The Four Noble Truths (3/5)

(Read time: 5 minutes)

The Buddha explained that once an individual has gained an unqualified and instinctive knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, said individual will reach Nirvana. Today, a doctrine accepted by all schools of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths represent the very heart of the Buddhist Philosophy. The truths can be approached as observations or tools to explore, which individuals can assess to what extent they relate. The teachings are not based on religious dogma and whilst they are simple to understand on a surface level, it can take a lifetime to create and maintain an intuitive understanding. The basic process depicted below, is the recognition of each truth, moving from one, to two, to three and then maintaining four:

1) Dukkha: The Truth of Suffering

The very essence of living coincides with passing experiences of suffering and/or dissatisfaction, this is not to suggest that life is inherently suffering, this is more the recognition that life is a mixture of both pain and pleasure. The feelings of dissatisfaction can appear in an obvious or subtle sense however the First Truth is aimed at helping people accept the transient nature of suffering which is at the very core of our existence. Buddha suggested that there are three forms of suffering:

1) The Suffering of Suffering

This teaching considers the reality of unexpected life events which results in unwanted and inescapable emotions. Such suffering, more commonly referred to as Blatant Suffering, arises in conjunction with something that has been experienced. Old age, sickness and death are physical examples, whereas problems arising in relationships, hardships or career can be seen as more mental examples. The truth focuses on recognising that rather than responding to the event in a clear manner we often incite more suffering by developing our own resistance. This resistance can come in the form of anger, hatred, bitterness, or any form of opposition to the experience.  

2) The Suffering of Change

This teaching considers the way we view experiences, suggesting that if we expect something to stay the same in a constant state this will ultimately lead to a sense of suffering or dissatisfaction. The very thought explains that no matter what you are experiencing now it will eventually pass, no matter how good or bad an experience, it will eventually pass through natural transition or by your death. The truth focuses on recognising the cycle of constantly grasping something just at the cusp of it seeping out of your hand, and the resulting dissatisfaction.

3) All-pervasive Suffering

This teaching considers the type of suffering that we are most likely not to immediately recognise, yet considered the most beneficial once recognised. Given the complexity surrounding it, I have written my own interpretation below:

  • the actions we take to avoid the first two kinds of suffering create a sense of ignorance and delusion (Karma);
  • that sense of ignorance and delusion create a self-driven mental perception of who and what we are (Ego); and
  • this perception will stay with us, often unknowingly, left unchecked leading to a state of suffering thus we take actions to avoid such suffering further creating a sense of ignorance and delusion, and a constant state of dissatisfaction.

This teaching focuses on breaking the general distortion from which we view ourselves, a distortion which is similar to a dream-state whereby the truth attempts to wake us up, a dream in which it made sense to buy a watch for £1000 although once you were awake you realised a £5 watch would tell you the exact same time.  

2) Samudaya: The Truth of the Origin of Suffering

The First Noble Truth may seem brutal and slightly nihilistic but what the Buddha is trying to explain, is that whilst happiness exists so does suffering and they go hand in hand. At the same time, he explains that suffering does not come from the event itself, more our reaction to the event. As a result, the teachings attempt to explain that perhaps we should learn to accept the latter and then at least attempt to move forward in a constructive manner.

There is an idea to suggest that we are creating our own individual reality in our minds thus leading to a false sense of self where we identify with the persona we project onto others, where Buddhism encourages us to explore the you, you want nobody to know about. The self-created perception is based entirely on expectation, memories and emotions and the Buddhist philosophies attempt to divest our attention to this projected self and closer to our base self.

The Second Noble Truth focuses on the root cause of suffering, which is the grasping of certain identities due to our amnesia of our own individual Buddha nature. The Buddha taught that the root of all suffering is craving driven by greed, ignorance and destructive urges, drivers which subsequently give air to the flame of suffering. This teaching focuses on recognising there is a cause behind our suffering and does well to demonstrate the idea that the first step of overcoming a problem is to recognise there is a problem.

3) Nirodha: The Truth of the End of Suffering

The Buddha explained that the way to extinguish craving is to liberate oneself from attachment. The counter-argument to that often goes along the line of, are we supposed to stop caring about everything and have no ambitions? That is not what he suggested, not having attachment simply refers to the idea that rather than having life pull you along where it wants to go, you push your life to where you truly want it to go. The Third Noble Truth is about recognising that if we practice letting go of the different ways in which we try to escape the inevitabilities within our lives – through our addictions or our fixation on accumulation – if we truly let go of the ways in which we hide from ourselves and instead we face life and push through it, that peace of mind we all seek, becomes very much achievable.

4) Magga: The Truth of the Path that Leads to the End of Suffering

The Buddha teaches that it is possible to get pleasure from pleasure, he argued that you did not have to live within any extreme in order to achieve and maintain a sense of peace, for example between asceticism and extreme indulgence, or self-gratification and self-mortification. The Fourth Noble Truth is described as the Middle Way, the way of balance, the way to seek pleasure from pleasure and still achieve a peace of mind. The characteristics of the Middle Way is set out in the Eightfold Path which we will consider in the next post.

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