THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
"I teach about suffering and the way to end
The teachings on the four noble truths are among
the very first of many teachings that Shakyamuni Buddha gave in
Sarnath (near Benares or Varanasi in North-East India), seven weeks
after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya. These teachings
are known to contain the essence of the Buddhist path, regardless
of the tradition one follows.
1. THIS IS SUFFERING
According to the Buddha, whatever life we lead,
it has the nature of some aspect of suffering. Even if we consider
ourselves happy for a while, this happiness is transitory by nature.
This mean that at best, we can only find temporary happiness
and pleasure in life.
Suffering (or unsatisfactoriness) can be distinguished
in three types:
1. Suffering of suffering: this refers to the most obvious
aspects like pain, fear and mental distress.
2. Suffering of change: refers to the problems that change
brings, like joy disappears, nothing stays, decay and death.
3. All-pervasive suffering: this is the most difficult to
understand aspect, it refers to the fact that we always have the
potential to suffer or can get into problematic situations. Even
death is not a solution in Buddhist philosophy, as we will simply
find ourselves being reborn in a different body, which will also
To illustrate this with the words of the 7th Dalai Lama (from 'Songs
of spiritual change' translated by Glenn Mullin:
"Hundreds of stupid flies gather
On a piece of rotten meat,
Enjoying, they think, a delicious feast.
This image fits with the song
Of the myriads of foolish living beings
Who seek happiness in superficial pleasures;
In countless ways they try,
Yet I have never seen them satisfied."
Note that "suffering" is an inadequate translation
of the word "Dukkha", but it is the one most commonly
found, lacking a better word in English. "Dukkha" means "intolerable",
"unsustainable", "difficult to endure", and can also mean "imperfect",
"unsatisfying", or "incapable of providing perfect happiness". Interestingly
enough, some people actually translate it as "stress".
"Suffering is a big word in Buddhist thought. It is a key
term and it should be thoroughly understood. The Pali word is
dukkha, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means
that deep subtle sense of unsatisfactoriness which is a part of
every mind moment and which results directly from the mental treadmill.
The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance
this seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue.
After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren't
there. No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment
when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under
the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent
of tension, that no matter how great this moment is, it is going
to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going
to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what
you have got and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you
are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory."
Henepola Gunaratana, from 'Mindfulness
in Plain English'.
2. THE CAUSES OF SUFFERING
The reason that we experience suffering comes ultimately
from our mind. According to Buddhism, our main mental problems or
root delusions are: attachment,
anger and ignorance.
Because of these delusions, we engage in actions that cause problems
to ourselves and others. With every negative action (karma) we do,
we create a potential for negative experiences. (See also the page
How can attachment bring us suffering?
We just have to think of chocolate and there is the temptation of
eating more than is good for us. Or as example, my favourite story:
the way people used to catch monkeys in South India:
One takes a coconut and makes a hole in it, just large enough
that a monkey can squeeze its hand in. Next, tie the coconut down,
and put a sweet inside. What happens next is pure attachment.
The monkey smells the sweet, puts his hand into the coconut, grabs
the sweet and ... the hole is too small to let a fist out of the
coconut. The last thing a monkey would consider is to let go of
the sweet, so it is literally tied down by its own attachment.
Often they only let go when they fall asleep or become unconscious
because of exhaustion.
Ultimately, the Buddha explains that our attachment
to life keeps us in cyclic existence or samsara, which does not
bring us continuous happiness.
How can anger bring us suffering?
As will be explained in the page on karma, all of our actions have
consequences. Doing harm to others will return to us as being harmed.
Anger is one of the main reasons we create harm to others, so logically
it is often the cause of suffering to ourselves.
How can ignorance bring us suffering?
This is explained in two ways:
- The conventional explanation is that because
we are not omniscient, we regularly get ourselves into trouble.
We do not realise all the consequences of our actions, we do not
understand other beings and we do not understand why the world
is exactly the way it is. So we often end up in situations where
we do not take the best actions. Just reflect for a moment how
often we think: "If only I had known this earlier..."
- The more complicated explanation refers to
the most profound aspect of Buddhist philosophy: ultimate truth
or emptiness. This is a vast subject, and also after reading
the page on wisdom it is still
unlikely that it will be completely clear; it takes years of study
and meditation to realise the insight into the wisdom of emptiness.
To put it very simple: reality is not what it seems to us. As
reality is different from our opinions about it, we get ourselves
into trouble. As long as we fail to realise the ultimate truth,
we will be stuck in cyclic existence. While being in cyclic existence,
we will always experience some aspect of suffering (which is at
least having the potential for future suffering).
^Top of Page
3. SUFFERING CAN END,
NIRVANA IS PEACE
This is the most positive message of Buddhism:
although suffering is always present in cyclic existence, we can
end this cycle of problems and pain, and enter Nirvana, which
is a state beyond all suffering.
The reasoning behind this Third Noble Truth is the fact that suffering
and the causes of suffering are dependent on the state of our own
mind, so if we can change our own mind, we can also eliminate suffering.
The reasons we do actions that cause ourselves and others harm come
from our delusions. When we possess the proper wisdom (conventional
and ultimate), we can rid ourselves of delusions, and thus of all
our problems and suffering. When this process is complete, we can
leave cyclic existence and enjoy the state of Nirvana, free of problems.
The reasoning so far is simple enough, when we
are ill, we go to a doctor. He knows (hopefully) what is wrong and
prescribes medicines and gives us advice, which we need to take
and folow up to get well again. Likewise, when a spiritual teacher
prescribes us a practice and the development of wisdom to end our
suffering, we still need to follow the instructions, otherwise there
will be no effect. That leads us to the last Noble Truth of the
Path of the 'medicine'.
4. THE TRUE PATH,
OR EIGHT-FOLD NOBLE PATH
If we can control our body and mind in a way that
we help others instead of doing them harm, and generating wisdom
in our own mind, we can end our suffering and problems.
The Buddha summarised the correct attitude and actions in the
Eight-fold Noble Path:
(The first 3 are avoiding the 10 non-virtues of mind,
speech and body:)
- Correct thought: avoiding covetousness, the wish to
harm others and wrong views (like thinking: actions have no
consequences, I never have any problems, there are no ways to
end suffering etc.)
- Correct speech: avoid lying, divisive and harsh speech
and idle gossip.
- Correct actions: avoid killing, stealing and sexual
- Correct livelihood: try to make a living with the above
attitude of thought, speech and actions.
- Correct understanding: developing genuine wisdom.
(The last three aspects refer mainly to the practice of
- Correct effort: after the first real step we need joyful
perseverance to continue.
- Correct mindfulness: try to be aware of the "here and
now", instead of dreaming in the "there and then".
- Correct concentration: to keep a steady, calm and attentive
state of mind.
The Buddha explained that we can use the Four Yardsticks
to assess if we are practicing the correct way:
one should feel happiness, compassion,
and joyous effort when practicing.
For meditations on suffering and other subjects, see the List
of Sample Meditations.
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About the time we can make ends meet, somebody moves the ends.
Herbert Hoover, U.S. President
If electricity comes from electrons, does morality come from morons?
We are born naked, wet, and hungry, and get slapped on our ass
Then things get worse.
Trouble defies the law of gravity. It's easier to pick up than
September 11, 2011