Understanding the Four Noble Truths (Path to the End of Suffering)

The 4 noble truths of Buddhism are central to the Theravada tradition, yet recognized by all schools of Buddhism as illuminating the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. These four facts introduce us to the truth that yes, there is great pain in life. But because this pain is caused, the end of pain has a cause, too. There is a solution to our pain.

The Buddha himself realized these truths through meditation, and we can too. The importance of the four noble truths is in their effectiveness as a map. By taking action and following this map we can find lasting freedom from our suffering.

In brief, the four noble truths can be understood as the following:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering has a cause
  3. Suffering has an end
  4. There is a path that leads to the end of suffering

Some initially balk at the first and second noble truth, refusing to believe that pain is an ever present part of life. But even when we’re happiest, our human life necessitates that we’ll get old, fall ill and someday die. For those who stay open and explore the third and fourth truths, there’s good news available. We have the power to alter the trajectory of our lives and free ourselves from unnecessary pain.

The Truth Of Suffering

The first of the four noble truths is that suffering exists. The word ‘suffering’ here is dukkha in Sanskrit, which can also be translated as pain, unsatisfactoriness or discontent.

Often referred to as ‘all life is suffering,’ some hear the first noble truth and mistakenly think we’re being told that pleasure or happiness do not exist. The Buddha is not denying the existence of happiness or pleasure. Rather, he reminds us that the pleasure and happiness we chase is incapable of satisfying us.

Everything is always changing. Our new car will someday be an old car, we’ll get to the bottom of the ice cream and our hard-earned money will get spent. We’re changing too. No matter the comfortable position we find ourselves in, we’re getting older. Our very human existence means we were born into an impermanent world in which nothing lasts forever. This groundlessness and uncertainty keeps us in fear and a constant state of dissatisfaction.

The Truth Of The Cause Of Suffering

In the Theravada tradition, craving is viewed as the cause of our suffering. Craving, or tanha, is the insatiable desire and greed that keeps us linked to pain. We don’t want to suffer, but our misguided pursuit of a happiness and stability that’s based on impermanent pleasure, objects and people only leads to dissatisfaction.

We think we know what will make us feel secure, but we’re wrong. At the root of our craving lies ignorance. Ignorance is the grand misunderstanding that keeps us in the hopeless cycle of attachment and aversion. We mistakenly believe satisfaction will arise once we finally get what we want, or succeed in avoiding that which we don’t want.

What’s more, ignorance keeps us trapped in the belief of a separate self. Deep down inside, we think we’re more worthy and deserving than others. In our struggle to maintain the ego’s sense of superiority, we consistently come up short. Our engagement in this unwinnable battle causes ourselves (and others) nothing but pain.

The Truth Of The End Of Suffering

The ignorance that keeps us trapped in the cycle of craving is the manifestation of a distracted, untrained mind. In our current state of stress and compulsive, habitual behavior we’re incapable of achieving insight into the true nature of reality. It’s no wonder we’ve misunderstood where contentment really comes from.

When we hear this, it’s not the bad news we may have expected it to be. It might even feel like relief. For if our own mistaken mind is the cause of our suffering, it’s also the cure. By stabilizing the mind and developing wisdom, we can sidestep the cycle that keeps us locked into the insatiable habit of attaching to some things and avoiding others.

Letting go of this attachment habit is not just a matter of wishing it away. The cessation, nirodha, of craving arises from causes and conditions, as all things do. The Buddha helpfully lays out the cause of the end of suffering in the fourth noble truth.

The Truth Of The Path That Leads To The End Of Suffering

The fourth noble truth presents us with the precise map that leads to the end of suffering. However, it’s not the map itself which frees us. It’s by taking action and following the map that we create the causes and conditions of our own awakening.

The map we are presented with is the noble eightfold path, arya ashtanga marga. Its advice to live ethically, meditate and develop wisdom, comes to life through practice. We’ve spent the entirety of our lives triggering the causes that lead us to pain. To upend this, we devote our lives instead to right view, right intention, right speech, right behavior, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

By doing so, we find ourselves ennobled. Still human, yet fully aware of where happiness really comes from and completely free from the cycle of pain.