Buddhism is a User's Manual for living a content life. Unfortunately, many people have heard that Buddhism's starting point is the idea that "life is suffering." Buddhism is unlike so many other religious and spiritual traditions that tell you exactly what to believe and how to act. Although Buddhism does have many core beliefs, in essence, it is more of a guideline of how to live, with suggestions on how to achieve contentment. Different lineages and schools within Buddhism place more emphasis on certain aspects than others, but ultimately, it is an empowering path to walk, that calls upon the individual to uncover the truth for themselves.
The Buddha is known to have said “O monks, just as a goldsmith tests gold by rubbing, burning, and cutting before buying it, so too, you should examine my words before accepting them, and not just out of respect for me.” He was also quoted as saying, "Be a lamp unto yourself." In both of these instances, he is suggesting that we never take anything solely on faith or out of respect, but only when and if it feels true to us. Of course, only learn from the those who you hold in esteem, but always be your own highest source of wisdom. In this regard, the Buddha shared his teachings with his disciples and followers, but he then left it up to the them to sit with this knowledge and uncover the truth for themselves.
So, after the Buddha sat under that Bodhi tree for 49 days and became self-realized, what did he bestow? Well, his very first teaching has come to be known as the Four Noble Truths and they are what we are looking at today.
What Are The Four Noble Truths?
When it comes to the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha is often likened to a doctor because he first diagnoses the problem and then he explains how to cure it... but before we go any further, what are the Four Noble Truths?
- The truth of suffering (Duhkha).
- The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya).
- The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha).
- The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga).
Or, more simply put: There is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there is an end to suffering, the end of suffering comes from living in a certain way and fostering a certain perspective.
A Note On Suffering, What Is Duhkha?
These truths are typically the entry point of Buddhism, but they are also often the point where people get turned off to this wonderful path, why is that? Well, why would anyone want to follow a path that tells you that life is full of never ending suffering? I know I wouldn't. So, did the Buddha really say that to live is to suffer? Was this his great realization?
Of course not, and this is where the confusion frequently sets in. Duhkha is a word that can mean suffering, but it can also mean unsatisfactory, unease, unhappiness or pain. Really, it is the experience of anything unpleasant. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Sukha, which means joy, pleasure, bliss, etc.
What Do The Four Noble Truths Mean?
- Truth 1, The Truth of Duhkha: You are alive, how wonderful is that? Being alive, you have all of these amazing senses to take in all of the sights, smells, sounds, etc. that you can experience as a human. Just like you can experience pleasure, satisfaction and delight, you can also experience unhappiness, woe and pain; as well as all those mundane places between these two extremes. So, as part of being alive, you will experience unpleasant things from time to time, this is the truth of Duhkah. It sounds unfortunate, but it is natural, and without experiencing the lows, we wouldn't be able to appreciate the highs that life has to offer.
- Truth 2, The Cause of Duhkha: In Buddhism, it is said that those who are 'awake' or liberated live in a state of Nirvana, and those who have not yet awoken live in Saṃsāra. An oversimplification would be to compare these to Heaven and Hell, except that in Buddhism, they are not two distinct and different realms. They are actually the same place and they are where you exist now. The difference of which of these two places you reside in is really a matter of perspective; but back to the second truth. Why are we suffering? All things in the universe are perpetually changing, being transient and impermanent. If we accepted this fact, we wouldn't be upset by change. The Buddha taught that we suffer mostly because of our perspective and lack of understanding. This is due to our yearnings, attachments and expectations. We each have desires when it comes to people, places, events and experiences. We often want things to go (or be) a certain way. If they don't transpire just as we want or expect, many of us will then become unhappy. By harboring these unnecessary, preconceived ideas and expectations of things, we ourselves are creating Duhkha in our lives.
- Truth 3, The End Of Duhkha: The Third of the Noble Truths is rather straight forward. If you're alive, you will suffer, but you don't have to, there is another way.
- Truth 4, The Way Out Of Duhkha: The last of the Noble Truths is the cure to Duhkha. This "cure" is a life path, as well as a way to train your mind and release yourself from all of this suffering. This path is known as the Noble Eightfold Path and has many similarities to The Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Putting It All Together And Final Thoughts
2500 years ago, the Buddha declared that "I teach suffering, its origin, cessation and path. That's all I teach." and this is probably where people got the notion that the Buddha said that life is suffering. Many people stop exploration here and never look further into Buddhism. Those that do delve a bit deeper sometimes get the idea that Buddhists are just emotionless automatons that spiritually bypass the woes of life and the world by being unattached. Again, this is not what the Buddha was saying. He didn't say that life is suffering, nor did he say to be detached from the world and feel nothing.
Rather, he said that we must be open to things as they are, and allow them to arise, without expectations. This allows us to appreciate what comes up and the opportunities life brings, rather than trying to control things, with our happiness hinging on those things going exactly as we expected or hoped for. Essentially, expect nothing, so that you can appreciate this moment and all that it has to offer. This simple, yet radical shift in perspective has the power to change how you view the world and ultimately your life.
Furthermore, the Buddha outlined a path for you to try. A path that will help you achieve a state of being where you are mindful, where you experience life fully- the high and the lows, denying nothing, clinging to nothing. A life where you feel your joy, and your sorrow, but only as long as they are present, not a second longer. By clinging to these things, we bring them with us. This robs us of experiencing the current moment fully and furthers our Duhkha. The path he outlined as the cure to Duhkha is the known as Noble Eightfold Path.