The foundational truths of the Buddha Dharma, as taught in any Vipassana (Insight) meditation retreat, are the four noble truths. Reminding yourself of these throughout the day, or especially when in the middle of some painful experience, can help alleviate your pain and help bring the light of understanding to everything you go through.
Though they seem simple and straightforward, practising them is not, which is why the Buddha set out a whole path for the practice (the fourth noble truth). The four noble truths were documented by followers of Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta text, meaning “Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion”.
Truth Number 1: The Truth of Life is that suffering or unsatisfactoriness is inherent
The truth of life is that it carries inherent suffering or ‘unsatisfactoriness’, known as Dukkha in the Pali language.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
The five aggregates are form (matter or body) known as Rupa in Buddhism, sensations / feelings that arise from form, known as Vedana, perceptions (Samnja), mental formations (Sankhara) and consciousness (Vijnana).
Though this may sound bleak at first to those who are new to this teaching, the good news is still to come.
Suffering or unsatisfactoriness as it is more accurately described, is the nature of life thanks to the pain that arises from body, mind and sense perceptions from: separation from things and people that we like; from closeness / intimacy with things or people or situations that we don’t like; and from not getting what we want, or getting what we want and finding we don’t want it anymore.
Truth Number 2: Suffering is born of Craving and Clinging
The first truth gives rise to the second which is: the truth of the origin of suffering which is craving and clinging; manifesting as attachment.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
This truth is often summed up by the statement that desires are the cause of suffering. If this is taken too literally, one can easily come to the conclusion that to desire anything or anyone is bad and something we need to try and avoid. But it’s not so simple.
First we need to understand the nature of becoming. The very nature of the process of becoming is that it leads to suffering because it means we are not happy with what we currently are. We are wanting (desire) to become something different. This brings us out of the present moment and into the energy of striving. Which is stressful. And once we are in this cycle, it is never-ending. We find ourselves on the old Wheel of Samsara – the ever turning wheel of suffering. When we become who we wanted to become, there is another level (re-becoming) to aspire to, and then another, and so on.
This doesn’t mean though that wanting something or wanting to become something is something that we need to avoid. We can still have desires, and go through the process of whatever we have to do to attain whatever the attainment is. But in each moment we are happy with who and what we are. We are fully present and fully engaged during the process. The energy of striving is not there. Essentially, we are engaged in the doing for the joy of the doing, and we are detached from the outcome.
Truth Number 3: The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering or Unsatisfactoriness
It is possible to detatch from our desires, so that we are free of the stress and pain involved with clinging and attachment: the energy of wanting.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
Important here is the non-reliance on craving. We don’t need it. This is essentially the path of doing whatever you are doing just for its own sake, without striving for an outcome or a desired goal. The satisfaction comes moment to moment, as you are fully present in the action.
I love the story I learned from Steve and Rosemary Weissman, in their book, “With Compassionate Understanding; A Meditation Retreat”, that aptly demonstrates this teaching.
Once there was a farmer who had a stallion workhorse. It was strong and worked hard, helping the farmer with the plowing and transporting of goods, etc. One day, the farmer found that the stallion had dissapeared. Upon hearing this, the farmer’s neighbours said: “Oh, what bad luck, what bad luck!”
The farmer simply shrugged his shoulders and replied, “good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
Two weeks later, the horse still had not returned. The neigbours continued to say, “Oh, what bad luck, what bad luck!”
The farmer again shrugged his shoulders and said, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
The next day, the stallion returned, bringing with him seven wild mares. The farmer’s neighbours exclaimed: “Oh, what good luck, what good luck!”
The farmer simply said, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
Then the farmer’s son was trying to train the new wild horses, and he fell off one, breaking both his legs. The neighbours exclaimed, “Oh, what bad luck, oh what bad luck!”
The farmer simply said, “Good luck, bad luck, who knows?”
SHortly after, the army general of the province came around drafting all able bodied men to fight an unpopular war in a distant province. The farmer’s son was not drafted. Good luck, bad luck, who knows?
Page 308; “With Compassionate Understanding: A Meditation Retreat”, by Rosemary & Steve Weissman. Paragon House, Minnesota, 1999.
So we see here that by not attaching to the outcome of anything, to the result or desired result of an action or an event, we are free and at peace. We are free from the becoming and the disbecoming inherent in attachment or clinging to a desire.
Fourth Noble Truth: The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering
The fourth noble truth is the path to the end of suffering, otherwise known as the Eightfold Path.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.
The Eightfold Path
- Right View: seeing things as they are. Understanding the true nature of life and phenomena (impermanence).
- Right Intention: choosing a beneficial intention for your life.
- Right Speech: not causing suffering or an increase in suffering for your self or others through your speech and seeding beneficial outcomes through useful and beneficial speech.
- Right Action: choose beneficial actions for yourself and others.
- Right Livelihood: doing something for your living which is aligned with your own soul and which is beneficial to the whole.
- Right Effort: staying in the present moment at all times, and not being attached to the outcomes of your efforts, keeps you in a state of equanimity within yourself and all life.
- Right Mindfulness: being mindful of your thoughts, emotions and sensations, thus not being attached to or swayed by them to lose your presence in the here and now.
- Right Concentration: being able to focus your attention and energy correctly in pursuit of beneficial action thanks to the previous seven steps.
Clearly this is not an easy path to master and it’s essentially a lifelong process. But I find that the Eightfold Path is a great guide map to how you are doing at any point in your life. It is something that, if it resonates with you, and if the teachings of the Four Noble Truths resonate with you, you can use to come back to and check in with whenever you need to re-assess what you are doing in life, how you are behaving, how you are reacting or responding to life at any moment, and if necessary, re-calibrate according to these teachings.
Strangely enough, the very beautiful Leonard Cohen song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, for me encapsulates the Four Noble Truths.
“You win a while, and then it’s done,
your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat
You live your life as if it’s real
A thousand kisses deep…”
How does this resonate with you? Have you tried and tested the Four Noble Truths in your own life to see whether the teachings are correct for you?
Citations of the Four Noble Truths from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, as cited in Wikipedia.