. Cf. Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3.19, p. 912.

Surely man was created fretful, when evil visits him, impatient, when good visits him, grudging, save those that pray.

Islam. Qur'an 70.19-22

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Judaism and Christianity. Psalm 51.5

Each of us is destined at birth to bear the legacy of man's first and continuing rebellion against God. That legacy is the tendency to sin. A person sins when he succumbs to the inclination to contravene the divine will by pursuing inordinate desires. It is an inclination that lurks in the hearts of all people whether they believe in God or not, but many are not even aware of it.

Sekai Kyusei Kyo. Mokichi Okada, Johrei

Confucius said, "I for my part have never yet seen one who really cared for Goodness, nor one who really abhorred wickedness. One who really cared for Goodness would never let any other consideration come first. One who abhorred wickedness would be so constantly doing Good that wickedness would never have a chance to get at him. Has anyone ever managed to do Good with his whole might even as long as the space of a single day? I think not. Yet I for my part have never seen anyone give up such an attempt because he had not the strength to go on."

Confucianism. Analects 4.6

Confucius remarked, "There is in the world now really no moral social order at all."

Confucianism. Doctrine of the Mean 5

There is a male monkey in every forest.

African Traditional Religions. Tiv Proverb (Nigeria)

Qur'an 70.19-22: Cf. Qur'an 95.4-6, p. 453. Psalm 51.5: In the tradition of St. Augustine's explanation of original sin, Protestants and Catholics have generally regarded the act of procreation as instrumental in transmitting original sin from one generation to the next. But this does not make the act itself sinful. According to Vatican II, Guadium et Spes, conjugal love is a means of grace in Christian marriage. Johrei: This idea reflects the influence of Christianity on the new religions of Japan. Compare also the Jewish concept of the evil inclination in Kiddushin 30b, p. 390, and Book of Mormon, Mosiah 3.19, p. 912. Analects 4.6: The last sentence means that it is the will, not the way, that is wanting. Cf. Analects 14.2, p. 227. Tiv Proverb: Every community has its troublemaker, bully, or thief.

The slanderers of the true dharma in the latter age of decay are as numerous as the soil of all the worlds in the universe is immeasurable. Those who keep the true dharma are as few in number as a bit of soil on a fingernail.

Buddhism. Mahaparinirvana Sutra

Since beginningless past, all sentient beings and I have been parents and children, brothers and sisters to each other. Being full of greed, hatred, and ignorance, pride, conceit, dishonesty, deception, and all other afflictions, we have therefore harmed each other, plundering, raping, and killing, doing all manner of evil. All sentient beings are like this--because of passions and afflictions they do not respect or honor each other, they do not agree with or obey each other, they do not defer to each other, they do not edify or guide each other, they do not care for each other--they go on killing and injuring each other, being enemies and malefactors to each other. Reflecting on myself as well as other sentient beings, we act shamelessly in the past, future, and present, while the Buddhas of past, future, and present see and know it all.

Buddhism. Garland Sutra 22

How vast is God, The ruler of men below! How arrayed in terrors is God, With many things irregular in his ordinations. Heaven gave birth to the multitudes of the people, But the nature it confers is not to be depended upon. All are good at first, But few prove themselves to be so at the last.

Confucianism. Book of Songs, Ode 255

When men get together to pit their strength in games of skill, they start off in a light and friendly mood, but usually end up in a dark and angry one, and if they go on too long they start resorting to various underhanded tricks. When men meet at some ceremony to drink, they start off in an orderly manner, but usually end up in disorder, and if they go on too long they start indulging in various irregular amusements. It is the same with all things. What starts out being sincere usually ends up being deceitful. What was simple in the beginning acquires monstrous proportions in the end.

Taoism. Chuang Tzu 4

Mahaparinirvana Sutra: Nichiren Buddhists regard the present age as the Mappo, the Age of the Degeneration of the Law, and for this reason the followers of the true Law are persecuted; cf. Lotus Sutra 13, p. 1090. Book of Songs, Ode 255: On being 'good at first,' cf. Mencius IV.B.12, p. 214, and Book of Ritual 38.13, p. 215; cf. Ecclesiastes 7.29, p. 453; Qur'an 95.4-6, p. 453.


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