By Daniel Scharpenburg
The Four Noble Truths are the beginning of Buddhism.
They are the first thing the Buddha taught, and sometimes we have to go back to these fundamental teachings over and over. I’m going to go through them one by one here.
The Truth of Suffering
As long as we’re living in delusion, our lives are full of suffering. If we examine our suffering deeply, we can see that in usually comes in three forms. The are usually called: Pain, Change, and Being.
- Pain: Pain is an inevitable part of life—not just physical pain, but emotional pain as well. We might reduce or avoid our pain for a while, but we can’t escape it altogether. Mental suffering is what occurs when we don’t get what we want or we’re forced into something that we don’t want. We can’t turn away from pain, really. We can only deal with it by facing it.
- Change: Every aspects of our lives is subject to change constantly, especially our thoughts. We wish we could stop the changes we don’t like. We sometimes try hard to make things stay the same. When we’re happy we still know that change is inevitable. We are desperate to deny the reality of change and for this reason we suffer. We try to control everything or make enemies out of everything because we’re so worried about change. Just becoming aware of our relationship to the suffering caused by change, we work on it.
- Being: This is harder to understand. As long as we see ourselves as individuals we see ourselves as coming to an end, while the world goes on without us. We have big things that we don’t understand about the world and our place in it. This is the root of the suffering of being. We essentially suffer from confusion, not really understanding the world and our place in it.
The Cause of Suffering
Suffering arises out of craving, wanting and trying to get things or get away from things all the time. Craving often appears in 3 forms:
- Desire: This applies to both physical and mental desires. All the things and stimulation that we want.
- Existence: This is the our wish to avoid the fact that we will get old and die.
- Release from Pain: This is the idea that we want our pain and discomfort to go away.
Almost all of our struggles in life come from these three things. We’re often unaware that these factors are even at play. Because we’re unaware of what’s going on, we are consistently trying to satisfy ourselves by consuming. We tend to think some combination of money, love, and respect will create contentment for us. And even if we’re unaware of it, this problem keeps coming up because we are so confused.
Our purpose here is to become more and more aware of our desires and how they arise and cause us harm.
There is a way to transcend suffering
When I think of the Third Noble Truth, I think of that wonderful George Harrison song, “All Things Must Pass.”
That’s really the message of this truth. All things come and go, and this includes our suffering. Our suffering is impermanent. And if we have a rational understanding of our suffering, then we know this. It’s like that trite self help line “This too shall pass.”
Everything we perceive is always coming and going. Enlightenment is really just seeing this nature of things intuitively, seeing our situation as it is. We think of ourselves as individual beings who came into existence and will some day die. The Buddha described human beings as a stream. We came into being, but so many aspects of ourselves are just a continuation of other things. The whole universe is this way. When did you really begin? With your birth? With your conception? With your parents’ birth?
So, what do we do?
We manage our craving by not feeding it, letting go of our neurotic patterns so we don’t make all our problems worse and make enemies out of everything all the time. Waking up to our true nature of interdependence yields freedom.
The Eightfold Path
The Buddha gave us an outline called The Eightfold Path. This path gives us a practice to overcome suffering. There are these eight things that are conducive to our awakening, to helping us overcome our suffering by seeing reality as it really is.
- Right View: This is cultivating an expansive view that isn’t so caught up in our narrow preconceptions, emotional baggage, and I-Me-Mine thinking all the time. This is a view that sees that things are always changing and that nothing is independent of anything else. We are parts of a whole.
- Right Intention: This means we are in this for the right reasons. We’re doing this to lessen our suffering. Therefore we take it seriously.
- Right Speech: We want to be honest and forthright. Avoid lying. Also avoid harsh speech and gossip. Use your words to be kind. We can do so much harm with our words.
- Right Action: Do good deeds, but also act from a state that’s not so connected to outcomes. Don’t help someone in the hope that they will later help you. Help them just to help them.
- Right Livelihood: Earn a living in a way that promotes honesty and harmony.
- Right Effort: Cultivate a determination to be engaged in each moment and to abandon delusion. Be diligent.
- Right Mindfulness: Keep in mind the real problem, suffering, and also be here now. Observe the mind and become aware of how it works.
- Right Meditation: Training the mind to be focused and aware, not just on the meditation cushion, but all the time.
That’s it. The four noble truths is really the first teaching that the Buddha gave and many would argue that it’s the most important. Some even argue that this teaching is all that you need.
Editor: Dana Gornall