"I teach about suffering and the way to end it"
Shakyamuni Buddha


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.


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 three types:
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 death.
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 problems.

To illustrate this with the words of the 7th Dalai Lama (from 'Songs of spiritual change' translated by Glenn Mullin:

"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 "stress".


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).


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 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 sexual misconduct
4. Correct livelihood: try to make a living with the above attitude of thought, speech and actions.
5. Correct understanding: developing genuine wisdom.
The last three aspects refer mainly to the practice of meditation:
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 way:
one should feel happiness, compassion, love and joyous effort when practising.


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