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Understanding the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path

Buddhism concerns itself with pain, suffering, moderation, balance, equanimity, self-discipline, purification, wisdom, virtue, kamma, rebirth, tolerance, loving-kindness, meritorious action, selflessness, universal compassion, the law of opposites, non-attachment, meditation, freedom, enlightenment, nothingness, nibbana, and all of these aspects blend together into one, great, harmonious whole, before they come apart and become nothing.

But if a Buddhist were asked: “What did the Buddha teach?” the correct reply would be: The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

If then questioned further, one should be able to define these teachings accurately, without uncertainty, ambiguity, or recourse to one’s own ideas. In other words, it is very important that the words of the Buddha are not distorted, either through ignorance or through one’s own speculation. 

First, however, let us address the life of Siddhartha Gautama, who became a buddha by his own effort—an Enlightened One at the age of 35, after meditating under a Bo tree and attaining the perfect embodiment of all virtues.

Having attained buddhahood, the Buddha chose to return into the secular world out of boundless compassion and loving-kindness for others, beginning with his fellow ascetics, who had previously deserted him in the Deer Park near Benares, to share his wisdom, teaching them the path to enlightenment.

The Buddha devoted the rest of his life to serving humanity through his own example, teaching the path to deliverance from suffering through selfless love for others for the next 45 years, until he succumbed to the laws of nature and passed away in his 80th year.

The Lord Buddha was a human being, albeit an extraordinary one, who was born, lived, and died, just like anyone else. He was not a divine being or a god, but through his own striving, without supernatural help, he became a perfect example of virtuousness, showing others the way to deliverance via the path of righteousness, through self-reliance, through self-dependence, and through self-discipline, following the path to enlightenment.

Anybody may strive to achieve this state, but you have to find it within yourself and not even the Buddha can make this effort for you. He can only show you the way. The rest depends on you to avoid the hindrances of delusion and attachment.

The first step to removing these hindrances is through moral self-purification (sila)—an aspect of Buddhism that is sometimes under-stressed by seekers, who concentrate too much on meditation and insight and not enough on developing purity in their everyday moral actions. One cannot reach the final step without taking the first step of developing purity, goodness, and virtue through observing the precepts of right action, right speech, and right livelihood. One must first purify oneself on these points to arrive at higher insight.

The Buddha was not only the perfect example of wisdom but also of virtue, and his followers had the chance to be in his proximity over a ministry of 45 years, learning by his word and his example: an example which was even more convincing because of the inner tranquillity and outward radiance, loving-kindness, and universal wisdom that accompanied his presence.

Once he attained enlightenment, the Buddha could have turned his back on the world of sorrow, but he did not. He chose, through love and compassion for humanity, to help those still suffering in a world of temporality, impermanence, and spiritual pain.

We have a very good record of what the Buddha said during his lifetime as a teacher. The Buddha’s discourses were, in fact, codified and rehearsed by his followers a few months after his passing away, and eventually written down. Their presentation and penetration is comprehensive. Indeed, the Buddhist scriptures taken together constitute a body of literature 11 times the length of the Christian Bible, the difference being that in the Buddhist scriptures, everything emanates from one mind and thus coheres consistently together.

As every Buddhist knows, the basis of the Buddha’s teaching is to be found in the Four Noble Truths:

1. Suffering
2. The Cause of Suffering
3. The Cessation of Suffering
4. The Middle Way: The Noble Eightfold Path to the cessation of suffering

The Buddha said that supreme and unsurpassed enlightenment had come to him only after the realization of these four truths.

The first is the Noble Truth of Suffering: humans are born into a world of suffering. Birth is suffering. Disease, old age, decay, and death are suffering. Life is full of sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Not getting what one desires is suffering. Being exposed to unpleasantness is suffering. Being cut off from desired objects and pleasures is suffering, making us sometimes wish we had not been born.

The Second Noble Truth is the Cause of Suffering, which is Craving: the root of suffering is craving the delights and pleasures of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body. Where such cravings arise and take root, there will be suffering. Craving for delight and pleasure of the mind also causes suffering. Craving eternal existence, higher forms of existence, continued existence, immaterial existence, and craving the continued existence of the self all bring suffering. Craving the cessation of pain also brings suffering.

The Third Noble Truth is the Cessation of Suffering: what may bring about the extinction of suffering? The complete fading away and extinction of craving. Liberation and detachment from craving, that craving may vanish and be extinguished. The forsaking of desire for delightful and pleasurable things. Breaking free of the cankers of attachment and seeing the things of this world as impermanent, miserable, transitory, and elusive will bring about the annihilation of sorrow. Freedom from desire will bring about the extinction of suffering.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the truth of the Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. It is the Middle Way that avoids the two extremes of the base, vulgar, unholy, unprofitable path of sensual pleasure in opposition to the painful, unpleasant, unholy, unprofitable path of self-mortification. It is the Middle Way beyond those two extremes that leads to liberation, peace, discernment, enlightenment, and nibbana.

Taken further, these are steps on the Noble Eightfold Path that lead to the extinction of suffering:

1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought                } Wisdom        

3. Right Speech
4. Right Action                   } Purity
5. Right Livelihood        

6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness         } Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

These eight factors of the Middle Way are to be both followed in sequence and practiced concurrently, in preparation for the extinction of suffering and ultimate release from the sorrows of this world. It makes sense to practice them more or less in order, as later stages arise out of earlier ones, although continued practice on the level of mindfulness or concentration brings a deepening of understanding on the initial level, but in the end they all come together and work toward the same end.

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Concerning Right Action and Right Livelihood
Concerning Right Speech
Flower of Perfection: The Lotus in Buddhist Art
Is Life Suffering? The Four Noble Truths in Daily Life: Part One

More from Theravada Teachings by David Dale Holmes

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