The Four Noble Truths sit at the core of Buddhism. In Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness are intended first to create sufficient calmness and mental focus to permit us to gain insight into the first three Noble Truths, and then to enable us to apply the fourth Noble Truth-the path to ending suffering.
- Suffering Exists
Suffering exists in many forms. Some forms of suffering are plainly obvious and easily observed; others exist in very subtle ways and are not generally recognized. If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that even at our happiest times a basic anxiety exists.
- There is a Cause of Suffering
Unless we address our unawareness of the true nature of life and our own existence we will continue in the cycle of suffering. We need to acknowledge the suffering and determine its cause.
- Suffering Can Be Stopped
Once we understand the cause of suffering or unhappiness, we are able to take steps to eliminate it. We will then no longer experience the negative results. Unhappiness is not permanent; it comes and goes depending on conditions. For example, if we are expecting something pleasant to happen and it doesn’t, we feel let down. This disappointment is dependent on our expectations; the conditions we created due to our desire. If suffering were independent, then it would always remain unchanged.
- The Path
The Buddhist Path contains methods for identifying the causes of unhappiness and removing them. The basic cause is fundamental ignorance or unawareness of the ultimate nature of reality. Wisdom is an antidote to this ignorance.
To develop this wisdom, we need a better understanding of our mind and to put Buddha’s teachings into practice. The path of developing this wisdom leads to peace and freedom from both suffering and unhappiness. Meditation is an essential part of this development.
We will look at the Four Truth in further detail over the following pages.
Truth I: Suffering Exists
We are very good at denying or avoiding the reality that suffering exists. As long as this is the case, we will never overcome it. By accepting and confronting the fact that suffering exists, we can begin to determine the causes. By understanding the causes, we are then able to determine the appropriate action that will eliminate them.
Some forms of suffering are obvious; sickness, old age, death, war, famine, and violence. Hatred, depression, fear, jealousy, desire etc. are also forms of suffering that, at the very least, disturb our mind and cause unhappiness. A more subtle form of suffering also exists, a basic anxiety or dissatisfaction with the volatile and imperfect nature of life. Regardless of happiness we may experience, the reality of life never lives up to our expectations.
When we acknowledge that suffering exists, we should not deny that happiness also exists. Generally, however, our experience of happiness is that it is short-lived and can never live up to our expectations. The sources of happiness we spend so much of our lives pursuing are never capable of providing that which we expect from them; lasting and profound happiness.
Truth II: The Cause of Suffering
In a sense, our perception of our own existence becomes the point of reference for what we consider will make us happy or unhappy. We tend to think of ourselves as a solidly existing entity and all our experiences as existing separately from our “selves”. As a result, we pursue that which we feel makes the “self” happy and avoid that which makes it unhappy.
We desire and become attached to relationships, possessions, lifestyle and so on, becoming depressed and anxious if we are not able to obtain them or we lose them. We also avoid that which we feel will make us unhappy (enemies, lack of resources, difficult situations) and become frustrated, angry or hateful if we are unable to avoid them.
That which we wish for and that which we experience are more often than not vastly different.
Of course, things such as material wealth, comforts and relationships can be sources of happiness and there is no reason we should not enjoy them if they are part of our lives. The problem arises when we become so dependent on them for our peace of mind and happiness that we are overwhelmed by emotions such as anger, sorrow, depression and anxiety when we lose them. Our peace of mind is then shattered and, as a result, we may act badly, hurting others and also ourselves by creating the causes for more unhappiness in the future.
Due to ignorance we perceive not only ourselves as existing independently from everything and everyone else but also we perceive objects, other people, situations and emotions in the same way.
We then determine those “self-existing” phenomena as pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad, suffering or happiness.
As a result of wishing to experience happiness and to avoid suffering we develop attachment or aversion towards those phenomena.
Thoughts and actions based on attachment or aversion result in negative seeds of karma in our mindstream. On ripening, those seeds cause us to continue the cycle.
Truth III: Stopping Suffering
“If only I could fix the world, people and events so they were the way I want them to be then everything would be all right. Then I really would be happy!” How often have you felt that way?
It is unrealistic to expect things to be like that, and, when we do, we create suffering for ourselves. Yet many people live their whole life with that wish in mind, endlessly pursuing it, becoming frustrated, angry, depressed when it never works out. It is easier and more skillful to “fix” your own mind; the rest will then follow.
It can be encouraging to consider that the Buddha was once like we are now. Buddha assures us through his teaching, that an enlightened mind, a mind “awakened” to the true nature of reality is possible. It is in fact already there!
Imagine a mirror. When the mirror is clean, without any blemishes to obscure the image, it has the quality to reflect accurately. If it is dirty then it is no longer able to accurately reflect the image, but the quality that allows it to do so is still there, it has not gone, it is just obscured. In the same way, our mind has this quality, it has always been there, it is just obscured by the “dirt” of wrong perceptions. If we, like the Buddha, clean away the obstructions, we will expose the true nature of our mind. Our own enlightened mind. Our Buddha mind, reflecting the true undistorted nature of reality.
With a more accurate perception of the nature of the “self”, our experiences and also acceptance and understanding of the transitory nature of life comes a deep feeling of peace and contentment.
This happiness that results form this type of mind is not affected by outside phenomena and is more durable and dependable than the unstable, ever-changing happiness that we experience from the usual sources.
Truth IV: The Path
There is a definite path leading to the end of suffering, which Buddhism calls “The Eightfold Noble Path”. If we are able to rid our minds of the ignorance or incorrect perception of the reality of our “selves” and all other phenomena, then we will be able to determine which actions we should abandon and those we should practice.
Suffering will continue as long as we ignorantly carry out actions base don a concept of our “self” as being totally independent or self-existing. These actions produce results that will be in the form of suffering.
By developing wisdom and an understanding of how the cycle of suffering perpetuates, we can ultimately stop the cycle, stop the suffering and achieve enlightenment.