The Four Noble Truths

The teachings of Buddhism are basically contained in the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. These are:

  1. All life is suffering (dukkha)
  2. All suffering is caused by desire (samudaya)
  3. The end to suffering is to understand desire (nirodha)
  4. The means to do this – the eight-fold-path (marga).

Let us examine these in turn.

The first noble truth: all life is suffering

All life is suffering. This sounds harsh, even pessimistic. However, the first noble truth does not refer to suffering in that way. It is not suffering in the way Christianity has taught it.

The world is not a "vale of tears", in fact - and this is an important point - neither the world, nor anything in it creates suffering. We do! The only suffering that exists is the suffering we bring to things. It is our minds and our attitudes that create suffering. And for the most part we do this unconsciously and automatically. Obviously some people create quite a lot of suffering.

So the Zen master could rightfully say, ‘all life is suffering, there is no suffering’. There is pain in birth and death, and even our greatest joys contain the seeds of sadness, because those joys cannot last. Nothing you see or know will last. In that there is a certain existential sorrow.

Suppose you’re enjoying a wonderful holiday, say, with the person you love, surrounded by all the good things in life. However happy you are you know it will come to an end and you will have to come back to your job, to your everyday life. You’re not going to dwell on this fact but it’s there in the background. Or, supposing your whole life is one unending pleasure trip (and I hope it is!) maybe you won the lottery, there will still come a time when you’ll have to leave it all behind.

Death resides in all things. As was captured by Poussin in his masterpiece Et in Arcadia Ego, even in paradise I [death] am’. This is not a suffering that implies punishment or condemnation, rather it is the inevitability of all things. Nothing lasts, neither joy nor sorrow. That’s what the Buddha meant when he said all life is suffering.

He was talking about impermanence.

Impermanence and the four noble truths

By introducing impermanence the Buddha challenged and ultimately rejected the concept of the self. This is an idea that frightens some people and is misunderstood by others. When you really think about it, what is the ‘self’? Is it your mind, your brain, your personality, your body? Or is it none of these things, is it something else? We cannot say our arm or leg or our senses are ‘us’, because we would continue to exist if any of these were removed.

And what about psychological aspects; our beliefs, feelings, thoughts, memories, even the dreams we have while we sleep? Are these too part of this fugacious self? Some people identify so much with their job, career, status, that these become part of their identity of self.

But if there is nothing to desire, nothing to gain and nothing to lose, then even death loses its sting.

The second noble truth: all suffering is caused by desire

The second noble truth states that all suffering is caused by desire. This basically says that it’s our thought about life that creates suffering, therefore we have a choice whether to be miserable or joyful. Desire is about attitude, about how we see ourselves, about how we gauge how much we have, and the meaning we give to this. It’s about our expectation, and our calibration of that to what we believe others have, what society expects of us, and a range of other factors.

Let's say you seek a better lifestyle, more money, greater freedom to do the things you want, but you feel this is a long way off and you have to struggle and work in a job you don’t like. Any of these factors can contribute to your suffering. Even if your desire motivates you to get up and create a better life, a positive response, this is still driven by what first caused you to suffer. Most people spent a lot of time trying to avoid suffering, or trying to fix something that’s not working. The whole ‘self improvement’ industry is built around precisely that.

Or, suppose you want something to be a certain way, and it’s not, then you’re sad. You think life's not fair. If only things were different then you’d be happy. But what if you could take away the desire in the first place? What if you could be so peaceful in your mind that you didn’t really want anything? Then you would have put an end to suffering. And this is really what the four noble truths teaches. We always have a choice. Suffering is not predetermined. You can actually be happy in any moment, anywhere, provided you uncouple your happiness from a fixed outcome, from wanting life to be a certain way.

The third noble truth: the end to suffering is to understand desire

The third noble truth is to give up, contain, or in some way manage our desires. Now, as soon as there is talk of giving up something this gets people activated. They start thinking, ‘this means I can’t have any fun! I can’t have things’. It suddenly becomes about something being taken from us. And the notion of sacrifice arises. A huge amount of resistance is suddenly created.

But in fact you don't have to give up anything! If 'giving up' something causes you anxiety then it will only add to your suffering. So it isn't about the giving up, it's more about the desire behind what we think we have to give up.

You can’t ever really give up desire, that would be to die. At an autonomic level you desire your heart to beat, your liver to secrete waste and so forth. Every moment as we move forward is a form of desiring. Rather it’s the attachment to our desire that causes suffering. It might be more apt to say give up the attachment and we give up the suffering.

The deeper meaning to the four noble truths

The Buddha wasn’t making desire personal. He wasn’t talking about sensual pleasures, or saying that the curtailment of same would somehow make us morally superior.

Instead it's the perpetuation of this thing called 'self' that causes suffering. That which isn't real is what ultimately causes suffering. A good illustration is when you're having a dream, say a huge monster is chasing you. Of course it isn't real, but it's just as darn terrifying as if it were.

Of course everyday pleasures do reinforce this idea of the self. But that doesn’t make them bad. For example,

It feels great when I swim.

That sunset is so beautiful.

This pineapple tastes really good.

So I want more swimming, beautiful sunsets and tasty pineapples.

Get the picture?

My own approach to this question involves the idea of ‘accepting what is’. If something just is, and you can accept it for that then suffering around it ceases. Now there’s a very thin line between this acceptance and resignation, and I know some people mistake the two.

I'm not talking about resignation, that's closer to apathy.

Acceptance is welcoming life just as it is, welcoming and appreciating it. Paradoxically, people have more success in changing things when they learn to accept what is. 

Resignation is complaining by another name, it is disapproving of life. Being disappointed is really a way of saying life should always conform to your personal expectations and demands. It is the exhibit of an insane mind.

The fourth noble truth: the eight-fold-path

The fourth noble truth is the Buddha’s method of how to achieve the desireless state. This is called the Eight-Fold Path, and it’s really a set of instructions on how to live until one attains enlightenment.

The eight ‘paths’ are

  • correct vision
  • correct speech
  • correct livelihood
  • correct state of mind
  • correct thought
  • correct action
  • correct effort, and
  • correct mental development.

In a nutshell these teach that we adopt a kind of middle path through life. As a young man Siddhartha discovered that austerity and indulgence were really the same thing, and both led to more desire.

The eight-fold path is a middle way between the extremes of asceticism and indulgence.

See also:

Zen Meditation

Zen Buddhism

Rupa, Karma and Dharma

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Reality is merely an illusion - albeit a persistent one.

Albert Einstein