The Truth of Suffering
The first of the Four Noble Truths is suffering, which is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word duhkha (Pali, dukkha). We should qualify that translation by saying that this does not mean that the Buddha didn’t acknowledge the existence of happiness or contentment in life. The point that he was making is that there is happiness and also sorrow in the world; but the reason why everything we experience in our everyday life is said to be duhkha is that even when we have some kind of happiness, it is not permanent; it is subject to change.~ So unless we can gain insight into that truth and understand what is really able to give us happiness, and what is unable to provide happiness, the experience of dissatisfaction will persist.
Normally we think our happiness is contingent upon external circumstances and situations, rather than upon our own inner attitude toward things, or toward life in general. The Buddha was saying that dissatisfaction is part of life, even if we are seeking happiness and even if we manage to find temporary happiness. The very fact that it is temporary means that sooner or later the happiness is going to pass. So the Buddha said that unless we understand this and see how pervasive dissatisfaction or duhkha is, it is impossible for us to start looking for real happiness.
According to the Buddha, even when we think we are trying to find real happiness, we are not doing it effectively, because we don’t have the right attitude and we don’t know where to look for it. The Buddha was not against happiness; rather, he gave us a method of finding out how to overcome that sense of dissatisfaction, and this method is part of the last Noble Truth. (We shall come to that soon.)
The key to understanding the truth of suffering is what the Buddha called the “three marks” of everything that exists. All conditioned phenomena,1 he said, are pervaded by these three marks: impermanence (anitya), dissatisfaction or suffering (duhkha), and insubstantiality (anatman, “without self”). According to the Buddha, if we do not understand how conditioned phenomena are marked by these three aspects, then we will not be able to understand the first Noble Truth. We may do all we can in order to avoid facing the fact that everything is contingent and transient—we may try to hide ourselves from it, and we may even spin out all kinds of metaphysical theories of an unchanging, permanent, substantial reality to avoid this all-pervasive nature of ephemerality. Also, if we do not understand that conditioned phenomena are unsatisfactory, we will not think about restraining ourselves from overindulgence in sensory gratifications, which makes us lose our center and become immersed in worldly concerns, so that our life is governed by greed, craving, and attachment. All of these things disturb the mind. If we do not understand that everything is insubstantial—anatman—then we may believe that there is some kind of enduring essence or substance in things, or in the personality, and because of this belief we generate delusion and confusion in the mind.
The Origin of Suffering
The second Noble Truth is the origin of suffering, which means that once we have realized that suffering or dissatisfaction exists, we next have to find out where that suffering comes from: does it originate within, or does it come from some kind of external situation or condition’ The Buddha said that when we start to examine ourselves and see how we respond to situations, how we act in the world, how we feel about things, then we will realize that the cause of suffering is within. This is not to say that external social or economic conditions don’t create suffering; but the main suffering that afflicts us is created by our own mind and attitude.
The Buddha said that if we want to overcome dissatisfaction, which is intimately linked with our experience of suffering, then we have to deal with craving, grasping, clinging, and attachment—all these exaggerated forms of desire. Now, some people think that Buddhists encourage the idea of eradicating desire altogether, but that is not what the Buddha said. He said that we should try to overcome excessive and exaggerated forms of desire, which manifest as craving, grasping, and so on, because they make our condition worse by increasing our sense of dissatisfaction and discontentment. It is the more obsessive types of desire that the Buddha said we should try to overcome. As long as we have these strong forms of desire, they will always be accompanied by aversion, hatred, resentment, and so forth, because when we can’t get what we want, we become frustrated, angry, and resentful. Or, if we find some obstacles in the way of satisfying our desire, we want to eliminate them, eradicate them, or attack them. We may even resort to violence and deception in order to satisfy our greed and craving. So the Buddha said that we need to deal with these extreme forms of desires; but we should not aim to eradicate desire altogether, because we can use desire in all kinds of positive ways as well.
The Goal: The Cessation of Suffering
The third Noble Truth is the goal. First we find out about the human condition, how it is pervaded by a sense of dissatisfaction, then we look at the cause of that dissatisfaction, and after that we look at the goal, which is the attainment of nirvana. Some people think nirvana is some kind of absolute reality that is transcendent and otherworldly. But the Buddha said that one can attain nirvana while still living in this world; this is called “nirvana with remainder.” One can also attain nirvana at the time of death, which is called “nirvana without remainder.” So it is possible to achieve nirvana in this very lifetime. Achieving nirvana means that one’s mind is no longer afflicted by delusion and emotional afflictions. The mind becomes tranquil, and one’s experience of happiness is no longer dependent upon external situations and circumstances. Therefore, one’s reaction to things is less extreme, and one is able to maintain a sense of tranquillity and peace, even when faced by adverse circumstances.
This is so because the one who has attained nirvana has overcome the three root delusions of attraction, aversion, and ignorance. When the mind is no longer governed by strong emotional reactions of either attraction and aversion, we can be at peace and tranquil even when things are not going right. We maintain a sense of fortitude and face things courageously.
The Path: The Way Out of Suffering
Having realized that this is the goal—to achieve a permanent happiness that is not based upon external changing conditions—we then have to find out how to apply ourselves in order to achieve that goal. This is what the fourth Noble Truth explains. The fourth Noble Truth is the path, and this is the essence of Buddhist practice. Known as the Eightfold Noble Path, it is oriented toward developing three things in an individual: moral sensitivity, meditation or the concentrated mind, and wisdom. Through the practice of moral sensitivity we become better individuals, able to overcome our egocentric tendencies. We become more compassionate and more sensitive to the needs of others. Through the practice of meditation our mind becomes more focused, more resilient, and more aware, which in turn gives rise to wisdom.
The Eightfold Noble Path consists of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. The first two truths of Right Understanding and Right Thought correspond to the development of wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood all develop our moral sensitivities. The last three—Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration—foster our meditative capabilities.
Right Understanding means understanding the Buddhist view, which, as we saw, is the middle view between eternalism and nihilism. As the Buddha said, knowing how the world arises due to causes and conditions enables us not to fall into the extreme of nihilism. The other aspect of the middle view is knowing how everything ceases when causes and conditions cease. Therefore, we do not fall into the extreme of the substantialist, essentialist, or eternalist view, because we realize that, even though things come into being through causes and conditions, nothing that exists on the physical or mental plane endures when those causes and conditions are no longer present.
Right Thought is associated with seeing how our thoughts and emotions are closely linked, and how indulging in negative forms of thought leads to the development of negative emotions such as hatred and jealousy. Conversely, thinking in a positive way has an effect on our emotions, whereby we start to become more loving, more caring, and more sensitive to others.
Right Speech means that if we are not aware—as normally we are not—then we don’t know what we are saying or doing. Inadvertently, we indulge in all kinds of negative forms of speech such as lying, backbiting, haughty speech, and gossip. It is important to become aware of our speech, because what we say and how we say it have a direct influence on the kind of person we become. If we are always using harsh words, then we naturally become very aggressive.
Right Action relates to seeing how what we do is beneficial or harmful to ourselves and others. This is involved with developing skill in the way we act in the world. Instead of thinking that we already know what is the right thing to do and what is the wrong thing to do, in a clear-cut manner, it is important to look closely at the way we act. We should not simply rely on some preestablished rules or social norms; instead we should see how we as individuals act in the world and what the effects of our actions are upon ourselves, the environment, and other people.
With respect to Right Livelihood, the Buddha said that there is nothing wrong with making money and looking after one’s family, but we must know how to make a living in a way that does not cause harm to others or ourselves. So, for example, we do not engage in an occupation that involves cruelty to animals or human beings, or one that obliges us to use deception or inflict physical or mental pain on others. If these things are involved, then we should give up that form of livelihood.
Right Effort has four aspects. The first effort has to do with prevention: making an effort through meditation to ensure that one does not yield to unwholesome thoughts and emotions, and trying to prevent these from arising in the mind. Unwholesome thoughts originate in attachment, aversion, and ignorance. The second effort is to reduce the unwholesome thoughts and emotions that have already arisen in the mind. The third effort is to develop wholesome thoughts and emotions, and this also is done in meditation. Even if they are not yet present, we should make an effort to arouse them. The fourth effort is to cultivate further those wholesome thoughts and emotions that have already risen in the mind.
Right Mindfulness is associated with becoming more attentive to our thoughts, emotions, feelings, speech, and behavior in meditation. Whatever we experience, we become more conscious of it and more attentive to it, so that we gain more insight into the workings of the mind and how the mind influences our actions in everyday life.
Right Concentration also develops from meditation. The mind becomes more focused and less distracted. Even if we hear or see or think of something, the mind does not become distracted but is still able to maintain a state of concentration.
So that is the Eightfold Noble Path, which leads the individual from this condition of samsara2 to the attainment of nirvana, or enlightenment. As we can see, the Four Noble Truths are both descriptive and prescriptive. They describe the condition we are in—what sort of conditions are prevalent and what the problems are. They also prescribe in terms of how to improve our situation, overcome our sense of dissatisfaction, and attain enlightenment through following the Eightfold Noble Path and its training in morality, meditation, and wisdom.
As I have said, the Four Noble Truths are the essence of all of the Buddha’s teachings. Without understanding them, we cannot proceed. All the later interpretations of the original Buddhist teachings are based on the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. There may be different ways of understanding how we can train in meditation, wisdom, or morality, but there is no disagreement in terms of the importance of the understanding of the Four Noble Truths. All other practices are based upon or elaborate these fundamental teachings of Buddhism.
1 “Conditioned phenomena” (Skt., samskrita; Pali, sankhate) means everything that exists is mutually conditioned owing to causes and conditions; things come into existence, persist for some time, and then disintegrate, thus suggesting the impermanent nature of the empirical world.
2 Samsara (Skt.) is cyclic existence, in which—owing to the corrupting influence of the mental delusions of hatred, desire, and ignorance—sentient creatures are compelled to wander from one life form to another without respite until they meet up with the spiritual path.