Four Noble Truths
Why are we here? Why are we not happy with our lives? What is the cause of our unsatisfactoriness? How can we see the end of unsatisfactoriness and experience eternal peace?
The Buddha’s Teaching is based on the Four Noble Truths. To realize these Truths is to realize and penetrate into the true nature of existence, including the full knowledge of oneself. When we recognize that all phenomenal things are transitory, are subject to suffering and are void of any essential reality, we will be convinced that true and enduring happiness cannot be found in material possessions and worldly achievement, that true happiness must be sought only through mental purity and the cultivation of wisdom.
The Four Noble Truths are a very important aspect of the teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha has said that it is because we fail to understand the Four Noble Truths that we have continued to go round in the cycle of birth and death. In the very first sermons of the Buddha, the Dhammachakka Sutta, which He gave to the five monks at the Deer park in Sarnath was on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. What are the Four Noble Truths? They are as follows:
The Noble Truth of DukkhaThe Noble Truth of the Cause of DukkhaThe Noble Truth of the End of DukkhaThe Noble Truth of the Path leading to the end of Dukkha
There are many ways of understanding the Pali word ‘Dukkha’. It has generally been translated as ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’, but this term as used in the Four Noble Truths has a deeper and wider meaning. Dukkha contains not only the ordinary meaning of suffering, but also includes deeper ideas such as imperfection, pain, impermanence, disharmony, discomfort, irritation, or awareness of incompleteness and insufficiency. By all means, Dukkha includes physical and mental suffering: birth, decay, disease, death, to be united with the unpleasant, to be separated from the pleasant, not to get what one desires. However, many people do not realize that even during the moments of joy and happiness, there is Dukkha because these moments are all impermanent states and will pass away when conditions change. Therefore, the truth of Dukkha encompasses the whole of existence, in our happiness and sorrow, in every aspect of our lives. As long as we live, we are very profoundly subjected to this truth.
Some people may have the impression that viewing life in terms of Dukkha is a rather pessimistic way of looking at life. This is not a pessimistic but a realistic way of looking at life. If one is suffering from a disease and refuses to recognize the fact that one is ill, and as a result of which refuses to seek for treatment, we will not consider such a mental attitude as being optimistic, but merely as being foolish. Therefore, by being both optimistic or pessimistic, one does not really understand the nature of life, and is therefore unable to tackle life’s problems in the right perspective.
The Four Noble Truths begin with the recognition of Dukkha and then proceed to analyse its cause and find its cure. Had the Buddha stopped at the Truth of Dukkha, then one may say Buddhism has identified the problem but has not given the cure; if such is the case, then the human situation is hopeless. However, not only is the Truth of Dukkha recognized, the Buddha proceeded to analyze its cause and the way to cure it. How can Buddhism be considered to be pessimistic if the cure to the problem is known? In fact, it is a teaching which is filled with hope.
In addition, even though Dukkha is a noble truth, it does not mean that there is no happiness, enjoyment and pleasure in life. There is, and the Buddha has taught various methods with which we can gain more happiness in our daily life. However, in the final analysis, the fact remains that the pleasure or happiness which we experience in life is impermanent. We may enjoy a happy situation, or the good company of someone we love, or we enjoy youth and health. Sooner or later, when these states change we experience suffering. Therefore, while there is every reason to feel glad when one experiences happiness, one should not cling to these happy states or be side-tracked and forget about working one’s way to complete Liberation.
If we wish to cure ourselves from suffering, we must first identify its cause. According to the Buddha, craving or desire (tanha or raga) is the cause of suffering. This is the Second Noble Truth. People crave for pleasant experiences, crave for material things, crave for eternal life, and when disappointed, crave for eternal death. They are not only attached to sensual pleasures, wealth and power, but also to ideas, views, opinions, concepts, beliefs. And craving is linked to ignorance, that is, not seeing things as they really are, or failing to understand the reality of experience and life. Under the delusion of Self and not realizing Anatta (non-Self), a person clings to things which are impermanent, changeable, perishable. The failure to satisfy one’s desires through these things causes disappointments and suffering.
The Danger of Selfish Desire
Craving is a fire which burns in all beings: every activity is motivated by desire. They range from the simple physical desire of animals to the complex and often artificially stimulated desires of the civilized man. To satisfy desire, animals prey upon one another, and human beings fight, kill, cheat, lie and perform various forms of unwholesome deeds. Craving is a powerful mental force present in all forms of life, and is the chief cause of the ills in life. It is this craving that leads to repeated births in the cycle of existence.
Once we have realized the cause of suffering, we are in the position to put an end to suffering. So, how do we put an end to suffering? Eliminate it at its root by the removal of craving in the mind. This is the Third Noble Truth. The state where craving ceases is known as Nibbana. The word Nibbana is composed of ‘ni’ and ‘vana’, meaning the departure from or end of craving. This is a state which is free from suffering and rounds of rebirth. This is a state which is not subjected to the laws of birth, decay and death. This state is so sublime that no human language can express it. Nibbana is Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. If there were not this Unborn, this Unoriginated, this Uncreated, this Unformed, then escape from the conditioned world is not possible.
Nibbana is beyond logic and reasoning. We may engage in highly speculative discussions regarding Nibbana or ultimate reality, but this is not the way to really understand it. To understand and realize the truth of Nibbana, it is necessary for us to walk the Eightfold Path, and to train and purify ourselves with diligence and patience. Through spiritual development and maturity, we will be able to realize the Third Noble Truth.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the Fourth Noble Truth which leads to Nibbana. It is a way of life consisting of eight factors. By walking on this Path, it will be possible for us to see an end to suffering. Because Buddhism is a logical and consistent teaching embracing every aspect of life, this noble Path also serves as the finest possible code for leading a happy life. Its practice brings benefits to oneself and other, and it is not a Path to be practised by those who call themselves Buddhists alone, but by each and every understanding person, irrespective of his religious beliefs.