Four Noble Truths

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The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit manuscript. Nālandā, Bihar, India.
Translations of
Four Noble Truths
Pali चत्तारि अरियसच्चानि
(cattāri ariyasaccāni)
Bengali চতুরার্য সত্য
chôturarjô sôtyô
Burmese သစ္စာလေးပါး
(IPA: [θɪʔsà lé bá])
Chinese 四聖諦(T) / 四圣谛(S)
(Pinyinsìshèngdì)
Japanese 四諦
(rōmaji: shitai)
Korean 사성제
(sa-seong-je)
Mongolian Хутагт дөрвөн үнэн
(Khutagt durvun unen)
Sinhala චතුරාර්ය සත්ය
Tibetan འཕགས་པའི་བདེན་པ་བཞི་
(Wylie: 'phags pa'i bden pa bzhi
THL: pakpé denpa shyi
)
Thai อริยสัจสี่
(ariyasaj sii)
Vietnamese vi:Tứ Diệu Đế
Glossary of Buddhism

The Four Noble Truths (Sanskrit: catvāri āryasatyāni; Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni) are "the truths of the Noble Ones,"[1] the truths or realities which are understood by the "worthy ones"[web 1] who have attained Nirvana.[2][web 1] The truths are dukkha, the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the path leading to the cessation of dukkha.

The four truths express the basic orientation of Buddhism: we crave and cling to impermanent states and things, which is dukkha,[3] "incapable of satisfying"[web 2] and painful.[4][5] This keeps us caught in samsara, the endless cycle of repeated rebirth, dukkha and dying again. [note 1] But there is a way to reach real happiness[11] [note 2] and to end this cycle, namely following the eightfold path. [note 3] The meaning of the truths is as follows:[23][16][web 3]

  1. Dukkha, "incapable of satisfying,"[web 2] painful.[4][5] Life in this "mundane world,"[web 3] with its craving and clinging to impermanent states and things,[4] is dukkha,[3] unsatisfactory and painful;[web 2][4][5][6][18][web 3]
  2. Samudaya, the origination or arising of dukkha. Dukkha, and repeated life in this world, arises with taṇhā, "thirst," craving for and clinging to these impermanent states and things. This craving and clinging produces karma which leads to renewed becoming, keeping us trapped in rebirth and renewed dissatisfaction;[note 4]
  3. Nirodha, the cessation of dukkha. By stopping this craving and clinging nirvana is attained,[25] no more karma is produced, and rebirth and dissatisfaction will no longer arise again;[note 5]
  4. Magga, the path to the cessation of, or liberation from dukkha. By following the Noble Eightfold Path, restraining oneself, cultivating discipline, and practicing mindfulness and meditation, craving and clinging will be stopped, and rebirth and dissatisfaction are ended.[27][28]

The four truths provide a conceptual framework for introducing and explaining Buddhist thought, which has to be personally understood or "experienced."[29][30] The formulation of the four truths, and their importance, developed over time, when prajna, or "liberating insight," came to be regarded as liberating in itself,[31][30] instead of the practice of dhyana.[31]

In the sutras, the four truths have both a symbolic and a propositional function.[32] They represent the awakening and liberation of the Buddha, but also the possibility of liberation for all sentient beings, describing how release from craving is to be reached.[33]

The four truths are of central importance in the Theravada tradition,[34] which holds to the idea that insight into the four truths is liberating in itself.[20] They are less prominent in the Mahayana traditions, which emphasize insight into sunyata and the Bodhisattva-path as a central elements in their teachings.[35]

The four truths[edit]

The four truths are best known from their presentation in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, which contains two sets of the four truths,[36][23] while various other sets can be found in the Pali Canon.[30]

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta[edit]

According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha first taught the four noble truths in the very first teaching he gave after attaining enlightenment, as recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth").[web 7] Within this discourse, there are four key verses which present the four noble truths:

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 8]

Basic set[edit]

According to Norman, the Pali canon contains various shortened forms of the four truths, the "mnemonic set," which were "intended to remind the hearer of the full form of the NTs."[37] The earliest form of the mnemonic set was "dukkham samudayo nirodho magga," without the reference to sacca[38] or arya,[39] which were later added to the formula.[39] This full set contains grammatical errors, but were considered correct by the Pali tradition, which didn't correct them.[39] According to K.R. Norman, the basic set is as follows:[40]

  • idam dukkham, "this is pain"
  • ayam dukkha-samudayo, "this is the origin of pain"
  • ayam dukkha-nirodha, "this is the cessation of pain"
  • ayam dukkha-nirodha-gamini patipada, "this is the path leading to the cessation of pain"

Etymology of the basic set[edit]

The four basic terms can be translated as follows:

  1. Dukkha - "incapable of satisfying,"[web 2] "the unsatisfactory nature and the general insecurity of all conditioned phenomena"; "painful."[4][5] Dukkha is most commonly translated as "suffering," which is an incorrect translation, since it refers to the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of temporary states and things, including pleasant but temporary experiences.[41] As opposite to sukha, "pleasure," it is better translated as "pain."[5]
  2. Samudaya - "origin", "source", "arising", "coming to existence";[web 9] "aggregate of the constituent elements or factors of any being or existence", "cluster", "coming together", "combination", "producing cause", "combination", "rising"[web 10]
  3. Nirodha - cessation; release; to confine;[42] "prevention, suppression, enclosing, restraint"[web 11]
  4. Magga - "path."[web 12] The key terms in the longer version of this expression, dukkha-nirodha-gamini Patipada, can be translated as follows:
    1. Gamini: leading to, making for[web 13]
    2. Patipada: road, path, way; the means of reaching a goal or destination[web 14]

Alternative formulations[edit]

L.S. Cousins notes that the four truths are not restricted to the well-known form where dukkha is the subject. Other forms take "the world, the arising of the world" or "the āsavas, the arising of the āsavas" as their subject. According to Cousins, "the well-known form is simply shorthand for all of the forms."[43] "The world" refers to the saṅkhāras, that is, all compounded things,[web 15] or to the six sense spheres.[44]

Truths for the noble ones[edit]

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. According to K.R. Norman, this is just one of several possible translations.[1] According to Paul Williams,[1]

[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.[1]

The term "arya" was later added to the four truths.[39][30] The term ariya (Sanskrit: arya) can be translated as "noble", "not ordinary", "valuable", "precious".[note 6] "pure",[46] 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 ).[47][note 7]

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". The four noble truths are not asserted as propositional truths or creeds; rather, they are understood as "true things" or "realities" that function as a convenient conceptual framework for making sense of Buddhist thought:.[49]

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.[49][note 8]

According to K.R. Norman, probably the best translation is "the truth[s] of the noble one (the Buddha)."[1] 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 9] Through not seeing things this way, and behaving accordingly, we suffer.[1][note 10]

Dukkha and its ending[edit]

The Dharmacakra, often used to represent the Noble Eightfold Path

The four truths express the basic orientation of Buddhism: clinging and craving to temporary states and things is ultimately unsatisfactory and painful, dukkha,[11] and leads to repeated rebirth and "redeath."[note 11] By following the Buddhist path, craving and clinging can be confined, peace of mind can be attained, and the resulting cycle of repeated rebirth and "redeath." will be stopped.[note 3]

The truth of dukkha, "incapable of satisfying,"[web 2] "painful,"[4][5][note 12] is the basic insight that life in this "mundane world," with its clinging and craving to impermanent states and things"[4] is dukkha, and unsatisfactory.[6][18][web 3] We expect happiness from states and things which are impermanent, and therefore cannot attain real happiness.

Dukkha arises when we crave (Pali: tanha) and cling to these changing phenomena. The clinging and craving produces karma, which ties us to samsara, the round of death and rebirth.[54][web 16][note 13] Craving includes kama-tanha, craving for sense-pleasures; bhava-tanha, craving to continue the cycle of life and death, including rebirth; and vibhava-tanha, craving to not experience the world and painful feelings.[54][55][56]

Dukkha ceases, or can be confined,[42] when craving and clinging cease or are confined. This also means that no more karma is being produced, and rebirth ends.[note 5] Cessation is nirvana, "blowing out," and peace of mind.[57][58][59] 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.[59]

By following the Buddhist path to moksha, liberation,[13] one starts to disengage from craving and clinging to impermanent states and things. The term "path" is usually taken to mean the Noble Eightfold Path, but other versions of "the path" can also be found in the Nikayas.[60] The Theravada tradition regards insight into the four truths as liberating in itself.[20]

The well-known 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.[60] The tenfold path adds the right (liberating) insight, and liberation from rebirth.[60][note 14]

The four truths are to be internalised, and understood or "experienced" personally, to turn them into a lived reality.[29][30]

Ending rebirth[edit]

Tibetan Bhavacakra or "Wheel of Life."

The four truths describe dukkha and its ending as a means to reach peace of mind in this life, but also as a means to end rebirth. Some contemporary teachers tend to explain the four truths psychologically, by taking dukkha to mean mental anquish in addition to the physical pain of life,[61] and interpreting the four truths as a means to attain happiness in this life.[62] Yet, Spiro notes that "the Buddhist message is not simply a psychological message," but an eschatological message.[14]

As Geoffrey Samuel notes, "the Four Noble Truths [...] describe the knowledge needed to set out on the path to liberation from rebirth."[13] By understanding the four truths, one can stop this clinging and craving, attain a pacified mind, and be freed from this cycle of rebirth and redeath.[web 3][6][note 3] Patrick Olivelle explains that moksha is a central concept in Indian religions, and "literally means freedom from samsara."[web 6][note 15] Melvin E. Spiro further explains that "desire is the cause of suffering because desire is the cause of rebirth."[14] When desire ceases, rebirth and its accompanying suffering ceases.[14][note 16] Peter Harvey explains:

Once birth has arisen, ‘ageing and death’, and various other dukkha states follow. While saying that birth is the cause of death may sound rather simplistic, in Buddhism it is a very significant statement; for there is an alternative to being born. This is to attain Nirvāna, so bringing an end to the process of rebirth and redeath. Nirvāna is not subject to time and change, and so is known as the ‘unborn’; as it is not born it cannot die, and so it is also known as the ‘deathless’. To attain this state, all phenomena subject to birth – the khandhas and nidānas – must be transcended by means of non-attachment.[63]

The last sermon, the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (Last Days of the Buddha, Digha Nikaya 16)", states it as follows:

[...] 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 [...] 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.[web 17]

Medical analogy[edit]

The model of the four truths may be an analogy with classical Indian medicine, in which the four truths function as a medical diagnosis, and the Buddha is presented as a physician:[64][65][66]

  1. The truth of dukkha: identifying the illness and the nature of the illness (the diagnosis)
  2. The truth of origin: identifying the causes of the illness (the etiology)
  3. The truth of cessation: identifying a cure for the illness (the prognosis)
  4. 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.[67]

Historical development[edit]

Development[edit]

Growing importance[edit]

Anderson notes that "the four truths are recognized as perhaps the most important teaching of the Buddha."[68] Yet, she also notes that as early as 1935 Carolyn Augusta Foley noted that for a teaching so central to Theravada Buddhism, it was missing from critical passages in the Pali canon.[69] According to Bronkhorst, the four truths may already have been formulated in earliest Buddhism, but did not have the central place they acquired in later buddhism.[70] According to Anderson, only by the time of the commentaries, in the fifth century CE, did the four truths come to be identified in the Theravada tradition as the central teaching of the Buddha.[71][note 17] According to Anderson,

... 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.[72]

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.[73]

According to Feer and Anderson, the four truths probably entered the Sutta Pitaka from the Vinaya, the rules for monastic order.[74][note 18] They were first added to enlightenment-stories which contain the Four Jhanas, replacing terms for "liberating insight".[77][note 19] From there they were added to the biographical stories of the Buddha:[80][note 20]

Substituting "liberating insight"[edit]

Information of the oldest teachings of Buddhism, such as on the Four Noble Truths, has been obtained by analysis of the oldest texts, but is a matter of dispute.[29][79][78][82] According to Schmithausen, three positions held by scholars of Buddhism can be distinguished:[83]

  1. "Stress on the fundamental homogeneity and substantial authenticity of at least a considerable part of the Nikayic materials;"[note 21]
  2. "Scepticism with regard to the possibility of retrieving the doctrine of earliest Buddhism;"[note 22]
  3. "Cautious optimism in this respect."[note 23]

Inconsistencies in the oldest texts may reveal developments in the oldest teachings.[89] Scholars have noted such inconsistencies in the presentations of the Buddha's enlightenment, and the Buddhist path to liberation, in the oldest sutras. These inconsistencies show that the Buddhist teachings evolved, either during the lifetime of the Buddha, or there-after.[note 24] According to the Japanese scholar Ui, the four truths are not the earliest representation of the Buddha's enlightenment. Instead, they are a rather late theory on the content of the Buddha's enlightenment.[90] According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, the earliest Buddhist path consisted of a set of practices which culminate in the practice of dhyana, leading to a calm of mind which according to Vetter is the liberation which is being sought.[91][92]

Later on, "liberating insight," as exemplified by prajna, or the insight in the "four truths," came to be regarded as equally liberating.[93][92] According to Vetter and Bronkhorst, this happened in response to other religious groups in India who held that a liberating insight was indispensable for liberation from rebirth (moksha).[94][95][note 25] According to Bronkhorst,

...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.[97]

The ideas on what exactly constituted this "liberating insight" was not fixed but developed over time.[91][98] In the Nikayas the four truths are given as the "liberating insight" which constituted the awakening, or "enlightenment" of the Buddha. When he understood these truths he was "enlightened" and liberated,[note 26] as reflected in Majjhima Nikaya 26:42: "his taints are destroyed by his seeing with wisdom."[102] Typically the four truths refer here to the eightfold path as the means to gain liberation while the attainment of insight into the four truths is portrayed as liberating in itself.[29]

According to Bronkhorst, in earliest Buddhism the four truths did not serve as a description of "liberating insight".[70] Initially the term prajna served to denote this "liberating insight." Later on, prajna was replaced in the suttas by the "four truths."[31][30] This happened in those texts where "liberating insight" was preceded by the four jhanas, and where this practice of the four jhanas then culminates in "liberating insight."[103] 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.[104] And Schmithausen states that still other descriptions of this "liberating insight" exist in the Buddhist canon:

"that the five Skandhas are impermanent, disagreeable, and neither the Self nor belonging to oneself";[note 27] "the contemplation of the arising and disappearance (udayabbaya) of the five Skandhas";[note 28] "the realisation of the Skandhas as empty (rittaka), vain (tucchaka) and without any pith or substance (asaraka).[note 29][105]

An example of this substitution, and its consequences, is Majjhima Nikaya 36:42-43, which gives an account of the awakening of the Buddha.[106]

Symbolic and propositional function[edit]

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 Pali canon, they represent the enlightenment experience of the Buddha and the possibility of enlightenment for all Buddhists within the cosmos.[68]

As a proposition, they describe how release from craving is to be reached:[34]

... 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.[34]

Appearance within the discourses[edit]

The developing Buddhist tradition inserted the four truths, using various formulations, at various sutras.[30] 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.[107] 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.[108]

Symbolic function[edit]

Mahasaccaka Sutta[edit]

The Mahasaccaka Sutta ("The Greater Discourse to Saccaka", Majjhima Nikaya 36) gives one of several versions of the Buddha's way to liberation.[note 30] He attains the three knowledges, namely knowledge of his former lifes, knowledge of death and rebirh, and knowledge of the destruction of the taints,[note 31] the Four Noble Truths.[109] 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.[106]

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, while the Buddha himself is already liberated at that point.[110]

Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta[edit]
A relief depicting the first discourse of the Buddha, from the 2nd century (Kushan).[web 18] The Walters Art Museum. The Buddha's hand can be seen at right.

According to the Buddhist tradition, the first talk of Gautama Buddha after he attained enlightenment is recorded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ("Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma", Samyutta Nikaya 56.11). According to Anderson, following Norman, the four truths originally were not part of this sutta, and were later added in some versions.[111]

Bronkhorst notes that this "first sermon" is recorded in several sutras, with important variations.[97] In the Vinaya texts, and in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta which was influenced by the Vinaya texts, the four truths are included, and Kondañña is enlightened[97][112] when the "vision of Dhamma"[113] arises in him: "whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation."[note 32] Yet, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta ("The Noble Search", Majjhima Nikaya 26) the four truths are not included,[note 33] and the Buddha gives the five ascetics personal instructions in turn, two or three of them, while the others go out begging for food. The versions of the "first sermon" which include the four truths, such as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, omit this instruction, showing 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 subsequent destruction of the intoxicants.[97]

According to Bronkhorst, this too indicates that the four truths were later added to earlier descriptions of liberation by practicing the four dhyanas, which originally was thought to be sufficient for the destruction of the arsavas.[97]

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".[117] The three stages for understanding each truth are:[118][119][120][121][122]

  1. sacca-ñāṇa - knowing the nature of the truth (e.g., acknowledgement, view, reflection)
  2. kicca-ñāṇa - knowing what needs to be done in connection with that truth (e.g., practice; motivation; directly experiencing)
  3. kata-ñāṇa - accomplishing what needs to be done (e.g., result, full understanding, knowing)

These three stages of understanding are emphasized particularly in the Theravada tradition, but they are also recognized by some contemporary Mahayana teachers.[122][123]

Maha-parinibbana Sutta[edit]

The Maha-parinibbana Sutta (Last Days of the Buddha, 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 19]

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.

Propositional function[edit]

Majjhima Nikaya 149:3 plus 149:9 give an alternative presentation of the four truths:

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.

...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].

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.

...when one knows 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 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].[124]

Emphasis within different traditions[edit]

Early Indian Buddhism[edit]

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 to be understood simultaneously in one moment of insight.[125] According to the Mahīśāsaka sect, the Four Noble Truths should be meditated upon simultaneously.[126]

Theravada[edit]

According to Carol Anderson, the four truths have "a singular position within the Theravada canon and tradition."[34] The Theravada tradition regards insight in the four truths as liberating in itself. This liberation can be attained in one single moment, when the four truths are understood together.[20] 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.[127][note 34]

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.[129] 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."[129]

Mahayana[edit]

The four truths are less prominent in the Mahayana traditions, which emphasize insight into sunyata and the Bodhisattva-path as a central elements in their teachings.[35] They are traditionally studied through various Mahayana commentaries,[130] in conjunction with teachings on bodhisattva path.[127]

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

Within Tibetan Buddhism, the four noble truths are traditionally studied from Mahayana commentaries such as the Abhisamayalamkara, rather than from reading the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. 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.[131] The Tibetan tradition also emphasizes the study of the sixteen characteristics of the four noble truths, as described in the Abhisamayalamkara ("Ornament of Clear Realization"). [132] Some contemporary Tibetan Buddhist teachers have provided commentary on the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta and the noble eightfold path when presenting the dharma to Western students.[133][134][135]

Nichiren Buddhism[edit]

Nichiren Buddhism is based on the teaching of the Japanese priest and teacher Nichiren, who believed that the Lotus Sūtra contained the essence of all of Gautama Buddha's teachings.[136] 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."[web 20] 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 21]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ On samsara, rebirth and redeath:
    * Paul Williams: "All rebirth is due to karma and is impermanent. Short of attaining enlightenment, in each rebirth one is born and dies, to be reborn elsewhere in accordance with the completely impersonal causal nature of one's own karma. The endless cycle of birth, rebirth, and redeath, is samsara."[6]
    * Buswell and Lopez on "rebirth": "An English term that does not have an exact correlate in Buddhist languages, rendered instead by a range of technical terms, such as the Sanskrit PUNARJANMAN (lit. "birth again") and PUNABHAVAN (lit. "re-becoming"), and, less commonly, the related PUNARMRTYU (lit. "redeath")."[7]

    See also Perry Schmidt-Leukel (2006) pages 32-34,[8] John J. Makransky (1997) p.27.[9] for the use of the term "redeath." The term Agatigati or Agati gati (plus a few other terms) is generally translated as 'rebirth, redeath'; see any Pali-English dictionary; e.g. pages 94-95 of Rhys Davids & William Stede, where they list five Sutta examples with rebirth and re-death sense.[10]
  2. ^ Warder refers to Majjhima Nikaya 75: "I gave up the desire for pleasure [...] I did not long for them [...] Now what was the cause? That delight, Māgandiya, which is apart from pleasures, apart, from bad principles, which even stands completely surpassing divine happiness, enjoying that delight I did not long for inferior ones, did not take pleasure in them."[11]
  3. ^ a b c Graham Harvey: "Siddhartha Gautama found an end to rebirth in this world of suffering. His teachings, known as the dharma in Buddhism, can be summarized in the Four Noble truths."[12] Geoffrey Samuel (2008): "The Four Noble Truths [...] describe the knowledge needed to set out on the path to liberation from rebirth."[13] See also [14][15][16][6][17][18][12][19][web 3][web 4]

    The Theravada tradition holds that insight into these four truths is liberating in itself.[20] This is reflected in the Pali canon.[21] According to Donald Lopez, "The Buddha stated in his first sermon that when he gained absolute and intuitive knowledge of the four truths, he achieved complete enlightenment and freedom from future rebirth."[web 3]

    The Maha-parinibbana Sutta also refers to this liberation.[web 5] Carol Anderson: "The second passage where the four truths appear in the Vinaya-pitaka is also found in the Mahaparinibbana-sutta (D II 90-91). Here, the Buddha explains that it is by not understanding the four truths that rebirth continues."[22]

    On the meaning of moksha as liberation from rebirth, see Patrick Olivelle in the Encyclopedia Britannica.[web 6]
  4. ^ Perry Schmidt-Leukel: "Thirst can be temporarily quenched but never brought to final stillness. It is in this sense that thirst is the cause of suffering, duhkha. And because of this thirst, the sentient beings remain bound to samsara, the cycle of constant rebirth and redeath: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence as the Second Noble Truth."[8]
    See also Williams & Wynne,[24] Spiro.[14]
  5. ^ a b Ending rebirth:
    * Graham Harvey: "The Third Noble Truth is nirvana. The Buddha tells us that an end to suffering is possible, and it is nirvana. Nirvana is a "blowing out," just as a candle flame is extinguished in the wind, from our lives in samsara. It connotes an end to rebirth"[12]
    * Spiro: "The Buddhist message then, as I have said, is not simply a psychological message, i.e. that desire is the cause of suffering because unsatisfied desire produces frustration. It does contain such a message to be sure; but more importantly it is an eschatological message. Desire is the cause of suffering because desire is the cause of rebirth; and the extinction of desire leads to deliverance from suffering because it signals release from the Wheel of Rebirth."[14]
    * John J. Makransky: "The third noble truth, cessation (nirodha) or nirvana, represented the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice in the Abhidharma traditions: the state free from the conditions that created samsara. Nirvana was the ultimate and final state attained when the supramundane yogic path had been completed. It represented salvation from samsara precisely because it was understood to comprise a state of complete freedom from the chain of samsaric causes and conditions, i.e., precisely because it was unconditioned (asamskrta)."[16]
    * Walpola Rahula: "Let us consider a few definitions and descriptions of Nirvana as found in the original Pali texts [...] 'It is the complete cessation of that very thirst (tanha), giving it up, renouncing it, emancipation from it, detachment from it.' [...] 'The abandoning and destruction of craving for these Five Aggregates of Attachment: that is the cessation of dukkha. [...] 'The Cessation of Continuity and becoming (Bhavanirodha) is Nibbana.'"[26]
  6. ^ Ajahn Sucitto states: "So the four truths (ariya sacca) are generally called “noble” truths, although one might also translate ariya as “precious.” "[45]
  7. ^ 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.[48]
  8. ^ 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.[49]
  9. ^ '"Truth", satya (Sanskrit), sacca (Pali), derived from sat, being, how it is.[1]
  10. ^ Contemporary Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche describes the four arya satya as "Four Pure Insights into the Way Things Are".[46] Contemporary scholar Peter Harvey translates arya satya as "True Realities for the Spiritually Ennobled".[50]
  11. ^ See also punarmrityu
  12. ^ Dukkha is most commonly translated as "suffering," which is an incorrect translation, since it refers to the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of temporary states and things, including pleasant but temporary experiences.[41] As opposite to sukha, "pleasure," it is better translated as "pain."[5] See also:
    • Malcolm Huxter: "dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering)..."[51]
    • Carole Anderson: "(...) the three characteristics of samsara/sankhara (the realm of rebirth): anicca (impermance), dukkha (pain) and anatta (no-self)."[53]
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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 leave 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 and destroys the taints, and perceives that he's liberated.[60]
  15. ^ Patrick Olivelle: "Moksha, also spelled mokṣa, also called mukti, in Indian philosophy and religion, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). Derived from the Sanskrit word muc ("to free"), the term moksha literally means freedom from samsara. This concept of liberation or release is shared by a wide spectrum of religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.[web 6]
  16. ^ Melvin E. Spiro: "Desire is the cause of suffering because desire is the cause of rebirth; and the extinction of desire leads to deliverance from suffering because it signals release from the Wheel of Rebirth."[14]
  17. ^ Anderson: "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."[71]
  18. ^ Anderson refers to Léon Feer, who already in 1870 "suggested the possibility that the four noble truths emerged into Buddhist literature through vinaya collections."[75] She also refers to Bareau, who noticed the consistency between the two versions in the Mahavagga, part of the Vinaya, and the Dhammacakkappavattana-sutta of the Buddha's enlightenment: "As Bareau noted, the consistency between these two versions 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."[76]
  19. ^ Schmithausen, in his often-cited article On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism, 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.[78][29][79]
  20. ^ Anderson refers to reseacrh by K.R. Norman, Bareau, Skilling, Schmithausen and Bronkhorst.[81]
  21. ^ Well-known proponents of the first position are:
    * A.K. Warder. According to A.K. Warder, in his 1970 publication "Indian Buddhism", from the oldest extant texts a common kernel can be drawn out.[84] According to Warder, c.q. his publisher: "This kernel of doctrine is presumably common Buddhism of the period before the great schisms of the fourth and third centuries BC. It may be substantially the Buddhism of the Buddha himself, although this cannot be proved: at any rate it is a Buddhism presupposed by the schools as existing about a hundred years after the parinirvana of the Buddha, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers."[84]
    * Richard Gombrich: "I have the greatest difficulty in accepting that the main edifice is not the work of a single genius. By "the main edifice" I mean the collections of the main body of sermons, the four Nikāyas, and of the main body of monastic rules."[82]
  22. ^ A proponent of the second position is Ronald Davidson: "While most scholars agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature (disputed)(sic) that a relatively early community (disputed)(sic) maintained and transmitted, we have little confidence that much, if any, of surviving Buddhist scripture is actually the word of the historic Buddha."[85]
  23. ^ Well-known proponent of the third position are:
    * J.W. de Jong: "It would be hypocritical to assert that nothing can be said about the doctrine of earliest Buddhism [...] the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas."[86]
    * Johannes Bronkhorst: "This position is to be preferred to (ii) for purely methodological reasons: only those who seek may find, even if no success is guaranteed."[87]
    * Donald Lopez: "The original teachings of the historical Buddha are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover or reconstruct."[88]
  24. ^ See:
    • La Vallee Possin (1937), Musila et Narada; reprinted in Gombrich (2006), How Buddhism Began, appendix
    • Erich Frauwallner (1953), Geschichte der indischen Philosophie, Band Der Buddha und der Jina (pp. 147-272)
    • Andre Bareau (1963), Recherches sur la biographiedu Buddha dans les Sutrapitaka et les Vinayapitaka anciens, Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient
    • Schmithausen, On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism. In: Studien zum Jainismus und Buddhismus (Gedenkschrift für Ludwig Alsdorf), hrsg. von Klaus Bruhn und Albrecht Wezler, Wiesbaden 1981, 199-250.
    • Griffiths, Paul (1981), "Concentration or Insight; The Problematic of Theravada Buddhist Meditation-theory", The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 
    • K.R. Norman, Four Noble Truths
    • Bronkhorst, Johannes (1993) [1986], The Two Traditions Of Meditation In Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers , chapter 8
    • Tilman Vetter (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, by Tilmann Vetter
    • Richard F. Gombrich (2006) [1996]. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-19639-5. , chapter four
    • Anderson, Carol (1999), Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon, Routledge 
    • Alexander Wynne (2007), The Origin of Buddhist Meditation, Routledge
  25. ^ Tillmann Vetter: "Very likely the cause was the growing influence of a non-Buddhist spiritual environment·which claimed that one can be released only by some truth or higher knowledge. In addition the alternative (and perhaps sometimes competing) method of discriminating insight (fully established after the introduction of the four noble truths) seemed to conform so well to this claim."[96]

    According to Bronkhorst, this happened under influence of the "mainstream of meditation," that is, Vedic-Brahmanical oriented groups, which believed that the cessation of action could not be liberating, since action can never be fully stopped. Their solution was to postulate a fundamental difference between the inner soul or self and the body. The inner self is unchangeable, and unaffected by actions. By insight into this difference, one was liberated. To equal this emphasis on insight, Buddhists presented insight into their most essential teaching as equally liberating. What exactly was regarded as the central insight "varied along with what was considered most central to the teaching of the Buddha."[95]
  26. ^ "Enlightenment" is a typical western term, which bears its own, specific western connotations, meanings and interpretations.[99][100][101]
  27. ^ Majjhima Nikaya 26
  28. ^ Anguttara Nikaya II.45 (PTS)
  29. ^ Samyutta Nikaya III.140-142 (PTS)
  30. ^ Majjhima Nikaya 26, "The Noble Search," also gives an account, which is markedly different, omitting the ascetic practices and the four truths.
  31. ^ Which keep one trapped in samsara.
  32. ^ Translation Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000), Samyutta Nikaya, SN 56.11, p.1846. See also Anderson (2001), Pain and its Ending, p.69.
  33. ^ MN 26.17 merely says "[']This will serve for the striving of a clansman intent on striving.' And I sat down there thinking: 'This will serve for striving.'[114] Bhikkhu Bodhi notes that Majjhima Nikaya 36 then continuous with the extreme ascetic practices, which are omitted in MN 26.[115] In verse 18, the Buddha has attained Nirvana, being secured from bondage by birth, ageing, sickness and death, referring to the truths of dependent origination and "the stilling of all formations, the relinquishing of all attachments, the destruction of craving, dispassion, cessation."[116]
  34. ^ 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."[128]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Williams 2002, p. 41.
  2. ^ Warder 1999, p. 67.
  3. ^ a b Khantipalo 2003, p. 41.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Nyanatiloka 1980, p. 65.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Emmanuel 2015, p. 30.
  6. ^ a b c d e Williams 2002, p. 74-75.
  7. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2003, p. 708.
  8. ^ a b Schmidt-Leukel 2006, p. 32-34.
  9. ^ Makransky 1997, p. 27.
  10. ^ Rhys Davids & William Stede
  11. ^ a b c Warder 2000, p. 45-46.
  12. ^ a b c Harvey 2016.
  13. ^ a b c Samuel 2008, p. 136.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Spiro 1982, p. 42.
  15. ^ Vetter 1988, p. xxi, xxxi-xxxii.
  16. ^ a b c Makransky 1997, p. 27-28.
  17. ^ Idema 2004, p. 17.
  18. ^ a b c Lopez 2009, p. 147.
  19. ^ Kingsland 2016, p. 286.
  20. ^ a b c d Carter 1987, p. 3179.
  21. ^ Anderson 2013.
  22. ^ Anderson 2013, p. 162 with note 38, for context see pages 1-3.
  23. ^ a b Norman 2003.
  24. ^ Paul Williams, Anthony Tribe & Alexander Wynne 2012, pp. 32–34.
  25. ^ Buswell & Lopez 2003, p. 304.
  26. ^ Rahula 2007.
  27. ^ Raju 1985, p. 147–151.
  28. ^ Eliot 2014, p. 39–41.
  29. ^ a b c d e Bronkhorst 1993.
  30. ^ a b c d e f g Anderson 1999.
  31. ^ a b c Bronkhorst 1993, p. 99-100, 102-111.
  32. ^ Anderson 1999, pp. 223-231.
  33. ^ Anderson 1999, p. 56.
  34. ^ a b c d Anderson 1999, p. 230-231.
  35. ^ a b Carter 1987, p. 3179-3180.
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  39. ^ a b c d Norman 2003, p. 220.
  40. ^ Norman 2003, p. 219, 222.
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  51. ^ Huxter 2016, p. 10.
  52. ^ Harvey 2015, p. 26–31.
  53. ^ Anderson 2013, p. 1, 22 with note 4
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  98. ^ Bronkhorst 1993, p. chpter 7.
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Sources[edit]

Printed sources[edit]

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  • Emmanuel, Steven M. (2015), A Companion to Buddhist Philosophy, John Wiley & Sons 
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  • Feer, Leon (editor) (1976), The Samyutta Nikaya, 5, London: Pali Text Society 
  • Fronsdal, Gil (2001), The Issue at Hand (Kindle ed.), self-published 
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  • Geshe Tashi Tsering (2006), Buddhist Psychology: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume III (Kindle ed.), Perseus Books Group 
  • Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press 
  • Goenka, S.N. (2000), The Discourse Summaries, Pariyatti 
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Web-sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Historical background and development[edit]

  • Vetter, Tilmann (1988), The Ideas and Meditative Practices of Early Buddhism, BRILL 
  • Bronkhorst, Johannes (1993), The Two Traditions of Meditation in Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers , chapter 8
  • Anderson, Carol (1999), Pain and Its Ending: The Four Noble Truths in the Theravada Buddhist Canon, Routledge 

Theravada commentaries[edit]

Tibetan Buddhism[edit]

  • Chögyam Trungpa (2009), The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, Shambhala.
  • Dalai Lama (1998), The Four Noble Truths, Thorsons.
  • Geshe Tashi Tsering (2005), The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume I, Wisdom, Kindle Edition
  • Ringu Tulku (2005), Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion. (Part 1 of 3 is a commentary on the four truths)

Modern interpretations[edit]

  • Epstein, Mark (2004), Thoughts Without A Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. Basic Books. Kindle Edition. (Part 1 examines the four truths from a Western psychological perspective)
  • Moffitt, Phillip (2008), Dancing with Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering, Rodale, Kindle Edition. (An explanation of how to apply the Four Noble Truths to daily life)
  • Thich Nhat Hanh (1999), The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Three Rivers Press

Other commentaries[edit]

  • 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