Four Noble Truths

Four Noble Truths Buddhism

The four noble truths are considered to be the central foundation of the Buddha's teachings. Its fundamental importance is reflected in the fact that it is present in all or almost all Buddhist traditions or schools from the earliest schools of early Buddhism to the present day.

The various versions of the four noble truths that can be found generally follow the same content and form, suggesting that they all come from the same original source of teachings.

Most scholars of the various Buddhist sources (in Páli, Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan languages) agree in the general opinion that a Páli language record could more plausibly have been the original source of this teaching.

Because of the complexity and length of the subject of the four noble truths, it is difficult to express in a few words what the subject of this teaching is. Every author, scholar and commentator expounds it from various points of view that may be equally valid.

Venerable Ajahn Sumedho summarizes the theme of the four noble truths as follows: "that the unhappiness of mankind can be overcome by spiritual means. "

In summary, the four noble truths are (1) the truth of unhappiness, (2) the truth of the cause of unhappiness, (3) the truth of the cessation or extinction of the cause of unhappiness, and (4) the truth of the path leading to the extinction of unhappiness.

In the Pali texts the key word is dukkha, the general term for "malaise," being the antonym of sukha (well-being). In the various translations, the word dukkha is translated by a variety of similar terms: pain, suffering, sorrow, grief, affliction, distress, stress, dissatisfaction, discontentment, etc., while sukha is translated as happiness, bliss, pleasure, joy.

The various Buddhist traditions give a central place to the four noble truths in the sense that they represent the very enlightenment or Awakening (bodhi) of Gotama Buddha, the initiator or founder of Buddhism. As summarized by Jean Boisselier, the knowledge of the four noble truths is what made Prince Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, the Awakened One:

"From this moment [the third vigil on the night of his enlightenment, the Buddha] possesses the Four Noble Truths-truth about pain, truth about the origin of pain, truth about the cessation of pain, truth about the eightfold path (whose eight branches symbolize the attainment of the eight perfections) leading to the cessation of pain-and by such a fact he becomes a Buddha. "

Origin of the four noble truths

According to the oldest records of Buddhist scriptures, the four noble truths are mentioned and explained in a variety of sutta (discourses). For example, in the Pali Canon, the four noble truths are mentioned and/or explained in discourses number 16 of the Digha Nikaya, number 28 of the Majjhima Nikaya and number 56.11 of the Samyutta Nikaya.

However, there seems to be a general consensus in accepting that discourse number 56.11 of the Samyutta Nikaya records the first time the Buddha expounded the teaching of the four noble truths.

This discourse is known as the First Benares Sermon, being delivered, according to the Pali Canon, in the city of Varanasi (in Pali), present-day Benares. This sermon is also called "the setting in motion of the wheel of the law", an expression that appears both in the Lalitavistara and in the commentaries in the Páli language.

The sermon or discourse number 56.11 of the Samyutta Nikaya is in fact entitled in Páli Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which translates literally as Discourse (sutta) of the Setting in Motion (pavattana) of the Wheel (cakka) of the Dhamma.

The context of this discourse is situated at the moment when the Buddha has already attained Awakening and decides to teach it to the five ascetics with whom he practiced certain meditative exercises before the attainment of enlightenment.

This is what is referred to in the expression "the Exalted One addressed the group of five monks" at the beginning of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.

The name of the four noble truths in the Páli language (cattári ariyasaccáni) suggests that the four truths are noble because they belong to or are known by the Noble Subjects (ariya), those who have attained one of the four levels of Awakening.

The adjective sacca, which is usually translated as "true," also means "real," suggesting that the four truths are not categorical philosophical statements of the Buddha in the sense that they alone are the truth, or they alone are true, but that they are the reality, the real or true experience, of the Noble Subjects.

The Four Noble Truths in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

In the Pali texts, the four noble truths are as follows. It is important to note that the Buddha explains each of them in more detail and at greater length in other discourses in the Canon, and that the contents of each are understood within the general framework of the Buddhist theory of rebirth (bhava) and kamma (karma in Sanskrit).

1- The truth of dukkha: Discomfort in all its forms (pain, suffering, sorrow, grief, affliction, distress, stress) is inherent to existence in the world, that is, in any of the 31 planes of existence of samsara:

This, O monks, is the Noble Truth of Suffering. Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering. Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, affliction, tribulation are suffering. To associate with the undesirable is suffering, to separate oneself from the desirable is suffering, to not get what one desires is suffering. In a word, the five aggregates of attachment to existence are suffering.

This statement does not deny the happiness or bliss (sukha) that are possible in existence: it only points out in detail where dukkha is found in mundane existence.

The first four processes are frequently mentioned by the Buddha in other texts as a general description of worldly existence: being born, growing old, falling sick, dying. The next three situations have to do with the mental poisons of desire (lobha) and hatred (dosa) and the expectations that the unawakened mind builds up from them: being attached to what is despised or hated, being separated from what is cherished or loved, not getting what we desire.

The expression "five aggregates of attachment" refers to the notion pañcakkhanda, also translated as five aggregates of attachment and five aggregates of existence, refers in Buddha's philosophy to the five sets of psycho-physical processes that constitute what we call a human being. The dukkha characteristic is also inherent in these five aggregates.

2 - The truth of the cause (samudaya) of dukkha: The key word in the second truth is the term tanhá, which is generally translated as desire but also means thirst, lust and attachment. The Buddha further mentions here three specific types of tanhá:

This, O monks, is the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering. It is this desire that generates new existence, that associated with pleasure and passion delights here and there. That is, sexual desire, desire for existence, and desire for non-existence.

Sexual desire or thirst is kama-tanhá (do not confuse kama, sexuality, with kamma, intentional action): it is the desire or lust associated with the six "objects" of the senses (vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch and intellect).

The desire or thirst for existence is bhava-tanhá: it is the desire to be born and reborn, to be this or that, to live or exist in a certain plane of existence. And the desire for non-existence is vibhava-tanhá: it is the desire for the annihilation of being and of the present existence of being, the desire to end this or that, to end existence.

Sexual desire and desire for existence lead to clinging, to attachment. Desire for non-existence does not lead to clinging but it does lead to a destructive attitude towards life, which, according to Buddha, also produces more rebirth (bhava) and more discomfort (dukkha) for the self in the future.

3 - The truth of the extinction (nirodha) of dukkha: By determining the cause of the mala of existence, we can exterminate that cause, thereby ceasing its effect. If the cause of dukkha is tanhá, then the extinction of dukkha comes logically with the extinction of tanhá:

This, O monks, is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. It is the total extinction and cessation of that very desire, its abandonment, its discarding, release, non-dependence.

The extinction of desire comes with a long and delicate process of study, contemplation, reality assessment, reflection and meditation. For this the Buddha taught a great number of ethical practices and mental and spiritual exercises to achieve the proper and correct extinction of tanhá.

However, the key word behind the third noble truth is not so much extinction as nibbána (nirvana in Sanskrit): the supreme state of total and definitive extinction of the three mental poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance).

Nibbána, which means "extinguished fire", is not the extinction of the self or non-existence: it is a state of supreme liberation where the self is no longer reborn again in samsára.

Everything in samsára is perishable (anicca) and a cause of malaise (dukkha), but beyond samsára ("the Other Shore," as the Buddha calls it) there is the state of nibbána, which is non-perishable and a cause of supreme bliss.

This truth in fact contains the most important point of all the Buddha's teaching, since nibbána is the object and goal of all this Teaching and Discipline. The Supreme (nibbána) is in fact what gives meaning and purpose to the Buddha's entire philosophy and religion, the fourth noble truth being nothing more than the training leading to it.

4 - The truth of the path (magga) leading to the extinction of dukkha: The last noble truth summarizes the training program that the Buddha taught to achieve the extinction of dukkha and attain the state of nibbána:

This, O monks, is the Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering. Simply this Eightfold Noble Path; that is, Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Life, Right Effort, Right Attention and Right Concentration.

This is the famous Eightfold Path, because it is made up of eight factors. The adjective páli sammá that precedes each of the factors has several translations, all valid: straight, correct, perfect, harmonious, beautiful.

The adjective sammá means something complete, perfect, beautiful, faultless, unbroken. This suggests that the Buddha saw the eight factors of the path not as a categorical moral statement of the type "this is right and everything else is wrong" but as exposition of those behaviors, conducts and states of mind that are beautiful, harmonious, complete, perfect in themselves.

However, it is also true that the eight factors are correct in the sense that they correct that which is deviant, that which is unskillful, that which is obscure or twisted.

Traditionally the eight factors of the noble path are divided into three main sections:

Wisdom or discernment (pañña): Right Understanding (samma-ditthi), Right Aspiration (samma-sankappa).

Morality or virtue (sila): Right Speech (samma-vaca), Right Action (samma-kammanta), Right Way of Life (samma-ajiva).

Concentration (samadhi): Right Effort (samma-vayama), Right Mindfulness (samma-sati), Right Concentration (samma-samadhi).

The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta does not explain in detail what each of the eight factors of the noble eightfold path means. Such a detailed explanation appears in other discourses, as for example in number 45.8 of the Samyutta Nikaya (Maggavibhanga Sutta, Discourse with the analysis of the Path) where the eight factors are explained as follows:

Perfect views: knowledge about the malaise (dukkha, kamma), knowledge about the cause of the malaise (tanha, bhava), knowledge about the extinction of the malaise (nibbana), knowledge about the path leading to the extinction of the malaise (síla, pañña, samadhi).

Perfect intention: intention of renunciation (nekkhama), intention of benevolence (metta), intention of harmlessness (karuna and ahimsa).

Perfect speech: refraining from false speech (musavada veramani), refraining from defamatory speech (pisunaya vacaya veramani), refraining from harsh speech (pharusaya vacaya veramani), refraining from idle speech (samphappalapa veramani).

To act perfect: to refrain from taking life (panatipata veramani), to refrain from taking what is not given (adinnadana veramani), to refrain from wrong sexual conduct (kamesu miccha-cara veramani).

Perfect livelihoods: profits must be acquired by legal means, peacefully, honestly, without causing harm or suffering to others. Wrong jobs: trafficking in weapons, living beings, meat production, poisons and intoxicants.

Perfect effort: preventing the arising of unwholesome mental states that have not yet arisen, abandoning unwholesome mental states that have already arisen, bringing about the arising of wholesome mental states that have not yet arisen, maintaining and perfecting wholesome mental states that have already arisen.

Perfect mindfulness: practice of the four foundations of mindfulness (cattaro satipatthana). This is contemplation of the body, contemplation of the sensations themselves, contemplation of the mind itself, and contemplation of the mental qualities themselves.

Perfect concentration: the four jhana, meditative absorptions, which are, the first jhana (ecstasy and pleasure born of renunciation, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation), the second jhana (ecstasy and pleasure born of concentration, unification of consciousness free from directed thought and evaluation; inner security), the third jhana (of which the Noble Ones declare:

"Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasant abode"), and the fourth jhana (the purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain).

Other interpretations and traditions

The Four Noble Truths express the basic orientation of Buddhism by referring to the fact that we covet and are inclined to become attached to passing states and things that are incapable of satisfying us and are painful (dukkha). This craving keeps us in samsara, the endless cycle of repeated rebirth and death and the dukkha that comes with it.

There is, however, a way to end this cycle, by reaching Nirvana (spirituality), where attachment ends and rebirth and dukkha do not reappear. This can be achieved by following the Noble eightfold path, restricting our attachments, cultivating discipline and practicing meditation.

In summary, the four noble truths are dukha, samudaya (ascension or going together), nirodha (cessation) and marga, the path to cessation.

In the Sutras (Buddhism), the Buddhist religious texts, the four truths have a symbolic function as well as a proposition. They represent the awakening and liberation of the Buddha, but also describe methods for sensitive people to free themselves from adherence to materialism.

In the Pal Canon scriptures, the four truths appear as a network of teachings, as part of the Dharma to be learned together. They provide the conceptual basis for introducing and explaining Buddhist thought, which must be fully understood and practiced.

The function of the four noble truths and their importance developed over time as the liberating vision (Prajñāpāramitā-sūtra) gained a prominent place in the Sutras and the four truths came to represent this liberating vision as part of the Buddha's enlightened story.

The four truths acquired particular importance in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, indicating that their simple knowledge is liberating in itself. They are, however, less prominent in the Mahāyāna tradition, which considers the Bodhisattva Way (great spontaneous compassion) to be the central element of its teachings and practices.

The Mahāyāna tradition interprets the four truths to explain how a liberated person can still be an omnipresent operative in this world. Western scholars who explored Buddhist concepts in the 19th century, as well as Buddhist Modernism, consider the four truths to be the basic and central teachings of Buddhism.

Some contemporary teachers tend to explain the Four Noble Truths from a psychological point of view, indicating that dukha means mental anguish in addiction to the physical pain of life, interpreting the four truths as the path to attain happiness.

In the contemporary Vipassana movement, this concept emerges from Theravada Buddhism, which indicates that freedom and the pursuit of happiness are the main goals, not the end of rebirth, which is hardly mentioned in its teachings.