The Four Noble Truths

If we don’t know our own suffering,
we are bound to repeat it.
— Paul Baranowski


The Buddha taught only one thing during his forty-five years of teaching: how to be at peace with what we experience. All of the Buddha’s teachings focus on this single goal, and it is because of this goal that the Buddha was able to dismiss all metaphysical and philosophical speculation. On the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he discovered what are called the Four Noble Truths. It was these truths that he spoke in his first Dharma talk:

  1. We experience suffering and it is possible to identify it.
  2. There are causes which lead to suffering.
  3. It is possible to free oneself from suffering.
  4. There is a path that leads to freedom from suffering.

All other Buddhist teachings are derived from these four truths. These truths are absolutely fundamental to understanding Buddhist training. They are both the beginning and ending of the spiritual journey.

These truths can be looked at as the answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What is the root of the problem?
  3. Is there a solution?
  4. How do you put the solution into effect?

Because sometimes too much emphasis is placed on the first two truths, Thich Nhat Hanh likes to express these truths as follows:

  1. Well-being(Happiness) is possible. (#3)
  2. There is a path that leads to well-being. (#4)
  3. We experience ill-being. (#1)
  4. There is a path that leads to ill-being. (#2)

These truths can also be seen as:

  • The cause(#4) and effect(#3) of well-being.
  • The cause(#2) and effect(#1) of suffering.

What is the problem?

The problem is that we experience suffering. Suffering is different from pain. Pain is inevitable, but our reaction to pain, which is what suffering is, is something we can do something about. We have a lot of experiences that are unpleasant, for example: depression, despair, fear, stress, terror, insecurity, sickness, anger, hurt, hatred, not having enough of something, and physical pain. Most of our lives are spent working to avoid the feelings that we are experiencing. It is a very natural and healthy reaction to try to deal with our pain. The problem is that we are usually very unskillful about how we do it. The things we do to manage our emotions often create more difficulties for us, not less. We also have a vague sense of unsatisfactoriness in our life. No matter what we do, it’s not quite good enough. We are always asking ourselves “what next?”. Once we get what we once thought would bring us happiness, we again look to what the next thing is missing in our lives. The present moment is not good enough, so we look for our happiness in the future.  

What is the root of the problem?

Where does suffering come from? Suffering comes from not wanting to experience what is actually happening in the present moment. Seeking for happiness outside of ourself is one of the main ways we avoid what we are feeling.

These three reactions to our experiences bring us the most suffering:

  1. Aversion (also translated as hatred, anger)
  2. Craving (also translated as desire, greed, attachment, attraction)
  3. Delusion (also translated as ignorance, indifference)

Aversion is “not wanting something”. for example: anger and hatred come from not wanting something to happen, not wanting to experience emotional pain, not wanting to grow old, not wanting to die, fear of getting sick, anxiety, loneliness, depression, sorrow, terror, despair, and not wanting to be separated from the pleasant.

Craving is sometimes mistranslated as “desire”. But this is not correct because there are beneficial, neutral, and negative desires. Craving is “negative desire”, that is, any desire which leads to suffering. This includes greed in all forms, desire for fame, lust, desire for an excessive amount of money, and desire for power. It is not the money, fame, power, or sensual pleasures that create suffering. It is our belief that they will bring us long-term happiness.

Delusion is not seeing reality as it really is. Fundamentally it means we do not understand the Four Noble Truths. Not understanding the Four Noble Truths means we believe something will bring us happiness when it actually causes us to suffer, or we believe something will cause us to suffer when it will actually lead to happiness. When we do the same things over and over but expect different results, this is delusion. When we see the world the way we would like it to be instead of how it actually is, this is delusion. When we look for things which validate our ideas, and ignore the things that do not, this is delusion.

Is there a solution?

One of the most amazing truths that the Buddha discovered is that complete, total, and everlasting well-being can be achieved.

The end of all suffering is sometimes called enlightenment or nirvana. The Buddha described this state as “unborn, unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefiled supreme security from bondage, the highest bliss, and the supreme state of sublime peace”.

We have all experienced aspects of the Four Noble Truths. We’ve experienced suffering and sometimes we are aware there are causes for it. We’ve experienced well-being that does not depend something outside of us, and we know what the truth is when we hear it. Buddhist practice is the gradual understanding, practice, and realization of these Four Noble Truths.

The Buddha discovered there are three aspects of our experience that, when we understand them and live according to them, bring us happiness: impermanence, interdependence, and the law of cause and effect. Conversely, when we believe and act like something is permanent, independent, or without consequences, we will suffer. When we live our lives in accord with way things actually are, we live happy lives. When we deny or avoid reality, we suffer. What are these three aspects?

1) Impermanence. The Buddha saw that all things are impermanent, but because we wish or believe them to be permanent, we suffer. Even the person who we thought we were a moment ago has already changed. When we wish something to remain the same we are bound to have the emotional pain of loss. The Buddha discovered that accepting impermanence is one of the keys to everlasting happiness. Impermanence brings forth the wonder of life. Without impermanence, we could not exist nor could the universe exist because nothing could ever change. Sadness could not change into happiness, plants could not grow, difficult situations could not be resolved. Not only are material things impermanent, but our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and personality. When we look at our thoughts we can see that they are always changing and in constant flux. Even our core values and most cherished beliefs change over time.

2) Interdependence (also translated as interbeing, non-self, and emptiness). The second insight that leads to well-being is the understanding that what we call a “self” is not independent of the rest of the world. What we usually call a “self” is actually many interdependent elements that we have arbitrarily categorized as “self” and “other”, whereas reality makes no such distinction. Suffering arises from the belief in an independent, solid, concrete self. When we take time to look, we can see that we exist in dependence on the air, the sun, the earth, our parents, food, and the kindness of countless beings.

When we believe ourselves to be separate, independent entities, we suffer. Why does this belief cause us to suffer? Because when we do not take care of those elements that we actually depend on, the obvious consequence is that we will not be taking care of ourselves either.

The words “emptiness” and “non-self” can be very confusing terms for this idea when we first encounter them. The word “empty” requires a subject and object to make it meaningful. For example, a “cup” is empty of “water”. The word “emptiness”, when used in a Buddhist context, means “something is empty of a separate, independent self.” For example, a person is not a changeless independent entity, but only exists in interdependence with many other elements. There is nothing in any person that we can point to that is not dependent on something else.

So when used in a Buddhist context, the word “emptiness” means the exact opposite of what it usually means in English. When Buddhists say that something is “empty”, they actually mean it is full of everything in the universe.  When a cup is empty of water, it is full of air.

The law of non-self not only applies to material things but also applies to our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and consciousness. Our thoughts do not exist separately from other things, nor our feelings, nor our perceptions, nor our own personality. What do thoughts exist in dependence on? A thought could be dependent upon our perceptions, other thoughts, or a feeling. We invite you to look into your thoughts and see what causes them to arise.

3) Cause and effect. There are two types of cause and effect: cause and effect in the physical world(physics), and the cause and effect of our intentional actions upon the world. It is this second type that Buddhist practice is concerned with, and that is what is often called “karma”. This type of insight means understanding very specifically what leads to happiness and what leads to suffering.

A simple example of this understanding is when we treat others with respect, kindness, and compassion we tend to have a lot of friends. When we speak to others using harsh words and use them for our own selfish needs, we will tend not to have many friends. We often believe that our actions have no effect upon anyone else or the world, such as when we think “What difference can I make? I am just one person.” We also sometimes believe that others do not affect us, for example, if we believe that our choice of friends will have no effect upon who we will become.

Though everything is impermanent when looking forward into the future, when we look at the past we can see our every action is permanent. There is no way to go back and change the past. Our actions permanently change the universe forever into the future, reverberating throughout our lives. When understand that our every action can bring us happiness or suffering, and we have the ability to change our behaviour, we learn to only perform those actions that lead to our long-term happiness.

How do you put the solution into effect?

There is a path that leads to freedom and happiness, a way of life that can liberate us from our conditioned patterns that generate suffering. That path is called the Noble Eightfold Path.