The Four Noble Truths are the absolute foundation of the Buddha’s teaching. Without these four propositions, Buddhism does not make sense. There is a saying that a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths requires several lifetimes. Even for a non-Buddhist, a closer look at the Four Noble Truths can be inspiring and valuable. In essence, the four propositions examine 1. What is the problem with the human condition? 2. What is the cause of this problem? 3. There is a solution to the problem. 4. The method of applying the solution. One cannot benefit from the Buddha’s teachings without comprehending the underlying problem of the human condition. Buddha calls this fundamental problem ‘suffering’. But what does ‘suffering’ mean? It makes sense to look further into the meaning of ‘suffering’ because everything else follows from there.
The word ‘noble’ refers to ‘the truths of the Noble Ones’, the truths or realities for the ‘spiritually worthy ones’. In this context, the word ‘noble’ refers to a profoundly spiritual developed person.
“Now this, bhikkhus (monks), is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.” Buddha in his first sermon.
All living creatures want to be secure and happy. Humans strive hard for happiness. Family, health, wealth are essential motivations. Yet despite all the effort, it seems never enough. There is always the potential of some tragedy, failure, accident, loss. Even those lucky ones who live a protected, secure life will have to face the fact that it could end anytime, by misfortune. It certainly will end at the time of death. There are no alternatives. So there is always a notion of sadness, even at the happiest time. Because nothing is enduring, nothing will last. In this sense, life itself is a form of suffering because even in its most pleasurable, happy expression, it cannot offer any form of permanence. In all situations, humans have to face an abyss of failure, destruction, loss and misery. An aware mind can never be unconditionally happy.
Physical suffering: Birth is the gateway through which all other sufferings naturally follow. Birth inevitably leads to old age, sickness, death.
Mental suffering: Contact with what one despises, not being able to get what one wants, separation, frustration.
There is a Cause and Effect view: suffering produces the cause for more suffering.
The 1st Noble Truth and 2nd Noble Truth have a circular relationship: Truth 1 leads to Truth 2; Truth 2 leads back to Truth 2. Cause leads to effect, and effect leads back to cause.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.” Buddha in his first sermon.
So what is the cause for this overlay of discontent, anxiety, suffering? The human mind is a product of evolution. Expansion and growth dominate evolutionary energy. Conquering, dominating, adding brings pleasure. Nothing is ever enough to satisfy. There is always a craving for more of the things that engage the mind. Craving is a form of desire built into the psyche. Sometimes it expresses itself openly, but often, it is hidden, obscure or completely subconscious. It is an addiction chained to the material world. Coming to grips with this fundamental human flaw is the first step towards a resolution.
It is sensible to acknowledge the existence of a problem or a disease. It is intelligent to investigate the origin or the cause of the problem of the disease. It is reasonable to imagine how life could be without the pain of the disease. It is prudent to investigate and follow a path or a treatment that will remove the problem or disease. These points are universal and apply to any problem or any adverse condition.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.” Buddha in his first sermon.
Here is the good news! It is possible to overcome the addiction to the craving, the desire, the grasping. Humans are not just slaves to their evolutionary imprints. There is a way, a path towards gradually diminishing, reducing evaporating the chains of desire and the sadness of fleeting happiness.
For medicine to work, the patient must have faith in it. This faith is not blind faith but faith based on critical investigation and reason. The patient must have confidence that the treatment is going to work. What is the ultimate goal? For a Buddhist, the goal is to bring an end to suffering. Not only the day to day suffering of life but the liberation of supreme anguish, the endless death/life cycle of Samsara. Liberation becomes Nirvana. Nirvana is beyond words or description.
Cause and Effect view: cessation of suffering is the effect of the path that leads to cessation.
“Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” Buddha in his first sermon.
Here is the Path, the medicine required to make true the promise of the Third Noble Truth. The Buddha gives precise instructions on how to go about it. He presents the Path in eight steps, divided into three sections, each becoming the foundation of the next. The Path leads to the attainment of wisdom. Wisdom is the central tool for liberation.
The Buddha saw the MIDDLE WAY between the two extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. Brought up in protected luxury and after many years of self-depravation, he had the experience of both extremes.
The Cause and Effect view: the path to the end of suffering is the cause of cessation of suffering. The 3rd Noble Truth and the 4th Noble Truth dynamically reinforce each other. The 4th leads back to the 3rd, leading forward to the 4th.
The Buddha is often described as a doctor who brings medicine to the people. Understanding the Four Noble Truths becomes more accessible with this smoker’s analogy.
- At some point, a smoker becomes aware of something unhealthy. There is coughing, shortness of breath. The symptoms have been there for a long time already, ignored by the smoker.
- The doctor tells the smoker that all his problems come from smoking. Smoking is the cause of the crisis.
- The doctor gives the good news. The smoker hears that there is a medicine to cure the disease.
- The doctor prescribes the medicine and explains in detail how it should be taken.
The Wheel of Becoming (discussed in detail in another post) always features an image of three animals chasing each other. The animals can vary. In this image, a pig chases a bird hunting a snake. The animals stand for the Three Poisons of Attachment (greed, desire), Aversion (hate, jealousy) and Ignorance (confusion, delusion). Everything else, skilled or not, follows from here.