The Four Noble Truths are at the heart of the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, more commonly known as the Buddha.
Gautama, active in India during the fifth century BCE, was the founder of a sect of ancient wanderer ascetics and whose teachings came to form the foundations of what would become the religion of Buddhism. Buddhists believe that the Buddha attained enlightenment and shared his wisdom on how to end suffering and the cycle of rebirth. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Four Noble Truths were taught during Gautama’s first sermon after he obtained enlightenment and are therefore considered by many to be the most important of his teachings. The designation “noble” suggests that these four truths are known to be true by “nobles.” “Noble” does not refer to the truths themselves but rather to those who understand them.
The Four Noble Truths are found in Buddhist texts such as the sutras (discourses attributed to the Buddha by his close followers) and the Pali Canon (a compendium of texts in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition). These ancient texts reflect an evolution of the Four Noble Truths (3). They came to occupy a central place in later Buddhism as the teaching of the Buddha, particularly in the Theravada tradition. All schools of Buddhism accept the Four Noble Truths and have provided commentary on them. The general concept presented by these truths is that suffering exists, that it has a cause, an end, and a path to bring about its end. It is a plan for human beings to deal with the suffering and pain that they experience in life. The Four Noble Truths are typically represented as follows:
1. The truth of suffering (Dukkha)
2. The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya)
3. The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)
4. The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)
According to the first noble truth, suffering (dukkha) is a brute part of existence in the realm of rebirth. It is usually translated into a range of rather undesirable human experiences such as suffering, pain, grief, and sorrow. Dukkha also takes numerous forms notably in sickness, old age, and death. These facts of life presented a great existential crisis for the Buddha himself and are the reason why he fled his own home.
The second noble truth determines the cause of suffering which the Buddha associated with craving or attachment in life. This takes form through attachment to material objects that ultimately lead to desires that can never be fulfilled. Buddhist texts also propose that suffering is caused by certain bad actions and behaviours such as killing and stealing, and by negative thoughts such as desire and hatred. Fundamental ignorance is also a cause of suffering because human beings do not perceive reality for what it really is. Ignorance is what leads people to hold the mistaken belief that they are independent, separate, and distinct. According to Buddhism, there is no such thing as a “you” or an “I.” This is known as the doctrine of anatman.
The third noble truth, the cessation of suffering (nirodha), teaches that ending suffering is possible through attaining nirvana that occurs when one obtains release from the cycle of rebirths (samsara). Nirvana is thought to be a transcendent state free from suffering and samsara instead of a place like heaven or a physical afterlife. Nirvana is the annihilation of everything that makes a person see themselves as a distinct entity. Once the individual reaches a state when he can live without attachment and desire, he will attain nirvana when he dies instead of being reborn again in the cycle of rebirths.
The fourth noble truth provides a path for how one can go about attaining the end to suffering. Buddhists view this as the Noble Eightfold Path identified as follows:
1. Right view
2. Right Intention
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration
If one is to attain nirvana then he must embrace all of these practices. Practices 1 and 2 are based on wisdom teachings. Right View, for instance, encourages an awareness that actions have consequences and that death is not the end. Practices 3-5 are underpinned by moral virtues. For example, Right Action requires one to avoid committing bad acts that cause violence or that cultivates physical and material desire (such as unnecessary sex or desire for material acquisition). Practices 6 to 8 are built upon meditation and mindfulness.