The Four Noble Truths are much like a doctor’s prescription; they are Buddha’s prescription for suffering. In the first two truths he diagnoses the problem of suffering, and identifies its cause. The third truth is the discovery of a cure, and the fourth noble truth is the prescription as the Buddha sets out the Eightfold path to achieve a release from suffering. Suffering is a serious illness to Buddhist’s because it keeps us in Samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and prevents us from attaining enlightenment.
The first step in the Buddha’s medical process is to diagnose the problem, and this means identifying Dukkha. The first noble truth is the truth of suffering. This is the recognition that suffering exists, and it affects us all in one form or another. “There is suffering, Dukkha. Dukkha should be understood. Dukkha has been understood”. The Buddha on the three aspects of Dukkha- Sammyutta Nikava. This quote reflects the attitude that the Buddha believes is necessary to deal with suffering. First we must recognise that suffering exists, but that it is not a part of us. By saying “I suffer” rather than “There is suffering” we separate the suffering from ourselves and make it a collective thing that each person and creature has a part of. We are not the only one who suffers and this fact helps us to let go of our suffering in awareness of others worse off than ourselves. Suffering is part of everything we do in our lives and affects us constantly. This is shown in the four types of concealed Dukkha. We all like to buy cheap clothes and other consumer goods, but when we buy from some shops, like Primark for example, we often forget that our clothes are so cheap because they were made in a sweatshop by poor workers for low pay. This is the enjoyment of something that causes others to suffer, and in turn causes us to suffer in our conscience.
Another concealed form is the things we enjoy but fear losing, such as a particularly intimate relationship, we stress out and become paranoid over our partners losing interest in us and moving on, and this can lead to more suffering in the form of confrontations. Our obsession over looking good in appearance hides another form of Dukkha, it hides attachment, and if our appearance were to change,
due to age for example, we become upset that our looks are ‘disappearing’, and we suffer by stressing on it and trying to prevent it. The final concealed form of Dukkha is due to our ignorance we don’t enjoy everything as fully as we could, because there is a void within us due to our unawareness of the transcendent reality. Apart from the four concealed forms of Dukkha there are also the 7 forms, which are unavoidable facts of life that cause us all to suffer. The physical pain of birth for the mother and the baby that can sometimes also include complications and heartache if something goes wrong. The weakness and loss of independence we suffer as we age can be very hurtful; the thought of being dependent on another can rob us of our dignity, the sickness of our bodies and those of our loved ones can cause a great deal of suffering, especially if you are literally watching a relative die in front of you due to cancer or some other terrible ailment. The death that follows sickness or old age is an inevitability and the fact that no one can cheat death causes a great deal of suffering to some of us who want our lives to never change, and to those of us who fear what comes after death.
When we come into contact with something that displeases us we can be left in a foul sense of mind for the rest of the day, if we were to be trapped in the same room as an ex for example we could be left feeling uncomfortable for a long time. Separation from things that we like, such as people in long distance relationships or from our homes, or the freedoms and simplicity of childhood, these all cause suffering from the hole that is left within us at their absence. Finally, and perhaps the most obvious, not getting what we want when we want it can ruin anyone’s day, the disappointment is very bitter if it was an expected gift, and the sense of failure that we feel if it was something we were working towards, such as a promotion, can be soul destroying. After the diagnosis the Buddha must then discover the cause of suffering, and this leads us on to the second noble truth, Samudya or craving. “What is the noble truth of the origin of suffering? It is craving which renews being and is accomplished by relish and lust…” The Buddha on the origin of suffering – Sammyutta Nikava Desire is caused by our ignorance of reality, and is fuelled by our ambition to become, meaning to have life hopes and dreams, such as to be wealthy. This causes us to grasp onto the things we are afraid to lose in our lives lest we fall short of our goal because of it. It is this that keeps us rooted in
the cycle of Samsara. There are three forms of desire (Tanha) and they show us the different ways we cause our own suffering. Kama Tanha, meaning sensual pleasures, shows the desire to have any form of pleasure that stimulates our senses. Bhava Tanha is the desire to ‘become’ we all have life dreams and hopes, and these ambitions cause us to desire our goals, and finally, Vibhava Tanha is the desire to get rid of. We say things like “I want to get rid of my anger” rather than accepting it, and life, as the way it is.
The only reality worth contemplating is Anicca, because of change. The third noble truth, the cure, is Nirodha meaning to cease. The cessation of suffering will help us reach Nibbana and ultimately, Parinibbana , this being the freedom from samsara that only enlightenment can bring. The process of Nirodha entails a great deal of meditation and focus to break through 5 lower, and 5 higher fetters, each of which is an obstacle that must be broken through. As you break through the fetters you become more and more spiritually attained, the moment you reach the lowest point of spiritual attainment, sotapanna or stream enterer, you cannot go back to the mundane existence that was left behind, and to achieve sotapanna you must first break through 3 of the lower fetters, which are a false view of identity, thinking that your body and being belong to and are you, and not just a form that we inhabit, doubt in the three jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and the attachments to rites and rituals rather than meditation and good deeds. This process of breaking through the fetters continues until you reach the final level of spiritual attainment and you become Arahant, or worthy one, which to achieve you must break the 5 higher fetters and accumulate no fresh karma, so do no good or evil, simply meditate and survive. After death Parinibbana is attained. Finally then the Buddha must make a prescription to make sure the illness moves on quickly. This prescription makes up the fourth and final noble truth, and that it Magga, the noble eightfold path. This is also known as the ‘Middle Way’ because it avoids both indulgence and asceticism, neither of which helped the Buddha on his path to enlightenment. Each aspect of the path supports the others, and they are designed with the aim to eliminate the ego and selfishness of people and replace it with the truth of Anicca and Anatta. Buddhists describe the three ways of living by comparing them to the strings of a lute. The loose string is careless indulgence, the tight string is extreme hardship and denial and finally the middle string is a harmonious note. The eightfold path can be split into three groups:
Panna or wisdom, which includes right intention and right understanding. Meaning that you are to accept the Buddha’s teachings and to practise them, while committing to cultivating the right attitudes. Sila or morality, within which there is right action and right livelihood. This means to live peacefully and harmoniously, while not having a career that causes harm, such as exploiting animals or dealing weapons and drugs. And finally Samadhi or mind, which contains right mindfulness and right concentration. Meaning to develop awareness of the body and states of mind, while developing the mental focus necessary for this awareness, this is achieved through meditation. To conclude, the four noble truths show us a way to break free of suffering and to attain enlightenment, and be released for eternity from samsara.