The Buddha taught the four Noble Truths : the existence of suffering, the causes of suffering. The cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. He said, “In addition to the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death, human beings endure other sufferings which they themselves create. Out of ignorance and false views, people say and do things that create suffering for themselves and others. Anger, hatred, suspicion, jealousy, and frustration cause suffering. All these arise from lack of awareness. People are caught in their suffering as if they were caught in a house on fire, and most of our suffering we create ourselves. You cannot find freedom by praying to some god. You must look deeply into your own mind and situation in order to uproot the false views which are the root of suffering. You must find the source of your suffering in order to understand the nature of suffering. Once you understand the nature of suffering, it can no longer bind you.
“If someone is angry with you, you can get angry back at him, but that only creates more suffering. If you follow the Way of Awareness, you will not react with anger. Instead, you will quiet your mind in order to discover why that person is angry at you. By looking deeply, you can uncover the causes that led to the person’s anger. If you see that you bear responsibility for angering the person, you will not become angry, but you will accept that your own misconduct has contributed towards creating his anger. If you are without blame, you can try to see why the person has misunderstood you. Then you can find the way to help him understand your true intentions. In this way, you will avoid causing more suffering to both yourself and other person.”
“Your majesty and honored guests! All suffering can be overcome by looking deeply into things. On the path of Awareness, we learn to follow our breath to maintain mindfulness. We follow the precepts in order to build concentration and attain understanding. The precepts are principles of living which foster peace and joy. Practicing the precepts, our ability to concentrate develops, and we are able to live with greater awareness and mindfulness. Mindfulness nurtures the capacity to illuminate the true nature of our mind and our environment. With that illumination comes understanding.
“Only with understanding can we love. All suffering is overcome when we attain understanding. The path of true liberation is the path of understanding. Understanding is prajna. Such understanding can only come from looking deeply into the true nature of things. The path of precepts, concentration, and understanding is the path which leads to liberation.”
The Buddha paused for a moment and then smiled before continuing to speak. “But suffering is only one face of life. Life has another face, the face of wonder. If we can see that face of life, we will have happiness, peace, and joy. When our heart are unfettered, we can make direct contact with the wonders of life. When we have truly grasped the truth of impermanence, emptiness of self, and dependent co-arising, we see how wondrous our own hearts and minds are. We see how wonderful our bodies, the branches of violet bamboo, the golden chrysanthemums, the clear stream, and the radiant moon are.
“Because we imprison ourselves in our suffering, we lose the the ability to experience the wonders of life. When we can break through ignorance, we discover the vast realm of peace, joy, liberation, and nirvana. Nirvana is the uprooting of ignorance, greed, and anger. It is the appearance of peace, joy and freedom. Honored guests, take time to look at a clear stream or a ray of early morning sunshine. Can you experience peace, joy and freedom? If you are still locked in the prison of sorrow and anxiety, you will be unable to experience the wonders of the universe which include your own breath, body, and mind. The path I have discovered leads to transcending sorrow and anxiety by looking deeply into their true nature. I have shared this path with many others and they, too, have succeeded in discovering it for themselves.”
– from ‘Old Path White Clouds’ by Thich Naht Hanh
The four noble truths are: The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness) The truth of the origin of dukkha The truth of the cessation of dukkha The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha The first noble truth explains the nature of dukkha.
Dukkha is commonly translated as “suffering”, “anxiety”, “unsatisfactoriness”, “unease”, etc., and it is said to have the following three aspects: The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying. The anxiety or stress of trying to hold on to things that are constantly changing. A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.
The central importance of dukkha in Buddhist philosophy has caused some observers to consider Buddhism to be a pessimistic philosophy. However, the emphasis on dukkha is not intended to present a pessimistic view of life, but rather to present a realistic practical assessment of the human condition—that all beings must experience suffering and pain at some point in their lives, including the inevitable sufferings of illness, aging, and death. Contemporary Buddhist teachers and translators emphasize that while the central message of Buddhism is optimistic, the Buddhist view of our situation in life (the conditions that we live in) is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic.
The second noble truth is that the origin of dukkha can be known. Within the context of the four noble truths, the origin of dukkha is commonly explained as craving or thirst (Pali: tanha) conditioned by ignorance (Pali: avijja). On a deeper level, the root cause of dukkha is identified as ignorance (avijja) of the true nature of things.
The third noble truth is that the complete cessation of dukkha is possible, and the fourth noble truth identifies a path to this cessation. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha first taught the four noble truths in the very first teaching he gave after he attained enlightenment, as recorded in The Discourse That Sets Turning the Wheel of Truth (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta), and he further clarified their meaning in many subsequent teachings.