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Four Noble Truths

Bhante Gunaratana

The entire teachings of the Buddha pivot around this topic. After forty-five years service to humanity, the Buddha said “Bhikkhus, I have taught you all these years only four words.” Another place he said: “Bhikkhus, I have taught you everything without keeping any secret.” He picked up some leaves in the forest and asked which is more, the leaves in my hand or the leaves in this forest. The Bhikkhus said the leaves in your hand compared to the leaves in the forest, are very insignificant. The forest has more leaves than you have in your hand.

When you look at these statements, they appear to be contradictory. The one when he said he taught only four words and another place he said he taught everything without a secret. Another place he said what I have taught you is like the leaves in my hand and what I have not taught you is like the leaves in the jungle.

There is no contradiction. It means we have to know the four words which are only in Pali, not in English. They are dukkha, samudaya, nirodha, magga. In English they mean suffering, cause of suffering, end of suffering, and the path leading to the end of suffering. This is all he taught. When you look at Buddhist literature you see a whole jungle. It is very difficult for people to sort out this jungle and get these four words. People get confused. Today it is almost impossible for many people to know what Buddha really taught. So many things are there in the name of the Buddha’s teaching.

If anything you read in the name of Buddhism, if they don’t fit these four words which is the central teaching, you can cast them aside without any problem. The word dukkha has been translated into unsatisfactoriness because the word suffering is so unpalatable. The moment you hear the word you suffer. You don’t like to hear even the word, yet alone understanding it.

These words have been give in another four words to indicate their function. That is (four Pali words) complete, perfect understanding, complete abandonment, perfect realization, and perfect practice. You can start with any of them. Perfect understanding is understanding our predicament, our problem, our unsatisfactoriness. People do not understand it. They try to pretend that it doesn’t exist, to sweep it under the rug. They say it is not true - life is rosy, beautiful, pleasant, satisfactory. There is no suffering. That is how people cheat themselves, hide the truth, pretend they don’t have suffering. That is why they continue to stay in samsara. Buddha has outlined this suffering a very few words and they encompass everything that pertains to suffering.

When he saw the three signs before he left home he realized the depth of suffering. The three signs he saw are old age, sickness, and death. That is not an eye-opener for many people because we can forget it. Old age happens to some people, not to us. We never grow old. Sickness, some people fall sick, we don’t fall sick. Some die, we don’t die. People can pretend that way. Siddhartha saw these things from his childhood. It has been pictured in books that when he saw an old man he began to tremble, to wonder what is this as if he was a very stupid person who doesn’t know anything. He was a born genius. He did not have to see this old man to understand the truth of life. He knew that life is changing. From childhood he knew the difference between him and his father. His father was big, old and he was young, small. He must have seen many leaves on trees - some are old and some are young. He must have seen all this and one tiny thing would have been enough to trigger the wisdom, knowledge that he had cultivated in samsara.

That was not the first time he realized the problem of suffering. When he saw the sick man that was not the only time he realized that people fall sick. From his childhood he realized this. Although he kept away from all this he realized all this. That was not a secret for him. When he saw this in his trip to the city this brought him very striking moment to decide to do something about it.

When he attained enlightenment, in his first sermon he outlined it. He said to the five bhikkhus, birth is suffering. Suffering to whom? to the mother, baby, or society? Actually it is suffering to everybody. Every child is born not with a big smile. Everyone is born with a big cry. That cry can be heard all over the world. That cry continues until the person dies. Sometimes it is loud, sometimes it is smoldering inside. That cry is a cry for so much food, clothes, medicine, papers, vehicles, roads, houses, money, and so many problems. We all have that cry even right now, inside. Every problem in the world today and in the future depends on birth, on that cry. See what has happened to the world? Everything is polluted - air, water, population expanding, fighting all over the world, all kinds of sickness. Just imagine all the things we experienced just today because of the birth of all of us. Billions of people were born and billions of problems have been brought into the world. Everyone hears this cry.

When you think of it, you say I don’t want to be born again. This life is enough. That is called not to get what one wants. Not getting what one wants is suffering. To get what one wants also is suffering. These are the two tragics in our life, both are suffering. Buddha outlined what is meant by not getting what one wants. You don’t get a good job, live in a good neighborhood, good house and car, you want to get these things but you don’t get them, so you suffer. That is superficial. Even a child can understand.

A deep meaning of not getting what one wants (Pali quote) means - all intelligent, educated, grown up adult, thinking and understanding the problems that they have lived, the person thinks I don’t need any more life. This is enough. I have gone through hell in this life. I don’t want anymore life. This is enough. That is a very earnest wish. Buddha said by wishing so you cannot stop it. You are trapped. You cannot stop next birth. Why? By wishing you have not eliminated what causes the next life. By the time you think this, you have laid the foundation for the next life already. Whether you like it or not you are caught in it. Just imagine that keeps nagging, you cannot get out of it. That is the suffering of not getting what you want and getting what you don’t want. You don’t want to be reborn but you get it.

You may ask why should I get what I don’t want? It is not just. I always end up getting what I don’t want. You created this. You prepared yourself. Next thing is (Pali) when we are born we are growing. We start with one cell and end up with three trillion cells. We think that is enough. I don’t want to grow. It is part of the deal. You made an agreement. You are growing. You ask a child how old he is. He may be close to five and he will say five years old. He wants to be an adult and has this growing anxiety. This growing anxiety doesn’t end when the child grows up and becomes an adult. Once he comes to a certain age, he wants to stop it. He cannot stop it. He has initiated that process and it goes on and on. Growth itself is not painful. What happens to the mind when we think of growth makes us painful. It is not the appearance of old age that is painful or the growing process itself is not painful. When we think of it, that thought is painful. Why? Because the growth takes us somewhere. Brings us in one direction and we begin to anticipate what is going to happen. That is another thing we don’t want. (Pali) We get a shock - people die. I will die. That thought is so shocking. If there is anything we can do to stop it, we will do it. People spend money to stop death, growth. Not just plastic surgery but they do many things other than that to stop growing and die.

We were all born with a one-way ticket and there is no recourse. We keep going in that direction because things are impermanent. Things means our aggregates are impermanent. So this impermanence is built into the system. They are permanently impermanent. Only permanent thing is impermanence. Therefore we keep going in that direction. When we see there is no way to stop it we feel very very unsatisfied.

Is it true? How can you say suffering is in Sri Lanka, Africa, India, etc. not here in Australia, Melbourne, or American, New York. Suffering is everywhere. When you think of it, it is so frightening - that’s why people say Buddhism is pessimistic. Buddhism speaks the truth. Buddha did not stop there. He said we must understand this as adults, accept and understand it. When animals have these things, they are always anxious and they are in misery. They don’t know anything about it. We don’t want to be like that. We want to be intelligent, adult, matured responsible human beings so we say, yes it is there. We don’t want to run away from it. We want to face it and then what?

We try to find out why do we suffer? What is the cause? Buddha found out the reason. That is our craving, clinging, grasping - four types. People don’t like to say desire is the cause of suffering because that is what created all these things. Desire is the creator. Desire can create things in any way you want. We create things for this life and for the next life. Desire is so powerful it can create things for many many many lives. Craving can create repeated becoming.

For this life everything that we use today in the name of civilization is the creation of our desire. We like comfort, pleasant experience which leads to search, craving. When we have good feeling we have craving for it. When we have craving we do research. How much research have you done into many things? This is caused by desire. As a result of research you find so many things and you decide which to accept and to reject. When you get it, you become stingy and want to protect it. In this very life, because of safeguard insurance, we fight using weapons, words, and physical fight. That is one aspect of desire. It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy certain things. For instance, in the name of civilization we have developed so many things, all modern facilities. Millions of things we have created around us because of our desire. This never reduces our desire, brings one single moment of true peace or happiness. It is all superficial, temporary peace and happiness.

On the other hand, because of desire - there are four types of clinging. Sensual pleasures results in the wish to be born here and there. On the one hand when we think of the problems in this life we don’t want to be reborn. On the other hand when we think of the pleasure we enjoy in one life we want repeat it, to be born again and again. You want to be reborn with a certain person in the next life. How many times have you made that vow? This is why Buddha said once you enjoy something, you want to repeat it. That is the nature of desire. So, that creates both in this life and the next. That is not the suffering caused by desire. Suffering caused by desire is losing what you get. The pleasure you enjoy is not faithful to you. That pleasure will turn back to you, it goes away, impermanent. That impermanent pleasure you want to hold onto but it disappears. That person who you want to live with forever, betrays you and eventually becomes your enemy.

When you don’t want it, you cannot get away from it. After some time you want it, and again the same thing happens. Therefore there is no permanent happiness in anything we enjoy. Desire deceives us and asks us to repeat it. That is called sensual desire.

Second we hold onto certain views, ideas. They end in pain and suffering. We have a desire for repeated birth. No matter where we are born we will end up with the same problems, impermanence and therefore unsatisfactoriness.

Then ignorance, we cling to our ignorance because of our desire. That ends up with enormous amount of problems here and in the future. When we say desire is the cause of suffering people will say no. Desire is the cause of pleasure. Is the desire totally unpleasant, unwanted? No. There are certain desires we want to cultivate. Such as the desire to develop our insight, to gain jhanas, to free ourselves from psychic irritations, to be happy all the time. That desire is called wholesome desire and that is the desire to be desireless. We want to cultivate that. Unwholesome desires are the cause of all our pain, suffering.

Third truth is the truth of the end of suffering. The end of suffering necessarily is the end of this desire. If desire is the cause of suffering and the end of suffering is the end of desire. Very simply. That is what is called nibbana. Ni means absence - ana means craving.

. . . Understanding of the first truth, understanding of the second truth, understanding of the third truth, understanding of the fourth truth. That is right understanding. It is true to say that Buddha taught the middle path. It is true to say also, that the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. Whether you say the Four Noble Truths or the Middle Path, it is the same. Why? In the Middle Path the Four Noble Truths are included. That is called knowledge, absence of ignorance. What is ignorance? Not knowing the Four Noble Truths is ignorance. Not knowing dukkha, not knowing its cause, not knowing its end, not knowing the path leading to the end is ignorance. What is knowledge? Knowledge is knowing these four things.

When there is ignorance there is confusion. That is another word. Ignorance is called avijja. Confusion is called moha. When we do not know the truth, we build up theories. We come up with all kind of theories. Theories regarding the world, the self. All the theories in the world are based on these two factors. What are the two factors? The belief in self and about the world. These theories confuse us and that is called moha. avijja is one thing, moha is another. Moha is the result of avijja. avijja is not knowing the Four Noble Truths.

The second step of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Thought. What is Right Thought? Thought of renunciation, generosity, loving kindness, and thought of compassion. Buddha said. If we cultivate these three thoughts, we cultivate right thought. Generosity doesn’t mean giving things to people, somebody. That is a superficial meaning. That has the meaning of generosity but not the complete meaning. Deeper meaning is to let go of any kind of clinging, attachment to anything, material or immaterial. Letting go of any attachment, wiping it out, removing it from our mind, never to return again is called true generosity. That we can gain but not very quickly, very easily. Only when we attain the last stage of enlightenment do we gain that generosity. Every little thing we do in the name of generosity leads to that attainment.

When we practice meditation we develop that. Loving kindness, every time we develop friendliness towards anybody is to cultivate loving kindness. Any time we show our compassion to anybody is to develop our right thought of compassion.

Right speech is speaking truth, to bring people together, gently and kindly and speaking meaningful things. These are four types of right speech. We always put right speech in negative form like abstaining from lying, slander, harsh language and gossip. If we put it in positive terms it means speaking the truth, speaking to bring people together, and speaking gently, softly and meaningful things rather than gossip.

Right action is to live and let live, not killing. Letting others enjoy what they have, abstaining from stealing. Letting others maintain their honor, dignity, respect without hurting them sexually, or observing the principle of dignity within oneself. Sexual activities in a social and legal boundary are acceptable. Celibacy is not mentioned in the Noble Eightfold Path. Why? This path is something anybody can practice. Lay people can practice this path.

Livelihood is abstaining from selling weapons, buying and selling poisons, selling and buying livestock, human beings as slaves, and dealing dishonestly in business. Do business honestly and sincerely. Make profit in a decent way. In some societies businessmen expect everybody, sellers, to mark up their product fifty or seventy-five percent. If somebody marks it up two hundred percent that is dishonest.

Right effort is effort to prevent unwholesome thoughts from arising in mind, effort to overcome such unwholesome thoughts, effort to develop wholesome thoughts arising in the mind, and effort to maintain such wholesome thoughts.

Right mindfulness is mindfulness of the body, feelings, consciousness, and mental activities. Right concentration is defined as the four jhanas.

If you practice this Noble Eigthfold Path you definitely can get rid of all your pain and suffering. That is the guarantee. If you end up with the first truth and say life is suffering, you are dealing with only one quarter and leaving out three quarters of the teaching. You are wrong. A person has to deal with all four logical units. It has a base, a syllogism, steps to complete the logic. All these are together. This is called a logical unit because he has given the premise that life is painful. Then he said why? The second truth. Can we get out of it? Third truth. How is the fourth truth.

We can deal with all these four truths if we practice meditation, following the Noble Eightfold Path. That is why I say this path is the heart of Buddhism. In other words it is meditation. It is the path to be cultivated, developed, meditated. That’s what we do. Meditation doesn’t mean sitting in one place focusing the mind and getting a little bit of concentration and forgetting the world. That is not meditation. That is a very tiny part of meditation. True meditation is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path. You can see it coming together in practice of our daily life.

This concludes the talk on the Four Noble Truths. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It is just a bird’s eye view. To understand it you must spend forty-five years at least like the Buddha did, or you have to practice meditation for five hundred years, or in this life if you practice meditation honestly, sincerely according to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta for seven years there is a guarantee. If one practices consistently, that individual can gain enlightenment in seven years. Buddha said if you are ardent, honest, and consistent and practice only that, nothing else you can gain enlightenment in seven days. You don’t have to live so many lives to gain enlightenment. In this very life you can attain it.

©1996 Bhante H. Gunaratana

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