What are the 4 noble truths? A Simple Explanation

No conversion here

I want to predicate my article by saying that I am not here to convert anyone.  Quite the opposite.  I am of no particular faith and so have no ulterior motive other than to share information that people have expressed an interest to know more about.  My intention is to help.  Often talking in religious or spiritual terms can result in intense reactions from people of differing beliefs and so I tread carefully.

However, The 4 Noble Truths are of course teachings of the Buddha (someone who has achieved a perfect state of enlightenment).  And of course, as such my explanation of ‘What are the 4 Noble Truths?’ are based on Buddhist principles.

Having said that though, in my opinion the truths are universal regardless of one’s religious or non-religious persuasion or the language used

.The principles and truths can be understood and appropriate action taken by anyone who wants to be free of suffering and unhappiness without changing or undermining existing beliefs.

In addition to explaining the 4 noble truths I will also share why we need to know this and touch briefly on how to eliminate suffering.

Let’s get started with open minds!


What are the 4 noble truths?

I have referred to the writings of Venerable Thubten Lhundrup (Practical Meditation with Buddhist Principles) as he writes in simple easily understood terms.  I have added my own clarifications or elaborations where I have thought it was needed.

The 4 Noble Truths

I. Suffering exists

Suffering exists in many forms.  Some forms of suffering are obvious and easily observed, others exist in very subtle ways and are not generally recognised (by others or ourselves).

Examples:

  • Obvious forms of suffering: death, sickness, famine and violence.  Other forms such as fear, depression and jealousy are also forms of suffering that at the very least disturb our minds and cause unhappiness.
  • Subtle forms of suffering: a basic anxiety or dissatisfaction with life

If we are honest with ourselves, we will recognise that even at our happiest times a basic anxiety exists.

For example, we feel that the reality of life never quite lives up to our expectations and/or our sense of happiness is fleeting or short-lived and we are once again dissatisfied or feel unhappy.

Many go through life denying or avoiding the reality that suffering exists.  As long as this is the case, we can never overcome it.

We need to start with a basic acceptance that suffering exists.  When we acknowledge that suffering exists, we should not deny that happiness also exists.

II. There is a cause of suffering

Unless we address our basic unawareness of the true nature of life (impermanence, suffering, uncertainty) and our own experience, we will continue in the cycle of suffering.

Once we have acknowledged a problem then determined its cause, we are able to take steps to eliminate it.

III. Suffering can be stopped

If we understand the cause of suffering or unhappiness, then we can take steps to remove that cause.  We will then no longer experience the negative results.

Unhappiness is not permanent.  Unhappiness comes and goes depending on conditions.

For example, if we are expecting something pleasant to happen and it doesn’t, we feel let down.

This disappointment is dependent on our expectations, the conditions we created due to our desire.  If suffering were independent then it would always remain unchanged.

By independence we mean that suffering occurs through the conditions we have set in our minds and often relate to things/people/events outside ourselves (the external).

That is for example, whether we get the job or promotion, whether our partner stays with us or leaves us, whether someone remembers to ring us on our birthday or not.

How we feel will be dependent on the conditions we have set in our minds, what we expect and how we expect to feel when this or that happens and what we expect of others or from other external sources.

IV. The Path

The Buddhist Path contains methods for identifying the causes of unhappiness and removing them.  The basic cause is fundamental ignorance or unawareness of the ultimate nature of reality.  Wisdom is the antidote to this ignorance.

To develop this wisdom, we need a better understanding of our mind and to put Buddha’s teachings into practice.

The path of developing this wisdom leads to peace and freedom from both suffering and unhappiness.  Meditation is an essential part of this development.


Ok, so there is a cause of suffering, but what is it?

We see ourselves as solid  and separate entities and as such we pursue that which we feel makes the ‘self’ happy and avoid that which makes us unhappy.

Therefore, we want and become attached to many things – relationships, possessions, lifestyle etc and become depressed and anxious if we are not able to obtain them or we lose them.

We also avoid that which we feel will make us unhappy (lack of resources, enemies, difficult situations) and become frustrated, angry or hateful if we are unable to avoid them.

 

What we wish for and what we experience can be vastly different.

Things such as material wealth, comforts and relationships can be sources of happiness and there is no reason we should not enjoy them.

However, the problem arises when we become dependent on them for our peace of mind and happiness and then become angry, depressed, anxious or sorrowful if we lose them.  Our peace of mind is then shattered.

The sources of happiness we spend so much of our lives pursuing are never capable of providing that which we expect from them, lasting and profound happiness.

Our minds are largely responsible for how we will feel.  Think one thing and we feel a particular way.

Much of our time is also spent thinking about the past (what happened, what didn’t happen) or the future (what might happen, what if it does happen, what if it doesn’t).  This is a sure way to become unsettled, depressed or dissatisfied.


Why do we need to know this?

To end suffering and to achieve enlightenment.

I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty good to me.  I have suffered and I am sure you have suffered.

From time to time I still suffer until I remember and get back on the path because I know my suffering will cease and my experience of life is much more joyful and tends to flow.

Knowing the causes of suffering, means we can apply an acceptance, non-judgement and non-resistance to suffering when it arises.  This simple act alone can result in a diminishing of suffering.  Suffering will begin to dissipate.

Know that nothing external to you will ever bring you the happiness and peace you desire.

Happiness and peace originate from the ‘inside out’ as opposed to ‘outside in’.  ‘Outside in’ means that your happiness is dependent on external circumstances – be it possessions, events or people. That is, our thoughts about them.

By all means you can have them and enjoy them, but you also need to be ok if they are lost or you never have them.

Negative reactions are largely due to the mind.  Therefore, we need to go deeper beyond the mind (inside) to realise our true nature and experience the wholeness, fullness and completeness that comes with that.

From the place beyond our minds, there is no lack.  Hence, if you have, you’re ok and if you don’t, have you’re ok.


How do I eliminate suffering?

I’m just going to give you a bit of a starting point here.

Key is to have an awareness of the nature of the mind, understand it and then you can watch your thoughts (you will have a never-ending supply to start with).

Our constant stream of thinking can have a hugely debilitating affect on our experience of life.  And we are predominantly oblivious to our thinking (what goes on in our minds).

So, watching your thoughts brings an awareness to the nature of your mind.  This awareness then weakens the negative affect these thoughts can have on your experience of life.  The suffering dissipates.

And, that’s where meditation comes in.  Within the silence and space created through meditation, you are able to observe your overactive mind.

With that in mind, if you need a little more information or guidance, you might want to check out my other articles on meditation, mindfulness and awareness – just click the Articles tab above or click here for Product Reviews to start your journey now.


Your Say

I established this site to provide impartial meditation tips and guides, associated topic articles, to review courses around mindfulness, awareness and presence and to share my findings and the learnings that have helped me.

I encourage you to delve further.  You won’t regret it.

I am very interested to receive your comments or questions below.

Go forth with ease and just be!

Martine

 

4 Comments

  • Jessie

    Hey thank you very much for the awesome post! I first started studying Buddhism when I was in Middle School. It has some interesting ideas, and the Noble Truths are core to it’s foundation. It’s interesting to note, that studies suggestion Buddhist Monks and Catholic Nuns, both of which go into meditative states, have less activity going on in their pre-frontal cortex, which is a good thing!

  • Jocelyn

    This is great information. I personally am stuck on the third truth, that suffering can end. My family themselves are stuck in truth # 2. This makes family relationships hard.
    In 2020 I hope to make it past these issues.

    • Martine

      It’s difficult if people don’t or can’t acknowledge a problem. There’s nowhere to go with that accept more pain unfortunately for themselves and those around them. I think it’s important to remember that with acceptance it doesn’t mean we are saying something is ok and doesn’t have to change. It’s more of an internal yes to the situation to create spaciousness so we can then act from a different place. We create a lot of our suffering purely through our thoughts and when we are in crisis we literally can’t think straight or action in an appropriate way. Hence, we need to start watching our thoughts and lengthening the gap between thoughts. It’s here that our experience of life changes. I sincerely hope things improve for you Jocelyn. There might be a few other articles on my site that might help you too around awareness. Please contact me if you need any assistance. Best wishes

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