The Four Noble Truths stand at the core of all life. They explain all phenomena in the universe, and they teach us how to achieve liberation from all delusions ~ Ven. Master Hsing Yun
What is Buddhism? Now that’s a loaded question! However, if you could ask the Buddha the same question, he would explain to you the Four Noble Truths. In-fact, this was exactly what he did right after he attained enlightenment!
What Are the Four Noble Truths?
The Four Noble Truths are the Buddha’s explanation (if he was a Doctor) of the disease, the cause of the disease, the prognosis, and the cure for what ails all sentient beings. This “ailment” is known as Dukkha¹ (commonly referred to as “suffering”) and afflicts us at various times in our life (more on Dukkha in a moment).
In essence, the Four Noble Truths help explain why we practice Buddhism, and how to practice. It’s important to understand the Four Noble Truths, as they are your “core” teachings in Buddhism of which everything is based upon.
They Four Noble Truths are:
- The Truth of Suffering (“The Symptom”): Life entails suffering (“Dukkha”)
- The Cause of Suffering (“The Diagnosis”): This suffering is caused by delusion and attachment (“Trishna”)
- The Truth of the End of Suffering (“The Prognosis”): There is a cure to this suffering, which helps you achieve a state known as “Nirvana”
- The Truth of the Path That Frees of Suffering (“The Prescription”): Follow the eightfold path to eliminate suffering in your life (“Maggha”)
To put that in a more modern context:
- Life really sucks sometimes (someone you love dies, you don’t have enough money to get that gadget, your heart is broken over someone, you want a bigger house or car, etc.)
- It sucks because you worry about things, want things, things change, and can’t let go of things (you’re too attached to “things”…in all aspects)
- Life doesn’t have to suck (when you understand why you are attached to these things, you will break the chains of that attachment)
- Just like alcoholics and drug addicts who are trying to stay away from their addictions, we have an 8-step program to help make life not suck (and help you stay away from your addiction/attachment to “things”)
Yes, I know that is not as eloquent as how the historical Buddha would have put it, but he lived over 2,600 years ago so maybe he would have said it this way nowadays 😉
Here is an excellent audio commentary by Alan Watts about the Four Noble Truths:
You Can’t Have Coffee Without Coffee Beans
“Everything is connected” is something you’ll hear a lot about in Buddhism, and the Four Noble Truths are no exception.
When it came to explaining what he had discovered, the Buddha could have placed the order of the Four Noble Truths much differently. For example, he could have explained the solution first (the Noble Eightfold Path), instead of starting at the very beginning with explaining the problem (Dukkha).
But why did he do this?
Going back to our example of an imaginary Doctor Buddha, a traditional doctor would treat you the same way:
- “I see you are suffering from an illness”
- “Your illness is caused by bacteria”
- “Don’t worry, you’re going to make a full recovery” and
- “To achieve a full recovery, you need to take this course of antibiotics”
So actually, the Buddha was pretty smart in how he ordered his “truths”, especially because each one is connected and dependent on the other. If you don’t know and understand why you are sick, then you can’t know your prognosis and how to recover. Similarly, you can’t have a prognosis and a plan for recovery until you understand why you are sick!
The Four Noble Truths are broken up in this same way in a “cause and effect” relationship:
- The first and second of the “Noble Truths” have a cause and effect relationship with each other, according to Ven. Master Hsing Yun. The first truth is the effect, and the second is its cause. You are attached to things and delusion (the 2nd noble truth) which causes suffering in your life (the 1st noble truth)
- The same cause and effect also relate to the third and fourth truths. The third truth is the effect, and the fourth is its cause. You achieve Nirvana (the 3rd noble truth) by following the Eightfold Path (the 4th noble truth)
“Wake Up”, Before You Go (Go)
At this point you’re probably going “this is all great, but what does this have to do with me?”. I need you to sit down…this is going to hit you hard:
You’re going to get old, you’re going to get sick, you’re going to die.
Of course you know this, but we all push that universal truth to the back of our heads. For Prince Sidhattrha Gotama, who would later be known as Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha), wasn’t aware of any of these things. Because he was locked up in the King’s palace and fed an artificial view of the world, he had never seen sickness, death, or suffering before. It wasn’t until he secretly set out into the real world (known in Buddhist scripture as the “Four Sights“), that he truly began to understand the world around him.
The Buddha’s very first sermon (teaching) at Deer Park (in Sarnath) after he attained enlightenment (and became a Buddha) was about the Four Noble Truths:
Dear friends, with humans, gods, brahmans, monastics, and maras as witnesses, I tell you that if I have not experienced directly al that I have told you, I would not proclaim that I am an enlightened person, free from suffering. Because I myself have identified suffering, understood suffering, identified the causes of suffering, removed the causes of suffering, confirmed the existence of well-being, obtained well-being, identified the path to well-being, gone to the ned of the path, and realized total liberation, I now proclaim to you that I am a free person.
Buddhism allows us to not only understand the world around us, but how to free us from “Dukkha” in our lives. That’s a big deal, because this Dukkha affects us (and the world around us) in many ways. Because of this fact (the First Noble Truth), we need to work on achieving enlightenment, and the production of wholesome Karma before we “go” (die).
No Cream, No Sugar
So why do I refer to these “Four Noble Truths” as coffee cups? Simply because that’s a more modern way to understand the Four Noble Truths that we can relate to.
Think of it this way, each coffee cup wakes you up more and more. When you completely finish the last coffee cup, you will become awake, and free. But remember, the order of the Four Noble Truths, and thus the coffee cups, will appear in a strange order.
The First Coffee Cup: You’re Getting Too Much Caffeine
Coffee. For millions (perhaps billions) of people worldwide, it is an essential part of your day. It awakens you (through the caffeine stimulant, however), and allows you to “get going”. The First Noble Truth is much like that. As soon as you become aware of what is causing this “suffering” in your life, it becomes impossible to forget it (which is a good thing). However, you are not entirely aware of this truth in your daily life, even if the Buddha (and his teachings) is peeking out from the top of your coffee cup.
The first Noble Truth talks entirely to Dukkha in our lives. “Dukkha” is a Pali word that doesn’t exactly have a great English translation, so many just translate and reffer to it as “Suffering”. However, it can mean anything from suffering, stressful, chronic pain, disharmony, etc.
The point with Dukkha, is that nothing is permanent (a concept known as “impermanence“, including you (which is a concept known as “non-self”). Dukkha only exists in our lives because we allow it (to affect us). Much like the water in the ocean or a lake may “appear” with waves, rough, or choppy (“Dukkha”)…that is not its natural state, but is caused by external conditions. In-fact, the true nature of that water is peaceful, calm, still. That is your true nature as well…known as Nirvana (the Third Noble Truth).
Understanding the First Noble Truth is an important one, as understanding that there is a problem is the first step. You have to open yourself up to this, and the other teachings. Some Zen Buddhist teachers have used the “teacup” analogy to explain this, which seems applicable right about now:
The Zen Master poured his visitor’s teacup full, and then kept pouring.
The visitor watched until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” the Zen Master said, “you are full of your own opinions and assumptions. How can you learn truth until you first empty your cup?”
I wonder if that Zen teacher…perhaps moonlighting as a barista…would use coffee in his example today? 😉
OK, but now that you know that “Dukkha” exists in your life, what does that mean for you? Is there a way out? But of course, says Doctor Buddha!
The Second Coffee Cup: You Are Addicted
Dukkha is a result of craving or thirst. We are never satisfied, so we look for things outside of our selves to make us happy. This can never make us happy, so we become unhappy or dissatisfied when it doesn’t satisfy our cravings, or if it changes. We begin to see the Buddha in our coffee cup more clearly than before. He is now visible, since after understanding the First Noble Truth, you are eager to understand what the First Noble Truth is all about. Here, the Buddha explains why you are experiencing Dukkha.
Let’s go into a little bit of detail about Doctor Buddha’s diagnosis of your addiction to coffee…erm, I mean…Dukkha:
The Buddha told us that our world, with all its attachments, is not permanent (a concept known as “impermanence” in Buddhism). It changes and ends all the time:
- Once powerful civilizations can slowly die off like a whisper (the Romans, Aztecs, Mayans, American Indians, etc., can all attest to this)
- The normality we expect of the world can change gradually (global warming)
- Beings that have been around for thousands or millions of years go extinct
- Loved ones come and go
- Your health and wealth can fluctuate and eventually end
As the Buddha said:
All conditioned things are impermanent — when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.
Essentially the Buddha is saying “things are gonna change no matter what…so accept that and it’s going to make life a lot easier for you”. And if you can accept that truth, it goes a long way to reducing or eliminating suffering in your life.
I Really Need My Coffee!
So what is Dukkha? That’s a topic that can encompass an entire article (and it will, coming soon!), but here is a quick way to understand it:
- We crave things to satisfy our desires
- Our desires are never satisfied, so we crave more
- All this craving causes suffering (Dukkha)
You know exactly what Dukkha is, even in the slightest form…we have all experienced it:
- You get that fancy new smartphone, only to see it quickly outdated and you want the newest thing out there
- You fall madly in love with someone, but grow complacent and lust over someone else
- You move into a new home that you love, only to become bored with it or want something “better”
- Your car (or other transportation method) is shiny and new, but soon you want another shiny and new car
- Your health is perfect, then you suddenly come down with an illness making you weak
- Your coffee is tasty and refreshing, but soon you are coming to the end of your cup and need another refill to “keep you going”
Sound familiar? In Buddhism we have a way of explaining this “endless” thirst and desire, which we call “hungry ghosts”.
These hungry ghosts are more figurative than literal in order to explain a humans thirst and desire for impermanent things. They look ghastly, with thin “straw like” necks, and distended bellies. This is figurative to show that no matter how much they want, they can only get so much down their very narrow throats, so they can never be satisfied. We are all like that because we live in our world of complete ignorance of the Four Noble Truths.
The Third Coffee Cup: It’s Empty
The third Noble Truth is what you can become…enlightened. When you stop chasing your cravings and thirst, you become free. If you become an enlightened being, you are said to live in a state of Nirvana.
And that’s what our coffee cup looks like…empty. Empty of Dukkha in your life, and empty of the constant thirst and desire for attachments (including our coffee analogy) that never satisfy you. Dukkha no longer has a stranglehold on your life. You are free. Yes, that is a smile on your face if you somehow became suddenly enlightened by hearing this!
Don’t fret, you can still have your coffee in real life after reading this 😉
The Fourth Coffee Cup: The Menu
Ah, but before your cup becomes empty, as shown in the Third Noble Truth, you need a path to get you there. You see in your coffee cup the Buddha, without any Dukkha (coffee) around him. He is there as your guide (teacher) to escape the First Noble Truth.
The Buddha’s road-map to freeing yourself of Dukkha, and achieving Nirvana, are laid out in the fourth Noble Truth, which is known as the Noble Eightfold Path (click here to read more). Here he describes all eight steps needed to attain enlightenment (how handy!).
Putting the Four Noble Truths Into Practice
Now that you understand the Four Noble Truths, it’s time to put the last truth into affect with the Noble Eightfold Path (which helps you achieve enlightenment). One very important way to achieve this is through the Turning of the Wheel of Dharma which puts the Four Noble Truths into action.
In the Chinese version of the Discourse on the Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma, the Buddha told the five monks:
Monks, the experience of the three turnings of the wheel with regard to each of the Four Truths gives rise to eyes of awakened understanding, and therefore I declare before gods, spirits, shramanas, and brahmans of all times that I have destroyed all afflictions and reached full awakening.
While having “book knowledge” (“intellectual”) of the Four Noble Truths is important, they are useless unless you actually put them into practice. The Twelve Turnings of the Dharma Wheel helps you experience, and practice, the Four Noble Truths.
Each Noble Truth is “put in motion” three times:
- Recognition: Have you ever gotten that feeling that something is wrong? Or can you feel the pain of an injury? Then you’ll understand this. You can’t deal with suffering (Dukkha) in your life if you don’t know it actually exists. And you certainly can’t progress unless you know there is a way out. Imagine Doctor Buddha who says “does it hurt if I press here?”. Recognition of each Noble Truth is an important part of your journey and progress.
- Encouragement: Now that you have achieved recognition of a particular noble truth, you’ll need encouragement to understand it. Otherwise, just knowing will seem overwhelming to you. For example, if you know the First Noble Truth about suffering, but nothing more about it, then it will be difficult to proceed. Deep understanding of each Noble Truth is as important as recognizing it. Just imagine Doctor Buddha as your guide saying “we will figure this out together”.
- Realization: Now that you (and Doctor Buddha) have identified (Recognition) and understood (Encouragement) a particular (or all) Noble Truth, you achieve “realization”. You realize and understand what suffering (Dukkha) really is. You realize and understand what caused Dukkha in your life. You realize and understand that there is a way to be free of Dukkha. And finally you realize and understand the road you need to take to be free of Dukkha.
- Recommended Books: “The Core Teachings: Essays in Basic Buddhism” by Ven. Master Hsing Yun, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings” by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, and “What the Buddha Taught” by Ven. Walpola Rahula. If you are new to Buddhism, check out my top 5 Buddhist books for beginners!
- Further Reading: The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism by Barbara O’Brien, The Message of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths by Sylvia Boorstien, and The Four Noble Truths on Buddhanet (PDF document)
- ¹ Although commonly translated and referred to as “suffering“, the original Pali word is “Dukkha” which actually has many meanings such as dissatisfaction, suffering, unpleasantness, stress, impermanence, etc.