The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

Dhamekh Stupa, where the Buddha gave the first sermon on the Four Noble Truths
Ken Wieland / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Buddha's first sermon after his enlightenment centered on the Four Noble Truths, which are the foundation of Buddhism. The Truths are something like hypotheses and Buddhism might be defined as a process of verifying and realizing the truth of the Truths.

The Four Noble Truths

A common, sloppy rendering of the Truths tells us that life is suffering; suffering is caused by greed; suffering ends when we stop being greedy; the way to do that is to follow something called the Eightfold Path.

In a more formal setting, the Truths read:

  1. The truth of suffering (dukkha)
  2. The truth of the cause of suffering (samudaya)
  3. The truth of the end of suffering (nirhodha)
  4. The truth of the path that frees us from suffering (magga)

Quite often, people get hung up on "life is suffering" and decide Buddhism isn't for them. However, if you take the time to appreciate what the Four Noble Truths are really about, everything else about Buddhism will be much clearer. Let's look at them one at a time.

The First Noble Truth: Life Is Dukkha

The First Noble Truth is often translated as "life is suffering." This is not as dire as it sounds, it's actually quite the opposite, which is why can be confusing.

Much confusion is due to the English translation of the Pali/Sanskrit word dukkha as "suffering." According to the Ven. Ajahn Sumedho, a Theravadin monk and scholar, the word actually means "incapable of satisfying" or "not able to bear or withstand anything." Other scholars replace "suffering" with "stressful."

Dukkha also refers to anything that is temporary, conditional, or compounded of other things. Even something precious and enjoyable is dukkha because it will end.

Further, the Buddha was not saying that everything about life is relentlessly awful. In other sermons, he spoke of many types of happiness, such as the happiness of family life.

But as we look more closely at dukkha, we see that it touches everything in our lives, including good fortune and happy times.

Among other things, the Buddha taught that the skandhas are dukkha. The skandhas are the components of a living human being: form, senses, ideas, predilections, and consciousness. In other words, the animated body you identify as yourself is dukkha because it is impermanent and it will eventually perish.

The Second Noble Truth: On the Origin of Dukkha

The Second Noble Truth teaches that the cause of suffering is greed or desire. The actual word from the early scriptures is tanha, and this is more accurately translated as "thirst" or "craving."

We continually search for something outside ourselves to make us happy. But no matter how successful we are, we never remain satisfied. The Second Truth is not telling us that we must give up everything we love to find happiness. The real issue here is more subtle—it's attachment to what we desire that gets us into trouble.

The Buddha taught that this thirst grows from ignorance of the self. We go through life grabbing one thing after another to get a sense of security about ourselves. We attach not only to physical things but also to ideas and opinions about ourselves and the world around us.

Then we grow frustrated when the world doesn't behave the way we think it should and our lives don't conform to our expectations.

Buddhist practice brings about a radical change in perspective. Our tendency to divide the universe into "me" and "everything else" fades away. In time, the practitioner is better able to enjoy life's experiences without judgment, bias, manipulation, or any of the other mental barriers we erect between ourselves and what's real.

The Buddha's teachings on karma and rebirth are closely related to the Second Noble Truth.

The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Craving

The Buddha's teachings on the Four Noble Truths are sometimes compared to a physician diagnosing an illness and prescribing a treatment. The first truth tells us what the illness is and the second truth tells us what causes the illness.

The Third Noble Truth holds out hope for a cure.

The solution to dukkha is to stop clinging and attaching. But how do we do that? The fact is that you can't by an act of will. It's impossible to just vow to yourself, okay, from now on I won't crave anything. This doesn't work because the conditions that give rise to craving will still be present.

The Second Noble Truth tells us that we cling to things we believe will make us happy or keep us safe. Grasping for one ephemeral thing after another never satisfies us for long because it's all impermanent. It is only when we see this for ourselves that we can stop grasping. When we do see it, the letting go is easy. The craving will seem to disappear of its own accord.

The Buddha taught that through diligent practice, we can put an end to craving. Ending the hamster wheel-chase after satisfaction is enlightenment ( bodhi, "awakened"). The enlightened being exists in a state called nirvana.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path

The Buddha spent the last 45 or so years of his life giving sermons on aspects of the Four Noble Truths. The majority of these were about the Fourth Truth—the path (magga).

In the Fourth Noble Truth, the Buddha as a physician prescribes the treatment for our illness: The Eightfold Path. Unlike in many other religions, Buddhism has no particular benefit to merely believing in a doctrine. Instead, the emphasis is on living the doctrine and walking the path.

The path is eight broad areas of practice that touches every part of our lives. It ranges from study to ethical conduct to what you do for a living to moment-to-moment mindfulness. Every action of body, speech, and mind are addressed by the path. It is a path of exploration and discipline to be walked for the rest of one's life.

Without the path, the first three Truths would just be a theory; something for philosophers to argue about. The practice of the Eightfold Path brings the dharma into one's life and makes it bloom.

Understanding the Truths Takes Time

If you are still confused about the four Truths, take heart; it's not so simple.

Fully appreciating what the Truths mean takes years. In fact, in some schools of Buddhism thorough understanding of the Four Noble Truths defines enlightenment itself.