The Four Noble Truths (Cattari Ariya Saccani) are the central teachings of the Buddha, taught in his very first sermon and forming the heart of every Buddhist school that exists to this day. These truths are not for merely believing in or expounding, but for reflecting upon again and again, exploring how they apply to our lives, and how we may respond to them. The Four Noble Truths are:
- The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha);
- The Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering (dukkha-samudaya);
- The Noble Truth of the Ending of Suffering (dukkha-nirodha);
- The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Ending of Suffering (dukkha-nirodha-gamini-patipada).
In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first sermon of the Buddha, the Awakened One said:
“So long, monks, as my knowledge and vision of reality regarding these Four Noble Truths, in their three phases and twelve aspects, was not fully clear to me, I did not declare to the world of spirits, demons, and gods, with its seekers and sages, celestial and human beings, the realization of incomparable, perfect enlightenment.
But when, monks, my knowledge and vision of reality regarding these Four Noble Truths, in their three phases and twelve aspects, was fully clear to me, I declared to the world of spirits, demons, and gods, with its seekers and sages, celestial and human beings, that I understood incomparable, perfect enlightenment.”
As can be seen from the above quote, these truths are fundamental to the enlightenment (bodhi) of the Buddha, and therefore to the various types of Buddhism that are found around the world, including the Forest Buddhism of Ajahn Chah and his many disciples. The first truth is that of dukkha, a word with many connotations including suffering, unsatisfactory, and painful. Dukkha pervades every aspect of life. Again, the Buddha:
“Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow and despair are dukkha, association with the disliked is dukkha, separation from the liked is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha.”
Dukkha is the underlying sense of the unsatisfactory nature of life, that feeling that things are never exactly the way one wants them to be. And even if one achieves a degree of happiness based on one’s desires, there is the fear of losing that happy state, of losing the cause of one’s joy. But why is this? The second noble truth, that of the origin of suffering gives us the answer:
“The craving (tanha) which causes rebirth and is bound up with pleasure and lust, ever seeking fresh delight, now here, now there; namely, craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence, and craving for annihilation.”
Tanha (desire or craving) is the cause of our suffering, according to the Buddha’s teachings. It is because we desire life to be a particular way that when it doesn’t live up to our expectations we suffer. Craving for sense desire includes not only physical stimuli that we cling to, but also those mental states that cause us pleasure and that we wish to see repeated again and again. By craving for existence is meant the craving to continue to live, to thrive, and to be the people that we are, to never change or die. Craving for annihilation refers to the desire to not exist, to achieve a state of oblivion, not only in the hope to die, but in the desire to go to sleep, to block the world through unconsciousness, through being blitzed out on drink and drugs. Tanha’s a pretty constant thing for those of us that haven’t reached awakening (bodhi).
The third noble truth, that of the ending of suffering, is the promise that there’s a way out of this mess of dukkha and the craving that causes it. The Buddha describes it thus:
“The complete cessation, giving up, abandonment of that craving, complete release from that craving, and complete detachment from it.”
Letting go of our attachment to those things we like, to those states that lead to our fleeting moments of happiness means that when we don’t get what we want, when we must face the more unpleasant side of life, we are able to bear it with equanimity. We have achieved the state of nirvana (literally ‘extinction’) which the Buddha described as the “extinction of greed, extinction of hate, extinction of delusion.”
This leaves us with the fourth noble truth, which is called magga (the ‘path’), or to give it its full title, Ariya Atthangika Magga: The Noble Eightfold Path. Again, the words of the Buddha from his first sermon:
“Only this Noble Eightfold Path; namely, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.”
The Noble Eightfold Path leads us from attachment to our desires, to the freedom that is the result of letting go. In brief, it consists of three aspects, the first of which is called sila (morality), samadhi (concentration), and panya (wisdom). Through cultivating this Path, one becomes more virtuous through practice of right speech, action and livelihood; one becomes more concentrated through right effort, mindfulness and concentration; and one becomes wiser through developing right intention and understanding. Right understanding itself acts as the core of the Eightfold Path, and includes the Four Noble Truths as its main focus, forming a neat loop between the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, both of which contains the other.
To finish this brief introduction to the Four Noble Truths, it seems appropriate to refer to a modern teacher of these truths to show that they are a valid today as they were over two and half thousand years ago, when the Buddha first taught them. That modern teacher is Ajahn Chah, who centered his own practice upon the Four Noble Truths. He has said:
“When we know the truth of suffering we throw out suffering. When we know the cause of suffering then we don’t create those causes, but instead practice to bring suffering to its cessation. The practice leading to the cessation of suffering is to see that ‘this is not a self,’ ‘this is not me or them.’ That’s cessation. That’s getting close to nibbana. To put it another way, going forward is suffering, retreating is suffering and stopping is suffering. Not going forward, not retreating and not stopping…is anything left? Body and mind cease here. This is the cessation of suffering.”
(The Teachings of Ajahn Chah, pp.207-208)