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Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly referred to as the Buddha or the ‘Enlightened one’, is traditionally believed to have come from a life of privilege, which he eventually renounced in his quest for salvation.
Buddhists believe that while Siddhartha Gautama was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he attained deep insight into the nature of suffering and the means to end it. Out of this epiphany came the fundamentals of Buddhism, which are officially called the Four Noble Truths.
Significance of the Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths are widely acknowledged as the core of the Buddha’s first sermon after his enlightenment, known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, and are fundamental to Buddhist practice. They contain many of the basic doctrines and guidelines followed by Buddhists.
- They represent Awakening as these were the very first lectures from the Buddha. According to Buddhist legends, Buddha was meditating under a bodhi tree when his mind was illuminated about the concepts of suffering and redemption, which eventually led to his enlightenment.
- They are Permanent and never changing because basic human nature remains the same. While emotions and thoughts fluctuate and situations change over time, no human can avoid or escape getting old, becoming sick, and dying at some point.
- They signify Hope that the cycle of suffering, birth, and rebirth has an end. They preach that the choice is up to the person, whether to stay in the same path or to change his course, and eventually, his fate.
- They symbolize Freedom from the chain of suffering. Following the path to enlightenment and eventually achieving the liberated state of Nirvana, one never has to go through reincarnation again.
The Four Signs/Sights
What led the Buddha himself to change the course of his life was a series of significant encounters that he had at 29 years old. It is said that he once left the walls of his palace to experience the outside world and was shocked at seeing proof of human suffering.
Contrary to the perfect, luxurious life that he had always been surrounded by since birth, what he saw opened his eyes to a totally different world. These eventually came to be known as the four signs or the four sights of Buddha:
- An old man
- A sick person
- A dead body
- An ascetic (someone who lived with strict self-discipline and abstinence)
The first three signs are said to have made him realize that there is no one who can escape the loss of youth, health, and life, making him come to terms with his own mortality. And with the rule of karma in place, one is bound to repeat this process over and over again, extending one’s suffering.
The fourth sign, on the other hand, indicated a way out of the karmic wheel, which is by achieving Nirvana, or the perfect state of being. These four signs were contrasted with the life he had always known that he felt compelled to set off on his own path to enlightenment.
The Four Noble Truths
Known to Buddhists as “Ariyasacca”, these doctrines speak of the unchanging realities that would enable one to achieve Nirvana. The word is derived from ariya, meaning pure, noble, or exalted; and sacca which means “real” or “true”.
The Four Noble Truths were often used by the Buddha in his teachings as a means to share his own journey , and can be found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the official record of Buddha’s very first lecture.
1- First Noble Truth: Dukkha
Commonly taken to mean “suffering”, Dukkha, or the First Noble Truth is sometimes described as a negative way of looking at the world. However, this teaching stands for more than just a superficial description of the physical pain or discomfort that humans experience. It is neither negative nor positive.
Rather, it is a realistic depiction of human existence, in which people go through mental distress, feelings of frustration or dissatisfaction, or fear of being alone. Physically, people cannot escape the fact that everyone will grow old, get sick, and will die.
Given its real meaning, the First Noble Truth can also be considered to refer to a state of being disjointed or fragmented. As an individual gets immersed in his pursuit of external or superficial pleasures, he loses sight of his purpose in life. In his teachings, Buddha listed down six instances of dukkha in one’s life:
- Experiencing or witnessing birth
- Feeling the effects of disease
- Weakening of the body as a consequence of aging
- Having the fear of dying
- Being unable to forgive and let go of hatred
- Losing your heart’s desire
2- Second Noble Truth: Samudaya
The Samudaya, meaning “origin” or “source”, is the Second Noble Truth, which explains the reasons for all the suffering of mankind. According to Buddha, this suffering is caused by unmet desires and driven by their lack of understanding about their real nature. Desire, in this context, does not just refer to the feeling of wanting something, but represents something more.
One of these is the “kāma-taṇhā” or physical cravings, which refers to all the things that we want that are related to our senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste, feeling, and even our thoughts as the sixth sense. Another is the “bhava-taṇhā”, the longing for everlasting life or clinging to one’s existence. It is a more persistent desire that the Buddha believes is hard to eradicate unless one achieves enlightenment.
Finally, there is “vibhava-taṇhā “, or the desire of losing oneself. This comes from a destructive mindset, a state of losing all hope, and of wanting to stop existing, as one believes that by doing so, all suffering will end.
3- Third Noble Truth: Nirodha
The Third Noble Truth or Nirodha, which translates to “ending” or “closure”, then preaches that there is an end to all of these suffering. This is because humans are not necessarily helpless as they have the ability to change their course, and that is through Nirvana.
Just the awareness of what real suffering is and what causes it is already a step in the right direction, as this gives an individual the choice to act on it. As a person raises himself to remove all his desires, he will regain his understanding of his true nature. This will then enable him to address his ignorance, leading him to achieving Nirvana.
4- Fourth Noble Truth: Magga
Lastly, the Buddha points out the way to free oneself from suffering and cutting off the sequence of reincarnation. This is the Fourth Noble Truth or the “Magga”, which means path. This is the road to enlightenment that Buddha has identified, a middle path between two extreme manifestations of desire.
One manifestation is indulgence – of allowing oneself to satisfy all one’s cravings. The Buddha once lived a life like this and knew that this way did not eradicate his suffering. The exact opposite of this is the deprivation of all desires, including the basic need for sustenance. This way was also attempted by the Buddha, only to realize later that this was also not the answer.
Both ways failed to work because the core of each lifestyle was still anchored in the existence of self. Buddha then started preaching about the Middle Path, a practice that finds the balance between both extremes, but at the same time removing one’s awareness of self.
Only by detaching one’s life from one’s sense of self will one be able to achieve enlightenment. This process is called the Eightfold Path, which are guidelines set by the Buddha on how one should live one’s life in terms of understanding the world, one’s thoughts, words, and behavior, one’s profession and endeavors, one’s conscious, and the things one pays attention to.
The Four Noble Truths may seem like a gloomy outlook on life, but at its core, it is an empowering message that speaks of freedom and having control of one’s fate. Instead of getting limited with the thought that everything that happens is destined and cannot be changed, the doctrines of Buddhism contain the idea that taking charge and making the right choices will change the trajectory of your future.