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The Four Noble Truths – A Brief Introduction

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of stress: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)

The Four Noble Truths (cattāri ariyasaccāni) are among the most fundamental teachings of the Buddha. In fact, the first discourse given at the Deer Park in Varanasi to the five monks with whom the Buddha once practiced as an ascetic has the Four Noble Truths as its central theme. Often referred to as “Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion,” the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is the first discourse spoken by the Buddha and the first time the Four Noble Truths are ever expressed.

It has been said that the Buddha was a supreme physician and surgeon (anuttaro bhisakko sallakatto), and as such, masterfully wise and infinitely compassionate in curing the world’s ills. Indeed, the Four Noble Truths can be summarized as an identification of our condition (suffering) in terms of its diagnosis, cause, prognosis, and treatment. This formula is what makes Buddhism so practical and applicable to daily life.

1. The First Noble Truth – The Noble Truth of Suffering

The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ) concerns the symptoms of suffering, the human condition (and the condition of all sentient beings, without exception). It simply acknowledges the existence of suffering and categorizes it in an experiential manner, relating it to experiences all living beings inevitably face:

Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ: jātipi dukkhā, jarāpi dukkhā, byādhipi dukkho, maraṇampi dukkhaṃ, appiyehi sampayogo dukkho, piyehi vippayogo dukkho, yampicchaṃ na labhati tampi dukkhaṃ — saṃkhittena pañcupādānakkhandhā dukkhā.

“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of stress: Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful, separation from the loved is stressful, not getting what is wanted is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.”

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)

That suffering exists should be recognized. It manifests in birth, aging, sickness, death, unpleasant contact, breaking contact with the pleasant, wanting things to be otherwise, and identifying with the aggregates. All of us have experienced this first hand, to one degree or another.

2. The Second Noble Truth – The Noble Truth on the Cause of Suffering

The Noble Truth on the Cause of Suffering (dukkhasamudayaṃ ariyasaccaṃ) likewise orients the listener to the seed from which dissatisfaction grows and the root from which dissatisfaction is fed. It reads:

Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhasamudayo ariyasaccaṃ: yāyaṃ taṇhā ponobbhavikā nandirāgasahagatā tatratatrābhinandinī, seyyathidaṃ — kāmataṇhā, bhavataṇhā, vibhavataṇhā.

 “And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.”

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)

Here, it is acknowledged that craving produces both enjoyment and disappointment in the cycle of being. However, even that which is pleasant is tinged with unpleasantness, since it cannot last. Even the pleasant fades with time, leading to the re-arising of craving. Constantly wanting is a profoundly dissatisfying experience.

3. The Third Noble Truth – The Noble Truth on the Cessation of Suffering

The Buddha did not deny that there is anything worthwhile to live for. In the Third Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (dukkhanirodhaṃ ariyasaccaṃ), he explains that there is a way out of suffering, a way to bring suffering to its end:

Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhanirodho ariyasaccaṃ: yo tassāyeva taṇhāya asesavirāganirodho cāgo paṭinissaggo mutti anālayo.

“This, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: the cessation of craving without any remainder, giving it up, renouncing it, and complete freedom from it.”

 Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)

The cessation of craving is not achieved through escapism. Rather, it occurs by means of learning not to pursue cravings relentlessly. The giving up of craving means that there are no desires to go unmet in the first place. Freedom from craving, the relentless sense of wanting, ultimately leads to freedom from suffering.

4. The Fourth Noble Truth – The Noble Truth on the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering

The Noble Truth on the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering (dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā ariyasaccaṃ) lays out a map leading toward the cessation of craving, and thus suffering. This map is summarized as follows:

Idaṃ kho pana bhikkhave, dukkhanirodhagāminī paṭipadā ariyasaccaṃ: ayameva ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo, seyyathidaṃ — sammādiṭṭhi sammāsankappo sammāvācā sammākammanto sammāājīvo sammāvāyāmo sammāsati sammāsamādhi.

“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: this noble eightfold path itself, namely: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.”

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11)

An end to suffering in this very life is entirely possible. Suffering’s cessation does not entail the complete annihilation of our everyday experiences, but instead the ability to not react to them in extreme ways that cause us dissatisfaction. By cultivating the various facets of the Noble Eightfold Path, one can taste true liberation from suffering at last.

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