Even though some practitioners may not routinely make direct reference to them, all the practices and teachings of all the extraordinary variety of Buddhist vehicles and traditions are, in fact, elucidations of the Four Noble Truths.
The Early Life of Buddha Gautama
The Buddha-to-be, Prince Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya Clan led a life of wealth and ease. The lands over which his family had domain are believed to have been extensive among the foothills of the Himalayas in present-day southern Nepal at the far North of the plains of the Indian subcontinent. He was protected from unpleasantness. A prediction had been made that if he was not prevented from seeing the hardships of life experienced by ordinary people, he would not become the great potentate hoped for by his father. For this reason he was confined to the palace grounds even after he himself became a father.
Although care was taken to ensure that he saw only to what was pleasant, it is said one morning he woke up to see the still-sleeping women in their usual awkward drooling attitudes and was disgusted by the sight. This set him to thinking about what else he might not have noticed about life.
Later at the age of twenty-nine, Gautama was escorted by his attendant Channa whilst riding through the streets of Kapilavastu outside the palace. There, he came across the signs of truth; an old, crippled man, a diseased man, a decaying corpse, and a wandering ascetic . Some Tibetan traditions say the latter was a deva, a god, appearing as a renunciate or monk. Gautama realized then the harsh truth of life as we know it—that death, disease, age, and pain were inescapable, that the poor outnumber the wealthy, and even the pleasures of the rich eventually come to nothing. He became aware humanity was ensnared in suffering. He was impressed that amidst the chaos and suffering of the street scene unfolding before him, the renunciate mendicant was poised and appeared to be content.
Moved by his compassion for beings, he stole out of the palace by night renouncing his life of pleasure, his wives Yasodhara and Gopa, his son, Rahula, family and high status. Following the example of the renunciate he had seen as his role model he spent the next seven years subjecting himself to austerities, which he later dismissed as being extreme. It is said his self-denial was so intense he grew thin enough to feel his hands if he placed one on the small of his back and the other on his stomach. One day, while engaged in such valiant but futile self-abuse, he overheard a teacher speaking of music. If the strings on the instrument are too tight the instrument will not play harmoniously. If the strings are too loose, the instrument will not produce sound. Only the middle way, not too tight and not too loose, will produce harmonious music. This instantly changed his view. He realised the method to attain Nirvana was neither to live a completely worldly life, nor to live a life completely denying physical needs, but to live a middle way. The way out of suffering was through concentration, and since the mind was in relation to the body, denying the body would frustrate concentration, just as overindulgence would distract one. Six years after leaving home he accepted some rice pudding. This was clearly disappointing to the five followers who were with him. He went alone to Sarnath, where he sat beneath a bodhi tree. He vowed not move from beneath that tree until he had discovered the means to alleviate suffering.
Finally he attained realisation whilst meditating beneath the Bodhi tree.
The First Turning of the Wheel
At this moment he understood beings throughout existence are propelled by the force of their actions (karma) to repeat patterns, which bind them to an endless cycle of suffering, birth and death. Everything in beings’ experience is unstable and changing. At this point he became, as his followers described him, the “Buddha”, the “Awakened One”.
Although the view expressed in the “first turning of the wheel of Dharma” was characterised by a sense of self-reliance and despite his initial reluctance to teach, it was out of great compassion for other beings that he set about teaching what he had discovered by and of himself; the Dharma. In his first teaching in the Deer Park at Sarnath, Buddha shared his conclusions regarding the Middle Way with five monks (bhikkhus) and delivered the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. This teaching became known as the first turning of the wheel of dharma (dharmachakra).
The first pair of truths is a relationship of cause (karma) and effect (karma-vipaka) and the second pair is of path (marga) and fruit (phala). That is 1 is effect, 2 is cause, 3 is fruit and 4 is path. Without fully comprehending the first inter-relationship there can be no real motivation toward realisation. Without insight into the second pair there can be no release from cyclic existence of suffering. These are the basis of all Buddhist practice.
The Middle Way
"Bhikkhus, these two extremes ought not to be cultivated by one gone forth from the house-life. What are the two? There is devotion to indulgence of pleasure in the objects of sensual desire, which is inferior, low, vulgar, ignoble, and leads to no good; and there is devotion to self-torment, which is painful, ignoble and leads to no good.
The middle way discovered by a Perfect One avoids both these extremes; it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nirvana. And what is that middle way? It is simply the noble eightfold path, that is to say, right view, right intention; right speech, right action, right livelihood; right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. That is the middle way discovered by a Perfect One, which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and which leads to peace, to direct acquaintance, to discovery, to nirvana."
1. The Truth of Suffering (Dukka)
The consequence for us of impermanence is a continuous cycle of suffering. Buddha identified eight kinds of suffering of which the first four were called "the four great rivers of suffering". Dukka is interpreted in a number of ways. These are physical.
- Birth itself causes pain and trauma setting in train a host of physical cravings and discomfort.
- In old age we watch our vigour, zest for life, power and wealth decline and friends and relations are lost to us. In the end we long for death and yet are in terror of it.
- In sickness we become dependent on others but are repulsive to those upon whom we depend. We are often in pain and are afraid of what it might denote and what it might lead to.
- At the time of death we face the unknown utterly alone and it will come at any time.
Four additional kinds of suffering are emotional.
- Association with that or who we do not want to be with. No matter how wealthy or powerful or careful we are, we cannot be certain unpleasantness will not enter our lives.
- Being separated from what or whomever we want to be with. All things must come to pass.
- Either getting or not getting what we want. If we don’t get what we want we suffer. If we get what we want, we suffer because we fear losing them...and in the end we do anyway!
- The suffering of the limitations of conditioned existence experiencing all in an illusory self centred way. This is something that we are only distantly or fleetingly aware due to our grossness.
These eight kinds of suffering are also described as three kinds of suffering:
- The suffering of suffering; Mental and physical unsatisfactoriness of being subject to what is unpleasant, birth, old age, sickness, death, being with what we don’t like, being separated from what we do like, not getting what we want and getting what we don’t want.
- The suffering of transience comes from the temporary nature of those things that please us and of the perceived benefit they bring. Somehow we are never quite satisfied with what we get however promising they may seem in their pursuit.
- The suffering of the conditioned is not necessarily obvious but everything is in some way permeated with suffering and is bought at the cost of suffering. An example might be that a vegetarian cannot avoid connection to a chain of events involving the suffering of beings in the growing and preparation of her meal merely by avoiding meat.
Meanings attributed for "dukka" range from "suffering", to "stress", to "unsatisfactoriness".
2. The Truth of the Cause (Samudaya)
The root cause of suffering is karma and the kleshas. Karma is Sanskrit for "activity" and klesha in Sanskrit means "mental defilement" or "mental poison."
"The origin of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is the craving that produces renewal of being accompanied by enjoyment and lust, and enjoying this and that; in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being."
The fundamental cause of suffering is described as craving . In the Abhidarma it is explained how at the root of this there is a basic misconception; a belief in a solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined personal self where, in fact, no such thing exists. Yet our whole existence revolves around it and maintaining the precarious illusion of its existence and importance. This is the motive power behind the patterns of distorted emotions (i.e. insubstantiality, fear, isolation, vulnerability and depression) and reactive actions (arrogance, anger, craving, envy and wilful stupidity) that spin us into ever more complex patterns of confusion and fantasy. Spinning within the momentum of action and reaction generated by our emotions we are thrust into activity without the space or time to see the situation for what it is or to comprehend the consequences. Emotion gives rise to ignorance and confusion which in turn results in dissatisfaction, disappointment and suffering. Emotions are further validated, reinforced and reignited.
Normally we attribute all happiness and suffering to external causes. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate suffering and its causes. When you realise that the experience of suffering is a result of what you have done, that it is a result of your karma, eliminating suffering becomes possible. If you are aware how suffering arisises, then you can begin to remove the causes of suffering. Karma produces suffering and is driven by the kleshas, defilements, our negative motivation and negative thoughts, which produce negative actions.
3. The Truth of Cessation (Nirodha)
"Cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, is this: It is remainderless fading and ceasing, giving up, relinquishing, letting go and rejecting, of that same craving." This is Nirvana (Skt. nibbhana ) by another name. Literally meaning “snuffing out”, emancipation, liberation, freedom from the continuity of suffering is Nirvana (Pali Nibbana). It is also referred to by a range of other terms rather than nibbana (skt. Nirvana). It appears to used interchangeably with “asamkhata” which translates as “uncompounded, unconditioned”. e.g. “the extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion".
If you transcend the neurotic patterns described above, if you transcend belief in a "self" you will be liberated into a non-conditioned state where no entity can be found or named. Disengage from the cycle of cause and effect that is samsara and emotions and their conflicts simply disappear and there is no possessor to be found to enjoy them anyway. We can control our suffering because karma and the kleshas are created by us and we experience them. Virtuous actions result in the external state of happiness and unvirtuous actions result in suffering. We don't need to rely on anyone else to remove the cause of suffering. The truth of universal origination means that if we do unvirtuous actions, we create suffering. If we give up unvirtuous actions, we remove the cause of our suffering in the future. “The abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these five aggregates of attachment is the cessation of dukkha”
4. The Truth of the Path (Magga)
"And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditative concentration."
"Samyak", the word normally translated as "right" has the sense of "authentically pure". That is "that which transcends the self". You travel the Eightfold Path by recognising the self as an illusion and hence living with pure-vision. This is described as the “middle way” (Majjhima Patipada) since it avoids the two extremes of searching for happiness through sensual pleasures, on the one hand and on the other the search for happiness through self mortification and asceticism. The former is “the low, common way of ordinary people”and the latter is “painful, unworthy and unprofitable.”
The middle way, however, gives “vision and knowledge, which leads to calm, insight, enlightenment, Nirvana”.
The Four Noble Truths are the basis and substance of the entire Buddhist path and all other sutras, tantras and commentaries can be seen as elaborations of them. In particular, however, the earliest spread of Buddhism to South East Asia including Sri Lanka, thence to Indonesia, Thailand and most of South Asia which took place within the two hundred years after Gautama Buddha taught, evolved with the least restatement into what is now known as Theravada Buddhism. This adheres most closely to the doctrines of the Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle), the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.