Last updated on September 23rd, 2023.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism formed the essence of Buddha’s early teachings. These truths became clear to the Buddha as he emerged from his meditation under the Bodhi tree.
The 4 Noble Truths of Buddhism serve as a foundation for the teachings of Buddhism. These 4 principles led the Buddha to his enlightenment. The 4 Noble Truths are:
- Dukkha (suffering)
- Samudāya (the origin of suffering)
- Nirodha (the cessation of suffering)
- Magga (the path to end suffering)
Why are the Four Noble Truths Important to Buddhism?
The Four Noble Truths exist as the foundational teachings of Buddhism. When Prince Siddhartha Gautama gave up his extravagant royal life to roam the countryside of India he learned a great deal about suffering. Through this experience, he came to believe that suffering was just a normal aspect of life.
At one point near the end of his journey, Prince Gautama stopped to meditate under a Bodhi tree. During this meditation, he had his final epiphany about suffering. He discovered the path to end suffering, a state called Nirvana. In doing this Prince Gautama became enlightened and would forever be known as the Buddha.
The Four Noble Truths were said to come to the Buddha during his meditation and would become his first teachings. These teachings would become the foundation of the entire network of Buddhist thought.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
The Four Noble Truths serve a symbolic and propositional purpose. Symbolically, The Four Noble Truths represent the path to enlightenment. An essential tenet of Buddhism is the consideration that enlightenment can be reached by anyone who follows the teachings of Buddha.
As propositions, the Four Noble Truths are the basis for explaining and understanding the rest of the expansive network of Buddhist thought. In Buddhism, to understand is to experience.
This experience can be simplified slightly by imagining the path to enlightenment as a journey to understand, and then eventually escape from, the suffering of life. This emphasis on suffering is not said in a negative sense. The Buddha was pragmatic.
Each of the four truths will be broken down in the following sections. They are briefly summarized below.
|Truth 1: the truth of suffering||Dukkha||Suffering exists. It is a part of existence|
|Truth 2: the origin of suffering||Samudāya||This truth has to do with identifying and coming to terms with the cause of suffering.|
|Truth 3: the cessation of suffering||Nirodha||The third truth conveys that suffering does have an end.|
|Truth 4: the path to the end of suffering (Nirvana)||Magga||This truth is more complex and has to do with the idea that the cycle of suffering can end indefinitely. Experiencing this truth is to experience enlightenment.|
The table above only introduces The Four Noble Truths. Each truth has its own intricacies and will require individual analysis to fully understand.
The First Noble Truth involves acknowledging the existence of suffering. During the Buddha’s journey, he realized that suffering can come in many forms. He also came to accept that suffering is just a part of living. Buddhism accepts that life is not ideal, but that is ok.
There were three original forms of suffering that the Buddha observed when he left his palace. He witnessed the suffering of old age, sickness, and death. In all of these, it isn’t just the person experiencing these life events that suffer. These three forms of suffering are unavoidable. We will all grow old, get sick, and die.
This view held by Buddhism can seem very negative initially. This was not the intent of the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhists would say they have neither a positive or pessimistic view of suffering, just a realistic one.
The first truth also touches on mankind’s tendency towards impulses and cravings. Even when we fulfill these desires the attained happiness is fleeting. This leads to a continual pursuit of happiness that will ultimately leave one feeling empty and unsatisfied.
The Second Noble Truth moves us from accepting the existence of suffering to identifying the origin of it. In his meditation, the Buddha believed he had identified the cause of suffering.
More impactful than the three forms of unavoidable suffering identified earlier, the Budda’s teachings tell us that the root of all suffering is our tendency to desire. The Buddhist word for desire is tanhā. According to the Buddha, desire comes in three forms. These three forms are often referred to as the Three Roots of Evil.
Buddhism teaches that these three roots of evil are the cause of all suffering:
- Cravings and greed
- Ignorance, in the form of delusion regarding the existence of suffering
- Hatred and a tendency towards violence and destruction
The Second Noble Truth teaches us that suffering ultimately comes from human desire. That desire is either fueled by greed, ignorance, hatred, or a combination of the three.
The Third Noble Truth discusses the end of the cycle of suffering. It focuses on ending suffering by combating the root of desire. Upon returning from his meditative state and becoming enlightened, the Buddha realized that it is possible to be liberated from the cycle of suffering.
The cessation of suffering as it is described in the third truth can be brought about by removing desire. The Buddha served as the first living example that this was possible. By freeing himself from attachment, the Buddha was able to free himself from the desire. Liberation from desire leads to the cessation of suffering.
It is in the third truth that we also learn about the concept of Nirvana. The word Nirvana translates into extinguishing. Extinguishing his attachments brought about from desire, ignorance, and hatred allowed the Buddha to reach the state of enlightenment. In thwarting the roots of desire he attained Nirvana.
The state of Nirvana is stated to be characterized by spiritual joy and a perpetual feeling of calm. Someone who has attained enlightenment and reached a state of Nirvana is no longer plagued by negative emotions like fear and anger. They exist in a state of compassion for the planet and all living things.
The Fourth Noble Truth is different from the first three. The first three truths deal with accepting and understanding the concept of suffering, while the fourth truth lays out the foundation for more expansive teachings on escaping suffering. These teachings are focused on leading followers down the path that will lead them to Nirvana.
The fourth truth is often hailed as Buddha’s roadmap to the end of suffering. This roadmap is really a set of principles known to Buddhists as the Eightfold Path, also known as The Middle Path. The eight steps do not need to be completed in order, they are to become a part of one’s day-to-day existence.
These eight stages are often divided into three groupings;
- Wisdom (stages 1 and 2)
- Ethical Conduct (stages 3 through 5)
- Meditation (stages 6,7, and 8)
The table below explains the eight stages, or steps, in greater detail.
|The Eightfold Path||Buddhist Term||Summary|
|Right Understanding||Sammā ditthi||In this case, understanding refers to the acceptance of the Buddha's teachings. Buddha did not want people to follow him blindly, he emphasized that they should try the practices and decide for themself.|
|Right Intention||Sammā sañkappa||Intention relates to mindset. It involves developing and maintaining the right attitudes. One must commit to the cultivation of the right intentions.|
|Right Speech||Sammā vācā||This truth expresses the need for honesty and integrity. Right speech involves being truthful. It also involves avoiding slander, gossip, and aggressive/hateful speech.|
|Right Action||Sammā kammanta||Action refers to behavior. This stage involves living in peace and harmony with all living things. Theft and violence must be avoided. Overindulgence through greed and desire is also mentioned.|
|Right Livelihood||Sammā ājīva||This stage is also related to behavior. Stage four was about an individual's direct actions. Livelihood refers to how one interacts with their environment. Right livelihood involves how people make a living. We must not make a profit from exploitation, harming animals, selling drugs, or selling weapons.|
|Right Effort||Sammā vāyāma||Right effort in some ways relates to Right intention. The second truth was centered on setting intentions. This truth involves an active awareness of your mindset. The goal is to maintain a positive mindset.|
|Right Mindfulness||Sammā sati||Mindfulness is often synonymous with meditation. This truth encourages a level of self-awareness that monitors the body, the heart, and the mind.|
|Right Concentration||Sammā samādhi||The eighth stage is the stage that supports in many ways the others. Concentration in this case can also refer to mindfulness. This involves maintaining a level of mental clarity and focus that leads to a high level of awareness.|
The Eightfold Path is not meant to be followed in any particular order. The stages are intended to support each other. Once you have incorporated a truth into your daily actions and mindset, it will become a norm. This places you one step closer to enlightenment.
Where Did the Four Noble Truths Come From?
The Four Noble Truths came from the Buddha shortly after he reached enlightenment. They are his earliest teachings and lay the foundation for the rest of his lessons. It is believed that the Buddha introduced the Four Noble Truths in his first sermon after attaining enlightenment.
It was during the journey that followed the abandonment of his royal life of luxury that the Buddha was introduced to the suffering of mankind. He encountered the suffering associated with illness, injury, old age, and death. Eventually, he came to accept that suffering was just a part of living.
Near the end of his journey, the Buddha stopped to meditate under a Bodhi tree. It was during that meditation that the Buddha came to understand The Four Noble Truths. It was during his first sermon, after emerging from the mediation that led to his enlightenment, that he introduced them to his followers.
What is the Ultimate Goal of Buddhism?
The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to spread the teachings of the Buddha and bring about a universal state of peace and harmony. Buddhists want to end suffering by leading their followers to a state of enlightenment. Reaching this state of enlightenment is considered achieving Nirvana.
Nirvana is explained as a place of pure happiness, harmony, calm, and compassion. This state of enlightenment is the highest state one can attain and means an end to the cycle of suffering.
The Four Noble Truths were the first teachings of the Buddha after he attained enlightenment and reached a state of Nirvana. Each of the truths deals with aspects of suffering. Suffering, according to the Buddha, was caused by our attachment to desire, hatred, and the ignorance of suffering.
The first three truths involve accepting suffering, defining the origin of suffering, and identifying how suffering can end. The third truth also introduces the idea of reaching Nirvana or achieving enlightenment. The fourth truth serves as the Buddha’s propositions for attaining enlightenment and ending suffering.