Of all the teachings of the Buddha, the core and seed is the Four Noble Truths. These comprise a statement of the problem, the nature of the problem, the hope of a resolution to the problem, and the means of reaching that resolution.
As a religion born out of the Hindu tradition, Buddhism’s chief concern is with ending the cycle of rebirth—of reaching nirvana. This might also be expressed as enlightenment, or the universality or end of self.
Simply stated, the Four Noble Truths are these:
- There is suffering;
- there is a cause or origin of suffering;
- there is an end to suffering;
- and there is a path to the end of suffering.
There certainly exists a great deal of commentary on these (over 2500 years worth), and there are plenty of sources online, so I am not going to go into great depth here. Also, as my sidebar says, I am approaching this from a—most likely ill-informed—layman’s perspective, so what I’m offering here is merely an introduction for those who might be interested, as well as an opportunity for me to enunciate and solidify my own thinking. I welcome commentary, but just want to make the point that this is in no way intended to be “scholarly.”
1. There Is Suffering
I have seen this elsewhere stated as “all is suffering,” or “life is suffering,” but ultimately this is simply an acknowledgement of a fundamental aspect of existence. This suffering is tied to the inherent impermanence of things in our reality. People die, roofs sag, businesses close, colors fade. Perhaps it can be equated with Entropy—the inevitable march into chaos and disorder. We suffer because of these things, we suffer because we can’t stop change. We live our lives, and then, in the end, we will die.
On the surface, perhaps it sounds like a very negative view of the universe, of reality. Some people might see this view, and decide they’ve heard enough—no sense in adding to their burdens by contemplating suffering. However, you can, and should, look a little deeper. From all indications, the Buddha, and most Buddhist monks at least, seem to be very happy people. Why are they so happy, if all they do is sit around and think about how much stuff sucks? The answer, of course, is that they don’t. Rather, they try to understand suffering, and the cause of suffering, in hopes that they might be able to do something about it.
2. There Is a Cause of Suffering
As I mentioned a moment ago, our suffering is born out of the impermanence of things. However that, in and of itself, is not the cause of our suffering. Things are impermanent, and there is no other way they can be… therefore, that can’t be the cause.
Think about one limited example—perhaps of a beloved pet which has died. You knew, when you took the pet in, that its life would be much shorter than yours, and that, one day, you would lose it. As an unchangeable aspect of reality, death should be expected and accepted as simply a fact of life. So, why is it that the loss of that animal twists you up so much—causes so much suffering?
The answer, of course, is you. You have tied yourself to the animal’s existence by way of your attachment to it. You come to rely on the animal’s presence, you crave it’s playful interaction, you desire the cuddly warmth of it’s fur. These things are the cause of suffering: attachment, craving, desire. All bound to impermanent things.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be living things, or even physical things. You can crave acceptance, understanding. You can love your car, or your shiny new mobile phone. You can be attached to your own appearance, or your weight, or what your co-workers think of you. All these things, your attachments to these impermanent, malleable, changeable things, are yours. You are the cause of your own suffering.
3. There Is an End to Suffering
The good thing is, what you create, you have the power to undo—what you pick up, you can also put down. The Buddha’s teachings hinge on the idea that, through contemplation, understanding, and acceptance of the impermanence of things, and by letting go of our attachments, our cravings, and our delusions, we can cease our suffering.
In order to put an end to our attachments, we have to understand how they arise. We have to learn to recognize them in us, and, over time, learn to control or even eliminate them. Meditation is the central means to achieve this, and is an essential part of the teachings. I think I’ll probably talk about meditation at a later time, but briefly, it’s not simply (as may be commonly believed) about the cessation of thought, but about the recognition and acceptance of thought. Through meditation one contemplates every aspect of feelings, thoughts, and the self (not all at once, of course). As an example, when you study your own fear, when you learn what it feels like, what brings it out, and how you react to it, then you can learn to control it, or recognize it when it is threatening to arise, and circumvent or defuse it.
Meditation, however, is not the sole means of reaching the end of suffering. In the last of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha laid out the other means.
4. There Is a Path to the End of Suffering
The Buddha’s aim, of course, was to enable others to reproduce his accomplishment in achieving nirvana. In order to do that, he extensively taught the art of meditation, but he also provided his followers with the Noble Eightfold Path.
As a very informal student of Buddhism, my exploration and understanding of the Eightfold Path is woefully limited. Perhaps I will go into it in more detail after I study it more myself, but, for the moment, we’ll start with this:
The Noble Eightfold Path
- Right view
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
It seems to me that, to a certain extent, the Eightfold Path is something of a set of social moral guidelines, not entirely unlike the Ten Commandments. It is called a path because, rather than a rote set of rules, the eight steps are, or can, lead one into the other. Right view, and understanding right view, will lead to Right intention. Once the practitioner has mastered or traversed these steps, she has the keys to cease her suffering, and to enter nirvana.
But, I hear you asking, I thought you didn’t go in for all those hokey religious aspects of Buddhism (as the idea of reincarnation may be construed to be)?
Quite right. I don’t really believe in the idea of reincarnation, or the cycle of rebirth, but I do see the wisdom in the Four Noble Truths, in they way they identify and deal with the arising of suffering, and through the optimistic view that we can, at least in some small ways, bring our suffering to an end. You don’t have to renounce all your worldly posessions and kiss your wife on the cheek before walking out the door never to see her again. I couldn’t do that, and I don’t want to do that… I’m too attached!
Finally, at Buddhism’s core, the Four Noble Truths inform and are illuminated by all of the rest of Buddhist teaching. Everything is geared towards enabling the practitioner to reach the end of suffering, via the Eightfold Path.
As I explore more, or as you delve deeper on your own, I hope that this—admittedly inadequate—examination will prove to have been of some help.