Four Noble Truths- the essence of Buddha’s teaching

By Gamini Jayasinghe

Gauthama Buddha in His very first sermon to the five Brahamin ascetics, Kondanna, Vappa, Baddhiya, Mahanama and Assaji at Isipatana near Benaris expounded the four Noble Truths which are regarded as the essence of Buddhism. In my view it is very useful for every one of us, whether Buddhist or non Buddhist to gain a clear insight of these Noble Truths on the eve of the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi, 2600.

These four Noble Truths are explained in the original texts of Buddhism. In these early Buddhist scriptures four Noble Truths are explained in different ways. Hence, the 2600 Sambuddhatva Jayanthi can be made an opportunity to understand the essence of the Blessed One’s teachings according to the original texts.

The four Noble Truths are:

  • Dukkha
  • Samudaya, the arising or origin of dukkha
  • Nirodha, the cessation of dukkha and
  • Magga, the way leading to the cessation of dukkha

The Noble Truth Dukkha or Dukkha Aiya Sacca has been translated into English as suffering or pain. Often words like sorrow and misery are used to mean the Pali word “dukkha”. This has resulted in the misunderstanding by ordinary people who have misinterpreted the word to presume that Buddhism is pessimistic. In actual fact Buddhism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic but it is realistic. It looks at things objectively. The Enlightened One did not want to sooth, lull or pacify His followers or to frighten or antagonize them with imaginary fears and sins. In Buddhism all things are looked at objectively. It tells you exactly and objectively in different ways. In order to understand this point let us consider the attitudes and the ways of action of various medical practitioners. The first kind of physician gravely aggravates illnesses and even tells the patient and relatives that the illness is serious to the extent that all of them get frustrated. Another physician says that there is no illness and that no treatment is necessary. Both of them cause harm to the patient: the first one being pessimistic and the other optimistic. There can be another physician who diagnoses the symptoms correctly, understands the cause and nature of the illness and administers a course of treatment. The Blessed One is like the last physician and is a wise and scientific doctor (Bhasisajja guru) for the universe. In Anguttara Nikaya a mention is made about some happiness such as happiness of family life, happiness of the life of a recluse, happiness of renunciation, happiness of attachment, physical happiness and mental happiness. With regard to life and the enjoyment of such pleasures one should clearly understand (1) attraction or enjoyment (assada) (2) evil consequences or danger (adinawa) and (3) freedom or liberation (nissarana).When you see a pleasant person or a thing the satisfaction or the pleasure you enjoy is assada and when you cannot see such a person or a thing the sadness caused to you is adnawa. When you are completely detached the freedom or liberation you get is nissarana.

Understanding the life completely and objectively

There is no question of optimism or pessimism but this is the understanding of life completely and objectively. The conception of dukkha may be viewed from three aspects (1) Dukkha as the ordinary suffering (dukkha-dukkha) (2) Dukkha as produced by change (viparinamadukkha) and (3) Dukkha as conditioned states (sankhara dukkha). The most important philosophical aspect of the first Noble Truth is sankhara dukkha or dukkha as conditioned states. According to Buddhist philosophy a being or an “individual” or “1” is only a combination of ever changing physical and mental forces or energies which may be divided into five groups or aggregates (Pancaskhanda). First is the aggregate of matter (Rupaskhanda). Second is the aggregate of sensations (Vedanaskhanda). The third is the aggregate of perception (Sannakhandha). The fourth is the aggregate of mental formation (Sankharakhanda) and the fifth is the aggregate of consciousness (Vinnanakkhanda). Thus according to the Buddhist philosophy there is no permanent, unchanging spirit which can be considered as “self” or “soul” or “ego”. All these five aggregates are impermanent, all constantly changing. Whatever is impermanent is dukkha (Yam aniccan tam dhukkhan). This is the first Noble Truth known as dukkha.

Arising of dukkha (Dukkhasamudaya Ariya Sacca)

The second Noble Truth that is arising or the origin of dukkha is (Dukkha samudaya Ariya Sacca). This is defined as follows. It is this thirst (Tanha-craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming (Punobbhava) and which is bound up with passionate greed (Nandi raga sahagatha) and which finds fresh desire now here and there (tatratatrabhinandini) namely (1) thirst for sense-pleasures (kama tanha) (2) thirst for existence and becoming (bhava-tanha) and (3) thirst for nonexistence, self annihilation (Vibhava tanha)

Thanha – the root cause of suffering

This thanha, thirst, desire, greed or craving is the root cause of suffering and continuity of beings. However, Thanha is dependent on other things which are relative and interdependent. Thanha which is considered as the cause or origin of dukkha depends for its arising (smudaya) on something else which is sensation (vedana) and sensation arises depending on contact (passa) and so on and so forth goes on the circle which is known as conditioned genesis (Paticca samuppada)

Philosophical side of samudaya – origin of dukkha

To realize the philosophical side of the origin of dukkha one should possess some idea about the theory of karma and rebirth. There are four Nutriments (ahara) in the sense of “cause” or “condition” necessary for the existence and continuity of beings ie. (1) Ordinary material food (Kabalinkarahara), (2) contact or our sense organs (including mind) with the external world (phassahara) (3) consciousness (vinnanahara) and (4) mental volition or will (manosancetanahara). Of these four, the last mentioned mental volition is the will to live, to exist, to re-exist to continue to become more and more important. It creates the root of existence and continuity, striving forward by way of good and bad actions (kusala kusala kamma). Thirst, volition and mental volition and “karma” denotes the desire, the will to be, to exist, to re-exist, to become more and more, to grow more and more, to accumulate more and more.

Volitional action after death

According to the theory of karma volitional action continues to manifest in a life after death.

A being is a combination of physical and mental forces. Mental forces or the will, volition, will and thirst to exist continues producing re-existence which is called rebirth. This goes on until the attainment of “Nibbana.”

Nirodha- the cessation of dukkha

The third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha (Dukkhanirodha ariya sacca) which is Nibbana. However, it is extremely difficult to define the term Nibbana which is supramundane. The absolute Truth or ultimate reality is generally expressed in negative terms such as “Tanhakkhaya” :extinction of thirst, (asamkhatha) “uncompounded” “unconditioned” “Ragakkhaya” extinction of desire, “dosakkhaya” extinction of hatred and “mohakkhaya” extinction of illusion. Some parties tend to believe that Nibbana is self annihilation. However, Nibbana is not self annihilation because there is no “self’ or “I” to annihilate. If there is any annihilation it is the annihilation of the illusion, of the false idea of self. It is not correct to believe that Nirvana is negative or positive. Terms negative and positive cannot be applied to Nibbana. It is absolute Truth and is beyond duality and relativity. Nibbana is to be realized by the wise within themselves (Paccattam veditabbo vinnohi).

The Fourth Noble Truth – Magga- the Path

The fourth Noble Truth is the way leading to the cessation of dukkha (Dukkhanirodhagaminipatipada ariya sacca). This is called the Middle path (Majjimapatipada) This is so called because it avoids two extremes: one extreme being the search for ultimate happiness through sensual pleasures. The other is the search for emancipation through self mortification. Bodhisatva Siddhartha Gauthama was provided with all possible comforts by his father, King Suddhodhana. All these comforts were in vain for the prince as they did not pave his way to final emancipation. His contemplative nature and boundless compassion did not permit him to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of the Royal household. Realizing that he renounced the world in search of Truth and peace He practised asceticism with great teachers like Alaarakalama and Uddaka Ramaputra. Through asceticism with them, it did not pave way for him to achieve his quest of l. At last he practised all sorts of austerity with the five Brahamin monks but these prolonged and Painful austerities proved utterly futile. Hence he abandoned both Attakilamatanuyogaya and Kamasukhalyukanuyogaya and found the Middle Path which is generally known as the Noble Eight Fold Path (Ariya Attangika Magga ) which led him to Calm, Insight, Enlighternment, Nirvana. This is composed of eight categories or divisions namely Right understanding (Sammaditti),Right Thoughts (Samma Sankappa), Right Speech (Samma Vaca), Right Action (Samma Kammantha),Right Effort(Samma Vayama),Right Mindfulness (Samma Sati)( and Right Concentration (Samma Samadhi).

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