The Four Noble Truths (henceforth referred to as FNTs) are at the heart of the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, more commonly known as “the Buddha.”
Gautama, active in India during the 5th century BC, 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 Buddha obtained enlightenment and shared wisdom on how to end suffering and the cycle of rebirth. According to the Buddhist tradition, the FNTs were taught during Gautama’s first sermon after he obtained enlightenment. They are therefore considered by many to be the most important of his teachings. The designation “noble” proposes that these four truths are known to be true by “nobles.” Thus “noble” does not actually refer to the truths but rather to those who understand them.
The FNTs are found in Buddhist texts such as the sutras (discourses attributed to Gautama 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 FNTs (3) and came to occupy a central place in later Buddhism as the teaching of Gautama, particularly in the Theravada tradition. All schools Buddhism accept the FNTs and have provided commentary on them. The general concept presented by the FNTs is that suffering exists, that it has a cause, an end, and a path to bring about its end. It constitutes a plan for human beings to deal with the suffering and pain that they experience. A good representation of the four truths are 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 characteristic 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 such as in sickness, old age, and death. These facts of life presented a great existential crisis for the Buddha in his time and are the reason for why he fled his own home which led to his abandonment of his family.
The second noble truth determines the cause of suffering which Gautama associated with craving or attachment in life. This takes form via a person’s attachment to material objects which ultimately lead to continuous desires of which can never be fulfilled. Buddhist texts also propose that suffering results from certain bad actions and behaviors such as killing, stealing etc., and negative thoughts such as desire and hatred. Fundamental ignorance is also believed to be a cause of suffering because human beings do not perceive reality for what it actually is. Ignorance is what leads people to hold the mistaken belief that they are independent, separate, and distinct because there is really 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 (dukkha) is possible through one’s achieving nirvana, which occurs when one obtains release from the cycle of rebirths (samsara). Nirvana is believed to be a transcendent state free from suffering and samsara as opposed to say a location like heaven or a physical afterlife. Rather, nirvana is the annihilation of everything that makes a person see themselves as a distinct entity such as a “self” or an “I.” Once the individual successfully reaches a state when he lives without attachments and desires, he will attain nirvana when he dies (as opposed to being reborn again in the cycle of rebirths).
The fourth noble truth provides a template for how one can go about attaining the end of 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 undergirded by moral virtues. For example, Right Action requires one to avoid committing bad acts that causes violence or that cultivates physical and material desire (such as sex and desire for material acquisition). Practices 6 to 8 are built upon meditation and mindfulness. The Noble Eightfold Path is meant to be all encompassing. It is meant to encompass every part of a person’s life from the way one behaves to how he speaks.