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Essay/Term paper: Buddhism's four noble truths

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Philosophy

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Sarfo K. Mensah Jr.
Buddhism Paper
3/22/00


Siddharta Gautama was twenty-nine years of age when he abandoned his family to search for a means to bring to an end his and other"s suffering. He studied meditation with many teachers. At the age of thirty-five, Siddharta Gautama sat down under the shade of a fig or bo tree to meditate; he determined to meditate until he received enlightenment. After seven weeks he received the Great Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Henceforth he became known as the Buddha. This Middle Way is a psychological-philosophical insight into the cause and cure of suffering and evil.

In The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh provides a citation from the Buddha, which gives insight into the cure of our distress.

"I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering."
When we recognize and acknowledge our own suffering, the Buddha –which means the Buddha in us –will look at it, discover what has brought it about, and prescribe a course of action that can transform it into peace, joy, and liberation. Suffering is the means the Buddha used to liberate himself, and it is also the means by which we can become free.

(Thich Nhat Hanh 3)

The teachings of the Buddha revolve around this central tenant known as the "Four Noble Truths". The Four Noble Truths (and the Eightfold Path which followed from them) represent the basis of the Buddha's teaching and form the central foundation of Buddhism. Historically, Lord Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have preached on these topics during his first public commentary following his enlightenment.

The First Noble Truth states "Life is Dukkha". Dukkha exists, even that this is the natural and universal state of beings. The translation of the word dukkha from Pali has a bearing on how many readers will come to comprehend the basic teachings of the Buddha. The word dukkha is often rendered, in English, as "suffering". The resulting conclusion, "suffering exists". To live, you must suffer. It is impossible to live without experiencing some kind of suffering. We have to endure physical suffering like sickness, injury, tiredness, old age and eventually death and we have to endure psychological suffering like loneliness, frustrations, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, anger, etc. We are subject to impermanence and uncertainty. Very often, we have to associate with things that are unpleasant and disassociate with things that are pleasant. All these are unsatisfactory and cause our distress. This may seem a bit cynical and might suggest to many that Buddhism is a dire, fatalistic philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first noble truth is a statement so true and so obvious that it cannot be denied.

Using other translations of dukkha might lead us to (at least slightly) different conclusions as to the meaning of the First Noble Truth. Another depiction of dukkha as dissatisfaction may come closer to the intent of the original statement. "Dissatisfaction exists" seems a little simpler, a little less critical. Life is flawed, so there. It doesn't mean we will never have enjoyable moments, only that we will not only have them. We must take the good with the bad.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching, gives us this insight into the truth of suffering.

To succeed in the practice, we must stop trying to prove that everything is suffering. In fact we must stop trying to prove anything. If we touch the truth of suffering with our mindfulness, we will be able to recognize and identify our specific suffering, its specific causes, and the way to remove these causes and an end to suffering.

(Thich Nhat Hanh 22)

Expressed in a slightly different way, one could arrive at the conclusion that everything in the world, no matter how wonderful it may seem, is ultimately unsatisfying. One more twist and we can arrive at the conclusion that it is not possible to satisfy ourselves with worldly things, no matter how sweet they may seem. This may be the best translation of them all. Of course, the fact that we cannot be ultimately and finally satisfied means all things are touched with dukkha, and we suffer because of this.

Beyond this basic conclusion, the Buddha further suggested that there are three kinds of dukkha. Everyday dukkha (dukkha-dukkha) relates to the ups and downs of daily living, birth, death, and physical pain. The dukkha of change or changing circumstances (virapinama-dukkha) recognizes that we have an innate desire to keep things the way they are, particularly when they are going well - but we cannot. We are continually forced to come into contact with people and circumstances we do not prefer, and apart from those we prefer. Dukkha caused by the innate flaw of our conditioned existence (samkara-dukkha) describes the dissatisfaction or difficulty that arises from the fact that we are not what we think we are - perfect, eternal, but are made up of the five skandha (aggregates) which become the hooks on which our attachments hang. It is these attachments that are at the root of our suffering.

The Second Noble Truth is that craving causes all suffering. When we look at psychological suffering, it is easy to see how craving causes it. When we want something but are unable to get it, we feel frustrated. When we expect someone to live up to our expectation and he or she do not, we feel let down and disappointed. When we want others to like us and they don't, we feel hurt. Even when we want something and are able to get it, this does not often lead to happiness either because it is not long before we feel bored with that thing, lose interest in it and commence to want something else. Put simply, the Second Noble Truth says that getting what you want does not guarantee happiness. Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, try to modify your wanting. Wanting deprives us of contentment and happiness. A lifetime wanting and craving for this and that and especially the craving to continue to exist creates a powerful energy that causes the individual to be reborn. When we are reborn, we have a body and, as stated above, the body is susceptible to injury and disease; it can be exhausted by work; it ages and eventually dies. Thus, craving leads to physical suffering because it causes us to be reborn.

Mark Epstein in Thoughts without a Thinker provides an instance reinforcing the cause of suffering.

A wealthy patient confided to me that after having a gourmet meal, he craves a cognac. After the cognac, a cigarette; after the cigarette he will start to think about making love; after perhaps another cigarette. Soon, he begins to crave sleep, preferably without any disturbing dreams. The search for comfort through sense pleasures rarely has an end.

(Epstein 59)

As the devil"s advocate one may suggest that if we stopped wanting altogether, we would never get or achieve anything. This is true. But what the Buddha says is that when our desires, our craving, our constant discontent with what we have, and our continual longing for more and more does cause us suffering, then we should stop doing it. He asks us to make a difference between what we need and what we want and to strive for our needs and modify our wants. He tells us that our needs can be fulfilled but that our wants are endless - a bottomless pit. There are needs that are essential, fundamental and that can be obtained and this we should work towards. Desires beyond this should be gradually lessened. After all, what is the purpose of life, to get or to be content and happy?

The Second Noble Truth explores the source of dukkha. Simply put, dukkha arises from attachments, craving, desire or thirst. The Sanskrit word that is associated with this concept is trishna or samudaya; the Pali term is tanha. . Our lives are unsatisfactory because of "Tanha" and "Avija". "Tanha" is very often translated as "Cravings", but a much better translation should be "Thirst". "Avija" means "Ignorance".

What is "thirst"? Thirst is our natural tendency to cling on to the pleasant and be adverse to the -unpleasant. Most of us spend most of our lives chasing after and clinging on to things that satisfy our desires, egos, lusts, etc, and trying to run away from things we find painful and unpleasant.

What is "Ignorance"? Not to know that all conditioned things are impermanent is "ignorance". Not to know that all conditioned things are unsatisfactory is "ignorance". Not to know that all things are "without essence of self" is "ignorance". And not to know the Four Noble Truths is "ignorance".

Is there a way to overcome "thirst" and "ignorance" then? That's the question the 3rd Noble Truth answers

The attachment, or thirst or desire being spoken of in the Second Noble Truth can spring from, or relate to many aspects of our life. We may desire sensual pleasure, or fine possessions. We may thirst for recognition, or wish to become something we are not.

This is all actually commonplace. It is difficult to live in a world, which apparently runs on advertising and marketing without being tempted by a wish for something. It would be hard to go through life interacting with others without wishing to deepen relations at any level with some people. It would be very taxing to strive to do good deeds and then never wish for recognition.

The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness achieved. This is perhaps the most significant of the Four Noble Truths because in it the Buddha reassures us that true happiness and contentment are possible. When we give up useless craving and learn to live each day at a time, enjoying without restless wanting the experiences that life offers us, patiently enduring the problems that life involves without fear, hatred and anger, then we become content and free. Then, and only then, do we begin to live fully. Because we are no longer obsessed with satisfying our own selfish wants, we find we have so much time to help others satisfy their needs. This state is called Nirvana. We are free from all psychological suffering as well. This is called Final Nirvana.

"What or where is Nirvana?" one may ask. It is a dimension transcending time and space and thus is difficult to talk about or even think about. Words and thoughts being only suited to describe the time-space dimension, but because Nirvana is beyond time, there is no movement and so no aging or dying. Thus Nirvana is eternal. Because it is beyond space, there is no causation, no boundary; no concept of self and not self and thus Nirvana is infinite. The Buddha also assures us in The Dhammapada that Nirvana is an experience of great happiness. He says:

Nirvana is the supreme bliss.

(Maitreya 56)

Thich Nhat Hahn"s, in The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching, gives us this lineation of Nirvana.

Nirvana is the extinction of all notions. Birth is a notion. Death is a notion. Being is a notion. Nonbeing is a notion.

(Thich Nhat Hanh 127)



The Third Noble Truth offers an exit, a release from the suffering of attachment. It is sometimes referred to as the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. The Sanskrit term associated with the Third Noble Truth is nirodha, literally cessation, or dissolution, or even "control". We control our cravings and are thus liberated from their dependence of us. We no longer suffer from our attachments. This cessation of suffering, in turn, is called Nirvana. When we accept the fact that change is an inherent part of life - that in fact everything is constantly eluding our aggressive grasp all of the time - and when we stop being frustrated, angry or vengeful at the realization, we can, we may attain Nirvana. This is where the 4th Noble Truth comes in. The 4th Noble Truth is a package of self-cultivation that enables the practitioner to attain the goal of "Nirvana".

Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker provides an illustration reinforcing the necessity of a conceptual view when one follows the Buddha"s example and tries to deal with one"s own emotional life. In this story, Hung-jen, the departing fifth patriarch challenged his pupils and followers of the seventh century A.D. to create a verse suggestive of their comprehension of the Buddha"s teaching"s. The most satisfactory verse would designate his heir. The foremost student, Shen-hsiu offered the following verse.

The body is the Bodhi tree,
The mind is like a clear mirror standing
Take care to wipe it all the time,
Allow no grain of dust to cling.

An uneducated kitchen servant, Hui-neng presented an alternative to Shen-hsiu"s reply as:

The Bodhi is not a tree,
The clear mirror is nowhere standing.
Fundamentally not one thing exists;
Where is a grain of dust to cling

(Epstein 90)

This analysis conveys what has always been the major component of the Buddha"s teaching, the avoidance of idealization and denial in the perception of the empty and reflecting mind where as in Shen-hsiu"s, verse, the clear mirror effortlessly becomes an object of idolization.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path leading to the overcoming of suffering. This path is called the Noble Eightfold Path and consists of Perfect Understanding, Perfect Thought, Perfect Speech, Perfect Action, Perfect Livelihood, Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness and Perfect Concentration. Buddhist practice consists of practicing these eight things until they become more complete. You will notice that the steps on the Noble Eightfold Path cover every aspect of life: the intellectual, the ethical, the social and economic and the psychological and therefore contain everything a person needs to lead a good life and to develop spiritually.


The Eightfold Path includes:

1. Right Understanding, samyak drshti, by correctly or adequately understanding or integrating the teaching, making the teaching one with us, we become the teaching, the teaching becomes us. An intellectual grasp of the teaching of Dharma

2. Right Thought, samyak samkalpa, which involves the elimination of all ambitions, revenge, hatred, greed, lust and violence by cleansing our minds of knowing and ignorance appearing as dukkha, our mind or mental processing becomes uncluttered and focused on our unfolding actuality.

3. Right Speech, samyak vaca, which means being courteous, considerate, compassionate and full of sympathy , with a heart full of loving humanity and free of secret malice by forgoing judgments, imaginings, ungrounded assumptions and such, we are cleansed of falsehoods, scandalous speech, accusations and such against others.

4. Right Action, samyak karmanta, which means the avoidance of destruction of any living being, of taking what has not been given, indulging in sensuality, slander and intoxicating liquors, licentious behavior and such, by taking actions fully in accord with universal principles of ethical and moral behavior such as the Ten Commandments of Judaism and Christianity, or Ahimsa, which was Mahatma Gandhi"s core teaching.

5. Right Livelihood, samyak ajiva, by choosing in today"s terms to affirm valuing, moral and ethical behavior in the practices we adopt for earning a living, for pursuing a trade or occupation compatible with "Right Action".

6. Right Effort, samyak vyayama, means to prevent new evil from entering one"s mind, to remove all evil already there, by examining how we think, how we act, how we are, etc. so that we dwell in positive, valuing thought forms leads away from not knowing and ignorance, we become harmonious in thought and action.

7. Right Mindfulness, samyak smrti, by staying within the framework established by the eightfold pathway, we stay aware, conscious of all that we are and all in which we live, all with whom we live. We maintain ourselves clearly on all planes of existence.

8. Right Concentration, samyak samahdi, by establishing and maintaining our focus of appearance, manifestation and being through appropriate concentration, usually named as meditation, dhyana, we are grounded in our unfolding actuality. This is the threshold of Nirvana, to develop the eye of wisdom.

It could be important to note that the Eightfold Path is often further subdivided into three major sections, trishiksa - literally the "threefold training". Trishiksa embodies training in moral discipline (steps 3, 4, and 5), training in mental concentration (steps 6, 7, and 8), and training in wisdom (steps 1 and 2). The first is "Morality". The idea here is to live a life where one tries to constantly practice kindness and love, and to live life such that one's conscience is clear. That comes from our practice of Perfect Thougths, Perfect Actions, Perfect Speech and Perfect Livelihood. Basically, we live life to the best that we can. The second group is "Concentration". With a clear conscience cultivated with "morality", we cultivate our minds so that it'll be calm, peaceful and concentrated. This comes from our practice of Perfect Effort and Perfect Concentration. The third group is "Wisdom". With a very strong, calm, concentrated and peaceful mind, we learn to work with ourselves, to gain insight into ourselves, to eventually overcome all our problems and all the inadequacies in our lives. This comes from our practice of Perfect Mindfulness and Perfect Understanding.

Anyone and everyone can achieve the highest goal in Buddhism, be they a worldly person or a monk. All one need to do is to make an honest effort to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. It is said that those who have realized the truth, like the Buddha Shakyamuni and his prominent disciples did not do so accidentally. They did not fall from the sky like rain, nor did they spring up from the earth like grain. The Buddha and His disciples were once ordinary sentient beings like you and me. They were once afflicted by the impurities of the mind, desire, ill-will and ignorance. It is through contacting the Dharma, through purifying their words and deeds, through developing their minds and through acquiring wisdom that they became free, exalted beings able to teach and help others to realize the truth. There is therefore no doubt that if one applies their self to the teachings of the Buddha, one can attain the ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is the ultimate goal of liberation, the everlasting bliss of Nirvana.

Works Cited

Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Beliefs. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1997

Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without a Thinker. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Breathe! You Are Alive. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1996

Hanh, Thich Nhat. The Heart of the Buddha"s Teaching. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1998

Maitreya, Ananda. The Dhammapada Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1995

Internet Resources -General Buddhism Links:

Buddhanet is a Buddhist information network and Buddhazine at: http://www.buddhanet.net/

Buddhism Pointers: A pointers file which lists a truly impressive array of Buddhist groups and
societies, journals, mailing lists, news groups and other resources is maintained at:
http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/BRF/

Buddhism Links: The National Capital Freenet (Ottawa Canada) has a special interest group on
Buddhism that lists many links. See: http://www.ncf.carleton.ca/dharma/
 

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