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A Simple Explanation of Buddhism's 4 Noble Truths

The four noble truths represent the capstone of Buddhist practice. They provide a clear explanation of the nature of reality along with an ethical framework that helps us live skillfully, and be of benefit to ourselves and others.

That being said, it can be difficult to decipher the subtleties of each truth and how they can be implemented in daily life.

The following essay discusses each one in detail along with giving explanations how they can be understood within the context of daily life.

1.  Life is suffering

We need to unpack this a bit, because it can be disconcerting if taken at face-value.  The word "suffering" is used in a slightly different way in Buddhism than what we're used to in western culture.  The death of a loved one or the loss of a job qualifies as suffering.  However, a child who forgets to take out the trash or a spouse who forgets a birthday is also suffering.

So, suffering is not a finite thing.  Rather, it's a spectrum of experiences that we deem to be unpleasant or difficult.  The Buddha stated that, "Life is suffering" because he grouped all of our experiences into one of three categories:

  1. Things we want but can't have (e.g. 1 million dollars)
  2. Things we have but don't want (e.g. a broken ankle)
  3. Things we have, and enjoy, but lose due to the transient nature of life (e.g. our youth or a close friendship)

In this way, it's easy to see that everything we desire causes us suffering either in the short term for items in groups #1 and #2, or in the long-term for items in group #3.

Another way to look at the teaching is to use a more literal translation of the original Sanskrit.  The  Sanskrit word for suffering is "dukkha," which can also be taken to mean "hard to carry" or "difficult to bear".

So, another way to read the first noble truth is, "Life is difficult to bear".  Of course, that begs the question, "What makes life so difficult?"

2.  Suffering is caused by desire

The second noble truth refers to the three types of suffering that were referenced earlier.  An easy way to think about it is to imagine ourselves carrying a back pack, and filling it with stones.  Each stone represents something we desire, and the more attached we become to that desire, the larger the stone becomes.

So, the greater our desire becomes, the heavier our packs become, which results in our lives being more difficult to bear.  In contrast, the smaller our desire becomes, the lighter our packs become, and the easier our lives are to bear.

One might argue that desire is a natural part of life, and they'd be correct.  In fact, the Buddha would agree 100% with this statement, and that's why the first noble truth reminds us that suffering is also a natural part of life.  Our desire and our suffering feed each other in a never-ending cycle.

Thankfully, all is not lost.  If the first noble truth tells us our problem, and the second tells us the cause, then the third noble truth tells us the solution for escaping this endless cycle of suffering.

3.  The way to end suffering is to end desire

This one is fairly straight-forward.  If our lives are difficult to bear because we are carrying too many stones/ desires around, then the obvious solution is to get rid of the stones!  The Buddha took this idea about as far one could reasonably go, stripping his life of everything except the essentials of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter.

Since these items are necessary for life, he trained himself and his monastics to use them skillfully as opposed to renouncing them completely.  For example, they only ate food that was freely donated to them, and they were only allowed to beg for food before noon.

This practice allowed them to meet their nutritional needs without feeding into any desires or aversions towards specific foods.  It also kept them from becoming a burden on the lay people who supported them.

The third noble truth is also why the Buddha and his monastics were the world's first minimalists.

Their only possessions were 2 sets of robes and a begging bowl.  They didn't have families or permanent living quarters because they wanted as few stones/ desires in their back packs as possible.  The general attitude could best be described as, "I'm going to lose it anyway, so why not let go of it all now."

This is a very reasonable attitude for a monastic to take, however, it doesn't translate well for laypeople who have jobs, families, student loans etc.  That being said, the teaching is still useful if we approach it in a different way.

As lay people, we can use our inner wisdom to examine each desire that we are carrying around and decide if it can be safely discarded.  If it can be discarded, then doing so inevitably lightens our packs, and eases the suffering in our lives.

However, if it can't be discarded then it's incumbent on us to learn how to work skillfully with that desire, and make ourselves more spiritually resilient in order to carry.  The method for doing this is detailed in the fourth noble truth.

4.  The Way to End Desire is the 8-Fold Path

The 8-Fold path is a set of tenets that were laid out by the Buddha in order to help us live our lives in a skillful, non-harming way.  It provides benchmarks for measuring our adherence to the Buddhist path along with techniques for quelling the desirous mind.

The tenets of the 8-Fold path are as follows:

  • Right View- We must work to see the world as it truly is; free from our own preference of how it should be.
  • Right Intention- We must be committed to morality and ethical behavior in our dealings with others.
  • Right Speech- We must abstain from speech that is either untrue or divisive; constantly working to use words to improve the lives of ourselves and others.
  • Right Action- We must abstain from causing harm to ourselves and other sentient beings
  • Right Livelihood- We must earn a living in a way that doesn't cause harm to ourselves or other sentient beings; abstaining from the slave trade, prostitution, animal butchery, and the sale of intoxicants and poisons.
  • Right Effort- We must abstain from giving in to unwholesome mind-states (e.g. greed, anger, and ignorance) while simultaneously working to arouse wholesome mind-states (e.g. gratitude, faith, and compassion).
  • Right Concentration- We must practice meditation daily in order to free ourselves from negative mental impulses.
  • Right Mindfulness- We must learn about the nature of reality by contemplating our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, and the phenomenal world around us.

Learning to embody each of the 8 tenets and adhere to their guidelines is a lifelong practice, which results in the cessation of suffering in our daily lives.  As we do this, we become bored with our desires, and learn to live lives of gratitude and faith

Eventually, the teachings become a part of us, and we don't even have to think about them all that often.  Instead, we embody and manifest them in each moment as we move through the world.

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A Simple Explanation of Buddhism's 4 Noble Truths


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