"I teach about suffering and the way to end
The teachings on the four noble truths are among the very
first of many teachings that Shakyamuni Buddha gave in
Sarnath (near Benares or Varanasi in North-East India),
seven weeks after attaining enlightenment in Bodhgaya.
These teachings are known to contain the essence of the
Buddhist path, regardless of the tradition one follows.
1. THIS IS SUFFERING
According to the Buddha, whatever life we lead, it has
the nature of some aspect of suffering. Even if we consider
ourselves happy for a while, this happiness is transitory by
nature. Often, if we have a problem in the world, it is not
because the world is what it is, but the fact that we do not
accept that the world (as we experience it) is
unsatisfactory or suffering by nature. The fact that we
suffer or are happy depends entirely on our own state of
mind. This mean that at best, we can only find temporary
happiness and pleasure in life.
Suffering (or unsatisfactoriness) can be distinguished in
1. Suffering of suffering: this refers to the most
obvious aspects like pain, fear and mental distress.
2. Suffering of change: refers to the problems that
change brings, like joy disappears, nothing stays, decay and
3. All-pervasive suffering: this is the most
difficult to understand aspect, it refers to the fact that
we always have the potential to suffer or can get into
problematic situations. Even death is not a solution in
Buddhist philosophy, as we will simply find ourselves being
reborn in a different body, which will also experience
To illustrate this with the words of the 7th Dalai Lama
(from 'Songs of spiritual change' translated by Glenn
"Hundreds of stupid flies gather
On a piece of rotten meat,
Enjoying, they think, a delicious feast.
This image fits with the song
Of the myriads of foolish living beings
Who seek happiness in superficial pleasures;
In countless ways they try,
Yet I have never seen them satisfied."
Note that "suffering" is a most inadequate
translation of the word "Dukkha", but it is the
one most commonly found. "Dukkha" literally
means "intolerable", "unsustainable",
"difficult to endure", and can also mean
"imperfect", "unsatisfying", or
"incapable of providing perfect happiness".
Interestingly enough, some people actually translate it as
2. THE CAUSES OF SUFFERING
The reason that we experience suffering comes ultimately
from our mind. According to Buddhism, our main mental
problems or root delusions are: attachment, anger
and ignorance. Because of these delusions, we engage
in actions that cause problems to ourselves and others. With
every negative action (karma) we do, we create a potential
for negative experiences.
How can attachment bring us suffering?
We just have to think of chocolate and there is the
temptation of eating more than is good for us.
Or as example, my favourite story: the way people used to
catch monkeys in South India.
One takes a coconut and makes a hole in it, just large
enough that a monkey can squeeze its hand in. Next, tie
the coconut down, and put a sweet inside. What happens
next is pure attachment. The monkey smells the sweet, puts
his hand into the coconut, grabs the sweet and ... the
hole is too small to let a fist out of the coconut. The
last thing a monkey would consider is to let go of the
sweet, so it is literally tied down by its own attachment.
Often they only let go when they fall asleep or become
unconscious because of exhaustion.
Ultimately, the Buddha explains that our attachment to
life keeps us in cyclic existence or samsara, which
does not bring us continuous happiness.
How can anger bring us suffering?
As will be explained in the page on karma, all of our
actions have consequences. Doing harm to others will return
to us as being harmed. Anger is one of the main reasons we
create harm to others, so logically it is often the cause of
suffering to ourselves.
How can ignorance bring us suffering?
This is explained in two ways:
- The conventional explanation is to understand is that
because we are not omniscient, we regularly get ourselves
into trouble. We do not realise all the consequences of
our actions, we do not understand other beings and we do
not understand why the world is exactly the way it is. So
we often end up in situations where we do not take the
best actions. Just reflect for a moment how often we
think: "If only I had known this earlier..."
- The more complicated explanation refers to the most
profound aspect of Buddhist philosophy: ultimate truth
or emptiness. This is a vast subject, and also
after reading the page on wisdom it is unlikely that you
will be completely clear; it takes years of study and
meditation to realise the insight into the wisdom of
emptiness. To put it very simple: reality is not what it
seems to us. As reality is different from our opinions
about it, we get ourselves into trouble. As long as we
fail to realise the ultimate truth, we will be stuck in
cyclic existence. While being in cyclic existence, we will
always experience some aspect of suffering (which is at
least having the potential for future suffering).
3. SUFFERING CAN END, NIRVANA
This is the most positive message of Buddhism: although
suffering is always present in cyclic existence, we can end
being in cyclic existence and enter Nirvana, which is
a state beyond all suffering.
The reasoning behind this Third Noble Truth is the fact that
as suffering and the causes of suffering are dependent on
states of our own mind, then if we can change our own mind,
we can also eliminate suffering.
The reasons we do actions that cause ourselves and others
harm come from our delusions. Also our delusions themselves
cause us problems. When we possess the proper wisdom
(conventional and ultimate), we can rid ourselves of
delusions, and thus of all our problems and suffering. When
this process is complete, we can leave cyclic existence and
enjoy the state of Nirvana, free of problems.
The reasoning so far is simple enough, but it is like
with taking medical treatment and medicines. When we are
ill, we need the help of a doctor, we need to take medicines
and follow up the doctors advice. If wisdom is the medicine
that a spiritual teacher can prescribe, we still need to
take it in and follow the instructions, otherwise there will
be no effect. That leads us to the last Noble Truth of the
4. THE TRUE PATH, OR
EIGHT-FOLD NOBLE PATH
If we can control our body and mind in a way that we help
others instead of doing them harm, and generating wisdom in
our own mind, we can end suffering and problems.
The Buddha summarised the correct attitude and actions in
the Eight-fold Noble Path:
1. Correct thought: avoiding covetousness, the
wish to harm others and wrong views (like: actions have no
consequences, I never have any problems, there are no ways
to end suffering etc.)
2. Correct speech: avoid lying, divisive and harsh
speech and idle gossip.
3. Correct actions: avoid killing, stealing and
4. Correct livelihood: try to make a living with
the above attitude of thought, speech and actions.
5. Correct understanding: developing genuine
The last three aspects refer mainly to the practice of
6. Correct effort: after the first real step we
need joyful perseverance to continue.
7. Correct mindfulness: try to be aware of the
"here and now", instead of dreaming in the
"there and then".
8. Correct concentration: to to keep a steady, calm
and attentive state of mind.
The Buddha explained that one can use the Four
Yardsticks to assess if one is practising the correct
one should feel happiness, compassion, love
and joyous effort when practising.