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Buddhism and The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are often misunderstood since they are looked at on a superficial level. They state that life is suffering, we suffer because of our greed, suffering will stop when we stop wanting, and we do that by following the Eightfold Path.

But really, each Truth refers to a deeper part of our being. Each Truth helps us peel back a layer of ego and get to the core of true reality. Each Truth, understood, begins to wake us up.

The First Noble Truth – The Truth of Suffering

The First Noble Truth states that life is suffering. This concept can turn people away from Buddhism, but the word “suffering” often gets lost in translation.

Scholars maintain the Sanskrit word the Buddha used – dukkha – could also be translated to “un-satisfactoriness” or “not able to bear or withstand anything” or even simply “stressful.”

Yes, life does involve suffering as we typically understand and use the word. But Buddha taught that there are three types of dukkha: suffering (or pain), impermanence, and conditioned states.

Impermanence means that everything in the physical world, including mental states, is temporary. Even happiness is temporary and therefore it is dukkha (or suffering) because we want it to be permanent.

Conditioned states means that everything is dependent on and affected by everything else. This is especially important when it comes to our concept of Self, which we prefer to see as individual, autonomous, and permanent. It also helps remind us that the only thing in this life that we can control is ourselves.

Yet we tend to look outward instead of inward . . .

The Second Noble Truth – The Truth of the Cause of Suffering

The Second Noble Truth – the cause of our suffering is our attachment to our desires. The term desire here extends much further than wanting clothes, cars, or money.

We are attached to ideas of how we think life should be, how others should be, what will make us happy, and on and on. We want life – and everyone in it – to be a certain way and when it isn’t, we suffer. We get hurt, disappointed, angry, and frustrated.

In terms of our concept of Self, attachment takes the form of our ego. Our ego has a definition of who we are – one that is individual, autonomous, and permanent – and will do anything and everything to defend it.

It is our ego that wants to separate us from everything and everyone instead of accepting it is all connected; instead of seeing that everything is a conditioned state.

Our ego is attached to who we think we are as a person and constantly looks outward to validate that – a job, income level, marital status, parental status, social status, etc.

But all those things are impermanent. They are all conditional. That is the suffering.

The Third Noble Truth – The Truth of the End of Suffering

The Third Noble Truth states that an end to suffering is possible and The Buddha teaches that we do that by letting go.

Unfortunately, this can’t be done with an act of will. Instead, it is a more complicated process of seeing and understanding the true nature of reality.

When we understand that everything external is impermanent, and that worldly happiness is as well, we can begin to release our attachments to our desires for life and focus on the one and only thing we can control – ourselves.

The Fourth Noble Truth – The Truth of the Path that Frees Us from Suffering

The Fourth Noble Truth lays out a path – The Eightfold Path – to reach enlightenment.

Don’t think of Nirvana as some heavenly place that you will physically ascend to once reached. It is simply a state of mind – a complete understanding of life and harmony with every aspect of it.

There is no suffering because we are able to accept life as it happens – without judgment – and respond in a more loving, compassionate way.

It requires a complete shift of how we view ourselves, each other, and the world around us. There is no quick fix, but instead it is a slow, consistent awakening.


  1. Right understanding (Samma ditthi)

  2. Right thought (Samma sankappa)

  3. Right speech (Samma vaca)

  4. Right action (Samma kammanta)

  5. Right livelihood (Samma ajiva)

  6. Right effort (Samma vayama)

  7. Right mindfulness (Samma sati)

  8. Right concentration (Samma samadhi)


Right understanding is the understanding of things as they are, and it is the four noble truths that explain things as they really are. Right understanding therefore is ultimately reduced to the understanding of the four noble truths. This understanding is the highest wisdom which sees the Ultimate Reality. According to Buddhism there are two sorts of understanding. What we generally call “understanding” is knowledge, an accumulated memory, an intellectual grasping of a subject according to certain given data. This is called “knowing accordingly” (anubodha). It is not very deep. Real deep understanding or “penetration” (pativedha) is seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label. This penetration is possible only when the mind is free from all impurities and is fully developed through meditation.

Related: What are The Four Noble Truths?

From this brief account of the noble eightfold path, one may see that it is a way of life to be followed, practiced and developed by each individual. It is self-discipline in body, word, and mind, self-development, and self-purification. It has nothing to do with belief, prayer, worship, or ceremony. In that sense, it has nothing which may popularly be called “religious.” It is a Path leading to the realization of Ultimate Reality, to complete freedom, happiness, and peace through moral, spiritual, and intellectual perfection.


Right thought denotes the thoughts of selfless renunciation or detachment, thoughts of love and thoughts of non-violence, which are extended to all beings. It is very interesting and important to note here that thoughts of selfless detachment, love and non-violence are grouped on the side of wisdom. This clearly shows that true wisdom is endowed with these noble qualities, and that all thoughts of selfish desire, ill-will, hatred, and violence are the result of a lack of wisdom in all spheres of life whether individual, social, or political.


Right speech means abstention (1) from telling lies, (2) from backbiting and slander and talk that may bring about hatred, enmity, disunity, and disharmony among individuals or groups of people, (3) from harsh, rude, impolite, malicious, and abusive language, and (4) from idle, useless, and foolish babble and gossip. When one abstains from these forms of wrong and harmful speech one naturally has to speak the truth, has to use words that are friendly and benevolent, pleasant and gentle, meaningful, and useful. One should not speak carelessly: speech should be at the right time and place. If one cannot say something useful, one should keep “noble silence.”


Right action aims at promoting moral, honorable, and peaceful conduct. It admonishes us that we should abstain from destroying life, from stealing, from dishonest dealings, from illegitimate sexual intercourse, and that we should also help others to lead a peaceful and honorable life in the right way.


Right livelihood means that one should abstain from making one’s living through a profession that brings harm to others, such as trading in arms and lethal weapons, intoxicating drinks or poisons, killing animals, cheating, etc., and should live by a profession which is honorable, blameless, and innocent of harm to others. One can clearly see here that Buddhism is strongly opposed to any kind of war, when it lays down that trade in arms and lethal weapons is an evil and unjust means of livelihood.

These three factors (right speech, right action, and right livelihood) of the eightfold path constitute ethical conduct. It should be realized that the Buddhist ethical and moral conduct aims at promoting a happy and harmonious life both for the individual and for society. This moral conduct is considered as the indispensable foundation for all higher spiritual attainments. No spiritual development is possible without this moral basis.


Right effort is the energetic will (1) to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind from arising, and (2) to get rid of such evil and unwholesome states that have already arisen within a man, and also (3) to produce, to cause to arise, good, and wholesome states of mind not yet arisen, and (4) to develop and bring to perfection the good and wholesome states of mind already present in a man.


Right mindfulness is to be diligently aware, mindful, and attentive with regard to (1) the activities of the body (kaya), (2) sensations or feelings (vedana), (3) the activities of the mind (citta) and (4) ideas, thoughts, conceptions, and things (dhamma).

The practice of concentration on breathing (anapanasati) is one of the well-known exercises, connected with the body, for mental development. There are several other ways of developing attentiveness in relation to the body as modes of meditation.

With regard to sensations and feelings, one should be clearly aware of all forms of feelings and sensations, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral, of how they appear and disappear within oneself. Concerning the activities of mind, one should be aware whether one’s mind is lustful or not, given to hatred or not, deluded or not, distracted or concentrated, etc. In this way one should be aware of all movements of mind, how they arise and disappear.

As regards ideas, thoughts, conceptions and things, one should know their nature, how they appear and disappear, how they are developed, how they are suppressed, destroyed, and so on.

These four forms of mental culture or meditation are treated in detail in the Satipatthana Sutta (Setting-up of Mindfulness).


The third and last factor of mental discipline is right concentration, leading to the four stages of Dhyana, generally called trance or recueillement. In the first stage of jhana, passionate desires and certain unwholesome thoughts like sensuous lust, ill-will, languor, worry, restlessness, and skeptical doubt are discarded, and feelings of joy and happiness are maintained, along with certain mental activities. Then, in the second stage, all intellectual activities are suppressed, tranquillity, and “one-pointedness” of mind developed, and the feelings of joy and happiness are still retained. In the third stage, the feeling of joy, which is an active sensation, also disappears, while the disposition of happiness still remains in addition to mindful equanimity. Finally, in the fourth stage of jhana, all sensations, even of happiness and unhappiness, of joy and sorrow, disappear, only pure equanimity and awareness remaining.

Thus the mind is trained and disciplined and developed through right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

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