For all the attention paid to the First Noble Truth (often mistranslated as “Life is suffering”), one must remember that it only makes sense taken in the context of all four:
This is suffering
This is the origin of suffering
This is the cessation of suffering
This is the road leading to the cessation of suffering*
Regarding the Third Noble Truth, I used to think it odd to place “cessation” before “the road or path.” I thought that one was meant to understand suffering and its roots and then cultivate the path, the result of which would be “cessation,” so it took me years to remember the proper order. But as I practiced, I came to understand the wisdom of this ordering of the Truths. There are moments of cessation—sometimes dramatic and sometimes fleeting—that arise in life. Having tasted the freedom of cessation, cultivating the path that leads to the complete cessation of suffering is a natural impulse. The path is an expression of the cessation, rather than a manual that produces cessation. The path is more cyclical than linear. The Third Noble Truth is, of course, in the right place.
I also used to find “cessation” a rather frustrating word. It’s so indirect. And again, through practice I’ve come to cherish the use of the word “cessation” because it’s not clearly spelled out. In the absence of clarity, curiosity arises. “What is the cessation of suffering? What would it feel like to not experience suffering?” To use words like “happiness” or “joy” makes it too easy to fall into preconceived ideas of experience. The negation, however, forces me to engage in this teaching, this possibility, with openness. Once the mind is open, suffering is much easier to release.
The importance of this Truth cannot be over-emphasized. It’s so easy to ignore the moments that are free from suffering. My teacher, the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, calls this “the joy of a non-toothache.” When I ask myself “Is there suffering right now?” the answer is “no,” peace and joy are already present. It’s like being in a room when the hum of the air conditioning suddenly goes off—you don’t notice that you’ve been carrying tension, but once it stops there’s a palpable release. It feels better. And the more we notice moments of cessation, the easier it is to notice more moments of cessation.
The Third Noble Truth is about more than a moment of ease. It points us to a remainder-less fading and cessation of craving, although I must admit that I don’t know anyone who has attained this yet. Fortunately we don’t have to wait for full enlightenment to practice and enjoy the fruits of cessation. Liberation can arise at any moment. If it feels too distant, it’s too easy to give in to the habit of suffering. So even the small fruit is worth noticing and rejoicing in.
As Buddhist author and teacher Stephen Batchelor reminds us, the Noble Truths are not to be believed in, but acted upon. This is why he calls them “The Four Noble Tasks”:
1. Fully knowing suffering
2. Letting go of craving
3. Experiencing cessation (of craving)
4. Cultivating the eight-fold path
“Craving is not something that has to be proven to be the origin of duhkha [suffering], which again is theologically, a very difficult one to understand what that means. But rather, craving is to be let go of. It becomes a task: when craving arises, grasping, fear, attachment, when these things arise, the task is somehow to let that go. . . . When you experience the stopping of grasping within your own heart and mind, that is to be experienced fully. And when the path, when a way of life, begins to open up that’s not premised on craving or attachment or fear or wanting, then that path is to be cultivated. That’s the task that is suggested by the Buddha.” **
The Four Noble Truths are here to help us in our day-to-day living. They can lead us to the highest freedom and can also be applied in the most mundane of moments—while stuck in traffic, arguing with one’s spouse, or while taking a walk down the street. Simply asking, “Is there suffering here?” can help us remember that we don’t have to choose suffering and to notice where there isn’t suffering. While the mind tends to notice pain, we can train ourselves to notice ease, which is always present to some degree. The cessation of suffering is truly a Noble Task for us all to engage in.
Is Life Suffering? The Four Noble Truths in Daily Life: Part One (Buddhistdoor Gobal)
I Want What I Want When I Want It! The Four Noble Truths in Daily Life: Part Two (Buddhistdoor Global)