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The Four Noble Truths

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Setting the wheel of the dharma in motion. Japanese Peace Temple – Pokhara, Nepal

<Buddhism – Contents>

The Four Noble Truths

 

1. The Noble Truth of Suffering

2. The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering

3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

4. The Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering

 

The four truths were presented in the Buddha’s first discourse, in the Deer Park at Sarnath, near Varanasi or Benares in North India. This first discourse was given to five skeptical ascetics, with whom Gautama had practiced before reaching nirvāṇa. The event is known as the Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma[1]. The ascetics all recognized the greatness, purity and truthfulness of the Buddha and his teachings, and became the Buddha’s first followers, thus forming the Saṅgha – the community of monks or followers of the spiritual teacher. They abandoned extreme ascetism as a means to reach liberation, and established the Middle Way[2] between a life of worldliness induced by following the impulses of the senses and extreme ascetism.

 

The Buddha preached there and said that:

“both I and you have had to travel and trudge through this long cycle of existence and continuous rebirths is owing to our not discovering, and not penetrating into four essential truths. Which are these four truths?:

They are: The Noble Truth of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering, The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering, and the Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering.”

 

1. The Noble Truth of Suffering

Duḥkha or dukkha is the mostly translated as ‘suffering.’ Sometimes this first noble truth has been translated or understood as: ‘All sentient beings are suffering,’ ‘all life is suffering,’ ‘all existence is suffering.’ This has given rise to a pessimistic view, so that one might conclude: there is no joy in life, there is no happiness; if I feel happy it is not real, only suffering is real, even the greatest joy is a form of suffering. Such an interpretation naturally leads to depression – the opposite of what Buddha wanted to bring to the people.

What the Buddha wanted to make clear is first that all moods and situations of living beings are suffering as compared to what real life could be. Seen through the eyes of someone who is no longer bound by attachments to physical objects, psychological needs and mental concepts, but sees thing clearly as they are, unbiased, unprejudiced, without roundabout theories because the condition of his mind has become naturally tranquil, happy and clear, the world with all its problems is a pool of misery.

The word duḥkha itself means many things, like unsteady, difficult, painful, giving rise to affliction, unsatisfactory, uncomfortable, and is therefore also associated with feeling like ‘bad’ or ‘inferior.’ If we translate the First Noble Truth as:

All is unsteady, all is difficult, all in life is giving rise to affliction, is uncomfortable, etc.

– then this includes normal human happiness and joy. Happiness is happy feeling in its own right, but is only temporary because the nature of all existence is unsteadiness, continuous change. When we are enjoying, inside we know already that after some time it will be over, and many times we will experience misery.

“This is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; not to get what one wants is dukkha; in brief, the five aggregates[3] subject to clinging are dukkha.”

 

2. The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering

‘Origin’ is Samudaya in Sanskṛt and Pāli.  Samudaya literally means[4]:  coming together, union, junction, combination, collection, assemblage, multitude, aggregation, aggregate, to collect or assemble.

The fact that things or elements aggregate and disaggregate, associate and disassociate, is the cause for unsteadiness and lack of clarity of mind, for not seeing the oneness and unity, not seeing the ultimate essence of and cause for existence itself. This is the origin of all mundane misery in all times and in all beings: the repeated rejoining and falling apart of the elements of our being – while these elements themselves have no existence on their own right: they only exist in relation to the cosmic mind of which our mind is a part, but not in ultimate reality which is beyond (can not be understood or caught by) the divisive character of Mind.

We continuously lay causes for this instability by jumping from one idea to another, but never seeing the universal origin of the idea. Therefore we seek (due to our impatience) temporary mental, psychological and physical satisfaction as substitute for abiding calmly with the real lucid natural state of the mind.

So this suffering has a general cause and every specific form of suffering has its own cause. This is the law of karma – cause  and effect – by which existence universally works.

The Second Noble Truth, once one understands the first, is therefore: there is a cause and origin for this continuous unsteadiness, ignorance and doubt in which we find ourselves.

To lay these causes and thus to remain in this unpleasant situation is not necessary. The origin from which it all comes can be taken away. This fact then, is the Third Noble Truth.

Then the next question is: “How?”

The answer is the Fourth Noble Truth: that there is a way to escape from the cycle, the treadmill of unsatisfactoriness, which is the cycle of reembodiment or reincarnation. And this way is known as the Noble Eightfold Path.[5]

“This is the noble truth of the origin of dukkha: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.”

 

3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

Cessation is Nirodha in Sanskṛt and Pāli.

Literally[6] Nirodha means confinement, locking up, imprisonment, enclosing, covering up; restraint, check, control, suppression, destruction, suppression or annihilation of pain. However as the Third Noble Truth, suppression or covering up or imprisonment of the causes of suffering is not the aim. It is about complete destruction and irreversible annihilation of the causes of misery. Nirodha refers to the absence or extinction of a given entity.

That means, extinction or annihilation of the illusion which causes an entity or thing to appear for our consciousness as it not really is – as a separate and independent object. Of course, when we reach nirvāṇa[7] we do not kill or harm or hurt any conscious entity literally – on the contrary, our very being radiates calmness and wisdom. It does not mean ‘killing’ or ‘annihilating’ or ‘destroying’ any living being or thing. Non-killing and non-violence itself are prerequisites for going the eightfold path. It means the destruction of illusions – which naturally have no existence in real truth of course.

Nirodha refers specifically to the cessation of suffering and its causes. therefore it is commonly used as a synonym for nirvāṇa, which means literally ‘blown out,’ the destruction of all illusions. 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 not (again) arising.” Once we have developed a genuine understanding of the causes of suffering, we can completely eradicate these causes and thus be free from suffering.

As the main causes of suffering and the continuation of the cycle of compulsory reincarnation are often mentioned ignorance[8] and craving[9]

These are however two links in the chain of cause and effect, called the twelve nidānas.

“This is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: it is the complete fading away and cessation of that same craving without remainder, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

It may seem, for some, that this means the extinction of the excitement of life, the fun of life itself, to end up in eternally boredom. This, of course, was not the purpose of the Buddha. It would be replacing one form of suffering by another. But excitement, psychologically, mentally as well as physically excitement is often an expression of despair and false hope, which leads to temporary intenseness of satisfaction, sooner or later to be followed by frustration, because that which one was excited about ultimately proves to be but an illusion. This has been everyone’s personal experience in life. But when one follows the path, illusions go, and  when illusions are gone, suffering is gone, but true life only begins, and there is no limit to its richness.

 

4. The Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Suffering[10]

“This is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of dukkha: it is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness (smṛti) and right concentration (samādhi).”

“In the same way I saw an ancient path, an ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road, traveled by the Rightly Self-awakened Ones of former times? Just this noble eightfold path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration… I followed that path. Following it, I came to direct knowledge of aging and death, direct knowledge of the origination of aging and death, direct knowledge of the cessation of aging and death, direct knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of aging and death… Knowing that directly, I have revealed it to monks, nuns, male lay followers and female lay followers…”

Nagara Sutta

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a path of commandments or prohibitions. There is no compulsion nor punishment. Of course one should stop all bad habits as far as one can. But ‘good’ things one really likes do not have to be given up. They are the guidelines and impulses for our individual life. But after some inner growth many ‘likes’ become illusions or even ‘dislikes.’ One’s wisdom has grown. Thus the path strengthens itself. The eightfold path is rather the good advice of a wise friend. Following it, even only slightly and in a beginning way, it immediately increases inner well being. Naturally one will develop the taste for it. Gradually it may become more difficult, but equally courage and insight increase. Perfection is difficult to reach in one day. Failure in some aspect means new strength and is never forever, and possible gloom and guilt feelings are only temporary.

The eight steps of the path are not to be understood as a sequence, in which each step is completely taken before moving on to the next. Rather, the steps operate in dependence on one another; taken together, they define a complete path, or way of living. The symbol always used for the Noble Eightfold Path is always a wheel with eight spokes, never a path from one place to another.

The path was taught by the Buddha to his disciples so that they, too, could follow it.

See for more explanation the article The Noble Eightfold Path on this website.

It may seem, for some, that this means the extinction of the excitement of life, the fun of life itself, to end up in eternally boredom. This, of course, was not the purpose of the Buddha. It would be replacing one form of suffering by another. But excitement, psychologically, mentally as well as physically excitement is often an expression of despair and false hope, which leads to temporary intenseness of satisfaction, sooner or later to be followed by frustration, because that which one was excited about ultimately proves to be but an illusion. This has been everyone’s personal experience in life. But when one follows the path, illusions go, and  when illusions are gone, suffering is gone, but true life only begins, and there is no limit to its richness.

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<Buddhism – Contents>

  1. in Pāli: Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Saṁyuta Nikāya 56.11); in Sanskrit: Dharmacakra Pravartana Sūtra [<<]
  2. Pali: majjhimā paṭipadā; Sanskrit: madhyāmā-pratipad [<<]
  3. see the article Skandhas and Gatis on this website NOT YET PUBLISHED [<<]
  4. according to Monier Monier-Williams: Sanskrit-English Dictionary [<<]
  5. Sanskṛt: āryāṣṭāṅgamārga [<<]
  6. according to Monier Monier-Williams: Sanskt-English Dictionary [<<]
  7. nirvāṇa is often called mokṣa –liberation – in the Hindu and Jain tradition [<<]
  8. avijja in Pāli, avidyā in Sanskrit [<<]
  9. Taṇhā in Pāli; Tṛṣṇā in Sanskrit – literally ‘thirst.’ It is 1) craving for sense-pleasures (kāma-taṇḥā) for sense objects which provide pleasant feelings or craving for sensory pleasures; 2) craving to be something (bhava-taṇhā), to unite with an experience. This includes craving to be solid and continuously existing, to be a being that has a past and a future; 3) craving to prevail and dominate over others; and 4) Craving not to be (vibhava-taṇhā). This is craving to not experience the world, and to be nothing; a wish to be separated from painful feelings [<<]
  10. See: The Noble Eightfold Path [<<]