The Four Truths (Skt: catvari aryasatyani; Pail: cattari ariyasaccani), also commonly known as 'The Four Noble Truths' explain the basic orientation of Buddhism. They are the truths understood by the 'worthy ones,' those who have attained enlightenment or nirvana. The four truths are dukkha (the truth of suffering); the arising of dukkha (the causes of suffering); the stopping of dukkha (the end of suffering); and the path leading to the stopping of dukkha (the path to freedom from suffering).
Dukkha is defined in more detail as the human tendency to cling to or crave impermanent states or objects which keep us caught in samsara, the endless cycle of repeated birth, suffering and dying. It is thought that the Buddha taught the Four Truths in the very first teaching after he had attained enlightenment as recorded long after his physical death in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutra ('The Discourse that Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth'), but this is still in dispute. They were recognised as perhaps the most important teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni only at the time the commentaries were written, c. 5th century CE. On his deathbed, he also emphasised their importance:
Through not seeing the Four Noble truths
Long was the weary path from birth to birth.
When these are known, removed is rebirth’s cause,
The root of sorrow plucked; then ends rebirth.
Understanding or accepting transmigration (reincarnation-captivity in samsara) and karma (all freely chosen and intended moral acts inevitably entail consequences) are a requirement of being able to embrace the Four Truths.
All rebirth is due to karma and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one’s own karma. (Williams, Buddhist Thought, 54)
The Four Truths are often best understood using a medical framework: Truth 1 is the diagnosis of an illness or condition; Truth 2 is identifying the underlying causes of it; Truth 3 is its prognosis or outcome; the 4th Truth is its treatment.
Truth 1: The Truth of Suffering
All humans experience surprises, frustrations, betrayals, etc., which lead to unhappiness and suffering. Acknowledging or accepting that we will encounter difficulties in daily life as an inevitable and universal part of life as a human being is the first truth. Within this, there are two types of suffering: a) natural suffering – disasters, wars, infections, etc.; b) self-inflicted suffering – habitual reacting and unnecessary anxiety and regret.
Truth 2: The Causes of Suffering
All suffering lies not in external events or circumstances but in the way we react to and deal with them, our perceptions and interpretations. Suffering emerges from craving for life to be other than it is, which derives from the 3 poisons: Ignorance (Delusion) of the fact that everything, including the self, is impermanent and interdependent; Desire (Greed) of objects and people who will help us to avoid suffering; Aversion (Anger) to the things we do not want, thinking we can avoid suffering. We can learn to look at each experience as it happens and be prepared for the next.
Truth 3: The End of Suffering
We hold limiting ideas about ourselves, others, and the world, which we need to let go of. We can unlearn everything from our social conditioning and so bring down all barriers or separations.
Truth 4: The Path that Frees us from Suffering
The mind leads us to live in a dualistic way, but if we are aware of and embrace our habits and illusions, we can abandon our expectations about the ways things should be and instead accept the way they are. We can use mindfulness and meditation to examine our views and so get an accurate perspective.
This Truth contains the Eightfold Path leading out of samsara to nirvana. It consists of
- Right View (samyag-drusti) – acceptance of the fundamental Buddhist teachings
- Right Resolve (samyak-samkalpa) – adopting a positive outlook and a mind free from lust, ill-will, and cruelty
- Right Speech (samyag-vac) – using positive and productive speech as opposed to lying, frivolous or harsh speech
- Right Action (samyak-karmanta) – keeping the five precepts (panca-sila) – refraining from killing, stealing, misconduct, false speech, and taking intoxicants
- Right Livelihood (samyag-ajiva) – avoiding professions which harm others such as slavery of prostitution
- Right Effort (samyag-vyayama) – directing the mind towards wholesome goals
- Right Mindfulness (samyak-smrti) – being aware of what one is thinking, doing, and feeling at all times
- Right Meditation (samyak-samadhi) – focusing attention in order to enter meditational states (dhyanas).
These eight aspects of the path are often divided into 3 group or skandhas: 3-5 relate to morality; 6-8 to meditation; and 1-2 to insight. This eightfold path is not linear, passing from one stage to the next, but cumulative so that ideally all eight factors are practised simultaneously.
There are numerous different Buddhist schools which have evolved over many centuries in different corners of the world.
Early Indian & Theravada Buddhism (the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma)
The Buddha transcended physical existence after he died, proclaiming that he was eternally enlightened and essentially non-physical. Accordingly, the Buddha’s words had only one meaning, and so the Four Truths are to be understood simultaneously in one moment of insight, not in the four distinct stages. This is liberation or enlightenment itself.
Mahayana (the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma)
The Four Truths became gradually less prominent because of the importance of cultivating sunyata (insight/emptiness) and taking the Bodhisattva path (of altruism or serving others).
Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism (the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma)
The Four Truths are studied from Mahayana commentaries such as Abhisamayalamkara Sutra, and the 4th Truth is presented as five aspects, not eight. These teachings also present 16 characteristics of the Four Truths taken from the sutra, providing the aspirant with greater detail to facilitate the realisation of their goals, such as awareness, achievement, pacification, and deliverance.
Nichiren Buddhism from Japan bases its teachings on the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teaching of the Buddha. It states that the Four Truths are a provisional teaching which Buddha taught to suit the capacity of people of the time, while the Lotus Sutra is a direct account of Shakyamuni’s own enlightenment.
The Four Truths today
Cultivating an awareness of reality allows Buddhists to deal effectively with delusional interpretations and perceptions. Through meditation, this awareness is developed so that they can escape from samsara and take all sentient beings with them. In this way, the habitual view of the human condition can be transformed and deep insight into the meaning of life can be gained.
The fearless have crossed over the river of sorrow. Life unexamined, unobserved, unenlightened, is nothing but a river of sorrow and we are all drowning in it. (Osho,(Dhammapada; The Way of the Buddha Vol 6.)