The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be summed up in four short statements, which are referred to as the Four Noble Truths. Though they seem short and sweet at first glance, the Four Noble Truths require great amounts of contemplation and practice in order to be fully realized. Notice they are called the Four Noble Truths and not Four Simple Steps to Nirvana. To achieve anything noble in this life requires effort and dedication, and so it is with the Four Noble Truths.
So, what are these truths and how did they come to be? Soon after the Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya, he taught the Four Noble Truths to his first five disciples in Sarnath.
The Four Noble Truths Simplified
- The Truth of Suffering: We are living in an ongoing state of dissatisfaction.
- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering: Suffering/dissatisfaction arises from causes and conditions.
- The Truth of Cessation: There is a possibility of reaching a state where that dissatisfaction/suffering has ceased.
- The Truth of the Path: There is a path for us to follow that will bring us to such a state.
Easier said than done, right? Here’s how we can know and learn to embody each of the Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism Explained
1. The First Noble Truth: The Noble Truth of Suffering
When the Buddha taught the truth of suffering, he was introducing people to a way of seeing the world and of understanding their experiences of it. The wish to attain liberation from Samsara is referred to as the mind of renunciation. The Tibetan term ngem gyung really means more like “fed-up” and kind of disgusted. So, renunciation doesn’t mean that you have to give away all of your possessions, run away to India, and get ordained. It is becoming thoroughly fed up with all the things of Samsara, and a wish to overcome all states of suffering/craving/dissatisfaction.
2. The Second Noble Truth: The Noble Truth of the Causes of Suffering
Once we see the reality of suffering, we see the causes of suffering. The Buddha taught that the causes of suffering are our own actions (karma) and our afflictive thoughts and emotions. It’s easy to blame our suffering on external causes like another person or situation. However, our own attitudes and actions are the primary determining factors of our happiness or suffering. If we don’t want to suffer, there are certain actions and attitudes we should avoid. For example, if we lie to others, we will live with the stress and paranoia that whoever we lied to may find out the truth. If so, we may lose their trust and friendship. If we want to gain happiness and avoid suffering, we have to know their causes and act accordingly.
The system of ethics taught by the Buddha is very practical. It isn’t a command. Commands are hard to follow. The Buddha never said, “Don’t do this or that just because I said so.” Typically, that approach doesn’t work very well, neither with children nor adults. The Buddha taught virtues and non-virtues to refrain from if you want to avoid suffering, and what to do if you want to gain happiness. Once we see the truth of this, we want to follow that system of Ethics because it is in our best interest to do so. (Here we explain the Ten Non-Virtues and Virtues the Buddha taught for a more detailed examination of the ethics.)
3. The Third Noble Truth: The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
The Truth of Cessation is that there is an end to the causes and resultant sufferings/dissatisfaction of Samsara. This state of complete, permanent freedom from ignorance and attachment is called Buddhahood or the fully enlightened state. It is a state of peace in which suffering and afflictive thoughts and emotions will never arise again.
This cessation is not brought about by shutting down your mind, turning it off, or making it so dull or sleepy that it can’t function. Buddhahood is brought about by the realization of ultimate reality. It’s important to remember that we all possess this Buddha nature, and it is through practice that we gain the wisdom to see it. The practices that bring about this realization are called “the Path.” (Here is an introductory course to meditation practices from our lineage to help you begin your journey on the path.)
4. The Fourth Noble Truth: The Noble Truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering
The Truth of the Path refers to the “Path” that we traverse to attain Buddhahood—full liberation (from Samsara). When our mind has awakened to the deeper truth about the nature of reality, it is a goal. We are traversing the path—progressing along it—when our mind is realizing some level of reality, and that realization is countering or serving as an antidote to some misapprehension of reality that we previously held. For example, when we come to some new awareness or realization about Impermanence, we’re dispelling our conscious or subconscious beliefs that things will always remain as they are
There are many definitions and divisions of the Path which are presented in the Buddhist texts. Read more about the Three Paths of Buddhism here. The main point is that by practicing the Path, we will uproot all the causes of suffering. Without the causes of suffering, there will be no results of suffering, and we will experience the peace and ever-joyful state of Buddhahood.