The four noble truths in Buddhism forms the core of the Buddha’s teachings. These are explained in the very first sermon delivered by Buddha, known as dhammacakkappavattana sutta, which in English loosely translates to, “Settings the wheel of dhamma or the truth in motion.”
Understanding the four noble truths is a vast subject that needs a detailed and thorough explanation, and it’s impossible to cover it in a single blog post. However, the information I present here will serve as an introductory text for those who wish to understand Buddha’s teachings.
What differentiates Buddha’s teachings from others is that he mentions that his teachings should be understood through direct experience rather than simply believing what he says.
The experiences that he talks about can be verified through different mindfulness practices and meditations. These find mention in the texts (suttas) and practiced by a lot of people all across the world.
Four noble truths form the foundation of a deep-rooted philosophy that can be applied to daily practical life. The primary focus of his teachings is on the here and now. Although these teaching were delivered sometime around 500 BCE, they have stood the test of time and are still applicable today.
At first glance, you may find Buddhism to be very pessimistic, as it starts with the concept of dukkha or suffering. Dukkha is a word of the Pali language, which is a combination of two words: du means “hard,” and kkha means “to endure.”
Translation of dukkha in English, referred to as the suffering, is a gross oversimplification of the term. Unfortunately, there is no direct equivalent in the English language. It has a much deeper meaning, which we shall explore next.
The First Noble Truth: There is Suffering or Dukkha
The word dukkha is much more subtle than the English word suffering. It constitutes injury, sickness, old age, mental pain, death, sorrow, grief, anguish, and more. It further includes minor frustrations such as disappointments, dissatisfactions, and irritations encountered in daily life.
It also includes even the most subtle sources of stress like:
- Having to work for longer hours than usual occasionally.
- Not being appropriately apricated for the efforts put into a piece of work.
- Not being correctly greeted by a friend or a colleague at work.
- Having to give more than you receive in a relationship.
- Being rudely spoken to in a demeaning tone.
- Being made fun of in a covert manner.
- Getting irritated standing and waiting in a queue for a cup of coffee.
- Frustration when the server at the coffee shop hands you a latte instead of the cappuccino you asked.
I can go on and on, but you get the idea. All of this is dukkha. Now you may argue that this is just a normal part of daily living. How can you call it dukkha or suffering? It happens to all of us, and it’s normal, right?
You may argue that the real dukkha is passing away of a loved one, or losing a job overnight, or losing all of your income because of the collapse of the economy, or getting a divorce. These are more pressing matters. And yes! You’re right. All of the above are dukkha.
But here’s what most people don’t understand. The minor frustrations and dissatisfaction that we encounter in our daily lives have a cumulative adverse effect on our psyche. It grows very slowly in a subtle manner.
While the death of a loved one hurts a lot initially, the wounds heal with time. The created void may never go, but eventually, much of it is filled up with time. However, the subtle injuries caused to our psyche go undetected in many of the cases.
Over time, these frustrations get accumulated to such an extent that one resorts to ending one’s life to escape the pain. The problem is that we have normalized ailments like stress, anxiety, and depression, as a part of daily life.
For example, you might argue that losing a job is much worse than being rudely spoken too. Now, this would depend on your personality.
But in general, I have observed that people soon forget about the hardships they face during the times of unemployment. But even after years, they still remember the incident where they were ill-treated or rudely spoken too.
Once you get a new job, you forget about the pain of losing your old job. But the incidents of offensive and demeaning behaviors go directly into your subconscious.
These get accumulated over time and create great mental suffering, and sometimes even manifest as a disease in the physical body.
Again, you may argue that one cannot escape these unpleasantries of life. And yes! You are right again. But the question is – How much do you intend to suffer these unpleasantries? What we call as ups and downs of life are merely just events. There’s nothing good or bad about them.
Yet we suffer! And still, continue to suffer.
Buddha explains that there are three kinds of dukkhas:
- The first is simple to understand suffering, like sickness, injury, old age, death, grief, despair, sorrow, etc. It includes both physical and mental pain. We have already covered this kind of suffering above.
- There is a second kind of suffering that is caused by change. Everything is subject to change and finally comes to an end. There is no such thing as a permanency. However, the mind craves for permanency, and therefore, the suffering arises. For example, expecting secure attachments in relationships, friendships, work, etc., results in unhappiness.
- Finally, the third kind of suffering buddha talks about is suffering due to the conditioned states. The word used for this suffering is “Sankara.” Unfortunately, there is no parallel English word that can describe it. There are five conditioned states, also known as the five aggregates, or skandhas, where one is physical, and the other four are mental.
Now here’s something to think. If you notice carefully, there’s a contradiction between the statement of the first noble truth and the fourth noble truth.
The first noble truth says that all in this world is suffering, while the fourth noble truth says that there is a way out of it. How can both of these statements be true?
You see, the statement of the first noble truth is not an absolute, because the dukkha is born out of ignorance or avidya. Hence, one perceives this world as dukkha. The understanding of the fourth noble truth enables us to experience the world as it is.
Now that we know what dukkha is let’s get to the next section: the origin of suffering.
The Second Noble Truth – The Origin of Suffering
The origin of suffering is attachment (or Lobha) to three kinds of cravings, also known as Tanha (or Trishna in Sanskrit).
The Kama Tanha: Craving for Sensory Pleasures
This kind of craving or thirst comes with the attachment to sensory pleasures. We always seek things that excite our senses. For example, we get exciting seeing a nice car, and a strong desire to acquire it arises from within. In Buddhism, this is the beginning of dukkha.
Anything that satisfies the craving of the five senses: vision, smell, hearing, taste, and touch – is Kama Tanha. The main reason behind this is that these cravings only give temporary satisfaction.
The moment you set your attention to sensory pleasure objects, that very moment marks the beginning of suffering. The problem with this kind of craving is that it is insatiable. The more you have, the more you want.
Another example would be eating your favorite food or dessert. Even after you’ve finished eating, you crave more. For some, this craving comes back after a day or two, while for others, it comes back instantly.
However, the past conditioning of the mind is so intense that we do not see anything wrong with it. A few minutes of compulsive behavior now and then, generally speaking, creates long term health consequences.
The Bhava Tanha: Sense of Wanting To Become Something
Bhava Tanha is the desire to achieve permanence in some way. One example would be the desire to continue in the heavenly realms as consciousness after death. In this case, the attachment to life and existence is so high that the very thought of not existing after death scares people.
Similarly, becoming a monk with the desire to attain enlightenment is also Bhava Tanha. Practicing meditation, chanting, reciting mantras, performing rituals in the desire to achieve the nirvana (the freedom from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth) is again Bhava Tanha.
It is easy to misunderstand this Tanha. For example, when I started my spiritual practice a couple of years ago, I found myself falling into this trap.
As I read more into the philosophical aspects of these scriptures, I was so impressed that I immediately started giving sermons to the people around me, even when they didn’t ask for it.
I had built such strong identifications with these philosophical ideas that I used to get upset when people showed disinterest.
But my thirst for being the “most knowledgeable” and “all-knowing” had blinded me. I was always keeping a check on how other people perceived me. And I didn’t like it when people disagreed with my ideas.
What I realized was that I had fallen into the same worldly trap once again. I was indirectly seeking recognition as a spiritual teacher. The desire to be known as the great teacher was deluding me. This desire for being recognized and praised is also Bhava Tanha.
The Vibhava Tanha: Desire To Get Rid of Things
There is another type of Tanha that is the exact opposite of Bhava Tanha. It is known as Vibhava Tanha, that is the desire to get rid of things.
This craving generally happens when we fail in our endeavors, such as building a profitable business or attaining spiritual enlightenment. We quickly get disillusioned by the present circumstances and become opposed to it, believing it to be the root cause of our suffering.
Therefore, we create a desire to get rid of things that leads to unhappiness. For example, it is seen that people who get disillusioned with money and fame turn towards spirituality in search of solace. The problem is that they create another desire to seek peace in spirituality.
We want to eliminate all the negative emotions like anger, greed, hatred, jealousy, resentment, anxiety, etc. To do so, we unconsciously create a desire to become something untouched by these emotions.
The second noble truth is about realization and generation of insight (and not a desire) to let go of the desire. When we create a desire to let go of other attractions, we fall into a never-ending trap, and this is where most people go wrong with their spiritual practice, only to be disillusioned later.
Through insight meditation, one can contemplate the nature of desires and their origin, and that gives them the insight to let go of the attachment or identification to those desires.
The idea here is not to get rid of all the thoughts that lead to desires but to simply recognize them as conditioning of the mind. The desire in itself is not a problem – the real issue is the attachment (or grasping) to the desire.
Conditioning of the mind is impermanent (anicca), i.e., it keeps on changing; therefore, attachment to something that is continuously changing is bound to bring pain.
However, the good news is that this conditioning can be reversed, and that brings us to the third noble truth – the cessation of suffering.
The Third Noble Truth – Cessation of Suffering
The third noble truth is perhaps one of the most challenging concepts to apply in practical life. I had a hard time understanding the meaning of cessation. Most people mistake cessation for suppression or repression, which is not true and is very damaging.
Merely understanding these noble truths intellectually is not going to solve our problem. These concepts have to be applied practically in day to day life to realize them.
Buddha said that everything subject to arising is subject to ceasing. What that implies is that we should not find refuge in impermanent things. That will never give us abiding happiness.
Chasing highs in small chunks makes us into an addict. We crave more because no amount of it ever gives abiding satisfaction.
The short burst of dopamine secretion that we crave is not going to provide us with real happiness; in fact, it is a pain. That said, creating feelings of aversion for the same is also pain.
This is not just some abstract philosophy. You can practically apply these concepts. But the only way to do that effectively is to develop a clear contemplative mind that is not easily corrupted by the external disturbances. The mind requires the correct training to experience silence.
Only in silence comes deep insight, which allows the intellect to function at its highest levels. The problem is that most of us have a mind that is brewing with thoughts of acquiring objects of sense pleasures in pursuit of happiness.
We run after different objects hoping that they will provide lasting happiness, but that does not happen.
One moment we crave sweets, so we eat chocolate to satisfy that craving, after a few minutes, we start playing video games, a couple of minutes later we are scrolling through our social media feeds. We keep going on replacing one object for another like an addict.
But nothing lasts! The taste of that chocolate in your mouth perishes. You get bored playing video games, social media feeds end at a point, but you remain in the same restless state because you created attachment with impermanent things.
Buddha was against following any kind of extreme practice. When he got enlightenment, he realized that people were either entirely deluded by sense pleasures or practicing extreme asceticism to attain liberation.
Desire can delude us to such an extent that one can even get attached to ending one’s life to put an end to suffering. This is the desire for complete annihilation, making sure that nothing survives after death.
Both of these cause hindrance in the path of Nibbana (or enlightenment), and therefore, the Buddha advocated the middle path. He declared that both attachment and aversion create suffering that is born out of ignorance.
Attachment to what? Attachment to impermanent things. And an aversion to what? Aversion to getting rid of things that cause craving. So what’s the solution? Just letting go of the craving.
I know all of this sounds abstract and may even feel like suppression, but it’s not. The concept of letting go is quite confusing for beginners and is often misunderstood, but through the practice of reflection and deep contemplation, it can be realized.
Embracing Suffering to Cease It
To train our minds “to let go,” we must learn to accept all that arises within. Acceptance is the first step towards recovery. I remember the first year into my meditation practice; How miserable I was.
What meditation does is that it brings the contents of our subconscious into the conscious mind. These are some of the most uncomfortable feelings and traumas that are buried deep within our subconscious mind.
The revelations I had were so overwhelming that many times I thought about quitting meditation altogether. It was too much. I was hoping that meditation would bring me joy and calm, but exactly the opposite was happening.
However, after some time, I started experiencing the calm I had hoped. Not only that, but I was also able to reflect very peacefully on those thoughts that I had suppressed for years altogether.
The lesson I learned was that we have to undergo a little pain to let go of the cause of suffering. But this pain is temporary, and it is there because of exercising an empowering control, and not suppression.
We accept this suffering, welcome it, let it arise consciously, play its part, and finally – let go of it – watch it end. When we let go of that which arises and ceases, we experience the ultimate joy of emptiness. This exercise requires the cultivation of patience by training the mind.
The human mind is so gullible that it is easy to get hooked to this idea of liberation or enlightenment. But that is just another pitfall (this is Vibhava Tanha – explained in the third noble truth).
While the first two noble truths sound pessimistic, the third noble truth gives us the surety that there is a way of out of dukkha. Only a reflective and contemplative mind can realize the nature of dukkha and figure out the path of liberation.
Such a mind is developed by practicing the eightfold path taught by Buddha in the fourth noble truth.
The Fourth Noble Truth – The Path That Leads to the Cessation of Suffering
The fourth noble truth talks about the eightfold path, or the atthangika magga, which offers a way out of the dukkha. This path is developed by practicing the following.
The eightfold path is grouped into three sections:
- Panna or wisdom – comes from Right Understanding (samma-ditthi) and Right Aspiration (samma-sankappa).
- Sila or morality – comes from Right Speech (samma-vaca), Right Action (samma-kammanta), and Right Livelihood (samma-ajiva).
- Samadhi or concentration – comes from Right Effort (samma-vayama), Right Mindfulness (samma-sati), and Right Concentration (samma-samadhi).
Right understanding comes with reflection and contemplation. Understanding why things are the way they are, rather than the way we want them to be. The problems arise when we assign our meaning to the way things are, based on our previous conditioning.
My way of looking at the world may be quite different from yours. Does that make me right? There’s nothing right or wrong about it; it’s just the way it is. For example, you may look at a beautiful rose and appreciate its beauty without the desire to pluck and possess it.
The moment you assign a special significance to the rose, you’ll want to get a bunch of them, put them in a vase, and place them in your living room as a decoration. That beautiful flower is not there for your pleasure. Just appreciate the beauty without creating a desire for possession.
No matter how much we try to force things our way, they will always be the way they are. Right understanding enables us to accept the first three noble truths through direct perception and understanding. And for that, purity of mind has to be developed.
The word aspiration here does not indicate desire. It might seem so because we are translating the pali word “sankappa” into English.
Unlike desire, the aspiration mentioned here does not come out of ignorance but the Right Understanding described above.
The right aspiration does not come out of desperation to seek enlightenment. It comes with an intention or movement to understand the truth. Our intuitive intelligence tells us there’s something beyond what we know as the real world.
An ultimate reality or truth that we want to uncover. But the conditioned mind prevents us from exploring this truth. It keeps us trapped in the petty worldly desires.
Spoken words carry a lot of weight. Unthought of blabbering, chatting, and gossips can have severe consequences. And speech is one of the most challenging things to control.
Internally unhappy people don’t take any cognizance of what they speak, and in doing so, they unconsciously project their fears and insecurities to other people.
We end up hurting people by saying unkind words out of our inability to regulate ourselves emotionally. Our ego might feel satisfied at that very moment, but we regret it later on. By repeating such behavior, we train ourselves to be more angry and unkind to others.
We feel that we can get away with small lies. We make a habit of lying unconsciously through repeated action. But its only time when even a minor act of unconscious behavior comes back to haunt us.
Right action involves refraining from doing things that harm ourselves or others. It includes the following:
- Not lying.
- Refrain from using harsh words.
- Not taking the life of any being.
- Refraining from idle gossips.
- Refraining from stealing, fraud, deceit, and cheating.
- Refraining from giving hate speech.
- Not indulging in inappropriate sexual conduct.
- Not being jealous of the good fortune of others.
- Refrain from holding a closed mind about things one doesn’t understand.
- And more.
Right livelihood is about contemplating the nature of work you do to sustain yourself and your family. For example, If you’re a part of an industry that destroys ecology just purely for profits, your livelihood is wrong.
If you’re dependant on businesses that thrive by selling harmful substances or engage in malicious activities that harm humans and other beings, you need to reflect more.
Right Livelihood is something we need to ponder in modern times because our greed for earning wealth is destroying the planet. Our inconsiderate attitude, coupled with a lack of empathy, is bringing misfortune to others.
We think we’ll get away with this, but karma has its way of figuring out things. Sooner or later, we’ll have to pay for our deeds, and we will not be able to escape through excuses and denials.
One of the Buddha’s students was discouraged with his meditation practice, and he asked Buddha for guidance. This student of Buddha was a lute player (also known as “sitar” in India).
So the Buddha asked him, “What would happen if you tighten the strings of your lute?”, the student replied, “They would break.”, Next, he asked, “What would happen if you loosen the strings?”, the student replied, “It would not sound good.”
The learning from the above discussion was that for the lute to function correctly, the strings must be tightened appropriately, i.e., with the right effort. This lesson is entirely in sync with the Buddha’s teaching of the middle path.
The right effort is not only about working hard to achieve goals. It’s about knowing the right thing to do in a given moment, which comes from Right Understanding and Right Aspiration.
Putting the right effort is necessary if you want to accomplish great things in life. You should work on developing positive qualities and not be a slave of sensual pleasures.
Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration
A restless mind creates emotional conflicts, anxiety, and restlessness. As a result, we distract ourselves with sense pleasure objects like watching tv or smartphones, eating exciting food, reading a book, and other distractions – all in the hope of avoiding pain – but the pain keeps coming back.
We are scared to go within and desperately look for a solution in the outside world. The idea is not to reject the external world altogether but to be mindful that the real source of happiness and peace lies.
We perceive the external world based on what’s going on inside of us. If we are fearful and anxious, we will view this world as evil, whereas, if our hearts are full of love, joy, and compassion – the world becomes a beautiful place.
Developing the right mindfulness is done by practicing meditation, where one continuously observes the breath. The object of concentration is the sensation of breathing.
This activity causes awareness and presence to arise within us. It makes us see all of our unconscious habits that create misery and sadness. We see how these habits control us.
This presence allows us to witness the impermanent nature of our thoughts. We see them arise, play, and disappear, without creating any type of judgment or reaction towards them.
The idea of Buddhist teaching is to help us develop insight to see things as they are. The four noble truths enable us to understand the nature of mind and the conditioning that causes us to experience suffering.
However, merely being aware of the suffering is not enough, and we must practice mindfulness techniques in Buddhism to overcome the conditioning of the mind. The mind can be a potent tool if used in the right way.