The Four Noble Truths is the traditional starting point for a study of Buddhist philosophy. When the Buddha was 35 years old, several weeks after his great enlightenment he gave his first formal discourse in Deer Park in Isipatanna, in northeastern India. He gave it to his five former ascetic friends who had practiced with him before. They stepped onto the pages of history when they became the Buddha’s first monks, and the Buddha’s first teaching to them was the four noble truths, which are:
- There is dukkha, suffering.
- The cause of suffering is clinging, thirst, unwholesome desire.
- There is an end to suffering, nirvana.
- There is a way to the end of suffering, which is the noble eightfold path.
“Noble,” as it is used here, means an all pervasive truth that is as true as the law of gravity. Gravity is true whether you believe in it or not. Whether you understand gravity or not, or agree with gravity, or if it is not convenient for you at this time, if you jump off a ten-story building, you will go splat on the pavement, whether you like it or not. Anywhere in the universe there is gravity and the four noble truths. That is what is meant by a noble truth.
Dukkha is one of those Pali and Sanskrit terms that cannot be properly translated into English. Pali is the oldest Buddhist language. Theravada Buddhists (the southern school) like to think that the Buddha spoke in Pali, but no one is sure about that. Dukkha translates as suffering, but it has a much wider meaning than that. It also means impermanence, insubstantiality, changeability, unsatisfactoriness and transitoriness. Everything in the entire universe is of the nature of dukkha. Anything that is made will fall apart and crumble and die, including the entire universe. The first noble truth is that life is suffering, dukkha. The Buddha’s point is-accept it. Accept reality. This is the nature of reality. Even the surface of the earth is impermanent. The idea that planet Earth has a natural balance, an inherent harmony, which always gently brings it back to normal, is just bad science! The evidence proves that Earth has gone through radical changes constantly, and the last 10,000 years is just one snap shot during this brief period of relative calm. So, even the crust of the earth where we live is impermanent in its short term stability and reliability!
There was a famous American philosopher in the 1970s who eloquently described the first noble truth. She said “There’s always something!” This was when Gilda Radner would dress up as Rosane Rosanadana on Saturday Night Live. As the years rolled by, long after she died, I finally realized what Rosane Rosanadana meant for us to understand. Her teaching is that there’s always something messing up. There’s always something going wrong. When Rosane Rosanadana contemplated the reality of all of the suffering in the world, she often remarked, “I thought I was gonna die!” Rosana was telling us to face the facts of the first noble truth of dukkha: no matter how beautiful and wonderful you are, something is going to fall apart in your life. Wiser words were never spoken.
Another great philosopher was Shaw, who said “There are two great disappointments in life. One is not getting what you want, and the other is getting it.” The second noble truth taught by the Buddha is that the cause of our suffering is desire, which translates to mean thirst, clinging, attachment, grasping, craving, addiction, obsessive compulsive behaviours of all kinds. The root of suffering is “the pursuit of happiness.” We each have a nagging itch that is a constant pull away from the present moment. That is desire. Desire itself does not have to be painful but when desire becomes attachment it is painful. The pleasure of what we enjoy is lost by coveting more. Desire persists. An example of clinging can be found in monkeys in Africa. Foreign zoos and zoological societies buy monkeys that are caught by people who put nuts in glass jars. The jars have very narrow openings and are weighed down so heavily that monkeys can’t move them. They come in the morning and spread out many of these jars on the jungle floor, then they go back and play cards all day. At the end of the day they come and find many monkeys trapped by the jars. The monkeys reach in for the nuts but they can’t take their hands out with their fists full. Their monkey brains don’t tell them that they just have to let go of their clinging to be free. So unharmed, they are captured and sent away. When people go to see their best friend to talk about their problems, it’s like they are holding on to a jar with one hand. Their best friend may tell them to let go of their problem, or their friend may polish their jar and nurture their clinging, or they may do something else. This demonstrates the second noble truth – the cause of suffering is clinging.
One common criticism of the Buddha is the question, “If the Buddha didn’t have any desires, then why did he teach? Isn’t that a desire? Isn’t doing compassionate action for people a form of desire?” The issue is unwholesome desire. It is alright to have wholesome desire, like right effort. One way to understand right effort, number six in the eightfold path is that it is opposite of desire. Effort means to rub up against your habitual desires, to go against your habitual desires. For example, a married man may have the habitual pattern of pursuing sexually arousing women which results in extramarital affairs. But then he heeds the Buddha’s precept to not engage in sexual misconduct. He’s at a client’s office party and he meets a woman who’s presence causes him to trigger his habitual glandular response. But his effort in this case is to look at his own lust, to look at his own mind. He slowly turns away from her and reaches for some broccoli and dip. He holds himself back, then later goes home to his wife and kids. So, in this example, the man’s sexual desire arose and then it was his effort that broke him out of his instinctual habitual pattern. So unwholesome desire is bad, effort is good. When the Buddha chose to get up and teach he was not acting out of clinging, attachment or craving desire. He chose to apply effort to extend his compassion to others. That is why the Buddha taught the dhamma.
The third noble truth is that there is a cessation to suffering. It is called nirvana, the final ultimate enlightenment. Unless someone told you, how would you know? There actually is such a thing. A state of no suffering, a state beyond suffering. A permanent deathless state beyond the struggles of samsara. Enlightenment is the transcendence of the self, or self limitation. It is the discarding of the ego. The word nirvana translates literally as ‘blown out.’ Meaning, the ego is blown out. After that, there is no longer any possibility of ever slipping back into the sleep of ego ever again. You are awake! Enlightenment is the extinction of greed, hatred and delusion.
The fourth noble truth is that there is a path which will lead a practitioner to the end of suffering. This path is what the Buddha taught. He described it as the eightfold path because there are eight aspects to the path. They are practiced together, not in any particular order. The most universal symbol of the Buddhist religion is the wheel. It is represented with eight spokes, so it is said that the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma during that discourse to the five monks in Deer Park. That was called the dharmachakra sutra, which means the turning of the wheel discourse. Just about everything the Buddha taught for 45 years was aspects of this eightfold path which is divided into the three stages of virtue, mental purification and insight or wisdom. The eight are: right view, right intention, right speech, right discipline, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right absorption.
Those are the four noble truths, which is a concise description of the Buddha’s message. He summed up his entire life’s message in that first discourse. The rest of the time he kept repeating the same message in different formats and patterns to a diverse assortment of people but it was that same message of liberation.