By Daniel Scharpenburg


The Four Noble Truths are a central teaching in Buddhism.

It’s said to be the first thing the Buddha taught about—or one of the first things, The Middle Way was probably first. But, the Four Noble Truths was a close second.

The Four Noble Truths are:

  • Life is Suffering
  • The Cause of Suffering is Attachment
  • There is a Way Out of Suffering
  • The Way Out is the Eightfold Path

This fundamental teaching of Buddhism is a teaching that I don’t like very much. When I sit around talking about Buddhism with my friends (like you do) I like to focus on Buddhism as the cultivation of the six perfections, or as a series of practices designed to help us experience oneness or dissolve our delusions.

Buddhism is a mystical journey to dwell in our true selves, and it’s totally awesome. But it all started with the Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha is sometimes called The Supreme Physician. That’s what he’s doing here. He’s diagnosing a problem (suffering), explaining the cause of the problem (attachment), telling us there is a treatment (a way out), and telling us what the treatment is (The Eightfold Path).

It sounds pretty good, right? So, why don’t I like it?

People struggle to understand this teaching, I think. People ask all sorts of questions about it.

Life is Suffering.

We all experience things like not getting what we want, or worrying we will lose what we have. We all get stubbed toes. We all get sick. We all grow old. We all lose the people we love. That’s why life is suffering.

But, to some this sounds negative.

I can remember goth kids from my high school, the kids who were mad when movies had happy endings, the ones who went on and on talking about how miserable their lives were (okay, I wasn’t much different). Sometimes that’s what I tend to think of when I think of the First Noble Truth—angst-ridden teenagers in all black who say, “Life is pain.”

And, also, one could say, “Life isn’t suffering. Sure, there are bad parts, but I ate a burrito yesterday. And I had sex this morning. There’s plenty of good things going on too.” And that’s true.

But, you see:

The Cause of Suffering is Attachment.

That burrito will be gone soon. And the sex will be over (hopefully not as fast as the burrito). We want things we don’t have. And when we do have them, we want them to last forever. Of course, nothing in this world lasts forever, does it?

Happiness is one delicious cup of coffee. We drink it and it feels good. And then it’s gone.

There’s a Way Out of Suffering.

This is where I can say, “See, Buddhism isn’t negative.” It’s a prescription. The Buddha didn’t save us. He told us how to save ourselves. There’s a way out, and he’s an ordinary human (like us), so we can do what he did.

The Way Out is the Eightfold Path.

If we can cultivate and strengthen these virtues, we can dwell in Enlightenment.

  • Right Understanding
  • Right Thought
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

We can spend our lives trying to know how to cultivate these. This is how we save ourselves. This is the Buddha’s path.


Photo: Kelledia’s Garden/tumblr

Editor: Dana Gornall