Guide to Buddhism: Step 2 – The Four Noble Truths

Overview of the Four Noble Truths

The first substantive step in the path to inner peace is to understand the Four Noble Truths.

This simply means to have an understanding of how things really are. These four truths are:

  • 1) To know what suffering is and to know the truth of suffering;
  • 2) to know the cause of suffering;
  • 3) to know that suffering can end; and
  • 4) to know the path of practice leading to the end of suffering.

This is all there is. When we know these things, our problems are over.

This may sound confusing but give it time and it will become more clear. You may ask, why are the teachings of Buddha so detailed and extensive if the path is comprised of only four things? 

The reason is to explain these things in a more refined way, to help us to see them. Imagine you are medical doctor examining a sick patient (except you are the doctor and patient).  Ask yourself these diagnostic questions:

1. What are the symptoms of the disease of suffering?

In broad terms, these include feelings of unhappiness, incompleteness and dissatisfaction. The truth of suffering can be divided into two broad categories: physical and mental.

These physical and mental sufferings are woven into the fabric of our existence.

A. Physical Sufferings

The physical sufferings include birth, old age, sickness and death. Birth is include as a physical suffering mainly because it is the beginning or gateway to all of the other sufferings.

The sufferings inherent with sickness and old age are know to all of us. These include the inability to work, the inability to physical function and/or the inability to thinking coherently.

As to death, we have all observed the pain and fear experienced by the dying. Yet these suffering are an unavoidable part of life.

No matter how content and happy you may be, the sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death are absolutely inevitable.

B. Mental Sufferings

In addition to the physical sufferings inherent with all life, there are also mental sufferings. In board terms, these include feelings of unhappiness, incompleteness and dissatisfaction.

More specifically, mental sufferings include our inner reactions to disagreeable situations and events, unpleasant encounters, to be separated from the pleasant, and not to receive what one craves.

There is suffering when we are separated from loved ones. The separation may be because of work relocation, because a loved one dies, or because we have to leave a loved one for another reason.

There is also mental suffering when we have contact with those whom we dislike or with those who dislike us.

Sense pleasures may give us temporary happiness, but when it eventually passes, the loss leaves us feeling deprived and unhappy.

2. What is the cause of the disease of suffering?

The cause of unhappiness is mainly self-centered craving, wanting and grasping.

This includes craving for sense-pleasure, craving to become something or identified as something, or craving not to be alive.

Another cause of unhappiness, which is directly related to craving, is our ignorance of the true nature of things.

This means that most of us are ignorance that everything constantly changes; everything in imperfect and everything, includes our selves has no owner.

In a way, ignorance is the foundation of craving.

Unwholesome mental states, called defilements, are the source of most human suffering.

To purify the mind, we must cleanse the mind of defilements which run beneath the surface stream of consciousness spoiling our thinking, values, attitudes and actions. The two most basics defilements are greed and anger.

Our minds are obsessed by greed and anger. Generosity is the antidote for greed, while kindness and compassion are the antidotes for anger. 

From the two basic defilements emerge other defilements such as conceit, jealousy, ambition, laziness and arrogance.

To gain freedom from suffering, we must eliminate these defilements. We can’t just want them to go away; the work must be guided by investigation in a methodical way.

The main method offered for purifying the mind is meditation. To rid the mind of these defilements, the body should be looked after well, kept in good health, while the mental faculties are trained to generate liberating wisdom.

3. Is the disease of suffering treatable?

Yes! Suffering is absolutely treatable and manageable. The prognosis is positive, but there’s no magic pill.

The feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction can fade away and even be eliminated. Like all patients, the severity of our symptoms may vary from extreme to mild.

One person may suffer constant, intense anguish. Whereas another person may only have the slightest sense that their happy moments won’t last.

Therefore, the extend of our symptoms will dictate how much of the cure is needed to end our illness.

4. If suffering is a treatable mental disease, then what medicine is recommended?

The cure is the guide for how we end our incompleteness and find abiding peace and contentment. The remaining steps in this guide focus on the path to rid ourselves of suffering.

We must study and practice until we come to see that there is nothing worth desiring. Every Buddhist is encouraged to mold his or her life according to this Path as taught by Buddha.

If you adjust your life according to this noble way of living, you will be free from the miseries of this life.

Next: Step 3: The Code of Ethics