Four Noble Truths
Four Noble Truths
(IPA: [θɪʔsà lé bá])
|Chinese:||四聖諦(T) / 四圣谛(S)
|Mongolian:||Хутагт дөрвөн үнэн
(Khutagt durvun unen)
(Wylie: 'phags pa'i bden pa bzhi
THL: pakpé denpa shyi)
|Vietnamese:||vi:Tứ Diệu Điygygoiế|
|Glossary of Buddhism|
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The Four Noble Truths[note 1] express the basic orientation of Buddhism: this mundane life, which is continuously repeated by rebirth, is not the place to be; how do we get out of it? The truths are as follows:
- Dukkha:[note 2] all temporary things and states are unsatisfying;
- The start of dukkha: yet we crave and cling to these things and states; thereby, we're continuously reborn;
- The end of dukkha: if we stop craving and clinging, we won't be reborn;
- How to end dukkha: by following the Buddhist path, namely behaving decently, not acting on impulses, and practicing mindfulness and meditation, which help with this selfcontrol.
- 1 The four truths
- 2 Emphasis within different traditions
- 3 Etymology
- 4 Critical Historical Analysis
- 4.1 Development
- 4.2 Function of the four noble truths
- 4.3 Appearance within the discourses
- 4.3.1 Symbolic function
- 4.3.2 Propositional function
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Web references
- 9 Sources
- 10 Further reading
- 11 External links
The four truths
According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha first taught the four noble truths in the very first teaching he gave after he attained enlightenment, as recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta[web 1] (The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth). Within this discourse, there are four key verses which present the four noble truths.[note 4][note 6][note 7]
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.[web 3]
The four noble truths have been condensed as follows:[note 8]
- The truth of dukkha[note 2]
- The truth of the arising or origin of dukkha
- The truth of the cessation of dukkha
- The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha
According to Rupert Gethin, the four truths are the "classic formulation" of the basic orientation of Buddhism, namely
Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.[web 1]
Explanation of the four truths
First truth: dukkha
- Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, illness is dukkha, death is dukkha;
- Sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha;
- Association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha;
- Not getting what is wanted is dukkha.
- In conclusion, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.
- Dukkha-dukkhataa, "the actual feeling of physical or mental pain or anguish",[web 7] "response to unpleasant physical or mental experiences";[web 8]
- Saṃkhāra-dukkhataa, "the suffering produced by all 'conditioned phenomena'";[note 12][note 13] "craving for things to be how we want them to be."[web 8] It is a basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to ignorance of the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. It is a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.
- Vipariṇāma-dukkhataa, "the suffering associated with pleasant bodily and mental feelings: "because they are the cause for the arising of pain when they change",[web 7] "when we’re enjoying a pleasant experience, we crave for it to continue [...] inevitably, the universal law of impermanence leaves that craving unsatisfied."[web 8]
Majjhima Nikaya 149:3 gives a concise description of dukkha:
When one abides inflamed by lust, fettered, infatuated, contemplating gratification, [...] [o]ne's bodily and mental troubles increase, one's bodily and mental torments increase, one's bodily and mental fevers increase, and one experiences bodily and mental suffering.
From a Buddhist perspective, labelling Buddhism as "a bleak, pessimistic and world-denying philosophy," as some commentators have done, "may reflect a deep-seated refusal to accept the reality of dukkha itself."
Second truth: arising or origin of dukkha
"Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming."
- Craving for sense-pleasures (kama-tanha): this is craving for sense objects which provide pleasant feeling, or craving for sensory pleasures.
- Craving to be (bhava-tanha): this is craving to be something, to unite with an experience. This includes craving to be solid and ongoing, to be a being that has a past and a future, and craving to prevail and dominate over others.
- Craving not to be (vibhava-tanha): this is craving to not experience the world, and to be nothing; a wish to be separated from painful feelings.[note 15]
Another common explanation presents the cause of dukkha as disturbing emotions (Sanskrit: kleshas).[note 16] In this context, it is common to identify three root disturbing emotions, called the three poisons, as the root cause of suffering or dukkha. These three poisons are:
- Ignorance (Sanskrit: avidya or moha): misunderstanding of the nature of reality; bewilderment.
- Attachment (Sanskrit: raga): attachment to pleasurable experiences.
- Aversion (Sanskrit: dvesha): a fear of getting what we don't want, or not getting what we do want.[note 17]
When the Buddha's teachings were systematised, craving and the kleshas were seen as arising from wrong knowledge or ignorance (Pali: avijja). Insight acquired a growing importance in the Buddhist soteriology, in some instances even replacing the central practice of dhyana. Ignorance (Pali: avijja) came to be defined as ignorance of the meaning and implication of the four noble truths. On a deeper level, it refers to a misunderstanding of the nature of the self and reality.[note 18]
Sammyuta Nikaya 149:3 gives the following description of the origin of dukkha:
...when one does not know and see as it actually is [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painful or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition, then one is inflamed by lust for the eye, for forms, for eye-consciousness, for eye-contact, for [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painful or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition [repeated for the nose, tongue, body, mind].
Third truth: cessation of dukkha
The third Noble Truth is the truth of the cessation of dukkha. The term cessation (Pali: nirodha) refers to the cessation of craving, which keeps us tied to samsara. It is
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.[web 1]
Cessation is the goal of one's practice in the Buddhist tradition. From a more psychological point of view, once we have developed a genuine understanding of the causes of suffering, such as craving (tanha) and ignorance (avijja), then we can completely eradicate these causes and thus be free from suffering.
Cessation is often equated with nirvana (Sanskrit; Pali nibbana), which can be described as the state of being in cessation or the event or process of the cessation. A temporary state of nirvana can be said to occur whenever the causes of suffering (e.g. craving) have ceased in our mind.
Majjhima Nikaya 149:9 gives the following description of cessation:
When one abides uninflamed by lust, unfettered, uninfatuated, contemplating danger [...] one's craving [...] is abandoned. One's bodily and mental troubles are abandoned, one's bodily and mental torments are abandoned, one's bodily and mental fevers are abandoned, and one experiences bodily and mental pleasure.
Joseph Goldstein explains:
Ajahn Buddhadasa, a well-known Thai master of the last century, said that when village people in India were cooking rice and waiting for it to cool, they might remark, "Wait a little for the rice to become nibbana". So here, nibbana means the cool state of mind, free from the fires of the defilements. As Ajahn Buddhadasa remarked, "The cooler the mind, the more Nibbana in that moment". We can notice for ourselves relative states of coolness in our own minds as we go through the day.
Fourth truth: path to the cessation of dukkha
The fourth noble truth is the path, or method, to the cessation of dukkha.[note 19] The path consists of a set of interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the development of dhyana and the cessation of dukkha.[web 4][note 20]
[H]is taints are destroyed by his seeing with wisdom.
Majjhima Nikaya 149:9 says:
...when one knows and see as it actually is [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painfull or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition, then one is not inflamed by lust for the eye, for forms, for eye-consciousness, for eye-contact, for [the feeling] felt as pleasant or painful or neither painful-nor-pleasant that arises with eye-contact as condition [repeated for the nose, tongue, body, mind].
The eightfold path consists of the understanding that this world is floating and unsatisfying, and how craving keeps us tied to this floating world; a friendly and compassionate attitude to others; a correct way of behaving; mind-control, which means not feeding on negative thoughts, and nurturing positive thoughts; constant awareness of the feelings and responses which arise; and the practice of dhyana, meditation. The tenfold path adds the right (liberating) insight, and liberation from rebirth.[note 22]
The path is a series of stages leading to liberating insight c.q. practice. According to Tilmann Vetter, the description of the four truths is a later addition to a set of practices which culminate in the practice of dhyana. In early Buddhism, the calm to which this practice leads is the liberation which is being sought.But it is also interpreted as an interconnected collection of practices without a gradual progression.
In the Buddhist tradition, the four noble truths, and Buddhist philosophy in general, are understood to be based on the personal experience of the Buddha. This understanding is implied in the term "noble truths," which is a translation of the Pali terms ariya sacca (Sanskrit: arya satya). The Pali term sacca means "truth" and "real" or "actual thing." In this context, contemporary Buddhist scholar Rupert Gethin explains that the four noble truths are not asserted as propositional truths or creeds; rather, they are understood as "true things" or "realities" that the Buddha experienced.[note 23][note 24][note 26][note 27]
Illness, diagnosis, and cure
In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha is often compared to a great physician, and his teachings are compared to medicine. The teachings on the four noble truths in particular are related to a medical diagnosis, as follows:[note 28]
- The truth of dukkha: identifying the illness and the nature of the illness (the diagnosis)
- The truth of origin: identifying the causes of the illness (the etiology)
- The truth of cessation: identifying a cure for the illness (the prognosis)
- The truth of the path: recommending a treatment for the illness that can bring about a cure (the prescription)
This analogy is said to emphasize the compassion of the Buddha—that he was motivated by the desire to relieve the suffering of beings. It also emphasizes that the Buddha was presented as physician, or healer of the spirit, rather than as a meta-physician or someone who spoke of supernatural powers.[note 29] [note 30]
Emphasis within different traditions
Early Indian Buddhism
The Ekavyāvahārika sect emphasized the transcendence of the Buddha, asserting that he was eternally enlightened and essentially non-physical. According to the Ekavyāvahārika, the words of the Buddha were spoken with one transcendent meaning, and the Four Noble Truths are perfectly realized with one wisdom.
Within the Theravada tradition, great emphasis is placed upon reading and contemplating The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth, and other suttas, as a means to study the four noble truths and put them into practice.[note 31]
The Kathāvatthu records debate by the Theravādins with the Andhakas (who may have been Mahāsāṃghikas) regarding whether or not old age and death are the result (vipāka) of karma. The Theravāda maintained that they are not—not, apparently because there is no causal relation between the two, but because they wished to reserve the term vipāka strictly for mental results--"subjective phenomena arising through the effects of kamma."
In the Mahayana tradition, the four noble truths take a less prominent place. They are traditionally studied through various Mahayana commentaries, in conjunction with teachings on bodhisattva path.
Within Tibetan Buddhism, the four noble truths are traditionally studied from Mahayana commentaries such as the Abhisamayalamkara, rather than from reading the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. In this context, the truth of the path (the fourth truth) is traditionally presented according to a progressive formula of five paths, rather than as the eightfold path presented in other traditions.[note 32]
The Tibetan tradition also emphasizes the study of the sixteen characteristics of the four noble truths, as described in the Abhisamayalamkara. The Mahayana text Ornament of Clear Realization (Abhisamayalamkara) identifies four characteristics of each truth, for a total of sixteen characteristics, which are presented as a guide to contemplating and practicing the four noble truths. The Ornament of Clear Realization is a key text in the curriculum of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and study colleges, and this method of study and practice is emphasized in the Tibetan tradition.
Commentaries on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta
Note however, that some contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teachers have provided commentary on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and the noble eightfold path when presenting the dharma to Western students. For example, Geshe Tashi Tsering's commentary on the four noble truths emphasizes the Pali version of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, and contemporary texts by Ringu Tulku and Lama Surya Das present the noble eightfold path.
From the Tibetan Buddhist point of view, these alternative methods of presentation are not considered to be contradictory, but rather as different ways to present the Buddhist path.
Nichiren Buddhism is based on the teaching of the Japanese teacher Nichiren, who believed that the Lotus sutra contained the essence of all of Gautama Buddha's teachings. In his letter "A Comparison between the Lotus and Other Sutras," Nichiren states that the Four Noble Truths are a specific teaching expounded by the Buddha for the sake of the śrāvakas disciples, those who attain awakening by listening to the teachings of a Buddha.[web 17] The implication here is that the teachings on the four noble truths are a provisional teaching, which Shakyamuni Buddha taught according to the people’s capacity, while the Lotus Sutra is a direct statement of Shakyamuni’s own enlightenment.[web 18] The essence of the Four Noble Truths about the cause of sufferings being "Attachment to Earthly Desires" is recognized in Nichiren Buddhism, however as just one cause among others, such as Arrogance, Ignorance ...etc., as explained by Nichiren in his letter on The Fourteen Slanders.
Nichiren Buddhism regards the Four Noble Truths as specific teachings for the sravaka or voice hearers disciples of the Buddha: “the Sravaka, a term Hurvitz translates as ‘voice hearer’, is what we might call the standard followers of the Buddha for whom he teaches the four noble truths”., contrasted with the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra:” the Lotus Sutra was addressed to all people
The Second and Third Truth regarding the cause of suffering are recognized in Nichiren’s teaching as “Attachment to earthly desires”, however other causes of suffering are also listed such as arrogance, negligence, hatred and grudges and others.
Another difference in perceiving the teaching of the Eightfold Path is Nichiren’s teaching of the “direct path” to enlightenment: “The key point that set Nichiren Buddhism apart from the other Buddhist schools of his day was the establishment of this concrete means for attaining Buddhahood [in one’s current lifetime]” 
Buddhist schools which are based on the Lotus Sutra pay respect to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, and recognize it as the first teaching of the Buddha, but – differently from other schools - not as the final teaching – and which they consider to be the Dharma of the Lotus:
The Lotus Sūtra, which is the Buddha’s final teaching, expounds all essences of the Buddha’s enlightenment based on the universal law.
According to Watson, the Lotus Sutra refers to the four noble truths in the context[need quotation to verify]of presenting the teachings on the bodhisattva path.[web 19] The third chapter of the Lotus Sutra states that the Four Noble Truths was the early teaching of the Buddha, while the Dharma of the Lotus is the 'most wonderful, unsurpassed great Dharma'.[note 33]
- Dukkha saccã[note 35] - "suffering", "anxiety", "uneasiness", "dissatisfaction", "unsatisfactoriness", etc. See Dukkha etymology
- Samudaya saccã[note 36] - "origin", "source", "arising", "coming to existence";[web 23] "aggregate of the constituent elements or factors of any being or existence", "cluster", "coming together", "combination", "producing cause", "combination", "rising"[web 24]
- Nirodha saccã[note 37] - cessation; release; to confine
- Magga saccã[note 38] - "path"[web 25][note 39]
The Pali terms ariya sacca (Sanskrit: arya satya) are commonly translated as "noble truths". This translation is a convention started by the earliest translators of Buddhist texts into English. K.R Norman has argues that this is just one of several possible translations. According to Paul Williams,
[T]here is no particular reason why the Pali expression ariyasaccani should be translated as 'noble truths'. It could equally be translated as 'the nobles' truths', or 'the truths for nobles', or 'the nobilising truths', or 'the truths of, possessed by, the noble ones' [...] In fact the Pali expression (and its Sanskrit equivalent) can mean all of these, although the Pali commentators place 'the noble truths' as the least important in their understanding .
According to Norman, probably the best translation is "the truth[s] of the noble one (the Buddha)." It is a statement of how things are seen by a Buddha, how things really are when seen correctly. It is the truthful way of seeing,[note 40] Through not seeing things this way, and behaving accordingly, we suffer.[note 41]
The term "arya" was probably later added to the four truths. The term ariya (Sanskrit: arya) can be translated as "noble", "not ordinary", "valuable", "precious".[note 42] "pure", Paul Williams states:
The Aryas are the noble ones, the saints, those who have attained 'the fruits of the path', 'that middle path the Tathagata has comprehended which promotes sight and knowledge, and which tends to peace, higher wisdom, enlightenment, and Nibbana' (Narada 1980: 50 ).[note 43]
The term sacca (Sanskrit: satya) is a central term in Indian thought and religion. It is typically translated as "truth"; but it also means "that which is in accord with reality", or "reality". Rupert Gethin states:
The word satya (Pali sacca) can certainly mean truth, but it might equally be rendered as ‘real’ or ‘actual thing’. That is, we are not dealing here with propositional truths with which we must either agree or disagree, but with four ‘true things’ or ‘realities’ whose nature, we are told, the Buddha finally understood on the night of his awakening.
Critical Historical Analysis
According to Carol Anderson, only by the time of the commentaries, in the fifth century CE, did the four truths come to be identified as the central teaching of the Buddha.[note 44] Carol Anderson notes that the four truths are missing in critical passages in the canon, and states:
... the four noble truths were probably not part of the earliest strata of what came to be recognized as Buddhism, but that they emerged as a central teaching in a slightly later period that still preceded the final redactions of the various Buddhist canons.
Stephen Batchelor notes that the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta contains incongruities, and states that
The First Discourse cannot be treated as a verbatim transcript of what the Buddha taught in the Deer Park, but as a document that has evolved over an unspecified period of time until it reached the form in which it is found today in the canons of the different Buddhist schools.
According to Anderson, the four truths probably entered the Sutta Pitaka from the Vinaya, the rules for monastic order.[note 46] They were first added to enlightenment-stories which contain the Four Jhanas, replacing terms for "liberating insight".[note 48] From there they were added to the biographical stories of the Buddha:
K.R. Norman concluded that the earliest version of the sutta did not contain the word "noble", but was added later.
Substituting "liberating insight"
According to both Bronkhorst and Anderson, the four truths became a substitution for prajna, or "liberating insight", in the suttas. According to Bronkhorst, the four truths may not have been formulated in earliest Buddhism, and did not serve in earliest Buddhism as a description of "liberating insight". Gotama's teachings may have been personal, "adjusted to the need of each person." Bronkhorst gives the example of Majjhima Nikaya 26, which also refers to the first sermon, but does not mention the four truths. The monks receive here personal instructions. Bronkhorst further notices that
...the accounts which include the Four Noble Truths had a completely different conception of the process of liberation than the one which includes the Four Dhyanas and the destruction of the intoxicants.
Originally the term prajna may have been used, which came to be replaced by the four truths in those texts where "liberating insight" was preceded by the four jhanas. Bronkhorst also notices that the conception of what exactly this "liberating insight" was developed throughout time. Whereas originally it may not have been specified, later on the four truths served as such, to be superseded by pratityasamutpada, and still later, in the Hinayana schools, by the doctrine of the non-existence of a substantial self or person. And Schmithausen notices that still other descriptions of this "liberating insight" exist in the Buddhist canon:
"that the five Skandhas are impermanent, disagreeable, and neither teh Self nor belonging to oneself";[note 50] "the contemplation of the arising and disappearance (udayabbaya) of the five Skandhas";[note 51] "the realisation of the Skandhas as empty (rittaka), vain (tucchaka) and without any pith or substance (asaraka).[note 52]
An example of this substitution, and its consequences, is Majjhima Nikaya 36:42-43, which gives an account of the awakening of the Buddha.
Function of the four noble truths
Summary of the teachings
In the Nikayas the four truths are given as the "liberating insight" which constituted the awakening, or "enlightenment"[note 53] In the Nikayas, they are compared to the footprints of an elephant: just as the footprints of all the other animals can fit within the footprint of an elephant, in the same way, all the teachings of the Buddha are contained within the teachings on the four noble truths.[note 54]
Many Buddhist teachers present them as the essence of the Buddhist teachings.[note 55] They see them as the teaching that the Buddha presented in his first sermon, and teach that the Buddha taught them repeatedly throughout his lifetime, expanding upon the presentation in the first sermon.[note 56] According to Walpola Rahula,
The heart of the Buddha's teaching lies in the Four Noble Truths (Cattāri Ariyasaccāni) which he expounded in his very first sermon to his old colleagues, the five ascetics, at Isipatana (modern Sarnath) near Benares. In this sermon, as we have it in the original texts, these four Truths are given briefly. But there are innumerable places in the early Buddhist scriptures where they are explained again and again, with greater detail and in different ways. If we study the Four Noble Truths with the help of these references and explanations, we get a fairly good and accurate account of the essential teachings of the Buddha according to the original texts.
Symbolic and proposition function
According to Anderson, the four truths have both a symbolic and a propositional function. As a symbol, they refer to the possibility of awakening, as represented by the Buddha:
[W]hen the four noble truths are regarded in the canon as the first teaching of the Buddha, they function as a view or doctrine that assumes a symbolic function. Where the four noble truths appear in the guise of a religious symbol in the Sutta-pitaka and the Vinaya-pitaka of the Palicanon, they represent the enlightenment experience of the Buddha and the possibility of enlightenment for all Buddhists within the cosmos.
As a proposition, they describe how release from craving is to be reached:
... the four noble truths are truly set apart within the body of the Buddha's teachings, not because they are by definition sacred, but because they are both a symbol and a doctrine and transformative within the sphere of right view. As one doctrine among others, the four noble truths make explicit the structure within which one should seek enlightenment; as a symbol, the four noble truths evoke the possibility of enlightenment. As both, they occupy not only a central but a singular position within the Theravada canon and tradition.
Appearance within the discourses
The developing Buddhist tradition inserted the four truths, using various formulations, at various sutras. They are being used both as a symbol of all dhammas and the Buddha's awakening, and as a set of propositions which function within a matrix of teachings. According to Anderson, there is no single way to understand the teachings; one teaching may be used to explain another teaching, and vice versa. The teachings form a network, which should be apprehended as such to understand how the various teachings intersect with each other.
Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN56.11)
According to the Buddhist tradition, the first talk of Gautama Buddha after he attained enlightenment is recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth) (Samyutta Nikaya 56.11). The four truths originally were not part of this sutta, and were later added in some versions. Several versions of this sutta contain the four truths, whereas others don't.
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta provides details on three stages in the understanding of each truth, for a total of twelve insights. According to Bronkhorst, they are probably also a later addition, born out of unease with the substitution of the general term "prajna" for the more specific "four truths". The three stages for understanding each truth are:[note 57]
- sacca-ñāṇa - knowing the nature of the truth (e.g., acknowledgement, view, reflection)
- kicca-ñāṇa - knowing what needs to be done in connection with that truth (e.g., practice; motivation; directly experiencing)
- kata-ñāṇa - accomplishing what needs to be done (e.g., result, full understanding, knowing)
Maha-parinibbana Sutta (Last Days of the Buddha)(DN16)
The Maha-parinibbana Sutta(Digha Nikaya 16) was given near the end of the Buddha's life. In this sutta, the Buddha emphasized the importance of the four noble truths with the following statement:[web 33]
And the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying: "Bhikkhus, it is through not realizing, through not penetrating the Four Noble Truths that this long course of birth and death has been passed through and undergone by me as well as by you. What are these four? They are the noble truth of suffering; the noble truth of the origin of suffering; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of suffering. But now, bhikkhus, that these have been realized and penetrated, cut off is the craving for existence, destroyed is that which leads to renewed becoming, and there is no fresh becoming."
Thus it was said by the Blessed One. And the Happy One, the Master, further said:
- 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.
Mahasaccaka Sutta (The Greater Discourse to Saccaka)(MN36)
The Mahasaccaka Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 36) narrates the Buddha's way to liberation. He attains the Three Knowledges, the third one being the knowledge of the taints and the knowledge of the Four Noble Truths.
After going through the four dhyanas, and gaining the first two knowledges, the story proceeds:
I directed my mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the intoxicants [suffering ... origin ... cessation ... path] [intoxicants (asava) ... origin ... cessation ... path] My mind was liberated [...] the knowledge arose that it was liberated.
Bronkhorst dismisses the first two knowledges as later additions, and proceeds to notice that the recognition of the intoxicants is modelled on the four truths. According to Bronkhorst, those are added the bridge the original sequence of "I directed my mind to the knowledge of the destruction of the intoxicants. My mind was liberated", which was interrupted by the addition of the four truths. Bronkhorst points out that those do not fit here, since the four truths culminate in the knowledge of the path to be followed - which has been ended by that point!
Maha-satipatthana Sutta (The Great Frames of Reference)(DN22)
The Maha-satipatthana Sutta (Digha Nikaya 22) elaborates on the meaning of each of the four noble truths (providing additional details to those found in the first discourse of the Buddha).[web 34][note 72]
Sammaditthi Sutta (The Discourse on Right View)(MN9)
Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (The Greater Discourse on the Elephant-footprint Simile)(MN28)
The Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (The Greater Discourse on the Elephant-footprint Simile; Majjhima-Nikāya 28), a discourse given by Sāriputta, presents the simile of the elephant-footprint; this sutta states:
Friends, just as the footprint of any breathing thing that walks can be placed within an elephant’s footprint, and so the elephant’s footprint is declared the chief of them because of its great size, so too, whatever beneficial ideas there are can all be included in the four Noble Truths.[web 36]
This sutta also elaborates on the meaning of the five aggregates which are mentioned in the first discourse as part of the cause of suffering.[web 36]
The Samyutta Nikaya gives elaborate overviews of treatments and discussions of separate items. SN61, Sacca Samyutta, treats the four truths extensively.
Tittha Sutta (Sectarians)(AN3.61)
In the Tittha Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya 3.61), the Buddha provides an alternate description of the second and third noble truths; in this sutta the Buddha identifies the arising and cessation of suffering in accordance with his teachings on the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination.[web 37][note 73]
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- Sanskrit: catvāri āryasatyāni; Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni
- "suffering", "anxiety", "uneasiness", "dissatisfaction", "unsatisfactoriness", etc. See Dukkha etymology
- In this translation by John T. Bullit, Bullit leaves the term "dukkha" untranslated. The main article that presents this translation is The Four Noble Truths.[web 2] Links to each line in the translation are as follows: line 1: First Noble Truth; line 2: Second Noble Truth; line 3: Third Noble Truth; line 4: Fourth Noble Truth.
- In the following translation of the four truths by contemporary Theravada translator John T. Bullit, the term dukkha is left untranslated:[note 3]
- Now this, monks, is the noble truth of dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.
- And this, monks is the noble truth of the origination of dukkha: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
- And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading & cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, & letting go of that very craving.
- And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of dukkha: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration."
- Contemporary Mahayana teacher Thich Nhat Hahn has produced a notable rendering of the fist teaching of the Buddha in his biography of the Buddha entitled Old Path White Clouds. Thich Nhat Hahn relied on multiple sources for this rendering. This rendering is also included in Thich Nhat Hahn's book Path of Compassion: Stories from the Buddha's Life.
- Contemporary Mahayana teacher Thich Nhat Hahn presents the following translation of the four truths from the Mahayana point of view, based upon multiple sources:[note 5]
- Brothers, [...the first truth] is the existence of suffering. Birth, old age, sickness, and death are suffering. Sadness, anger, jealousy, worry, anxiety, fear, and despair are suffering. Separation from loved ones is suffering. Association with those you hate is suffering. Desire, attachment, and clinging to the five aggregates are suffering.
- “Brothers, the second truth is the cause of suffering. Because of ignorance, people cannot see the truth about life, and they become caught in the flames of desire, anger, jealousy, grief, worry, fear, and despair.
- Brothers, the third truth is the cessation of suffering. Understanding the truth of life brings about the cessation of every grief and sorrow and gives rise to peace and joy.
- Brothers, the fourth truth is the path which leads to the cessation of suffering. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, which I have just explained. The Noble Eightfold Path is nourished by living mindfully. Mindfulness leads to concentration and understanding which liberates you from every pain and sorrow and leads to peace and joy. I will guide you along this path of realization.”
- For additional translations of the first discourse, see Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta#Translations into English
- Contemporary translators have used a number of variations in presenting the essential list (i.e. the names or titles) of the Four Noble Truths. For example:
- Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "The Four Noble Truths are as follows: 1. The truth of Dukkha; 2. The truth of the origin of Dukkha; 3. The truth of the cessation of Dukkha; 4. The truth of the path, the way to liberation from Dukkha".[web 4]
- John T. Bullit (Access to Insight) states: "What are these four? They are the noble truth of dukkha; the noble truth of the origin of dukkha; the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha; and the noble truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha."[web 5]
- Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma states: The Four Noble Truths [...] are: 1. The Noble Truth of Suffering (dukkha); 2. The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering (samudaya); 3. The Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodha); 4. The Noble Truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (magga).
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism states: "1. The noble truth that is suffering; 2. The noble truth that is the arising of suffering; 3. The noble truth that is the end of suffering; 4. The noble truth that is the way leading to the end of suffering."
- Geshe Tashi Tsering states: "The four noble truths are: 1. The noble truth of suffering; 2. The noble truth of the origin of suffering; 3. The noble truth of the cessation of suffering and the origin of suffering; 4. The noble truth of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering and the origin of suffering."
- Joseph Goldstein states: "The four noble truths are the truth of suffering, its cause, its end, and the path to that end.
- Mark Epstein states: "[The Buddha] formulated his first teaching as the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation".
- Majjhima Nikaya 22, Alagaddupama Sutra, "The Water-Snake Simile": "Speaking in this way, teaching in this way, I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by some brahmans and contemplatives [who say], 'Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.' But as I am not that, as I do not say that, so I have been erroneously, vainly, falsely, unfactually misrepresented by those venerable brahmans and contemplatives [who say], 'Gotama the contemplative is one who misleads. He declares the annihilation, destruction, extermination of the existing being.'
"Both formerly and now, monks, I declare only stress and the cessation of stress."[web 6]
- Rupert Gethin: "In a Nikāya passage[note 9] the Buddha thus states that he has always made known just two things, namely suffering and the cessation of suffering. This statement can be regarded as expressing the basic orientation of Buddhism for all times and all places. Its classic formulation is by way of 'four noble truths'."
- Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera: "Dukkha contains not only the ordinary meaning of suffering, but also includes deeper ideas such as imperfection, pain, impermanence, disharmony, discomfort, irritation, or awareness of incompleteness and insufficiency."[web 9]
- Sankhaaras, in the most general sense[web 8]
- Saṅkhāra-Dukkha is one of the Three marks of existence:
- "All saṅkhāras (compounded things) are impermanent": Sabbe saṅkhāra aniccā
- "All saṅkhāras are unsatisfactory": Sabbe saṅkhāra dukkhā
- "All dhammas (all things including the unconditioned) are without self": Sabbe dhammā anattā
- This explanation is more common in commentaries on the Four Noble Truths within the Theravada tradition: e.g. Ajahn Sucitta (2010); Ajahn Sumedho (ebook); Rahula (1974); etc.
- See the article Tanha for further citations and clarification.
- This explanation is more common in commentaries on the Four Noble Truths within the Mahayana tradition: e.g. Ringu Tulku (2005), p. 30; Chogyam Trunpa (2010); Thich Nhat Hahn (1999), p. 22. This explanation is also given in the Abhidharma teachings of both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions; see Kleshas (Buddhism).
- See the respective articles for citations and further clarification.
- See the article Avidya (Buddhism) for further citations and clarification.
- In Majjhima Nikaya 36 this path refers back to the way which has already been traversed.
- Ajahn Sucitto describes the path as "a mandala of interconnected factors that support and moderate each other."
- Inclusing the way to this destruction, which is the way he is already traversing.
- Another variant, which may be condensed to the eightfold or tenfold path, starts with a Tathagatha entering this world. A layman hears his teachings, decides to leaving the life of a householder, starts living according to the moral precepts, guards his sense-doors, practices mindfulness and the four jhanas, gains the three knowledges, understands the Four Noble Truths[note 21] and destroys the taints, and perceives that he's liberated.
- Gethin states: The word satya (Pali sacca) can certainly mean truth, but it might equally be rendered as 'real' or 'actual thing'. That is, we are not dealing here with propositional truths with which we must either agree or disagree, but with four 'true things' or 'realities' whose nature, we are told, the Buddha finally understood on the night of his awakening. [...] This is not to say that the Buddha's discourses do not contain theoretical statements of the nature of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation, but these descriptions function not so much as dogmas of the Buddhist faith as a convenient conceptual framework for making sense of Buddhist thought.
- The original Tibetan Lotsawas (Sanskrit: locchāwa; Tibetan: lo ts'a ba), translators who studied Sanskrit grammar thoroughly, used the Tibetan term bden pa, which reflects this understanding.
- Emphasis added.
- Contemporary Buddhist teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu emphasizes the same point, noting that the Four Noble Truths are best understood as categories of experience, rather than as beliefs. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: "These four truths are best understood, not as beliefs, but as categories of experience. They offer an alternative to the ordinary way we categorize what we can know and describe–[we ordinarily categorize things] in terms of me/not me, and being/not being.[note 25] These ordinary categories create trouble, for the attempt to maintain full being for one's sense of "me" is a stressful effort doomed to failure, in that all of the components of that "me" are inconstant, stressful, and thus not worthy of identifying as "me" or "mine". [...][T]he study of the four noble truths is aimed first at understanding these four categories, and then at applying them to experience so that one may act properly toward each of the categories and thus attain the highest, most total happiness possible.[web 10]
- The Tibetan Buddhist lama Chögyam Trungpa emphasizes that cessation is a personal experience. Chögyam Trungpa explains: "The truth of cessation is a personal discovery. It is not mystical and does not have any connotations of religion or psychology. It is simply your experience... It is like experiencing instantaneous good health: you have no cold, no flu, no aches, and no pains in your body. You feel perfectly well, absolutely refreshed and wakeful! Such an experience is possible."
- In the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha is often referred to as a great physician, and the four noble truths are compared to a medical diagnosis. For example:
- Rupert Gethin states: "The Buddhist tradition has sometimes compared the Buddha to a physician and the four truths to a medical diagnosis: the truth of duḥkha is like a disease, the truth of the origin of duḥkha is like its cause, the truth of the cessation of duḥkha is like the disease’s being cured, and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of duḥkha is like the medicine that brings about the disease’s cure.[Lalitavistara ii. 525, 538–9 (Lefmann ed. 351, 358–9); Visuddhimagga xvi. 87.] It is the wish to relieve the suffering of the disease and eradicate its cause that is the starting point of Buddhist practice."
- Geshe Tashi Tsering states: "In his first teaching, the Buddha compares the stages of freeing the mind to recovery from an illness: if we don’t first recognize that we are ill, we won’t seek help. And if we don’t know the origin of our illness, we cannot choose the most effective therapy. The Buddha uses the framework of the four noble truths to formulate this insight: the first truth, the truth of suffering, is the illness. The second truth, the truth of the origin of suffering, refers to the cause of the illness. The third truth, the truth of cessation, is the understanding that a complete cure is possible. And the fourth truth, the truth of the path that leads to cessation, is the cure."
- Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "The Buddha sets out the Four Truths as a formula a doctor uses to deal with a patient. The Buddha first sets out the basic affliction of human life, the problem of Dukkha. Thereafter he makes the diagnosis, explaining the cause for the disease; this is the second truth as craving. As a third Step the doctor gives a prognosis. He determines the possibility of a cure, the cessation of dukkha. The Buddha says that suffering can be ended . As the fourth step the doctor prescribes the course of treatment. So too Buddha prescribed the fourth truth, the Noble Eightfold Path."[web 11]
- Ron Leifer states: "Because of his compassion for sufferers, the Buddha become known as the great physician, a physician of the spirit. Using the medical model as a metaphor for the four noble truths, the first noble truth describes the disease; the second noble truth describes the cause of the disease; the third noble truth reveals the cure for the disease; and the fourth noble truth teaches the means for curing the disease."
- Phillip Moffitt states: Thus, the Buddha, like a doctor, tells the patient what the illness is, diagnoses the cause, tells the patient the cure for the condition, and recommends the medicine needed to bring about the cure."
- Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma states: "The Buddha is regarded as the "peerless physician" (bhisakka) who is capable of diagnosing exactly the illness of each and every being. It was in this manner of expression that the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths. First, he established that the world is founded on suffering (dukkhe loko patitthito) and that suffering is an undeniable and universal phenomenon (parinnatabba) one must strive to comprehend. He then established the cause of the disease: the origin of suffering is craving (tanha). Then the Buddha described the cure for the disease, which is nibbana (nirodha). Finally, he recommended the remedy, which is the Noble Eightfold Path."
- Smith and Novak state: "The Buddha’s approach to the problem of life in the Four Noble Truths was essentially that of a physician. He began by examining carefully the symptoms that provoke concern... These symptoms the Buddha summarized in the First Noble Truth..."
- Damien Keown states: "Sometimes a medical metaphor is used to illustrate the relationship between them, and the Buddha is likened to a physician who has found a cure for life's ills. First he diagnoses the disease, second explains its cause, third determines that a cure exists, and fourth sets out the treatment.
- Tamara Engel states: "In the Discourses, the Buddha is often referred to as a doctor, and The Four Noble Truths are formulated according to the ancient Indian medical model: 1. There is an illness; 2. There is a cause(s) of illness; 3. There is a possibility of a cure of the illness; 4. There is a prescription i.e., what we need to do to bring about a cure. The brilliance of this medical model is that the Buddha offers a complete spiritual path that does not depend on metaphysical speculation or belief—no speculation or belief about God. No leap of faith is required. The illness the Buddha refers to is a particular kind of suffering, and there is nothing metaphysical about it. We all experience it. In fact, it is said that the Buddha would never enter into a metaphysical discussion. He stated, “I teach one thing and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering.”"[web 12]
- Peter Della Santina states: One of the fundamental formulas evolved by practitioners of the science of medicine in ancient India was the fourfold scheme of disease, diagnosis, cure, and treatment. If you consider carefully these four stages in the practice of the science of medicine, it will be apparent that they correspond very closely to the formula of the Four Noble Truths: (1) the truth of suffering clearly corresponds to the first element of disease; (2) the truth of the cause just as clearly corresponds to the element of diagnosis; (3) the truth of cessation corresponds to the achievement of a cure; and (4) the truth of the path just as clearly corresponds to the course of treatment of a disease.[web 13]
- Donald Lopez states: "The fact that the truths appear out of chronological sequence, with the effect coming before its cause, is explained through recourse to a medical model, in which the Buddha, in setting forth the truths, is following the procedure of a physician. The physician's first task is to recognize that illness is indeed present and to identify it. This is precisely what the Buddha has done in observing that existence is qualified by suffering. The second step is to make a diagnosis, to determine the source of the malady. In the second truth, the truth of origin, the Buddha explains the sequence of causes, both immediate and mediate, that give rise to suffering. The physicians next task is determine whether the disease is fatal or whether a subsequent state of health is possible; that is, the physician makes a prognosis. The third truth is the postulation of a state free from suffering, called cessation or nirvana. Once the prognosis is made, the physician must prescribe the cure, the course of action that will lead from sickness to health. The fourth and final truth of the path is said to be the Buddha's prescription."
- Paul Williams states: "The formula for the four Noble Truths is probably based on the formula for a medical diagnosis. That is, it states the illness, the source of the illness, then the cure for the illness, and finally the way to bring about that cure.
- Joseph Goldstein states: "Some time ago, there was an article in The New York Times about the great advances in genetic research. It highlighted how the more precise the understanding of fundamental genetic processes, the more precise and pinpointed can be the cure for many diseases. In Buddhist texts, the Buddha is often referred to as “the Great Physician” because of his detailed understanding of the causes of suffering and its cure. This is the great gift of the teaching: although we all have to do the work, we don’t have to figure it all out by ourselves."
- Peter Harvey states: "This structure may also have been influenced by, or itself influenced, the practice of early Indian doctors: (i) diagnose an illness, (ii) identify its cause, (iii) determine whether it is curable, and (iv) outline a course of treatment to cure it. The first True Reality is the metaphorical ‘illness’ of dukkha (Vibh-a. 88), and the Buddha is seen as fulfilling the role of a spiritual physician. Having ‘cured’ himself of dukkha, he worked to help others to do likewise. The problem of suffering had prompted his own quest for awakening, and its solution naturally became the focus of his teachings. He sometimes summarized these by saying simply, ‘Both in the past and now, I set forth just this: dukkha and the cessation of dukkha’ (e.g. M.I. 140).
- In the structure of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha avoided metaphysical speculation. For example:
- Gil Fronsdal states: I think it is significant that he chose to follow a medical model, because it avoids metaphysics. The religions of the world tend to be imbued with metaphysical or cosmological beliefs that followers are required to accept before the rest of the system can make sense. But the Buddha felt that metaphysical speculation was not beneficial in understanding liberation, the freedom from suffering. He avoided dogma. He offered practices and insights that we can verify for ourselves, rather than a doctrine to believe in. Indeed, part of the brilliance of the Four Noble Truths is that they offer a guide to the spiritual life without the need to adhere to any metaphysical beliefs.
- Pico Iyer states: "The Buddha generally presented himself as more physician than metaphysician: if an arrow is sticking out of your side, he famously said, don’t argue about where it came from or who made it; just pull it out. You make your way to happiness not by fretting about it or trafficking in New Age affirmations, but simply by finding the cause of your suffering, and then attending to it, as any doctor (of mind or body) might do."[web 14]
- Contemporary Buddhist teacher Tamara Engel also emphasizes the Buddha's reluctance to comment on metaphysical matters: "The brilliance of this medical model is that the Buddha offers a complete spiritual path that does not depend on metaphysical speculation or belief—no speculation or belief about God. No leap of faith is required. The illness the Buddha refers to is a particular kind of suffering, and there is nothing metaphysical about it. We all experience it. In fact, it is said that the Buddha would never enter into a metaphysical discussion. He stated, “I teach one thing and one thing only. Suffering and the end of suffering."[web 12]
- There are many examples both in the original suttas and in traditional and contemporary commentaries that compare the Buddha to a physician. For example:
- Thanisarro Bhikkhu identifies discourses in the Pali canon in which the dharma is referred to as medicine, and the Buddha as a doctor.[web 15]
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu states: "What's special about the Buddha's approach is that the problem he attacks is the whole of human suffering, and the solution he offers is something human beings can do for themselves. Just as a doctor with a surefire cure for measles isn't afraid of measles, the Buddha isn't afraid of any aspect of human suffering. And, having experienced a happiness totally unconditional, he's not afraid to point out the suffering and stress inherent in places where most of us would rather not see it — in the conditioned pleasures we cling to. He teaches us not to deny that suffering and stress or to run away from it, but to stand still and face up to it, to examine it carefully. That way — by understanding it — we can ferret out its cause and put an end to it. Totally."[web 16]
- Walpola Rahula states: "Buddhism...tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness. One physician may gravely exaggerate an illness and give up hope altogether. Another may ignorantly declare that there is no illness and that no treatment is necessary, thus deceiving the patient with a false consolation. You may call the first one pessimistic and the second optimistic. Both are equally dangerous. But a third physician diagnoses the symptoms correctly, understands the cause and the nature of the illness, sees clearly that it can be cured, and courageously administers a course of treatment, thus saving his patient. The Buddha is like the last physician. He is the wise and scientific doctor for the ills of the world (Bhisakka or Bhaisajya-guru)."
- For example, Ajahn Sumedho states: "The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha's teaching on the Four Noble Truths, has been the main reference that I have used for my practice over the years. It is the teaching we used in our monastery in Thailand. The Theravada school of Buddhism regards this sutta as the quintessence of the teachings of the Buddha. This one sutta contains all that is necessary for understanding the Dhamma and for enlightenment."
- From the Tibetan Buddhist point of view, the noble eightfold path is implicit in this Mahayana presentation of the five paths. For example, Geshe Tashi Tsering states: "Many people have asked me why Tibetan Buddhism does not present the noble eightfold path as part of the fourth noble truth, but for me there is no difference between the noble eightfold path and the five paths apart from the style of presentation. In the Mahayana tradition, when the path leading to cessation is presented in the context of the five paths, the noble eightfold path is implicit. The noble eightfold path is the substance, and the five paths is the process, the step-by-step progress that we have to make.
- "In the past at Vārāṇasī, you turned the wheel of the Darma of the Four Noble Truths, making distinctions and preaching that all things are born and become extinct, being made up of the five components (skandhas). Now you turn the wheel of the most wonderful, the unsurpassed great Dharma. This Dharma is very profound and abstruse; there are few who can believe it. Since times past often we have heard the World-Honored One's preaching, but we have never heard this kind of profound, wonderful and superior Dharma. Since the World-Honored One preaches this Dharma, we all welcome it with joy."
- The complete expressions from the first discourse (from the Pali canon) are as follows:
- Dukkham ariyasaccam
- Dukkhasamudayam ariyasaccam
- Dukkhanirodham ariyasaccam
- Dukkhanirodhagāminī patipadā ariyasaccam[web 22]
- Sanskrit: duḥkha-satya
- Sanskrit: samudaya-satya
- Sanskrit: nirodha-satya
- Sanskrit: mārga-satya
- The key terms in the longer version of this expression, Dukkha Nirodha Gamini Patipada Ariya Saccam, can be translated as follows:
- '"Truth", satya (Sanskrit), sacca (Pali), derived from sat, being, how it is.
- Contemporary Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche describes the four arya satya as "Four Pure Insights into the Way Things Are". Contemporary scholar Peter Harvey translates arya satya as "True Realities for the Spiritually Ennobled".
- Ajahn Sucitto states: "So the four truths (ariya sacca) are generally called “noble” truths, although one might also translate ariya as “precious.” "
- Geshe Tashi Tsering: "The modifier noble means truth as perceived by arya beings, those beings who have had a direct realization of emptiness or selflessness. Noble means something seen by arya beings as it really is, and in this case it is four recognitions—suffering, origin, cessation, and path. Arya beings see all types of suffering—physical and mental, gross and subtle—exactly as they are, as suffering. For people like us, who do not have the direct realization of emptiness, although we may understand certain levels of physical and mental experiences as suffering, it is impossible for us to see all the levels of suffering for what they are. Instead we may see some things as desirable when in truth they are suffering.
- However, the four noble truths do not always appear in stories of the Buddha's enlightenment where we might expect to find them. This feature may indicate that the four noble truths emerged into the canonical tradition at a particular point and slowly became recognized as the first teaching of the Buddha. Speculations about early and late teachings must be made relative to other passages in the Pali canon because of a lack of supporting extratextual evidence. Nonetheless, it is still possible to suggest a certain historical development of the four noble truths within the Pali canon. What we will find is a doctrine that came to be identified as the central teaching of the Buddha by the time of the commentaries in the fifth century C.E.
- In the Mahavagga, part of the Vinaya and the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta.
- Anderson: "As Bareau noted, the consistency between these two versions[note 45] of the Buddha's enlightenment is an indication that the redactors of the Theravada canon probably brought the two accounts into agreement with each other at a relatively late point in the formation of the canon.
Leon Feer had already suggested in 1870 that the versions of the four noble truths found in the sutras and suttas were derived from the vinaya rescensions in the larger body of Buddhist literature; Bareau's conclusion builds on this claim."
- In his often-cited article On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism
- Schmithausen[note 47] notes that the mention of the four noble truths as constituting "liberating insight", which is attained after mastering the Rupa Jhanas, is a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36.
- Anderson refers to reseacrh by K.R. Norman, Bareau, Skilling, Schmithausen and Bronkhorst.
- Majjhima Nikaya 26
- Anguttara Nikaya II.45 (PTS)
- Samyutta Nikaya III.140-142 (PTS)
- "Enlightenment" is a typical western term, which bears its own, specific western connotations, meanings and interpretations.
- In Majjhima Nikaya 28, Mahahatthipadopama Sutta, "The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's footprint",[web 28] Sariputta is staged as saying:
"Ven. Sariputta said: "Friends, just as the footprints of all legged animals are encompassed by the footprint of the elephant, and the elephant's footprint is reckoned the foremost among them in terms of size; in the same way, all skillful qualities are gathered under the four noble truths. Under which four? Under the noble truth of stress, under the noble truth of the origination of stress, under the noble truth of the cessation of stress, and under the noble truth of the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress."
Some modern teachers refer to this sutra when stating that the four truths are central to the teachings of the Buddha:
- Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "The recorded teachings of the Buddha are numerous. But all these diverse teachings fit together into a single unifying frame, the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha compared the Four Noble Truths to the footprints of an elephant. Just as the footprint of an elephant can contain the footprints of any other animal, the footprints of tigers, lions, dogs, cats, etc. So all the different teachings of the Buddha fit into the single framework of the Four Noble Truths."[web 4]
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu states: "The four noble truths are the most basic expression of the Buddha's teaching. As Ven. Sariputta once said, they encompass the entire teaching, just as the footprint of an elephant can encompass the footprints of all other footed beings on earth."[web 10]
- Piyadassi Thera states: [These truths] are the essence of the Buddha's teaching. ‘As the footprint of every creature that walks the earth can be contained in an elephant's footprint, which is pre-eminent for size, so does the doctrine of the Four Noble Truths embrace all skilful Dhamma (the entire teaching of the Buddha).' [M. 28.][web 29]
- Joseph Goldstein states: "Sāriputta, the chief disciple of the Buddha, spoke with a group of monks about these truths: 'Friends, just as the footprint of any living being that walks can be placed within an elephant’s footprint, . . . so too, all wholesome states can be included in the Four Noble Truths.'"
- Walpola Rahula states: "The heart of the Buddha's teaching lies in the Four Noble Truths (Cattāri Ariyasaccāni)..."
- The Dalai Lama states: "The Four Noble Truths are the very foundation of the Buddhist teachings, and that is why they are so important. In fact, if you don't understand the Four Noble Truths, and if you have not experienced the truth of this teaching personally, it is impossible to practice the Buddha Dharma. Therefore I am always happy to have the opportunity to explain them."
- Ringu Tulku states: "The fist instruction of the Buddha was the teaching on the Four Noble Truths. These cannot be said to be just "Shravakayana". They are everything. Apart from the Four Noble Truths, there is nothing else in Buddhism. So they are the most important thing."
- Thich Nhat Hanh states: "After realizing complete, perfect awakening (samyak sambodhi), the Buddha had to find words to share his insight. He already had the water, but he had to discover jars like the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to hold it. The Four Noble Truths are the cream of the Buddha's teaching."
- Joseph Goldstein states (in One Dharma): "[The Buddha's] first teaching [...] is called "Setting the Wheel of the Dharma in Motion," and it lays out the Four Noble Truths, the basic doctrine of liberation common to all Buddhist schools."
- Joseph Goldstein states (in Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening): "[The Four Noble Truths] express the very essence of the Buddha’s awakening, and despite the many differences among the various Buddhist traditions, all of them agree that the four noble truths are the foundation of understanding and realization."
- Ajahn Sumedho states: "The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha's teaching on the Four Noble Truths, has been the main reference that I have used for my practice over the years. It is the teaching we used in our monastery in Thailand. The Theravada school of Buddhism regards this sutta as the quintessence of the teachings of the Buddha. This one sutta contains all that is necessary for understanding the Dhamma and for enlightenment."
- Geshe Tashi Tsering states: "The four noble truths lay down the blueprint for the entire body of the Buddha’s thought and practice and set up the basic framework of the individual’s path to enlightenment. They encapsulate all of Buddhist philosophy. Therefore studying, meditating, and fully understanding this teaching is very important, because without an understanding of the four noble truths it is impossible to fully integrate the concepts and practices of Buddhism into our daily lives."
- Geshe Tashi Tsering also states: "The four noble truths encompass the entire spiritual path with all its many aspects..."
- Lama Surya Das states: "The Four Noble Truths are the core of the Buddhist Dharma."
- Traleg Kyabgon states: "...the Four Noble Truths are the essence of all the Buddha's teachings. Without understanding them, we cannot proceed. All the later interpretations of the original Buddhist teachings are based on the Four Noble Truths."
- Sharon Salzburg states: "Everything within the Buddha’s teachings can be encapsulated with I teach one thing and one thing only. That is suffering and the end of suffering. And the normal formulation of that is what is called the Four Noble Truths."[web 30]
- Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "The essence of the Buddha’s teaching can be summed up in two principles: the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The first covers the side of doctrine, and the primary response it elicits is understanding; the second covers the side of discipline, in the broadest sense of that word, and the primary response it calls for is practice."
- Piyadassi Thera states: "In the original Pali texts, specifically in the discourses (suttas), these Four Truths are made clear in detail and in diverse ways. Without a clear idea of the Truths, one cannot know what the Buddha taught for forty-five years. To the Buddha the entire teaching is just the understanding of dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of all phenomenal existence, and the understanding of the way out of this unsatisfactoriness."[web 29]
- Gil Fronsdal states: "In his first sermon, "Turning the Wheel of the Dharma," the Buddha taught about suffering and the end of suffering in the form of the Four Noble Truths. After more than 2500 years they have come to us as the core teachings of Buddhism. Almost all Buddhist traditions consider the Four Noble Truths to be very central teachings. Intellectually, they are easy to understand, but it is said that a deep understanding of the full impact of these Four Truths is possible only for someone whose liberation is fully mature."
- According to contemporary commentators the four truths were taught repeatedly by the Buddha throughout his lifetime:
- Judith Leif states: "The four noble truths are central to the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha presented these teachings in one of the first sermons he gave after his enlightenment, and they were recorded in the sutra The First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. [...] In later teachings the Buddha touched on the four noble truths repeatedly, expanding upon and further elucidating his original presentation."
- Ron Leifer states: "The Buddha repeated over and over again that the four noble truths are the foundation and nucleus of his teachings. All Buddhist wisdom is contained within them like the layers of an onion, each layer more subtle and profound than the previous, leading to a central insight. Monks, Buddha said, by the fact of understanding as they really are, these four truths, a Tathagata is called an Arhat, a fully enlightened one."
- Walpola Rahula states: "In [the Buddha's first] sermon, as we have it in the original texts, these four Truths are given briefly. But there are innumerable places in the early Buddhist scriptures where they are explained again and again, with greater detail and in different ways."
- Thich Nhat Hanh states: "The Buddha continued to proclaim these truths right up until his Great Passing Away (mahaparanirvana)."
- Ajahn Succitto states: And many would say that [the Buddha's first discourse] was his most important discourse because it established the basis of the teaching that he added to throughout his life—the teaching of "suffering and the cessation of suffering," which he encapsulated in four great or "noble" truths.
- Piyadassi Thera states: "...the Four Noble Truths are the central concept of Buddhism. What the Buddha taught during his ministry of forty-five years embraces these Truths, namely: Dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, its arising, its cessation and the way out of this unsatisfactory state."[web 31]
- Thubten Thardo (Gareth Sparham) states: "[Siddhārtha] went to Varanasi, where he “turned the wheel of the Dharma,” teaching his distinctive doctrine of the four noble truths to his first followers, who became the core of a Buddhist community that soon grew and flourished. During the remaining years of his life, the Buddha continued to teach the four noble truths— the truth of suffering, the truth of its cause, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path to its attainment— and he instructed his followers how to live as a community in harmony."
- The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth identifies three stages in the understanding of each truth:
- Walpola Rahula states: "[...]with regard to each of the Four Noble Truths there are three aspects of knowledge: 1. The knowledge that it is the Truth (sacca-ñāṇa) 2. The knowledge that a certain function or action with regard to this Truth should be performed (kicca-ñāṇa), and 3. The knowledge that that function or action with regard to this Truth has been performed (kata-ñāṇa)."
- Ajahn Sucitto states: "The Buddha goes on to deepen the significance of the practice of the four noble truths. He begins by analyzing the first noble truth in a pattern of three stages: acknowledgment, motivation, and result—or view, practice, and full understanding. This pattern is then repeated in each of the other noble truths. In each case, the first stage is a fuller reflection on the importance of bearing the meaning of the specific truth in mind; the second stage demonstrates the way of practicing with that truth; the third fully penetrates the significance of that truth. Together, the twelve stages define the process of awakening through the four noble truths."
- Ajahn Sumedho states: "Now the Four Noble Truths are: there is suffering; there is a cause or origin of suffering; there is a end of suffering; and there is path out of suffering which is the Eightfold Path. Each of these Truths has three aspects so all together there are twelve insights. In the Theravada school, an arahant, a perfected one, is one who has seen clearly the Four Noble Truths with their three aspects and twelve insights."
- Phillip Moffitt states: "There are three insights associated with each Noble Truth, and they follow a similar pattern: first reflecting, then directly experiencing, and finally knowing."
- Geshe Tashi Tsering states: In the [Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the Buddha] repeats each noble truth three times, each time with a slightly different emphasis and a slightly different flavor. This repetition represents the three phases of understanding that the Buddha himself acquired in his ever-deepening realization of these four truths. The three phases are as follows: knowing the nature of the truth, knowing what needs to be done in connection with that truth, and finally accomplishing what needs to be done.
- For example, the contemporary Tibetan teacher Geshe Tashi Tsering identifies these twelve insights in his commentary on the four noble truths, and Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hahn explains these stages in this book The Heart of the Buddha's Teachings.
- Ajahn Sumedho explains: "We don’t need to make it into anything grand; it is just the recognition: ‘There is suffering’. That is a basic insight. The ignorant person says, ‘I’m suffering. I don’t want to suffer. I meditate and I go on retreats to get out of suffering, but I’m still suffering and I don’t want to suffer.... How can I get out of suffering? What can I do to get rid of it?’ But that is not the First Noble Truth; it is not: ‘I am suffering and I want to end it.’ The insight is, ‘There is suffering’."
- Ajahn Sumedho explains: "The second insight or aspect of each of the Noble Truths has the word ‘should’ in it: ‘It should be understood.’ The second insight then, is that dukkha is something to understand. One should understand dukkha, not just try to get rid of it. [...] In Pali, ‘understanding’ means to really accept the suffering, stand under or embrace it rather than just react to it. With any form of suffering – physical or mental – we usually just react, but with understanding we can really look at suffering; really accept it, really hold it and embrace it. So that is the second aspect, ‘We should understand suffering’."
- Ajahn Sumedho explains: "When you have actually practised with suffering – looking at it, accepting it, knowing it and letting it be the way it is – then there is the third aspect, ‘Suffering has been understood’, or ‘Dukkha has been understood.’ "
- Ajahn Sumedho emphasizes contemplating the three aspects of tanha: kama-tanha (the desire for sense pleasures); bhava-tanha (the desire to become something, such as seeking wealth or fame); vibhava-tahha (the desire to get rid of things, e.g. to avoid suffering)
- Ajahn Sumedho states: "The more we contemplate and investigate grasping, the more the insight arises, 'Desire should be let go of.'"
- Ajahn Sumedho states: "Then through the actual practice and understanding of what letting go really is, we have the third insight into the Second Noble Truth, which is 'Desire has been let go of.' We actually know letting go. It is not a theoretical letting go, but a direct insight. You know letting go has been accomplished. This is what practice is all about."
- Ajahn Sumedho emphasizes the importance of reflecting on impermanence, that everything that arises also ceases. He states: "Rather than just thinking about it, really contemplate: 'All that is subject to arising is subject to ceasing.' Apply it to life in general, and to your own experience. Then you will understand. Just note: beginning...ending. Contemplate how things are. This sensory realm is all about arising and ceasing, beginning and ending; there can be perfect understanding in this lifetime."
- Ajahn Sumedho states: "To allow this process of cessation to work, we must be willing to suffer. This is why I stress the importance of patience. We have to open our minds to suffering, because it is in embracing suffering that suffering ceases. When we find that we are suffering, physically or mentally, then we go to the actual suffering that is present. We open completely to it, welcome it, concentrate on it, allowing it to be what it is. That means we must be patient and bear with the unpleasantness of a particular condition. We have to endure boredom, despair, doubt and fear in order to understand that they cease rather than running away from them."
- Ajahn Sumedho states: "[When craving] has ceased, you experience nirodha — cessation, emptiness, non-attachment. Nirodha is another word for Nibbana. When you have let something go and allowed it to cease, then what is left is peace."
- Phillip Moffitt introduces this insight as follows: "In the Tenth Insight the Buddha asks you to realize that there is a path to finding freedom from the angst of your life and experiencing more joy. Implicit is the authentic possibility that you have the power to change your inner experience of life, and there is a specific means for you to do so. The realization of this insight evokes in you the faith to undergo the discipline, hard work, and renunciation that are called for in the Eleventh Insight."
- Phillip Moffitt introduces this insight as follows: "The Noble Eightfold Path is not a set of beliefs or laws but rather a practical, direct experience method for finding meaning and peace in your life. Think of it as an organic blueprint from which you organize and live your life. Each of the eight path factors defines one aspect of behavioral development needed for you to move from suffering to joy. Its eight factors function as an integrated system or matrix that supports and informs all parts of your life. By "cultivating" the Buddha means attending to, nourishing, and manifesting each of these factors of wisdom in your life."
- Phillip Moffitt states: "As you begin working with the twelfth and final of the Buddha's insights, you are nearing the end of your search to know how to live wisely. In your journey you have utilized mindfulness to explore the experiences of your mind and body, which has allowed you to directly know the emotional, psychological, existential, and spiritual dilemmas of daily life. You are no longer deluded-you no longer have the mistaken belief that your mind has to be trapped in stress and reactivity for the rest of your life. You now know that freedom is truly possible, and you "know that you know" effective ways to respond to desire and difficulty when they arise in your life. You know that a path to cessation with its eight factors exists; you know its parts; you know you are capable of practicing it; and you know that it works for you!"
- The three insights for the first noble truth are:
- There is suffering.[note 59]
- Suffering should be understood.[note 60]
- Suffering has been understood.[note 61]
- There is the origin of suffering, which is attachment to desire (tanha)[note 62]
- Desire should be let go of[note 63]
- Desire has been let go of[note 64]
- There is the cessation of suffering, of "dukkha"[note 65]
- The cessation of dukkha should be realized[note 66]
- The cessation of dukkha has been realized[note 67]
- For example, this sutta includes the following details on the first noble truth (the truth of dukkha):[web 34]
- "Now what is the noble truth of stress [dukkha]? Birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair are stressful; association with the unbeloved is stressful; separation from the loved is stressful; not getting what one wants is stressful. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are stressful.
- "And what is birth? Whatever birth, taking birth, descent, coming-to-be, coming-forth, appearance of aggregates, & acquisition of [sense] spheres of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called birth.
- "And what is aging? Whatever aging, decrepitude, brokenness, graying, wrinkling, decline of life-force, weakening of the faculties of the various beings in this or that group of beings, that is called aging.
- "And what are the five clinging-aggregates that, in short, are stress [dukkha]? Form as a clinging-aggregate, feeling as a clinging-aggregate, perception as a clinging-aggregate, fabrications as a clinging-aggregate, consciousness as a clinging-aggregate: These are called the five clinging-aggregates that, in short, are stress."
- For example, this sutta states:[web 37]
- And what is the noble truth of the origination of stress [dukkha]?
- From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications. From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness. From consciousness as a requisite condition comes name-&-form. From name-&-form as a requisite condition come the six sense media. From the six sense media as a requisite condition comes contact. From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving. From craving as a requisite condition comes clinging/sustenance. From clinging/sustenance as a requisite condition comes becoming. From becoming as a requisite condition comes birth. From birth as a requisite condition, then old age & death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, & despair come into play. Such is the origination of this entire mass of stress & suffering.
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- Thich Nhat Hanh (1999), The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Three Rivers Press
- Other commentaries
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, (Chapter 3 is a commentary of about 25 pages.)
- Lopez, Donald S. (2001), The Story of Buddhism, HarperCollins. (pp. 42–54)
- Walpola Rahula (1974), What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press
Complete commentaries - Theravada tradition
- Four Noble Truths: Teachings by Ajahn Sumedho
- The Four Noble Truths: Teachings by Ajahn Sumedho (ebook) - an ebook version of the above commentary
Introductory material and study guides - Theravada tradition
- The Four Noble Truths - Ajahn Chah
- The Buddha's Ancient Path - Piyadassi Thera
- The Four Noble Truths (brief overview) - Bhikkhu Bodhi
- The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to End Suffering - Bhikkhu Bodhi
- Study Guide on the Eightfold Path - Bhikkhu Bodhi, Richard Blumberg (a study guide on Bhikkhu Bodhi's text)
- Lecture on the Four Noble Truths by Bhikkhu Bodhi
- The Four Noble Truths: A Study Guide - Thanissaro Bhikkhu
- The Four Noble Truths - Wings to Awakening - excerpts from suttas translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
- DharmaNet - Four Noble Truths - links to several online sources
Introductory material and study guides - Mahayana tradition
- Four Noble Truths - Dalai Lama (A brief overview)
- Brief Introduction to the Four Noble Truths - Dalai Lama, Alexander Berzin (an edited version of the link above)
- Four Noble Truths - Thrangu Rinpoche (A brief overview)
- Overview of Four Noble Truths - Alexander Berzin
- Sixteen Aspects of the Four Noble Truths - Alexander Berzin
- A View on the Four Noble Truths - Rudy Harderwijk
- Four Noble Truths - Buddhism in the National Capital of Canada
- 轉法輪經 ChineseBodhiDhammacakka at CBETA Chinese Electronic Tripitaka As of 28 October 2008[update]