Buddhism's Four Noble Truths

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Sarfo K. Mensah Jr.
Buddhism Paper

Siddharta Gautama was twenty-nine years of age when he abandoned his family to search for a means to bring to an end his and other's suffering. He studied meditation with many teachers. At the age of thirty-five, Siddharta Gautama sat down under the shade of a fig or bo tree to meditate; he determined to meditate until he received enlightenment. After seven weeks he received the Great Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path. Henceforth he became known as the Buddha. This Middle Way is a psychological-philosophical insight into the cause and cure of suffering and evil.

In The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh provides a citation from the Buddha, which gives insight into the cure of our distress.

"I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering." When we recognize and acknowledge our own suffering, the Buddha –which means the Buddha in us –will look at it, discover what has brought it about, and prescribe a course of action that can transform it into peace, joy, and liberation. Suffering is the means the Buddha used to liberate himself, and it is also the means by which we can become free.

(Thich Nhat Hanh 3)

The teachings of the Buddha revolve around this central tenant known as the "Four Noble Truths". The Four Noble Truths (and the Eightfold Path which followed from them) represent the basis of the Buddha's teaching and form the central foundation of Buddhism. Historically, Lord Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have preached on these topics during his first public commentary following his enlightenment.

The First Noble Truth states "Life is Dukkha". Dukkha exists, even that this is the natural and universal state of beings. The translation of the word dukkha from Pali has a bearing on how many readers will come to comprehend the basic teachings of the Buddha. The word dukkha is often rendered, in English, as "suffering". The resulting conclusion, "suffering exists". To live, you must suffer. It is impossible to live without experiencing some kind of suffering. We have to endure physical suffering like sickness, injury, tiredness, old age and eventually death and we have to endure psychological suffering like loneliness, frustrations, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, anger, etc. We are subject to impermanence and uncertainty. Very often, we have to associate with things that are unpleasant and disassociate with things that are pleasant. All these are unsatisfactory and cause our distress. This may seem a bit cynical and might suggest to many that Buddhism is a dire, fatalistic philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first noble truth is a statement so true and so obvious that it cannot be denied.

Using other translations of dukkha might lead us to (at least slightly) different conclusions as to the meaning of the First Noble Truth. Another depiction of dukkha as dissatisfaction may come closer to the intent of the original statement. "Dissatisfaction exists" seems a little simpler, a little less critical. Life is flawed, so there. It doesn't mean we will never have enjoyable moments, only that we will not only have them. We must take the good with the bad.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, gives us this insight into the truth of suffering.

To succeed in the practice, we must stop trying to prove that everything is suffering. In fact we must stop trying to prove anything. If we touch the truth of suffering with our mindfulness, we will be able to recognize and identify our specific suffering, its specific causes, and the way to remove these causes and an end to suffering.

(Thich Nhat Hanh 22)

Expressed in a slightly different way, one could arrive at the conclusion that everything in the world, no matter how wonderful it may seem, is ultimately unsatisfying. One more twist and we can arrive at the conclusion that it is not possible to satisfy...
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