The first teaching ever given by the Buddha was to five student monks in a deer park. The Buddha spoke of the Four Noble Truths he had discovered while struggling for enlightenment, these are the central teachings of Buddhism. It was the Buddha’s first awareness that life brings with it illness, age, misery and death that lead him to search for a deeper understanding of how we live, and ways to end suffering.
Each of these lessons explains the key Buddhist steps in understanding the truth about life, the reasons behind those truths, the possibility of change and the way of life that can lead to a life free of suffering.
All Buddhists study, meditate, think and act in ways that are designed to help them come to a full understanding of each of these Four Noble Truths and to stay on the path the Buddha says will lead them to peace and happiness.
The First Noble Truth
The Truth of Suffering
After his experiences as a prince and as a wandering monk, the Buddha had learnt that all people have one thing in common: if they think about their own life, or look at the world around them, they will see that life is full of suffering.
Suffering, he said, may be physical or mental. The Buddha’s most important teachings were focused on a way to end the suffering he had experienced and had seen in other people. His discovery of the solution began with the recognition that life is suffering. This is the first of the Four Noble Truths.
Physical suffering takes many forms. All of us have seen at some time an elderly person with aches and pains in their joints, maybe finding it hard to move by themselves or worried about falling over on their sore bones and delicate skin. As we get older all of us find that life can become more difficult for all kinds of reasons; our eyes may not see as well, our hears may not hear as well or our teeth may not be as strong making it harder for us to eat. The pain of disease, which strikes young and old alike, is a reality for us all from time to time, and the pain of death brings much grief and suffering. Even the moment of birth gives pain both to the mother and the child that is born.
The First Noble Truth is that the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death is unavoidable. Some fortunate people may now be enjoying relatively happy and carefree lives, but it is only a matter of time before they, too, will experience suffering of some kind. What is also true is that this suffering — whether it is a cold, an injury or a sad event — must be borne alone. When you have a cold, it is your cold and only you experience how it feels for you. In another example, a man may be very concerned that his mother is growing old. No matter how much he cares for her he cannot take her place and suffer the pains of aging on her behalf. In the same way, if a boy falls very ill, his mother cannot experience the pains of his illness for him. The Buddha taught people to recognize that suffering is part of life and that it cannot be avoided.
The Buddha also taught that suffering does not only come from the body. There are also forms of mental suffering. People feel sad, lonely or depressed. They suffer when they lose a loved one through separation or death. They feel irritated or uncomfortable when they are in the company of people they dislike or who are unpleasant. People also suffer when they are unable to satisfy their limitless needs and wants. A baby cries when he cannot communicate his hunger, or when he wants something he cannot have. Teenagers may feel utterly frustrated and dejected if their parents won’t let them join a late-night party, watch certain movies or buy the clothes they want. Adults too can feel unhappy when they cannot pay their bills, frustrated when their job bores them or lonely when their relationships are unfulfilling or complicated. All these experiences are examples of what Buddhists call mental suffering — they can be summed up as painful feelings that arise from being separated from the people we love, or having to be with people we don’t like, or not getting what we want.
Happiness in Life
When the Buddha said that there is suffering in life, He also spoke about happiness. Buddhists speak of many different kinds of happiness; the happiness of friendship; of family life; of a healthy body and mind; happiness from celebration and gifts, as well as from sharing and giving. Buddhists believe that happiness is real but impermanent — that is does not last forever — and that when happiness fades it leads to suffering. Imagine a person who is given a beautiful vase as a gift from a close friend. They feel happy that their friend cares about them and has chosen them a gift that suits their house perfectly. But if the vase was to smash accidentally, then the happiness would vanish and turn into suffering. The person suffers because their attachment to pleasure has not lasted.
Buddhists learn that many people try to escape from the suffering in life by distracting themselves with temporary pleasures. There are many examples of people who try to block out sadness, pain, loss and grief by indulging in pleasures they think will bring happiness but actually end up disguising their real feelings, and making them feel even worse when the temporary happiness runs out. Imagine a person who likes chocolate, for example, and thinks that the wonderful experience of eating chocolate will always make them happy. If that person has a toothache and tries to make themselves feel better by eating chocolate, it might work once or twice, but the chocolate will never solve the toothache and soon it will make it worse.
In this way, the Buddha taught his followers not to be distracted by momentary pleasures, but to look at the bigger picture of their life experiences. He taught that happiness and pleasures are temporary and therefore that people should learn more about what Buddha taught as the True way to end suffering. He taught these lessons in the next Three Noble Truths.
Suffering is a fact of life. There are four unavoidable physical sufferings; birth, old age, sickness and death. There are also three forms of mental suffering; separation from the people we love; contact with people we dislike and frustration of desires. Happiness is real and comes in many ways, but happiness does not last forever and does not stop suffering. Buddhists believe that the way to end suffering is to first accept the fact that suffering is actually a fact of life.
The Second Noble Truth
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
After the Buddha learnt that suffering is a part of life, he realized he could not find a way to end suffering without finding out what causes it. Buddhists study that the Buddha learnt this just like a doctor learns about what’s wrong with his patient by listing their symptoms, finding out what makes them worse and studying other cases before prescribing a cure.
By watching people Buddha found out that the causes of suffering are craving and desire, and ignorance. The power of these things to cause all suffering is what Buddhists call The Second Noble Truth.
What are things we crave for? Food we love to eat, entertainment, new things, popularity, money, beauty, holidays and so many more things and experience, depending on who we are and where we are. Craving can be explained as the strong desires that people have for pleasing their senses and for experiencing life itself. Buddhists believe that anything that stimulates our senses or our feelings can lead to craving.
People everywhere crave for their favorite tastes, but we all know that not even the best sweets and our favorite meal lasts forever. Soon it is finished and there can be no more to enjoy, and then it is forgotten as though it never even happened. None of the pleasures we crave for ever give us lasting happiness or satisfaction. This is why people can crave to repeat these experiences again and again, and become unhappy and dissatisfied until they can satisfy their craving.
The trouble is, even if these pleasures are repeated again and again, we can still feel unhappy. Imagine eating your favorite food every meal, day-after-day, week-after-week. At first you might think this is a great idea, but very soon the day will come when you just cannot enjoy that food anymore, when it might even make you feel sick! Have you ever eaten too much cake and made yourself ill? Buddha said it’s the same with all the things that please the senses.
Craving is like a great tree with many branches. There are branches of greed, bad thoughts and of anger. The fruit of the tree of craving is suffering but how does the tree of craving grow? Where can we find it? The answer, says the Buddha, is that the tree of craving has its roots in ignorance. It grows out of ignorance, and its seeds fall and flourish whenever they find ignorance.
What is ignorance? Real ignorance is not just being uneducated, or not knowing many things. Buddhists see ignorance as the inability to see the truth about things, to see things as they really are. This ability to see the truth is not a question of either eyesight or education. Buddhists believe that there are many truths about the world that people are ignorant of, because of the limits of their understanding.
History can easily show us many examples of how misunderstanding and limited information cause ignorance. Until last Century, for example, most people in the world believed the Earth was flat and that travelers could easily fall off it. People thought that the edge of the world was a place full of monsters and strange creatures. Yet when explorers suggested that the world was round and that it was safe to travel far and wide they were punished for these ideas. Today we know the Earth is round and there is no edge to fall off and no monsters either, but for the people who lived before us, those dangers were very real in their own minds.
We can find many examples of how science has revealed facts about life of which we were ignorant. Scientists know, for instance, that there are sounds that people are unable to hear and waves of light which we cannot see. Special instruments have been made to help us see these things, but without those tools we would be ignorant of the fact that there are some things that we are unable to detect with our own senses.
Buddhists teach that as long as people remain ignorant of things about the world, they will suffer from all kinds of misunderstandings and delusions. But when people develop their minds and acquire wisdom through study, careful thought and meditation, they will see the Truth. They will see things as they really are. They will understand the Buddha’s teachings about suffering and impermanence of life, and the Four Noble Truths will be clear to them. The Buddha said that overcoming craving and ignorance leads to true happiness and Enlightenment.
The way to end suffering in life is to understand what causes it. Craving and ignorance are the two main causes of suffering. People suffer with their craving for the pleasures of the senses and become unsatisfied and disappointed until they can replace their cravings with new ones. People suffer too when they are unable to see the world as it really is and live with illusions about life and fears, hopes, facts and behaviors based on ignorance. Craving and misunderstanding can be solved by developing the mind, thinking carefully and meditating. Solving these main causes of suffering will lead a person to true happiness, just as it did for the Buddha himself 2,500 years ago.
The Third Noble Truth
The Truth of the End of Suffering
After the Buddha realized the Truth about suffering and its causes, he spent six years committed to discovering a realization about the end of suffering — that, and his achievement of Nirvana, were his ultimate achievements. In those six years, the Buddha tried all the methods available to end suffering without success. Eventually He found his own solution to the problems of life and they are now the core of Buddhist thought, teachings and practice.
This is what he discovered: there is an end to suffering; it can happen to anybody, anywhere, here and now; and the key to ending all suffering is to remove all desire, ill will and ignorance.
What Happens After Suffering Ends?
After suffering, the Buddha taught, there is supreme happiness. Every step of the way to removing the causes of unhappiness brings more joy. On the path to the end of suffering, which is a path that Buddhists may spend their whole lifetimes practicing, 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. These are the reasons Buddhists can live happily without greed — even among people in cities overcome with craving and desire. They can live happily without anger even among people harboring ill will. These kinds of happiness make life more rewarding and bring a sense of freedom and joy.
The Buddhist teachings say that 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 second fruit of the end of suffering is what Buddhists call supreme Enlightenment. Enlightenment can be called liberation — a total, absolute and permanent end of all suffering. It is the ultimate and final goal of Buddhism.
There are many, many qualities to enlightenment, but the most important are perfect wisdom and great compassion. These are the extraordinary qualities that only the Buddha perfected. They are the result of complete freedom from craving and from ignorance and the tremendous transformations from ordinary life that Buddha’s teachings exemplified. Through perfect wisdom He understands the real nature of all things. Through great compassion He is able to help countless beings overcome their suffering.
The experience of Enlightenment or Nirvana, as it is also called, is very difficult to explain. Even when Buddhists describe it as supreme happiness and perfect wisdom, they are not really explaining it completely. Nirvana cannot be put into words — imagine explaining the colour blue to a person who has always been blind, or the sound of a bird to a deaf man. Enlightenment is an experience that a person has to have for themselves to understand. Buddhists believe that the Buddha’s teachings will lead them to Nirvana and trust his teachings of the Four Noble Truths to take them to their goal.
The Buddha has described Nirvana in different ways. He has called it supreme happiness, peace, immortality. He also described Nirvana as uncreated, unformed, as beyond the earth, as beyond water, fire, air, beyond the sun and moon, unfathomable, immeasurable. It is also described as freedom from conflict and selfishness, the eradication of craving, hatred and delusion.
The Buddha said, and demonstrated through his own life, that Nirvana can be achieved in our lives, while living — it is not a place to which we go after death. Buddhists believe that we can eradicate all the causes of suffering in this life, and achieve enlightenment — live in bliss, if we follow the Buddha’s teachings.
Buddhists have confidence that the Buddha did find an end to suffering, and that His teachings can bring them the same experience. The key to ending suffering is to remove all desire, ill will and ignorance. Without these causes of suffering we can experience absolute happiness, perfect wisdom, peace and all the qualities of Enlightenment. Nirvana cannot be described, it is only understood truly by a person who has experienced it.
The Fourth Noble Truth
The Truth of the Path leading to the End of Suffering
In the beginning, Prince Siddhartha lived in luxury and wealth in his father’s palace. After he renounced his privileged life and became a wandering monk, he experienced the hardship and difficulty of a life with nothing. He spent years torturing his mind with hard thoughts and solitude and starved his body, enjoyed no comforts and suffered all the experiences of a life without belongings.
Not long before he achieved his insights and attained enlightenment, he realized both these extreme ways of life were as fruitless as each other. He realized that the true way to happiness was to avoid these extremes, to follow a moderate a way of life. He called this way of living the Middle Path.
Buddhists describe the three ways of life by comparing them to strings of a lute. The loose string is like a life of careless indulgence and makes a poor note when played. The tight string is like a life of extreme hardship and denial, producing another bad sound when played and, worse, likely to snap at any moment. Only the middle string, which is neither slack nor tense, produces a harmonious note — it has the same qualities as the Middle Path. Those who follow this way, avoid the extremes of indulgence and denial. They do not seek endless pleasures, and they do not torment themselves with pain, lacking and self-torment. The Fourth Noble Truth is that the Middle Path leads to the end of suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Middle Path is the Buddha’s treatment for the problem of suffering in all of our lives. In the time he spent learning about the cause and nature of suffering he learnt also about its cure and set out to teach it. Buddhists describe the teachings as a formula which is described in simple steps and includes both physical and mental treatment for ridding a person of suffering. Like all Buddhist teachings, this formula, which is called the Noble Eightfold Path, can only work if a person chooses to apply it to their lives, and takes full responsibility for following the steps.
The Steps of the Eightfold Path
1. Right Understanding: To understand the Law of Cause and Effect and the Four Noble Truths.
2. Right Attitude: Not harboring thoughts of greed and anger.
3. Right Speech: Avoid lying, gossip, harsh speech and tale-telling.
4. Right Action: Not to destroy any life, not to steal or commit adultery.
5. Right Livelihood: Avoiding occupations that bring harm to oneself and others.
6. Right Effort: Earnestly doing one’s best in the right direction.
7. Right Mindfulness: Always being aware and attentive.To making the mind steady and calm in order to realize the true nature of things.
Following the Eightfold Path
Following the Eightfold path leads, ultimately, to a life free of suffering. This is the fruit the most dedicated follower of the teachings might hope to enjoy, however along the way to this goal the Eightfold path helps Buddhists in other ways.
The Path develops character and personality by showing the way to live a virtuous life, then to cultivate concentration, develop wisdom and finally to blossom into an individual complete with compassion and wisdom — one of the highest qualities of a human being in Buddhism. The Path is specifically aimed at developing behaviour, mind and knowledge and the eight steps are divided into those three ways of practice.
The Noble Eightfold Path
- Good Conduct: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood
- Mental Development: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration
- Wisdom: Right Attitude, Right View
The power of speech is a unique gift of man. It is a power which, when properly used, helps to bring harmony, happiness and wisdom. If it is abused it can bring ignorance, delusion, pain and deceit. Right Speech is about controlling the abuse of speech and cultivating its best potentials. Students of the Eightfold Path learn to control their words. They avoid lies, tale-bearing, harsh words and nonsense while practicing speaking truth, gentle words, and speaking sensibly and meaningfully.
Right Action is concerned with what we do; avoiding actions that damage ourselves and others and taking action that improves our sense of self, adds to a healthy society and brings goodness and culture, which lay the foundations for Mental Development and Wisdom.
Right Livelihood shows the way for a person to choose in which way to become a useful, productive citizen who contributes to his or her own welfare and the welfare of others as well as bringing about social harmony and economic progress. Buddhist Teachings advise against harmful professions such as trading in weapons, living beings, flesh, intoxicants and poison. Buddhists also avoid occupations of soldiering, fishing, hunting, and teach against cunning and persuasive practices as well as cheating and gambling.
Through Mental Development Buddhist learn to be alert and aware in body and mind. Right Effort is fourfold;
1. Avoid evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising
2. Overcome evil and unwholesome states of mind already present
3. Cause good and wholesome states of mind not yet present to arise
4. Develop and perfect such states of mind already present
Right Mindfulness focuses us on the truth about what is happening in the body, in feelings, with the mind, and through our ideas, thoughts, etc. Right Concentration is a development of this attention, enabling a Buddhist student to develop one-pointedness of the mind which brings many strengths and freedoms, including the clarity of mind and calmness to stay on the path of Good Conduct.
Wisdom is Right Attitude and Right View. The practice of developing Right View is about distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, and leads to a compete understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Right View is free from delusion and ignorance and moves very easily into deep wisdom, clear sightedness and acceptance.
Freedom from negative thoughts which distract, debilitate or lead to wrong speech, actions, effort, mindfulness or concentration is what Buddhists call Right Attitude. A follower of the Eightfold Path who follows Right View and Right Attitude may achieve the wisdom to understand things as they are, to perceive the relationship between cause and effect and thus to remove ignorance and craving and experience the end of suffering. This is the ultimate goal of the Eightfold Path and all eight ways of practice must be followed in order to attain it.
The Noble Eightfold Path is a very systematic and methodical approach to solving the problem of suffering in life, and achieving a state of wisdom, peace and Nirvana. The programme first develops character and personality, then develops ethical conduct and restraint which promote concentration. Concentration and mindfulness help make the mind free of hindrances that block it from blossoming into wisdom and accessing higher knowledge. Higher knowledge brings a clear understanding of the truth about how things really are. This leads craving and desire to turn into detachment, detachment brings freedom from suffering and the end of suffering brings Supreme Happiness.
The way to the end of suffering is called the Middle Path. It is an Eightfold Path involving understanding and practice of Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Attitude and Right View. These eight elements can be divided into three ways of practice; Good Conduct, Mental Development and Wisdom. The goal of the Noble Eightfold Path is to bring a true understanding of the Four Noble Truths and deliver their ultimate Teaching – the end of suffering.