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The Four Noble Truths are where I started when I became Buddhist, and they're as good a starting point as any. Better, in fact, because it frames Buddhism as the solution to a specific problem: How to ensure happiness in the face of sorrow. Let's dive right in.
The First Noble Truth - Existence is suffering
No matter who you are, no matter what your circumstances are, you will suffer during your life. It is inevitable. Even if you are the most admired, healthy, wealthy human being in the history of mankind, you will undergo suffering every step of the way, from birth, through sickness, disease, and death. You will suffer and at the end of it all, you will lose everything and everyone that you hold dear.
Upon first encountering this Noble Truth, my initial reaction was, "Oh, come on, it isn't that bad!" My life includes suffering, and I manage to enjoy myself. But suffering can be both omnipresent and subtle.
There is a word for suffering in the Pali language (which was in use at the time of the Buddha): Dukkha. This word connotes physical suffering and mental/emotional suffering, but also a sense of "dissatisfactoriness". The statement, "If I don't get the new Mercedes, I'll simply die!" has more than a hint of dukkha about it. It's the feeling that you lack something in your life, but you don't know what it is.
Furthermore, a lot of the things we do to alleviate suffering are merely a change in the way we suffer. It's still suffering, but in a different, not obvious way. Buddhism even goes as far as to categorize the three types of suffering:
- Physical/Mental suffering
- Suffering as a result of fearing change or impermanence
- An existential angst of the human condition
(My gut reaction as of this writing is that the existential angst portion of that is the suffering we do when we notice that we suffer. We suffer physically, mentally, and as a result of fear. Do enough of that, and my hunch is that you'll have a background level of suffering attributable to the fact that you suffer. Just an initial take.)
The Second Noble Truth - Suffering has a cause
Simply put, these are the causes of suffering:
Let's start with attachment: During the course of life, we become attached to things: Our parents, our siblings, our friends, toys, possessions, etc. You can tell that we become attached because we like to use the word "my" when discussing them. My mother, my father, my car...
These are things or even ideas that we have formed a positive opinion about, so much so that we feel that we own these things in some way. And since everything is impermanent (impermanence being a Buddhist topic in and of itself), these things go away. And when they do, we suffer unduly.
That last word, unduly, is important. Remember the First Noble Truth: Existence is suffering. You're not going to get away from it entirely, so it's not even worth trying. What we can do, however, is put things in perspective to limit that suffering.
An example: Let's say that you have a pet cat, and that over the course of 15 or so years, you become extremely close with it. When the cat passes away, a certain amount of suffering is understandable. But it should not derail your life. The amount of attachment you have determines the amount of suffering later.
As for aversion, I always think of it in terms of a truism taught to me by my parents: "If you don't tackle your problems head-on, they will tackle you." You simply can't stick your fingers in your ears and ignore the truth, because if you do, you will suffer. Aversion doesn't work.
And finally, ignorance, which in this case can be described as the willful nonunderstanding of how the universe works.
Let's go back to the cat example from above: A Buddhist would likely say that the way to approach this situation would be to frequently acknowledge that the cat will not always be around and to appreciate it every waking moment. When the cat passes, you will be sad, sure, but that sadness will give way to gratitude and happiness because you:
- Reduced your ignorance (i.e. learned about the Four Noble Truths)
- Ignored your aversion to unsettling topics like death, and admitted that the cat will not always be with you
- Reduced the amount of unhealthy attachment and replaced it with something better (in this case, gratitude for having had any time with your cat)
The Third Noble Truth - The Cessation of Suffering
This one's easy: If the causes of suffering are attachment, aversion, and ignorance, then we can get rid of suffering by getting rid of attachment, aversion, and ignorance.
The Fourth Noble Truth - The Path
Another easy one, the Fourth Nobel Truth answers the question, "Yes, but how can I get rid of attachemnt, aversion, and ignorance?" The answer is by following the Noble Eightfold Path (which we'll get into in another post).
A digression: When setting up my Buddhist practice, I met with a Buddhist minister. While discussing the Four Noble Truths, I said, "It seems to me that suffering only has one cause: Ignorance." My thinking was that if you really did have the ultimate perspective, you'd understand everything so fully that you would also understand the folly of attachment and aversion.
He said that he thought that might be true at first glance, but remindeed me that the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) is a tool for teaching and should be "blended" with the listener, which is another way of saying, "read the room". You have to be able to get the key concepts of Buddhism across to people in terms that they will understand.
Now, going back to the causes of suffering: Eliminating your ignorance so thoroughly that you forego attachment and aversion entirely is a tall order. Rather than discourage people with a nebulous and difficult task, the Buddha broke it down further, by including attachment and aversion which are things that can be addressed by the average person.
A note on Buddhism and Numbers
Buddhism came about during time in which the vast majority of people on Earth were illiterate. Because of this, the core teachings are presented in a way that makes facts "sticky", or easier to remember and relay through the oral storytelling tradition in use at the time.
One of the main ways things are made "sticky" is by grouping them together in a numbered list. The Three Gems, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, etc. I also had a conversation about this with the Buddhist minister referenced above. I asked if he had a list of all the numbered lists in Buddhism. My idea was to make a large poster with all of the lists included in some way. He laughed and said, "You're not the first person to ask me that. The problem is that you won't be able to find a poster big enough!" There are tons of numbered lists in Buddhism.
There are a few things to keep in mind when reading this post:
- My knowledge of Buddhism (or anything else, for that matter) is most definitely not total or complete.
- There are different schools of Buddhism and at times they disagree with each other.
- More than anything else, this post is a tool for me to better understand Buddhist concepts through writing, as writing about a subject causes the mind to approach it in different ways.
- If you are interested in the subject, please do not assume that what you have read here is correct. Read, think, and decide for yourself!
Page statistics of no interest to anyone, including myself
- Favorite word to type: Satisfactoriness
- Best sentence: "Read, think, and decide for yourself!"
- Number of times I typed "Nobel" instead of "Noble": 4,286
- Number of dead languages referenced: 1