The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths on suffering

The Buddha’s mission was simple. When asked, he said his sole aim is to teach the end of suffering. And thus he began by teaching the Four Noble Truths that are said to contain the entire sum of the his teachings. Why? Because they will always point us back to the fundamental and irrefutable Law of Causation. That of karma, cause and condition, attachment, craving and suffering. And within these are many more layers of the most profound meaning that shows us what life is really about.

As the story goes, the Buddha didn’t think he could teach what he had discovered during his awakening experience. It would be too profound. Fortunately for us, the God Indra managed to convince him otherwise. And even more fortunately for us, the Buddha proved to be a most capable teacher, always ensuring that his teachings were accessible to all capacities of mind. And so, forty-nine days after his awakening, the Wheel of Dharma began to turn as he taught his first sermon on the truth of suffering. His audience was none other than his five former fellow ascetics and they too became awakened instantaneously.

From the book, On the Four Noble Truths by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, we learn that the Buddha repeated his first teaching 3 times for good effect. With each repetition, he took his listeners to an ever deeper level of realisation and awakening. This is what the Buddha said….

The first repetition

In the first repetition: The first noble truth is the truth of suffering; the second noble truth is the truth of its cause; the third noble truth is the truth of cessation; and the fourth noble truth is the truth of the path

What this means….

One, truth about suffering. For simplicity’s sake, suffering is any feeling that leads to a debilitating sense of dis-ease, fear, anxiety, greed, hatred, discontent – all of which actually don’t last except that in our ignorance of the true state of phenomena, we think they do. Nothing ever lasts so why hang on to them? Why allow them to define our mental well-being? So what if we are in the throes of something simply awful. The point is we can step aside, let go, move on, throw the net wide and think of what we could do instead to solve the problem. Remember our mothers telling us worrying never solved the problem?

Two, the cause of suffering. Since everything we call suffering has a cause or condition from which it arose wouldn’t it be downright silly if we didn’t at least try to be mindful in the first place and catch these causes and conditions before they became full blown?

Three, like for instance, would you succumb to the seduction of a very attractive female if you paused to consider how that might impact the trust of your spouse, marriage and children? No? but you can see yourself lying about your night with this woman, right? Golly! Talk about waltzing right into the lion’s den!

By the time your wife and kids have left you, you would wish you had thought of the fourth truth. You wouldn’t have even started with that femme fatale! You would never have compromised on your morals. You would have remembered The Path and what it entails. Shoots! Back to square one in your efforts to be enlightened. But like they say, hindsight is a precise science that hurts.

The second repetition

In the second repetition: One, suffering is to be known. Two, its cause is to be abandoned. Three, cessation is to be achieved. Fourth, the path is to be relied on.

What this means….

Yes, yes, suffering and its nature, cause and condition and the whole works must be studied and examined to fully experience the truth for yourself. Like the saying goes, truth will set you free. What’s this truth? The truth of the matter. The truth of this bad patch you are going through. Or, dry spell. Or, sickness. Or, sudden windfall.

Now the Buddha goes deeper. The ultimate start-point of all suffering begins with ignorance. It is ignorance of the impermanence and the lack of an intrinsic quality in any phenomena to be able to remain forever unchanged. Truly, can you think of any such thing that remains pristine for eternity? Nothing! You certainly can’t have your cake and eat it too!

The Buddha finishes by revealing ‘The Path’ that leads to liberation and enlightenment, the attainment of which promises the ultimate end of all suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path. No, it’s more than that according to the Mahayana teachings. The Path shows you the way to get off the wheel of samsara and samsara here can mean anything at any point in time that brings pleasure as well as suffering.

Remember that extramarital affair? For the unfaithful husband, his samsara began the moment he set things in motion. Equally, it’s samsara for all involved – not just the wife and kids, maybe his boss, colleagues and friends as well. All will suffer. The tragedy is that the pain can last a long, long time for the injured parties if they can’t let go and move on. We know of far too many of such similar cases and we have seen the heavy damage from holding on to bitterness, anger, betrayal, guilt and regret.

The third repetition

In the third repetition: Other than suffering, there is nothing to be known. Other than its cause, there is nothing to be abandoned. Other than cessation, there is nothing to be achieved. Other than the path, there is nothing to be relied on.

What this means….

One. According to Geshe-la, this means understanding the true nature of suffering is the most important thing in life if you wish to be well, happy, peaceful and free from suffering. It’s not about acquiring more and bigger stuff in life.

Two. The Buddha would like us to analyse and look at the real cause of suffering and that is – ignorance of the nature of emptiness and lack of intrinsic permanence in everything. Yes, everything that has a beginning has an end. So let go. Cut the attachment. Start right now. Don’t wait.

Three. The Buddha now takes his listeners ever deeper into realm of how to achieve the true cessation of suffering. He teaches the 12 Links of Dependent Origination and if you googled, you will see this presented as a wheel with 12 spokes. There is a logic to the beginning and end to suffering starting from Link 1 to Link 12 but it doesn’t mean it has to follow the order strictly. If you dig deeper into the teachings, you will learn that you might enter or exit the cycle at any point in time depending on what’s happening in your life.

Four. With the understanding of impermanence (aka emptiness), ignorance as the ultimate cause or point of origin, attachment as the cause and perpetuation of suffering taken care of, now the Buddha exhorts his listeners to apply effort to achieving liberation and enlightenment to end all suffering here and now.

If, like us, you too want all incarnations to end in this lifetime, well, we are told it is possible but great effort is needed. There is much to do and it is mapped out for us through two ways: Raja Yoga offers the Ashtanga or Eight-limbed path while the Buddha offers the Four Noble Truths and the Marga or the Noble Eightfold Path. Differences and similarities aside, the two paths are both a viable plan to become an enlightened spiritual being even if we have to return a couple more life times.

Truly, truly, we have found out the painful way that the way out of suffering is to overcome ignorance which begins nowhere else but all in the mind. If we took the time to understand how the mind is the puppeteer if you let it, we would then make every effort to learn how to take over the strings so that come what may, pleasurable, unpleasurable or neutral, every experience is met with calm and equanimity. Just like a Buddha. Now, wouldn’t you say that is indeed a noble aim? And that is essentially what the Buddha seeks to teach us – self-mastery via a spiritual way.