The Four Noble Truths: An Overview
Dr. Alexander Berzin
Everyone experiences problems and unhappiness throughout their lives; and throughout history, different methods to combat suffering have been proposed. In today’s world, the Internet offers instant access to a multitude of philosophies and here we look at the unique approach taken by Buddha, more than 2,500 years ago, as to why we suffer and how we can find peace and happiness in our lives.
When first looking at Buddhism, it’s good to look at the Four Noble Truths. It’s appropriate, too, because this is the way that Buddha began, when he started to teach. During Buddha’s time, there was already a multitude of religious and philosophical systems, and today, we are faced with an even wider range of spiritual teachings. So, when we come to Buddhism, it’s important to try and identify what it is that is unique about the Buddhist approach. Naturally, Buddhism shares many common teachings with other religious teachings: to be a kind, loving person, to try and not harm anyone, and so forth. We can see these aspects in almost every religion and philosophy, and there is no need to turn to Buddhism to learn about them, although Buddhism is quite rich in methods for developing kindness, love and compassion. We can benefit from these methods, whether or not we accept anything else in the Buddhist teachings.
We have this expression “Noble Truth,” but it’s rather a strange translation. The word “noble” might bring to mind medieval aristocracy, but it actually refers to those who are highly realized. The Four Noble Truths are thus four facts that are seen as true by those who have seen reality non-conceptually. Although these four facts are true, most people don’t understand them, and the majority are not even aware of them. The First Noble Truth
The first true fact is usually called “suffering.” Buddha said that our lives are filled with suffering, and that even that which we consider ordinary happiness has a whole array of problems associated with it. The word translated as “suffering” is the Sanskrit “duhkha.” We have sukha, happiness, and duhkha, unhappiness. In linguistic terms, kha is a space and duh is a prefix that denotes unsatisfactoriness, unpleasantness. We shouldn’t use judgmental words like “bad,” but it is heading in that direction. Duhkha implies that there’s something wrong with this space, referring to our mental space, and the space of our lives in general. It’s an unpleasant situation.
So, what’s unpleasant about it? First of all, we experience gross suffering, such as pain, unhappiness, and sadness. This is something that we can all understand, and everybody, even animals, wants to avoid this. There is nothing distinctive about Buddhism saying that pain and unhappiness is an unsatisfactory situation and we’d better get out of it. The second type of suffering is called the suffering of change, and this talks about our ordinary, usual, everyday happiness. What’s the problem with this type of happiness? The problem is that it doesn’t last; it changes, all the time. If what we consider ordinary happiness were really true happiness, then the more we have, the happier we would be. So, if we experience happiness from eating chocolate, the more we eat, for hours on end, the happier we would be. We know ourselves that this is obviously not the case! Or imagine a loved one caressing your hand for hours and hours. The pleasurable feeling will soon start to hurt, or feel strange. This is simply due to the fact that ordinary happiness changes. And of course, we never have enough of it; we are never satisfied. We always want more chocolate, maybe not immediately, but after a little while.
It’s interesting if you think, “How much of my favorite food do I need to eat in order to enjoy it?” One tiny bite should be enough, but actually we always want more and more and more. Now, wanting to overcome this problem of our ordinary, worldly happiness is also not an exclusively Buddhist aim. There are many religions that teach us to go beyond worldly pleasures, to find some form of paradise with eternal bliss.
The third type of suffering is specifically Buddhist, and is called “all-pervasive suffering.” We can also call it our “all-pervasive problem.” This suffering pervades everything that we experience, and refers to the way that we uncontrollably take rebirth, which is the actual basis for the ups and downs of our everyday life. In other words, being reborn over and over again, with the types of minds and bodies that we have, is the basis for the first two types of suffering. This touches on the topic of rebirth, which we can learn about later.
Of course, there are many other Indian philosophical systems that teach about rebirth, so again, this wasn’t anything new from Buddha. However, he understood and described the mechanism of rebirth in a much deeper way than any of the other philosophies or religions at the time explained it. Buddha gave a very thorough explanation of how rebirth works, and how our minds and bodies experience these ups and downs of pain, unhappiness, and ordinary happiness. The Second Noble Truth
The second truth looks at the true cause of all of this unhappiness that we experience. We don’t need to bring in anything like rebirth here at this point; instead we can try to understand what Buddha was explaining in a simple, logical way. We talk about suffering and ordinary happiness, and these come from causes, but Buddha was interested in “true causes.” We might think that happiness and pain come to us as a reward or punishment or things like that, but Buddha spoke of the true cause as destructive and constructive behavior.
What is meant by destructive behavior? Is it just about causing harm? When we talk about causing harm, it can be in terms of harm to others, or harm to oneself. It’s actually very difficult to know the kind of effects our behavior might have on others, whether it will harm or help. For instance, we might give someone a huge amount of money and, as a result, someone else who wants to steal the money murders them. Our aim might be to help them, but there is actually no guarantee. What is certain is types of behavior that are destructive to ourselves. This is what Buddha meant by destructive behavior – it’s self-destructive.
What this, in turn, refers to, is thinking, acting or speaking under the influence of disturbing emotions. Disturbing emotions, simply, disturb! They cause us to lose peace of mind, and to lose self-control. This refers to anger, greed, attachment, jealousy, arrogance, and naivety, and the list goes on. When our thinking is caught up in one of these emotions, and then we speak or act under the influence of it, it’s going to produce unhappiness for ourselves. It might not be immediately, but in the long term it creates unhappiness, because it builds up a tendency to continue to be like that.
On the other hand, we have constructive behavior, which is behavior not under the influence of these disturbing emotions but may even be motivated by positive emotions, such as love, compassion, or patience.
Acting constructively produces happiness. Our mind is more at ease, and generally we’re calmer. We can usually have more self-control, and so we don’t act in a stupid way or say stupid things that could cause problems. Again, the effect might not be immediate, but in the long term, it creates happiness. Underlying it, however, is a naivety about the way we exist, the way others exist, and of reality in general.
Our ordinary happiness and unhappiness are not rewards or punishments handed down by some external judge-like figure. They follow almost like the law of physics. What is the basis on which behavioral cause and effect rests? The basis is our confusion, especially about ourselves. We think, “Well, I’m the most important person, I should have my way. I should get ahead of the line in the supermarket. I should be first.” We’re greedy to be first, and so we get angry with those ahead of is. We get impatient because the person in front is so slow and takes so long, and our minds fill with all sorts of unhappy thoughts about them. Even if we act in a constructive way, there’s a lot of confusion about “me” underneath that. For instance, we might help others because we want them to like us, or do something for us in return. Or it makes us feel needed. At the very least we want a thank you!
Although helping people like this can make us feel happy, underneath it’s not so comfortable. This happiness we might experience, in the long term, never lasts. It changes to something unsatisfactory. This goes on and on throughout our life, and from the Buddhist point of view, into our future lives as well.
When we look closer, we see that we have confusion about everything. For instance, when we love someone so much, we completely exaggerate their good qualities. Or when we dislike someone so much, we exaggerate their negative qualities and aren’t able to see anything good in them. The more we investigate, the more confusion we find constantly underlying everything that we experience.
Going deeper, we can see that the basis for this is our own limitations. With this mind and body we have, there are limitations. When we close our eyes, it’s as if the rest of the world didn’t exist, that there’s only me. There’s this voice in our head which seems to be “me,” its like a me inside of me. It’s quite strange. However we identify with it because it’s the one always complaining, “I have to get ahead; I have to do this.” It’s the one always worrying. It seems to us as though this voice inside our head is special and unique and exists independently of everyone else, because when we shut our eyes, there’s nothing but “me.”
This is a very confused way of thinking because, obviously, we don’t exist independently of everybody else; and really, there’s nothing special about anyone. We’re all people. Imagine a hundred thousand penguins huddling together in the freezing Antarctic: what makes one more special than the other? Actually, they’re all the same. So are we. To penguins, humans probably all look alike! Anyhow, on this basis of thinking, “I’m so special and independent from everyone else,” we have to have our own way, and we get angry if we don’t.
Basically, the hardware of our mind and body is conducive to having this confusion. It might seem weird, but we mainly experience the world out of these two holes in the front of our head. I can’t see what’s behind me. I can only see what is present; I can’t see what came before or what will come later. It’s quite limited. And then we get older, and don’t hear so well. Someone says something and we don’t hear correctly, thinking they said something else and we get angry. It’s quite pathetic, when you think about it.
This all-pervasive problem of ours is that we constantly take rebirth again and again with this type of body and mind, which perpetuate this confusion. On the basis of this confusion, we act destructively, or in an ordinary constructive way, and this is what produces the unhappiness and the ordinary happiness that we experience.
If we go even deeper, it gets complicated and there’s no need to go into it right now, but it’s the confusion itself that drives this uncontrollably recurring rebirth. This is the true cause of our true problems. This confusion, or unawareness, is often translated as “ignorance.” I prefer not to use this word, as it implies that we’re stupid; but this really isn’t the problem, and it isn’t the connotation that we want. Unawareness merely implies that we don’t know how we or how phenomena exist. We are unaware in this sense, like thinking that we are the most important person – the center of the universe – when this completely contradicts reality. The reality is that we’re all here together. It’s not that we’re stupid, but our body and mind make us think the way we do.
This is why we call them the “Noble Truths.” Those who see reality see it differently from the way everyone else sees it. We truly believe that our confusion and the projections we have correspond to reality. We believe them to be true. We actually don’t even think about it, because our instinct is “I’m the most important, I should have my way, everybody should love me.” Or some believe the inverse, “Everyone should hate me, I’m no good.” It’s the same thing, just the other side of the coin. This is the true cause. The Third Noble Truth
The third truth is what we can call a “true stopping.” It is usually translated as “true cessation” and it refers to the fact that is possible to stop and get rid of this confusion, so that it never recurs again. If we get rid of the confusion, which is the true cause, then we get rid of the true problems, the ups and downs and this uncontrollably recurring rebirth we have as its basis. If we do this, we gain what is called “liberation.” I’m sure you’ve all seen these Sanskrit words, “samsara” for uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and “nirvana” for liberation.
At the time of Buddha, there were other Indian systems that spoke of liberation from samsara. This was a common theme in India. Buddha saw, however, that these other systems didn’t go deeply enough in identifying the true cause. You might gain a break from these uncontrollably recurring problems, for instance being born in some heavenly realm where your mind is blank, for eons, but nevertheless it’ll come to an end. There was no real liberation with these other systems.
Buddha taught about true stopping, and it’s important to understand and be confident that it is actually possible to get rid of this confusion so that it never recurs again. Otherwise, why would you even try to get rid of it? If you don’t care about stopping the confusion for good, you might as well shut up, accept the situation and make the best of it. A lot of therapies might have this as their final goal: learn to live with it, or take a pill! The Fourth Noble Truth
The fourth truth is usually translated as “true path,” and it helps us to understand the third truth. It refers to a state of mind that, if we develop, becomes a path leading to liberation. We can also call it a “pathway mind,” but this term is difficult to translate into other languages.
Our minds project absolute rubbish. But there are also levels to this rubbish projection. An extreme would be schizophrenia or paranoia, where we really think everyone is against us. It can also be less extreme, as in “this is the most wonderful piece of chocolate cake I’ve ever seen; if I eat it, it’ll really make me happy.” I experienced this on the flight over to Bucharest, where I had a stopover in Vienna. I thought, “Well, Viennese apple strudel should be the best in the world.” I ordered a piece, and it wasn’t the best. My projections about what it should be like were rubbish. The apple strudel existed - that wasn’t a projection from my mind; but the way in which the strudel should exist, as being the most wonderful thing that will really make me happy, was projected from my mind.
Similarly, I exist and you exist. Buddhism is not saying that we don’t exist. It simply states that we project onto reality a way of existing that doesn’t at all correspond to what’s actually the case. We really do have this idea that things exist independently all by themselves, which is an impossible way of existing. Things arise from causes and conditions, and they change all the time. However, we don’t see this; we only see what is right in front of our eyes. For instance, we are supposed to meet someone, and they don’t show up. It appears to us as though the other person is terrible, always letting us down, doesn’t like us anymore. We think that their life exists independently of traffic, or extra work at the office, or who knows what. But since everything arises from causes and conditions, it’s impossible that from their own side, independently of everything, they’re a terrible person. Still, our minds project this idea and hang onto it, creating anger, a destructive emotion. Then when we next see them, we view them differently, and yell at them not even giving them a chance to explain. Throughout all of this, we are the ones who are really quite miserable and unhappy, right?
So, we exist, but the way we think we exist – as special and independent from everyone else – is a complete projection. It’s garbage. It doesn’t refer to anything real. This is what we call “voidness” in Buddhism, often translated as “emptiness.” In Sanskrit, the word is the same as “zero” and it means “nothing,” a total absence of anything real. Like when we project that a new partner is a perfect prince or princess on a white horse from a fairy tale – it’s impossible. There is nobody who exists like that, but we are still always looking for it. And then when the person doesn’t live up to our projection, we get disappointed and look for another one, even if we’re looking for something that is impossible.
Thus, the true path of the mind is understanding that this is all rubbish, that there is nothing real that our projections correspond to. If we look at the true cause, it is that suffering comes from believing that our projections do correspond to something real. The true path is to understand deeply that it doesn’t correspond to anything real. Our projections of fantasy and reality are mutually exclusive. I’ll repeat – the confusion is to think that this projection corresponds to something real, and correct understanding is to see that there is no such thing. Simply, there either is something that corresponds or there isn’t. It’s either yes or no; we can’t think both are correct at the same time.
Now we can analyze what is stronger for us: the “yes” or the “no”? If we examine with logic, then it’s obviously “no,” as “yes” doesn’t stand up to logic. When I close my eyes does everyone else stop existing? No, of course not. Is it right that I should always have my way because I’m the most important person in the world? No, that’s ridiculous. The more we investigate, the more we can start to question this little “me” inside our head. If you start to analyze the brain, where in the brain is the “me” that is talking inside our head and making decisions? What’s going on exactly? Upon analysis, there is nothing findable that we can call “me.” Of course I function, I do stuff, I talk. We aren’t denying this. What we’re denying is that there’s this solid “me” that has to have its own way, because no such thing is supported by logic. Through reason and investigation, we can see that no such thing exists, and so our confusion that it corresponds to something real is not supported by anything.
What’s the result of thinking that we exist in this impossible way? We make ourselves miserable! What’s the result of thinking that there is no such existence? We free ourselves from all of these problems. When I think, “there’s no such thing, this is garbage,” it’s impossible at the same time to think that it corresponds to something real. Correct understanding can overpower and replace incorrect understanding. If we could stay focused on the correct understanding all the time, then confusion would never arise again.
Here as well, Buddha’s teaching that correct understanding of reality can replace misunderstanding and bring about liberation from suffering and rebirth was not unique. Other Indian systems asserted that as well. What was unique was the specific understanding that can dispel forever the subtlest level of confusion about reality. To attain perfect concentration through meditation, so as to ingrain this correct understanding in our mind and attain a true stopping of confusion, Buddha made use of the methods shared in common with all Indian traditions. Through them, we can achieve a true stopping of the true cause, and therefore a true stopping of suffering.
What gives our minds the strength to be able to stay with a correct understanding of reality, to cut through all of the destructive emotions, is motivation. This is where love, compassion and so forth come in. Because we see that we’re all interconnected, and that everyone is the same as us in wanting happiness, we need to get rid of our confusion to be able to help them fully.
While Buddhism shares much in common with many other major religious and philosophical systems, the Four Noble Truths, Buddha’s first teaching, is a unique presentation of the way we exist, the suffering we experience, and how we can overcome our problems.
Buddha is often likened to a doctor. A doctor will confirm that we are sick, like Buddha pointed out the multitude of sufferings that beings everywhere experience. A doctor will search for the cause of our sickness, just as Buddha pointed out the true cause as being confusion about the way we exist. They will then tell us whether we can be cured or not, and provide us with medicine if they can. In the same way, Buddha taught true stopping, and the way to get there. Ultimately it’s up to each of us to take the medicine, or walk the path, if we are to overcome our own suffering.