Gil Fronsdal's re-envisioning of the 4 Noble Truths

A Dhamma friend shared this interesting article by the well-known American insight meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal. I see he’s offering a residential course at Barre Institute for Buddhist Studies later this year and it looks like this paper will be part of the curriculum.

I find the analysis interesting and intriguing but lack the knowledge of Pali and the suttas and their commentaries to even begin to assess the claims and key points here.

Four Liberating Insights.pdf (478.8 KB)

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Thanks @KevinK ! Really interesting article, basically the key claims seem to be that;

  1. the Buddha had 4 liberating insights when he awakened, that of suffering, it’s arising, it’s ceasing, and the way to it’s ceasing.
  2. these where later called the 4 noble truths, but it is unlikely that they where called this originally
  3. the 4 noble truths are not as central doctrinally as many medieval and modern Therevadins claim
  4. samudaya is better translated as “arising” than “origin” or “cause”
  5. therefore craving IS suffering not it’s cause

I have a great deal of sympathy for all these claims, although I feel like they have in fact mostly been made already elsewhere, and Gil does repeat themselves a fair bit, I think the article could have been about half as long and still made all the points they wanted to make.

anyway, thanks again for posting.


To go a bit further than GIl does but in the same vain, the second insight could be read as being that the arising of all and any thing whatever that is conditioned, that is the arising of anything that can only be “conditionally” is suffering, so death is suffering, birth is suffering, being is suffering, consumption is suffering, hunger is suffering, feeling is suffering, sensation is suffering, embodiment is suffering, etc, and the cessation of a conditioned thing is always the cessation of a suffering thing, or a thing subject to suffering.

I find this intriguing because I have come to see that they are the essence of the teachings, and there must be a good reason that medieval and modern Therevadins hold them to be so important. I started with these first sermons and then got maybe one can say a bit offtrack, listening to and practising according to some of the later teachings and commentaries, and are now coming back to where I started. I won’t say that it’s been a waste of time to be distracted; maybe I needed to struggle a bit extra with them because these first suttas are clearer and feel a lot closer to my heart now.

I may say that maybe some of the monks and teachers shy away from them because they are perhaps not inspiring enough. Maybe people want the practice to be more complicated.

I don’t know but remember, in a talk, Ajahn Brahm said something like: I’m not particularly eager to talk so much about suffering, people get bored, I like more to talk about cessation (third noble truth) and bliss.

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I remember once hearing Thanissaro Bhikkhu say that the Suttas define right view in terms of the 4nt, while the later material (I forget whether it was Abidhamma or later commentaries) define right view in terms of the 3 characteristics. In other words, Thanissaro thinks that the 4nt are EARLY and the later material downplays their importance, which seems to be the opposite of what Gil Fronsdal is arguing.


This started to make sense for me, and like to mention another aspect that puzzled me regarding the way Jhana practice is explained by most teachers today. I think it was Ajahn Amaro who said during a dhamma talk that jhana’s were mentioned 1/3, and the four Brahma viharas were mentioned 2/3 in the suttas, but when we come to the later commentaries and teachings it’s the other way around.

This makes me ask myself if the teachings of Buddha have been made over-complicated as times go by, and if so, why?

Another aspect is how breath meditation is to be done, by focusing the breath on a specific part of the body. One would think that if it was supposed to be like that, then the Buddha would surely say so. I mean he couldn’t have forgotten to mention it during 45 years of teachings.


The argument that samudaya is best translated as arising is kind of voided by the fact that the word is listed with various synonyms that do mean cause or origin. For example: “this is the cause (hetu), source (nidana), origin (samudaya), and condition (paccaya) of craving, namely feeling.” (DN15)

If you just read this single line above, then without any much Pali knowledge you can already tell that the translation “arising” doesn’t make sense in this context. Because then it would say “feeling is the arising of craving” which of course is not true, and also not the point. And since this is the same context as the second noble truth (namely Dependent Arising) we can conclude that samudaya there can’t mean “arising” either. The common translation “origin” is much better.

The extended argument seems to be, that when we translate samudaya as arising, the second noble truth would say that “craving is the arising of suffering”. So then craving is the suffering, rather than the cause. However, that goes against the very definitions of suffering that Fronsdal himself quotes, such as Suffering is “the six internal sense bases”. Or “Sickness is suffering”. None of which define suffering as craving.

The argument seems a way to take away from the importance of rebirth, as the second noble truth actually says that the origin of suffering is “the craving that leads to renewed existence” (i.e. rebirth), not just any old craving. (In other words, when you are reborn, you suffer, even if you are enlightened. It doesn’t really matter if you crave or not.)

In addition I would say if somebody argues that the central teachings of the Buddha are generally misunderstood, and have been so since early days, just be skeptical. People have thought about all these things for centuries and the general understanding is indeed that craving is the cause of suffering, not suffering itself. (Of course it is suffering too, but suffering is much broader than that.)


I am not sure that this is an “of course” kind of thing, I think there is a fair bit of support for a reading of that kind, as in the sense formula that says something along the lines of “what one feels, one craves about” that is to say that the arising of an aspect of phenomena is dependant on some other aspect, that is it is a condition of craving something that one has felt something, and the analysis is of the gestalt, and the sort of ‘slicing of nature at the joints’ of the phenomenology is more pragmatic than ontological, so I don’t actually read DO as saying “there are these things called feelings, and they cause these other things called cravings” it is more like there is no coherent sense to the one without the other.

I guess my feeling is that from quite early on there was a tendency to reify concepts in buddhism so that they were identified as sort of real existing ontological categories or real parts of metaphysical machinery that became kind of literalist and frankly a bit weird, I mean the concept of cause in english is clearly not precisely what is meant by any of the terms because it is simply false to say that birth is the cause of death in english, it makes more sense in english to say that birth is a condition for there being death, and it might also be sort of mystical sounding and inspirational to say that birth is the origin of death, but again there would have to be some kind of poetic license there…

I guess in summary I had some sympathy for the article, I do think that the move to make the “4 noble truths” into a kind of foundation for all the EBT material is flawed, and that the causal language is pretty weighted down, at least in english discourse, by Aristotelean concepts that do not necessarily line up well with the EBT material. I have always prefered conditionality to causality as a locus, although of course I think that words a plastic, conventional things that bear very varied and often overlapping relations to “reality” which I think is also quite varied and plastic on my reading of the EBT’s :slight_smile:

Does anyone know the date of this paper? Or if it is/was intended for publication somewhere?

I assume its related to this.

I’ve been reading/skimming the Majjhima Nikaya again recently, and I guess I do see where Gil Fronsdale is coming from, about how “knowledge and vision of the path” is distinct from “knowledge and vision of the practice.” However, it’s worth considering that the latter comes after the former (see MN 24). The Buddha’s first sermon only lead people to stream entry. Also, there is a stock formula used when the Buddha teaches people (usually lay ppl) through stream entry:

step by step, with a talk on giving, ethical conduct, and heaven. He explained the drawbacks of sensual pleasures, so sordid and corrupt, and the benefit of renunciation. And when he knew that [their] mind was ready, pliable, rid of hindrances, joyful, and confident he explained the special teaching of the Buddhas: suffering, its origin, its cessation, and the path. Just as a clean cloth rid of stains would properly absorb dye, in that very seat the stainless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma arose in the them: “Everything that has a beginning has an end.”

It’s found in several places, e.g., AN 8.12. In these instance, it’s clearly the path (magga), not the practice, that the Buddha is talking about.

So I would propose that knowledge of the path is what happens at stream entry, while knowledge of the practice is something that comes later.