THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTH:

THE HEART OF THE TEACHING OF THE BUDDHA

By Ashin Sudhamma  (Ajan Chainoi)

Introduction 

The Four Noble Truths are the most fundamental of the principles delivered by the Buddha. They virtually coincide with the whole of the doctrine of the Buddha. The understanding of the Four Noble Truths is synonymous with the attainment of the goal of Buddhist practice. The Four Noble Truths are:  

1. Dukkha, the truth of suffering
2. Samudaya, the truth of the cause of suffering 
3. Nirodha, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and  
4. Magga, the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

Before we turn to a consideration of the Four Noble Truths individually, I would like to to draw your attention to a few facts about the formula in general. In this context, it is important to recall that the ancient science of medicine had enjoyed a certain degree of development by the time of the Buddha. One of the fundamental formulas developed by practitioners of the science of medicine in ancient India was the fourfold scheme: disease, diagnosis, cure, and treatment. If you consider carefully these four stages in the practice of the science of medicine, it will be apparent that they correspond very closely to the formula of the Four Noble Truths: (1) the truth of suffering clearly corresponds to the first element of disease; (2) the truth of the cause of suffering to the element of the diagnosis; (3) the truth of the cessation of suffering to a cure; and (4) the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering to the treatment of a disease.

 

Dukkha, the truth of suffering

Let us now turn to the first of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering. The word Dukkha in the first noble truth is generally translated by almost all scholars as suffering. This interpretation is highly unsatisfactory and misleading. Because of this, many non-Buddhists, and even some Buddhists, think that Buddhism is so pessimistic. Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. It is realistic. It takes a realistic view of life and of the world. It looks at things objectively (yathabhutam).

It is true that the Pali word dukkha in ordinary usage means 'suffering, pain, sorrow, misery', as opposed to the word sukha meaning 'happiness'. But the term dukkha in the first noble truth has a deeper philosophical meaning. It is true that it contains the ordinary meaning of 'suffering', but in addition it also includes deeper ideas such as imperfection, impermanence, and emptiness. It is difficult therefore to find one word to embrace to whole concept of the term dukkha in the first noble truth.

In Buddhism, the truth of suffering can be divided into two categories. They are physical suffering and mental suffering. Physical suffering includes the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death. Birth is suffering both because of the physical pain experienced by the infant and because it is from birth that the other forms of suffering, such as old age and sickness, follow. Birth may be said to be a gateway through which the other sufferings naturally follow.

We have all observed the suffering of old age. Most of us have experienced for ourselves the suffering of sickness, and even if we have had the good fortune always to be healthy, we have seen the suffering of others caused by disease. Again, we have all observed the suffering of death, the pain and fear experienced by the dying person. These sufferings are an unavoidable part of life. No matter how happy and contented we may be at a particular moment, the suffering of birth, old age, sickness, and death are inevitable.

In Addition to these physical sufferings, there are mental sufferings: the suffering of association with unpleasant persons and conditions, the suffering of separation from beloved ones and pleasant conditions, the suffering of frustrated desires. Often, in the course of our lives, we are separated from the people and places we love. The requirements of country sometimes force us to leave our homes and our loved ones. Change and death can bring about separation from the people and places we love. Finally, most of us, some time or other, experience the suffering of frustrated desires. We experience such frustration when we cannot obtain the things we want, be it a job, a car, a house, or even a partner.

But what about happiness? Is there no happiness at all in life? Of course there is. The Buddha does not deny happiness in life when he says there is suffering. In the Anguttara-nikaya, there is a list of happiness, such as the happiness of family life, the happiness of the life of the monk, the happiness of sense pleasures, the happiness of renunciation, the happiness of attachment, and the happiness of detachment, physical happiness and mental happiness, etc. However, the happiness we experienced in the course of our lives is impermanent. As long as we still enjoy youth and health, we may find happiness in a comfortable situation or in the company of someone we love; yet all these experiences of happiness are conditional, and therefore impermanent. Sooner or later we will experience suffering.

 

Samudaya, the truth of the cause of suffering

Now, if we want to solve the problem of suffering, reduce and eventually eliminate it, we must identify its cause. If the lights go out and we want to eliminate the darkness, we must identify the cause of the problem. Is it a short circuit, has a fuse blown, or has the power supply been cut off? Similarly, once we have recognized the problem of suffering, we must look for its cause. Only by understanding the cause of suffering can we do something to solve the problem.

What is the cause of suffering according to the Buddha? The Buddha taught that craving is the great cause of suffering. There are various kinds of craving: craving for sense-pleasure (kama-tanha), craving for existence and becoming (bhava-tanha), and craving for non-existence (vibhava-tanha). We enjoy good food, our favorite music, and pleasant company. Enjoying such things, we want more and more of them. We are never completely satisfied. We find that when we are very fond of a particular type of food and eat it again and again, we soon get bored with it. We try another kind of food, like it, enjoy it, and after a while, we begin to get bored with it. We go on to look for something else.

Almost immediately after buying a new car, don't we begin to want another, even better one? When we move into a good house, don't we often think, 'this house is all right, but it would be still better if I could find a bigger one, say one with a garden, or one with a swimming pool?' It always goes on and on. It is said that trying to satisfy our craving for pleasant experiences is like drinking saltwater when thirsty: it only increases our thirst.

Craving for existence is a cause of suffering. We all crave existence. Despite all the suffering and frustration we experience, we all crave existence and it it this craving, which causes us to be born again and again. Then there is the craving for nonexistence, that is to say, a desire for eternal death. This craving expresses itself in depression, suicide, and the like. This is the second noble truth, the truth of the cause of suffering.

 

Nirodha, the truth of the cessation of suffering

Having identified the cause of suffering, we are now in a position to reduce and eventually eliminate suffering. Just as identifying the cause of a physical pain puts us in a position to eliminate that pain by means of eliminating its cause of mental suffering, we are then able to reduce and eventually remove that suffering by removing its cause- ignorance, attachment, aversion, and so on. This is called the Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering. The cessation of suffering is Nibbana.

Now, you may ask what Nibbana is? The only reasonable reply to give to the question is that it can never be answered completely and satisfactorily in words, because human language is too poor to express the real nature of the Absolute Truth or Ultimate Reality, which is Nibbana. Language is created and used by masses of human beings to express things and ideas experienced by their sense organs and their mind, The experience of Absolute Truth is not of such a category. Therefore there cannot be words to express that experience.

But it cannot be rejected simply as we have not experienced it ourselves, You may be familiar with the old story of the tortoise and fish. One day the tortoise left the pond to spend a few hours on the shore. When he returned to the lake, he told the fish of his experience on dry land, but the fish could not believe him. The fish could not accept that dry land existed because it was totally unlike the reality with which he was familiar. However, the tortoise tried to explain that one couldn't swim on the land but the fish insisted that there could not be anything and that one must be able to dive and swim there.

Hence we ought to be careful not to deny the possibility of a complete end of suffering Nibbana just because we have not experienced it ourselves. Once we accept that the end of suffering is possible, that a cure for our ills does exist, we can proceed with the progress on the path, we must at least have initial confidence in the bare possibility of achieving our goal.

Let us consider a few definitions of Nibbana as found in the original Pali texts. It is the complete cessation of that very 'thirst' (tanha). 'O bhikkhus, what is Absolute? It is, O bhikkhus, the extinction of desire (ragakkhayo), the extinction of hatred (dosakkhayo), and the extinction of illusion (mohakkhayo). This, O bhikkhus, is called the Absolute. The Buddha said that Nibbana is supreme happiness, and peace. He said that Nibbana is immortal, uncreated, unformed, beyond earth, water, fire, and air. Nibbana is not like anything in this world. It is not like any everyday experience; it is beyond all the forms and names we might use and in terms of which we experience the world.

 

Magga, the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering

Let us now turn to the last Noble Truth, the truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering. This is known as the 'Middle Path' (Majjhima Patipada), because it avoids two extremes: one extreme being the search for happiness through the pleasures of the senses, which is 'low, common, unprofitable, and the way of the ordinary people'; the other being the search for happiness through self-mortification in different forms of asceticism, which is 'painful, unworthy, and unprofitable'.

Having himself first tried these two extremes, and having found them to be useless, the Buddha discovered through personal experience the Middle Path, which leads to Nibbana. In the early Buddhist texts the noble truth of the path to the cessation of suffering is summed up as the 'Noble Eightfold Path'. It has eight categories, namely,

1. Right Understanding (Samma ditthi)
2. Right Thought (Samma samkappa)
3. Right Speech (Samma vaca)
4. Right Action (Samma kammanta)
5. Right Livelihood (Samma ajiva)
6. Right Effort (Samma vayama)
7. Right Mindfulness (Samma sati) and
8. Right Concentration (Samma samadhi).

I shall not explain each of these in detail, but I would leave this for a further presentation. Practically the whole teaching of the Buddha, to which he delivered himself during 45 years, deals in some way or other with this path. He explained it in different words to different people, according to the stage of their development and their capacity to understand and follow him.

More specifically, the path to the Buddhist goal of the cessation of suffering is like a medical prescription. When  competent doctor treats a patient for a serous illness, his or her prescription is not only physical but also psychological. If you are suffering, for instance, from a heart condition, you are not only given medication but are also asked to control your diet and avoid stressful situations. Here, too, if we look at the specific instructions for following the Buddhist path to the end of suffering, we see that they refer not only to one's body-actions and words, but also to one's thoughts. It is designed to cure the disease of suffering through eliminating its cause, and it does so by means of treatment that applies not only to the body but to the mind as well.

We can see here that the first two steps, right understanding and right thought, refer to the mind, Through right understanding and right though, ignorance, attachment, and aversion can be eliminated. But it is not enough to stop there because, to achieve right understanding and right thought, we also need to cultivate and purify our minds and bodies, and the way to do this is through the other six steps of the path. We purify our physical being so that it will be easier to purify our minds, and we purify and develop our minds so that it will be easier to attain right understanding.

For the sake of convenience, the Noble Eightfold Path has been divided into the three ways of practice: (1) morality, Sila, (2) mental development, Samadhi, and (3) wisdom, Panna. The eight steps of the path are divided into these three ways of practices as follow: (1) right speech, right action, and right livelihood belong to the way of morality, (2) right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration belong to the way of mental development; and (3) right understanding and right thought belong to the way of wisdom.

From this brief account of the Path, one may see that it is a way of life to be followed, practiced and developed by each individual. It is self-discipline in body, word, and mind. It has nothing to do with belief, prayer, worship or ceremony. It is a Path leading to the realization of Ultimate Reality, to complete freedom, happiness, and peace through moral, spiritual and intellectual perfection.

References
1. Kogen Mizuno, Beginning of Buddhism, 1992, Japan
2. Walter Henry Nelson, Buddha: His life and his teaching, 1996, New York
3. Radian Mind: Essential Buddhist Teachings and Texts, 1999, New York
4. Clive Erricker, Buddhism, 1995, Chicago
5. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, New York
6. Ruper Gethin, The Foundations of Buddhism, 1998, Oxford University Press.

 

 

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