The Four Noble Truths
By Brian Schell
The First Noble Truth
The very foundation of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths. I can’t think of a better place to start than these ideas. This is really the heart of Buddhism.
The first Noble Truth is that ‚ÄúIn life there is much suffering.‚Äù
Buddha later explained this to include suffering during birth, aging, illness, death, association with unpleasant people and conditions, separation from loved ones and pleasant conditions, and inability to possess what one desires. Everyone experiences these things.
Many people, hearing this most basic rule of Buddhism, immediately come to the conclusion that Buddhism is a negative thing; a depressing thing; a real downer. This is not the case.
Buddha expanded on the idea of suffering by taking into consideration that all happiness is temporary. Everything is in fact temporary. This idea is what Buddhists call ‚Äúimpermanence.‚Äù No matter what you have, who you love, or what you do, eventually you will lose it. You will grow old and suffer; your friends and family will die. The great works you have done in your life will fade from memory. You will eventually die. You can build a stone monument that lasts three thousand years, but it too will eventually turn to dust. Yes, it’s depressing, but you have to admit that it’s true.
Buddha, coming from a background as a Hindu, took that second idea of suffering and expended it infinitely. If so much of life is suffering, then what does rebirth add to the mix? The answer is eternal suffering. Once you die and get a little relief in this life, the cycle starts over again.
Also keep in mind that when I say ‚Äúsuffering,‚Äù I am poorly translating the word ‚ÄúDukkha‚Äù which does mean suffering, but also means ‚Äúimperfect‚Äù and ‚Äúunsatisfying‚Äù as well as ‚Äúgrasping.‚Äù Here is one translation of Buddhas own explanation:
‚ÄúNow this ‚Ä¶ 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.‚Äù
This idea of suffering is hard to accept, because we have been raised to think of life and the world as basically a good thing. And this is true to a certain extent; we can be happy for a while, but you always know in the back of your mind that sooner or later the happiness will end. This really is some depressing and sad stuff. Fortunately, Buddha found the reason for this suffering and figured out a way to defeat it.
The Second Noble Truth
The Buddha wanted to ‚Äúcure‚Äù the condition of suffering in the world, and he did. But just like any doctor, before he could cure the suffering, he had to diagnose the cause of the suffering.
The Second Noble Truth is the idea that ‚ÄúThere is a single cause to suffering: Attachment.‚Äù
Again, all things are impermanent. No matter how much you love your car, or your dog, or your family, someday you will lose them. Or you will die yourself, and thereby lose everything you have accumulated in life. Nothing is permanent. Nothing. I don’t like it, and you probably don’t like it either, but that’s tough. Attachment to things and the resultant loss of those things causes suffering. If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know exactly what I mean. But you don’t actually have to lose someone to suffer, because you know deep down that someday you are going to lose them. That thought is always in the back of your mind; death is part of living, and we have accepted the idea.
This is a very logical idea, and if you think it through, I think you will agree. All suffering comes from attachment, or put in another way, desire. I desire a new Ferrari, but I can’t afford it. I suffer because I cannot have what I want. I’m hungry; all I have to do is go the kitchen and make a sandwich, but right now, I desire food, and that little bit of hunger is a mild form of suffering. Poor people around the world are hungry too, but they don’t have sandwiches handy; they suffer too, albeit more seriously than I do. I want to date a supermodel, but they won’t give the time of day. Maybe my sights aren’t so high and I have a crush on the girl next door (but she hates me!); there’s more suffering. Greed, Lust, Anger, Ignorance, and even emotions we think of as positive, such as Love are all forms of attachment or clinging. There’s no way around it; even Buddha himself got hungry and had physical needs.
What about physical pain? That’s attachment as well. You are attached to your own body, believing that this life is somehow real. Your body is not you, it’s just another temporary vessel. We’ll discuss this further another time, but your attachment to yourself is just as bad as aching with lust for a supermodel.
Think about it for yourself, don’t take my word for it. You will find that everything about essential Buddhism is completely logical when you dwell on it and analyze it a bit. Think about various forms of suffering, and see how they can be traced back to desire, attachment, or clinging of one form or another.
The Third Noble Truth
Now we know that the world is full of suffering, and the cause of all is desire and attachment. These are important ideas to really understand and think through.
The Third Noble Truth is the idea that Suffering can be beaten.
We know from the first two Truths that everyone, everywhere is suffering in one way or another and that all this suffering is related to attachment and desire. ‚ÄúDoctor Buddha‚Äù first identified the problem (suffering), then he found the cause of the sickness (Attachment), so the next step was to prescribe a cure.
Yes, there is a way to beat this depressing cycle of misery that we’ve been talking about. Most people haven’t attained this, and most won’t in this lifetime. Let’ s see if we can work it out on our own; as I said, it’s pretty easy. Since suffering is the problem we are trying to beat, and suffering is caused by attachment and desire, then it seems that the way to beat suffering is to control desire and limit attachments. Attachment and desire come from within; they are caused by our own minds. If we have control of our own minds, we should be able to just shut off the suffering. In fact, Buddhists go so far as to claim that reality is what you make of it. Simple, eh? Well, no, of course it isn’t, but this idea that everything is in your mind and that you need to learn to control your mind is at the heart of Buddhism.
But there is a way to do it, and Buddha went on to explain it in the Fourth Noble Truth.
The Fourth Noble Truth
Just to summarize, we now know that life is full of suffering. This suffering is caused by attachments and desire. Yet, there is a way to end this suffering. To continue our medical analogy, Doctor Buddha, saw the problem, identified the cause, and then prescribed a cure. Today we are going to discuss this cure.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path (or ‚ÄúWay‚Äù) that ends suffering.
This prescription to end suffering is usually called The Eightfold Path, because it has eight steps or components. These eight components are:
1. Right Thought
2. Right Speech
3. Right Actions
4. Right Livelihood
5. Right Understanding
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
This path is also sometimes called ‚ÄúThe Middle Way‚Äù because it goes directly between all opposite concepts. It is the middle way between asceticism and self-indulgence. By focusing on perfecting these eight components, you can attain enlightenment and be released from all suffering. This is what is called attaining Nirvana (or Enlightenment).
‚ÄúI teach about suffering and the way to end it‚Äù ‚ÄîShakyamuni Buddha
You can probably guess what we’ll be discussing tomorrow. Some of the steps on the eightfold path are intuitively simple, yet hard to put into practice. Others are conceptually complex and take a lifetime of practice to master (if ever).
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