The Four Noble Truths Of Buddhism Explained

The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of the Buddha’s teaching. These four deceptively simple insights are in fact so profound you can spend a lifetime understanding just one of them.

The Pali word for ‘truth’, sacca, also means ‘reality’ or ‘that which is actual’. So, the Four Noble Truths are not philosophical claims to believe in or accept. Rather, the Buddha taught them as scientific truths such as gravity, evolution, or the laws of thermodynamics.

The Four Noble Truths represent objective, fundamental aspects of reality the Buddha realised when he awoke. To not know these truths, he said, is to sleepwalk through life, repeating always the same mistakes, not knowing they bring you suffering.

But it is no coincidence these four truths are called ‘noble’. To hear them is already the first step on a path that one day WILL bring you to becoming an awakened one, a Buddha, yourself.

So, let’s explore the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha and see how these ancient teachings can enrich our own lives as sentient beings wrestling with the mystery of life.

(You can watch the video version of this essay on YouTube.)

The First Noble Truth: Dukkha

The First Noble Truth is that life is full of dukkha.

Now what is dukkha? Most people translate this Pali word as ‘suffering’, but this is only partly right. And it can be misleading. ‘Suffering’ is a very strong English word we use on rare occasions. We say we’ve had a stressful day at work or that we’re angry for losing our headphones, or that we regret not talking to our crush back in high school.

Life is full of such unpleasant experiences, but to call them suffering is a bit of an exaggeration.

The Buddha meant just such things with dukkha, but he also meant so much more.

For example, losing your keys is dukkha, but also losing a loved one is dukkha. Regretting your choice for lunch is dukkha, but regretting thirty years of a bad marriage is also dukkha. Hitting your toe is dukkha and having a lifelong trauma too is dukkha.

The point is – dukkha can be translated as ‘suffering’, but also as ‘dissatisfaction’, ‘discomfort’, ‘stress’, or ‘unpleasantness’. All these things are dukkha, but dukkha is none of them.

Dukkha is a much deeper word than any English translation can relate. It is a word used in Buddhism to denote a profound reality of life. Namely, that we never really get what we want. And even if we get what we want, we always end up losing it one day.

This is the First Noble Truth of Buddhism.

The Range of Dukkha

Not only unpleasant things are dukkha.

The Buddha tells his disciples even pleasure, material and spiritual alike, is dukkha. The pleasure you experience during an orgasm is dukkha. The happiness from seeing your child born is dukkha. Even the pleasure of learning the Buddha’s teachings is dukkha.

Why?

Because none of these things lasts.

Think about it. Whatever happiness and pleasure you attain in life, whether material or spiritual, it will one day all be gone. And when it is gone, it will leave you with the pain of being separated from it. Thus, all the happiness and pleasure you’ll find in this world contains the seed of dukkha within it. And you WILL experience this dukkha, if not now, then later.

This is not an opinion, but a reality of life.

You see, the First Noble Truth of Buddhism is much deeper and darker than most people realise. It says not only that there is unhappiness in life. It says that even what we believe is happiness is only a delayed form of unhappiness. Pleasure is only the mask of pain; achievement only the mask of disappointment – happiness the mask of dukkha.

Pessimism Much?

Now, here you may say: ‘Wait a minute. Sure, happiness always comes and goes, but so does unhappiness. Why did the Buddha focus so much on dukkha and not also on its opposite? Isn’t this unfairly pessimistic?’

To this I would answer, ‘Please be patient, we are only at the first of FOUR Noble Truths, after all!’. I would also say that there is some virtue in focusing on life’s dark side. After all, dukkha is the universal problem facing all sentient beings – at all times and places.

In his great book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Thero writes:

‘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.’

Walpola Thero, What the Buddha Taught

Life After Dukkha

But what did the Buddha do after he discovered existence is full of dukkha? Surely, a lesser mind would here collapse into nihilism. After all, if everywhere you turn there is only dukkha and more dukkha, what point is there in anything?

A Western nihilist would here recommend taking one’s own life. But for the Buddha, even this is not a way out. The Buddha was, after all, certain of the reality of rebirth and the law of karma. To take one’s life, as an act of violence, would only put you in a far worse subsequent life, where dukkha is even more intense.

So, trapped in this endless labyrinth of dukkha, what could the Buddha possibly do to improve his situation?

Well, he did what he advises us all to do.

He pointed his trained mind singularly at dukkha. He looked, and looked – and he looked deep. And there, right in the middle of dukkha, he discovered the Second Noble Truth.

Thirst.

The Second Noble Truth: Thirst

The Second Noble Truth is that the cause and origin of dukkha is thirst.

You see, the Sanskrit word for ‘thirst’ is trsna. And it is no coincidence the two words sound so much alike. ‘Thirst’ actually derives from trsna and both mean the same thing.

So what did the Buddha mean by ‘thirst’ and why did he see it as the cause of dukkha?

Well, think of all the bad experiences you’ve ever had, no matter how big or small. A breakup, a car accident, a failed exam, a funeral… No matter how different, these all have one thing in common. That is – in each case you wanted your experience to be different from what it actually was.

This is thirst, the fundamental desire for reality to be different than it is.

Now pay attention. It is not thirst for the wrong things, but thirst itself that creates dukkha.

A monk thirsts for enlightenment, a lover for his beloved; a woman thirsts for a child, a Wall Street trader for a bigger paycheck. One man thirsts out of love, another out of hatred. The specifics don’t matter.

Thirst is always the origin of dukkha.

The Roads Of Desire

Whatever we thirst for brings us dukkha because we don’t have it. Even if we get what we want, it is never as good as we imagined it to be. Even if what we attain IS as good as we imagined, even if it’s better – still it never lasts.

The roads of desire are many and winding, but they all lead to the gates of dukkha.

And it gets even worse.

Thirst is an addiction. When our desires bring us dissatisfaction, we don’t give up on them. On the contrary, we feel that only desiring and attaining yet other things can bring us lasting happiness.

Of course, this never happens.

Every desire comes with the promise of a better life. But desire is like the mythical monster Hydra – cut off one of its heads and two more spring in its place. Every desire is the fuel for yet more desire until we are all aflame in the fire of dukkha.

In the Fire Sermon the Buddha says to his disciples: ‘All is burning, monks. All is burning’.

Good Desires?

Now, the Buddha distinguishes some desires as better than others. For example, the desire to become a better, more responsible person is more productive and less harmful than the desire for alcohol. But as one moves along the path of awakening, one must learn to detach him- or herself even from one’s spiritual ambitions.

The amazing thing is that the Buddha designed his teaching in such a way that one needs to learn all of it through hard and long practice – and then one should let go of it entirely.

The Buddha expresses this in his famous simile of the raft. He describes his teaching as a raft you use to cross a dangerous river. But what should you do once you reach safely the distant shore? Do you take the raft with you and carry it around? Of course not. This would only make it harder for you to go further.

It is the same with the Dhamma, the teaching of the Awakened One. At first, you must put great effort into learning it and it will save you from a lot of suffering. But once you are advanced enough, it will only impede your progress to stay attached to teachings, concepts, and practices – even those taught by the Buddha.

Desiring Nirvāṇa

A frequent criticism of Buddhist doctrine is the following: ‘If desire is so bad for you, why do Buddhists tell you nirvāṇa is so desirable?’

This question might seem like it points to some error in the Buddha’s teaching, but it is the question itself that is erroneously put. It is like asking ‘When a fire goes out, where does it go?’

It is an invalid question; it uses words in a nonsensical way that only appears to make sense if you don’t know their true meaning.

If one knows what a fire going out means, one would not ask where the fire has gone.

Similarly, if one has an idea of what nirvāṇa is, one would not say it is an object of desire.

But what IS nirvāṇa? And if it is the culmination of Buddhist practice, how can it not be an object of desire?

To answer this, we need to look at the Third Noble Truth the Buddha discovered.

The Third Noble Truth: Nirvāṇa

If the First Noble Truth gives us the symptom, dukkha, the Second Noble Truth gives us the disease all men suffer from – thirst. The other two Truths then will tell us about the possibility of curing ourselves and what the cure is.

Indeed, the Third Noble Truth is one of the most extraordinary and life-affirming claims made in history. It is the claim that it is possible for a human being to bring dukkha to an end completely and forever.

The Third Noble Truth comes from the Buddha’s direct experience after his awakening under the bodhi tree. There and then, he discovered a reality free from all thirst and all dukkha.

This was not a concept or an abstract idea. It was, in fact, something even more real than what we are used to calling real in our daily lives. The Buddha discovered a perfect reality that is always and everywhere present if we have the eyes to see it.

He called it nirvāṇa.

Speaking Of What Cannot Be Spoken Of

Nirvāṇa is not only difficult, but impossible to explain in words. We have created words to speak of the illusory world we experience with our senses – but nirvana is that which is beneath all appearances. Words can only circle around it but never enter it and survive – like moths around a flame.

This makes some people uneasy.

The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that ‘Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.’ To him, nirvana would sound like a made-up concept used to attract the naive and to confuse the Buddha’s critics.

But, in defense of the Buddha, let’s do a thought experiment.

Imagine living on an island full of colourblind people and being the only one who can see colours. You might try to explain to others what colours are and that they are everywhere all the time. But all you’ll do is convince them you are either a madman or a mystic!

Do you see what I’m getting at?

To understand the Dhamma, we must allow that what confuses us in it may simply be the Buddha speaking of colours we cannot yet see. This attitude will allow us to discuss difficult terms like nirvāṇa even if none of us has a full grasp of them.

What Can We Say About Nirvāṇa?

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word nirvāṇa is ‘to extinguish’, ‘to blow out’. For example, when a fire goes out, it ‘nirvāṇa-s’, so to speak. Nirvāṇa is not a state or a thing, but a transition. So, when people say the Buddha ‘attained nirvāṇa’, this is misleading.

It is more appropriate to say the Buddha extinguished himself. He, so to say, nirvāṇa-ed.

But what exactly gets extinguished during nirvāṇa?

Well, there’s a very long answer we’ll leave for a separate piece just on nirvāṇa. The short answer is that nirvāṇa is the extinguishing of thirst. All likes and dislikes, all desire and attachment, all hatred, greed, and delusion, all sense of being a separate self… These flames which turn our lives into living hell all go out during nirvāṇa.

So, you see, it is nonsensical to say nirvāṇa is something you desire. Nirvāṇa, by definition, is the end of all desire.

So, if you desire nirvāṇa you are desiring a false idea in your imagination of what nirvāṇa is like. This too is something you must let go of for dukkha to end. In fact, even the desire to be free of dukkha must end if you wish dukkha to end.

I know, the deeper we get into it, the more inadequate words become…

Not This, Not That

This perhaps makes nirvāṇa sound like some supernatural, extraordinary state only meditation masters can enter. But remember that Arctic Monkeys album called Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. This is like a description of nirvāṇa.

(And I don’t mean the band.)

Let me cite again Walpola Thero, who puts it beautifully:

‘It is incorrect to think that Nirvana is the natural result of the extinction of craving. Nirvana is not the result of anything. If it would be a result, then it would be an effect produced by a cause […] Nirvana is neither cause nor effect. It is beyond cause and effect.

Truth is not a result nor an effect. It is not produced like a mystic, spiritual, mental state […] TRUTH IS. NIRVANA IS. The only thing you can do is to see it, to realize it.

There is a path leading to the realization of Nirvana. But Nirvana is not the result of this path. You may get to the mountain along a path, but the mountain is not the result, not an effect of the path. You may see a light, but the light is not the result of your eyesight.’

Walpola Thero, What the Buddha Taught

The Promised Land

Nirvāṇa is a Noble Truth, it is a fundamental element of our reality. When we live in ignorance nirvāṇa sounds strange and outlandish to us. But one who has removed the beam from his eye, one who has developed wisdom, can see what has been there all along.

And the Buddha did not just tell people about nirvāṇa and leave them hanging. No, like a good doctor, he gave detailed prescriptions on how one should live to bring the disease of dukkha to an end.

His followers compiled all the prescriptions the Buddha gave on various occasions. The early disciples memorised and organised these teachings into a system they started calling ‘the path’. This system had eight major components, and so they called it the Noble Eightfold Path.

It is this path exactly that is the Fourth and final Noble Truth.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold Noble Path

Now, I am a Christian and where I come from, we use a specific word for a wrong action. We call it a ‘sin’. But the word sin, especially in the old days, did not apply only to something wrong in the eyes of God. It had a more general meaning that applied to things that were simply flawed, such as a badly written poem, or an arrow that cannot fly straight.

We have this same concept in the Eightfold Noble Path, the Fourth Noble Truth of Buddhism.

This path is based on the idea that there is a wrong way of living which creates dukkha and a right way of living, which can reduce dukkha until it is finally gone forever.

This division between wrong and right actions is not based on the Buddha’s subjective opinion. Rather, it is an almost scientific theory based on evidence you can inspect for yourself.

In the eyes of the Buddha, most people are sleepwalking through life, immersed in delusion. Thus, without knowing it, they live in a way that creates dukkha. The Buddha’s teaching was effectively a manual for how to live the right way and minimize dukkha for yourself and others.

So let’s see what this manual consists of.

8 Steps To Enlightenment

Right View means having the wisdom to see through the deluded words and actions of yourself and others.

As today, so too at all times, what culture celebrates as virtue and success is usually flaw and failure in disguise. No amount of material wealth, productivity, or pleasure can rid you of dukkha. In fact, these things have the delayed effect of creating even more dukkha. To see this requires wisdom and it is a Right View.

Right Intention requires Right View. Only after you see things as they really are can you create for yourself the right kind of goals. The Buddha saw that man is sick with endless thirst and dukkha and so the best intention is to try to cure yourself and others from this illness.

Once you see things as they are and have the right intentions, the way you speak, act, and live are calibrated to lead you out of the labyrinth of thirst and dukkha. (Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.)

Buddhist Meditation

And then we arrive at the final three branches of the path, which are a bit more technical.

A lot of people, myself included, believe you can only go so far in your understanding of Buddhism without having a meditation practice. This does not mean that meditation alone leads to nirvāṇa, but it is a vital component of transforming one’s perception of reality.

It is telling that the last three aspects of the Eightfold Noble Path refer to the Buddhist practice of meditation.

Buddhist meditation deserves a whole separate video, so for now all we must understand is that one needs to train and transform one’s mind in order to grasp the deeper teachings of the Buddha.

The Buddha was a spirit-healer, a mind-healer, and meditation was his way of treating the human mind from the infection of ignorance and thirst. One needs to put significant effort into developing mindfulness and concentration so as to see through the false beliefs clouding his judgement.

This is Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

Walking The Path

The Eightfold Noble Path does not tell you what to do. Rather, it is a description of what a fully awake human being is like. All you can do is try to imitate this description until you are gradually transformed into an awake human being yourself.

And the eight aspects of the Path are not sequential. Rather, they all depend on one another. One has Right View only if one has Right Mindfulness. One has Right Mindfulness only if one has Right Concentration… and so on.

As Walpola Thero writes:

‘[The path] is a way of life to be followed, practised and developed by each individual… It has nothing to do with belief, prayer, worship or ceremony… It is a Path leading to the realization of Ultimate Reality, to complete freedom, happiness and peace through moral, spiritual and intellectual perfection.

Walpola Thero, What the Buddha Taught
Learn the Eightfold Noble Path in the Buddha’s own words here.

Using The Teaching

In the interest of honesty, modern scholars do not believe the Four Noble Truths were taught as such by the historical Buddha. They are probably a later formula created by the Buddha’s disciples who were looking for a memorable summary of his teachings.

Whether this is true or not will not bring us any closer to freedom from dukkha. But taking these truths to heart in our everyday lives… this might just as well be good for us.

Remember that ‘the Buddha’ is a nickname. It means ‘the one who awoke’. But think for a minute what this means. It is not just a metaphor.

Waking Up

The Buddha tells us there is a shift in consciousness we can achieve which is comparable to waking up from sleep. He is talking about nothing less than a total transformation of one’s reality, which begins and ends in one’s consciousness.

And this is a transformation towards truth, towards (so to say) real reality! It is the end of sleep, the end of the false stories, opinions, and beliefs we all have in ourselves. Most importantly, it is the end of dukkha.

The Buddha, when he finally perfected his mind, saw that human existence is a nightmare… But then he awoke.

His teachings since that day, these Four Noble Truths, are like words he is whispering into our ears, trying to awaken us too.

The good news is, the nightmare is only a dream. What awaits us when we awake is true reality. Not only more perfect than we imagine but more perfect than we can imagine.      

I invite you to use this article as a jumping-off point for your own exploration into the deep and noble tradition of Buddhism.

If you’re up for another deep dive, check out our piece on the Buddhist teaching of no-self!

Watch the film version of this essay.

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