The Four Noble Truths

| May 6, 2013 | 18 Comments

298672382_10f7046723According to the tales in the Pali Canon, the very first teaching Gotama gave after his awakening was what we have come to know as the Four Noble Truths. This concept is foundational to all traditions that we call Buddhism, Secular Buddhism included. To the extent that newcomers to dharma practice know any Buddhist doctrine at all, it’s probably the Four Noble Truths, possibly picked up in a comparative religion course. Unfortunately, just as they are the most widely known of Gotama’s teachings, they are also the most widely misunderstood.

Here is the Buddhism 101 version, which I found on a website called “The Big View”

The Four Noble Truths
1. Life means suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering.

We notice that these are truth statements about the world, a set of propositions to be believed, not unlike the Apostle’s Creed in Christianity. On the basis of such a creed, it’s no wonder Buddhism has the reputation of being a rather dour and pessimistic belief system. Life means suffering? Most people will readily recall moments of beauty and happiness in their lives, and they feel justified in seeking more such moments. The Buddhism expressed here offers only the cessation of suffering, which sounds like typical religious pie in the sky. That pie lies on the other side of a path – the Eightfold Path – that also has a familiar ring to it: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. Two fewer commandments than Judeo-Christian religion, but the message seems the same: Do everything right and all your troubles will be over.

A look at how Gotama is recorded as delivering these teachings in his First Sermon reveals something much different than the stock presentation we may be used to.

This is dukkha: birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, encountering what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what one wants is dukkha. This psychophysical condition is dukkha.

This is the arising: it is craving which is repetitive, wallowing in attachment and greed, obsessively indulging in this and that: craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.

This is the ceasing: the traceless fading away and cessation of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.

And this is the path: the path with eight branches: right vision, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration.

The first thing we notice is that Gotama doesn’t say, “Life is suffering.” The word usually translated as “suffering” is dukkha, and as Gotama uses the word above, we can see that it is much more complex than just suffering. It is a characteristic of our lived experience which we encounter when we confront the realities of the human condition: sickness, ageing, death, the inability to get what we want and the necessity of putting up with what we don’t want. Dukkha is what it’s like to be a human being.

As a result of our vulnerability and dissatisfaction, craving arises. Again, this is more than just “attachment”. Gotama calls it an obsession: we crave for mental and physical stimulation; we crave to be better, smarter, more attractive, wealthier, more powerful, more loveable, more spiritual; and we crave non-existence, invisibility, that our faults and weaknesses could disappear, that our brokenness will not be seen by others. In other words, we crave that human life not be what it is, and so that craving can never be satisfied, but will continue to drive us on the ultimate wild goose chase. That set of futile compulsions defines how we see ourselves and the world; it becomes who we are.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Gotama’s teaching and the stock Buddhism 101 version is the third truth. It is not suffering that ceases, it’s craving. In other words, it’s possible to come into a different relationship to the reality of our life that enables us to drop craving and be free of its wallowing, obsessive compulsions.

Notice that in this presentation, Gotama doesn’t call the eight-branched path “the path to the cessation of suffering.” In fact, its placement at the end of the four truths can be seen as the culmination of what has gone before, the kind of life that becomes available to us when we can experience freedom from our habitual craving reaction to dukkha.

So how do we get to this freedom? Gotama next restates the four truths in a surprising way:

Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.
Such is the arising. It can be let go of. It has been let go of.
Such is the ceasing. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.
Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated.

Here we see that the four truths are prescriptions for action. When we fully know dukkha – when we see how it pervades our lives, and how it arises inevitably from our existential predicament – we can realize the futility of our craving for life to be other than it is, and let go of that craving. And as we let go, craving ceases, and we are free to cultivate a new way of life.

Notice that the Eightfold Path isn’t linear, but circular and self-reinforcing. It appears to end with Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, but until we can view the world with minds that are at least a little stable and calm (and so discover that equanimity is possible), we can’t have the Right View that puts our feet on the path to begin with. As we bring mindful awareness to every aspect of our lives – how we think, speak and act, how we work, what we strive for – our mindfulness and concentration grow, and we become increasingly free of our craving reactivity, which in turn deepens our awareness of and embrace of the path.

At the end of this First Sermon, Gotama’s first convert expresses his understanding this way: “Whatever arises, ceases.” This is the simplest expression of another foundational element of Gotama’s teaching, dependent arising, the understanding that nothing has an independent, fixed existence but arises and ceases within an ever changing matrix of conditions. The Four Noble Truths, then, are the ramifications of dependent arising for the human condition. When we fully internalize the shifting, unreliable, ungraspable nature of our experience, we will see that there is nothing to grasp for and so no reason for grasping. It will be clear that our craving is based on an illusory understanding of life, and we can begin to let go. Rather than reacting to chimeras, we will be free to respond to the world as it is.

The text is Stephen Batchelor’s translation of the Vinaya Mahavagga I.5, from The Pali Canon: Source Texts for Secular Buddhism.

This article is part of the New to Secular Buddhism section of SBA.

Category: Articles

About the Author ()

Mark J. Knickelbine, MA, C-MI, is a writer, editor, political activist, and certified meditation instructor. "Buddhism Without Beliefs" and "The End of Faith" led him to seek out a dharma practice without the religious trappings of Buddhism. He found it at a local health clinic, where he learned mindfulness in the manner of Jon Kabat-Zinn. He has continued to study texts from the Pali, Chan and Zen traditions, and he is an active member of the mindfulness community at the UWHealth Department of Integrative Medicine. Mark is a member of the SBA board and serves as Practice Director.

Comments (18)

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  1. ruedade says:

    How are birth, aging, sickness, death etc. dukkah?
    It is like saying respiration or digestion is dukkah.
    When we treat the processes of life as static, as facts with separate realities, then remove them from the matrix of conditions from which they emerge, then dukkah arises.
    It’s a characteristic of humans to want more. We have a physical body that ages and dies but we refuse to accept this.
    An anthropologist from Mars would have a field day examining the countless myths humans have come up with to stave off the processes of aging and death. It seems like the thing which unites all religions (including Buddhism) is the belief in life after death.

  2. Mark Knickelbine says:

    ruedade, I did not write the sutta, I only quoted it. I think what Gotama was trying to say is that the unsatisfactory, unfixable, impermanent nature of life in a human body is a fundamental aspect of our lived experience. When we don’t accept that fact, we react to dukkha with craving (for sense pleasures, for being, for non-being) to which we become enslaved and which we mistake for “the self”. Freedom is being able to fully know and embrace the reality of life so that we can drop craving and respond to life with wisdom, acceptance and compassion.

    • ruedade says:

      Why are you saying you did not write the sutra? Please tell me why you sound defensive. I have no idea how my comment could offend you.
      I ask a rhetorical question, “How can these things be dukkah?” Then I state my view. I’m clueless about your reaction.

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        I’m not offended. I’m merely pointing out that you are not questioning my opinion, but the text itself.

        • ruedade says:

          Mark, you sounded offended, but thanks for clarifying.
          I thought it was clear that my comment was about the text but I was mistaken.

        • Linda Linda says:

          But Mark, it seems to me he *is* questioning your opinion, in just the ways I do. You speak of “questioning the text” as if the words as they lay there have some inherent meaning clear to all, as if texts aren’t interpreted.

          The issue is always “what is dukkha” i.e. “where does dukkha reside”? And you and I seem to have very slightly different slants on it.

          As I understand it, dukkha for you, Mark, is the inherent unsatisfactoriness in the impermanent nature of our bodies and the things we attach ourselves to — it is therefore “pie in the sky” to promise an escape from it as it is not avoidable.

          This flies in the face of what the Buddha says about dukkha — the whole point of his system is that dukkha is avoidable, he says many times that he teaches the end of dukkha right here in this very life — which tells me your definition has missed the point.

          I say dukkha resides not in the inherent nature of things being impermanent, but in our minds, in our relationship to things being impermanent. Dukkha is what we do to ourselves by believing that the situation can or should be different than it is. And that is something we can learn to bring to an end: stop that attitude, stop the dukkha. We aren’t attempting to change the nature of the universe so that things are not impermanent anymore — that is not the promise being made by the Buddha — we’re changing ourselves, our approach, because it is the approach that is the problem, not the impermanence itself.

          • ruedade says:

            To say sickness is dukkah is similiar to saying my immune system is dukkah. My immune system may be efficient or inefficient but it just “is”, no dukkah involved.
            Dukkah arises when we don”t accept the fact of sickness, the reality of aging and the inevitably of death. It arises with the lament “Why me?”

          • Mark Knickelbine says:

            Yes, Linda, we’re trying to stop craving for life to be different than it is. That is why, in the First Discourse, Gotama says it is craving, not suffering or dukkha, that ceases. I realize it is necessary to layer on additional interpretations in order to make this very simple presentation jibe with the “path leading to the cessation of dukkha” pericope. But unless you’re telling me these words have been mistranslated, the message is very straightforward, and has the added advantage of being something we can see for ourselves with a little practice.

          • Linda Linda says:

            I am not telling you the words have been mistranslated, only that the way the Buddha is expressing himself has been misunderstood. There’s a pattern there, a pattern to the whole of the way the Buddha is presenting information that, as far as I can see, has gone unnoticed. I’m working on a paper on it, and I’ll send it to you when it is finished, if you like.

  3. Alix says:

    Hi – I’m new to this so bear with me! Mark, I really like your interpretation, especially the part about it being craving, not dukkha that (in theory anyway) ends. But isn’t one of Gotama’s more famous statements something like – “I teach one thing and one thing only – dukkha and the end of dukkha”? Doesn’t seem to fit – or is this about translation or context? I’d appreciate your (or anyone’s) comments on this. Thanks!

    • Linda Linda says:

      Alix, I’d like to point out that in the comments above, Mark and I briefly debated this issue, also. Mark’s approach to the Pali Canon is to find that much of it is corrupted and unreliable, which makes it easy for him to suggest that perhaps the Buddha never said that he teaches the end of dukkha, and so he can ignore the contradiction when the Buddha appears to say that dukkha is something we cannot end.

      My approach has been to try to understand the Pali suttas as a largely-uncorrupted whole — where the “corruptions” stand out very well (stories told from after the Buddha’s death; suttas that do no teaching, just bragging; breaks in logic within a sutta, etc), and to try to understand what’s being said with the key being the oft-repeated statement that what the Buddha teaches is visible here-and-now. This means that when I run up against what seems to be a logical inconsistency — usually across suttas — rather than assume that this is caused by a corruption, I assume that I have yet to understand why what’s being said is said the way it is said. I keep the question like a pot of soup on “simmer” at the back of my stove waiting for the ingredient that unlocks the flavor/the answer.

      This has led me to the conclusion that when the Buddha says, in one famous pericope, that dukkha is birth, death, old age and sickness, he is not saying what Mark and many others take it to “simply” mean: that suffering is an inevitable part of life, unavoidable, which would then mean that “I teach the end of dukkha” has to be the element that is wrong — either a corruption or misunderstood somehow. (It is clear that one or the other statement has to be either out of place or misunderstood, isn’t it.) My conclusion — and I am working on a paper that shows this fits the teachings in many ways, not just in this instance — is that the Buddha often says (or starts with) a statement that is a summary of “what everyone knows” (or what everyone is saying “these days”) about the subject, but that he means something deeper, and that he expects us to examine the statement. He expects us to find logical inconsistencies like this one, and ask ourselves what is really meant. In his day, there would be no question as to whether one of the two statements was a later corruption — he was around, saying both things — so the only option was to examine them, and try to see what you can see for yourself: “The Blessed One says he teaches the end of dukkha. He says dukkha is birth, old age, sickness, and death. This seems like a contradiction — unless he means he teaches the end of the cycle of rebirth? But then he says his dhamma is visible here-and-now, and I see that he’s still suffering pain from illness, so what can he mean?”

      My answer is that birth, old age, sickness, and death are dukkha because they are the field, without which there would be no dukkha. They are a cause in the sense of being a “necessary factor” or remote cause (not the element in our control). You could say that they simply represent impermanence.

      They are dukkha because they foster sorrow, lamentation, grief, and despair — which is in the same pericope, and starts transitioning the meaning toward what we do in our bodies and minds about birth, sickness, and death.

      I usually don’t like Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of dukkha as “stress” but in his translation of The First Sermon:

      (search for the phrase -> Birth is stressful <- to find the relevant pericope)

      he makes evident what I am saying. That dukkha is not the exact equivalent of birth, aging, and death — and therefore inescapable, so that the Buddha can't be teaching "the end of dukkha" but it is the field in which we grow dukkha.

      The funny thing is that — from long friendship with Mark — I know that in a way our disparate interpretations make little difference. We assess the problem of the words from entirely different directions, but in the end our answer is the same: it is our relationship to impermanence that needs to change, since impermanence is unavoidable.

      • Alix says:

        Hi Linda, thank you for this comment. I did read your debate with Mark and my original question was an expression of my continued confusion. I’m realizing what a complex subject this is. I like your image of allowing the question to simmer – like something Rilke wrote about being patient with what is unanswered and learning to love the questions themselves. You & Mark have both greatly clarified and developed different directions my mind was going in as I puzzled over what wasn’t making sense to me in “Buddhism 101”-type summaries of the 4 noble truths. I do see that in the end, as you say, your different interpretations don’t appear to make any or much practical difference. To be honest, I’ve been meandering through such dharma practices as I have found helpful without really caring about the 4 noble truths/tasks or whether I agreed with any of them. I just eventually got to a point where I wondered if they did make sense to me as fundamental premises, started looking for consistency and voila! – confusion (and frustration). Thank you for your help with this. (I would be interested to read your paper as my mind still seems to want to explore this further.)

      • Mark Knickelbine says:

        Not to reignite this debate, but I would not use a word like “corrupted” which implies there was once a pristine record of the teachings that came from Gotama’s lips and people screwed with it. This view buys into post-literate Western ideas of authenticity that simply don’t apply in the pre-literate societies we know about. An Indian of the fifth century BCE would have no conception of whether the verses of the Dhammapada were literal transcriptions of what the Buddha said (and in fact if he was familiar with Vedic literature he would know some of them weren’t). We simply do not know how any of these texts were composed or by whom; and given the dramatic stylistic and doctrinal variation among them, the simplest explanation is that they evolved through retelling and the development of stylistic conventions that would have involved many people over a considerable period of time. We know this happened to other texts, both Western and non-Western, that were preserved from oral cultures before being fixed in print, and there is no reason to suppose the Pali Nikayas are any different.

  4. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Hi, Alix, and thanks for your comments. The Pali Nikayas are a very important resource, but we must approach them with caution. Although there is much scholarly controversy, it seems clear that what we have in these texts is the result of an evolutionary process that took place over many years, perhaps as long as two centuries. We know some of the material pre-dates Gotama; other material was clearly composed after his death. Beyond that, the preoccupation with debating the Brahmins and what it means to be a Brahmin points to the competition between Buddhism and Brahmanism that intensified around the time of King Ashoka, a long time after Gotama taught. That, and the dramatic stylistic and doctrinal change we see in these texts, prevent us from just picking them up and saying “this is what The Buddha taught.” If these texts were composed by many people over a considerable period of time for a variety of different reasons and with different doctrinal emphases, we should expect contractions to arise, and so we should not be surprised when we find them. I wrote more about this here, if you’re interested:

  5. Alix says:

    Thank you, Mark. One more question – is there reason to think that the record of the 1st Discourse is relatively likely to be a record of what the historical Gotama actually said? – ie more likely so than, say, the statement about the end of dukkha that I mentioned earlier?
    To be clear, it’s not that I feel the validity of any statement rests in who said it. I’m just trying to get a sense of the lay of the land.
    I appreciate having somewhere to ask these questions!

  6. Mark Knickelbine says:

    Alix, as you might infer from my earlier comment, approaching questions like that involves a lot of guesswork. I don’t think we can say whether anything we read in the suttas is a “record of what the historical Gotama actually said,” in the same way we could say a quote in a newpaper or book actually records someone’s words. What we might get closer to is whether it represents ideas that a historical Gotama actually taught. This sermon appears in several places in the Pali canon, which is an indication that it was widely circulated and considered important when the canon was being composed. I also note that it is relatively free of the repetitive, pericope-driven language that marks the later suttas of DN and MN. Conversely, the “path leading to the cessation of dukkha” language IS a pericope, which strongly indicates a relatively late composition. But none of this is a guarantee of anything. My guess is that it is like the Udanas, in which the basic teachings that were initially widespread were later recast in a story about how they were first delivered. As with any ideas we take from the suttas, we have no alternative but to come up with a way to choose between the many doctrinal contradictions on display; I choose to go with the teachings that are consistent with dependent arising and a naturalistic approach to dharma practice.

  7. Alix says:

    Thanks, Mark, that clarifies things for me. One hopefully last question – I’m curious about why dependent arising specifically is one of your 2 criteria for which teachings to go with. Thanks again.

    • Mark Knickelbine says:

      Alix, sorry to take so long to respond. Dependent arising is crucial because it is the basis of the other core dharma concepts. Because things don’t have independent identities but arise contingent upon ever-changing circumstances, they are impermanent and have no fixed self. Because this is the way things are, our longings to be safe and satisfied are constantly being frustrated (therefore, dukkha). The good news is that, as Gotama’s first disciple said after hearing the First Discourse, whatever arises also ceases. Things aren’t fixed, so they can change, and that includes our reactive patterns of feeling, thought and behavior, and our limited and delusory perception of self. Conditioned arising is Gotama’s great, transformative idea, and the rest of his core doctrine can be seen as the implications of conditioned arising for the human condition. There are other ideas in the Nikayas that plainly violate this idea, such as karma and rebirth. Since one can only reconcile these contradictions through heroic feats of logical contortion that result in strange and unworkable outcomes, it is better to accept them as contradictions and choose on the basis of consistency. Traditional Buddhism tends to end up on the side of the standard ancient Indian cosmology of fixed selves transmigrating until they come to a final state of bliss. Modernist Buddhism accepts dependent arising and all of the doctrines based on it, and views rebirth as mythology, regardless of whether it actually came out of the mouth of an historical Gotama.

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