“I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach”, declared the Buddha 2500 years ago.
The Four Noble Truths contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. It was these four principles that the Buddha came to understand during his meditation.
- The truth of suffering
- The origin of suffering
- The possibility of a cessation of suffering
- The path to the cessation of suffering
The First of the 4 Noble Truths – Suffering
Suffering comes to our lives in many forms. The three obvious kinds of suffering are old age, sickness and death. But according to the Buddha, the problem of suffering goes much deeper. Life is not ideal, it frequently fails to live up to our expectations. Human beings are subject to desires and cravings, and even when we are able to satisfy these desires, the satisfaction we experience is only temporary. Pleasure does not last, if it does, it becomes monotonous and is anyway accompanied by the fear that it will come to an end . Even when we are not suffering from outward causes like illness or bereavement, we remain unfulfilled, unsatisfied. The reality of suffering the first noble truth.
The Second of the 4 Noble Truths – The origin of Suffering
The Buddha teaches that the root of all our suffering is craving or misplaced desire. Craving is the deep-seated desire that all living beings have for the pleasures of the senses, and for life itself. We seek to enjoy good food, entertainment and happy times. Yet none of these can give us complete and lasting satisfaction. After the meal has been eaten, the beautiful music heard and the pleasant company shared, we are still not content. We like to enjoy these pleasures over and over again, and for as long as possible.
People who desire to own many things can never be fully satisfied too. Like children in a toyshop, they crave all the attractive things they see around them. But just like children, they soon become dissatisfied with what they already have and they desire still more. Sometimes, they can hardly eat or sleep until they get what they want. Yet when they succeed in getting what they want, they may still find their happiness short-lived. Many will worry about the security of their new possessions. Then as is often the case when the new car is scratched or the new gadget breaks down they suffer its loss. Sometimes gadgets that are designed to make life easy add to the pressures of life even more.
When we have obtained something we desire, we may want more and more of it, and so greed arises. Because of uncontrolled desire and greed, people will become angry and selfish. They will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want. These desires can lead to addictions, such as drug taking, smoking, drinking and overeating, all of which lead to suffering and cause mental and physical harm.
The Third of the 4 Noble Truths – Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
The Buddha taught that the way to extinguish desire, which causes suffering, is to liberate oneself from attachment. This is the third Noble Truth – the possibility of liberation, of Nirvana which can happen to anybody, anywhere, here and now; and the key to ending all suffering is to remove all desire, ill will and ignorance.
The Buddha taught that after suffering there is supreme happiness. Every step of the way to removing the causes of unhappiness brings more joy. On the path there are levels of happiness and freedom from craving and ignorance that can be achieved. In the beginning the happiness might be through better material conditions: like more contentment, or better spiritual conditions; more peace and enjoyment of life. This increasing happiness makes life more rewarding and brings a sense of freedom and joy.
According to Buddhist teachings the more people free themselves from desire, ill will and ignorance, the greater their happiness is — no matter what is going on around them. When they have completely removed desire, ill will and ignorance the Buddha says they will experience the same supreme happiness he discovered.
The Fourth of the 4 Noble Truths – the Path to the Cessation of Suffering
The final Noble Truth is the Buddha’s remedy for the end of suffering, a set of principles fro life called the Eightfold Path. This is also called the Middle Way avoiding both indulgence and severe asceticism, neither of which the Buddha had found helpful in his own search for enlightenment.