For three long decades, the great king of the Shakya people had success in avoiding the situation he’d grown to most fear. It was 29 years earlier, to be exact, just after King Suddhodana and his wife Queen Maya welcomed their first and only son into the world when the majestic ruler’s apprehension first began. Only five days after the young prince’s birth, the royal couple held a naming ceremony for their newborn son and called upon five sages to prophesy the child’s future before adorning him with a befitting name.
While each of the wise mystics agreed that the young prince was no ordinary child, there was some debate as to how they thought his future would ultimately unfold. Despite the fact that four of the seers indecisively concluded that the child would either follow in his father’s footsteps and become the next great leader of the Shakya clan or pursue a religious path and become a enlightened being, the fifth and youngest sage, Kaundinya, saw only one possible scenario playing out in the future. He told the King and Queen:
This prince will be the Buddha and nothing else.”
To end the ceremony, the sages agreed that a worthy name for the young prince would be Siddhartha, meaning ‘one who has accomplished his goal’. Based upon what he learned from the five mystics, in addition to a similarly eerie prediction made days earlier by his beloved spiritual teacher Asita, King Suddhodana quickly made the decision to do everything in his power to ensure his son took the path of becoming his legendary successor.
To accomplish his goal, the King went to extraordinary lengths to spoil Siddhartha with a lavish lifestyle, giving him endless access to whichever sensual pleasures he desired, while also forbidding him from venturing outside the palace walls. Yet when the 29-year-old Siddhartha persuaded his family’s personal charioteer, Chanada, to take him along on a short journey to the city, all of the King’s work would become undone.
While on what has since become known as the legendary tale of the Four Sights, it is said that Siddhartha and Chanada had four distinctive encounters with seemingly ordinary individuals that would forever alter the direction of the prince’s life. After coming into contact with an old man, a sick person, and a corpse, Siddhartha asked Chanada about each of them and quickly became troubled by the realization that he too was subjected to old age, sickness and death.
Finally, upon asking Chanada about a spiritual ascetic whose path they’d crossed and being told that he’d devoted himself to finding a solution to human suffering, Siddhartha became filled with hope that there may be a way to free one’s self from the unavoidable traverses of life. Soon there after, Siddhartha made the decision to leave the good life behind, at the demise of his Father’s wishes, and follow the path of the spiritual seeker.
It was six long years after leaving his life of luxury when Siddhartha finally lived up to his name by accomplishing the ultimate spiritual goal of enlightenment. Amazingly enough, when it came time for the Buddha to give his first sermon, he’d present the answer to the all important question that he was exposed to on the infamous Four Sights journey, the one that ultimately led to his spiritual quest. During his iconic first discourse at the Deer Park in Sarnath, India, the Enlightened One would teach the Four Noble Truths to his original five monk disciples and started by telling them:
I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.”
The Four Noble Truths:
From the time he first left his palace, with limited insights into the realities of human suffering, until he attained enlightenment some six years later while sitting underneath the iconic Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, the Buddha tirelessly labored to find a solution to end what is the ultimate dilemma of human existence. After spending countless hours peering inside of his own mind in deep meditation and experimenting with the spiritual practices commonly used at the time, Siddhartha became the Enlightened One because he came to intimately know the reasons humans suffer and also the path that could move individuals beyond. Subsequently, it was based upon these insights that the Buddha conceptualized the Four Noble Truths which act as the foundational teaching for the rest of his theology. Stated simply, the Four Noble Truths tell us:
- There is suffering. (dukkha)
- There is a cause of suffering. (samudaya)
- There is an end to suffering. (nirodha)
- There is a path to end suffering. (magga)
When considering the Buddha’s other most important teachings such as the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Marks of Existence and the Three Poisons, it becomes clear to see how each of them is dependent upon the Four Noble Truths. During his now infamous first sermon at the Deer Park near Varanasi, the Buddha told his eager-to-listen followers that only by fully understanding the intricacies of these truths would they be able to proceed on the Middle Way path that leads to Nirvana. He said:
Oh Bhikkhus [monks], there are four noble truths. They are the noble truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path to the cessation of suffering.”
The First Noble Truth:
Due to the fact that the First Noble Truth simply recognizes the existence of human suffering, it is quiet easy to falsely assume that the teaching only encompass the more pronounced occurrences of agony such as physical pain, sickness, old age and death. Of course circumstances like these, which Siddhartha observed on his first journey outside of the palace’s walls, do illuminate the most obvious forms of suffering, but based upon the insights he gain during his six years journey as a spiritual ascetic, the Enlightened One came to fathom much subtler forms of discomfort.
If we take just a moment to think about how many times each day or week we struggle with feelings of disappointment, frustration, anxiety, anger or even just a faint yearning for things to be different then they are, the deeper but less-obvious forms of suffering become apparent to see. Unfortunately, for most of us, our lives are continuously marred by both easily recognizable and less noticeable forms of psychical, psychological and emotional discomfort, all of which the Buddha came to intimately know. When discussing this First Noble Truth with the monks at his first discourse, the Buddha told them:
The Noble Truth of suffering [Dukkha] is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering – in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.”
The Second Noble Truth:
Although the First Noble Truth of suffering is something that each of us is readily aware of at some level, most of us mistakenly believe the reasons suffering occurs are found outside of ourselves. While it seems all too obvious that incidences such as an injury, the end of a relationship, and a traffic jam are the causes of our pain, sadness and frustration, the truth is that the roots of our discomforts are actually found deep within our psyche. The Second Noble Truth, which aims to illuminate the causes of suffering, tells us that the two primary reasons we remain unsatisfied with life are desire and ignorance.
The Buddha told us that because we become conditioned to crave pleasurable experiences, relationships and possessions, while holding aversion towards their negative counterparts, we remain unable to quench our thirst for continuously favorable circumstances because of their impermanent nature and the impermanent nature of the world at large. In fact, because the things we desire to obtain and avoid are constantly changing, just as the pleasurable and negative feelings they conjure up inside are, yearning for our lives to permanently be a certain way can only lead to disappointment and discomfort.
The second primary cause of human suffering, which actually gives rise to these unfulfillable desires, is due to our faulty perceptions about the world and ourselves as individuals. Ignorance is the term the Buddha used to explain how people mistakenly belief themselves to be solid, fixed, and separate individuals who are unaffected by the continuously changing nature of reality. Because of impermanence, however, maintaining the ego identity and fulfilling the wishes of ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘my’ and ‘mine’ ultimately isn’t possible. The Buddha told his disciples of the Second Noble Truth:
The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering is this: It is this thirst which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed. It finds fresh delight now here and now there, namely, thirst for sense-pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for self-annihilation.”
The Third Noble Truth:
Where as the first two Noble Truths bring to light the reality of and causes for human suffering, the Third and Forth Noble Truths illuminate the possibility to move ourselves beyond the unsatisfactory feelings that camouflage our enlightened nature. The Third Noble Truth tells us that it is in fact feasible to overcome suffering and liberate ourselves from the dissatisfied feelings that constrains us from living freely. Based upon his own journey to attaining the covenant spiritual state of enlightenment, the Buddha told us that we can achieve the same result by extinguishing the fires of desire, in the form of craving and aversion, and ignorance. In fact, it is this combination of ignorance, craving and aversion that make up what the Buddha called the Three Poisons.
By seeing beyond our ignorance and gaining deep insight into the impermanent and unsatisfactory nature of the sensory objects we crave or hold aversion towards, we can begin to detach ourselves from these illusionary attachments and ultimately liberate ourselves from suffering. According to Buddhist theology, the possibility of ending suffering becomes a reality when one attains a state of profound spiritual bliss, by ceasing to desire for things to be any particular way, called Nirvana. The Buddha told his first followers outside of Varanasi:
The Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very thirst, giving it up, renouncing it, emancipating oneself from it, detaching oneself from it.”
The Fourth Noble Truth:
Now that we’ve examined how and why humans suffer, as well as the potential solution to free ourselves from suffering by extinguishing the fires of craving and delusion, the only question that remains is how we go about it. Fortunately, the Buddha laid out a systematic approach we can utilize to end our suffering within the Fourth Noble Truth.
It wasn’t until he realized that both over indulgence and severe asceticism will prohibit spiritual seekers from attain the ultimate goal, that the Buddha was able to conceptualize a philosophical life approach based upon contentment and detachment from fleeting sensational desires called the Middle Way or Noble Eightfold Path. Accordingly, this approach to end suffering, that is the Fourth Noble Truth, is build around eight practices, broken into three overarching divisions, which when mastered over time lead us to the ultimate goal of Nirvana. The three divisions along with their corresponding disciplines are:
Moral Virtue: Right Speech, Right Action, & Right Livelihood
Meditation and Mental Development: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, & Right Concentration
Insightful Wisdom: Right Understanding & Right Intention
By committing one’s self to the Middle Way and adhering to these eight principles, the Buddha told us, that anyone can liberate themselves from the entrapments of suffering. The Enlightened One explained the Fourth Noble Truth to the monks in Sarnath:
The Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of suffering is this: It is simply the Noble Eightfold Path, namely right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”