Find freedom and joy amidst the suffering of human experience.
"I teach suffering, its origin, cessation, and path. That's all I teach."
Buddhism is based on the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who was born in a royal family at Kapilavastu, on the foot-hills of Himalaya, in the 6th century BC. Siddhartha came to be called ‘Buddha’, i.e. “awakened one” or “enlightened one", after realizing the true nature of human existence. This wisdom allowed him to live in a state of pure freedom and permanent cessation of suffering, while his boundless compassion touched the lives of thousands.
Of all the maps of Buddha's teachings, the Four Noble Truths are the most central. Altogether, these truths constitute a systematic set of psychological principles and teachings that help us understand suffering, identify its causes, and cease it. In other words, these teachings depict the medicinal path that Buddha followed towards the cessation of suffering and the realization of ultimate freedom and joy.
The First Noble Truth
The first noble truth explores the inescapable fact that existence entails suffering. According to Buddha, “Life is dukkha", and there are three types of dukkha: suffering (or pain), impermanence, and conditioned states.
Pain and Suffering seem to be an inescapable part of human experience - e.g. birth, disease, old age, death. Yet, Buddhism makes a clear distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is an unavoidable aspect of our existence in a dichotomic world, i.e. a world of counterparts such as pleasure/pain, birth/ death, health/ sickness, etc. Suffering, on the other hand, is created by our natural tendency to push away when facing painful/ unpleasant situations or sensations.
Rather, than accepting the inevitable nature of pain, we resist and distract ourselves from it with an ongoing search for pleasant objects and enjoyable experiences. However, according to Buddha, everything in the physical world, including mental states, exists in this impermanent and conditioned state, dependent on and affected continuously by everything else. Meaning that even life's most precious things and happiest experiences will eventually subside and create dukkha.
The Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah summarizes it beautifully: “There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and in doing so become free.”
The Second Noble Truth
The Second Noble Truth describes the causes of suffering. According to Buddha, our minds give birth to all the unhealthy states that separate us from bliss, such as aversion, delusion, jealousy, anxiety, hatred, desire, attachment, etc. It all starts with grasping, also referred to as attachment or desire.
Grasping comes in three forms:
"Kama tanha” - craving for the sense-objects which provide pleasant feeling, or craving for sensory pleasures.
“Bhava tanha” - yearning to become something else, to unite with experience (e.g. striving for wealthiness or happiness).
“Vibhava tanha” - the desire to get rid of something; annihilationism. (e.g. wanting to get rid of pain, anger, fear, and stress).
Putting it simply, we have these ideas and expectations about how we should be, how others should be, how life should be, and so on. And we try to mold life to match these expectations, clinging to what we want/like and pushing away what we don’t want/like. Yet, this way of "forcing" life to be a certain way, causes us to suffer every time there's a mismatch between reality and our desires/ expectations.
Byron Katie sums it this way, “The only time we suffer is when we believe a thought that argues with reality.”
The Third Noble Truth
The Third Noble Truth proposes a way to end suffering. By understanding that everything external is transient and conditional, we can begin to release our attachments and cravings for life and start "witnessing" it and embracing it for what it is.
When we start practicing being fully present with what is, we start seeing and experiencing things for what they are, instead of seeing things based on our past experiences and habitual thought patterns. By neither grasping nor resisting life, we can find wakefulness and freedom amid our joys and sorrows. Thus, expect nothing, and embrace every experience, positive or negative, as just another step on the path.
Finally, Buddha taught that beyond suffering lies great bliss. The path of removing the causes of suffering may be a long one, but staying on it leads to a tremendous sense of happiness and liberation.
The Fourth Noble Truth
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path that Buddha followed (and others can follow) to the end of suffering. A path that invites us to find balance and moderation wherever we are, through integrity, quieting the mind, and observing with wisdom.
Being born in a royal family, Siddhartha witnessed that a life of great luxury and sensual pleasures would not save one from suffering. Later, living as a rigorous ascetic, he recognized that a life of strict renunciation and focus on spiritual matters, would also not necessarily lead to spiritual liberation. Ultimately, he realized that the path out of suffering lies not in extremes, but in a philosophy now known as the Middle Way.
The Noble Eightfold Path expands on this knowledge, setting out a list of steps that enable anyone to reach a state of pure freedom and permanent cessation of suffering.
1. Right Thought
2. Right Speech
3. Right Conduct
4. Right Livelihood
5. Right Understanding
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Meditation or Right Contemplation
The first three steps, Right Thought, Speech, and Action, teach us to direct our minds, words, and actions towards peace, kindness, compassion, and pure thought. Actively avoiding negative thinking, harmful speech, and misbehaviors such as lying, hurtful words, killing, robbing, and sexual misconduct.
The fourth step, Right Livelihood, invites us to make a living in a way that is pure and entails no evil consequences. While, the fifth and sixth steps, Right Understanding and Right Effort, encourage us to persevere and put effort into acquiring true wisdom and understanding the way of the world, overcoming ignorance and selfish desires.
Finally, the last two steps of Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are about learning to meditate and concentrate your mind in the present. Through the practice of being self-aware of your actions, words, and thoughts, one starts to detach from ego and all the unhealthy states that separate us from a blissful existence.
Altogether, the Four Noble Truths ask us to stop running away from the pain in our body and mind, and courageously opening to the pain of the world. “In a world of tension and breakdown, it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding sorrow and anguish and running from their problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and ordinariness.” (Thomas Merton). Only this way will we ever find freedom and joy in the face of the challenges of human life.