4 Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are taught in Buddhism as the fundamental insight that led to the enlightenment of Sakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha), and are the most basic expression of the Buddha's teachings.   

“They encompass the entire Dharma, just as the footprint of an elephant can encompass the footprints of all other footed beings on earth.”  

A Brief Overview

  1. There is Dukkha (suffering/stress/dissatisfaction) in life for all beings.
  2. There is a cause of Dukkha, which is attachment and craving (tanha).
  3. There is a way out of Dukkha, which is the cessation of attachment and desire.
  4. There is a path of practice that leads out of Dukkha, called the Noble Eightfold Path.

This formula is exactly that used by doctors of the Buddha's culture when diagnosing and prescribing for a disease: identify the disease, its cause, whether it is curable, and the prescribed cure. Thus the Buddha treats suffering as a "disease" we can confidently expect to cure.

To eliminate dukkha completely one has to eliminate the main root of dukkha, which is craving or ‘thirst’ (tanhā), as we saw earlier.

Truths With a Purpose

Whenever the Buddha would discuss the 4 Noble Truths he would highlight some duties associated with each one, this demonstrates that the Truths are more than simple blanket statements about the human condition that the Buddha shared 2,500 years ago, they are as mentioned above a prescription for overcoming suffering, meaning the truths are something we do.

The duties of the truths are as follows:

1. Dukkha is to be comprehended - Instead of turning away from discomfort we look directly at our suffering to understand it better, only then can we truly identify its causes; the cravings, perceptions, beliefs, tensions, and habits that we hold on to.

2. Craving is to be abandoned -  When we identify these cravings we then work towards abandoning them, through seeing them for what they are.. a cause of suffering, relaxing our grip on them, letting them go even if only momentarily.  

3. Cessation is to be realized - We make a habit of noticing when our suffering and craving lessen, paying special attention to what we were doing/focusing on just before this lessening. In this way we become more familiar not only with how a momentary absence of craving feels but also what we did to make it fade away.

4 The Path is to be developed - We continually work towards applying the Eightfold Path into the various areas of our lives, working towards lessening our suffering and being a benefit to both ourselves and those around us.  


An Exploration of The Truths

1. There is Dukkha in life for all beings:

Dukkha: usually translated as ‘suffering’ actually has a much broader meaning , it refers not only to intense unpleasant emotions but also the more subtle levels of dissatisfaction and stress that we experience on a daily basis

To live means to encounter suffering, because human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in. During our lifetime, we inevitably have to endure physical suffering such as pain, sickness, injury, tiredness, old age, and eventually death; and we have to endure psychological suffering like sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, and depression. Although there are different degrees of suffering and there are also positive experiences in life that we perceive as the opposite of suffering, such as ease, comfort and happiness, even in these positive experiences their can often be a lingering element of dissatisfaction, thinking something like “this is nice, but it could be even better if…”

life in its totality is imperfect and incomplete, because our world is subject to impermanence. This means we are never able to keep permanently what we strive for, and just as happy moments pass by, we ourselves and our loved ones will pass away one day, too. 

2. The Origin of Dukkha is Attachment:

The origin of suffering is craving for and attachment to transient things and the ignorance of their impermanent nature. Transient things do not only include the physical objects that surround us, but also ideas, and -in a greater sense- all objects of our perception. Ignorance is the lack of understanding of how our mind is attached to impermanent things. 

Objects of attachment also include the idea of a fixed or permanent "self" which is a delusion, because there is no abiding self, we are in constant flux and change. Our sense of the “self” a year ago may be completely different from our view of the “self” now, when we define ourselves we limit ourselves, if we can let go of our view of self and thereby free up all the energy we waste maintaining it, life can become much simpler.

The reasons for suffering are many: desire, passion, aversion, pursuit of wealth and prestige, striving for fame and popularity, but ultimately they come down to craving and clinging. 

Craving comes from the word ‘tanhā’ which means “thirst” or “hunger”, while Clinging ‘Upādāna’ means “to feed on” 

In other words, because we have this hunger inside we venture outside to find a way to satisfy it, when we have found something appealing we try to feed on it, meaning we place our happiness in its hands. Unfortunately since the objects of our attachment are transient, their loss is inevitable, thus suffering will necessarily follow. So instead of searching for happiness outside we learn to generate it from within through the practice of virtue, generosity, and meditation

3. The Cessation of Dukkha is Possible:

In the context of the four noble truths, cessation refers to the cessation of suffering and the causes of suffering. It is "the cessation of all the unsatisfactory experiences and their causes in such a way that they can no longer occur again. It’s the removal, the final absence, the cessation of those things, their non-arising." 

According to the Buddhist point of view, once we have developed a genuine understanding of the causes of suffering, such as craving and ignorance then we can completely eradicate these causes and thus be free from suffering. The third noble truth expresses the idea that suffering can be ended by giving rise to dispassion thereby extinguishing all forms of craving and attachment. This means that suffering can be overcome through human effort, simply by removing the cause of suffering.

Disenchantment/Dispassion: Seeing the dangers and contemplating the drawbacks of giving over our power to the pursuit of cravings which are dependent on the outside world and can never be satisfied, one grows disenchanted with them, giving rise to an internal source of happiness one grows dispassionate, naturally turning away from the objects of craving because they no longer feel any draw to them.

Giving rise to and cultivating dispassion is a process of many levels that ultimately results in Nirvana or Enlightenment. 

Nirvāṇa is a central concept in Buddhist thought, it is the state of being free from suffering. The word literally means "to extinguish"—referring in the Buddhist context, to the blowing out of the fires of greed, anger, and ignorance.

4. The Path to The Cessation of Suffering.

There is a path to the end of suffering, a gradual path of self-improvement, in other words The Eightfold Path - right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. 

It is the middle way between the two extremes of excessive self-indulgence and excessive self-deprivation; and it leads to the end of the cycle of Suffering and Rebirth. Craving, ignorance, delusions, and its effects will disappear gradually, as progress is made on the path.

More about the Eightfold Path