Four Noble Truths
Both formerly & now, it is only suffering (dukkha) that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.” — Anurādha Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 22:86)
The natural ontology of the Buddha’s teaching is the Four Noble Truths. All of his teachings in the Theravāda Suttas fall into one or more of these four categories. That will also be the plan of this work. The Four Noble Truths are as follows:
- The First Noble Truth: There is Suffering (dukkha)
- The Second Noble Truth: The Source of Suffering
- The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering
- The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering
The Buddha described these Four Noble Truths in his very first sermon:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are suffering; association with the unbeloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what is wanted is suffering. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are suffering.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of suffering: the craving that makes for further becoming—accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there—craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.” — Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 56.11)
The First Noble Truth, which points out that all things are suffering, tells us precisely what life is like. But we fail to realize that everything is, at least potentially, a source of suffering; so we desire those things. We even deny that we are suffering, and try hard to enjoy life in the face of so much struggle and hardship. This inauthenticity is also suffering.
The Second Noble Truth points out that desire is the cause of suffering. Even so many centuries after the Buddha, people still don’t know, don’t see or understand that desires are the cause of suffering. They all desire so many things, simply because they don’t understand the nature of desire. If we could see desire as the source of suffering, and the things we desire as not worth desiring, not worth grasping for and clinging to, not worth attaching ourselves to, we would be sure not to desire them.
The Third Noble Truth points out that deliverance, freedom from suffering, nibbāna, consists in the complete extinguishing of desire. People don’t think that nibbāna is something that may be attained at any time or place, that it can be attained just as soon as desire has been completely extinguished. So, not knowing the real facts of life, people are uninterested in extinguishing desire. They are uninterested in nibbāna because even though they may have heard of it, they don’t know what it is. This is only because they are ignorant of what nibbāna is and how to attain it. That’s why we are writing this.
The Fourth Noble Truth is called the Eightfold Noble Path, and is the method for extinguishing suffering. No one understands the Eightfold Noble Path as a method for extinguishing desire. People mistakenly think it is something mystical or esoteric. So no one is interested in the desire-extinguishing Noble Eightfold Path. People don’t recognize it as their most important point of support, their foothold, something that they should be most actively reinforcing. What a tragedy that they are uninterested in the Buddha’s Eightfold Noble Path, which happens to be the most excellent and precious thing in the entire mass of human knowledge.
Thus the Four Noble Truths are the basis and foundation of the Buddha’s teaching, and all other concepts, such as the Eightfold Noble Path, are part of and subordinate to them. Nevertheless, the Puthujjanas, the suffering people ignorant of the Buddha’s teaching, do not know them. If they did, of course, they would not be Puthujjanas.
Monks, these four things are real, not unreal, not otherwise. Which four?
“‘This is suffering,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise. ‘This is the origination of suffering,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise. ‘This is the cessation of suffering,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise. ‘This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering,’ is real, not unreal, not otherwise.
“These are the four things that are real, not unreal, not otherwise. Therefore your duty is the contemplation, ‘This is suffering… This is the origination of suffering… This is the cessation of suffering… This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of suffering.'” — Tatha Sutta (Saṃyutta-Nikāya 56.20)
Here the Buddha, in stating that the Four Noble Truths are reality, strongly implies that other ways of looking at the world and life are unreal.
The Flood and the Raft
The Blessed One said: “Suppose a man… would see a great expanse of water, with the near shore dubious & risky, the further shore secure & free from risk, but with neither a ferryboat nor a bridge going from this shore to the other. The thought would occur to him, ‘…What if I were to gather grass, twigs, branches, & leaves and, having bound them together to make a raft, cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with my hands & feet?’ Then the man, having gathered grass, twigs, branches, & leaves, having bound them together to make a raft, would cross over to safety on the other shore in dependence on the raft, making an effort with his hands & feet.” — Alagaddupama Sutta (Majjhima-Nikāya 22)
Here ‘the near shore dubious & risky’ represents the First Noble Truth: our present dangerous existence as Puthujjanas. The ‘great expanse of water’ is compared with the great flood of suffering in this world (Second Noble Truth), and ‘the further shore secure & free from risk’ with freedom from suffering (Third Noble Truth). And of course, constructing the raft symbolizes putting the Buddha’s teaching into action and saving ourselves from suffering: the Fourth Noble Truth. Thus ‘the near shore’ and ‘the flood’ represent the First and Second Noble Truths, while ‘the raft’ and ‘the far shore’ symbolize the Third and Fourth Noble Truths, respectively.
So the whole point of the Buddha’s teaching is to recognize that we are suffering, understand the cause, realize there is an end of suffering, and develop the Eightfold Noble Path as the way out. In the following sections, we will discuss the Four Noble Truths one by one:
- In the section on the First Noble Truth, we describe the kinds of suffering.
- In the section on the Second Noble Truth, we detail Dependent Origination, the natural process that generates suffering.
- In the section on the Third Noble Truth, we try to get an overview of the Buddha’s entire teaching (Eye of the Dhamma).
- In the section on the Fourth Noble Truth we introduce the methods of the Eightfold Noble Path.