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The Four Noble Truths

In order to help people realize that the normal understanding of life is inadequate, the Buddha talked about ’dukkha’

Par Amaravati Publications

This essay was taken from a leaflet distributed by

Amaravati Publications 1996


In order to help people realize that the normal understanding of life is inadequate, the Buddha talked about ’dukkha’ (roughly translated as dissatisfaction or unsatisfactoriness). He often summarized his teaching as the Truth about ’dukkha’, its origin, its ending, and the path to its ending. These core teachings, to be measured against one’s experience and used for guidance, are known as the Four Noble Truths.

The First Noble Truth

There is ’dukkha’

Life as we normally know it must always have a proportion of disagreeable experiences - sickness, pain and distress are obvious examples. Even in relatively affluent societies people suffer from anxiety, stress or a loss of purpose ; or they feel incapable of dealing with life’s challenges. Moreover, agreeable experiences are limited and transient : for instance, ’dukkha’ can be brought on by the loss of a loved one, or being badly let down by a friend. What also becomes apparent is that these feelings cannot be relieved for long by our usual responses, such as seeking pleasure, greater success or a different relationship. This is because ’dukkha’ stems from an inner need. You could call it a longing of the heart - for understanding, peace and harmony. Because it’s an inner or spiritual need, no matter how we try to alleviate such feelings by adding something pleasant to our life, it never quite succeeds. As long as we are motivated to seek fulfillment in what is transient and vulnerable - and it doesn’t take much introspection to recognize how vulnerable our bodies and feelings are - we will always suffer disappointment and a sense of loss.

"Being associated with what you do not like is dukkha, being separated from what you like is dukkha, not getting what you want is dukkha. In brief, the compulsive habits of body and mind are dukkha."

The Second Noble Truth

There is an origin to ’dukkha’

The Buddha’s experience was that this wrong motivation was in essence the origin of dissatisfaction. How is this ? By always seeking fulfillment in what is transient, we miss out on what life could be offering if we were more attentive and spiritually attuned. Not using (through not knowing) our spiritual potential, we are motivated by feelings and moods. However, when mindfulness reveals that this is a habit rather than our true nature, we realize that we can change it.

The Third Noble Truth

’Dukkha’ can stop

Once we’ve understood the Second Truth, the Third follows on, if we’re capable of ’letting go’ of our conscious and unconscious self-centered habits. When we are no longer defensive or aggressive, whenever we respond to life without prejudice or fixed views, the mind rests in an inner harmony. The habits and viewpoints that make life appear hostile or inadequate are checked.

The Fourth Noble Truth

The way to stop ’dukkha’

This involves the practical guidelines for bringing a spiritual focus to bear on life as we are living it. We can’t ’let go’ until we become capable of that through cultivation of our spiritual nature. But if there is proper cultivation, the mind will naturally incline towards Nibbana (’Nirvana’ in Sanskrit) the state of unshakeable peace and freedom. All that is needed is the wisdom to know that there is a way and the means to accomplish that way.

The ’Way’ is defined as the Noble Eightfold Path. The ’wheel’ symbol that is often used in Buddhist iconography is a depiction of this Eightfold Path in which each factor supports and is supported by all the others. Buddhist practice consists of cultivating these factors :

Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

The ’Right-ness’ of them is that they entail living in accordance with virtue, meditation and wisdom, rather than from any self-centered position. Such a Way is therefore ’Right’ for others as well as oneself.

"One who has understanding and great wisdom does not think of harming themselves or another, nor of harming both alike. They rather think of their own welfare, of that of others, of that of both, and of the welfare of the whole world."


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