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Four Noble Truths
“I teach about suffering and the way to end it”
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 experience problems.
“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.”
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 on karma.)
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).
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:)
1. 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.)
2. Correct speech: avoid lying, divisive and harsh speech and idle gossip.
3. Correct actions: avoid killing, stealing and sexual misconduct
4. Correct livelihood: try to make a living with the above attitude of thought, speech and actions.
5. Correct understanding: developing genuine wisdom.
(The last three aspects refer mainly to the practice of meditation:)
6. Correct effort: after the first real step we need joyful perseverance to continue.
7. Correct mindfulness: try to be aware of the “here and now”, instead of dreaming in the “there and then”.
8. 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, love and joyous effort when practicing.