Buddhism Basics: The Four Noble Truths

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Background

Let’s start at the beginning. Buddhism was born from Siddhartha Gautama, an Indian prince who lived between 500 and 600 BCE. According to legend, seers foretold he would be a great ruler or an enlightened teacher. It all depended on his exposure to the realities of life outside the palace. As the story goes, despite his father’s best efforts to shelter him, Siddhartha saw the realities of old age, sickness, and death. He shed his wealth and privilege and stepped onto the path of spiritual exploration. First, he lived in the forest as an ascetic, learning from those who denied themselves comfort. But eventually, when truth did not come to him, he saw the “middle way.” There was a path between the luxury he experienced in the palace and the extreme austerity his body underwent in the forest.

Meditating under a bodhi tree, determined to stay there until he discovered the truth of suffering, he finally saw through ego and desire. For the rest of his days, Siddhartha was known as the Enlightened One, the Awakened One, or Buddha. These are not original titles. Anyone can attain enlightenment and reach Nirvana, the state of wakefulness. Siddhartha, now the Buddha, decided to share his newfound knowledge with the world. He traveled the realm for the rest of his life, teaching others what he had discovered.

“Of paths, the eightfold is the best. Of truths, the four statements. Detachment is the best of dhammas. And of two-footed ones, the one endowed with eyes.”  

— Dhammapada

The Four Noble Truths

A cornerstone to his enlightenment, which he shared with his followers, was about the Four Noble Truths. They are:

The truth of suffering

Dukkha, the truth of suffering. Our lives are full of it in large and small ways. The translation is not exact. Dukkha doesn’t have to be some profound or terrible agony, it is more like the underlying anxiety each of us experiences throughout our days.

The truth about desire

The number two truth is the cause of Dukkha, desire, also known as craving, wanting, or the clinging mind. It’s the need to have, own, and attain. To make permanent when there is no permanence in our lives, the world, or the universe. It is the tendency to define ourselves through objects or concepts when, in reality, there is no self to define and no amount of toys, cars, or houses will ever bring us peace.

There is cessation from suffering

Can we find respite from the clinging mind, from desire and anxiety? The third truth is simple. It says yes, there is cessation from suffering and anxiety, a way to not attach to our desire and cravings. Not that we turn feelings off or “detach,” rather, that we observe the truth of life, the impermanence, and even as we feel emotions, big or small, we know they will rise and fall, ebb and flow. Rather than detach, we can practice non-attachment, which leaves us room to feel and experience without the need to cling. We do not have to attach to feelings or create identity based on them, or any object in the physical world.

Follow the Noble Eightfold Path

But how do we attain this wakefulness, this non-attachment? The number four truth shows us that the Noble Eightfold Path is a road map to living that, if followed, helps deliver us from our desire, anxiety, and suffering. The path emphasizes morality, meditation, and insight, also known as morals, mental state, and wisdom.

There are different interpretations but the basic components are:

  • Right view
  • Right resolve
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

In the next Buddhism Basics article, we’ll dive into the Noble Eightfold Path and talk about what each component means in modern life.