The Four Noble Truths

An Introduction

The Buddha; painting in Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet. Chlaus Lotscher / Getty Images

A formal study of Buddhism nearly always begins with the Four Noble Truths. The Truths are something like hypotheses presented by the Buddha in his first sermon after his enlightenment, and all of his subsequent teachings support those hypotheses. Buddhism might be defined as a process of verifying and realizing the truth of the Truths.

Unfortunately, when they are not properly taught the Truths can sound ridiculous.

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, and the way to do that is to follow something called the Eightfold Path. 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

Much of the subtlety of Buddhist doctrines can be lost in translation. In this case, much confusion has been caused by the English translation of the Pali/Sanskrit word dukkha as "suffering." According to the Ven. Ajahn Sumedho, a Theravadin monk and scholar, the word dukkha actually means "incapable of satisfying" or "not able to bear or withstand anything." Other scholars have deleted "suffering" and substituted "stressful."

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. What are the skandhas? They 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 will, eventually, perish. This is also true of happy times and good fortune.

Read More: The First Noble Truth

The Second Noble Truth: On the Origin of Dukkha

The standard rendering of the Second Truth is that dukkha is caused by greed or desire. The actual word from the early scriptures, tanha, is more accurately translated as "thirst" or "craving."

The Second Truth is not telling us 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.

What do we mean by attachment? In order for there to be attachment, you need two things -- an attacher, and something to attach to. In other words, attachment requires self-reference, and the thing desired must be perceived to be separate from oneself. But the Buddha taught that this is an illusion.

Read More: "Why Do Buddhists Avoid Attachment? "Attachment" May Not Mean What You Think It Means"

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.

Read More: The Second Noble Truth

The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Craving

The solution to dukkha, then, is to stop clinging and attaching. But how do we do that?

The fact is, you can't -- by an act of will. You can't 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.

But eventually, we will be disappointed because everything is impermanent. Grasping for one ephemeral thing after another never satisfies us for long. It is only when we see this for ourselves that we can stop grasping. But when we see it, the letting go is easy. The craving will seem to disappear of its own accord.

Read More: The Third Noble Truth

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Path

Now we get to the "how." The Buddha spent the last 45 or so years of his life giving sermons on aspects of the Four Noble Truths, and most of these sermons were about the Fourth Truth -- the path (magga).

The path is eight broad areas of practice that touch on every part of one's life, 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. Practice of the Eightfold Path brings the dharma into one's life and makes it bloom.

Read More: The Fourth Noble Truth

So these are the Four Noble Truths. If you are still confused, take heart; this is not 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.