Family Group: The First Noble Truth

Meditation: We started with a meditation. First we calmed ourselves, slowing down from the activity before. Listening to the house we were in, and getting quiet enough to hear it creak and gurgle. Things are always changing! Then we suggested a few scenarios that were a little silly but would be dukkha for someone in the group – maybe a bottlecap collection got recycled, or there was a worldwide shortage of flour for baking bread, or the last unicorn just passed away and now they are extinct. These meant something to one person, but then we asked: how does it feel for you if that wasn’t important to you? The things that would be dukkha for us … how are they related to the things we care about and hold to?

We got out the whiteboard and scribbled a few ideas about what Dukkha might be. We were specific that we were trying to think of experiences of dukkha that everyone might have, or we would run out of space on the board! But it’s still important to talk through what everyone thinks of what you come up with, because everyone has a personal experience of dukkha. During our group, someone wanted to put aversion on the list. It is dukkha, but we were asking – is it something everyone experiences? Could someone NOT experience aversion?

In the traditional list, these are things all people are susceptible to: old age, death, getting things we don’t want, not getting things we want, losing the things we like. Sickness made some lists but not others, because actually some people get through life without major illness, but it made our own list as well as getting hurt.

We also talked about how since these things are natural, it doesn’t mean if something bad happens that we did anything wrong. Some parents talked about how when they were growing up there was the idea that if bad things happened, god was upset with them. But for us dukkha will just be a normal part of life, which means we don’t have to try to run from the kinds of pain that are to be expected. We can learn to accept and live with them, which turns the frown of dukkha into a source of connection. We all said something that might be dukkha for us (a business meeting, buying expensive gas at the pump, getting stung by a bee…), and showed how because we had all felt dukkha, we could understand what someone else was going through even if we didn’t have that same experience.

CRAFT:  On the comics page, Laura drew up a simple quick activity, all it takes is a ball of yarn.  You can make yourself a little ball of dukkha.  All tangled in a knot and miserable.  Now, how do you feel towards your little dukkha ball?  Don’t you want to be kind and compassionate to it?

STORY: The Bodhisatta and the four signs

CHARACTERS: Gotama, Channa the Chariot Driver, Old Person, Sick Person, Dead Person, Monk/Narrator

NARRATOR (Monk): This is a story that may or may not have happened – it was told many years after the Buddha passed away. But it has become a popular story nonetheless, and something similar happened in the Bodhisatta Gotama’s life before he left the palace to seek enlightenment.

When Gotama was born, everyone knew he was special. His father had holy men brought to the palace to examine him. Most said either Gotama would rule the world, or would leave it and become fully enlightened. One of the holy men, the oldest and wisest, said there was only one path – Gotama was certain to become a buddha.

His father, though, wanted the prince to rule the world, not shave his head and wander around without any money. So he built three palaces for the hot season, cold season, and rainy season. The prince would spend each season in one of the palaces and the king made sure the prince never saw anything that would upset him – only young, healthy, happy people singing and dancing.

If you’ve ever played games and listened to music all day, you know that eventually you get bored. One day, when Gotama was bored, he decided he would go outside the palace and look around for something new.

GOTAMA: Channa! Let’s go to town! Get the chariot ready!

CHANNA: Yes, Prince. But where are we going in town? The park?

GOTAMA: I’ve already been to the park. Let’s go to the market.

CHANNA: Ummm… you’re father won’t be happy!


NARRATOR: But Channa didn’t say anything. All the palace staff knew they weren’t supposed to let the prince see things that would make him want to leave the world. If they got sick they were supposed to stay home, and when they got old they had to work somewhere else. And if someone died, the prince was told they had been ‘promoted’ and sent away.

But Channa did as he was asked and the two of them rode the chariot into town. As they approached the market, they saw an old person with a cane on the side of the road.

GOTAMA: Channa – stop! What is that?! That person is all twisted out of shape. They are bent over so far they need a stick to keep them standing. And their hair is falling out!

OLD PERSON: What’s that son? I can hear you, you know! My sight might be gone, but my ears still work. It’s not nice to make fun of old people.

CHANNA: Prince, that person is old. They have lived a long life.

GOTAMA: Wait wait wait – old?! People get old? You mean they stop getting stronger and healthier the longer they live?

CHANNA: Yes, prince. Children grow up and get stronger, but once they are adults they will eventually go gray and waste away like this person here.


NARRATOR: Gotama was deeply upset by this. How could he enjoy being young and strong if he knew someday he was going to be weak and old? He told Channa to keep driving, but it wasn’t long before he saw something else – a person who usually worked at the palace. They were sitting in a corner coughing and sick.

SICK PERSON: <cough cough> All hail Prince <cough> Gotama!

GOTAMA: You there – what is going on?

SICK PERSON: Oh Prince, don’t get too close. I have a disease in my lungs. <cough> I’m very sick and can’t work.

GOTAMA: But you were at the palace – you were healthy just the other day!

SICK PERSON: Yes, prince. But bodies can get sick at any time, and when they do we become weak and can’t take care of ourselves, much less others. We need to be looked after until we recover – if we do.

GOTAMA: What do you mean, IF?

CHANNA: Okay! Time to go! Get well soon! Bye~~~~!

NARRATOR: Now Gotama was really upset. He was usually so healthy, but at any time he could get sick? This was terrible. Once when he was young he had a headache and a runny nose, but everyone had told him it was a lucky sign that his brain was growing very big and smart. Now he knew the truth, he had been sick.

They started driving but just around the corner there was a parade of people walking and crying.

CHANNA: Oh no…

GOTAMA: What is going on? Why are they crying?

The parade was a funeral procession – the family was carrying someone who had died on a wooden stretcher. They were taking the body to where it would be cremated.


GOTAMA: Stop! Everyone stop! Hey, you there on the stretcher! I know you! Is this the job you got promoted to? Why are you sleeping during this parade?

CHANNA: Uh Prince ….

GOTAMA: Answer me! Wake up!


NARRATOR: Everyone looked at the prince very sadly.

CHANNA: Prince, they weren’t promoted. This person was bit by a poisonous snake. They are dead. They will never get up again.

GOTAMA: Dead? What does that mean?

CHANNA: All people die, prince. Our bodies wear out, or they get sick, or hurt, and eventually they stop. Nobody lives forever. And when we die we can no longer talk, or act, or eat, or dance. Our body stops working and we lose everything we have.

GOTAMA: All people die?

CHANNA: Yes Prince, everyone. All animals and plants too. Everything dies.

GOTAMA: Ahh! You mean I’m going to die some day?! Why didn’t someone tell me – I’ve just been partying all the time! This is terrible!

NARRATOR: With this GOTAMA ran off away from the chariot and the crowd. He ran down one street and then the next. Eventually he stopped and sat down to think. When he did, he noticed someone sitting nearby meditating. The person was wearing a simple robe and had a bowl next to them.

GOTAMA: Excuse me – are you sick too? Do your eyes hurt? Or are you dead?

MONK: Hmm? Oh, hello Prince Gotama. No, I am well, thank you.

GOTAMA: What were you doing just now?

MONK: I was meditating. I have given up the pursuit of worldly pleasure to find peace within.

GOTAMA: What do you mean peace?

MONK: Prince, you have many things that please you. Fine food, fine music, fine palaces. But if you are old or sick or dead you cannot enjoy them. These things can grow old and die, and the pleasure from them grows old and dies. All things in this world grow old and die someday. We lose everything we love. So I am seeking that which never dies- the Deathless. I have left the flow of the world. If I can be at peace with the changing nature of the world, I will always be happy. That happiness will never die.

NARRATOR: Gotama thought about this long and hard. Living in the palace he was very busy and always surrounded by people. But he had not found permanent happiness. It had all been temporary, and no matter how good it was he would lose it someday. It made him want to leave the world too, and find the deathless. He had many questions for the monk about how to find happiness, so he vowed to come back and ask.

GOTAMA: You know, I think being a monk is a good thing!

NARRATOR: And so just like the wisest holy man had said, Gotama ended up leaving the palace to become a Buddha. But that’s another story entirely!

Introduction to the Four Noble Truths

The family group has collectively decided to take a look at one of the quintessential buddhist teachings: the Four Noble Truths. This is not an easy topic to cover, and even those who have devoted their whole lives to buddhist practice have not exhausted their exploration of the topic. But at its core the Four Noble Truths are not just philosophy – they deal with the very nature of truth and reveal to us things and processes happening in everyday life. So that’s where we started, by looking at What is Truth?

It’s not enough to say that these four things are truths. There are thousands of things in the world claiming to be truth. And many of them have an aspect of truth to them. But to really appreciate what the Buddha pointed out, we have to distinguish between things that are true sometimes or in certain situations, and things that are universally true – true all the time to all people.

ACTIVITY: To begin we did an activity where everyone closed their eyes and held out their hands, and one person gave each a different object. A watering can, a lighter, a pair of scissors, a measuring tape, a timer, etc. They got to feel the object but couldn’t look at it. Then they put the object down behind them and everyone opened their eyes. The rest of the group could see their object but they couldn’t, and they had to describe it. Most were able to figure out what their object was, but some couldn’t because they had never experienced anything like it.

What we all really wanted was to know what the object was. That’s called Perception, or having a label and story for an object. But if we aren’t able to get that, then we have to just feel it and describe it’s characteristics – it’s long, it’s stringy, it’s cold to the touch, it seems to have something inside … this is like many things in life. If we have only partial information, we can only partially understand something.

A great story to help illustrate this is the timeless fable from ancient india:

The Blind Men and the Elephant

We asked the group – can you describe an elephant? Some statements about elephants are only kinda true – elephants are big, elephants eat plants, elephants are grey. All of these statements fit some elephants, but a baby elephant is small and drinks milk, whereas an albino elephant is all white. So to best describe something, with the most truth, we can’t just say what something IS based on what we are used to. The truest statements deal with patterns and cycles. Elephants are small when they are young and get bigger, and they CAN be the biggest land mammals. They nurse milk but as they grow will eat grass and leaves. They can be a variety of colors but they have skin and hair – never scales or feathers! They are warm blooded and breathe air.

We looked at the members of the group. They were all different ages. We could say certain things about someone, but certain other things we couldn’t say. We could say that the little ones would grow up, and the middle aged ones would grow old, and even that the little ones would grow old. But the old ones wouldn’t grow young. We could say the ones with dark hair might go grey, but not that the ones who were bald or with grey hair would start growing dark hair again. If we described someone now, that definition might not fit in a few years. But we COULD describe what would normally happen, and aging moves in one direction. With some statements we could describe everyone in the room even though they were all very different.

The Buddha was a prince who became deeply unhappy when he learned about aging, sickness, and death. How could no one have told him about this?! So he went off in search of why he was unhappy, and how he could get a happiness that he wouldn’t eventually lose. The four truths he found about the nature and cause of unhappiness and how to be free of it are the Four Noble Truths that we will start looking at: starting with the truth of nature. Next week we will look at Dukkha, or the nature of unhappiness for all people.

Family Group Resources

Tahn Pamutto has at last collected all the various resources gathered by the family group over the last year under one heading.  There is surprisingly little material out on the web around forming family dharma groups, so if you know anyone doing or interested in starting, pass them the link.  It can be found on it’s own page here:

Family Group Resources

Family Group: Dānā Paramī

This week the Santigama family group got back together after a long summer hiatus, and we finished our look at the Ten Paramī’s with the final paramī of Dānā, or Generosity.

We started with a Meditation: Imagine a friend or family member. Now imagine that they need something. This could be that they or hungry or thirsty, or need something for a project, or want something really badly. Imagine you have one of those things. Now picture what it would be like to give your thing to that person. How do you feel, Light? Empty or Full? How does it feel seeing them happy with their new thing?

Dana is a very important paramī and is talked about a lot in not just buddhism but most religions. Dānā means ‘Giving’, or the spirit of giving, which we call Generosity.

We asked:  Why is Dānā important? Think of a few reasons: (hint: true dhamma is universal)

(1. Everybody can do it

2. It can be done at any time

3. It brings happiness to giver, receiver, and others who know about it

4. It counteracts Greed and Clinging which are unpleasant)

We asked:  How is Giving different from things like Sharing, Buying, Selling, Trading and Lending?

(With generosity, we aren’t expecting anything in return.)

There are many ways to give. The Buddha pointed to four important ways. Let’s act them out.

1. Giving a physical thing

2. Doing a service

3. Teaching a skill

4. Practicing and Developing good qualities in ourselves

These are actually in order from least to most beneficial.  While we were acting them out, the question came up:  why is developing a quality, like mettā or generosity, different and better from giving a gift or doing a service?  What we came up with is that when we give a gift or a do service it helps in that moment.  Teaching allows the person to take care of themselves, but they can also then teach and help others.  But all of these things begin in the mind.  So by cultivating the qualities of mind that lead to these wholesome actions, we are planting the seed of maybe many many more wholesome actions to come in the future.  So cultivation, while it might not always involve immediately doing or saying something skillful, in the end leads to the most benefit.

Generosity Game: Buy, Sell, Trade, Give

In this game there are two tokens, black and red. Red represents ‘Apples’ and Black represents ‘Happiness Tokens’. Each player starts with Two Happiness and One Apple.

You start and end each turn by rolling a six sided die. At the beginning, this decides who gets an apple. At the end of a turn, the roll decides who gets hungry and eats (loses) an apple. If a player needs to eat an apple and doesn’t have one, a player can ‘save’ them with one of their apples, otherwise they are out.

Die values 1 and 2 – Everyone

3 – Odd Players

4 – Even Players

5 – First and Last players

6 – No one

In the middle of the turn, players decide what to do. They can buy an apple for two Happiness. They can offer to trade another player one happiness for their apple. They can do nothing. Or they can ‘Give’ an apple. If they give, the giver gets two happiness and the receiver gets one happiness.

Play as long as you can or want!

<After a number of rounds you may start to see the patterns that emerge.  Someone focusing on having and buying apples will quickly run out of happiness tokens, while someone continually giving will have lots of happiness but no apples.  Which is better in the end?  The economist will discern that the highest benefit to the system comes from giving – three happiness is created, even if the giver doesn’t get them all.  So the most successful game will be one where everyone gives without fear of running out.  That’s actually the best form of security!>

STORY: Prince Vessantara

CHARACTERS: Narrator, Vessantara, King, Jajaka, Madri

This is one of the most famous and loved birth stories of the Buddha. At this time, the Bodhisatta had mastered nine of the paramī’s – he only had one more left! It was Generosity, which is absolutely essential for a Buddha because to teach the Dhamma well one has to give it away freely.

The Bodhisatta was very good at Dānā, but hadn’t mastered it. This might be because he had such great Wisdom. When we give we wisdom, we give in a balanced way. We see what is helpful, and know that sometimes giving too much can harm ourselves. But to master Dānā paramī, one has to be willing to give anything! So the Bodhisatta made a strong Determination (Adhitthana):

Bodhisatta: In my next life, if anyone ever asks me for something, I will definitely give it!

As it happened, the Bodhisatta was born as a prince in the kingdom of Sīvī. His mother had done many good acts and so the kingdom was wealthy. It also had a special pure-white elephant that brought good luck and protected the land from drought by bringing rain.

As Vessantara grew up everyone came to know that he was super generous. He would give anything and supported people throughout the kingdom. His mother and father supported him with their wealth and were very happy. When Vessantara was an adult, his father made him king and retired. Vessantara got married to Madri and had two children, a boy and girl. He was a good and kind ruler, practicing Sīla and taking care of everyone in need.

At this time the neighboring kingdom of Kalinga had a severe drought. They sent a messenger to Vessantara. This messenger asked for the lucky white elephant to save Kalinga. Vessantara felt so much Compassion for them.

VESSANTARA: It sounds like you are in great need! Of course, you may have the white elephant.

But when the people of his kingdom found out he had given away the elephant they were very upset. They went to the former king and told him that his son was going to ruin the kingdom. Sadly, the king came to Vessantara and said:

KING: Son, your habit of giving has gone too far. I must take back the crown.

VESSANTARA: There is no need to take it father. I will give it willingly. Here.

So Vessantara gave power back to his father and agreed to leave the kingdom. Madri and their children lovingly came with him. They went to the country of Kalinga. The ruler there wanted to offer his palace to Vessantara for giving them the elephant, but Vessantara was practicing Renunciation, and said they would be happy to stay in the forest. So they all built a little hut and lived so happily in the forest.

At this time Vessentara was feeling very good because he had always given and never held anything back. But while they were staying in the forest, caring for each other with so much Mettā, they attracted the attention of a greedy merchant named Jajaka. One day when Madri was out picking fruit, Jajaka approached the hut and said to Vessentara:

JAJAKA: Oh great hermit, what a lovely family you have! I watched you and realized what I really need in my life is loving people to look after me like your family does. Please, give me your two children to care for me.

It turns out Vessentara was most of all attached to his family. This was very hard to do! But he decided to kneel down and use Sacca Paramī to tell them the Truth.

VESSANTARA: I love you very much, but I want to become a fully enlightened Buddha. I know this will be very hard for you. Will you agree to this and help me develop my Generosity? Will you help me someday become a Buddha?

Out of love for their father the two children agreed. But Jajaka was really lying. He wanted to sell the two children as slaves and what luck – he didn’t even have to capture or buy them! He tied their hands with ropes and led them away, pulling roughly. Seeing this Vessantara was tempted to go and stop him, but he practiced Khanti, or Patience, to work through his anger.

Jajaka took the children to Sivi to sell them. There the King and Queen recognized their grandchildren right away.

KING: You there, name your price! We will pay anything to get these children back!

JAJAKA: Not cheap, these two! Let’s make a deal!

Jajaka got all his wealth, but in the end it didn’t help him – his very first meal in his new mansion he overate and choked!

Back at the hut, Madri returned from the forest to find her children missing. Vessantara told her the truth – he gave away their children.


But Madri knew how important enlightenment was to the Bodhisatta, so she forgave him.

Watching this up in the clouds, the King of Deva’s, Sakka, saw that Vessantara had one more very strong attachment. He disguised himself to look just like Jajaka and came down to the hut.

JAJAKA (Sakka): Oh great hermit! What a lovely wife you have! I came back because I realized I absolutely must have her! Please, give her to me!

This was so hard that Vessantara had tears in his eyes, but he used all his Energy (Viriya) to say:

VESSANTARA: Friend, since you asked, I will give. You may have Madri.

MADRI: Ahh! My husband is crazy!

Madri cried and was upset, but she also loved and trusted Vessantara so she gave him a hug and said goodbye. She chose to go. Sakka, disguised as Jajaka, led her away.

That night Vessantara sat in his empty hut. He was very sad that his beloved family was gone, but he also felt mysteriously happy. He felt light. After all, he had given without holding anything back. He loved his family more than anything in the world, and yet he was able to give even them away. That meant if someone came to ask him for anything at all from that point on, it would be easy to give. He had done it, he had perfected Geneosity. With this he felt so much joy!

Just then there was a loud noise outside. The King and the Army of Sivi approached, led by Vessantara’s two children. With them they brought the King of Kalinga. Kalinga had recovered from the drought thanks to the elephant and gave it back – now both kingdoms prospered and Sivi wanted their prince back!

Sakka arrived in all his glory bringing Madri, and then scooped everyone up with his powers and put them in Sivi, where there was a great festival. Special red-colored rain fell like rubies, and when he was on the ground it turned into gems. The kingdom was wealthy and every lived happily for the rest of their days.

When the Bodhisatta passed away, he was reborn in the highest Heaven. He waited until the time was right, then he was born in India as Gotama to the clan called the Sakyans. He had reached his final life – he would become a Buddha! Each Buddha is unique, and Gotama was known by his very deep love of family. He still had to practice Renunciation and leave his family to become enlightened. But when he reached the goal, he returned and taught dhamma to all his kingdom, family and friends, and so many became enlightened too. For this, we know our Buddha as ‘Shakyamuni’, or ‘The Great Sage of the Sakyans’.